The following questions and answers are excerpted from a conversation that followed the NBR screening of The Paper Tigers.
This film is a heartfelt look at the Kung Fu genre as well as a story about growing up and fatherhood in various forms. What was the catalyst for the story?
Bao Tran: I survived a death match and wanted to tell a story about it… no, I wish it were that dramatic but it’s not! A lot of the camcorder scenes you see in the film are a homage to the types of films I made growing up in the backyard with my dad’s camcorder. As an Asian-American it’s not the most encouraging profession to get into, so there was a lot of sneaking out to do so and a lot of that vibe went into this story. Making movies as a hobby is different than going into it as a profession. As I was getting older and getting into the business side of it and dealing with some of the seedier stuff, I was feeling a little jaded and worn out. So I wanted to rekindle the passion I once had for filmmaking. The other love I had growing up was Martial Arts. I bounced off that as an idea and that’s how I rolled it into The Paper Tigers—I wanted to rediscover the things I once had passion for and see if they still held meaning. I was watching The Big Chill, and it’s a bit like a “Kung Fu Big Chill” while it’s also its own thing of loving the genre and turning it askew.
I wanted to rediscover the things I once had passion for and see if they still held meaning
Yuji, how did you become involved in the project?
Yuji Okumoto: Like Bao, I too survived a death match—it’s called independent filmmaking. Bao and I have known each other since 2009 and worked together on several projects up here in Seattle Washington. Being a big fan of Kung Fu and growing up with the genre and participating in Karate, I read the script and I loved the idea of these washed-up dudes trying to find their glory. I can relate to that… I’m 62 and if I were to try and throw a kick right now, I might pull a hamstring. But the main reason I jumped on board was because I wanted to be part of a project that had a minority aspect to it. If I could be part of a film that features good lead roles for minorities, I was down.
It’s safe to save both of you are former Martial Arts practitioners in some shape or form.
BT: Yeah, and it’s definitely a love letter to Bruce Lee’s influence here in Seattle. We kind of have an unsung scene here that can get overlooked for the bigger cities. But when Bruce first arrived here after coming over from Hong Kong, he opened up a Martial Arts school here, he got married here, he went to the University of Washington. A lot of his students that he taught back in the day—who were very multi-cultural and multi-racial, since he was one of the first to teach non-Chinese Kung Fu—are still around. They’re still teaching and passing on the things they learned from Bruce. In many ways, we are in that grand lineage of Bruce Lee. That’s the part of the backdrop as well.
Speaking of diversity, how did you come up the cast?
BT: With casting, we kind of knew what the breakdown was going to be. I obviously wanted it to reflect my childhood and my friends within my Kung Fu experience and the dynamic that we had among each other. When we began to fundraise, we got a lot of notes to make it more “bankable” and to add more opportunities to cast white actors. We had a bunch of offers on the table and we didn’t bite because it would have required us to change that breakdown. So we said thanks but no thanks, and went to Kickstarter and tried to find different investors completely outside of LA and the traditional film financing structure.
How long did the whole process take?
BT: Ten years of clawing and scratching; nothing was linear. If we really break it down, nothing was traditional about the way we made this film. We had a portion of the film at about year five. We had some of the money in place and decided to shoot the first ten pages of the film, when the characters are younger in the 80s and 90s portion. So you have the pre-teen and the young adult versions and we knew we could shoot them out and be done with it. It was categorically a short film according to SAG because they didn’t know what to do with us! Once we had part of the movie in hand, we used that as a pitch reel and for on our Kickstarter and went to a few film labs and found a sales agent from that and then were able to shoot the film two years later. In a lot of ways, the casts were stand-alones because we didn’t know who our main cast was going to be when we shot the earlier footage. We wanted to shoot to put it in the can; shooting to make a reel felt like a waste of time.
Fatherhood and legacies and disciples are such strong themes in this film. Can you speak to that a bit?
BT: For me, I saw Danny as a person escaping and running away from responsibility. And then at the end, he can’t squirm away anymore. It’s time for him to confront where he is. We talked about code-switching a lot. When he’s with his kid or ex-wife, Danny can be that charmer, but when he’s with his brothers, that won’t get by them. And he’s also their senior, so when he says something with authority, it goes. But that comes with accountability; if he flakes out in front of them, there’s hell to pay. In that third act, we wanted to land in that moment where his shirking his Kung Fu responsibility is also his shirking his “dad” responsibility and to have that all come to a head.
YO: The character of Danny has a great arc. He started off as this studly guy and then he has a fall from grace and becomes a regular dude that has lost his skills and his mojo. His dynamic shifted as the film progressed—he’s still trying to be that father figure but I just think he wasn’t able to take the time to communicate with his son. That’s the crux of his whole problem, the communication factor… asking his son to lie about this and cover for that. It’s a wonderful character because he’s flawed and as human beings, we’re all flawed in different ways. I think a lot of people will be able to relate to Danny’s character and when he triumphs at the end, I think it’s a payoff for both his character and the audience.
Yuji, what were some of the challenges you faced as a producer on the film?
YO: There were a ton of them, especially when you’re doing indie! The biggest challenge for the producers as a collective was that we’re all creators and come from the creative side of the business. But being a producer, we have to be able to fundraise. Asking for a few dollars here and a few there is really hard but it all adds up. At the end of the day, what we realized by going through this whole journey was that it does take a village to make this all come together. It’s a collective of a wonderful support group and everyone we reached out to really stepped up. It was a roller coaster of emotions and wins and losses but we were so lucky to have this support system up here in Seattle Washington.