My life in the pictures

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Director Michael Kang on the set of West 32nd. ()
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Edmund Lee

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On a cool, stubbornly sunny evening in April 2007 I was standing outside the Loews Theater on 34th Street, a dark suit and a Liberty tie sewn tightly around me, my wife Elizabeth, dressed more confidently in a jewel-toned column. The movie actor John Cho of Harold and Kumar fame and more recently of the revised Star Trek franchise stood next to me, along with an equally beautifully made-up gaggle surrounding us.

“Looks good,” he said, his shoulders cresting and dipping with generic Hollywood facility. I am unsure of what exactly he is referring to—the crowd now gathering, my outfit, or more expansively the general scene, which was the Tribeca Film Festival. “Yeah, this will play,” John said to me, his voice sharp and metered, even a little anxious. We were here for a movie’s world premiere, and my sartorial resolve was a matter of a bit of personal pride. It was my movie we were here to see, and his affirmations pushed aside my last bit of diffidence.

It was my first film, and probably, I thought to myself even then, my last. This was “my movie,” because I wrote it, but that that is also a vanity. I wrote it based largely on a series of stories and reporting I had done as a journalist at The Village Voice some years prior, and despite what many ink-stained hopefuls might presume was the start of a glorious evolution, my brief sideline into the business of screencraft was in truth something else. It was, in fact, a stripping, a humbling, an epigram of crushing disappointments.

But we were all pretty impressed with ourselves that night. The line was long, eager and nattily dressed, and despite my hesitations, I allowed myself this moment of glamor as I looked into the crowd, which was made up mostly of those whom I had suspected, and hoped, would come. Young people, mostly Asian, from Queens or Manhattan, arty types, white hipsters as well as the general white-collar collective; the idiom of this hodgepodge of creatures and cultures is exactly the idiom of my movie. It is a strange thing to suddenly be in the position of waving, to no one in particular, but I enjoyed what I knew was probably the closest I would get to anything resembling a public triumph.

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The film was well attended. As the last frame of the movie wiped from the screen and the credits started to scroll, the cast and crew were ushered down to the floor by people in matching T-shirts and flashlights for the Q and A portion of the evening, a stock item to most film festivals and often a key draw, as the sometimes spectacular people behind the film pop to life. For the film’s lesser beings, this is also one of the few instances where you can receive the public accolades that typically come with a film that despite (or because) of its independent-sized budget achieves a passel of prestige.

That was wonderful. Really interesting. Different. I was wondering, how did you come up with the idea for the film?

“Thank you very much. Glad you liked it. I guess I’d been thinking about this for a while, something I had tried to get off the ground, but it didn’t really come together until I started working with Ed— Ed? Ed, where are you? Get down here man.”

I made my way down the aisle as the director continued his account—“I’ll tell you that it was just something I wanted to do and it took a long while. The idea of a film set in New York about Asian gangsters wasn’t hard to come up with, but the details made everything, and we hope that’s what you saw on screen tonight, and...oh, here’s Ed. Everyone, the screenwriter.”

I had dumbly remained in my seat when the festival hands shooed us down. I was neither cast nor crew, and for the first time during my aberrant adventure in cinema-land, I encountered a comical failure of ontology. For the thirty-two days the film was in production, I was invited to be on set by the good graces of the director, an invitation I later realized I should have declined.

ON THE SET I SNAKED MY WAY BETWEEN CATERING TABLES AND SOUND equipment, and saw the overwhelming constraints of cinema’s design: the matters of its lighting and acoustics, its set construction and location hunting, camera angles and acting whims, the endless director commands to the painfully iterative process of take after take, all working to contradict a creation. It is both a chaos and a wonder and ultimately an act of quantum patience.

I quickly saw that a writer has no place on a movie set—it is an axiom that has the unfortunate ring of exaggeration. It is also literally true. There are no trailers or chairs or rooms marked for writers, what is called “holding” in filmmaker’s cant, and I often found myself in everyone’s way, as the sets were often tight and wired to the gills with power lines and impressively thick tethers. I crouched in corners or hovered over the director’s shoulder whenever space permitted. For some reason, I persisted in maintaining my presence, which I guess was my own childishly passive way of insisting myself onto the film.

From the first day of filming onward, I watched as I saw my maker's marks, the careful and commanding prose, the rhythm and hiccup that define writing, being rubbed out by the torque-y rhythms of filmmaking. There’s no room on a set for the writer to order language, even as cast and crew reform your every word. This was troubling to me as writing is not a collaborative anything. It is a greedy solipsism. Filmmaking, on the other hand, is an orgy art.

