‘Til Death Do Us Part is about a 77-year-old retired factory worker, whose husband passes away. Her landlord raises the rent, which she cannot afford. Unable to cope with her husband’s death and economic pressures, she believes that he’s still alive until she looks within and finds herself in order to move forward. Set in the Lower East Side, the film highlights the senior citizens who are being displaced by gentrification and examines the debilitating effects of grief, loneliness, and the loss of a loved one.
Jingjing and I are both immigrants (Jingjing is from China and I am from South Africa), so we understand what it feels like to be alone and self-reliant. We have an affinity for telling stories about people who face challenges and the choices they make to overcome them. Even though we come from opposite sides of the world, and we obviously don’t sleep with dead people, we can relate to each other and to the main character Mary Anne’s desire to hold onto the people we love, even if they no longer exist.
I met Jingjing, the writer-director of ‘Til Death Do Us Part, through a group called NYC Women Producers, which was formed by Ashley George and Heather La Kor. Shortly after, Jingjing reached out to me with the script. I immediately signed on to produce the project as I have a profound fear of losing those that I love, and I could relate to Mary Anne. I could relate to her pain, her denial, and I felt a deep empathy for the many senior citizens who are alone, all over the world. We are in the middle of our Seed & Spark crowdfunding campaign, and would love to give you a sneak peek at our production.
I sat down with Jingjing to discuss the script, the inspiration and her journey that led to ‘Til Death Do Us Part. And yes, that is us pictured above sitting on a sofa in a funeral home.
NQ: Jingjing, can you tell us what inspired you to create ‘Til Death Do Us Part?
JT: I have felt alone and misunderstood for most of my life. I tend to gravitate to these people who feel the same in real life and in film. Last year, I started making a short documentary about a senior citizen who performs improv at Magnet Theater. It’s not every day that you see a tiny woman in her 70s making jokes about flatulation on stage. As I got to know her, I realized what a difficult, lonely, and brave existence she has led. She has these surface relationships with people, but she doesn’t really have someone she can talk to and trust in the world. She spends Thanksgiving and Christmas alone. So my mind started ruminating, and I thought, “What would happen if I put a character like her into a situation where her husband, her only confidante in the world, passes away?” What would she do? How would she go on with her life? That’s how the lead character, Mary Anne, was born. Creating this character has helped me to heal from the pain of losing my grandparents and examine my relationship with myself and others. I had a very difficult time accepting the death of my grandparents and moving on with my life.
NQ: This is a very personal story to you. How do you plan to capture the essence of this narrative and shed light on the grieving process?
JT: I’d like to give people permission to accept that grieving is very personal and to acknowledge our own feelings. So much of our society focuses on wellness by denying or overlooking the existence of grief. “Time will heal,” they say. “Be positive,” they say. “Eat chocolate. Run a marathon.” You can do all of those things and still feel a sense of emptiness. A lot of people are walking around with invisible wounds. Exposing those wounds and acknowledging that it exists is the first step towards healing and happiness.
Drawing from films like The Tree of Life and Requiem for a Dream, I plan on using a pace and tone that gives the audience permission to accept their own pain. It is very important to me to create our own visual language for this short film. I’m very excited to be working with a tremendously talented actress Joan Porter,who has been in Chicago Med, Inside Amy Schumer, and Gotham, and of course our awesome crew.
NQ: Your last short film, Cowboy Joe, had some great success. Can you tell us a bit about the film and its reception?
JT: Cowboy Joe is a coming of age story about a Chinese cowboy who grapples with his identity and stands up to his father for the first time. It’s a wild short film with a lot of pathos. I was nervous about making a short film with an odd conceit and an all Chinese American cast speaking Mandarin, but the reception has been extremely positive. An audience member even wrote a song! I was afraid that I was exposing my heart for people to stab it to death, but people have actually embraced Cowboy Joe. They can relate to the story and see themselves in the characters. I feel more understood as a person and more comfortable to be honest with my vision as a writer and director. We’ll be screening Cowboy Joe at Cannes Festival d’Palais in June, Nitehawk Cinema in July, and the Museum of the Chinese in America in August. We have been featured in Paper Magazine, AM New York, and High Country News.
NQ: If Cowboy Joe and Mary Anne (‘Til Death Do Us Part) met at a bar, how would they relate?
JT: They would make out! Just kidding. They’re both outsiders. Two people that feel very alone, misunderstood, and isolated in the world. Yet, they yearn for connection and acceptance by others. They’re no longer unwilling to pretend to be someone else for acceptance. They value authenticity and being true to themselves. Their past traumas can prevent them from seeking those who are good for them. I wonder if they’ll eye each other from across the bar. Nod at one another. Overcome their fears, and sit down and have a chat. They might become friends. It might take some time, but I’m hopeful.
NQ: Before Cowboy Joe you had quite the array of jobs – one of which included life support systems for the International Space Station. Talk about life and death! When did you decide to make the leap into filmmaking full time?
