Fawzia and I met for the first time in the fall of 2014. I wanted to acquire her film “Queen of My Dreams” for a collection of short films I was curating called “Chicagoland Shorts.” The idea behind the collection was to license and distribute the best of the local niche cinemas in order to celebrate the work being done by Chicago-based women, minority and LGBTQ filmmakers. I believe their stories are authentic and essential Chicago stories, and they ought to be recognized as such.
Once Fawzia heard what I was up to, she cut off my sales pitch and said bluntly, “Take my movie. It’s yours.” I was astounded, because Fawzia certainly didn’t need me or my nascent production company (fullspectrumfeatures.com) to boost her rising star. But I was also emboldened by her enthusiasm for “Chicagoland Shorts”—maybe what I was doing wasn’t entirely crazy after all.
Then Fawzia upped the ante. She said, “I’ve been looking for someone to produce this screenplay I wrote—it’s called “Signature Move.” I just haven’t found the right person. But I’m pretty sure you’re my long-lost Asian stepbrother. Do you wanna produce it?”
No, I am not Fawzia’s long-lost Asian stepbrother. But we are in the same fight, so to speak, pushing forward stories and ideas we know will resonate with others, if only they’d take the time to listen. And twelve months later, here we are making this movie with an unlikely (yet somehow inevitable) producing partner—Brian Hieggelke and Newcity’s Chicago Film Project.
I am also an unlikely movie producer. I did not attend film school. I’ve never been on a Hollywood film set. I’ve spent most of my adult life as a graduate student studying philosophy, not film.
But independent filmmaking isn’t so much about what you know; it’s about what you’re willing to learn. As someone trained to do philosophy, I ask a lot of questions and defer to people who know more than I do. Thankfully, there are a lot of people in Chicago who know what they’re doing, and they can be incredibly generous with their time and resources. But another curious thing I’ve found is that most people in the film business are just BS-ing their way through everything. That’s actually reassuring to me, because it means even the most successful filmmakers are making it up as they go along.
That seems to be the nature of the indie film world these days, as the marketplace, the modes of production, and the nature of film itself are constantly shifting before our eyes. With “Signature Move,” we know there are “comps” out there we can try to emulate. But we’re also aware that every film—independent and Hollywood alike—has its own unique journey. I’m excited to embark on that journey, and I’m excited to share it with others.
So how (and why) does a Korean American guy from New Jersey end up producing a wrestling movie about a queer, Muslim, Pakistani woman who falls in love with a Mexican American woman?
First, I’m not entirely naive to the film industry—I worked as a producer’s assistant in Los Angeles after college at two notable production companies, and have seen the inner workings of Hollywood projects like “Monster’s Ball” and “Tomb Raider” from the producers’ war room. The main lessons I learned in L.A. stick with me today: (1) a movie is a commercial product, (2) you have to sell this product to your audience, and (3) you have to build/find this audience, otherwise your movie will flop, and you may never make another movie again.
Second, I know something about grassroots audience-building and community outreach. My latest project, “The Orange Story,” has a six-figure budget that is funded in part by a grant from the National Park Service, as well as generous donations from a wide range of supporters who care about the history of Japanese American WWII confinement camps. My team and I spent two years building relationships with people coast to coast—Japanese American civic leaders, scholars, former internees, and people right here in Chicago whose families were touched by this history. These are real relationships with real people, not just Facebook “likes” and Twitter “followers.” And as I learned in Hollywood, you need real people to come out and see your movie, or your movie’s a flop.
Lastly, “Signature Move” is my story. Fawzia and Lisa Donato wrote the script, of course, so in a literal sense it’s their story. But “Signature Move” is my story too. It’s also Brian’s story. And it’s a story that a lot of people will see as their own—who hasn’t fallen in love with someone they’re not supposed to fall in love with? And who hasn’t grown as a person because of this? And who isn’t excited by lady wrestling?
So we have our script. We have our star. We have our core producing team. Let’s get ready to rumble.