When I had learned my place I stayed anyway. Maybe I thought that my simply being there would somehow substantiate my provenance over my vanishing narrative. Or maybe my very presence caused some kind of Heisenberg blitz between subject and object. Nonetheless, of this much I am certain: A writer on a movie set is a redundancy; a remainder from “pre-production”; a physical hazard.

I had learnt my lesson well enough that by the time of the Tribeca Q and A, I couldn't shake it.

“Ed, you want to say something?”

I shook my head as I walked down to the floor of the theater. I decided my value, even here, was largely notional.

So what did you base all the gang stuff on? Is it real? Is that really how it is?

“First, let’s be clear that this is fiction, it’s a genre pic. But we had to base it on something, otherwise, we wouldn’t know how to show things. It’s real in that a lot of the scenes and characters are inspired by real people and real events. Which we got from Ed’s reporting.”

This question is for the screenwriter: So the prostitution parlors, the gambling and loan sharking stuff...did you actually hang out with these gangsters? How did you meet them?

<< The author on the set of West 32nd.

 

IN SEPTEMBER 1994, A FEW MONTHS AFTER I GRADUATED FROM New York University, I got a call to come into The Village Voice to see if I could work in their Listings department, entering event information into a database. I was told it would only be for two weeks, but I would get $10 an hour, which after three months as an intern at New York magazine opening mail and navigating Lexis-Nexis for resume compensation, was both a significant offer and an important moment in any would-be journalist’s career: the plain, noble fact of getting paid.

Before long the Voice tested me with a clutch of cast-off stories: video game writers and amateur arm-wrestling tourneys; the line for Beck concerts; the internet, which back then was a media quirk (it may still be today). Meanwhile, other reporters were clocking cover stories on club kid murderers and Russian mobsters. But the paper also printed pieces on established moviemakers and downtown artists who were going beyond the realm of pop art and into brazen capitalism. The Voice, which had been known as the paper that specialized in covering all those sidelined subcultures, from slum-lord victims to transsexual racecar drivers (look it up, Lexis-Nexis), had started to veer into New York magazine, even New York Times territory.

In 1997 the Voice picked Don Forst to manage the newsroom, and I came to admire him for his unequivocal manner, his famously unapologetic sexism and racism, which really was a form of affection on his part. Don was formerly the editor of the now-defunct New York Newsday that won two Pulitzer Prizes under his reign, and the Voice’s merry band of freaks I think amused him more than anything.

He was brought into the office on a perfunctory tour right away, and a quorum had formed. Someone ventured to ask who he thought the Voice reader was. Anyone looking at Don’s c.v. (a theoretical entity, surely) would see it as a quixotic rundown of the city’s tabloids. He had edited Tom Wolfe and Jimmy Breslin. He was once married to Gael Greene (who, he told me, had occasionally published under the pen name Storm Verde, a gossip that struck me as brilliant and therefore too good to be true—but it is). The question was a challenge more than it was a genuine inquiry, and he knew it, so he answered by quoting Ben Hecht, a former editor of his, one of journalism’s defining molds but also a prominent Hollywood screenwriter.

“He once told me, ‘Lemme tell you something, kid,’” Don said. “‘You gotta grab the reader by the throat. He’s on the train. It’s hot. He’s trying to hit on his secretary; she’s not giving him the time of day. His wife is mad at him. His kid needs braces; he doesn’t have the money. The guy next to him stinks. It’s crowded. You want him to read your story? You better make it interesting.’”

He'd stolen Hecht's Park Row bluster, and fascinated most of the room and perhaps even alerted some of us to the possibility that our little paper could recapture, or at least imitate, journalism practiced as a kind of fuggy romance with the city.

He hooked me right away, and saw it, so he assigned me stories, sometimes calling my home at seven in the morning. One of his assignments, a ridiculous inquiring photographer piece titled, “Should the Indians Have Killed the Pilgrims?” timed to Thanksgiving, Don slapped on the cover, a choice that confused everyone, including me. But I felt flush with the pride of anointment.

