Alan Yang: 'Tigertail' Is "A Metaphor for How Immigrants Feel When They Come to This Country"

Alan Yang directing Tigertail - Publicity - H 2020
Sarah Shatz/Netflix

Making his feature directorial debut, the Emmy winner's multigenerational and trilingual family drama is inspired by his father's life in Taiwan and the United States: "Culturally, he's between worlds. He's in a liminal space."

Alan Yang had only been to Taiwan once in 25 years, traveling at age 7 to his grandfather's funeral. The subsequent quarter century was spent fairly assimilated into "all-American" culture: playing sports in his hometown of Riverside, California, writing for The Harvard Lampoon, getting staffed on Parks and Recreation.

Young Yang probably couldn't have imagined that for his feature directorial debut, he'd be location scouting rice fields in his parents' native country, taking the train back to Taipei at the end of long shoot days to crack a few Taiwan Beers with his crew. Tigertail, which premieres on Netflix today, is a tribute to his family's story — specifically that of his father, who was raised in Taiwan by a single mother working in a sugar factory and ended up married with children on the other side of the planet, in a world that couldn't be more different.

In Yang's drama, which is inspired by his family's dynamics but not strictly autobiographical, Ping-Jui (Taiwanese actor Lee Hong-chi) is a charming young man who decides to leave behind his first love for the opportunity to seek a better life in America, via an arranged marriage. Decades later, alone and estranged from his adult American daughter Angela (Dave's Christine Ko), an older Ping-Jui (Mulan and The Farewell star Tzi Ma) looks back on his past through rose-colored glasses and tries to recapture the spirit he once had.

"I was intrigued by the idea of channeling classic Taiwanese and Chinese cinema — Edward Yang, Hou Hsiao-hsien, Wong Kar-wai — and then popping to America for a present-day beat of English," Yang tells The Hollywood Reporter, adding that he shot the period sequences in 16mm and the present-day material in digital in order to highlight the tonal contrasts. "And the goal is for my family to see some kernel of emotional truth, something they can identify and recognize, and express that to them."

Yang, who previously won an Emmy with Master of None co-creator Aziz Ansari for writing the Netflix comedy's "Parents" episode and went on to create Amazon's Forever and exec produce Apple's immigrant anthology Little America, opens up to THR about his journey to embracing his cultural heritage, separating familial fact from fiction and tackling a multilingual, multicontinental movie as a first-time director.

The genesis of the movie was a trip to Taiwan with your dad four years ago. Prior to that, what was your relationship with Taiwanese culture like?

Nonexistent. For a large portion of my life, I had to be dragged kicking and screaming into any sort of Taiwanese celebration. I don't mean that as a slam; it was a matter of social survival where I grew up [in Riverside, California], because there weren't a ton of Asian people. My family spoke Mandarin and occasionally Taiwanese, and I replied in English. My mom cooked Taiwanese and Chinese food, but outside of that it was instance after instance of me rejecting that heritage. One session of Chinese school and refusing to go anymore.

So how did you guys come to take that trip in 2016?

It was almost happenstance. I happened to be in Shanghai doing a little bit of work for DreamWorks, and while I was there I had an inkling for this movie. I thought, "I should go to Taiwan, walk around and see what it's like." The best tour guide I could have was my dad, so I called and asked if he would meet me there. A lot of our experiences on that trip bled in and informed Tigertail.

What were some of your deepest takeaways from it?

I remember sitting in the back of the cab, with my dad in the front seat speaking Taiwanese to a cab driver and realizing that he hadn't gotten to speak Taiwanese in years. The crazy part is that I could understand more than I thought I could. I heard him tell the driver at one point, "I would never stay at such a fancy hotel, my son is paying for this." He was humblebragging in Taiwanese and I couldn't believe I knew the language enough to understand it!

A huge part of being there with my dad was seeing how much at home he felt in some ways, thinking about a past that he could never regain and how he uprooted his life essentially to give me a better life. It's a cliche but really true. Culturally, he's between worlds. He's in a liminal space.

You realize that [heritage] is always going to be a part of you, and that very specific Asian American experience where in America you're never going to be what people picture as the default American, but then you go to Asia, wherever your parents are from, and people look like you, but you can't communicate there. So where do you belong?

How did you decide on how to winnow your and your family's experience into a streamlined story?

It started as a really sprawling script, hundreds and hundreds of pages, chapters from different points of view — dad, mom, brother, sister — spanning decades. I kept rewriting and trying to figure out the heart of the story, what was most moving to me and what felt fresh and unlike things I'd seen before. Those two things combined to make the final product.