JT: Ha! I started my career in aerospace – I worked on life support systems and jet engines. I spent a whole year planning my move to NYC to pursue my MFA in Creative Writing. When I moved here, my life and plan fell apart. My fiance and I broke up, and my grandmother passed away. I spent several years crying a lot and working all kinds of jobs. My mentality was, if Hemingway went to war and wrote about it, then I will work a lot and write about it. I worked as a teaching adjunct at CCNY, taught 7th grade poetry, sold books at PowerHouse Arena, ran twenty miles a week, volunteered at the Tribeca Film Festival and worked as a personal assistant for two millionaires while going to school. You can probably guess I burned myself out. When I graduated with my MFA and no job in the publishing industry, I started to examine myself and the choices I made. I realized that I have wanted to be a filmmaker since I was eight years old and still haven’t made a film! That’s when I started submitting my scripts to fellowships, took an editing class, and started making my own content. It wasn’t until this year that I made the full leap into filmmaking. Just a few months ago, my LinkedIn said Tech Consultant. I am still scared, but I am more happy and content. I am finally becoming my own person, and proud to call myself a filmmaker.
NQ: As an Asian-American filmmaker you make up a small percentage and yet you have already achieved a lot. You are a Sundance Writer’s Lab and Sundance Sloan Foundation semifinalist. You have held fellowships at the New York Public Library and the Middlebury Script Lab, as well as winning several best female director awards, and awards of excellence. You have already proven that you have the fuel to power your filmmaking jet. What do you hope to achieve with your films?
JT: You’re kind! One of my biggest goals is to be able to raise financing for my films. For Cowboy Joe, I funded the entire short by myself. Most of the crew worked for free, and I didn’t have enough funding to submit the short film to festivals. I don’t want to be in that place again. It would be a dream come true to be able to pay everyone and reach festival audiences – so I am grateful to our contributors for ‘Til Death Do Us Part. I was very humbled by the cast and crew who showed up for my first short film.
The truth is I doubt myself a lot and I have to work on my self-esteem on a daily basis. I feel like I have to prove myself over and over again. From 2016 to 2018, I read over two hundred self-help books a year. My mother has been calling me ugly and unlovable since I was three years old. Her actions confirmed her words. My sense of self and relationship to others is very skewed. A continuous loop runs in my head that I am not good enough, not smart enough, etc. The list goes on. I hope that no one will experience what I experienced, and I hope that no one sees themselves the way that I did and do. But I know that a large percentage of the people in the world come from toxic families. I used to participate in cop ride-alongs for research, and almost 90% of 911 calls were for domestic abuse. The problem is that most kids who come from abusive families don’t realize that their upbringing is abusive. They blame themselves or believe that this is just the way that the world is. I want to explore these ideas in my films. That’s why I have such an affinity for films like Minding the Gap, The Florida Project, and We the Animals. I watch them and cry. I heal too. I want to end the cycle of physical, verbal, emotional, and mental abuse. A big part of ending that cycle is advocacy and awareness, which can come from making and watching films. Entertainment and art can be a great educational tool. If I make a film as authentic as The Tree of Life, I will have truly fulfilled my purpose and lived the life that I’ve always wanted to live. It was a big challenge for me to put myself out there, but I’m very proud that I did. No matter what my ethnicity, gender, and socio-economics are, I have to constantly remind myself and others to keep going because our voice matters.
NQ: Who are some of your favorite female directors?
JT: There are so many! I love Kimberly Peirce, Eliza Hittman, Chloé Zhao, Jane Campion, and Claire Denis. For films coming out of festivals this year, I can’t wait to see The Farewell by Lulu Wang, Yellow Rose by Diane Paragas, and Portrait of a Lady on Fire by Céline Sciamma. I was impressed by Laura Somers’ feature film, Rich Kids, which I saw at the Queens World Film Festival. I also love Ioana Uricaru, who directed the feature film Lemonade, a story about the pitfalls of the immigration process in America. Ioana cares deeply about her fellow filmmakers and is the director of the Middlebury Script Lab, which I was grateful to attend. I am inspired by all of these directors and their ability to give invisible characters a voice through their lens. I also appreciate being a part of this community.
NQ: What do you hope people will take away from ‘Til Death Do Us Part?
JT: I think one of the first things that happens when you lose someone is that your whole life changes. You open your door, and you see everyone live their life. You’re almost astounded as to how other people can move about their lives while you stand in shock. I remember trying to eat and not know where my mouth was. It sounds a bit silly, but it’s true. I forgot how my body worked. Other people can’t feel what you feel. They don’t know that you’ve just lost someone extremely important. Now that I’m older, I realize that everyone is dealing with something in their life. Death can invite all kinds of feelings – guilt, anger, depression, loss – but it’s also a reminder to live fully. Sometimes we can get so caught up in the loss that we forget to live. I stopped living for a few years. I inundated myself with work and activities so that I didn’t have to deal with the pain that I felt inside. I equated living with being busy, but I was constantly running away. I hope that people watch the film, accept who and what they’ve lost in life, and gain a deeper sense of themselves and life. It goes on, and it’s okay to start over. Live to the fullest! When my grandmother passed away, I was sad that I never got to make a film for her to see. Even though she’s no longer here, I’m making films for her, and I hope that she sees them somewhere in the ether!
See you at the movies!
Jingjing Tian is a Sundance Writer’s Lab semifinalist and a Sundance Sloan Foundation semifinalist. She has held fellowships at the New York Public Library and the Middlebury Script Lab, and won best female director and awards in excellence at AT&T, the Princeton Indpt. Film Festival, and more. Her short film about a Chinese cowboy will screen at the Cannes Festival d’Palais, Nitehawk Cinema, and the Museum of the Chinese in America. She has screened at the Seattle Asian American Film Festival, the Cleveland International Film Festival, Bentonville Film Festival and more. Her work has been featured in Paper Magazine, AM New York, High Country News and more. As an actress, she has worked with director Eliza Hittman and DP Helene Louvart.