Q&A: ‘Fresh off the Boat’ showrunner Nahnatchka Khan

NAHNATCHKA KAHN (EXECUTIVE PRODUCER/CREATOR/WRITER)There was no pressure on Nahnatchka Khan.

All she had to do was pitch, write, manage and will into existence a new sitcom based on the outspoken and iconoclastic Eddie Huang’s memoir — which also happened to be the first TV show featuring an Asian American cast since “All-American Girl,” 20 years ago.

Like I said, no pressure.

Khan, one of the hottest women writer/showrunners in Hollywood, related to Huang’s provocative, best-selling memoir, “Fresh Off the Boat.” While she’s not Chinese, she lived the first generation, immigrant experience. And growing up in East Honolulu, she was surrounded by Asian culture.

Khan graduated from Kaiser High School and attended the USC School of Cinematic Arts. She went on to write for “Malcolm in the Middle” and “American Dad,” and created the show “ Don’t Trust the B in Apartment 23.” Unlike in the movies — where directors have the power — television is a writer’s medium. And Khan, with expectations impossibly high, had a high-wire act to perform with “Fresh Off the Boat.”

Fresh Off the Boat 1That sound you heard on Wednesday, February 4th? A collective exhale of relief from Asian Americans across the country. “Fresh Off the Boat” premiered and wasn’t just a critical success, it was damned funny. Constance Wu was a breakout star, the show gave heart and humor to the immigrant experience, and my 4-year-old daughter was mesmerized by kids who looked just like her, looking back at her on our TV. Pressure? Please.

“Fresh Off the Boat,” “Empire” and “Blackish” are trailblazing a new age of diversity in television. And while Hawaii is a little different — yellow people are the majority and even white people are a little brown — it’s exciting to see a local girl spreading that message of diversity and excelling on the biggest of stages. I got to talk to Khan, who deserves a first-class “success perm.”

How are you feeling now that “Fresh Off the Boat” premiered and is a critical and ratings success?
So happy and extremely proud. The passion that both critics and fans have for the show is very satisfying to see and just makes me feel like, yessssssss.

Pitch “Fresh Off the Boat” for someone who hasn’t seen it yet.
Set in 1995, it follows the Huangs, a Taiwanese-American family who leave their family and friends in Chinatown in Washington D.C. and move to the white suburbs of Orlando so their father, Louis Huang, can own and operate an Old West steakhouse.

How did you get involved with the show?
The previous show I had created, “Don’t Trust the B in Apt 23″ had recently been cancelled and, after crying and drinking for a few months, I was trying to figure out what my next television project was going to be. Melvin Mar (one of the other executive producers on “FOTB”) sent me the manuscript of Eddie Huang’s memoir to see if I would be interested in developing it for television.

Fresh Off the Boat 2I read it right away and immediately zeroed in on the part where Eddie and his family move to Orlando in the mid-90s and knew that was where I wanted to set the series. Melvin and his producing partner Jake Kasdan (the show’s other executive producer) and I all have development deals at 20th Century Fox Television, which is our studio, and we sold the pitch to Paul Lee and Samie Falvey at ABC.

You graduated from Kaiser High School. What were you like growing up here?
Oh man, I was the BEST. No, but really, I lived in Hawaii Kai, went to Niu Valley, graduated from Kaiser and I loved it. It was the life. That mellowness of Hawaii, of being on “island time,” is something that I feel like I took with me to Hollywood. People are stressed out all the time here and on the inside I’m just like, “whatevehs.”

When did you know you wanted to be a writer?
I think I first knew when I was at Kaiser and they let me write an editorial column for the school newspaper. I was allowed to write about whatever I wanted, so I just wrote about stuff like prom and getting my drivers license, whatever was happening in my life at that time. And I remember kids coming up to me in the halls and being like, “Hey, your article was funny!” I really liked that feeling.

Fresh Off the Boat 3Name some of your creative influences.
Oh man, there’s so much out there that I love. James Brooks, the Coen Brothers, “Seinfeld,” “South Park,” Tina Fey, Judd Apatow, Amy Poehler, Wanda Sykes, T.C. Boyle, Julia-Louis Dreyfus, Christopher Guest, “Saturday Night Live,” Parker Posey, Louis CK, “Breakfast at Tiffany’s,” Holly Hunter, “The Simpsons,” “The Royal Tenenbaums,” the list goes on…!

