'I Was a Simple Man': Constance Wu, Christopher Yogi on Hawaii's Indie Film Community

I Was a Simple Man
Courtesy of Sundance Film Festival

Steve Iwamoto and Constance Wu in 'I Was a Simple Man'

"A lot of times the island is used as a pretty backdrop and the locals are at the margin," explains the filmmaker behind the Sundance dramatic competition title.

Christopher Yogi hopes to introduce audiences to a different Hawaii than the one they have grown accustomed to seeing onscreen.

"A lot of movies that take place here take place in hotels and at popular tourist spots," explains the filmmaker. "A lot of times the island is used as a pretty backdrop and the locals are at the margin."

I Was A Simple Man follows a family as their eldest, Masao (Steve Iwamoto), nears death. The cast includes Constance Wu, who first workshopped the project with Yogi years ago at the Sundance Labs and plays Masao's late wife, Grace, as she returns to her husband while he begins his transition.

Set on O‘ahu, the movie was populated and produced by local talent, with the film's visuals heavily incorporating Hawaiian nature, from the ocean to the rain forests. "We are very driven to tell stories that are honest to our experience," says Yogi of the islands' film community.

Yogi and Wu talked to THR about the U.S. dramatic competition title.

Chris, how did you come up with the story?

CHRISTOPHER YOGI This film was a long time coming. I came up with the idea over ten years ago. I went through this period in my life back in the late aughts where I lost a lot of family members in quick succession. I lost my father to cancer, a grandfather to suicide, and then another grandfather to cancer. It was this really disorienting and confusing time for me. I don’t think I quite knew how to process all that loss. And the final grandfather was the one that really stuck with me because I was in the room with him as his mind was bordering consciousness. The film’s genesis was me really holding onto that feeling of being in the room with someone who’s passing on and trying to communicate that feeling.

Constance, how did you come to the script?

CONSTANCE WU I first met Chris when he workshopped this script at the Sundance Lab. At that time I had just started my TV show, Fresh Off The Boat, and I was really starting to notice the lack of really authentic stories from Asian Americans that were being produced for larger audiences. So I told my agent  I want to help these filmmakers and get to know these Asian American filmmakers.

How important was it to film on location in Hawaii?

YOGI I don’t think there was ever a question to film anywhere else. The film couldn’t have taken place anywhere else. The island is a character and it imbues the story with its spirit, with its emotion. I’m sure you noticed while you were watching, the island is constantly present. Even when we’re inside of the rooms— we can hear the ocean, we can hear the wind. It’s the life force of the film.

Constance, how did the location add to your performance?

WU In a very obvious way but also in a really, truly psychic kind of way. From the sounds of the island, the air you breathe and the way sound travels in that kind of air, it really makes a difference. I guess this sounds kind of silly but spent a lot of time trying to connect with the nature of the island. Even just the grass and the way it moved in different places. It really affected me in a type of psychic way that felt almost spiritual to me.

How was Grace different than any role you have played previously?

WU I mean just watch it. [Laughs] I’ve gone from a network sitcom, doing an American tiger mom, to rom-com Crazy Rich Asians to a stripper and then to Grace. There would definitely be filmmakers who might look at my resume and be like, ‘Oh no, she doesn’t do this type of movie. We’re not gonna have her.’ But I feel like Chris and I really got to know each other as people and I think we understand each other. It’s definitely a different type of role but in the end, in every role, you find the humanity in it and you just let it blossom. So, even though it might on the surface seem that it’s very different from all my other parts, it comes from the same place.

Chris, how would you describe the film community in Hawaii?

It’s a very vibrant community. We are very driven to tell stories that are lived in. That touch upon the culture and the history that hasn’t really been touched upon through cinema or even in schooling. We all have one idea of Hawaii, which is the idea that’s sold by the tourist industry, which is paradise. I think Hollywood does a very good job of then amplifying that story. It becomes this paradise backdrop. So what a lot of us are trying to do locally is really tell stories that are honest to our experience and try to balance out that portrayal so that it’s not just the one narrative that’s been sold by luxury tourism.

Is there a production infrastructure in Hawaii for independent film?

YOGI There is an infrastructure but mostly it’s set up for big-budget Hollywood films— the Jurassic Parks, the King Kongs.

WU Hawaii 5-0

YOGI Hawaii 5-0, exactly. And the other extreme is really, really low budget. My first feature was a very small, low budget film. So [I Was A Simple Man] being in that grey area made it very tough to make actually put together. I mean there wasn’t really a path and so. We had to create our own path and find our own way to make something that was in between. It was tough but what’s really cool is hopefully we have provided a little bit of a template so that independent filmmakers after us can then use our template to then make work.

What do you want the entertainment industry to know about Hawaiian filmmaking and filmmakers?

YOGI I love folks coming to my home and learning about it and spending time and falling in love because everybody does fall in love. It is such a beautiful, welcoming place. Full of aloha. Full of love and culture. I guess the one thing that I always try to emphasize is that when you come to a place like Hawaii, with such a rich history and such a pained and dark history as well, spend time learning about it. Spend time meditating upon it, spend time talking to the people there. Immerse yourself in the culture and try to give. Tourism is such an extracted industry. People come, they take, they leave. But if you’re coming, come, and then take but give. Make it a dialogue with the island, with the people. And I think in that way not only will it be more fulfilling but everybody will gain a lot from the dialogue.

You have both been with this story and with this project for so long now. What is it like finally premiering it?

YOGI It’s very surreal to be letting this film go out into the world. I’m staying open to it. Over the course of making it, my understanding of the film changed. My understanding of my relationship to this film— what this film was— evolved. And I think it will continue to evolve. Even though the film is technically finished as it lives out in the world, it’s going to continue to teach me.

This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.