Evan Jackson Leong, 37, has been working on Snakehead, a film about the New York Chinatown underworld, for nearly 10 years. He is best known for directing the 2013 Sundance selection film, Linsanity.
D: What jump-started the idea for Snakehead?
E: I was inspired by the story of Sister Ping in New York Chinatown. The story of what she represents in the community, but also what she did and the way it all happened, was all very intriguing to me. I realized that’s a story that I’ve never seen on film or in movies, and I know a lot of strong Asian women in my life that aren’t necessarily dragon ladies and aren’t necessarily submissive, they’re three-dimensional. But there’s a lot of powerful and strong woman leaders in the community and I can relate to that. So I know what she is, I know what kind of Chinese woman she is, so I wanna make a movie showcasing a Chinese woman, an Asian woman in this country.
D: What do you seek to do for the image of Asian, and especially Chinese, women in America?
E: As an artist growing up, all my heroes were black or white…and there were no Asian heroes, no Asian American role models, no one I could look up to. The first time I saw Big Trouble in Little China was the first time I saw an Asian character speaking English without an accent. Some of them do, but not all of them. I want to make stories that I can see myself in. More importantly, you create these stories, these characters and these role models. I do it for myself, obviously, but I also know the impact it has on a kid. It’s not necessarily that you’re gonna be the next Jeremy Lin or the next Justin Lin or the next Sung Kang, but at the same time there’s an idea there that’s like, “Oh, I could do that. I could become something, what I want. These guys followed their dream and they did it.” It wasn’t easy for them, and their story is one of hardship, but at the same time it’s such a powerful thing to see that. One man embodies that, then all of a sudden America looks at you differently. I guarantee that everyone was looking at every Asian baller differently after seeing Jeremy Lin doing it.
D: How old were you when you first saw someone Asian on TV without an accent, without that sidekick role?
E: With Big Trouble in Little China, so it was in the 80s sometime. And it had kung fu elements, right? It was well-received, at the same time it was also anti-received. There were boycotts, they were protesting about this “fantasizing of Chinatown.” I get that too, everyone is valid to their opinion. For me, it represents something different. I’m sixth-generation Chinese American, so I’m in a completely different perspective than some of these other generations. My family’s a lot more established in the community, so I’m the future of what you guys are all gonna be. I grew up feeling like the majority. In San Francisco, I never went to a school not dominated by Asians.
D: At what point did you move to New York, and what difference do you see between the communities here and there?
E: LA is just culturally different. I think, and I talk about this with everyone, about Chinatowns around the world, right? Chinese towns, Asian American communities, they adapt to the environment that they’re in: the Vietnamese in Texas or Louisiana, the Chinese in Houston, and the Chinese in Mexico and the Chinese in Spain, they all adapt differently to the environment. Yet they still have the same sort of core elements that we have, so we share those things. The good thing about LA and New York is that there’s a lot of Asians, so you don’t have to worry about those things. Just in terms of community, there’s a lot more community events here.
D: Sounds about right. What’ve you been working on between Linsanity and Snakehead?
E: I’ve always been working on Snakehead, Snakehead’s been my 24/7. I moved out to New York to make Snakehead.
D: You’ve been working on it for eight, nine—
E: It’ll be 10 next year. When I was on the third draft I thought, “Let’s go live in New York,” me and my wife, so we could make a movie. Moving out here I’d have to build all-new relationships, find new people, so I worked at MGB for about two years then I quit my job, like, “I’m gonna make my movie.” Two weeks, two of them blew up. I was really surprised ’cause I was doing it on the side. As an artist you just do things that you care about. If there’s no money or whatever you still do it ’cause you want to, and you care so much about the subject matter. Usually those are the ones that really come out beautiful because there’s this good energy behind it. That was one of those projects that a lot of writing time. I’ve got like 10 projects that I’m working on now. Documentaries, you kind of wait for the moment to happen, and so Jeremy was like, “All right, that’s just one we’re gonna do at some point,” finished, and then it blew up and we were like, “Yeah, let’s do that. Let’s put Snakehead on hold and stay on for about two years to make the documentary.” And then here we are. Three years later. I wanted to make it three years ago because, basically, we’re raising money. It’s hard to raise money for Asian American funds. We’re not proven to make the money back, we’re not proven to make box office money. Indie films in general is a dying cause. A lot of people don’t watch it. You see great films in theaters, but no one’s there. It’s hard to make money off indie films anymore, so raising and fundraising I was like, “You know, I can’t do try to chase this money anymore, I just need to make it.” ’Cause I know I can make it. You know, movies are expensive. Forty million dollars, four million, four hundred, four thousand; you can make a movie at every single level with those, it just depends on what you want to do to do it, right? What you want to give up, what you want to juxtapose for the story. Sometimes you can’t do sci-fi for a living, but maybe you could. Maybe you could, if you knew the right way to tell the story, then you could. For me, the movie was like, “Okay, well, I’ve always imagined if I had to scale it down, then I could do it. if I got to scale up, this is what I can do.” I could add bigger shit, I would have to get a smaller fight scene.
