Seldom do I get the opportunity to help spotlight a local project that appeals to me. I found that opportunity several years ago as Cinder Chou, a long time production coordinator and assisstant on a number of projects before segueing to directing short films, began envisioning her feature directorial debut.
That outlook was eventually realized with the completion of her independently-produced romantic action comedy, Artist Unknown. The film, in part, is also the result of cautious planning and execution for a small-scale production long since the Covid-19 pandemic set in. Alas, having survived the pandemic, Chou’s work is gradually paying off as she now looks toward more festival screenings in the year to come.
Artist Unknown also marks the latest foray for actress Kerry Lacy, whose background in martial arts has aptly allowed her to showcase her skills in Stacey Maltin’s prospective 2017 shortfilm thriller, Viola, as well as Don Downie’s sequel, both which ultimately landed on Chou’s radar during pre-production. Joined by a cast that also lists Sonia Mena (Hulu’s “Tell Me Lies”) and actors Sam Jaikaran, Daryl Lathon and Walker Hare, the film also needed the crucial input of Francesca Morabito, who appears in the film, in addition to serving as fight choreographer.
The film stood proudly for its recent sucesses at the 13th annual Art Of Brooklyn Film Festival, winning the Jury Award, as well as for Lacy for Outstanding Performance In A Feature. Chou goes into a bit more detail on this and more in our first interview which you can read below, along with some extra goods on where her inspiration lies; I write this as thrilled as I am having found out that we both share an interest as cinephiles of Hong Kong classic and contemporary action titles, which Chou also expounded on in our exchange.
Greetings Cinder, and congratulations on your latest two festival wins with Artist Unknown. How did your evening go, otherwise?
Thank you so much! It was quite a welcome surprise. I was actually in LA for my nephew’s birthday when I found out about our two awards. Our producer Lauren La Melle and DP Jesse Sperling were there to represent.
You’re from New Jersey and you currently reside in Brooklyn. As an artist yourself, what is it about NYC – particularly about my neighboring borough as I’m in Queens – that stands out the most to you?
I love the energy of New York. It’s so vibrant and full of life. It’s why I wanted to move here so bad. My parents used to take my sister and me to Chinatown and Flushing (shoutout Queens) to get Chinese food. My parents are immigrants from Taiwan and these trips connected us to our roots.
My best friend and I used to come to the city and watch double features, independent movies you couldn’t see in suburbia. In short, there is access to culture in New York that you can’t get anywhere else. I’m talking about access to food, film, TV, theater, art, but I’m also talking about multiculturalism and having access to different parts of the world in one city.
What I love most is the unpredictability. I love filming on the streets of New York and prefer it over filming indoors. First, you can move a lot faster with natural lighting. Secondly, you never know what’s going to happen, which I’d say my sound mixers aren’t too keen on especially when three ice cream trucks show up at the same time.
You’ve been working since 2008 as production coordinator on dozens of features and projects. Talk about what got you motivated to get into entertainment and ultimately into the director’s chair.
I started as an artist and thought I would get into graphic novels or animation. That shifted after I helped my friend make short films in high school. I started watching anything and everything back when you got Netflix in the mail. RIP Red Envelope.
Movies helped me understand the world. Movies gave me hope. Movies let me dream. It’s powerful and magical the way that you can step into someone’s experience and world, how you can create the dream world, how you can see the future. On a personal note, being able to see LGBTQ+ characters on screen allowed me to know that LGBTQ+ people existed outside of my conservative hometown.
I didn’t make a conscious choice to go into entertainment but I was drawn to the magic. I made many small choices that created the path in front of me. When I was in college I started interning on movies so I could get closer. I worked my way up the production office and became a coordinator, from lower budget to higher budgets.
I always wanted to write and direct, but movies are expensive to make. It wasn’t until I joined the union that I could save up enough to make my first short film. I was lucky I had supportive people in my life who believed in me and helped me on the first one.
