Sister Tse comes to New York through a Snakehead, a human smuggler. She gains favor with the matriarch of the family of crime and she rises the ranks quickly. Soon Tse must reconcile her success with her real reason for coming to America.
Snakehead is a gritty, raw, and emotional experience methodically conceived and assembled by filmmaker Evan Jackson Leong. I had the opportunity to speak one-on-one with Evan about taking creative liberties to create this world inspired by real-life snakehead, Sister Ping, casting, character development, and the importance of embracing failure.
This interview has been edited for content and clarity.
Sadie Dean: Was the seed for this story in particular?
Evan Jackson Leong: I was inspired by the true story of Sister Ping and her being a snakehead in New York Chinatown and smuggling hundreds of thousands of migrants from China to the New York Chinatown Fujianese population.
Sadie: Were you doing a lot of research on this community and about Sister Ping?
Evan: Yeah, when I wrote the script, I realized I needed to be in New York to really get a good sense and feel of what that Chinatown is like and also build my sort of rapport with the community so that I'm not just this guy going in and taking the story and really trying to engrain myself in the community. At the time from 2010 to 2015, all I did was take people to lunch - anywhere from gangsters to former FBI to people that were smuggled by her - just really trying to get a good sense and feel of what New York Chinatown represented and also building relationships. I think for me, it was important to find authenticity and then also figure out where I can really go with my artistic liberties.
Sadie: Absolutely and this is your first actually produced narrative screenplay?
Evan: Yeah, first narrative feature film. I've been working in documentaries and have done scripted work for the last 20 years. So, I thought narrative would be very similar but I quickly realized that it was not that similar and very different crafts, you know technically they're the same but storytelling-wise, very, very different animals and I really had to learn on the job to figure it out.
Sadie: Speaking of your documentary filmmaking background, you do such a great job of keeping the camera POV with Sister Tse throughout the whole film, which is something you can easily do in documentaries, a little tougher with narratives. What was the character development process like for both Sister Tse and Dai Mah?
Evan: When I look at Snakehead and kind of break it down and take a step out of it, it's almost like a Western, right? This drifter comes to town with this sort of underlying motivation and drive but enters into this system, fights and destroys it, and takes over the system. I'm a huge fan of Samurai films and Westerns and I wanted to make sure that she embodies a sort of stoic, dark character. And I wanted to make sure that we see that experience. That line, yet at the same time for me is making sure that we can find some vulnerability It will be you know, then otherwise she's just one dimensional. I think her arc of you know not coming for what the reasons why we think everyone comes to America, for her reasons for rising up in the system and ultimately destroying it. It's kind of the idea of what the American Dream is and how the ideas of dreams and goals that we have in life, and how when we finally maybe actually reach our dream or a goal we realized that it actually wasn't what we wanted or it was selfish. And ultimately for her, she realized how selfish it was to think like that.
Dai Mah’s character is very complex and very complicated. Her journey as the matriarch of Chinatown. There's just two sort of worlds that I like to play with it in terms of people from Asian cultures. It's really more about the whole versus the individual, while America is very much about the individual, we like to say we are family and everything but it also means our own journey as an American citizen. And Dai Mah keeps it old school with her family and her son and yet at the same time she uses the idea of the American dream to really pursue her own sort of self and individual wants and needs.
Sadie: It’s such an interesting parallel between the two characters and Sister Tse is one of most proactive protagonists I have seen in a movie in a very long time that really drives the story.
Evan: Thank you. Shuya Chang really brought that character to life. When she did her audition, I was like, ‘Oh, that’s it.’ There’s a fear and respect feeling that I had when she performed that I really wanted to make sure we captured.
Sadie: Great casting all around. What was that casting process like?
