—— How did you get started in all of this?
While I was going to college I got interested in writing, writing poetry, free verse, spoken word. It started off as a side thing but I always went back to it. I worked a lot of other jobs while I was acting and writing. I did everything; I worked at UPS, the airport, parking cars, and one job that I stuck with was as an electronics store salesman, half the time I was selling and the other half I was working in the warehouse. But I didn’t have any idea that writing was going to become a career. My writing very quickly turned into acting when I was introduced to the Asian American Theater Company. Early on they said “We’re doing this play, why don’t you audition?” and I said, “What are you talking about?” But I auditioned and I got cast and remember thinking, “What am I going to do now?” I ended up learning a tremendous amount about theater and acting in that first production, from my fellow actors, the director and the writers. I was always observing, soaking in as much as I could. I continued to write a lot of free verse and poetry, but maybe it was because I had been acting in theater, but part of my writing became character oriented. My characters started to take on a life of their own. For example, one of the pieces was about embodying one of my uncles who was a 442 soldier and reliving that time in his life during World War II.
—— So you started tapping into your heritage early on?
Yeah, because I was learning so much about it then. I was still in college so I was always researching it and going into it and tryin’ to figure it all out. College does that. So all of this was coming out in my writing. I had become a published writer and I was asked to teach a creative writing class at SF State. I did that for a few semesters and then I left, because I completed and staged my first play “Life in the Fast Lane”. It was about an Asian American writer and the struggle to get published, but during the evening, I’m going to show you what a writer writes about and then I performed all the characters. We were scheduled to tour 19 cities and I kind of just stopped going to college. I eventually went back and got my degree, but that’s the way things happened. My parents were watching all this time and I knew they were wondering, “What the hell is this guy going to do?”
—— Now I understand that your dad was an accountant. Didn’t he ever try to persuade you to pursue something a little more practical?
Of course, of course…always, because my dad was Mr. Practical, “When are you going back to school? Maybe you should study accounting or go into real estate…just go into something.” He was always saying that because he knew the path of an actor or a writer would be rough. When I was touring, it took up a lot of time; but it paid decently and I was able to take care of myself. Even though my dad was worried about me, he would come see the plays. After he saw “Life in the Fast Lane” he really kind of understood something about me. One of the opening pieces was about my grandmother who passed away, so it’s really about everybody’s grandmother and he asked me if I would give him a copy of it. He said he wanted to have it translated into Japanese so he could send it to our relatives in Japan. On the one hand, he wanted me to be financially secure, but on the other hand, he was really proud and respected what was I was doing.
—— So what happened when you finished touring “Life in the Fast Lane”?
When I came back, after touring for four years, the Asian American Theater asked if I’d take over as Artistic Director and I did. By then I was also directing plays, and had acted in a ton of shows. One of the things we set out to do there was to become a union house, so our actors could get paid and they might qualify for benefits, even if that meant our budget tripling…but that’s what we did. It was difficult, but now we had this company that was legit and really becoming a center. For 10 seasons we produced plays with the Actors Equity Union contracts and I was very proud of that. Most of that time I was busy developing other people, actors, writers, directors and I didn’t really focus on what I needed to do until the tail end. I developed another one-man show, “I’m on a Mission form Buddha” which I also toured and we eventually shot for PBS at KQED. It had a national broadcast. That’s about the time, my stint with the theater began to taper off.
—— When you were out touring did you have a mission?
Everyone develops a show differently. I would always approach a show from the perspective of what I wanted to say historically, politically and socially. I examine the Asian American experience through my eyes and my perceptions. One thing I can tell you is that people who come to one of my shows, will leave the theater with a totally different perspective of the Asian American male. I try to search for truth and give it to the audiences in as many ironic, satirical, humorous moments that I can. That was my mission, if there was one, to give an audience a very different but real perspective. I wrote “I’m on a Mission from Buddha” after I’d been acting for many years and it’s about what an actor can do if given the chance. My last one-man show was called “Mifune and Me” its kind of like being in the business now for so many years and seeing all these images. It’s about examining the media and how it portrays us and in the show, we also see that here is this hero I have, Toshiro Mifune, and in this country I am never ever going to be able to be him. He was like a John Wayne to me. I’d seen all his films but if I was sitting around flipping through the channels and “Seven Samurai” came on, I’d think, “Gotta watch this again for the 100th time!” His characters were timeless. Anyway, that’s what “Mifune and Me” is about, but like I said, in this country it just ain’t going to happen
—— Since you brought it up, what’s your take on the state of Asian American actors in Hollywood?
