Hello From Taiwan is a story of a Taiwanese American family in the late 1980s who struggles to reunite across cultural and language divides. This is a family story, a unification story, an immigrant story, a child’s story, and a belonging story. It’s about family identity, minority struggle, the illusion of the American dream. It’s about experiencing life as an Asian American, and Taiwanese American in the late 80’s.
I met Tiffany Frances, the writer-director of Hello From Taiwan, in Summer 2018 at an Alliance of Women Directors event in Los Angeles. We briefly connected and chatted about being working directors, finding crew after a cross-country move, and what it takes to make authentic stories in Hollywood. Cut to six month later: Tiffany is now one of just eight directors selected for the American Film Institute’s Directing Workshop for Women, working on a very personal story Hello from Taiwan.
I immigrated from Moldova in 1998, with my family re-unifying after 2-year separation, and Tiffany’s story spoke to me. I found the approach to the film quite intriguing because it is told from the point of view of a little girl, stemming from her innocence and desire to understand how the world around her works. Beyond that, setting the film in the late 1980s provided an opportunity to create such an exciting visual world, enhanced further by the music of the era and the cultural influences of the characters. I immediately signed on as Hello From Taiwan’s producer, and we have been working together for three months now, diving into Tiffany script to flesh out characters even further, searching for crew and locations to match San Jose in the late 1980s, and launching into our Seed&Spark crowdfunding campaign.
I sat down with Tiffany Frances to discuss her Hello From Taiwan journey, what it means to be an Asian American storyteller, and why she chose the medium of filmmaking.
MV: Let’s start with a simple question. What is Hello From Taiwan?
TF: Simple, right. Well, before I tell you what Hello From Taiwan is, I should share the origin of the story. I grew up as the youngest of three siblings in San Jose, CA. My parents were immigrants from Taiwan, but, when I was a toddler, they decided to separate. My dad returned to Taiwan and took my older sisters with him. He eventually came back, a year later, bringing my two sisters back, but returned to Taiwan right after.
One of my most vivid childhood memories was of me re-meeting the family at the airport. I knew that the people coming back were my sisters and my dad, but, at 4 years old, I was confused why they had left my mom and me in the first place. And that’s where Hello from Taiwan begins. We open with the scene of a Taiwanese American family reuniting at the airport. The film then goes on to explore the few weeks that follow, as the family struggles to reconnect, the sisters clash within themselves and with the outside world, and the mom takes on raising 3 girls instead of one. After a year of living in Taiwan and speaking Mandarin, the sisters experience a cultural and personal rift between them.
I also want to point out that the experience of being Asian American is a unique one. It’s not being “Asian” and it’s not exactly “American”, but a clash and blend of the two. That’s what makes this story different, because on top of the plot points, the characters struggle internally as to who they are and how they fit in. There is always a sense of searching. And I’m attracted to exploring that internal drive. It’s affected me and my perspective. I like to believe I share that with the Asian American community. And this is the why this story is important for me to tell.
So, yes, the significance of my family’s transformation hit me recently. And I wanted to write a script as a way to look back at the sacrifices and hardships we all faced and overcame.
MV: I can imagine how confusing that would be for a four-year old.
TF: And it was! That’s why I wanted to make this film from the point of view of a child, someone who might not understand what is going on, but someone who feels the shift and the separation on a more subconscious, emotional level. This also provides an opportunity for the story to be less literal and explore the world that a four-year-old is excited, or even scared, about. This approach fits into my directing style as well. I usually like to create work that is figurative, non-methodical, visual, thoughtful, visceral, and sometimes experimental.
MV: Just the description of your work already sounds poetic. Did you achieve this style through a particular thought process or is this just natural to you?
TF: I think it comes naturally—I’m the ‘daydreamer’ type—as in, I get lost in thought and space out from the world around me sometimes. I’m not a person who rushes into things. I’m not saying I’m not proactive, but my mind works with a lyricism, for lack of better term, that feels natural to me.
MV: Yes, it would be a stretch not to call you proactive—with everything you already achieved. Can you share how you got into the AFI’s Directing Workshop for Women?