My father's part was always the most emotional for me. He has the most naturally epic story because he came from such humble beginnings. It just seemed like the broadest emotional arc, the most compelling, dynamic story. And at the same time when I speak about originality and feeling different, I was intrigued by the idea of channeling classic Taiwanese and Chinese cinema — Edward Yang, Hou Hsiao-hsien, Wong Kar-wai — and then popping to America for a present-day beat of English. There's no precedent for this. After the trailer came out, someone said to me, "I've never heard Taiwanese in an American-made movie before." And I love the period stuff. I haven't seen very many movies or shows that depict Asian American protagonists in the 1970s. The script tells you what it wants to be, and I hope the strongest stuff survived.

I definitely haven't seen many movies that depict both life back in "the Old World" and in Asian America today. There's such a tonal shift from Pin-Jui's flashbacks and his present.

Hopefully how we shot and costume designed it conveys the jarring nature of his own existence and how he's split between worlds. The Taiwan parts are saturated and shot on 16mm, so it's really vibrant and alive and handheld, and then in modern day we shot it with a digital camera on a tripod and took color out of the frame, so it's starkly realistic, showing the drabness of everyday in contrast to his memory.

How much of the story is based on the real facts of your father's life, and which portions are invented?

It was a very tricky balance, and I'll tell you right now and not just to make my dad feel better, it's heavily fictionalized. I didn’t want to make a doc of my dad's life. I wanted to get the broad strokes of what happened to my parents but didn't want to tread too far into the nitty gritty details. There is stuff that's real and painful, like my parents' divorce, but I wanted to leave enough space for imagination and metaphor.

There's some stuff based in reality. My dad had a single mom who worked in a sugar factory and had difficulty putting food on the table, and he ended up working with her there. We actually shot in the same sugar factory my dad worked at and in the same mausoleum where my grandma is laid to rest. I wanted the film to be a combination of what happened to my dad and the dreamlike characteristics of memory, the way our minds fill in the gaps and romanticize and idealize the past. A lot is a metaphor for how immigrants feel when they come to this country.

What was your dad's reaction to you doing a whole movie about him, and how much did he open up with you? I know that he ended up translating dialogue for you and even recorded the narration in the film.

My parents have always been on the supportive end for Asian American immigrant parents. They have not been super openly critical or badgering. That said, culturally it is not their instinct or way of parenting to be extremely openly emotional or as forthcoming, as I think some American or Western parents are. I joke that I taught my parents to hug when I was 25. That's why I say making this movie was one of the most personally rewarding experiences of my life. It was also the process of becoming closer to my parents, becoming more accepting of my heritage and hoping that our family can get along better. That's a simplistic way of putting it. There are elements of my father and sister's relationship in the movie, and I'm happy to see them getting along better. The goal is for my family to see some kernel of emotional truth, something they can identify and recognize, and express that to them.

Why did you decide to center the present-day storyline on Pin-Jui's relationship with his daughter, instead of his son?

I think I was biased by reality. My own emotional life isn't as cinematic. In our family, there was more conflict between my parents and my sister, and more specifically my dad and my sister. To be quite frank, if I had a role in the movie, then it would be about a brother who's really lucky and his life is boring. There's a very small moment in the movie where, after young Angela botches a piano recital, she's in the car and [the kid version of me] is sitting next to her and this jerk is wearing a medal. In that two-second shot you understand the dynamic. The father is harder on her than on the son.

On top of that, as soon as Christine Ko auditioned, she knocked it out of the park. We can hinge the story on her. The scenes with Tzi and Christine are so subtly acted and really resonant for Asian American families.

How did you find Lee Hong-chi?

It was a difficult role to cast. What I was picturing was a movie star. The arc of the character is when he's 25, he's got the white T, he's the most charismatic guy, and at the end he's this broken-down shell of a guy who's lost his passion for life. For that to work, you've got to be Asian James Dean at the start of the movie. Our casting director was Terri Taylor, she did Crazy Rich Asians, Get Out, I'm so grateful to her. The casting process in Taiwan was different from America. I had to fly to Taiwan. I wanted to be as authentic as possible, so I met with actors there. The process is they come in and you have essentially a general meeting and don’t run lines until you've established some sort of rapport.

So Hong-chi comes in, he was dressed really cool, had great taste, we talked about Truffaut, and then I had him read some lines and he was terrible. I'd seen some tape of him and I believed in him, so I kept working with him for about an hour and a half, but it just wasn't really clicking. We read a bunch of other people, but I went with my gut.