Used to be 400 films a year would come out of Hollywood...I’m sure there’s more now, not including independents, but you can probably count on one hand the number of films that actually had an Asian leading man or woman, that wasn’t a martial arts master, the enemy or a whore. That’s what we’ve had to look forward to. After “Life in the Fast Lane” toured through Los Angeles, a friend introduced me to his agent and they wanted to sign me on. I was still living in the Bay area so they were cool and wouldn’t bother me with the one or two line walk on roles. But that was 20 years ago, and there wasn’t a lot going on for Asian Americans, no “Lost”, no “Crouching Tiger”, no Law and Order, SVU, nothing. Bruce Lee maybe, but there wasn’t much else. But this one role came along and my agent called and said this was a good one. So I flew down and did my first read, got a call back, did that and went back home. The director calls me and says, “We’re bringing you in to read for the producers. But think about this Lane, I said producers and there’s going to be a whole slew of them. They’ve seen your tape. Now I’m voting for you, but they’re not and I’ll tell you why; your voice is too low; you walk in and you’re too strong. You have the kind of stage presence that any actor would want, but they don’t really like it. You’ve got to shave your mustache, get a geeky suit, wear some wire rim glasses and do something about your voice. It’s too deep.” So I said, “Okay I’ll try.” Of course I didn’t get the part. Actually, it went to a friend of mine…a nice guy but a very different guy than me…and he has a higher voice (laughing). But that’s LA…that’s Hollywood.
—— You assembled such a great cast for Only the Brave with a lot of great actors and Asian American stars…that really says something. How did you manage to put it all together for your first full-length feature?
I felt like everything I’ve done and learned until now was preparing me for this. Writing, acting, directing, producing, running a theater company, raising money, looking at budgets, working with designers, meeting deadlines, everything I’ve done helped me get it done. And working in theater, we always had to figure out how we could do it and do it right, but on the cheap. For “Only The Brave”, initially, I got a grant from the California Civil Liberties Public Education Program in 2003. Then with the National Japanese American Historical Society, we spent the year raising money through a donation campaign and private sources. At the same time I started writing the script. The script came pretty quickly, but raising the money was the tough part. For the cast we had put together a wish list, held the initial auditions, but then we had to shut down. We knew who we wanted and once people heard that our project was based on the 100th Battalion and the 442nd, people wanted to be a part of it. I think they had sense of the significance of the project. Hell, I didn’t even have to put out a casting call. I had 450 people auditioning for me as soon as word got out that I was casting. The first group that I knew we were going to use was Tamlyn (Tomita) and Greg, George Takei, who was originally supposed to play my father, and then Yuji (Okumoto) signed on and then Mark Dacascos calls and says, “I’d like to audition,” and I told him, “Dude, you don’t have to audition for me…what role do you wanna play?” So I sent him the script and I told him to look at this particular character, one of the Sergeants. When I knew he was interested I rewrote the script and wrote the character “happa” because I thought it was important for him to feel comfortable about who he is, a person of mixed ethnicity and it blew him away. At the same time we were waiting to hear from Jason (Scott Lee) and once we did, I made his character half-Chinese. I knew it would be great for his character to lead the charge up the hill. Sometimes, we were wondering how were going to do it, but we did.
—— I imagine “Only The Brave”, like your previous work, drew on a lot of your memories and personal experiences too. Who was the inspiration for your Sgt. Takada?
My uncles and my dad. Sgt. Takada…Jimmy was my dad’s name and his last name Takada was in honor of the first 100th Battalion guy killed. So I know all the 100th Battalion guys go “Hey Takada”, when they hear the name, but it was just to pay respect to the first guy that they lost. Really, the whole film is my way of paying homage to all of them. The part about the “belly-band” worked it’s way in because when my uncle passed away, my aunt gave me his “belly-band” and when I asked, “What is it?” she explained it to me just like in the movie. I think it really represents the others who suffered, the wives, mothers, sisters, all the families who were with them every step of the way.
—— Since this wasn’t a documentary, it was a dramatic feature film, did you find yourself at odds trying to balance good story telling with historical accuracy?