Has growing up in Hawaii influenced “Fresh Off the Boat”?
So many of my friends’ parents had elements of their personalities that remind me of Jessica and Louis Huang. And definitely the culture of Hawaii, the food, the music, the people, the lifestyle, all of that definitely influenced me.

Fresh Off the Boat Success Perm 2What do you miss most about Hawaii?
Spam musubi times a thousand! Also, saimin, loco moco, huli huli chicken and Zippy’s chili. Sandy Beach, Cockroach Cove, Waimanalo, Ala Moana mall (yoooooo, I spent so much time there before I could drive. My friends and I would take the bus and then hang out all day and go to Eggs ‘N Things), Fun Factory… oh, and shave ice, guava flavor!

What did you learn from your experiences as a writer and showrunner in Hollywood?
The most important thing I’ve learned is to always give yourself options. Making sure you get alts for jokes in scenes, different levels of performances from the actors, so when you’re in the edit bay and you’re looking at the episode as a whole for the first time, you can make sure that the story and comedy are both flowing and working. And that there are many different ways to tell a story… eventually you just have to pick one.

What’s the best piece of advice you got during your career?
Have the most fun possible.

What’s on your DVR?
Broad City, The Walking Dead, Louie, Brooklyn Nine-Nine, RuPaul’s Drag Race, Adventure Time, Mad Men, Girls, Looking, Veep.

Fresh Off the Boat Success Perm 1What do you love about writing for TV?
Entertaining people, making them laugh and feel less alone.

Give local filmmakers and screenwriters who want to make it in Hollywood ONE piece of advice.
Be true to yourself and constantly be developing your own voice, don’t feel like you have to fit into any preconceived ideas of what you think you have to do or be in order to succeed. Oh, and don’t wear slippers to a meeting.

Watch an hour of “Fresh Off the Boat” on ABC this Tuesday at 7 pm. “Very Superstitious” guest-stars NBA legend Scottie Pippen.

Q&A: Ryan Miyamoto, co-director of SXSW winner ‘Twinsters’

Twinsters Special Jury Editing“Imagine there was someone out there you’d never met who looked exactly like you and was born on your birthday. ‘Twinsters’ is the story of Samantha Futerman and Anaïs Bordier, two strangers who discovered they were potential twin sisters separated at birth.”

That’s the pitch for “Twinsters,” a new film co-directed and shot by Ryan Miyamoto. The documentary premiered last week at South by Southwest and was named one of the film festival’s “Breakout Movies” by Variety magazine.

Not bad for a guy who grew up in Kuliouou, surfing Maunalua Bay.

TwinstersPremierRyanMiyamoto knew he wanted to be a filmmaker when he was 8 years old, following in the footsteps of his uncle, Mike Prickett, a legendary cinematographer. Prickett told Ryan his job was to travel the world and film people surfing. Ryan was blown away.

Cut to 2013. After a burgeoning career as a cinematographer, Miyamoto was referred by a friend to work on “Twinsters.” What was supposed to be a couple weeks of shooting turned into a two-year odyssey. He relocated to Los Angeles to follow the emotional reunion of two adopted Korean girls—one living in LA, the other in London—who believe they’re twin sisters. The journey took him from California to London to Korea. I talked to Ryan about his experience on the film and how a seemingly random encounter could change your life.

Describe what it felt like in the theater for your SXSW premiere?
I felt so nervous, so sweaty and so nauseous. Having over 300 strangers watch your movie for the first time is a surreal experience. It was the first time we would get a real reaction to the film by people who weren’t emotionally invested.

TwinstersFilmStillHow did you get involved with “Twinsters”?
My friend Yamato Cibulka. He worked with Samantha Futerman previously on the movie “Man Up.” When Yama heard about the project, he referred me as a director of photography. The next day I Skyped with Sam, and the next week I was in California.

You’re the cinematographer and co-director on the film with one of the girls, Samantha Futerman. What was your working/directing relationship like?
The working relationship was horrible. Just joking. It was great. We both fed off of each other’s energy and made decisions that we both agreed upon. It was almost a yin and yang relationship.

