By Rachel Yang
April 09, 2020 at 10:00 AM EDT
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When writer Alan Yang set out to make his directorial film debut with April 10's Tigertail, he didn’t think about expectations or what fans wanted him to do. The Little America producer is most known for his work on comedies like Parks & Recreation, The Good Place, and Master of None.

But ultimately, what Yang wants to work on comes down to “whatever you wake up in the morning thinking about” — and that was the story behind Tigertail, which was based on his father’s experience immigrating to the United States from Taiwan.

Yang first embarked on the script four or five years ago, before Crazy Rich Asians, The Farewell, and Parasite made their marks on cinema and catapulted Asian representation to the forefront of conversations. Back then, it was hard to imagine a big platform like Netflix touting a film like Yang’s that was going to be in English, Taiwanese, and Mandarin, with an all-Asian cast.

EW chatted with Yang about the journey of making Tigertail, the tour-de-force that is Tzi-Ma (who also played Awkwafina’s dad in The Farewell), and the risk 0f departing from comedy.

You can also watch EW's exclusive clip from the movie, featuring Hong-Chi Lee as the younger version of the character inspired by Yang's father.

Jamie McCarthy/Getty Images

ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY: I read that this film was about you reconnecting with your heritage, and it was also based on your dad's life. Can you talk more about that?

ALAN YANG: The movie really is focused on a character [Pin-Jui] inspired by my dad who grew up in Taiwan, and grew up in pretty extreme poverty, and then worked in a factory and had to make a lot of hard choices before deciding to come to America in search for a better life. And it examines his relationship with a series of women in his life, from a girlfriend to the woman who ends up becoming his wife to his daughter, and it speaks to the regret that immigrants experience when they come to a new country. And it speaks to the difficulty all of us have at being honest and communicating and expressing our vulnerabilities, and in this specific case, his relationship with his daughter.

So it really is, in some ways, also the capsulation of my grappling with my own heritage and coming to terms with it in my personal life. Because I grew up in an area of California without a lot of other Asian people, and I never felt particularly Asian and I wanted to fit in and hang out with the other kids and do anything I could to be the same as opposed to different. But as I became a writer and director and producer and all these things, and had the opportunity to make my own shows and movies, I realized that the most powerful thing you have as a filmmaker is your point of view. And so denying that part of yourself is almost like chopping off one of your arms. It really became integral to my point of view and such a huge part of making this movie.

Did you interview your father for the movie?

I did talk to my dad and honestly, some of the movie's inspired by a trip I took to Taiwan with my dad because I hadn't been back since I was a kid. He showed me around the entire country and he told me stories that I'd never heard before. And he told me about the factory that he worked in and then we went to the factory. When it came time to shoot the sugar factory that my dad and my grandma worked in, we looked at a bunch of places and I said none of these places look remotely close to what we need. It needs to be period, it needs to be rundown, it needs to look grimy and dangerous. And so I said, "Why don't we look at the actual factory my dad worked in?" And then we went to the middle of nowhere. We took a train down there, and it was perfect. And so we ended up shooting at the same factory that my dad worked in.

Watching the film reminded me of the father episode of Master of None, where Dev (Aziz Ansari) and his friend talk about their childhood and family. Did your own life or your dad's story seep into writing that episode?

Yeah, so that Master of None episode was one of the first ones we ever wrote. Essentially we were banging our heads against the wall, and we're trying to write season 1. And I said, "Look, man, whatever happens, this is all gravy because my dad grew up with nothing. He had so little that he didn't even have food to eat and his mom told him one day to kill his pet chicken so they could eat it for dinner. So he had to do that. And now we're sitting in a nice hotel room trying to figure out what's right for our Netflix show, which we get to make for sure." So, it's always been a powerful idea to me, how drastically different my parents' lives were from mine, and how much they sacrificed and how incredible their journey is.

But in the movie, it's an insanely blown-up version of that where you see this guy transformed from essentially the Asian James Dean, which is what I call Hong-Chi Lee [young Pin-Jui] in those young parts where he's incredibly charismatic, just magnetic and indisputably this guy who's just passionate and full of life. It's really an example of how the stoic Asian dad you have right now, he probably wasn't like that his whole life. He probably had hopes and dreams, he had love and regrets, disappointments and triumphs, and he just hasn't told you about them, and so the movie is an example of how we all contain those multitudes.

