Director David Au has led a life inspired by creativity; from Hong Kong to Hollywood, and from theater to film. Au, who is also a writer and producer, is most recognized for his indie film, #EatWithMe, starring Sharon Omi, Teddy Chen Culver, and George Takei. David and I recently discussed his experiences bringing Eat With Me to life, how he got started in film, and his upcoming projects.
How did you get into filmmaking? What makes a great film, in your opinion? How did you bring that to Eat With Me?
"I didn't have a direct path into [filmmaking]. I started doing theater in college. That was my major and I did a lot of directing in theater. I was interested in the storytelling part of it. It's really fun to work with actors and develop something together and collaborate. I thought I was going to pursue a theater career. Then I took a film class in Chicago, just for the heck of it, and I had a fun time doing it."
"[There is] something about film that you can compose every shot and every frame to tell the story; I think that's very interesting. As a control freak, that's a cool way to sort of get your story out. I think once I found film, I got attached to it. Then I came out to LA and got into film school and that's history."
"As far as what's a good film, I mean there's so many ways to look at it, but I guess, for me, it's something that emotes the audience. I love watching movies that make me feel and think, and have the movie linger on in my head after I finished watching it. So, as a filmmaker, that's what I try to do as well. I like a film that can make people cry, make them laugh. I think that's something that I tried to do in 'Eat With Me'."
What is your favorite memory from making Eat With Me?
"Just talking about shooting it, getting to make it was the most amazing thing. It did go pretty quickly because we only shot it for fourteen days. Once we got the money, we're like, "Let's shoot it." And then, two weeks later, we're done. So everything went by really quickly."
"The day George Takei was there was definitely one of the highlights for everyone on the crew, including me. It was also the longest day of our shoot. We shot eighteen hours from morning to midnight. I was surprised the crew was still there at the end. It was the hardest and also the most fun, the most exciting day. George brought a fun, warm and exciting vibe to the set. He talked to every single person on set, and he was telling different stories to everyone. It was fun to have him there."
"When we were screening [the film], my favorite screening was in San Francisco during Frameline Film Festival, at the Castro Theatre. It was a full house with 1,200 people. Just seeing it with that many people –– people laughing and people crying –– it was really something to be in that audience. It was rewarding also because the ride had been on for ten years, and there are a lot of different people along the way who helped us get there. It was nice to actually show it to all these people and let them know that their help was not lost, it's in the film."
Eat With Me was, as you mentioned, years in the making, from the film school thesis project, Fresh Like Strawberries, to the feature film. What was it like to see the project conclude after so many years?
"Every stage is a little bit different in terms of how I feel about the film. At this time it is nice because [the film is] out there now, so it's out of my control. [People] watch it, and they comment on it, and they give us feedback. This has been an interesting stage, because we get to hear people's thoughts about the film. [It’s] positive stuff mostly; a lot of people relate to the characters and relate to coming out to your family, to parents."
Your film incorporates both the Asian American and LGBTQ communities. What feedback have you gotten from members of those groups?
"We definitely have a lot of people who are very appreciative in terms of seeing themselves on screen and I think that's something. I mean even for me too, I watch movies and I don't see a lot of Asian American people on screen or Asians in general, especially in American cinema. So it's something that me and my producers and our team really strived to get into the film and I think that's something people appreciate."
"Just seeing a young healthy Asian American guy being the lead, and who is also gay and able to be the lead and actually have a storyline, and actually have relationship, have failure in relationship, have a career –– all that stuff is relatable to a lot of people, and I think that's something. It was rewarding to see people relate to him, as well as to Emma, who is a middle aged Asian American woman. The last time I remember there [being] a film that focused on that group was 'The Joy Luck Club', and I think that was maybe 20 years ago."
"We also have families, parents with LGBT kids, talking to us about their experience with their kids. That was really rewarding, to get a sense that they see something they feel is relatable. We see there are a lot of LGBTQ films out there now, and not a lot [are] through the parents' perspective, seeing through their eyes what they have to go through and what their process is like. I think that was interesting to hear their feedback about it."
What do you think Eat With Me brings to the table that makes it unique and fresh compared to other films?
"This is something that I'm interested in and that's why I personally made this film the way I did instead of exploring people dealing with relationships in a very smooth way. With romcoms, every other film that I see is very smooth and generic and obviously they'll be together at the end. There's no insecurities."