I'll never forget the first day we shot with him. It was the scene where Pin-Jui buys a keyboard for his wife Zhenzhen [Kunjue Li]. I'd done rehearsals with them, and my first AD [Thomas Fatone] and I held our breath as we watched the full take until I called cut, and Tom leaned over to me and said, "I don't speak a word of Mandarin, but that guy's incredible." We were shooting in 16 millimeter, and even watching on a two-by-two screen we could see there was something going on, and that was borne out for the remainder of the shoot. At the wrap party. Hong-chi pulled me aside and said, "Thank you for casting me. I just want to apologize for the audition. I never auditioned in my life." I was like, "How is that possible?" He said, "For my first thing I was walking down the street and this guy was like, 'You want to be in a movie?'" Sometimes you just have it. The guy oozes charisma.

Tigertail represents a lot of firsts for you. What did you find most challenging?

My editor [Daniel Haworth] was like, "Man, you bit off a lot with this one. It's in a different language, it's period, it's a drama, it's your first film." Man, when you say it like that, I seem crazy! One of the first things I loved about TV is how collaborative it is. I had phenomenal collaborators on this movie as well, but when you're writing, directing and producing and all that, creatively, it's all riding on your shoulders. It was appropriate for this movie because it was so personal, but it's also really fun to go back and forth if there's a co-creator. And I think more and more people will see I'm a little genre-agnostic. I've now worked in late night, animated, mockumentary, supernatural, social relevance. It's really about which idea is most exciting to me.

What was filming in Taiwan like — logistically, in terms of navigating linguistic and cultural differences, and also for you personally and emotionally?

It was a lot of juggling. What keeps you relatively sane or on the borderline is that there's no time to catch your breath. Because there are so many balls in the air, you just don't have time to look at the enormity and scope of what you're doing. Even when we first landed, emergencies began immediately. We went and scouted the rice fields for the opening scene, which is supposed to be beautiful and lush and ultimately Ping-Jui's memory of what Taiwan looks like. We scouted endless rice fields and tea fields all over Taiwan, and I finally picked the rice fields we wanted, and our rice field expert said, "Just so you know, these will turn yellow in a week." Shouldn't someone have told me that? So we scrambled. How soon can we shoot here? Can we get a permit? Can we buy off the local farmers somehow? We didn't have our cameras from America yet because of a customs snafu, so we borrowed equipment from some local music video companies and shot the entire opening of the movie. We did it all, got on the train back to Taipei, cracked a few Taiwan Beers to celebrate, and then a few weeks later my line producer called and explained that none of the footage was usable. The lenses were bad. There had been a mistake, and nothing beyond 1 inch was in focus. There was one blade of grass that was really clear. We went into fix-it mode. What are our remaining days? Go down there and come back up every weekend. But all the rice fields are yellow now. None of the actors are available anymore. Do you want to recast everybody? And then the coup de grace, a typhoon's coming. Finally we made a contingency plan to fix this, and we're ready on shoot on the weekends, and I get another call from my line producer, who said, "The lab from New York thinks maybe it's a scanning issue and maybe it can be saved." Fortunately our editor on the movie, Daniel, is a friend, so I said, "I hate to do this to you, but do you think you can put on a pot of coffee and edit as much of the beginning as you can in 24 hours?" He sent it to me morning New York time, night in Taiwan, and 99 percent was usable. We did do the reshoot and strategically picked up the shots we needed one by one, and it ended up working out fine.

We had a great crew and did the best we could, but it's certainly not like shooting in L.A. on a soundstage. You're traveling, in the middle of nowhere, with no ability to control the equipment, and it's like rolling the dice in some ways. But someone like my grandma would come to set. She's in Kenzo and Gucci sandals watching a scene where we're driving in the alley, and she's says in Taiwanese, "Alan, is this what making a movie is like? It's really boring. I'm going home."

Has your dad seen the film? What are your family's reactions to the finished product?

We were planning to have a screening at Netflix for my family, and then a devastating global pandemic hit. We'll have to watch on our own and I'll call them afterwards, tell them one by one that the movie is made totally out of my love for them. It's all fictionalized, it's not you specifically. It's inspired by what you guys have gone through. I'm hoping they can understand that. I don't think they'll take offense. My parents and sister did see the trailer and they were very excited. That was one of the best parts of the trailer release, hearing from the three of them how much they loved it. Their reactions are the three most important ones.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.