I kept going, taking little steps along the way. Before you know it, I’ve made four short films and now a feature film. Following your curiosity, interests, and passions will create the path in front of you. I’ll keep following this path because I don’t know what else I would do.
Was a romantic action comedy what you had in mind for your first feature after directing several shorts?
Not at all. I thought my first feature would be Missus Softee, which is a script I wrote based on my summer driving an ice cream truck in New Jersey. Once the pandemic happened, that project paused and I started to brainstorm ideas that could be made locally with friends.
I never thought I would do action. It seemed too challenging because each action sequence is comprised of so many beats, which requires time to choreograph and rehearse. I got a taste of it during my short, “The Man with the Western Hat”, which had a brief gun duel that was very challenging. I’ve also worked on stunt heavy shows as a production coordinator and have seen how much rehearsal time is involved. I was terrified and excited, but I knew I could rely on Kerry [Lacy] with her experience in action.
Imaginably, I reckon grappling with a pandemic would be last on the list of things you’d see coming for your first prospective feature film. How trippy must that have been for you during filming?
This film was born during the pandemic and was created in response to it. At the time we got used to watching low quality zoom videos and people were creating stories from their living rooms. It was inspiring and made me want to run and gun it. Trying to get a feature film off the ground can take a long time and I didn’t want to wait anymore. So in a way it helped me to focus on what was important, which was creating something meaningful because life is too short to wait. If you can find a way to do it, do it. Lastly, I wanted to challenge myself to do something difficult and face my fears so I would never doubt myself again. It mostly worked. I feel doubt and fear still, but I trust myself more.
I do want to say that we weren’t careless about COVID. We followed as many COVID protocols as possible. In the end the only person who got COVID was me and I was so glad no one from the crew got it. It ended up being a blessing in disguise because we got more prep time.
I first learned about Kerry Lacy back when she did a cool action short called Viola, and eventually I saw the sequel short. Were these influential in your casting choice for the role of Juniper?
Definitely. I knew Kerry Lacy from Filmshop, which is a film collective. Daryl Lathon who plays Leslie and Walker Hare, our big baddie, are also members. I had seen both Violas and was a fan of Kerry’s work. When I was brainstorming ideas for a low budget concept, I saw Kerry on Instagram doing these amazing spin kicks in her living room. That was the first kernel and I built the movie around Kerry. I did my research and watched all of Kerry’s work, anything I could find. The great thing about Kerry is that she’s a talented actor and has a vulnerable quality that draws you in.
Talk about working with Sonia Mena. I thought she was incredible in the role of Penny.
Sonia Mena is incredible. You never really know what they’re gonna do, which works so well for Penny. I did work with a casting director and we received a lot of submissions. No surprise, Penny is a fascinating character who is guiling and you never know whether she’s telling the truth or not. We needed an actor who could make real Penny and fake Penny feel very different. This actor would have to be charming enough to forgive Penny’s deceit. It was Kerry’s idea to ask Sonia to read for Penny during our virtual table read. We knew of Sonia’s work in the indie film world, but didn’t know them personally. We saw some amazing actors but after the read, we couldn’t unsee Sonia as Penny. If you want to see more of them, they’re in the Hulu TV show Tell Me Lies, which was renewed for a season 2.
What I enjoyed most about the film was how apt you were at shooting the action. Some filmmakers, as much as they may love action, are terrible at this. What were some things you learned and applied during production to be able to shoot the film’s action scenes so adequately? Because you keep things pretty simple. You don’t overdo it.
Wow, thank you so much for the compliment especially coming from an action buff like you. I wasn’t sure how successful the action scenes were because they were such a challenge to shoot, but we managed to make it work in the edit.
It’s easier for me to know what I dislike more than what I like. I can pinpoint what I want to avoid more easily than what I want to emulate. I really dislike a lot of cuts in action and dance scenes, especially cuts from wide to closeup. I like to see the choreography. I know those cuts exist to swap in a stunt double or transition to another sequence. I also like to be grounded in the fight and know who’s gaining or losing. I’ve seen line jumps to disorient the viewer (maybe?) but I’m not a fan. Within the fight, there is a story. Behind each punch there’s an emotion and I want to see it clearly.