TF: For sure. I don’t think it was anything in particular that got me into the program. It was probably a variety of factors. When I decided to apply, I was still living in New York working as a director, and also as an editor from time to time. My short films have done a few festival circuits, and I’ve worked on multiple campaigns in the branded world. Sometimes also working in the corporate video world. I’ve been focusing on my directing career for a long time, and at a certain point, probably about 3 years ago, I knew I needed to really ramp it up in order to get to where I wanted. We all know the hustle of indie filmmakers. I live simply, save any money I make, and put that into my passion projects. I also actively put myself out there and network as much as possible. Maybe these things all rolled into having a body of work that feels more ‘me’ than ever before, even with projects that had a minimal budget.
I do think it was my personal connection to the script I submitted that tipped the scales in my favor. Everyone who applies to the program has years of work behind them and strong careers in entertainment. Being in the program now, I noticed that the other seven scripts, as different as they are, have one thing in common: they are very specific to each director. It’s really cool to see the power of specific, personal stories. And I think being at AFI DWW is a definite highlight of my career so far, but I hope this will become a springboard to even more magical experiences.
MV: Sounds so uplifting.
TF: I am a positive person, and that positive drive is what makes things happen, but I want to be clear that filmmaking has its own set of struggles. I have, and still do, experience what I believe they call the “unconscious bias”. How many times have I been on set where I’m directing and introduce myself to a crew member, and they’re quick to dismiss me until they realize I’m the director. My skin is pretty thick now though; and I know better how to gravitate towards the people who are supportive, care about newer stories, and are open to more inclusive sets. Asides from all that I experience from the industry, I struggle with fitting into the norm of what society tells us an adult should look like. There’s no ladder for directors to climb on to be successful; there’s no clear and cut path for any individual in this business. I can’t take a 9-5 job because I have to remain open to any opportunities that come up during the week, and I also have to motivate myself on a consistent basis. I used to be very isolated when it came to talking about myself and my ‘career’ especially compared to several other successful adults. That’s a real thing I face daily.
MV: Having no clear path is definitely isolating. Your resume, though, shows no signs of the above struggles. I’d say it’s the opposite: there are many highlights that stand out.
TF: Oh really? Like what?
MV: I see. You want me to do it? You were in the SHOOT Magazine’s 2018 New Directors Showcase with What I Wish You Said, your film Movement for National Geographic has over 1 million views on Facebook, and A Cool Dark Place was a finalist for Best Short Drama at the New Filmmakers LA, while screening at many other fests. Plus, you’ve screened at Nitehawk, Berlin Fashion, and Brand Film Festivals. And your work was featured on Paper Magazine, Ladygunn, Stereogum, The Fader and BlackBook Magazine, among others. To add to that, you produced commercials for Barney’s and Red Bull, music videos for Toro Y Moi and Killer Mike, and directed branded projects for National Geographic, Dia&Co, Tanya Taylor, Citibank, Acura, Montiel and Jonesy. I’m pretty sure I’m still missing a few.
TF: That’s pretty good, Marina. That’s why we pay you the good bucks!
MV: That’s right. Joking aside, this screams to me that you love filmmaking.
TF: I do. I enjoy creative work, in all formats: I play music, I love to take photographs, I did theater since high school. At UCSD, while an undergraduate, I took a ton of film classes. Reading about film theory and the history of film made me realize the impact that this form of media has on society. I experimented and discovered it was the most all-encompassing medium for me as an artist. It’s more than just storytelling: it’s an experience. Filmmaking weaves together music, sound design, time, composition, color, movement, acting, performance, art, all in one strand of images that reflect our world back at us. Plus, I love that it encompasses environments, clothing, hair and makeup! Every element is so important and plays a part. It’s incredible. It’s a challenge but it’s so rewarding.
MV: Yep, that’s exactly why I think Hello From Taiwan is such a powerful story.
TF: Yes, while recreating the world, music, clothes, and hair of 1989 will be tough, all these elements will make the film feel palpable and real. Did I already mention that the film starts with the 1989 San Francisco earthquake?
MV: Hmm. Does your producer know about it? But you aren’t just a mover and shaker, you are also an inspiration for many. You are one of a very few Asian American directors out there!
TF: Actually, I feel like there are a lot of us, but few are getting the recognition and opportunity they deserve. Out of the 1335 directors who directed 1200 top grossing films between 2007 and 2018, there were only 3 Asian American women directors. It’s only .15%. Yes, there is a period before the 1 and 5.
