In many ways, I am in the middle of a crisis.
Two years ago, in the spring of 2009, after appearing in a tireless string of film and theatre productions as a professional actor, I decide to invest some thought and energy into my writing, creating a new project and, much more specifically, making a feature film.
Immediately, I know I’ve conjured a massive mountain to climb, but this as yet untaken path might prove to be a necessary and monumental step for me, I think. My recent work as an actor has been rewarding, yes, and even mostly critically acclaimed, but, in terms of advancing myself in this business, not exactly career-defining or strategically meaningful. In the past, I’ve jumped into thankless roles with zeal, but this pattern only seems to perpetuate the destructive notion that I don’t deserve better or that, somehow, I’m not ready for bigger things. Now, I want to make smarter choices, to consider not grabbing only what hangs right in front of me and to focus more on Business. (Of the clichéd Show Business package, it is always the Business part that is too abrasive for me, but I can no longer ignore the importance of being active or tactical or, even, daring.) You see, for most Asian American performers, like me, the reality of booking consistent and fulfilling jobs that pay well in Hollywood is simply harsh. According to Screen Actors Guild statistics, our plight has become increasingly challenged against, for example, more favorable trends amongst Caucasian, Latino and African American actors. Of course there are exceptions, I know, but I don’t want to depend on luck anymore, or timing or connections or having ‘the right look’ or any of these X factors that cloud my forecast of the future. I now believe I can accomplish much more, without any apologies. My time is now, damn it.
This sort of thinking, by the way, isn’t anything new. For years, my friends and I have babbled like this before, fantasizing about the less-taken road, thoughtlessly comparing our astronomically improved chances for stardom with those of other fabled hyphenated actors, like Matt Damon and Ben Affleck, or Sylvester Stallone, or Jon Favreau and Vince Vaughn. This time, though, I am more serious (I think). I am tired of this bullsh*t – my bullsh*t, their bullsh*t and The Bullsh*t. And it isn’t anything about fame, but only for a mere chance to do what I love for a living. So I must DO something. No more waiting. I am sick of placing someone else’s affirmation above my own, which only weakens my voice. Lest I groan on the sidelines for another five years, I must begin now.
Having successfully written stage plays and short movies before, this well-meaning idea sounds rather reasonable and, even, completely surmountable. So, over the next several weeks, I chew on some promising ideas in my mind and play with a few interesting elements in the storytelling. Sketches of flawed characters take shape in my head, if only to be morphed into something else entirely days later. Scenes I’ve been recording into a notepad grow more complex with layers and obstacles, yet I question if they add to the whole or compromise pacing. Soon, this exercise starts to feel like working with an imaginary Rubik’s Cube of sorts, only with a lot more sides – moving so many pieces around, weighing the options, listening to my heart, hoping for originality, yet, ultimately, staring into darkness. Finally, I gain some traction and feel bold enough to face The Blank Page.
I sit and start my Final Draft application, then, oddly, feel the preparation from those weeks of work slip from me. I forget my point. I test the theme, but can’t defend it. I second-guess those nuggets of goodness in which I had placed so much trust only days before. I try to focus, but the characters all sound false. This f*cking sucks. Now, against the keyboard, my fingers have no power, no certainty to begin. I am afraid, I guess, and this old habit of waiting is hard to shake.
Then, I realize something: One often assumes that The Blank Page beckons, but this is all wrong to me. Somehow, in this moment, The Blank Page is selfish and unapologetic. Its face is hollow, cold. I don’t think it beckons anyone. I stare at my screen, expecting to be handed something, wanting this to be easy, but The Blank Page doesn’t offer me a thing. It does not ask, it does not answer, it does not wait and it does not invite. It simply is, take it or leave it. Suddenly, I am filled with doubts, internal commentaries, fears, naysaying:
How can I write 110 pages? Who wants to watch this? Where will I get the money? Can I see this through? Am I an idiot? Is my voice compelling or, at least, interesting? (And will I save the f*cking cat?!)
Shutting this out, I conclude that the action, the intention, the desire, the question, the dread – everything, in fact! – can only come from me. It has to. I have the next move. I always have the next move.
So I begin with, FADE IN:
Waking up at 8 a.m. to write is not the easiest agreement to make with myself, but I keep my promise over the next several months. I dig in and commit. Slowly, The Blank Page fills with my voice, my ideas, my heart. Motivation follows action. There is so much in me, I find. I am able. I can be wrong, yes, but I will be right. I feel a fight in my belly and smile at the prospect of getting this script done.
First draft: I learn something important about the story. I needed to get here. I had to earn this. I take some notes and get back to work, easily deleting entire sections without fear. I know the drill.
(Money in the bank is drying up, so I don’t eat like a king anymore. My social calendar suffers, but who f*cking cares, right? I am focused.)
