Over the last decade or so, Jennifer Liao has been switching through various hats as a writer, director, and producer. Currently based in Toronto, Liao has had the opportunity to work on shorts, full-length features, as well as spots on the small screen and if that is not enough, she also manages to hold down an unrelated office day-job. The Calgarian-bred multi-directional creator and thinker has been able to work through several projects spanning diverse genres including horror, comedy, crime, and drama. She shares with me her continued inclination for humour in dark storylines. And it makes sense that in 2016, Liao made her triumphant full feature-length directorial debut with End of Days, Inc.; a film that is equal parts humours, strange, and bleak. Clocking in at about an hour and a half, the movie uses the framework of an office space setting to pull out quirky characters through unexpected turns and circumstances. Most recently, she wrote and directed episodes of the TV show Blood & Water. In my sprawling conversation with Liao, we talked about her beginnings as an aspiring filmmaker, her experiences and perspective as a woman of colour in the Canadian entertainment industry, and developing new projects as part of the TIFF Writers’ Studio this past year--among other talk points.
There are unconscious biases people have that are very hard to get past. I heard someone sum it up once as ‘men are hired on their potential, women are hired on their experience’. There’s certainly a level of achievement that is asked of women before they are considered seriously, which isn’t asked of men, and I would say the same goes for POC also.
How did you get interested in film and TV? Did you go to film school?
I always wanted to work in film and television, when I was a teenager I really wanted to be a sitcom writer. So that was something that didn’t end up happening, but may still happen at some point, who knows? But no, I didn’t study film, I studied business and theatre. I was quite young and basically, I chose the path of least resistance, taking subjects that were more ‘practical’.
Can you talk about your first short was Pride War, in 2007? It’s not on your reel.
It’s about a woman who is obsessed with her brother in an unhealthy way, it’s quite a dark film, it’s a character piece. And I really wanted to use my friend Karie [Richards] who I did acting classes with, she can play very intense roles, and that’s what I wanted with that character, someone who has that intensity that can work in your favour, or suddenly turn against you.
I actually do think there are good scenes in it, but I don’t show it to people anymore because I’m in it! I played the girlfriend in the middle section, and I really don’t like what I’m doing in it. With some hindsight, I certainly would have hired someone else, but at the time I still wanted to push myself to work on my acting. It was really a tiny film, made with a few friends, a total of 4 people on the crew aside from myself and the actors. Even though it was just this little thing that we did on a weekend it was really significant for me, so after that, I started going after grants and doing more research to be able to make more.
That first one was self-funded?
Yes, it cost a few thousand dollars -it seemed like a lot then, but now it’s like a drop in the ocean! I did want everyone to be paid, but they weren’t paid much. We rented equipment, from either LIFT (Liaison of Independent Filmmakers of Toronto) or Charles Street Video, I can’t remember which, they both offer great rates for independent artists. Basically I ended up with something that would show people a little bit of potential for what I could do.
So it was instrumental in getting grants funding for your next short?
Yes, which actually happened quite quickly after that. I had read this short story What You Eat by Ben Ehrenreich, and I decided to option it. This was one of those things that I feel like because of my inexperience, it seemed really simple to do, but I think it would be really complicated if I tried to do it now. Because I just found him on MySpace, and I didn't even have a MySpace account, so I signed up for one, and sent him a message saying ‘I would like to make a short film out of your short story’ and he said ‘sure’!
I drafted a contract and optioned the story. It was funded by the Ontario Arts Council and Bravofact (back when it still existed), as well as the Reel Asian International Film Festival because I entered a pitch competition that year and the prize included in-kind equipment rentals and things. They also guarantee a slot in the festival when it’s made. It was honestly probably less than six months after I finished the previous short film, it was that quick, which is so unusual. Everything about the process was very exciting and cool, but I wish the film were better than it is because I think the source material is so strong. And I think my inexperience didn't quite prepare me to nail the tone, or what I think is great about the story.
What do you think the issues were?
Well, I think I learned a big lesson about really taking my time, particularly in the edit, and also really thinking about maximizing the use of my budget. The thing about producing is, more and more you just learn where you can actually save money and where you can’t. I think with a budget like that I really could have accomplished more, but it was literally my second short film ever, so I just didn’t take full advantage.
