Learning by doing

I woke up this morning noticing a bunch of new messages at strange Beijing hours, plus a new contact invite. 

Another student director contacted me to fix his thesis short.

After collaborating with two student directors there, their program chair and the other screenwriting professor who’s no feminazi seem to approve of my craft.

This third director is someone I’ve been dying to work with.

Before switching to filmmaking, he had been working in advertising for the most part of his adult life.  Having looted every “big deal” advertising award on the face of the earth, the guy decided to switch industry. 

Just like that, he quit his ECD (Executive Creative Director) job in a 4A agency in Shanghai. He applied and attained his special talent visa (EB1-A) within a month. Then he simply immigrated his family to the US, his wife and their three-year-old daughter. 

I love his personal story as well as the short film he pitched me. Just like that, I landed my third short film project within a month. 

By end of December, I would be able to see him and the first student director in person in Shanghai. Without fearing that I may become cocky or expensive (cocky no; but expensive, for sure), they confessed just how hard it was to find decent writers (let alone good) and they want to keep working with me in the future. Without even seeing his story in my words, the guy said he trusts me and believes that I would do a good job. 

If I had 20% chance to get myself back in the US within a year and half, now that number can at least beat Trump’s latest approval rate. 

But most of all, I love discovering the differences of people’s creative minds. I used to roll my eyes when a director started to describe how he would frame a scene, and how much in love he was with the color, the tone, the mood… “Dude, those are fine, but they don’t help me to move the story forward!!” Now I relish their visual talent which I haven’t yet developed.  

I finally began to appreicate when Prof. Howard Suber told us that film is a collaborative business. Because when the right people meet their right match, things just start to click and work. UCLA helped me make my tool. But these collaborations make a skeleton key out of that tool.  

 

Yours truly,
YZ

A round of drinks

Not on me. My tabs were taken care of through and through.

Even after I told my friends that I just landed a rewriting gig.

“Don’t you dare.” One friend said.

A group of us UCLA old-timers remnisented about our orientation day at the UCLA Film School from three years ago, what we still remember to this day…

I pointed out the obvious fact that the four of us met as a group on that very day and have remained friends since.

They asked me what I would miss most about LA, what I migth expect in Shanghai…

I said, “Who would have thought that I could meet people like you and call you my friends, you creative minds? And who would know my own people back home might judge me because I’m not the me they know from three years ago?”

Most of my friends here tonight are and/or can write comedies, so everyone was laughing, or fake-crying at best.

“You’re one of the nicest coolest person I’ve met in LA.” I was told at the end of our gathering.

“Really?” My eyeballs were buldging out, as if someone just said, “Look, UFO!”

I heard my friend repeating the fact that I’m a nice kind person ‘dryly,’ as if it’s so obvious that everyone knows.

A thoughtful friend ordered a cake with a candle.

“Make a wish.” She encouraged.

“It’s her birthday?”

“No. Dummy.”

Before I blew off the candle, I said a little prayer. And it has something to do with LA. I will just leave at that.

Here are some photos from my UCLA Film School’s orientation day back in the fall of 2015.

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I’m so proud that I have met you, the kindest, wittiest people I’ve met out here. Angels are in L.A. after all.

 

Yours truly,
YZ

It’s okay

I workshopped my first full-length feature script written at UCLA today.

Truth is, I hadn’t gone back to the story until most recently. I wanted to do a pass on it before sending it to the event organizer.

But I didn’t. The selling. The packing. The meetings. The podcasting… Plus, I knew if I started working on the story, I would have torn it to pieces. I would have detested so much that I would just call it quits.

So I didn’t. When I couldn’t procrastinate no more. I sent the script as it was.

I again, didn’t go to bed until after midnight last night, as if to dare if I would be able to make it to the meeting this morning. I woke up pretty early but didn’t get up until I knew I couldn’t sleep in no more. I gave myself just enough time to get dressed and called a Lyft.

Thankfully, I got there just in time. It would have been ironic if the writer was late for her own script, right?

They asked me how I wanted to use the next two hours, because everyone had read it.

Shit. They did?!?

Isn’t that the name of the game for the writer’s workshop?

I didn’t want to hear all of it. So I asked the group of 14 to read the ten pages from the beginning of Act 2, Page 30.

Then it was the critiques. I started sweating. It’s been a while since I was in a workshop setting like this. I felt naked. But those people read my script and wanted to help me to get better. That’s so big of them.

Here is what really happened:

  • I didn’t bleed to death.
  • People got excited about the potential of the story when I pitched them my plan for the next rewrite.
  • I got some pretty interesting notes and ideas.
  • We went to Panini in Beverly Hills for lunch.
  • I made new friends. Two would be featured on my podcast, after my move next Saturday.
  • A Chinese-American author/singer/mother gave me a ride to the gym later.

 

It’s not terrifying at all.

It’s okay… No, it’s fantastic! I’ll do it again till I get used to this feeling of stark nakedness.

