Interview with Director Li Lu on What it Takes to Make Your First Film

director li lu

Director Li Lu on set. 

In There is a New World Somewhere, two young people lock eyes at a backyard party in Austin. They both clearly feel like outsiders—they’d rather not be there. So they take off, very shortly after, for an impromptu road trip across the South. 

There is a New World is the charming first feature movie from filmmaker Li Lu, who served not just director on the project, but writer and producer as well. Li Lu has always felt like an outsider herself—her family moved to Philadelphia from Suzhou, China when she was four and relocated all over the United States after that. Lu wound up turning her observant eye to film and graduated from USC film school in 2009. Produced on a small budget, There is a New World Somewhere is a lush, wandering exploration of identity and friendship, framed within an introspection-filled roadtrip. Agnes Brucker stars as Sylvia, a twenty-something artist who is thinking about giving up on being an artist. Maurice Compte pairs up with her as Esteban, a thoughtful Cuban immigrant who doesn’t put on any airs. The film screens this month at the Los Angeles Asian Pacific Film Festival, along with many other great films. 

I talked with Li Lu about the gratitude she feels as a director, the pressure to the “right” kind of Asian American filmmaker, and what she learned making her first full-length film. 

there is a new world somewhere poster

SARAH MIRK: We talk a lot about the lack of female filmmakers in Hollywood, but one important thing to note is that there are lots of female filmmakers—they’re just far more likely to make small-budget indie films than big-budget blockbuster ones. On a small film like There is a New World Somewhere, you had to hoof it doing three different jobs. I’m interested in your thoughts on what it’s like to put together a film where you’re doing so much work besides being a director. 

I think it speaks to the strength of the indie filmmaker these days—we’re not only directing and writing, we’re doing social media and graphics to help promote the film. It’s great to be ambidextrous. But on the other hand, it’s a burden. Like right now, I have two computers open in front of me. One’s running social, one’s running our email accounts for outreach sales and distribution. This is all stuff I’ve become accustomed to, but we only have so much juice to run these operations. There was something said at BinderCon that was so accurate. Someone said, “Women will always work harder. They will always take the notes, take the challenge, then go home and work on more than the one task they’ve been assigned to.” No matter how hard the task is that’s in front of me, I will do my best to learn it. For a first film, you are on your own for the majority of the process. And that’s something you just have to take on, rather than feeling like, “Oh, woe is me, no one’s helping me.” 

If you could go back in time and give yourself advice before you made this film, what would you say? 

Trust your instincts. Giving detailed advice to filmmakers is a double-edged sword, because your experience is so individual to you. But I would give this advice to my former self and to anyone who’s jumping in to making their first feature: trust your instincts. Don’t feel like because you’re not a professional in the field yet or don’t have the lingo down—trust your instincts on basic things. Does this person feel trustworthy? Does this deal feel fair? Does this situation feel good? That’s the biggest thing I would do if I had a time machine, I would say to trust yourself more. 

Speaking of going with your heart, how do you feel like your directing style is unique? What’s different about your style than other directors? 

It think what I bring to the table is that I realize what an interesting and abnormal environment being on a set is. It’s a hyper reality where there’s so much going on, time is more valuable than money. I’ve been on so many sets since I graduated from USC. I started off as a first assistant director. ADs do the big picture work of making sure the set dynamic is good. They make sure that everyone’s getting along; If there’s conflict, you approach it in a way so that it can actually be solved. I put that experience into my work directing, too. I try to get onto actors’ level and say, “I’m here, I observe you, let me know what I can do to help you.” I think that includes a lot of people in the process, rather than just saying, “I’m the director, here’s what’s going to happen.” People think of the cartoon character of a director sitting in a chair with a blowhorn or something. That’s such an antiquated image. People who are directing these small films, who have fought so hard to be there, they realize that so many other people have sacrificed their time and their usual pay-grade to be there with you, so there’s nothing but gratitude. 

So how is the reality of being a film director different than the cartoon image people have of the job?

For me, it’s almost like I’m set mom. I mean that in a caring way. You really care about everyone who works on the project. There’s this character of a director that some people play when they get their first gig: standoffish, playing the cool and silent type to be a bit more inaccessible. These things are very easy and obvious and people who don’t understand a set dynamic or the whole process of what it takes to make a movie can reduce themselves into that idea of what a director should be. But, for me, every time I have the chance to direct something, it’s such a blessing. It’s such a gift to be able to have people say, “We trust you with this project.” I don’t take that trust lightly at all. It’s a humbling experience to be at the helm of something. 

That’s funny, because it’s the reverse of how I think of a film project. Instead of a director running around calling all the shots, the director is actually the most grateful person on the set. 