That dance scene with young Pin-Jui was so good, it had such Wong Kar-wai vibes. And then Tzi-Ma comes in as older Pin-Jui and he's powerful in a different way. 

It's some of my favorite stuff in the movie. There's a touch of Wong Kar-wai in there and throughout the Taiwanese stuff, there's some Edward Yang, and there's there's some Hou Hsiao-Hsien. Tzi-Ma and Christine Ko, who plays adult Pin-Jui and adult Angela, their scenes aren't as showy in some ways, but the internal struggle they show is such a marvel. It's an example of high-level acting because it's sometimes easy to talk about the scenes where people cry, or the scenes where people are incredibly funny or incredibly charming, but to show and express so much without words and without seeing your actual emotion — which is a lot of the present-day story — I mean, that story is all about how we don't communicate. And that, in some ways, is even more difficult. So I was just incredibly pleased with our cast.

There's been a surge of critically acclaimed Asian and Asian-American movies, like The Farewell and Parasite. In general, there's much more acceptance of Asian stories now — did you think this much would happen, even five years ago? 

Yes, it's incredibly exciting. And I say that as someone who started writing the script probably four or five years ago, so when I started writing this, there was no Farewell, there was no Parasite. There was no Crazy Rich Asians. It was just me in a room writing a script with only Asian characters in it, hoping that it could get made somewhere. It's incredible — in some ways, a crazy thing to try to do. But I am so thrilled that we are at this place. And then literally an Asian movie that is completely subtitled wins every Oscar in the world. And I called Netflix the next day and said, "Look — this isn't necessarily a niche movie. People will read subtitles if you give them a movie with relatable themes and stories and characters." And if anything, this movie has a little bit fewer subtitles. There's some English in it and it's actually an American story. So, yeah, it's been incredibly gratifying. But I also want to say that we are just, just, just at the tip of the iceberg and we're just starting to tell all the stories that we have in our arsenal because, as you mentioned, we've made what — a few movies in the past couple years that star Asian Americans or Asians and the entire history of American film does not include us. It's the ratio of all films ever made, in my opinion. So we got a lot of catching up to do.

When I first heard you were making this movie, I remember thinking, "I hope it's not going to be one of those films set in a different country but everyone inexplicably speaks English." So I was grateful to see that it wasn't the case.

Yeah, not a concern. We just finished cutting the trailer and I was joking with Christine, "I think this is the first trailer that starts in Taiwanese, continues in Mandarin, and finishes in English." And that's gotta be a first. I don't think I've ever seen a trailer like that before.

Do you categorize the film in your mind as an Asian American story, a Taiwanese story, etc?

Yeah, I feel like it is quintessentially Asian American. I think that has to tie in with the perception we sometimes get as Asian Americans that we are perpetually foreign, that we're never truly American. But I do see this as an American story. I see it as a bridge between Asia and America. I was talking with someone the other day about this movie, and he couldn't really think of a movie like it because it's about the journey from Asia to America, so you can talk about all these Taiwanese directors and we're getting, like Hou Hsiao-hsien, or Chinese directors like Wong Kar Wai. And obviously, those are influences on this movie. But they never directed a movie where the main character goes to America halfway through, and then a lot of the movie's in English after that. That movie doesn't exist and it didn't really exist until now.

With all these comedies under your belt, did you purposely want to switch it up and do a drama, or think about the expectations some fans have for your projects?

I feel like I try not to take too calculated of an approach with the stuff I'm working on. Whatever you wake up in the morning thinking about and go to bed and can't stop talking about like, that's probably what you should be working on. And so for the past four years, that's been Tigertail and that's been the thing that's been animating all my work. In terms of genre, I guess it is a little bit of a leap. I was talking to my trailer editor, and he's like, "Man, you really took a risk with this one, it's your first movie and it's a drama, it's a different genre from what you've ever done. It's period, so it's a totally different time period, it's in another country, and most of the actors didn't speak any English." I was like, "Yeah I guess when you put it that way, it sounds like an insane thing to try to do." I guess I never thought of it that way. So yeah, I'm really happy that it turned out in the way that it did.

Tigertail will debut on Netflix this Friday, April 10.

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