TwinstersFilmStill_2“Twinsters” would have never happened without social media. Did you integrate technology into your storytelling?
Technology was very much integrated throughout the film. The first act of the film is narrated through text, Whatsapp, Facebook Message and Skype sessions that the girls had until their first reunion. Sam and I wanted the audience to feel as if they were on the journey with us, discovering the love story as it was unfolding in real time.

TwinstersPremierHow did you feel, watching this reunion unfold?
I felt really awkward watching the girls’ reunion (laughs). You have to watch it to understand.

How did you feel after the premiere?
Two years of filmmaking all came down to this one moment… and it went great. The crowd laughed when we wanted them to laugh and cried when we wanted them to cry. We even had grown men crying in their seats. Now that’s a great reaction.

“Twinsters” won a Special Jury Recognition for editing. How did you manage to shape this story with all the footage you shot?
Sam, Kanoa and I sat down for a week or two labeling cue cards with all the monumental events that took place throughout the journey. We wanted to make sure that the story was being told and not make a 6-hour piece. We nailed down all of the important events and I assembled them into a timeline. Then Jeff Consiglio came on the project and helped us shape and finesse the film into what you see now. He helped us really get out what we wanted the film to say.

TwinstersRyanMiyamotoWhat was the biggest thing you learned from shooting “Twinsters”?
The biggest thing I learned was to always trust my gut instincts. It made me a better decision maker and a more confident person.

It was a big year for Hawaii at this year’s SXSW. POW! WOW! Hawaii was there. Longtime Hawaii actor and voice talent Krisha Fairchild starred in “Krisha,” the Grand Jury prize and Audience Award winner. What was your SXSW experience like?
SXSW was overwhelming in a good way. From music to tech to movies, we were surrounded by the best in the business. And I loved the people in Austin. Everyone was so nice and sincere. They felt like the people in Hawaii. Also the food was AMAZING! I think every day I had a beer, some sort of queso and probably some tequila to wash it all down. It was great. I’m still hungover I think. And I never want to eat queso again, except all the time.

TwinstersFilmStill_03What does “Twinsters” say about family?
Family has no boundaries. Family is whomever you choose to accept into your life.

What’s next for “Twinsters”?
Distribution. Fingers crossed. We want everyone to be able to see the film.

What are you working on next?
I’m in pre-production for a movie with producers Yamato Cibulka and Kenji Doughty. The film centers around a story set in ancient Hawaii. I’m also working on a documentary about my mentor, Mike Prickett, who became paralyzed on an underwater film shoot after risking his life to save another diver.

What do you love most about filmmaking?
When you meet me in person, I don’t really talk that much. Filmmaking gives me the opportunity to show who I am through the images I create.

Give aspiring local filmmakers ONE piece of advice.
Always trust your instincts (except when it craves queso).

Why ‘Tokyo Drift’ is the best ‘Fast/Furious’ Film

The Fast and the Furious: Tokyo Drift“Furious 7’ premiered last night at South by Southwest. Variety said, “The hit muscle-car franchise does itself and the late Paul Walker proud with a solid seventh entry.” In light of the good reviews and the monumental expectations for the film, I’m going to make a Fast/Furious argument that may sound crazy.

“The Fast and the Furious: Tokyo Drift” is the franchise’s best film.

Look, the Fast/Furious franchise isn’t fine art. It’s over-the-top, high-octane, comic book madness on the big screen. So don’t troll me over this, Internets. Yes, it’s the least successful film. Yes, there’s no Walker, Rock or Vin Diesel (sort of). And yes, it gives “The Karate Kid, Part II” a run for its money in the cringe-worthy accent department. But hear me out…

“Tokyo Drift” saved a billion dollar franchise
Coming off “2 Fast 2 Furious” — my least favorite film in the series and a good title for a 12” Prince LP — the franchise had no Walker or Diesel. Instead, they rolled the dice on a hungry Asian director, created a classic fish-out-of-water story set in Tokyo and refocused on its tuner target. The film was a creative defibrillator, paving the way for Universal Studio’s biggest franchise of all time.