These fight scenes wouldn’t have worked without Kerry’s skill in martial arts. Kerry co-designed the fight scenes with Francesca Morabito, which have such a great flow to them. Not only does the design play to Kerry’s strengths, it also tells the story and communicates the stakes. The opening fight is inspired by Jackie Chan’s style, which has elements of physical comedy and plays out in wide shots thanks to the lead talent doing their own stunts. Francesca is also an amateur fighter and her experience gave the fights a realistic quality over something flashy.
Give me a rundown of some of your favorite films growing up. Speak freely. Any recommendations up your sleeve?
Looking back, I shouldn’t be surprised my first feature is an action movie. Maybe I didn’t think action was real cinema, which I now know is wrong. As a kid, I was obsessed with Xena: Warrior Princess. For those too young to remember, it was a 90s TV show. I was re-watching the series during the pandemic. The show was ahead of its time in many ways. It was filmed in New Zealand before Lord of the Rings. It’s so overtly queer watching from today’s perspective. The use of wire work and whoosh sound effects were influences from Hong Kong action cinema. I recognized those hallmarks from Chinese TV shows we would get on bootleg VHS tapes in Chinatown. There was a show called Tai Chi Master, which was probably a serialized version of the Jet Li movie. In Asia, the lead actors are top level martial artists so the action scenes are comprised of wide shots and long takes. They’re martial artists first and the acting takes a backseat so having an actor like Kerry meant we could lean into drama and character development.
As for movies, I watched all of Tom Tykwer’s movies including Run Lola Run, The Princess and the Warrior, Heaven, and Perfume. Queer films like But I’m A Cheerleader, Bound, Far From Heaven, Psycho Beach Party, and Hedwig and the Angry Inch.
As for recommendations, I’ve recently gotten into King Hu and Johnnie To movies. They’re both filmmakers who straddle action and arthouse, meaning their films are as interested in story and craft as much as action. Sometimes, action overtakes the story and it’s clearly the main focus. When there are no stakes, the action feels empty.
I was wondering if you had any particular funny memories or challenges you’d like to share from your experiences on the set of your debut.
People had trouble going in and out of doors. We were filming the scene where Cedric interrupts the date just as it’s getting saucy and Juniper goes to the door to leave…in the first take, Kerry can’t figure out how to unlock the door. In the second take, Kerry gets the door open and shuts the door, but her bag gets caught. In the third take, she opens the door and there’s a man and he says, “Delivery?”
Another time, Kerry and I were driving to set and she was sandwiched between our gear. We get to a red light and a car full of young men drive up next to us. They see the film equipment and their eyes light up. They ask hopefully, “What film school do you go to?” and Kerry responds “No, we’re old”. And we drive away like Cinderella in her pumpkin.
You’ve come away with a few wins with Artist Unknown. What are some the most important lessons you’ve taken with you as you continue your film career?
I’ve learned and have to keep relearning are: Let go of perfectionism, go with the flow, have fun with it and don’t take things so seriously, hold yourself accountable but be kind to yourself, focus on the process and not the end goal. Prepare, prepare, prepare.
Can you tell us what’s next for Cinder Chou?
We’ve got the rest of our festival journey ahead of us for Artist Unknown. I’m excited for more people to see it. I’m also looking ahead to bringing Missus Softee to life as my second feature. I’ve been taking boxing lessons, which started after Artist Unknown so I’m curious how that will affect how I direct action scenes in the future. Who knows! I’ll keep following the path wherever it goes.
Native New Yorker. Lover of all things pizza, chocolate, pets, and good friends. Karaoke hero. Left of center. Survivor. Fond supporter of cult, obscure and independent cinema - especially fond of Asian movies and global action cinema. Author of the bi-weekly Hit List. Founder and editor of Film Combat Syndicate. Still, very much, only human.