For example, I feel like I probably should have gone to certain professional places to “up” the production value of the film. The thing about working in short and independent films is that a lot of the companies in town, in Toronto in particular, they really do want to help filmmakers doing smaller projects. The main trade-off is that you have to fit into their schedules because they need to prioritize bigger jobs. But you can walk into one of those places and ask if they'd be willing to help you out for a very reduced rate for their services. Now, I love everyone who was involved in the film and I think they did a great job. But it’s very different to do a colour grade, and post-production generally, with somebody in their living room as opposed to at a proper studio, really being able to work on that kind of level, that was something I learned later. I still am very shy about asking for that kind of stuff, it either takes somebody else to kind of push me or I have to really gear myself up to ask. The truth is the short films were my training, and as much as I wish they weren’t there, any terrible mistakes that I made needed to happen or I wouldn’t have learned!
Tell me about making your first feature End of Days Inc. (2016)?
I produced a feature for someone else (Sex After Kids, 2012), and it basically gave me the confidence to decide to direct my own. My friend Christina Ray who wrote End of Days, Inc. was somebody whose writing I was reading for a long time, we had met at a screenwriters’ reading series at LIFT. Her voice is very particular, very unique, and I decided that I wanted that for the film that I was going to make. I ended up talking to her about doing a workplace comedy, an ensemble comedy. I really like workplace comedies.
It’s a pretty bizarre work environment in End of Days, Inc., the bosses are a bit… demonic! And there are definitely some interesting characters thrown together. Was any of that inspired by your own office jobs?
[Laughs] You know what? No! The funny thing is that my workplaces have been so dry! I haven't had any of those experiences in real life. It really just comes out of stuff that I watched as a kid. I think workplaces are just a really easy way to put very different characters together. We really wanted to do something with genre elements in it but off the beaten path. So after this conversation, she pitched me the idea for End of Days Incorporated. The hallmark of low-budget movies is having just one location because that saves money. So thinking about getting bang for my buck, in one place I'd be able to get really interesting characters and situations, using elements of supernatural dark comedy. So she started with an outline, we went back and forth on that, and eventually, she had a draft.
I basically had made a decision that I was going to try to make the film, regardless of buy-in from funding bodies. The film does have some Telefilm funding, but when I initially went to them they passed on it, so it was a question of beg, borrow and steal! So I took one month off of my office job for the shoot, which they were nice enough to let me do. They let me reduce my hours later as well, to get the post-production done. My editor was working during the week as well, so on weekends he and I would sit down with it, very exhausting but very fun.
I was really impressed with the actors, often with lower budget films that can be where it shows. Do you think that came out of your own experience with acting?
They’re amazing. What's great about making things in Canada is that there are a lot of great actors, and crew people as well, who want to work on smaller stuff because they get to do more interesting things, and they have a lot of fun working on stuff that's just different from what they normally work on. I think this is true in most cities where there is a film and TV industry, but maybe less so in ones where there is a lot of better-paid work.
But Toronto is amazing for that and having been an actor, I'm not really shy about asking actors - for instance one of the actors in the film, Paul Sun-Hyung Lee, is the star of Kim's Convenience. I had seen him in the original play and I thought ‘I need to work with him’! So I cast him in a short film, I just contacted his agent and he thankfully was game for it. Some of it is just not being shy, even an actor who works a lot isn't working every day of the week. As well I have relationships with agents, from other things I’ve worked on -the feature that I’d produced, shorts before that, so often they would submit really good actors to me to consider. Because one particular agent knew me and we had an existing relationship, her clients having enjoyed projects with me in the past, she was telling her people ‘work with Jen, she’s great’, which is really nice and helpful.
We were also like ‘who have we seen in acting classes that was great?’, and we brought in some folks that we were just fans of, that sort of thing. And I’m really appreciative to all the actors for how much they gave to the movie, and how they made the most of being in this horrible building for a month! It had broken windows, there was heating but not really, and it was a very cold winter, we were wearing our parkas inside all the time! But it was a good bonding experience for the actors. It's hard to know sometimes if people are going to get along, and we were really lucky that they did because it's an ensemble piece -they have a lot of scenes together. Also, they had to hang out together ‘cause there was only one warm room in the entire building!
The look of the film, and actually the style of the story and acting, really reminded me of Jean-Pierre Jeunet’s work. Tell me about how you created that atmosphere.
