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On the Job Education - An interview with Georgia Lee
02.04 - Posted by Editor
Georgia Lee's "Educated"
On the Job Education
An interview with director Georgia Lee
By Ed Moy
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02.04.03 - Director Georgia Lee's latest short film, "Educated," tells the story of Alice, a Chinese-American teenager who finds her best friend Wendy hanging from a noose in the girls' restroom.
Although first-time viewers of the film often ask if Lee’s inspiration for "Educated" came from personal experience, the story is actually based on a memoir written for the Three Penny Review by Francie Lin about a young Taiwanese girl committing suicide after she failed her college entrance exam.
Lee imbues "Educated" with a surrealistic "Clockwork Orange" meets "Joy Luck Club" sensibility. The film's highly stylized exploration of traditional Asian American generational crisis between parents with high expectations and their rebellious teens drifts between fantasy and reality.
Taking a much needed break between working and attending recent screenings of "Educated" at the Hamptons International Film Festival and the Film Arts Festival in San Francisco, Lee sat down just long enough to answer a few questions for AsianAmericanfilm.com.
You studied biochemical sciences and economics at Harvard. How did you
end up in filmmaking?
GL I have always had a love affair with films ever since I was a child. My
mother would borrow musicals and classics from the 40s and 50s from the
library and my sisters and I would watch films like "Meet Me in St. Louis" and "Singing in the Rain" over and over again. As the oldest of three girls, I was
always coming up with some crazy idea for variety shows and plays that we
would put on for my parents. Yet it never occurred to me that one could
pursue film as a career.
At Harvard, I dutifully studied biochemistry and economics but was always
drawn to and eventually camped out at Harvard's Film Archives, which showed
a great eclectic mix of stuff from "Strictly Ballroom" to "Women in the
Dunes." Something about that part of campus - the Fogg Art Museum, the
Carpenter Center - seemed so magical and resonant to me and was worlds
apart from the Science Center. I soon started to select my classes based
on whether they screened films. So, I guess you could say that I
first became aware of my love for film at Harvard.
It wasn't until I arrived in New York City that I was able to experience
filmmaking first hand. I was a Business Analyst at McKinsey, a management
consulting firm that advises corporations on business strategy, and took
off two consecutive summers to take NYU's intensive summer filmmaking
bootcamps. It was at NYU, during those 3 a.m. mornings hunched over a Steenbeck editing my precious little pieces of film, that I knew that I had fallen madly and deeply in love.
How did your parents react?
My parents initially thought that this was a phase similar to those brief
affairs with wanting to be an astronaut, architect, molecular biologist,
etc. But after a while, especially after I started taking courses at NYU,
they began to get rather worried that I might actually be serious about
filmmaking. From their point of view, their daughter was going down a path
that not only is unmarked and unexplored territory but one that is not
based on merit alone but very dependent on luck. It is also an industry
where very, very few people actually are successful. When you compare it to
the warmth and security of medicine, law, or business, I can understand why
they were and continue to be nervous. But all in all, they are relatively
open-minded and supportive for Asian parents!
What was the learning process like at the NYU summer program?
It really was a trial by fire! The Beginning Filmmaking course (black and
white film, no synch sound) over the summer is the traditional semester
long course condensed into 6 weeks. Students formed teams of 4 people who
rotated through the different crew positions. So you basically write,
produce, direct, shoot, and edit 5 short films in a month and a half! It
was madness. The school definitely does its part in giving you proper
guidance and support but it is still insane. I don't think I really slept
or ate that entire summer! But I always joke that the program is indeed
a great introduction to making films because filmmaking is crazy and you
have to be half mad to do it. The Intermediate Filmmaking course (color
film, synchronous sound) was a bit smoother in that you shot one film over
the course of the summer. In retrospect, I don't really know how we
pulled it together. I knew absolutely nothing about cameras, sound, movement,
dialogue, etc. but we just dove in and started discovering and learning.
And I truly believe that practice is the best way to learn filmmaking.
Directing is not really something you can learn in a classroom and from
Tell us about your motivation for picking the subject matter in your previous films, "The Big Dish" and "Bloom"?
"The Big Dish" was inspired by Martin Scorsese's short film "Vietnam '67".
And I had always felt very disturbed by the events of Tiananmen Square in
1989 so the film became a vehicle for me to explore and express some of my
feelings. The cannibalism in the film was also heavily influenced by Lu
Xun's "Diary of a Madman". While "The Big Dish" is more of an experimental, conceptual piece, "Bloom" was my first attempt to try and tell a small narrative
story. The idea came partially from some short stories I had read and partially
from the dynamics I observed growing up.
After seeing my short "The Big Dish," my professor at NYU suggested I send
it to Scorsese. I didn't know the first thing about how to contact him so
I simply sent the film to his fan mail address in Los Angeles. I didn't
ever expect him to watch it and I would never have dared to dream that he would
like it. I met briefly with him on the set of "Bringing Out the Dead" and
naively asked him how one becomes a filmmaker. He very wisely said, "You
make films." He encouraged me to make more shorts and I spent the next
summer shooting "Bloom".
At that time, "Gangs of New York" was in pre-production and I got to go to Rome as an observer for 5 months on set. I followed Marty around and tried to jot down whatever bits of his wisdom and genius that I could in my countless notebooks. It was one of the most amazing experiences of my life. It is the fledgling filmmaker's ultimate fairytale and I will always be eternally grateful for the opportunity.
Your latest short film "Educated" is your first 35mm production. What
was the production process like?
The film was financed by three of my friends and myself. The script was
inspired by Francie Lin's memoir "Educated" and was adapted and written by
Jane Chen and myself. One of my producers was able to convince Kodak to
donate all of our 35mm film stock. As with all independent film, it was
really an exercise in "beg, borrow, and steal" to make the film a reality.
How has the film been received on the film festival circuit?
We've been delighted that the film has been selected at over 20 festivals
around the world and has been nominated for a number of awards. It's been
wonderful to have such positive response from people other than my friends
and family - who have to be nice to me!
Any last words of advice for all those Asian American high school
students out there struggling to find their own identity, while dealing with
parental pressure to get into a good college?
It sounds cliched, but "follow your heart". There is always a balancing game
to play with demanding parents but life is too short and precious to waste
on anything but your passions. The thing to remember is that parents
always want for your happiness. But the tension is between their and your
definitions of happiness. In the long run, if you are truly satisfied in
who you are and what you are doing, then your parents will come around.
I saw the brilliant film on channel thirteen. It grabbed my attention so much that I researched the director and basis of the film even further. I will never look at getting a B the same way again. There is more to life than accomplishments, I have learned.
I just saw your film on NYC channel 13. It was excellent. Kudos!
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Hello, this is Pete K. Wong (a.k.a. PKW and Rice Buckett) it's was so nice to read this article about what you've done. I must be one of those that only comes to this site when I remember to, I really need to come here more often.
So I'm a student at a community college taking some intro 16mm b/w courses while pursuing my BA at a bigger school, but I have spend the past 2 years working with the community using media to promote change and writing a script I really care about. I quit my position as a youth coordinator and now am going to make some movies. A friend of mine suggested I hold off on my feature leghth since I have no money to back it up (even if shot on DV.) Instead she said do a short, she actually said to shoot a scene from my movie first and use it to get funding. I guess I'm kind of a hole, I really want to make my movie, and tell that story, but should I hold off on such a big thing for now.
Hopefully you can get back to me, if you can't, I really hope to keep tabs on what you're up to.