To quote my new author friend:

“It’s time we Asian women make some noise.

 

Yours truly,
YZ

PS. Clocked in 460 words. Tallying 62,214 words. 13.89 days remaining.

Never judge a book by its cover

I talked with the classmate from the screenwriting class during recess yesterday evening.

The lad is from Ireland. He was in finance for 13 years. Eight years in London. Another five on Wall Street. Still carrying a gruff Irish accent, he dons the same weathered baby-shit brown tee to the class. I would’ve never thought in a gazillion years that this lad in front of me used to be in suit and tie all day long for the most part of his adult life.

“I never wanted to be in finance.” He cut to the chase. “Money was good. But I was miserable.”

He pulled me in right away. A storyteller he is.

“I went there to make just enough money so I can live off later to write my own films and get them made cheap. I know my stories would never go through the studio pipeline. I have savings.  Now I want to apply for film school to get ahead with my pursuit.”

Wow.

“How do you like your film school experience?” He marched ahead with the big question.

I explained that if he wanted to write lots of scripts, UCLA Film School is a no-brainer. Because of its quarter-system. When I was there, I wrote one full-length feature script every ten weeks, along with other classes like Howard Suber’s Film Structure, and miscellaneous classes like producing, acting. I did feature and TV pilot in one quarter plus other classes and TA. It was sheer madness. But I learned about my limits and potentials.

He was concerned about the odds of getting in. Wall Street has its mark on him.

“There are thousands of applicants, right?”

“But you are a very good writer.”

I think he’s playing a good hand. Of course, there is luck and other x-factors. But how would you know if you don’t try?

We had to dash back, because the class had started. Scanning his baby-shit tee again, I beamed.

Good to meet you, Ex-Wall-Street-Wannabe-Filmmaker from Ireland.

 

Yours truly,
YZ

What it takes

A friend in NY called me last night. Just a while ago, he was studying film scoring at NYU, and I was doing screenwriting at UCLA.

We both come from China. We knew each other through a mutual friend. To be frank, the name of that friend eludes me now, just like most folks I used to call friends back home.

It was 2015. We both just got accepted. We had great expectations. We wanted to shatter America with our vision and mission before we had any clue how real artists live, and just how an aspiring expat artist makes a living.

CUT TO: THREE YEAS LATER

He said he’s in a dilemma. The job offers here are just a tad away from starving in NY. But there is an exciting offer back home. The company that is hiring will go public very soon. The package will include some portion of the initial offering.

What should he choose?
Keep SLAVING here?
Or, fly back and SOAR?

Ang Lee is my friend’s alma mater. Friend added—

Everybody mentions Ang Lee. But nobody tells you the staggering number of people whom you never know because life finally crushes on them. And they are just as talented as Lee if not more.

I asked him where he prefers staying in a long run.

“Here, of course.” He admitted.

I told him my concerns for artists to stay true to themselves back home. Because back home, you won’t have sufficient peer support. It would be easy to get lost, again. And then, not many people back home understand your vision. What would you do then?

Here we are, at another crossroad in our life.

But here is what I do know—
Not one choice is less courageous. We have gone this far. We have put our dream to test, unlike most “poor spirits who neither enjoy nor suffer much,” as Teddy Roosevelt said.

Just like life, the conversation didn’t lead to an answer. He asked me for my perspective. I gladly offered.

Two artists. Heart to heart. No glam filters. No photoshop. Just raw cuts underneath the facade.

Three years ago, I despised anyone who yielded to reality. Today, I just listen. Because tomorrow, I may choose it myself.

I told my friend I’ve stopped using social media. I have no instagram. I don’t update my Facebook or WeChat Moments. I still have the accounts, because I may use them to reach out to people. Since I don’t know what I’m missing out, I keep my fear at bay. So I can sit here and write this blog. So I can keep making art.

Just what it takes to get there, I still don’t know. But I do have a better sense. Three years later.

Here is I will tell my younger myself from three years ago—

Your faith will be questioned.
Your passion will be burned.
Your perseverance will be tested.
You will learn so much about the craft. And even more about yourself.
You think you’re pretty strong now. But you will emerge stronger.
It’s going to be the most difficult thing you’ve ever done.

Scared?
Me, too.

Here, I’m leaving in a minute. You don’t have to come.
If you do, buckle up and enjoy.

And she did.

 

Yours truly,
YZ

Tired, but not exhausted

It’s been a long day. A little too long.

The brainstorming meeting at the Chinese director’s place was truly fruitful. The only downside was, I didn’t come home until after 11:30 yesterday.  Then I started working on the Podcast Fellowship project. I’ve promised myself to show up every day. So I had to, no matter how late.

I wanted to go to bed. But I have an early lecture the next morning at 9. I wanted to run through the notes a few times before I felt I could have a good handle on the things I was going to share.