Yes! Definitely a little bit of visual inspiration from Delicatessen. We had conversations about what the feel of it would be, and our DP suggested a lens that became something of a signature of the film in how it rendered faces. And there was actually another movie that was a visual inspiration for us, The Double directed by Richard Ayoade.
I tell people that the movie is ‘a supernatural dark comedy with as much supernatural as we could afford’! Because everything that’s like a visual effect or a stunt or something is pared down to its absolute bare bones. I give a lot of credit to everybody that I worked with. Cinematographer Ben Lichty is hugely talented, he's somebody who really knows how to light even when you don't have money -that's a very challenging thing to do! I give him a lot of credit for the look of the film, as well as the production designer David Charles, they really pushed their resources in terms of what they could bring to the table.
And our makeup artists [Traci Loader and Larissa Palaszczuk] were hugely experienced. They normally work on bigger TV shows, but they were like ‘we're done shooting our series for the year, sure, let's do something different’. We were paying everybody, but we definitely weren’t paying them well, doing something different was the appeal. So I let them run with their ideas in terms of the looks and stuff. Same with our costume designer Jenn Burton, who sewed some of the costumes from scratch.
Everybody who worked on it brought so much to the table. We ended up getting our Prop Master [Craig Grant] on the third day. He had just wrapped on Murdoch Mysteries and we needed to replace our previous prop master, who walked off the set and didn't come back! That person just wasn’t someone who was used to working on movies and I don't think the hours suited him. You’ve seen the movie- the movie is very prop heavy, and complex to manage. So that was a big thing to get an experienced pro like Craig on board. Those are the kinds of things that are just you know, miracles. Movies are a miracle no matter what. And you kind of have to count on there being at least a few series of miracle occurrences that will actually make the whole thing come together, which is so funny, because can you count on that every time?
It sounds like it was a really fun shoot, but it must have been stressful as well?
A lot of the people who worked on it do tell me how much they liked working on it, and it was fun, but I think the director’s usually having the least good time! Only because there is so much to think about all the time, so it's not like I'm goofing off with the cast between scenes. I have to think about the big picture -absolutely everything that's going on inside and outside of the frame. So that was a lesson in directing a feature -how much stamina you have to have to do it! To figure out ways to focus and be calm. I'd say I try to be a very calm person on set -that's my style. I think it's easy sometimes to want to prove you have the answer every time but the truth is sometimes if somebody asks you something it can be best to say ‘just give me one second, I’ll think about that’, rather than rushing into a solution. That really is something that I pride myself on, staying calm.
What were some challenges that you faced that tested that calm?
I think some of the scenes that are a little more elaborate: there’s the fight scene, there are shots with special effects and stuff like that. There were times where we just had to make the decisions to pare things back ‘cause we weren’t gonna be able to shoot it in the time that we had. There were even just some silly things, there’s a scene with a smoke effect, and the thing you use is almost like a smoke bomb, and by law, you need to have a cop there when you use those. You just pay them a standard rate and they keep an eye on it. We were happy to pay that, we put the request in and everything. But no cop wanted to work on a Saturday night!
But you just have to back up, deal with it, and be like ‘ok let's break down what we need for this shot, we’ll just have to talk to visual effects about doing a smoke shot in post-production. It’s not the ideal way to do things but it can be ok. There's stuff like that in the fight scenes as well. I actually don't think any of the actors had done stunt sequences before except for Mark O’Brien. And we lucked out because our Stunt Coordinator great. He joked ‘you’ve brought me a 70-year-old woman, and another actress who’s just had her kidney replaced, and you need them to have a fight sequence? They did have doubles, but you want to get as much of the actual actor as you can. It's never like he was gonna ask them to do anything dangerous, but still, there were varying levels of comfort and experience on set for the stunts. So things like that, the visual effects and fights, I hadn’t really experienced before, but overall I think they worked out pretty well.
It can be annoying for women in the film industry, and female-identified directors especially, that as well as talking about their craft they are often asked to speak to the status of their gender in that very patriarchal world. But at the same time, I think it’s so important to talk about these inequities, and the conversation really does seem to be changing with things like MeToo and #OscarsSoWhite. As a WOC what’s your perspective on that?