D: In terms of the storyline, I know there are other indie films and web series set in Chinatown based off very similar material. I recently worked with some people in Chinatown who were involved with gangs from about the 50s to the 80s, and I know they starred in some online series around those circumstances. So what are you bringing that’s new to the table?
E: That’s a good question. I mean, I’m not from New York, and I know those 80s and those 90s people, they glorify it, they modify it. It’s kind of like this crazy era that people talk about in their stories, about what happened. And I’m not actually making a movie from the 90s, I’m making a modern movie based in this time period, right now. It’d be naïve to say the world has disappeared, ’cause it’s still here. It’s just not as loud and big and well-known as everyone sees it, but it’s still here on a different level. The underworld movies I love are Scarface, Godfather, Eastern Promises, things like that where those characters are universal. See how they do bad shit? Yeah, they’re bad people on some level, but we find what makes them special. The difference is that they’re relatable, and their stories are universal. And you don’t have to be Italian, you don’t have to be Russian, to understand them and understand what they’re about and the issues that they deal with. I think what happens is we get a little stuck sometimes with glorifying something when we don’t take care of the actual characters of the story. It was a really sad and crazy era; people died, a lot of bad things happened. People talk about it as like, “the old, good days,” but if you’re living there you didn’t want to be around that, it wasn’t a good thing. That’s just a part of this story and it shows up in my trailers. It’s not what I’m trying to tell. ’Cause with trailers, it’s an easy thing for people to hook, but what I really want to share is Chinatown and what it means to me, and what it represents. There’s that element, that one percent, that two percent that’s all those gangsters, but there’s a whole part of the rest of Chinatown that’s beautiful and cultural, and things that me and you like, like the comfort food. Things like the sites, smells and people, the funny, crazy shit that Chinese people do, I want to showcase those things as well. You do deal with the Underworld, but you know it’s not all about the underworld. I think you make those characters. With gangsters it’s like they become so much of a gangster that you forget to see that, you forget to see that they’re humans too. You know all the Triad movies, they deal with real life because they know real gangsters and they portray them as full, three-dimensional characters. Yeah they do some bad shit and maybe you might do that, but if you take out that part of their life, they got a family, they got kids, they got all these things that’re responsibilities that everyone else has.
D: So how far along in the movie are you now?
E: We’re moving into production, we’re gonna do a couple of small productions coming up and then the bulk of it is in February.
D: And when do you expect it to be finished?
E: Who knows, movies take a long time. It took 10 years. Obviously I’m not gonna rush to finish it, but it is what it is. It’s just, it could be done quick, it could be done long, depending on how everything kind of works out. I mean, you know, it has to be good, so we’re gonna rework it until we make it good.
D: Were there any points when you really felt like giving up?
E: I guess I’ve never really given up on this. Definitely there were moments of frustration. Lots of frustration. Never giving up, because at the end of the day I know I can just do this by myself. I run around with the camera, find someone who’s going along with me in front of it. And if I had to, that’s what it’s gonna be. I think I’m lucky I have a very supportive wife. She believes in me, so I’m not alone. She keeps me in check, but it’s frustrating for sure. And you could point at all these opportunities and you could point at all these things in Hollywood, but at the end of the day if I’m not livin’ to it and making some great work, then we’re kinda playin’ about. I’ve been through failures, and I don’t look forward to them, but I do know when you do fail, that’s when you grow. And when you figure out what you’re gonna do that’s very empowering, right? Those are the biggest moments when you go down, but then you shoot wayyyyyyy back up. And then you fall again, and you shoot way back up. There’s always a negative to a positive and a positive to a negative, and hopefully you wanna be more in the upswing and choose that right path ’cause you only figure it out by failing.
D: What do you think’s happened since Linsanity came out? What’s happened for you, what’s changed for you, what you think might’ve changed in the way Asian Americans are seen?
E: I didn’t really change much as an artist but everyone looked at me different and my career looked different because this moment happened. Jeremy was the same player before and after, he was on a national progression to getting better and he had a hot streak basketball game which was really great and powerful. But I think people recognize that moment as that next plateau, where everyone’s like, “Oh! Wow, you didn’t think you could do that,” or you never got the chance to do that. For me, having the opportunity to do something like that, it definitely elevated everything I did ’cause everyone’s like, “Okay, what are you gonna do next?” They care about what you’re doing because, “Oh, you did a good job on a good story.”
D: I know your other films took a long time to direct too. Is Snakehead going to be the longest one to make?
E: Oh, for sure. If this is going to be my first and my last, I’m fine with that. Hopefully it’s not my last, but we’ll see.