Home Alone: Q&A with Tze Chun, Director of Children of Invention

Child abandonment and abuse has become a rather tired publicity trope, as demonstrated by the hordes of misery memoirs that grace the bookstore shelves. Recently, however, the tide has turned, and a host of provocative, thoughtful and altogether more engaging artistic offerings concerning the complexities of family life and childhood have come to the fore. Earlier this year, Polly Stenham’s new play Tusk Tusk , in which three children are left alone by their unstable mother in a new flat for days on end, received critical acclaim in London. Now, Tze Chun’s film Children of Invention (which screens at BAM tomorrow night) explores similar themes, albeit across the Atlantic, and with a pyramid scheme and the immigrant experience thrown into the mix. We sat down with Tze, the writer and director, to discuss the inspiration, challenges, and children that make this film so powerful.

Flavorpill: This film tells a very personal story that is executed with a very gentle touch. What was your inspiration for the movie?

Tze Chun: I spent a lot of my youth, from the time I was 8 to 14, going to various pyramid scheme seminars and parties with my mom and my little sister. Large parts of the film are of course fictional, but a lot of that world and much of the family dynamic is from my experiences growing up. I remember at some point as a kid realizing what a desperate financial situation my family was in, and wanting very much to help out. Of course, when you’re that age, there’s very little you can actually do. So the film stemmed from that feeling of powerlessness and the desire for financial stability at a young age. wrote the movie before the financial crisis. But with the economy tanking now and foreclosures going through the roof, it seems like everyone’s living through some version of what the Chengs go through in the film. I hope this movie can be a reminder that we’ve had bad times before, individually and as a country, but we’ve always made it out fine.  I hope people can view this as a story of survival and about individual resilience in difficult times. As for the style of the film, I tend to like to keep the camera observant, like we’re just peeking into these character’s lives.

FP: The immigrant experience seems central to a film that is in fact primarily about the universal themes of family and struggle. Why have you focused on the immigrant experience?

TC: When I wrote an early outline of the film, I wasn’t sure what race the kids were going to be. There were outlines where the family was Caucasian and there were outlines where the family was African American. But, as I continued writing, I felt like there was a level of specificity I could bring to the film if it was about an Asian American family. I still want the film to speak to universal themes such as family and struggle, and in fact one of the most satisfying aspects of our festival run has been seeing the film play well for audiences around the country, many of which are completely Caucasian. I also feel like there’s something very American about the immigrant experience. Whether you came over on the Mayflower 400 years ago or you immigrated here last month, you’re entering a new world where you have to learn new rules and new ways of living very quickly if you’re going to survive.

FP: The children are at the heart of this movie. How did you manage to cast actors who would be able to cope with the emotional intensity that their roles demanded?

TC: Michael and Crystal were two unknowns who had previously been cast as featured extras in Transformers 2 (the scene was cut before shooting). I think their parents were happy to have them cast in a movie where they didn’t get vaporized. Before we found them, we looked at 250 kids from schools and from open casting calls, and Mynette and I didn’t stop until we found two kids that we really fell in love with. There’s three-page long dialogue scenes in the script, some of them done in a single take, and we knew that we needed to find kids who could pull it off. With my short film, Windowbreaker (also with two child leads) a lot of time when the child actors are talking to each other, it’s actually me or the producer off screen asking them questions and guiding them through the scene. I thought I’d be working the same way with the feature, but Crystal and Michael came to set the first day with all their lines memorized. So, we pretty much went word-for-word in the script. Child actors are amazing because they can be so natural, but the trick is to make them comfortable about the material and take the time to explain the scene to them. The best thing about working with kids is that they are constantly making choices that are unexpected and surprising. The main thing I had to keep in mind when I was directing them was to not underestimate their abilities or their understanding of what was going on in a scene.

FP: What were the biggest challenges you faced in making this movie?

TC: We’ve been playing the festival circuit since premiering at Sundance in January, and we’ve won three grand jury prizes and four special jury prizes in that time. But of course, the festival run is not always an indication of the theatrical run. In the current film climate, if you’re not partnered with a traditional studio distributor for your release, it can be very hard to reach your target audience. So that’s the main challenge at this stage.  When people see the film, the reaction has been fantastic, so we’ve been relying on word-of-mouth and sites such as Facebook and Twitter, as well as tastemaking websites and blogs such as yours to spread the word.

FP: How do you expect/want audiences to react to it?

TC: I guess I’d like people to have an emotional reaction to the story and characters first and foremost. It’s a strange thing making a movie like this, where people laugh a lot, but also cry a lot. The first couple times people came up to me and said they cried during the movie, my first reaction was always “Ooh my god, I’m sorry!”  But then I realized that they liked that feeling, and it was a good thing.

FP: Finally, where does the title of the movie come from?

TC: It came from the saying “necessity is the mother of invention.”