In conversation with…Andrew Stephen Lee
Andrew Stephen Lee is a Filipino-American Director and Writer based in New York City.
For three years he worked closely with Magnum photographer Jim Goldberg before becoming an MFA Candidate at Columbia University’s Graduate Film Program.
His last narrative film “Manila is Full of Men Named Boy” (2018) premiered in competition at the 75th Venice Film Festival and continued on to the Busan International Film Festival, Festival du Court Métrage de Clermont-Ferrand, and SXSW. The film was honored with Best U.S. Short at the 25th Palm Springs International Shortfest, among other awards.
Additionally, he works as an Editor. Most recently, he cut the feature “Eyimofe (This is My Desire)” directed by Arie Esiri and Chuko Esiri, which premiered at the 71st Berlinale. He also edited the short movie directed by Mariana Saffon “Entre tú y Milagros”, which premiered in competition at the 77th Venice Film Festival and was awarded Best Short.
While currently working on writing his first feature film “In The Shade Hardly Any Sun”, Lee has agreed to answer some questions about his work, his background and his artistic vision.
What was the first film that made you want to become a filmmaker?
I’m not entirely sure what that first film was but I do remember a period of my life where my understanding of what a film could be started to change and expand. It was a time where people were still buying DVDs. My sister would buy me these DVD double packs from a consumer electronics store called Circuit City and one in particular was Jim Jarmusch’s Coffee and Cigarettes paired with Broken Flowers. I think films like these, that I was watching during this period of my life, really began to shape my taste and what I began to seek out.
You were born in the United States but have Filipino origins. How did you manage to live with these two different identities?
I think it’s quite hard and I often don’t know how to grapple with it. In the Philippines I’m not seen as Filipino, and in America I’m not seen as American. So I think Manila is Full of Men Named Boy was really my own struggle with this in-betweenness. After its release, the conversation prompted by my film has signaled that this duality is really a modern dilemma for quite a lot of people…I think because societies are integrating and moving towards being less homogenous.
In your graduation project at Columbia University, Manila is Full of Men Named Boy, you talk about the contradictions of the Philippines but also about the absurdity of life in general. How did the idea for this short film come about?
The whole idea for this film didn’t come at once. I wish I could say it did, I think that would be cooler. But it really developed over a period of 2 or 3 years while I was in graduate school. I had a version of this script that was inspired by a news report that I saw: a trafficker was selling a child to a married couple, and ascribing different price levels by the children’s traits, i.e. spoke English, pretty, loud, etc. The story of the married couple didn’t stick but I think this situation became fascinating to me — that a person could be assigned value based on these shallow, arbitrary indications. It led me to think — what other absurd things do we assign value? Well most immediately I thought of Duterte’s Extrajudicial Killings as a widely accepted devaluation of human life. How did we get to the conclusion that if one was involved in drugs, one wasn’t worthy of living? And what else in The Philippines became more or less a norm? Eventually I felt I could use the ideas of machismo and Michael Jackson’s funeral as metaphors.
You worked for three years with Magnum photographer Jim Goldberg. From your short we can guess this experience in the composition of the shots and in the mise en scene. Furthermore, his analysis of the social disparities that cross the United States first and then the rest of the world, also brings you closer to him from the point of view of the topics covered. How much has working with him influenced your way of making cinema?
I definitely have a tremendous respect for the image; its layers and its meaning. I think some people could describe this as the form one is working in and how it relates to one’s subjects conceptually. My proximity to Jim and the environment of the Fine Art Photography world definitely gave me that. It was a period of tremendous artistic growth.
When I began working for Jim, I was compelled by how he so intimately captured people living on the margins. There’s such a humanity and truth to it. You can really see his empathy in the photos. It’s really taught me to question whether work comes from a sympathetic or empathic lens. They really are two different things. Since then, this perspective has always informed how I approach a subject and topic.
Though I haven’t done much photography since leaving his studio, I’ve carried an ethos that I felt was in the atmosphere there: an artistic courage, that involves risk-taking and always being oneself when making work. I think that’s really important these days.
Is the choice to shoot the short in black and white purely aesthetic or does it have specific motivations?
At first it was purely practical. My DP (Andrew Crighton) and I shot in color on an Arri Alexa. And after set, I would go back to my apartment and edit together what we filmed that day. But for some reason, when importing Alexa footage into Premiere, a LUT is placed onto the footage automatically. So I would have to desaturate all the footage before assembling the shots so my eyes wouldn’t be disgusted. But while I was watching the scenes together, I was actually struck by how well the Black and White worked with the tone of the film. It quite reminded me of Jarmusch. Eventually, I felt that the film could only be in Black and White because I think it expresses a similar detachment that is conceptually inline with my camera placement as well as the protagonist, Boy.
Returning to the content of your story, I would like to draw attention to a particular situation that I find recurrent in several films from the Far East, that is, the practice of hiring people who pretend to be relatives or friends. It seems impossible to believe but these things really happen. Do you think that the individual’s need to stage this farce derives from his will to demonstrate his superiority and well-being to others or rather from his longing to accept himself?
In the case of Manila is Full of Men Named Boy, this narrative idea functions to express a longing for acceptance from the patriarch and his friends. But it’s absurd to want to be accepted by this machismo, no? You are right. Subconsciously Boy cannot accept himself, so he must derive his own self value by what others think about him.
And I believe there is also a desperate desire to be loved. When the son tears the microphone from the boy to sing there is a complete coincidence between the lyrics of the song and the words he wants to address to the father. A song, like a movie, often manages to say things that otherwise we will not be able to say, to make us reflect on themes that otherwise would remain hidden, to ask ourselves unspoken questions. Do you also believe that cinema is a means to look for answers or at least to ask yourself certain questions?
What’s important is to study and understand what’s compelling us to make the piece of art that we’re creating. I always ask my students, tell me why do you want to make this film, and why can you and only you can make this film. It requires an intense amount of self-reflection and vulnerability. It reveals the subconscious things we’re dealing with and what we’re attracted by.
I do believe cinema should guide towards answers. However, I also think those answers are personal and exclusive to each individual viewer. I should say that I think truly great works of art exist as a dialogue between the art itself and the viewer. Paraphrasing Paul Schrader: if an audience can come up with their own truth that’s a good thing. So while there are certain feelings and insights that I am looking to express in my own work, I also hold an individual’s interpretation of my work just as valid as my original intention.
I read that you are working on your first feature film. What specificity do you think the medium of short film has when compared to full length feature?
Like short stories, short films have a beautiful ability to be solely about a feeling or moment or a tone. It doesn’t necessarily need the narrative weight of a feature film. So in many ways it’s much more freeing. However, it’s also a very seductive format because I think making a truly great short film that fits within the medium is really hard.
Can you tell us something about your latest project?
I’m writing a feature, In the Shade Hardly Any Sun, inspired by my parents coming to the United States from the Philippines. It has similar themes to Manila is Full of Men Named Boy, though the tone is starkly different. The film is a love story, but I believe it’s strength lies in its thematic inquiry and critique of Americanism.