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Narrative ELLA [short film]: behind the new American coming of age story

Aug. 28, 2018
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Dan Chen's short film ELLA (starring Nichole Bloom and Dallas Liu) is a beautifully nostalgic coming of age story about two Asian-American youths in search of connection in their small Midwestern town. Seldom do we see Asian-Americans portrayed just as who they are- no strings of stereotypes and expectations attached. This is not a piece about race, but a film about a real American experience and identity.

It just premiered on Short of the Week, so watch the film below and also check out the killer playlist that music supervisor Angela Asistio created for it (side note: there's a nice surprise that may or may not involve my favorite Mitski song at the end of the film as well). We got to talk to Dan and Nichole Bloom (who plays Ella) about the process of making the film, growing up Asian-American in Kansas, and being a filmmaker in this political climate. 

Ella from Dan Chen on Vimeo.


Feel free to listen to press play on the mixtape while reading our interview with Dan & Nichole. It's killer and it's a Mood. 

@DOLESCENT : Hi Dan! Congrats on the release of ELLA! I read that you shot the film on location in Kansas?

Dan Chen: Yes, it was shot in my hometown Manhattan, Kansas!

@: That’s so wild. The places in the film... were they places you frequented growing up?

DC: Totally. Like Abe, the main character’s house, that’s my house! We filmed in my little brother’s room (laughs). My little brother is 18 and when he would come home from school, we’d still be in his room. He would watch the monitor and see this random kid sitting in his desk, in his room. I’m sure it was weird for him (laughs). 

@: Yeah, that would definitely be a trip, seeing someone else in your space pretending it was theirs.

DC: Yeah, it was like watching a version of him or a version of me, or whatever the character was supposed to be. And Ella’s character’s house was actually, uh, shot in my high school girlfriend’s house.

@: No way! Was the character of Ella based on her at all?

DC: The character was kind of based on her, but also other people. It was a half Japanese household, so we knew that it was the house. I was like, “why not ask her parents if we could film there?” They were very gracious about us filming. My old high school was super welcoming as well. We talked to the principal and drama teacher I used to hang out with when we were making movies and she gave us a list of high school kids who were interested in helping out and being background. It was really dope coming back to the community!


@: That’s really cool that there’s this deeply personal connection to the film and the space! Was ELLA based on your own experience? 

DC: Somewhat, but it’s not like one to one based on real life and has been altered and dramatized. When I was a freshman in high school, I was friends with this girl and we would watch anime, listen to vinyl records, and be weird together, but she had more trouble fitting in than I did. I remember there was this moment at the lunch table where some guys were talking shit on her and being like, “How weird is that girl?”, and I was trying to fit in and said, “Yeah, she’s weird”. She had heard what I had said and confronted me about it later, and the sad thing is that we’re not really friends anymore for a number of different reasons, but I think that was the moment when I realized in my effort to fit in, I was throwing someone else under the bus. I feel like it’s a thing that some Asian-Americans go through. We want to fit in, but sometimes it means shutting ourselves down or shutting other people down that are also on the margin so we can say, “Haha, I got a spot on the table!” 

@: Totally, I feel like that competitiveness to prove ourselves as “American” enough is definitely a shared experience. What was growing up Asian in Kansas?

DC: Well, it’s tricky, right? We didn’t really have the vocabulary to talk about it back when I was growing up in the 2000s. So, I definitely didn’t think about it to the degree that we think about our identity now, but looking back, I get the sense that I had something to prove at all times. Like, “I’m worth being here” in this like party or situation. It was an unconscious thing where I felt like I stuck out. I didn’t have the vocabulary to realize why I stuck out, so I just tried really hard to fit in.

@: It was cool to see more than one Asian on screen in a setting where Asians are usually erased from. We’re kinda coming into this era where representation is becoming the forefront of conversation. With “Ella”, in terms of that was there something specific you were trying to do?

DC: Yeah, it was kind of finally feeling I had something to add to the conversation. I worked on a friend of mine’s pilot JUST DOUG, and it was about being a Korean-American actor. When I directed that, I was like “How come I’ve never talked about myself or even the Asian-American experience in my work?” I was doing things by default white. I think it’s something a lot of us can slip into unconsciously... like “Oh, I want to make a mainstream film” or “I want to make a film for everyone”, so it’s gotta have white people at the center of it.

I had this period of after I graduated from film school where every time I tried to write something, it just didn’t feel genuine. I wanted to do a coming of age story for a long time and once I realized that if I wrote an Asian-American character, the specifics of who they were and their problems became very tangible instead of… underdeveloped. It feels more like a personal journey and for once you actually shine a light on who you are-- your angle on the world.

@: Absolutely. I know you mentioned a lot of clarity happened after JUST DOUG, but was there a specific moment when you realized that there was a lack of Asian representation in media?

DC: Gosh, I don’t know if there was one moment, but it’s kind of like that moment in The Sixth Sense when Bruce Willis realizes he’s dead and flashes back to all the moments that were clues in the movie. Like, “Oh, that makes sense why this person didn’t talk to me... it was because I was a ghost!” I look back and realize that maybe the reason why I didn’t feel good about myself or felt othered when I was growing up was because we were lacking in representation. Or the only representation we had was very, uh, one dimensional and not exactly… flattering. You watch so many movies growing up and I was usually more embarrassed if there was any Asian character in a movie because we’re never treated very well. It’s like, “You know what? I’d rather not include me at all if that’s the way you’re gonna do it.

@: Where did you find your team to join you on this journey?