Second draft: I learn something important about the characters. I rub my hands together in celebration, everything is gold. When I refine the little details, it all changes again. New colors fill the painting, new music plays in my head. Yes, I am still excited.
(Expenses are escalating due to one unforeseeable incident after another, so I am more careful, cautious, responsible about things. My current philosophy is, Being Grateful Will Keep Me Safe. Hey, nobody told me living my dream would be easy.)
Third draft: I learn something important about the theme. This is a gift! I look back at the months of hard work and sigh. I am so tired, but I swim in the middle of an ocean. I cannot give up now.
(Auditions are going really well, but I lose a few great ones to ‘names,’ so, naturally, I beat myself up. My manager says, Don’t worry, I believe in you! – What more could I ask for? – so I choose to believe in myself too. As well, some bookings come through and re-energize me, shift my focus to allow for relaxation. The universe has a plan, I guess. I go with the flow.)
Today, two years later – after six drafts, many gut checks and blissful interruptions, nights of sleepless hours, countless readings, pages of notes, cups and cups of coffee over conversations, dozens of meetings with talented directors and several permutations of its potential cast (even having a rising star attached for over a year!) – I am proudly in the middle of preproduction for my movie, nightdreamblues, and safely surrounded by a team of gifted artists with equal passion. Principal photography is slated to begin in late-September with Nadine Truong, our fearless director.
Without a doubt, this is only possible because we have the support of a brilliant and big-minded producing team, which includes Brian Yang, Eddie Mui, Frances E. Chang and Kevin Leung. Together, we are building a cast and crew to fill this experience with their expertise and love.
Perfect, right? I mean, all’s well that ends well! So why the hell am I in crisis, you say?
Well, now, there are more doubts, even darker internal commentaries and real, justifiable fears conspiring with lots of naysaying – and all related to the same questions. With my completed script, our team has the daunting task of turning it into a motion picture – a f*cking feature film! – with, like, a professional cast and crew, budget, locations, rentals, craft services, insurance and permits, payments and contingencies. We’ll be always begging of favors from strangers and sometimes upsetting friends, dealing with unions and agents and lawyers and … The Blank Page.
What am I doing? How will I get the money? Who will help me? To whom can I go for assistance? Can I see this through? Will someone want me? Am I an idiot? Have I wasted my time? Why are other people making it look so easy? What is in my future? Should I just give up?
nightdreamblues centers on one midsummer night in Los Angeles, during an unexpected reunion between three childhood friends, now in their 30s, whose lives have turned out to be nothing like they had ever imagined. How do they reconcile the reality of their lives with the burden of their dreams?
The theme is universal. It is, essentially, about The Blank Page.
Like I (maybe, even, like you), every single major character in this film confronts, in one way or another, this gripping apprehension. Through their explosive interactions, they might discover that to live is to be brave and to dream in the face of hopelessness, even to celebrate the darker moments of one’s life with open eyes.
The Blank Page.
Yes, my fellow artists in the movie/entertainment industry know this turmoil especially well, but I suspect that its mighty aura, if you will, isn’t unique to just us. The fact of not knowing what tomorrow will bring is inherent in life’s basic premise, that in order for us to experience Tomorrow, we need, actually, to survive Today – and in this uneasy survival, day after day, with every small and seemingly insignificant step, we slowly make a Life, as one would a Film. With those questions we create, with that approaching intersection, one after the other, we surely turn from one blank page to face another:
With everything up in the air, what will land first?
What is more important?
Where is my heart? My fear? My hope?
What do I want? Who do I need? How will I know?
In the proverbial Bigger Picture, What or Who matters most?
In many ways, I am in the middle of a crisis.
But the crisis does not subside. I am still working as an actor, yes, but I certainly have not solved any big issues about my life, my future or my career. (The Business side of things still blows.) I am still worried about my neighbor’s house – the one with ‘the white picket fence’ – and comparing our two lawns. Oh, I have lots of love in my life, but there are powerful moments of darkness. And I absolutely don’t have any of the answers (Nobody does, I’m told.), but I can say, though, from my limited experience so far, the solution might be whatever I want it to be – and it will always be the right one.
We fill The Blank Page because we have the next move. We always have the next move.
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[NOTE: Pictures above are images from our temporary trailer for NIGHTDREAMBLUES and do not necessarily represent its final cast/product, as we are still in preproduction.]
WEST LIANG is a professional actor and writer living in Los Angeles, who is very busy prepping nightdreamblues for production. He WOULD LOVE your help and gracious support on their Kickstarter campaign, which closes at the end of August, and wishes to thank David Branin and Karen Worden at FilmCourage for their friendship. For more information, you may reach him through his Web site, Facebook page or managers at Station 3.
Actor West Liang tells us his artistic process in the creation of the upcoming feature film NIGHT DREAM BLUES.