While statistics are sobering, I’m looking at this as an opportunity for me as an Asian American, and especially Taiwanese American, filmmaker to show that there are more voices and stories out there that ought to get told. American media is imbalanced, let’s just say it. Hello From Taiwan is about a Taiwanese American family and it shows them as real, authentic characters, instead of the usual stereotypes we see in popular media. As I navigated my childhood, I wish there were any coming of age, authentic Asian American stories on my TV screen or films that I could relate to. Fully multi-dimensional, fleshed out humans. Cut to: many years later, I’m still frustrated with the industry and want to create change. This film is an opportunity to give a voice to minorities and immigrants in the US, and also help others feel they aren’t alone. Family relationships and life are complex for American immigrants and their children, so why not have Hello From Taiwan explore those themes?
MV: Did you grow up with any creative influences that you can recall? Who are some current filmmakers you’re enjoying?
TF: I had a few. As I mentioned earlier, I didn’t discover “real” filmmaking until college. And that’s when I was pulled into French New Wave cinema. I know, that’s nowhere near Asia. Jean-Pierre Gorin, my professor at UCSD, was a large influence on me and my thought process very early on. Satyajit Ray’s The Apu Trilogy was really striking to me. And I keep learning more and more about the work of South Korean filmmakers – Lee Chang Dong, Kim Ki-duk, Bong Joon-ho. And I find female filmmakers really mesmerizing of course. I love new voices emerging these days such as Issa Rae, Alma Har’el and Crystal Moselle. I’ve always loved Lynne Ramsay, Karyn Kusama, Jane Campion.
I love Alma Har’el’s style and also her advocacy for women directors in the commercial industry. I really connect with the work of Crystal Moselle. I wonder if it’s the New Yorker in me, or how she sees the characters as never perfect, always real, yet so easy to connect with. Christina Choe also has a really unique voice for storytelling and I think is one to watch. I’m also keeping my eye out for Minhal Baig, Li Lu, and Angela Chen.
MV: Seems to me, since we’ve been working together, you are yourself a strong storyteller.
TF: That’s nice of you to say! I’m just committed to trying to challenge the norm. I’d like to be a voice for women and the under-represented; I’m very passionate about that. I believe strongly in contributing to the Asian American community; more specifically, highlighting Taiwanese American stories.
I’m also incredibly inspired just to be in the presence of my AFI DWW cohorts and the people guiding us. For one, it means this project I’m making is supported by the right people and the best intentions, and that’s not always easy to find. Also, sisterhood is powerful, right? To be doing this alongside other passionate, talented women is an amazing feeling. We had a weekend writing workshop in February, and it was fun hearing brilliant ideas being tossed around between a group of women. I made a joke afterwards, like ‘women’s writer’s rooms forever!’ But really, we accomplished so much by being in one room together. I’m excited to go back into the ‘classroom’.
MV: So more classes is what’s in your near future?
TF: Yeah, a full month of workshops in May where we meet every day to learn about script development, pitching, developing, acting, the minutiae of what it means to be a director. Then the month of June will be focused on pre-production for the film. And in July we shoot. And then we lock picture in 45 days, then do sound mix, color correction, and other finishing touches. By December 2019 I will turn in a version of the film to the AFI DWW team. After that follows the AFI Directing Workshop for Women Showcase in April 2020. And the dream? I want to make Hello From Taiwan as a television series. Imagine watching a Taiwanese American story on TV! How cool would that be?
MV: Quite awesome! And it takes work, lots of work.
TF: You’re telling me? They say crowdfunding is tough, but you only realize how intense it is when you do it. It’s a full-time job. But I do love getting that email letting me know a new pledge comes in. And it’s empowering to gain the approval and trust from so many people from all walks of life. Our supporters got us over 50% of our goal in less than a week. Isn’t that amazing? Lots of credit goes to my sister Yolanda Huang who is serving as the Executive Producer of the project. She is the secret ingredient in making the Seed&Spark campaign a success. My other sister Jenny is also very involved, sharing the campaign within her circle of influence. Filmmaking is a family affair, both at set and at home.
In addition to our amazing first week reaching our numbers, we were also showcased on the front page of the Seed&Spark website. It’s all such a rollercoaster ride. That’s probably not a good analogy; it’s more like being a rocket shot into space.