Justin Lin
Who is Justin Lin? He’s only the director of the last four Fast/Furious films and the most powerful Asian-American filmmaker in Hollywood today. Lin is currently directing season 2 of “True Detective” and the next “Bourne” sequel. And while his career began with the influential indie “Better Luck Tomorrow,” his career blew up as a result of “Tokyo Drift.” Here’s a great Japan shoot story from Lin:

Han
In test screenings, the character of Han, played by Sung Kang, received a 100 percent approval rating by test audiences, the highest scoring character in Universal’s history. Even better, Han was playing an Asian male character in a studio film who:

a) Didn’t know kung fu, karate or ninjutsu
b) Wasn’t a moustache-twirling Fu Manchu villain
c) Wasn’t an emasculated math nerd with a bad accent

Han was a character who destroyed stereotypes. He was cool. He was mysterious. He got the girl. And not just any girl, he apparently got a super hero (Gal Gadot, who plays Gisele in Fast/Furious 4 to 6, was cast in “Wonder Woman”). In short, “Tokyo Drift” gave us this:

Han Fast Five

Instead of this:

LongDukDong5

Drifting
Good films show us something we’ve never seen before. And “Tokyo Drift” does just that, introducing us to the Japanese subculture of drifting. In fact, the actual “Drift King,” Keiichi Tsuchiya, who honed his skills street racing in the 80s, makes a cameo in “Tokyo Drift” as one of the fishermen.

Tokyo Drift Japanese FlagFull disclosure: I’m Japanese
Okay, I admit have a bias. I love Japan. It’s in my blood. And this film presents Japan on PEDs in all its Shibuya/Harajuku/race queen glory. It’s also a seminal film for all Asian-Americans. There are few studio films that feature an all-Asian cast and ONE white lead. ONE. Even the love interest is Peruvian. So who cares if Chinese and Koreans are playing Japanese? In my book, “all look same” is all good in the name of Asian equality. In short, if you don’t like this film, you’re probably a racist. Just kidding. But seriously, don’t be a racist.

Retcon Madness ***SPOILER ALERT***
“Retcon” is short for “retroactive continuity” and “Tokyo Drift” is the root of the Fast/Furious retcon bramble. It all centers around the character of Han who takes a dirt nap in “Tokyo Drift.” Director Lin brought back Han for the fourth film, “Fast & Furious,” which retroactively makes every other “Fast” film a prequel to “Tokyo Drift.” Why? Because in “Furious 6,” the movie closes with Han’s death returning the Fast/Furious universe back to present time. Which opens up the possibility that Lucas Black’s character from “Tokyo Drift” could join the rest of the Toretto family in “Furious 7.”

And if that’s not confusing enough, Sung Kang’s Han is actually a character from Lin’s debut film, “Better Luck Tomorrow.” So in theory, this billion-dollar franchise all started with an indy prequel about Asian kids doing awful things in a suburban high school.

Wait, what?

Big Finish
At the end of “Tokyo Drift,” we’re first introduced to the theme that’s at the heart of Lin’s Fast/Furious run: family. And like all good movies, “Tokyo Drift” finishes strong. That crowd-pleasing cameo at the end of the film just might connect the dots to “Furious 7,” which opens on April 3rd.

Until then, we’ll always have Tokyo.

“The Fast and the Furious: Tokyo Drift” screens at Consolidated Theatres Ward on Wednesday, March 18 at 7 and 10 p.m. as part of the Hana Hou Picture Show.

Movie poster courtesy of MVNP

Q&A: Hawaii Sketch Comedy Festival’s Kimee Balmilero

Kimee BalmileroI first met Kimee Balmilero a few years ago at the HIFF Creative Lab New Media Camp. At the time, I was a mentor and she was a participant.

Little did I know, she could’ve taught ME a thing or two.

If you’re on Kimee’s LinkedIn page, be prepared to scroll. She’s performed on Broadway in the original Broadway cast of “Mama Mia.” She starred in the Emmy nominated “HI-5,” which led to performances on the Today Show and the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade. She’s founded improvhi, created StoryU Arts and even has a doll made in her likeness. But it was her experience at the Upright Citizens Brigade (founded by Amy Poehler) that inspired her to create the first ever Hawaii Sketch Comedy Festival, opening at the Doris Duke Theatre on March 28 and 29.