Late one Monday night, one of the editors found me at my cubicle and asked me to look into reports of a group of kids in Queens who had gone on some shooting rampage. They were all Asian, which the editor thought was unusual. (So did I, despite me.) I dug, and found that it was more than a single incident or an outlying group of kids. There were, in fact, competing tribes of Asian kids, each with its own cache of guns and various weapons. Most of them were Chinese and Korean, a few Vietnamese, but they were all middle- to lower-class residents of Queens’ various enclaves, from Elmhurst and Flushing to Francis Lewis and Sunset. I dived into court records and found a trove of cases that had been prosecuted in the late 80s up to the then present 90s, both from the U.S. Attorney’s Office and the Manhattan and Queens district attorneys. These “kids” varied in age from 14 to 40 and were prosecuted for a range of crimes, from petty theft to assassination. They were gangsters. They had ties to similar groups across the country, dealing in prostitution as well as the practice of human trafficking managed by a special branch of gangsters called Snake Heads. Money lending schemes were run by “wholesalers,” a hidden conglomerate of Asian community associations that lent money to other money lenders at a usurious 100 per cent interest rate. The kids that were apprehended by the police and reported by the tabloids were somehow caught in a random sweep, and though it seemed like a peculiar incident, they were in fact part of a large and resolute operation.

I was encouraged to pursue the story, so I sought the advice of the Voice’s main mob reporter then, Bill Bastone, who graciously offered a few law enforcement sources. He was part of that Voice tradition where fellow reporters helped one another whenever asked. (He went on to found The Smoking Gun.) I began mining information by visiting people in prison, and as cynical as that sounds (it is), my unannounced visits to the incarcerated were welcome chances for conversation, and a chance at a kind of revenge for some of them who pointed fingers and revealed names. I cut a few small stories into the paper focusing on the kids under indictment as a way to soften the ground for a larger piece. After a few months I had secured some first-hand sources, and based on their tellings and court documents, I filed my opus, feeling assured of a cover distinction.

That Monday night (closing night) after I had filed the story, Don called me into his office and poured me some bourbon in a coffee cup. The brown astringent ate away at the seam of glue in the cup and I had to hold it askew.

“We have to hold the story,” he said, taking a swig. Without quite looking at me, he said, “It’s not all there. We’re gonna wait on it.”

He never offered an explanation beyond that. He kept my story in limbo. It was a reversal I could not explain, and others expressed surprise over this turn, but perhaps we were all used to it by now. Don putting a cheeky inquiring photographer story on the cover while consigning a feature-length report on a little-known subculture of criminals to the HOLD queue of our aging Atex publishing system were equally confounding acts of editorial judgment.

“What are you gonna do?” Bill Bastone said when I told him. “This happens all the time. Editors can be dicks. Don’t worry about it. Just do your next story.”

And so.

I HAD SEPARATELY BEEN WORKING ON A FEATURE ON INDEPENDENT filmmakers in New York, and one of my story’s subjects happened to be someone who was about my age. We were both Korean. We were both the sons of scientists. (Yes, I know—the odds, crazy.) During the course of the interview we discussed our mutual love of 70s crime movies, Dog Day Afternoon, French Connection, Mean Streets, films that had at their core that fibrous aesthetic, a heightened kind of set design or a muted special effect, not the purported deference to authenticity that film critics so often championed. We clicked.

His name was Michael Kang. After graduating from N.Y.U. film school, he made a series of short films, screening them in bars and clubs around the city. He was a budding impresario of sorts, and in fact he was already sort-of famous by the time I met him. I saw him late one night on a television commercial for Virgin Cola (now no longer) that featured unscripted citizens politicking on soap boxes. (The ad premise was these were unvarnished truths, like the soda.) Mike’s public rant had to do with why you never see Asian guys dancing in music videos. It was brilliantly forward and embarrassing and also secretly satiric and I noticed all of his intentions in it and I knew I had to somehow meet him. You may consider that strangely hopeful, but for those of us who live in this very limited cipher of urban Asian American writers and artists, I knew it would happen. And so it did.

I finished my interview and closed my notepad. Mike looked at me and said, “We should hang out.”

I said, “Sure.” (This was the time before “bro-mance” was a word and thereby a safe concept, so I had to maintain chaste distance.)

“You like the Voice?”

“It’s alright.”

“You working on any other stories?”

I told him about my recent life trailing Asian gangsters, and then he suggested the obvious thing that had been quietly brewing in all the inbetween spaces in our conversation.

“I’ve never written a script,” I said.

“Neither have I.”

“But you went to film school.”

“Never did anything like this,” he said, almost happily, and I understood. Our mutual ignorance made for safe partnerships.