I had insomnia. I didn’t fall asleep until after 2:30 am. It was just a little lecture for some junior high school kids from China. But it was also my first public keynote in a long time.

I dragged myself up again at 5:40. Meditated for 10 mins. And started working on the slides sequence. New ideas rushed towards me. I kept tweaking until 7:15 am. I had to leave in about an hour. I gotta get ready.

By the time I got to the Rolfe Hall at UCLA, it was 8:40. Still ahead of time. I got the props I asked the team to prepare. Then suggested we rearranged the tables and the chairs to get the normally reticent Chinese students.

My lecture to the Chinese students from Beijing was well-received. I felt a wave of acknowledgement that had abandoned me when I was so focused to be a writer. I think that was also why I started working on my podcast. I craved to be under the spotlight. I knew I captivated my Gen-Y audience who’s famous for their 8-seconds attention span. Most important, they seemed to be really listening and learning. It felt great.

Then the Chinese filmmaker couple picked me up. We drove far past San Gabriel to the law firm regarding my current visa situation, maybe what the lawyer proposed was my best and ideal choice. In a few weeks, I may need to make a decision.

After the Chinese couple sent their car to the dealer, we Lyfted back to UCLA. Them for their daughter’s summer camp presentation. I went to get my thermos I forgot in the classroom.

But there was one last stop. The bank. The couple needed me to be their interpreter. It was a simple case. But took a long time to get the details right. When they processed the last few steps, I deposited my lecture fee.

By the time we got to their place for dinner, I had eaten nothing for 18 hours. Probably my longest strike I could remember. Strangely, I feel alive. I come to know that I’m on the right path, even though the going gets tougher. Since October 31, 2016, the day my former landlady decided to break her promise and keep my rent and security deposit, I felt cursed. I was depressed. The chip on my shoulder was chipping away my soul. But today, today I started to feel light and fine after almost two years of tedious struggle, rebel without a cause.

Maybe the cliché is true after all. There is a will, there is a way.

 

Yours truly,
YZ

You never know

I’m staying home today. I have a haircut appointment at noon, because I have a lecture to present tomorrow. Then a 4:30 meeting with the Chinese writers. So I decided to use my own vacation day to stay at home. Barely 8 o’clock, there was pounding against my wall. The construction workers started their day’s job. But I’m uncharacteristically  undisturbed. A great time to practice Zen, right?

Yesterday evening was the screenwriting class I enrolled at UCLA Extension. It was much better than the previous two sessions.

I thought the instructor was high-strung. During the break by the water-cooler, we had a little chat. She was juggling so many balls—

She was teaching two evening classes.
She was also taking a YA Novel writing class through UCLA Extension. The deadline was 12 hours away. She wanted to turn in 30 pages, but she only had 10 as we spoke.
She was also working on a rewrite. The deadline was three days away, the Sunday. But she hadn’t started yet.
All the while, her 98-year-old mother back in Ohio was not doing well. Struggling.
Her other industry friends had projects announced on Deadline.com. But now, the people she wanted to give scripts to were all busy with their own stuff.

“That’s the life I’m dealing with.” She shrugged with a sad smile. I wanted to give her a hug. Because I know that face. I am that face.

I was critical of her in the first two classes. Because she was giving an unfair amount of time (50 mins out of a three-hour class for a dozen students) to a 65-year-old woman who was adapting the Holocaust memoir written by her parents. To be frank, the woman had a low screenplay IQ. She had an even lower EQ. I was on the verge of losing it. I bit my tongue and stared at the clock. I stormed out of the class the second we were dismissed.

The instructor said she stayed until 11:15 PM?! last time for the woman. I told her plainly, “Set some boundary.” I suddenly had more empathy towards her than I had known in me.

After the break, I pitched my old-new story. It was the first feature I wrote at UCLA. I got some really interesting notes. As soon as I got home, I watched the reference movie they mentioned, Stand by Me (1986).

I thought the class level was beneath me, at first. But yesterday from the table read, I found two guys were pretty good writers already. One had impressive action beats. Another had a fantastic ear for dialogue.

Although I didn’t bring in new materials last night, I got new ideas from the group. I did it by simply showing up. (Hat tip to Seth Godin’s blog post on “Showing up.”)

But it didn’t just end there. The “dialogue guy” emailed me through the course platform later, saying that he also wanted to apply for UCLA’s Screenwriting MFA program next year and asked if he could ask me some questions regarding the program.

It was a really thoughtful email. He explained that I was the only one he knew that went to this program most recently. He seemed sincere and respectful. Immediately I replied. I gave him my cell and email address. Of course, next time in class, we would talk more. I would even approach him if he didn’t. He showed me two things: bravery and sincerity.

Funny thing about reaching out. I’ve had many, many of those situations, mulling over how the recipient would think of me. But guess what, there is nothing I can do. The worst case scenario is no. But these days, you would probably get a ‘no response’ response at best. so what do you have to lose?

You never know.

 

Yours truly,
YZ