I got to chat with Kimee about performing on Broadway, comedy nerdery and her perfect mixed tape.

When did your passion for comedy and performing start?
I think it started from watching all those late-night talk shows when I was little. I loved watching Johnny Carson and David Letterman and I always stayed up to watch “Saturday Night Live.” I was also a little obsessed with the movie “Airplane.” I’m an only child, so I was pretty much a ham all my life since I had to “fight” for my Grandma’s attention with nine other cousins.

KimeeBalmileroJumpingNot many people can say they’ve performed on Broadway. What was that experience like?
Amazing. One of the best experiences I’ve ever had. It was such a dream to be on Broadway and to be part of an original cast was something I never imagined could happen. I enjoyed the entire experience from rehearsals to performing on the Tonys.

That show and cast are very special to me. We were still in rehearsals when 9-11 happened, so we really came together not just as cast members, but as New Yorkers. I remember the night Colin Powell came to see our show that fall. Apparently, he’s a huge ABBA fan. I started crying during our finale because you could see him in the audience dancing and singing along. It was at that moment that I realized that what we weren’t just doing a silly little musical, it was an escape for the city. I was proud to be a part of that.

What made you move back to Hawaii?
I moved back home because it felt like it was time. I had left Hawaii the day after high school graduation back in 1997 (Go Castle Knights) to join the touring company of “Miss Saigon” and continued performing in NYC and LA for about 15-plus years. I wanted to start creating my own things, and it’s a little more difficult to do that in LA since everything had been “done before.”

Why did you start the Hawaii Sketch Comedy Festival?
Doing a sketch comedy festival here in Hawaii is something that I’ve thought about for years. When we started doing “The Scratch Paper Sketch Comedy Show” through improvhi, that’s when I saw that there was a definite want for something like this.

Hawaii Sketch Comedy FestivalWhat are some of the can’t-miss events at this year’s festival?
Everything! Seriously, it’s gonna be a pretty kick-booty event with something for everybody. If you’re a writer or comedian looking to educate yourself on sketch comedy writing and improv, take our workshops. We bring in master instructors for improvhi all the time, but it’s very rare for us to have FOUR top instructors from the Upright Citizens Brigade at the same time! UCB has a very specific way of approaching comedy. If you’re a comedy nerd, then you’ll know it’s what they call “game” or “the game of the scene.”

Our shows are gonna be pretty awesome too. Our show on March 29th at the Doris Duke Theatre features live sketch comedy by performers from NYC, LA and even our own “Start Up Team” from Honolulu. And of course, in true “SNL” style, we’re super stoked to have Broadway veteran Shoshana Bean as our musical guest. I’m really excited for Hawaii to see these shows. You’ll for sure walk out of there thinking, “Well, DANG! That was a GOOD SHOW!”

Let’s say I have a “friend” who always wanted to try improv but is too terrified to try. What would you say to my “friend” to convince me — I mean him — to take a class?
I’d say, “F*C*ING DO IT!” You’ll always be a little terrified of it since you’re making things up on the spot, but that’s why we love it! I would also tell him to let go of the pressure to be funny all the time. That’s where people get really messed up.

I especially love teaching improv to “non-performers” because most of the time they are HILARIOUS! They don’t know what it means to be “funny” or to “get a laugh” so they’re not trying to look for it. They’re just saying what’s true to their real life… and LIFE CAN BE FUNNY! I’m starting up a beginning class in Kahala in April. Hit me up! Er… I mean, tell “him” to hit me up ;)

What’s on your Netflix cue?
I actually just watched a documentary last night called “That Guy… Who Was In That Thing” and thought it was FANTASTIC! Definitely a must see for all local actors.

mindy kalingWho would play you in the movie version of your life?
Mindy Kaling! I LOVE HER!