DC: A lot of the LA crew are people I’ve known or worked with for a long time. Phillips (CINEMATOGRAPHER) I’ve known since film school. Nichole (ELLA) is a friend i’ve made in film school, Eric (PRODUCER), I met during JUST DOUG. Half of the crew came from Kansas City and surrounding areas, so it’s kind of cool combination of two worlds of mine.

@: I was watching one of the videos of Phillips talking about the camera. He built out a large format camera?

DC: Remember like in the 2000s when like RED didn’t exist yet, and digital cameras did not look as good as film camera? Back then, they were building lens adapters for digital camcorders and so you’d be able to shoot on a piece of glass that’s like as big as a film plane that gives your image more of a “cinematic” look. We love the way it renders space and how it makes things feel big and important. So, we basically took that principle. 

Phillips is a mad man. He was like “Well, I can’t afford to get an Alexa 65 or an IMAX camera… I’m going to see if I can do this myself.” So we hired some guys in Georgia to cut a piece of glass for him and he built a camera that could film on a piece of glass the size of an IMAX frame. Those camera don’t really exist for digital and if they do, it’s definitely not affordable for a production like ours, so kudos to him. It’s amazing.

@: That’s insane. It feels like it was shot on film. I just kind of assumed it was!

DC: Yeah, shooting on a piece of glass softens everything, like highlight, glow, everything is a little softer. I think that’s just how the way we like seeing things. At least for a story like this.

@: Yeah it definitely fits well! Especially with Kansas as a backdrop. It was really beautiful.

DC: Cheers!

@: What films were you inspired by?

DC: I’ve been inspired by the work of Yasujiro Ozu the past few years. His things are pretty much about pretty mundane life situations that we all experience... and he like holds them to this very high level of importance. Like making movies about families and transitions and very simple stories. I would say like Richard Linklater’s DAZED AND CONFUSED was definitely a thought I had in my head. Moonlight by Barry Jenkins-- minorities’ experience growing up and feeling lonely...seeing the world through that person’s eyes. Terrence Malick’s, Badlands-- a sleepy small town’s eyes.

@: What was the biggest take away of shooting this film?

DC: I think I was really surprised that it happened-- We Kickstarted most of the budget and the morning I was supposed to launch the campaign, I had this terrible feeling in my stomach. Like “This is a mistake, this is dumb. Why would anyone care? We’re asking for this much money for what?” I think I just pressed the button and went to a cafe and tried to not look at my phone at all. And then like 2 hours later, I came back to my phone and I was like “Oh my god, people are actually contributing!” But yeah i think just like for me personally, just having the courage to step up and say like “Hey, I have a story to tell!” and overcoming the self doubt of “The story is too small, no one cares.” Seeing all these people contribute to our campaign, cast members, crew members… it’s just amazing how people came out for it and I’m really glad that it’s about to be shown online and people get to finally see it. 

@: That’s so exciting, Yeah, there’s this whole thing where a lot of filmmakers, especially POC, think that people don’t care about their story and it’s a mental roadblock to like step over.

DC: Yeah, like the biggest roadblock being yourself. You don’t have to say no to yourself. That’s probably the biggest takeaway- that you should support yourself. Let people say no to you if they must, but allow yourself say yes to yourself. You’re enough. You have something to say.

@: Is there anything that you want people to learn after watching ELLA?

DC: I hope that they feel something when they watch it. It’s impossible to not think of film in a political context now, and this month has been crazy like with Crazy Rich Asians and Searching, and all of a sudden there’s a landscape for Asian-American movies. Hopefully it continues to push it in that direction.

@: What are you working on now? Are there any plans for ELLA in the future?

DC: I’m finishing up another short, which is a companion piece of another one I made called GISELLE, which is like two sides of the same breakup. I’m currently working as producer/director for Jubilee Media which is this really dope digital company that’s really doing strong work in the digital space, and I’m currently writing a feature for the Sundance Fellowship!

@: So rad! Well, my last question for you is whether you have any advice for young filmmakers?

DC: Oh! A piece of tangible advice: finish things! Oh my god, finish things. Like you can learn maybe like 5% of the lesson if you write half of the script or film a movie but never finish editing it, but you’ll learn 95% of the takeaway if you actually finish it, get to the credits, post it, have people watch it… that does so much more. I know like it’s easy to get caught up in being a perfectionist and I definitely suffer from these tendencies, like “Oh my God, it’s not good. I’m just going to abandon this project.” No, finish it, you’ll learn so much.


We also had the pleasure of hearing a little bit about lead actress Nichole Bloom's experience of working on ELLA. Read below!

@: We love you in Superstore and it was really cool to see you embody a character like Ella! What's the main difference of working on a short like this versus a show like Superstore?

Nichole Bloom: I can’t point out any one “main difference”, because working on Superstore vs. working on Ella couldn’t have been more different. I never compare experiences. If anything, “Ella” was a flashback to college where I was acting in Dan’s student films and working with most of this same crew. 

@: Not every Asian-American experience is the same, but was there something about the script and story that personally resonated with you?

I don’t think that there’s anything uniquely “Asian American” about the script. It’s just about the lives of these small town kids, some of whom happen to be Asian. It wasn’t centered around their racial identity and that’s something I actually liked. I took part in the film because I think that Dan is really talented and I thought this film was sort of a love letter to his hometown and childhood, which is a nice notion. 

@: Our audience is made up primarily of teenagers looking to pursue a career in the arts. Do you have advice for others wanting to pursue acting? What’s a piece of advice you’d have for yourself when you were just starting?

If acting is your true passion, just keep finding ways to act, and if no one wants to hire you to act, then write something for yourself to act in. 

@: What are you working on now? Anything we should check out?

Check out Superstore on NBC back Oct 4th at 8pm! 

You can find Dan Chen & his work on his Instagram and his website!