So Mike and I pored over the reams of research I had gathered and began formulating the outlines of a story. Absurdly, we sat next to each other in front of a single keyboard and passed it back and forth with every few lines of dialogue. For writers, this is the equivalent of unzipping your trousers and measuring your respective members to record both numbers and then subtracting the difference between the two and then lingering on that difference for a while to consider the implications.

We met inconsistently, a few days each month, until we changed tack. We decided we’d each write a scene or two on our own and then pass it back and forth via email. This went on for years until we tried a new system that more resembled a news operation. I would file scenes and he would offer feedback and make edits on the text. It was a good arrangement, allowing us to mount multiple drafts. This introduction to the idea of writing as a collective exercise didn't shock my naivete; but because our thoughts and intentions were so uncannily in sync, I never felt I had to concede much.

Through the course of our marathon writing partnership, Mike had on his own written a smaller feature, about a boy who grows up in his family’s seedy, hourly-rate motel. He submitted his script to the Sundance writer’s lab, where it was accepted. He flew out to Utah where Robert Redford took him horseback riding; professional screenwriters polished his script; film producers got his movie off the ground, and it eventually played at the Sundance Film Festival, where he became a made man.

I, meanwhile, had changed newsrooms multiple times. (In all now five.) But we still kept in touch, had, in fact, become friends. Also, in a way, our continued connection was as much because of a tacit competition we had going to see who would flinch first. Neither of us wanted to be the one to cry uncle on our now-many-years-old project, shattering our hopes of some Hollywood deliverance.

But Mike pulled us out of that, cashed in his Sundance calling card and pushed our script in front of every producer with whom he could get a meeting. As with all independent films, the money was cobbled together through various fronts of small producers and slightly larger ones. The total budget was just under $3 million. (As the writer, I didn’t make enough on the deal to leave my job, but I did take a few weeks off to hang around the set.) The biggest catch for us was landing John Cho, who by then had become a sought out actor for both television and film. (He is currently set to be in the next Star Trek film.) As Hollywood math goes—and by that metonym I refer to all films whether studio or independent—money materializes when an actor of note agrees to terms. More often than not a Catch-22 can result from such an inert process, but thankfully, we didn’t suffer any of that. John Cho signed on as soon as he read the script.

IN AUGUST 2006, MIKE STARTED SHOOTING West 32nd in Manhattan, Staten Island, and Queens. The title of the film ought to be an easy tipoff for any native, but for those who do not know, it refers to a single Manhattan block improbably cluttered with Korean restaurants, delis, coffee shops, and other fronts of paraphernalia. But what most people don’t know, and in a way is the nut of our film, is that the upper floors of most of these buildings conceal various mafia dens (and still do).

During the first week of filming I asked him how he dealt with the bedlam of multiple creative hands all touching a single work.

“I feel that my job as the director is to basically stay out of people’s way so they can do their jobs,” he said. It wasn’t just a winking line. He held himself to it, but it also caused problems. He was on occasion frustrated by his inability to formulate a scene due to a quirk of production, a forgotten cue or prop, or a limit in time. This is why filmmaking is a notoriously redundant craft—shooting multiple takes is a paranoid hedge against the turbulence of production.

So there’s a strange apparitional quality to seeing a screenwork put to live action. A writer’s words can transfigure wildly in an actor’s mouth, sometimes for the better, but altogether accidentally. A script is ultimately a nervous hem-haw, a ream waiting for cut-up and is therefore the perfect post-modern machine: it is replicable, repeatable, and easily propagated. But if a film is to have an author, if a name has to attach, it is rarely the writer’s.

I have from time to time turned to a particular memory from my limited adventure in cinema-land, if for no other reason than it stands as evidence that I simply could be wrong. I was not present for this moment, but I had heard about it afterward. I wasn’t able to make it to the set on a particular day of filming, so I met up with Mike and John afterward for a drink. A beer in hand, John turned to me and said, “We missed you on set today. You weren’t around.”

“Yeah, I know, but I’m glad to be missed,” I said. “So what did I miss?”

He laughed, then turned serious. “We filmed the bar scene today, it was going great. It was just running, you know, I had all the lines running through my head, and then I stopped and turned to Mike and said, ‘I can tell, this is an Edmund scene, I can sense it, I can feel it. I can hear him all over it. It’s totally him.’ And then I realized," he said as he turned to me, "you weren’t there.”

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