What would be on your perfect mix tape?
Side A (not necessarily in this order):
• Whitney Houston, “I Wanna Dance With Somebody”
• Michael Jackson, “Rock With You” and “The Way You Make Me Feel”
• Janet Jackson, “Escapade”
• Digital Underground, “Humpty Dance”
• Mariah Carey, “Vision of Love”
• Color me Badd, “I Wanna Sex You Up”
• Something by Prince
• Tom Petty, “Mary Jane’s Last Dance”
Side B:
• Toto, “Rosanna” (my current ring tone)

What’s the best piece of advice you got in all of your years of performing.
“Give them something to say ‘Yes’ to.” I think actors, comedians and creatives put so much pressure on themselves to be perfect. Especially in the audition room. A good thing to remember is that they (the casting director, producers, etc.) want you to be “the one” so they can call it a day. They don’t want to go through 100 more auditions. Step into the room, be yourself and do good work. That’s all you can do.

The 1st Hawaii Sketch Comedy Festival happens on March 28th and 29th at the Honolulu Museum of Art’s Doris Duke Theatre. Comedy workshops run from March 25th through 29th. To see the full schedule, visit hisketchfest.com.

 

A thank you letter to John Cusack

Say_Anything_iPhoneHi, John Cusack.

Is that really you?

If you’re reading this, you’re probably on set between takes and you’ve stumbled upon this column on your iPhone because you were Googling yourself. Not judging. We all do it.

So while I have your attention, I just wanted to say this:

Thank you.

Say_Anything_PenI’m fully aware that you’ve been in over 75 movies. That you’re a provocative voice in politics. That you’ve starred in critically acclaimed films like “The Grifters,” “Bullets Over Broadway” and “Being John Malkovich.” But what I really want to thank you for is this:

Thank you for always getting the girl.

That’s it. I figured out your secret weapon. I figured out why you’ve starred in some of my favorite films of all time.

For example, take 1985’s “Better Off Dead.” I was buying a lot of OXY 10 when I first saw this movie on VHS. This film had the audacity to satirize high school suicide and had the subtle nuance of a live-action Looney Toons. But I could relate to Lane Myer, a kid who didn’t quite fit in. An artistic loser to root for. A daydreamer longing for, and eventually getting, the girl.

It’s an archetype you perfected in “Say Anything.” Look, you grew up outside Chicago. I grew up in Hawaii. You’re 6’ 2.” I’m 5’ 8” in the mornings. You’ve got boyish good looks. I’m Asian. We have little in common. But you made me believe I could be Lloyd Dobler. You made me believe I could win a girl over with a mix tape (“In Your Eyes” was our prom theme song). You made me believe I could land a Diane Court. And just between you and me — I did. Ask my wife.

2000’s “High Fidelity” was a brilliant adaptation of Nick Hornby’s first novel. The film came out in my 20s, when I was failing miserably at being a proper grown-up. Your character, Rob Gordon, showed me I wasn’t alone. He was Lane Myer or Lloyd Dobler 10 years later, and he was nowhere near figuring it out either. We managed to grow up together without growing up.

One of my all-time favorite, little-known films of yours is “The Sure Thing.” On the page, this is a by-the-book, uptight-girl-meets-scruffy-guy 80s rom-com. But not many know that this was the film Rob Reiner made between “Spinal Tap” and “Stand By Me.” This charming little road movie was also the precursor to one of the greatest romantic comedies ever, Reiner’s “When Harry Met Sally.”

But more importantly, your Gib Gibson worked his way into my DNA. I didn’t realize it back then, but I modeled my high school persona around this guy. And to this day, I believe the smart, fresh-faced Daphne Zuniga-type always trumps the “Sure Thing” beauty of the Nicollette Sheridans of the world.

But my all-time favorite film of yours has to be “Grosse Pointe Blank.” You turned Lloyd Dobler into an assassin. And your writing helped inspire my own script, “The Rogues Gallery,” which ultimately became the star-studded, hot-mess of a film “Operation: Endgame” (that title still hurts). Just like you, I wanted to create a hitman movie with heart. One of us got it right.

So thank you, John Cusack. Thanks for the laughs. Thanks for the great performances. Thanks for being so darned likeable. Like Tom Hanks, Michael Keaton or the fine line of loveable everymen who came before you, I hope you find that role that eventually gets you the Oscar nomination that you deserve. I know that great film is in you. And I know that in that film, you’ll inevitably get the girl.

“Say Anything” screens at Consolidated Theatres Ward on Wednesday, Feb. 24 at 7 and 10 p.m. as part of the Hana Hou Picture Show.

Movie poster courtesy of MVNP