Oh yeah, always. We wanted to be historically accurate, but we had also to take some dramatic license. It just comes from all the obstacles that you face. How do you tell a story that has so many stories and so many people? One example, the charge up the hill took place at 2:30 in the afternoon, not at night, but I could control what the audience sees by the lighting. If I shot in the day, you’d see everything. In the film we didn’t mention the town of Bruyeres, because there were actually three towns they took in France, Belmont, Biffontaine and Bruyeres, all different battles, but we couldn’t show them all, and I wanted the film to represent them. I wanted to include the 100th Battalion as much as I wanted to include the 442nd. That’s why Senzaki and I are two 100th battalion guys and Jason and Yuji’s characters are from the 442nd. We did pay attention to detail. Each group had slightly different uniforms, jackets. Veterans told us everybody wanted the 442nd jackets because they had more pockets and you could stuff more ammo and food in them We had actual World War II weapons, military watches, compasses, cigarettes, lighters, eyeglasses, everything came from the period. Audiences, especially guys that have been there, are very sharp and they pick up on everything. So you’ve got to do your homework.
—— What’s the key to directing and managing a show or a film?
You’ve got to switch hats quickly and do what you need to do. For me what I’ve learned early on is that you’ve got to move everybody forward. No matter what happens. I’m telling you theater is one thing…you’ve got weeks to plan that sucker out, but when your shooting you’ve only got hours to put out the fire. And everyday, something’s going to happen…something’s going to come up. We had an 85-man crew, tons of people waiting on me, so whatever we had to do, change a shot, re-edit the script, just keep it all moving forward. Some things though, no matter how much you plan, still can’t be avoided, like when we got shut down our first day for firing weapons in the forest. For some reason, even though we had received clearance, the police station didn’t get word we were shooting — shooting shooting. So they were sending cops, helicopters, fire engines...we heard all of this noise and we were sitting there wondering “What’s going on?” We thought it must be something big, and it turned out to be us. Those are the kind of things that come up and you’ve got to be prepared to deal with.
—— You’ve been working on this for some time, from raising money, writing the script and actually making the film. Now that you screened it a few times, how do you feel when you see the looks on the people’s faces and their reactions?
I think it hit me first at our screening in Hawaii at the Blaisedale Concert Hall. We had around 1000 seats, and we had about 200 vets, we also had the parents, grandparents and children of the current 100th/442nd, who are fighting in Iraq, all there at the screening. So we sat the Vets with them and it was great. Everyone was just blown away. For me, I was sitting there talking to a friend about the challenges of our next phase of finding distribution and I said, “Hey, if we never go any further, wasn’t today incredible?” Just for those people to be there and to see this picture and for the Vets to come up to and be so thankful….and we’re trying to thank them. Those guys know now that this film joins the body of work that will always be there, and will always tell a part of their story. Whether it is going to be theatrically released or have some type of television broadcast or DVD or whatever happens from this point on, we are always going to have this movie and that is the reality of it.
—— If you could tell all the Vets from the 100th and 442nd something, what would you say?
Thank you. Thank you from the bottom of my heart. You know, I‘ve had the chance to write a lot of plays and films and some of these stories are based on the experiences of these men (the veterans). I’ve met a lot of them over the years; I’ve asked them a thousand questions and they’ve given me a million answers and I want to thank all of them for sharing their memories with me. I hope our film in some way shows our gratitude. I truly believe that because of their efforts and sacrifices, they’ve given my generation and all future generations of Asian Americans a better life, with greater opportunities and greater freedoms. I know that I walk the world with my head a little bit higher and my hopes and dreams have a greater chance of being realized and I know I owe much of that to them.
—— You’ve done all this, but you’re not done yet. What’s next?
Hey I’m just getting started. Well you know this is a whole new phase. I feel like I’ve just made my first film. So what do I want to do after this? Of course I’m going to pursue theater and writing, but we also have so many film ideas that we want to develop and get going. All the actors from “Only the Brave” ask me, “What are you going to do next?”. But they just want to be involved in a project that is going have a meaningful story. So I keep telling them, I’m going to get you guys involved in another film, but next time, I’d sure like a bigger budget. That way, I can include even more great people.
(11-16-2005 issue, Interviewed by Terry Nicholas)