Would you work over 10 years to bring your dream project to life? This director did.

Most of us have had a similar experience—we hear about a story or a person, and we think, “That would make an amazing movie.” Maybe we write the script. Maybe we decide to direct. But how far would you go, and how long would you wait, to make this film a reality? Would you move across the country? Would you crowdfund the film? Would you work for years and years?

Writer/director Evan Jackson Leong has been laboring to make his new feature, Snakehead, for 14 years. It’s based on the true story of a human smuggler in Chinatown and her rise through the ranks of a crime family and stars Shuya Chang, Sung Kang, and Jade Wu.

The film will premiere at this week’s Santa Barbara International Film Festival, and if you’d like to watch it, you can purchase tickets here. (XYZ Films has acquired sales rights to the film.)

It was completed as a labor of love and with the cooperation of many collaborators, down to the film’s colorist, Nicholas Metcalf, who happened to spot the film’s character posters online and offered to DI the project for free. As you will see, passion can pay off.

No Film School spoke with Leong and the film’s producer Brian Yang via Zoom about the long journey of bringing this film to life. They shared tips for achieving high production value, how to motivate your cast and crew, and what you should do to DIY your own feature film. Enjoy!

Editor’s note: This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

No Film School: So can you tell us what the production was like?

Evan Leong: I initially thought we would make this as an indie film. We had a high name, Lucy Liu, she was attached early on. And when we couldn’t raise the money with her attached, we just had to do this our own way. And as a filmmaker and as a director, I’ve always thought of it as a privilege and opportunity to direct. The only way I felt like this was going to happen for me is for me to figure out how to do it myself. Trying to stretch every dollar to the furthest it could go was what we had to do, otherwise, this wasn’t going to happen.

So, production-wise, we started this as a Kickstarter project. And we knew that we needed to get community. We needed to get the community to help us. We needed to get free locations. We needed to get free food. We needed to get actors that will work for us for nothing and get crew that will work so hard in the middle of winter, in New York City, on an independent project.

Credit: Arowana FILMS

I think we had to sell this idea of, “This is why we’re in this business. We’re in his business to make the Scarface, the Godfathers,” because that’s why we got into movie making. We didn’t get into moviemaking to do two people talking in the store.

So, in my mind, I was like, “Well, I have to get there. I need to sell my idea and my passion to every single person from the top to the bottom. In that sense, we had to ask for everything. There was no paying for really anything. And I think that energy is contagious, in a sense, where if people believe in something, then everyone gives it their all. No one’s there to get paid because the budget was so low that you have to want to be there, because it was brutal. We shot this, I think, in February 2017 in New York City, and it was freezing.

And it was just absolutely brutal, every aspect of this production. So, I really had to ask for every single favor. And Brian is the mastermind in getting all these favors and convincing and helping people, getting people to do this for us, because every day I’m asking for, “I need some dead bodies. I need a knife, I need a gun. I need a…” All of these random things that you need. “I need me a lot of dollar bills. We need some dumplings. We need…” All these things that we had to go for, where normally you’d just have production design pay for it, but there was no budget for production design. So we had to utilize all the resources that we could. And I think that’s why we got a lot of people excited about it, because everyone there was there for the right reason, and that goes a long way.

Credit: Arowana FILMS

NFS: What would you say was the biggest challenge of the project?

Leong: I think the biggest challenge for me, personally, was this is my first film. So storytelling was always going to be the hardest thing. And I think I underestimated the level of complexity of storytelling and narrative storytelling. I’ve been doing this for 20 years, but in the unscripted and documentary scene. So going into narrative, I think I underestimated the task at hand.

And you think you can do everything, because you know 95% of the technical aspects of the film. It was that 5% that I didn’t experience, working with actors and storytelling and narrative control. That was ultimately my biggest challenge, and that was my biggest weakness. I think what you do see is a lot of my strengths and things that I’m comfortable in, like visual style and color and just overall themes, but in terms of the storytelling and working with actors has always been the biggest challenge. Making any film, every part is a major challenge, but I think for me, the biggest challenge was trying to figure out how to tell the story.

NFS: How did you approach that aspect of working with actors? What helped you get comfortable in that new role?

Leong: I was fortunate to work with some really good actors. I mean, you got Sung [Kang] and Shuya [Chang] and Jade [Wu]. And they were almost my teachers. I think of this movie as my film school, and they were my teachers in terms of like, “Okay, this is how we approach a scene.” They’re asking me the questions of what I need to think about and answer to them.

They believed in the project, so they believed in me and they wanted to make sure that I did a good job….

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