Evan: Fortunately, being in this industry for 20 years, we pretty know all of the Asian American actors [laughs] and producers and directors, we’re a small group of maybe 200-300 of us and so it’s always one call away from anybody. I think playing this game in this industry, when projects like this happen and these come along, people get excited because it's like, ‘oh, this is why I got into acting.’ I didn't get into acting to become the science delivery guy or the massage parlor girl, we did because we want to make movies like Scarface, Godfather, you know, things like that. Fortunately for me, my story gave that opportunity and people were excited about being part of this.
Casting obviously has its own ups and downs because we're Indie. People know this is going to be a hard job. But fortunately, enough of my network and my reputation made people want to sign on. Sung Kang, I've known him for over 20 years, and we've done other projects, documentary and scripted stuff together, but never on this level. So, it was truly a blessing to just have like my brother be there on set to guide me and also have a presence. And Jade Wu, she's just incredible - an amazing performance and a character, one of those that you just get to remember forever.
Sadie: So good!
Evan: So good, right?! It's sad because she's always been that good. No one's ever given her opportunities. She's been in this for 40-50 years now and she's the busiest she’s ever been, but all those other years ago of working, it's been a struggle and so it's exciting to see people are looking at diversity and more opportunities are abound but there's still a lot of work to do.
Sadie: And I'm glad that you were able to create something to give everyone that opportunity to shine. Knowing that you've totally immersed yourself in the New York Chinatown, did you have full access to things that you really wanted access to, or were there limitations that created some creative roadblocks?
Evan: Every day is a challenge because you don't have money to pay for any problems, right? The beauty of shooting there, t's just a set that is so rich. It's kind of cool because all the second generation are these young guys that are like around my age and they're taking over their parent’s restaurants and their business and a lot of the guys that are my age are trying to change that business and keep it relevant as time changes. And building all those relationships over that time, I got access to things that no one really could access, even if you had the money, you couldn't have access to some of these places because they just wouldn't let you. But because of becoming friends with these people, they gave me so much more. I think that’s really exciting because from my documentary background I know when you see something that's so rich and not a lot of people get access to, that I'm like, "This is what we need to tell. This is their setting and story."
Sadie: What inspired you to become a filmmaker?
Evan: I've always been kind of creative growing up in my life. I thought I was going to be a doctor from an early age. And in college, I took a documentary class and I just absolutely fell in love with the process and I realized all the creative things that I grew up doing, film was the ultimate medium. It combines music, art, visuals, acting, human emotions, all of that, and it combines all those mediums into one ultimate format which is film. It allowed me to dabble in every single art form that I love and to put it into one medium to ultimately just do what we all do, which is trying to tell a story. And that's really when I was like, ‘this is what I want to do.’
The reality was that this is in the 90s. And the only way to get into the film industry is if you went to film school, or you had an uncle or aunt in the industry, or your parents. So, at the time I just didn't even think it was a possibility, but when I took that documentary class, it really opened my mind. Fortunately, I met Justin Lin and he was a graduate film student. He took me under his wing. I got to see what he went through, making Better Luck Tomorrow, and then got into Sundance and just changed his life and his career trajectory, and I was like, ‘oh, that's pretty easy. I could do that.’ [laughs] He was an anomaly I think it really tested me all these years to see if I really wanted it that bad. It's a miracle that we're having this conversation right now because I know what it takes to make movies, how much effort and even to get it done to get people to see it, right? How many movies are made right now? Thousands of films are made that no one ever gets to see. I don’t take this lightly when I say I'm truly, truly lucky and fortunate that this movie is getting out to the world.
Sadie: General advice for first-time filmmakers?
Evan: I would say embrace the failures. There's going to be a lot of failures and those failures are what makes you grow, and I think this film you know, for me, I made a lot of mistakes, and rather than running away from them, I embraced them and ate them up and took the pain. And I think that's what kept me going through this process because I just kept seeing how much more I learned by doing that. It's hard to make a movie and put yourself out there. But when you do, when you earn those stripes then that's when you actually get to really grow.
Samuel Goldwyn Films and Roadside Attractions will release the crime thriller Snakehead in Theaters, on Digital and On Demand on October 29, 2021.