But we couldn’t do this without the support of our community. Our friends and family are there for us. They share about the film on social media and email. You, Marina, in particular have been an amazing advocate. It’s also the community that has been supporting me. The film and I were spotlighted by the TaiwaneseAmerican.org, and Asian Women In Business also ran a profile on my work. SLMBR PRTY, Teresa Jusino of Finding Felicity Podcast, and friends from Alliance of Women Directors + #WeAreWITI helped spread the word. A few previous DWW fellows gave shoutouts that really helped. And we just found out we got a grant from The Future of Film Is Female. Yes, we are fundraising outside of our crowdfunding. Did I say it’s crazy busy?
MV: Wait, you forgot to add you are a working director and recently released your latest Dia&Co campaign.
TF: Oh yeah, I shot 2 Dia&Co spots in February—one in New York City and one in Palm Springs. It was so much fun to work with the Quirk Creative team. And major shoutout to Fletcher Wolfe, who is an amazing DP and crushed it. And this was the first time I worked with the Ultimate Arm. It made me want to get into car commercials. Can we have an Ultimate Arm on Hello From Taiwan?
MV: Sure, that’s what the stretch goal is for!
TF: Great, let’s do it! Even though this film is nothing like a car commercial!
MV: Last question. What is something not many people know about you as a filmmaker? Something that fuels you, something that keeps you in this tough creative yet business world? Where do you find inspiration?
TF: Victoria Hochberg, my professor from Art Center College of Design, was a past DWW fellow from back in the day. I remember everything she taught me. And of course, my family. My parents have made so many tough sacrifices and endured many hardships for me and my sisters to grow up in a privileged world and receive the best opportunities. Knowing all of their hard work and some of the pain they may have experienced, is a driving force for myself to work extremely hard to achieve my dreams.
I’m inspired by art and music, and also just by experiencing life. My work is often personal, and there is a treasure trove of stories that you can find when you are living as part of a 3-sister household, as a child of immigrants, as a woman. That’s it. Simple.
And I’m deeply encouraged by knowing who believes in me. Over the weekend, our Seed&Spark campaign slowed down a bit as we were recovering from the launch on the prior Tuesday, so I was feeling a bit discouraged. And then on Tuesday a few collaborators I really admire from previous projects I’ve directed donated! And I felt so overwhelmed. It felt like a stamp of approval from professionals who trust in me and my ability as a creative. Also the wonderful AFI DWW alumnae and staff. They are there for us, the current class; they answer questions, provide insight, and even support our Seed&Spark campaigns. There’s so much all 8 of us are receiving right now that it will probably take a while to absorb it all and process it.
One more thing to add: throughout this process, I’ve learned that telling stories which are profoundly important to you, as an individual, is very empowering. Because you will see those stories on the big screen and know you did it. Against all the statistics out there.
MV: Not a bad way to end the interview. Stay positive.
TF: Positive and open.
You can contribute to Hello From Taiwan crowdfunding campaign here.
Tiffany Frances is a Taiwanese American director and writer based in NYC and LA, working in music videos, branded content and narrative film. She is a current fellow of the AFI Directing Workshop for Women. Her personal work has entered several festivals and has been featured at La Femme Film Festival, Berlin Fashion Film Festival, Brand Film Festival, Paper Magazine, Ladygunn, Stereogum, among others. Her producing credits include Barney’s, Red Bull, Toro Y Moi, Killer Mike, while she has directed work for National Geographic, Citibank, and Acura. She was selected for SHOOT Magazine’s 2018 New Directors Showcase, where a trailer of her short film What I Wish You Said was screened at the Directors Guild Theater in New York. Follow Tiffany Frances on Facebook, Instagram, Twitter and her website.
Marina Viscun is a double-Telly winning producer (Big Voice, Journey to Safety), writer (Seeds, Dress Blues), and director (Last Night, Reverse). Her projects through Pingvin Productions focus on socially conscious themes (LGBTQ+, cancer, military family, domestic violence, etc.) often addressed from an uncommon perspective. She is also former Head of Production at Pulse Films US, Producer with Caviar LA, a US Navy veteran, and a trilingual (Russian, Romanian, English).