Yeah, but there’s a way to be grateful while also being stern, too. I’m not saying you should be a complete limp noodle to everyone around you. People see that you know what you’re doing and you’re competent, they know you’re not just there passing out cookies, they respect you. It’s a balance. It’s a lot like parenting or babysitting in that sense. People want to feel like they’re being protected, but also led at the same time. 

director li lu

Li Lu on set, exclaiming “Yay!” after she gets a good shot.

You were telling me when we talked briefly a week ago that this film is screening in the Asian Pacific Film Fest and you were a little worried about it being criticized for not being “Asian enough” or “Asian in the right way” because it stars a Cuban actor and a woman who’s white, of Hungarian descent. Can you tell me more about your thoughts on that? 

Sure. I talked to the festival director before we signed on and he has this amazing term that I’ve never heard before: “Filmmakers going off the reservation.” I’ve been hearing directly and indirectly some comments about why my film is programmed at this festival. This is something I’ve faced with a lot of other work as well. I did a short film in the past about an American family dealing with the death of their father and their mother, who has early-onset Alzheimers—and that was a Caucasian family that I cast. But then before then, I did a film all in Mandarin, set in 1940s set in rural China. I actually played the Asian Pacific Festival with both of those shorts and it was interesting to parallel my experience with the film set in China compared to the film set here in California with a Caucasian family. The reactions to both were astoundingly different. It’s always such a simplistic viewpoint when people look at the work of Asian American filmmakers and ask, “Well, where are the Asian American actors?” It’s such a simplistic way of viewing what we can and can’t do. It’s very offensive in a way, when you tell an Asian American filmmaker, “You can only make Asian American films.” It’s self-policing when members of your own ethnicity accuse you of being too white, too whitewashed. It’s so reductive. I was born in China and raised all over the US, including the South and East Coast, but I go back to China every year. I speak fluent Mandarin. My next project might be shooting in Beijing. But because I’ve lived all over this country and never had a chance to settle down, I’ve always felt like an outsider. I’ve always wanted to make something about my experiences in the South and I did it through this film. I wanted to tell these stories about what it’s like to see the South from an outsider perspective. I make films because I want to tell stories on a personal level. I feel that when people who see this film and say, very blatantly, “Where are the Asians?” I’ll say, “I wrote it.” There are a lot of parts of this film that are of me, that are based on experiences I had. It’s about the South, but also about self-doubt and what it means to be an artist. These are human things, but they’re also my things.

What were you thinking about race when you were casting this film? Did you have a lot of different options in mind for the characters? 

Yes, I was very clear that we were doing color-blind casting.  That actually made it harder. We did multiple castings: one here in LA and we went to New York. Because I wanted to find her, the lead actress. We found our cast because we found two people who felt so connected to these characters. We saw every actress between [the right] age bracket, of any ethnicity and any racial background. Out of everyone we saw who was available and willing to do the job—these are the hoops, they are actual hoops, they are not invisible—Agnes was by far our most talented actress and just the most giving human being. We saw her and kind of built the film around her. For Esteban’s character, I wrote him of someone of Latino descent and we left it very open to whoever would be available and interested. We wanted him to be something other than Caucasian, we wanted him to have that layer to him—with his exploration of the American South, he’s seeing a world that’s new to him. We narrowed it down to a strong group of men and all of them told me how wonderful it was to read a role written for a minority man who is not a stereotype. The Latino men told me, “Oh, thank God he’s not a gangster or a drug dealer.” Because so many roles they read for are not human, they’re “gangster” or “henchman.”

How do you feel like your identity impacts your work as a filmmaker? You said you see pieces of yourself show up in the work. What pieces do you see? 

I see my identity playing a role in everything that I do. I’m always able to take a step back and see a wider perspective on what the story or situation is, because I trained myself to do that at a young age, to know where I stood but to realize that I’m entering into someone else’s world. You know what I mean? Like entering into an environment that is not mine. I experienced that when we moved from China when I was four years old, and with every subsequent move after that. We did Philly to Eugene, Oregon, and then back to Philly and then to Houston. It became an innate skill for me to observe from a step back. That skill has opened me up to any kind of story in a world and given me the freedom to tell any story. I made this film to understand part of myself, but it was also an attempt for me to understand what is was to live in the South and to show others that there are stereotypes and bad experiences all around, but that my experiences in the South have been positive. 

Related Reading: For Every Woman Working in the Film Industry, There are Five Men.

Sarah Mirk is Bitch Media’s online editor. She would also like to go on a roadtrip across the South. 

by Sarah Mirk
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Sarah Mirk is the former host of Bitch Media’s podcast Popaganda. She’s interested in gender, history, comics, and talking to strangers. You can follow her on Twitter

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