5 QUESTIONS WITH GRACE LEE
Grace Lee is a Los Angeles based writer and director. Her feature film AMERICAN ZOMBIE premiered at Slamdance Film Festival and was released by Cinema Libre in 2008. Prior to that, she produced, wrote and directed THE GRACE LEE PROJECT which was broadcast on Sundance Channel and is distributed by Women Make Movies. She received her MFA in Directing from UCLA Film School, where her thesis film BARRIER DEVICE, starring Sandra Oh, won a Student Academy Award and Directors Guild of America award among others. She is the recipient of the Henry Hampton Award for Excellence in Digital Media, a Rockefeller Media Arts grant, the PPP Pusan Prize as well as funding from the NEA, Center for Asian American Media, Chicken & Egg Pictures and the Armani Directing Fellowship from Film Independent. Grace was also selected to Visual Communications’ 2012 PROJECT CATALYST (formerly known as C3: Project Market) where she promoted her film project MUSIC FOR AARDVARKS.
Grace just premiered her feature film JANEANE FROM DES MOINES at the 2012 Toronto International Film Festival, where she was nominated for the prestigious International Critics’ Prize – Discovery. In JANEANE, a conservative Iowa housewife’s personal and political convictions are severely tested as she seeks answers from the Republican presidential candidates leading up to the 2012 Iowa Caucuses.
During the recent tumultuous Presidential Election, the film’s release was very apropos. We had a chance to delve into with Grace the the controversy surrounding JANEANE, not only from a political standpoint, but also from a narrative slant.
1. The New York Times categorized the film as a mocumentary and others have called it political theater, but for people who haven’t seen the film, how would you describe the style of the film? How closely does the final film resemble the initial concept you had when you originally imagined this project, and how much of this was scripted prior to the start of filming?
I say that the film is both fiction and non-fiction, just like politics. It’s interesting to see how the mainstream media and reviewers have framed it as a mockumentary or that it punks Republican politicians — but we’ve gotten lots of responses from people who say they weren’t expecting to be so moved by our main character and her situation. I would just tell people to keep an open mind — no matter what their politics — and go on the journey with Janeane. It’s not what you might expect. As for how closely the film resembles the initial concept — it is surprisingly close to what we had imagined when it was just an idea even though there are so many scenes with real people we could not have predicted. All we knew a year and a half ago was that we wanted this woman to experience a personal and political crisis that would culminate at the 2012 Iowa caucuses. What we could not have predicted was who she would meet and how she would get there and that she would have these incredible encounters with the likes of Mitt Romney and Michele Bachmann. Even though this is a fiction film for the most part — it does document the ups and downs of the 2012 campaign.
2. There are many scenes in the film where the character Janeane, played wonderfully by Jane Edith Wilson, enters the real life world of tea party politics and confronts right-wing candidates during the Iowa Caucasus. Some of the scenes are quite tense with actual face-to-face encounters with Republican candidates. How difficult was that to shoot for the cast and crew?
On the one hand, we had incredible access because we were just one of dozens of camera crews in the midst of the media circus that is the Iowa Caucuses. On the other hand, we never knew what was going to happen as soon as the cameras began rolling. But because I come from a documentary background and because Jane is an excellent improviser and actress (and because we knew our character inside and out) we were ready to shape a story from the footage we got.
(Photo courtesy of Wilsilu Pictures)
3. You starting shooting the film during the 2012 Iowa Caucuses and premiered it at the 2012 Toronto Film Festival in September. That’s an incredibly short post-production schedule! Can you talk a little about the timing of this film, and what were some of the hurdles you faced along the way?
We actually shot on and off over nine months beginning in March 2011, and continued shooting our scripted scenes up through March 2012. It was an incredibly short post production schedule which ended with a final mix on June 1st – but I was fortunate to be working with close friends whom I’ve known for years and whom I trust to have a similar sensibility for story and editing.
Plus we knew we had to release this film in the fall of 2012 and before the election for maximum impact! The biggest hurdles were having no money and no time — but at the same time these limitations forced us to make creative choices that could get us through our crazy schedule!
4. The film very much captures your experiences as both a documentary and narrative filmmaker. Is this something that you’ll continue to explore as a filmmaker? And what do you plan on doing next?
I really enjoyed the process since it exercised both my fiction and non-fiction directing muscles. I’d be open to doing it again under the right circumstances but I should probably do something a little less risky to take a break! For now, I’m completing a documentary (AMERICAN REVOLUTIONARY) I’ve been working on for several years — a feature about 97 year old Chinese American activist and philosopher from Detroit named Grace Lee Boggs and her evolving ideas of the next American revolution.
I’m also working on a documentary on Asian American food culture for PBS as well as developing some other fiction scripts. I am looking for funding and collaborators if anyone is out there with something irresistible!
5. What kinds of responses have you received from the project? And where can people view the film?
Very positive reactions across the board. We have had a few people (mostly mainstream media) take issue with our tactics but they have been the minority. Jane and I went on a 3 week swing state tour leading up to the election that took us to grassroots community screenings in North Carolina, Ohio, Wisconsin and Iowa. People were genuinely moved by Janeane’s story and we had lots of great conversations with regular citizens — including several conservatives who showed up. We made the film to start a conversation about the gap between campaign trail rhetoric and the everyday reality of so many Americans and we hope that this conversation will continue — just because the election is finished doesn’t mean polarized politics will go away!
People can learn more about the film and purchase it on our website as well as rent and buy it on iTunes. You can find all the important links and articles about the movie at www.janeanemovie.com.