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Navigating Your Career: Tips from 8 AAPI Screenwriters

By May 20, 2021October 28th, 2021No Comments

May is Asian American and Pacific Islander (AAPI) heritage month. It comes hot on the heels of the 93rd Oscars where AAPI creatives made Hollywood history.

Chloé Zhao is the first woman of Asian heritage to win Best Director. Youn Yuh-jung is the first Korean woman to achieve Best Supporting Actress. Steven Yeun is the first Asian American man to be recognized with a Best Actor nomination. It’s encouraging and inspiring to see Asian and Pacific Islander storytellers making strides in Hollywood. 

AAPI screenwriters are also on the rise and responsible for bringing diverse voices to the screen. Read on for gold nuggets of wisdom from writers and filmmakers that are bringing Asian American and Pacific Islander stories forward. 

Alice Wu: Find Creative Ways To Motivate Yourself To Write

Honored as one of 2021’s Most Impactful Asians & Pacific Islanders in Gold House’s A100, Alice Wu is a writer, director, and producer. SAVING FACE, her first feature, won the CAPE (Coalition of Asian Pacifics in Entertainment) screenwriting award in 2001. It’s based on the filmmaker’s own experience of coming out as a lesbian to her Chinese family.

Her second feature, THE HALF OF IT, is a queer rom-com currently on Netflix that’s loosely based on the story of Cyrano de Bergerac. She shared with Refinery29 that she used an unconventional motivational tool to write the script in record time:

“I wrote a check for $1,000 to the NRA, gave it to my friend, and I said, I’m giving myself 5 weeks. On August 8, if this is not a fully written script and two people read it and confirm, you are sending that check in. And then I told all my friends. It was the most stressful five weeks of my life. It was like having a thousand agents breathing down my neck.” 

Sujata Day: Telling Your Story Can Empower Others

Multi-hyphenate actor-writer-director-producer Sujata Day was influenced by another multi-hyphenate, Issa Rae. Working as an actor on Rae’s web series AWKWARD BLACK GIRL, Day saw firsthand how Rae didn’t wait to be called on by Hollywood to tell her story.

During an interview with Complex, Day recalls her process of witnessing Rae’s journey, which inspired Day to write, direct, produce, and star in her first feature, DEFINITION PLEASE:

“We would just have very casual conversations about, ‘Oh, I’m writing my Black girl story, you should write your brown girl story.’ I think just from going on this journey of AWKWARD BLACK GIRL to getting a text from Issa when she was shooting the pilot for INSECURE on HBO…Just being on set for the shooting of the pilot and realizing what we had come from…it was inspiring enough to push me to tell my own stories in my own way.”

Mindy Kaling: Watch More Than You Write

Mindy Kaling has been on both sides of the camera as another multi-hyphenate in film and television. Where she used to be the only woman of color on staff, she’s seen the increasing demand for more inclusive stories and diverse representation on screen. 

Speaking to Variety, Kaling’s advice for aspiring screenwriters might surprise you:

“My advice for writers who are trying to get into the entertainment industry is to watch more than you write. I think a lot of times when you’re young, you feel like output is your only way to get out of your current situation, but I found that when I was younger and I would do that…my writing just got worse. And I think that taking in a lot, reading a lot, watching old shows, that really helped me.”

Christina Strain: Representation Matters

Christina Strain is a television and film writer of Korean and Caucasian heritage. Her feature FINDING ‘OHANA is streaming on Netflix, and she’s currently working on the hit fantasy series SHADOW AND BONE. The show features Alina, a biracial female protagonist. Strain has spoken about the eye-opening experience of working on the show, realizing she’d never written a pilot with a Hapa (half Asian) lead.

In an interview with LadyJenevia on YouTube, Strain emphasized the importance of Asian characters receiving top billing on screen:

 “It’s amazing how important it is to, one, see yourself represented at all, and two, like understand the representation that you are seeing. …. The tricky thing about representation is there is no version of representation that is a one-size-fits-all perfect thing for anybody. 