My perspective on it essentially, is that it needs to change! One of the tricky things about these conversations is that they are happening more and more, in public arenas but that can make people think that we’ve made more progress than we actually have when it comes to the numbers. There are unconscious biases people have that are very hard to get past. I heard someone sum it up once as ‘men are hired on their potential, women are hired on their experience’. There’s certainly a level of achievement that is asked of women before they are considered seriously, which isn’t asked of men, and I would say the same goes for POC also. There’s a director named Lexi Alexander who was previously a champion kickboxer and she talks about how producers would say ‘it’s so amazing that you’re a kickboxer because you’re a woman who can direct action’. And she says that she used to take it as a compliment, but then she started to think ‘most male directors are not professional kickboxers and people assume they can direct action -so why should a woman have to have this whole separate career before she can direct an action film?!’.
Women are also statistically limited to much lower budget movies, there’s a much larger gap between a first and second feature for women, they get much smaller distribution deals –there are a number of bodies that have done these studies. And it’s great that these conversations are being had now, but the result at the moment seems to be that a very small number of women in the industry are going to get to work non-stop for the next few years -because they are the ones who have already had the particularly high profile successes, so are considered the ‘safe bet’ and would’ve been safe bets even when this issue wasn’t as much of a priority. These implicit biases also affect the hiring of POCs and other underrepresented groups in the industry in very similar ways.
So this past year you worked on a TV show for the first time, writing and directing episodes of the second season of the multi-lingual OMNI TV crime show ‘Blood & Water’. That must have been quite a different experience in terms of the medium, the scale of the production and so on. What were some things that you learned or experienced there?
As you mentioned it is a multi-lingual show, it’s in Mandarin, Cantonese, and English and that presents a lot of interesting challenges production-wise. We would write the scripts in English and one of the producers [Ben Lu] was responsible for translating them -different scenes use the different languages, and it’s aired with English and Chinese subtitles -so it can be watched by speakers of any of those languages. What’s interesting about directing an actor that’s speaking a language you don’t know, is that when you take the actual literal meaning of the words away, you’re really focusing on the performance, the physicality of what they’re doing, and their tone of voice.
And what about the experience of working on a show vs a film, I know directors in television have much less creative control.
Yes, it’s definitely a different experience to serve someone else’s vision, I actually really, really enjoy that. Of course, I love writing and directing my own stuff. But when you’re working with someone who has a clear idea about what they want, doing all you can to help create that can be very rewarding -in this case, Diane Boehme, the showrunner. There is also something freeing about not being the person who is ultimately responsible for everything, which has mostly been the case for me because I’ve produced all my own independent work!
And in some ways, it did feel a bit like working on one big movie, because we actually block shot the whole season all at once, which is unusual. Many shows here nowadays shoot at least two episodes in one ‘block’ of shooting, but to do the whole season is less common. It’s a major continuity challenge for everyone, especially for the actors. But it helped in terms of maintaining a sense of the whole, as it is a completely serialized show.
So do you know if you’ll be working on that show again?
I loved working on it if there’s another season I do hope they invite me back. But I’m not sure what the future holds. I took some time off after Blood & Water where I didn’t have a day job, which is unusual for me because the last job I had for almost ten years! It was a challenge as creating my own daily structure can be a struggle for me. I ended up getting another day job a few months ago, it’s another office job. I appreciate it, I do my best in it, and I’m very grateful to be making a living again. But I have spent so much time and energy learning and refining my skills working in film and TV, and to not get to be able to use those abilities in my everyday life, does feel kind of sad. But in Canada it is hard, it can be tricky to find the kind of momentum in a film or TV career that you want, there just aren’t as many opportunities as in the U.S.
You’ve been part of the TIFF Writers’ Studio this past year, how has that been?
It’s been great. It’s a program designed to help writers further their current projects and provide insight into other aspects of a filmmaking career. We each got an advisor at the start of the program that we could consult with on our scripts several times. I was lucky enough to work with Avi Nesher, an Israeli filmmaker. With the TV pilot I’m working on, Gameface, it really made me realise I needed to do a full rewrite, and to push the idea much further, so it’s been hugely helpful.
Tell me about Gameface, and any other projects you have coming up
Gameface is a Mixed Martial Arts themed half-hour comedy series with an Asian-American woman protagonist. And the next feature I want to write is a very dark movie, it’s probably going to be pretty light on the comedy. That’s all I’ll say for now!