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With production grinding to a halt in the face of the novel coronavirus, the entertainment industry has found itself navigating uncharted territory. To offer a better sense for how, The Hollywood Reporter is running a regular series that focuses on how Hollywood’s top writers, actors, directors, executives and others are living and working in these challenging times.
Alan Yang had been preparing for the release of his feature directorial debut, Tigertail, a multi-generational drama inspired by his father’s experience as an American immigrant from Taiwan. Although he had to cancel a private advance screening for his family at Netflix’s headquarters, the film will debut on the streamer April 10 as scheduled, and Yang (Master of None, Little America) will call up his parents afterwards — and remind them to practice safe quarantine habits. From his home in L.A., Yang opened up about his “quarantine training,” his Zoom habit and his new normal.
Let’s start easy: how are you?
I’m in L.A. right now. Mom is in Riverside and Dad is in Pasadena, so I check on him on Sundays. He’s the one I’m worried about. He’s a little older and he’s been sick from a pre-existing condition. I got him some hand sanitizer, trying to keep him safe.
My mom’s a teacher, and [before the closures] I was like, “You’ve gotta stop going to work. Your husband [Yang’s stepdad] has diabetes!” At least my dad is retired, but he just had prostate cancer and [before the Safer at Home directive] he was like, “I’m moving.” I was in London at the time and I literally had to text him every day for, like, three days to convince him to postpone it. You don’t want movers in your house.
What does your day look like now?
I try to wake up at a reasonable hour and put on clothes. I don’t always succeed, but you’ve gotta have some respect for yourself. Put on a shirt. One thing that helps is to have something in the morning. Sometimes I write with other people, so I’ll set a call with someone at a certain time in the morning, so you feel like you’ve accomplished something. I’ve been lucky enough to do some of my work from home. Obviously, we can’t shoot anything right now, but we can write, I can read other people’s outlines and give notes, and I’ve been able to do press.
Usually I’ve been writing in the morning, I try to make something relatively healthy for lunch, and in the afternoon I’ve been doing press. And I’m lucky enough to be in L.A., so I try to exercise outside, go for a run, then go home and cook dinner. I like a little bit of a routine. The other thing I did is I bought Bowflex dumbbells and a pull-up bar for my house. Anyone who’s been on staff with me from Parks and Rec on knows I always have a pull-up bar in the office. The writers room could not be more sedentary, so I like to walk around and do pull-ups. It’s annoying for other writers, but at this point I’m often the boss so I can’t get fired.
What’s been the easiest adjustment? And the hardest?
I say this as someone who loves going to restaurants and supporting my friends in the restaurant industry, but what’s actually been kind of healthy is it’s forced me to cook a lot more. My girlfriend’s a good cook, it’s been good for my health, and I’ve always wanted to learn, so I’ve enjoyed that. The hardest thing is not being able to see family and friends. Hopefully that ends at some point. We’ve done Zoom drinks, Zoom hangouts, I’m going to some Zoom dance party tonight, so we’re Zooming a lot. God bless the people at Zoom.
What was the most challenging decision you’ve had to make since this whole thing started?
I wouldn’t say it’s a decision so much, more like a period of uncertainty, and that is that I’ve been working on a couple of TV shows that were going to shoot pretty soon. Those have been delayed indefinitely, so that is a strange position to be in. You’re kind of in a no man’s land. I’m working every day, definitely doing stuff, but when you’ve worked on TV shows for any length of time, you’re used to an incredible number of deadlines every day. Script deadlines, cut deadlines, meetings, and suddenly that’s all been taken away.
What have you learned about yourself in this period?
I’ve learned that I’m fairly comfortable working by myself for long stretches of time. I actually tore my Achilles tendon playing basketball years ago and wasn’t able to walk for about a year. I realized I have training for quarantine. For a year, I sat on my couch and couldn’t do anything. I have my quarantine muscles trained.
What’s the best advice you’ve given or received about staying sane right now?
This is so stupid, but if you can buy a flower or a couple of flowers, put them in your home. If you’re at the grocery store and you see flowers, put them on your dining table to liven it up.
What are you watching, reading, playing or listening to as a reprieve?
I have a very high-low diet of what I watch. I will try to watch stuff that is somewhat educational for me as a director. A few friends and I swap Criterion recommendations. This is going to sound very pretentious: I watched Breathless from Godard, Pontecorvo’s The Battle of Algiers, but I also watch horrible reality TV sometimes. I will shout out Tiger King because I want people to get it mixed up with Tigertail. They’re expecting Joe Exotic and instead are confronted with a quiet intergenerational family drama.
?How much of the film is based on the facts of your father’s life, and which portions are pure fiction?
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 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 dream-like 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.
Has your dad seen it yet?
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.
What or who have become your go-to news source during this period?
Honestly, it’s my text threads with people sending me curated news from around the world. A lot of my friends from college were, unlike me, very disciplined and became doctors and work in public health. I’m getting first-hand information from them.
Are you dusting off any old hobbies or finding new ones?
I used to play piano, and I bought a cheap keyboard so I can mess around when I have free time. And I’m trying to improve my Mandarin on Duolingo.
What have become your go-to comfort foods during the quarantine?
We’ve been making a lot of Mexican food. I almost never make it because there’s so much great Mexican food in LA. And Taiwanese and Chinese food: beef noodle soup, tofu, thousand-year-old egg.
What’s atop your to-do list once this is all over?
Have a meal with friends and hopefully support all these local restaurants and food service places that are suffering the brunt of [the quarantine].
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