But the sheer fact that you can see a person as number one on the call sheet is a huge thing, because somebody out there is going to see that, and it is going to occur to them that that is possible. … I am a half Korean woman who grew up without a lot of representation on TV, but the little bits that I saw meant the world to me.”

Tze Chun: Protect the Diversity in Your Script

Tze Chun is the showrunner for the upcoming GREMLINS animated prequel series on HBO Max with credits on his resume that include GOTHAM, LITTLE AMERICA, and ONCE UPON A TIME. He actively supports the AAPI creative community through his Twitter account by boosting an Asian creator every day.

This is Chun’s sage advice for screenwriters concerned about whitewashing when selling a project to Hollywood:

Diane Paragas: The Path To Getting A Feature Made Is Not a Straight Line

Diane Paragas is a writer/director versed in narrative and documentary films. YELLOW ROSE, her first narrative feature, centers on an undocumented Filipina teen that dreams of a career in country music. She wrote a draft of the script, but it wasn’t until years later that the film was made. 

In an interview with From the Intercom, the filmmaker reveals how the film came to be:

“I wrote a script, just probably not that good early on, and I didn’t have that much experience so I kind of put it aside, and then I directed [other projects]. … I met Cecilia [producer], and I think at that point we really were solidly trying to pursue this movie.

We, like any film, decided to make the feature script into a short film as a proof of concept. So we did get funding for that, and it took a couple of years. … The short enabled us to win a grant … but unfortunately, [the film’s crew] had to wait for me on this one because I had decided to cast Eva Noblezada. We had to wait for her to finish her Broadway run of MISS SAIGON.

So it’s always been a little bit of hurry up and wait, and then wait, and then it’s happening and then it’s not.”

Lulu Wang: Focus On Your Passion For A Story, Not Its Subtitles

Writer/director Lulu Wang is best known for THE FAREWELL. The film won an AFI award and is lauded for bringing an authentic Asian American narrative to the screen. The American dramedy is a bilingual film with the majority of the dialogue spoken in Mandarin. In April 2020, Wang hosted a Tweet-a-Thon in collaboration with Ava DuVernay’s ARRAY and commented on creating a film with subtitles:

Kumail Nanjiani: More AAPI Storytellers Are Needed

Variety hosted a conversation in 2020 in honor of Asian Pacific Heritage month with AAPI creatives Kumail Nanjiani, Hasan Minhaj, Jon M. Chu, Ally Maki, and Lulu Wang. Nanjiani made a salient point, that more AAPI stories are needed:

“We need more voices and we just need more representatives from all our different communities doing stuff, because otherwise there’s so much pressure on any one story to represent a whole group of people, and that’s just impossible. … On-screen representation is important, but I think writing, directing, those things are very, very important because we just need more people telling their stories. If someone says, ‘Oh, you know that hit Asian movie?’ I want people to be like, which one?”

Watch the full conversation below:

Asian American and Pacific Islander stories and storytellers are needed. In the PBS series PAST FORWARD: CONVERSATIONS WITH AMERICAN EXPERIENCE, filmmaker Li-Shun Yu spoke during the THE ROOTS OF ANTI-ASIAN HATE IN AMERICA conversation: “If we don’t tell the story, then it’s going to be told about us and framed in a different way.” Authentic AAPI perspectives offer the diversity and fresh stories audiences crave. Tell your story, write your script, and direct your film. The world needs it!

Get your TV Pilot in front of our great panel of judges, including Tze Chun! Early Deadline: June 15th.

screenwriter Joanna KeJoanna Ke is an award-winning, half Taiwanese actor, writer, producer, and trained sword fighter. Her foundation as a creative producer and screenwriter is built on nearly a decade of experience as a professional script reader in development and acquisitions. She studied screenwriting with the late, great Syd Field, and as an actor, has had the honor of working with director Cameron Crowe. Her films have won BEST ACTION and BEST FANTASY awards, and her acting has won BEST PERFORMANCE and BEST VILLAIN accolades.

Wielding her broadsword is a favorite, both on and off camera.

Connect with Joanna on her websiteTwitter, and Instagram.