"I wanted this film to be less smooth, especially with Elliot's character and how he deals with life and relationships and ends as a person who is so introverted and unable to speak his mind all the time. So, this was a good opportunity to show him, how he struggles, and how he falls a lot and then how he deals with things, how he escapes from life in general and how to deal with life in general."
"I also believe that every story has two sides of it, right? So I think for this story particularly, you have your mom's side and then you have the son's side. So we kind of see a little bit of both and to have them come together and confront each other. That's something that was very exciting to me, to show that."
You’ve shared that the scene where Emma's husband cuts off his wedding ring is inspired by a true incident where your father did the same thing. What other moments or experiences in your own life did you draw on to write this story?
"That part did happen to my parents. They're still together but they weren't very happy with me making this whole story into a movie, but it was a very interesting story when I heard it. I immediately thought in my mind, "What if she took it a little bit further and just took off, and then have a whole new life?'"
"So that's where 'Eat With Me' came from, and I think that's actually sort of the only real story from the film. Everything else, different elements of it are true but the actual plot lines are fictional. Definitely there are parts of me and my mom that show up in Emma and Elliot in terms of how they deal with each other, how they communicate. I think they're very similar and that's why I wrote those characters."
"Other aspects of the film are based on a lot of true moments in my relationships with people, friends and partners. That's all part of it for sure. Like there was that moment with Elliott and his one night stand; the first time he had sex with somebody, and hoping that it might become something, but knowing that it probably won't. Those are true moments that have definitely happened either to me or other people as well. If was just based on my life, that would be a little bit more boring."
Which character do you identify with most? What is it about them that you relate to?
"It's a little bit of a cliche thing to say for me, but I find myself a little bit in every single character. Like, I think with Emma, I have –– or at least I want to have –– her courage and adventurous personality. That she would just pack up her bags and go and have no regrets; to be at that stage of her life and still wanted to make a change. I think that's something that is very courageous to me. I can also see part of myself also in Elliot. l, myself, am also kind of an introvert. I don't know how to vocalize a lot of feelings in the moment. I can definitely see the struggles that he's dealing with and how he relates to people and finding relationships. I also like to be the fun Maureen as well. I want her humor, her sparks, her way of looking at life."
How did you decide that the film would focus on Emma and her journey as much as, if not more, than on Elliot and his?
"To me that was a little bit more of an interesting and unique story to tell. I think there is so much struggle within the mother's character that we don't see otherwise. I haven't seen that many stories about an Asian American parent dealing with a gay son. What does that feel like? I think that's something that was interesting, especially for a woman who was also dealing with issues with her own husband and her own relationship."
"I was interested in the parallels of the child-parent relationship, and how the parents’ relationships are sometimes moved and transferred to the children’s way of looking at relationships. I think that's the reason why we focused on it. At one point [Emma and Elliot were] actually pretty 50/50 in the script, but then we decided to go more with Emma."
If you had to imagine where the characters of Eat With Me are in their lives now, where would they be?
"I think Emma definitely moved in with Maureen somehow. I think they became roommates. That's a good sort of dynamic for them to have with each other. I see Emma start dating again. Maybe start dating her ex-husband again. Just having to experience new things –– I think she's in that stage right now that she will try everything. And Elliott, I think I would say he probably opened up the restaurant and I think he's still stumbling upon relationships. I'm not sure if he's still with Ian or not, but I think that part is going to take him more time."
What other projects have you been involved in since Eat With Me? Can we expect more films from you in the future?
"I produced a film with my friend Michelle Ehlen, who was also a producer on 'Eat with Me.' She did a lesbian comedy feature called 'S&M Sally.' It actually just came out online."
"I'm working on a couple of projects but the one that's actually in development right now is another dramedy type of film called 'Better Company.' It's about two best friends: one gay, one straight. It's actually a gay Caucasian guy and a straight Asian guy. They're best friends [from] college and the gay friend just got engaged to his partner and the straight guy just found out that his one-night stand got pregnant. They decided to go on a road trip to go see the birth of the baby."
"It's a different sort of coming of age story –– how life gives you responsibilities that you have to take on, and where you go from there. So there's a little bit different kind of feel to it, and I think, as a film, it might be a little bit darker than 'Eat with Me.' The film is co-written with Mark Neal and will be produced by both he and Joyce Liu-Countryman. We're actually hoping to shoot in Eugene, Oregon. I visited there a few years ago, and that was sort of the start of this."
Check out Eat With Me, available now on iTunes and Netflix, and keep an eye out for David's upcoming films!