This week, the San Francisco International Asian American Film Festival continues its 28th edition. We happened upon a great two part transcript by Michael Guillen of a panel discussion held three years ago between three legendary “bad boys” of Asian American indie cinema, Gregg Araki, Roddy Bogawa and Jon Moritsugu, moderated by Marcus Hu. The talk reads pretty lively, especially with these colorful remembrances by punk filmmaker Jon Moritsugu:
Hu: Jon, have you ever thought about yourself as an artist, would you ever do a straightforward narrative film that had a big budget?
Moritsugu: Yeah, sure, I definitely would consider it. I feel like my PBS project I was pretty young, punk rock, chip on my shoulder. I burned . . . I nuked every bridge possible. [Laughter.] Seriously. For instance, I’ll use names, James Schamus, big wig producer dude, works with Ang Lee, Brokeback Mountain….
Araki: He now owns Hollywood.
Moritsugu: Yeah, he owns Hollywood, Focus Features. He was one of the executive producers for Terminal, U.S.A. because it was for ITVS. I remember there was this really weird meeting where we were having drinks at the Clift Hotel or something and he put his arm around me and he’s whispering, “Stick with me. I’ll give you a career. Asia America. You’re the Asian independent dude.” It just got ugly after that. I ended up threatening him, telling him to fuck off, just like these personal issues. [Laughter.]
Araki: That’s a do not do.
Moritsugu: Do not do.
Moritsugu: My early stuff was much more radical that my more recent work because there’s no narrative, no characters. My early stuff is collages of sound and imagery. My parents are really open-minded. Especially my mom, she’s like, “Hi. I’m very Western. I studied JFK and his family so we’re going to be like the Kennedys.” Sort of freaky stuff. She was very open-minded about my movies but not getting them. I knew they weren’t really into my filmmaking because I’d still get the phone calls—this was when I was first starting out—like, “Hey man, there’s law school. We’ll pay for it. You can go to law school. Why are you doing this film stuff?” I made it a point of doing what I wanted to do.
I remember at one point they even offered to produce one of my movies, Mod Fuck Explosion, just before we went into production my parents were like, “Hey….” It was a weird meeting. It was in San Francisco. They were passing through town. I was in their hotel room at Fisherman’s Wharf and they’re like, “We’re going to take you out to dinner. Get a nice meal somewhere.” It was probably a few weeks before we started shooting Mod Fuck Explosion. It was surreal. My dad reached into his coat and hands me this thick envelope. I’m like, “What is this?” It’s full of money. I’m serious. I’m like, “I didn’t know you had money like this first of all. Secondly, what is this for?” And they said, “Well, we hear you’re going to make the new movie so we wanted to give you some money.”
Now I’m regretting it, but at the time I had my monologue, my manifesto, and I was like, “You guys absolutely don’t understand what I’m doing. You’re not supportive of me. So screw you. Take your money back.” [Laughter.] I returned the money given to me by my parents! I was like, “I’ve got other people in the community who are actually putting money into this movie and they believe in this project, unlike you guys who are doing this out of guilt or something.” So yeah, it was like a really weird relationship with filmmaking.
Finally when I did Terminal USA, my big budget project, they were passing through San Francisco and this was a turning point because that was my only movie where I actually had a crew of lots of people, Panavision equipment, and I invited them to the set for an evening. They saw everybody there. They saw I was running the show. They have completely chilled out ever since then. I’ve tried to give them the impression that all my movies have been shot that way since. They haven’t but, yeah, they’re off my case now and it’s cool. But they haven’t offered me any more money like that, envelopes with cash. I don’t know if that even really happened, it’s so surreal.