SXSW: Filmmaker Mei Makino Previews Her Hapa Coming-of-Age Movie 'Inbetween Girl' (Exclusive)

INBETWEEN GIRL and inset of Mei Makino-Publicity-H-2021-1615918991
Courtesy of Ivy Chiu; Courtesy of Jason Kempin/Getty Images

The Texas native's feature directorial debut will have its world premiere in the Visions section.

For her feature film debut, Mei Makino wanted to create a story that captured the flaws and imperfections of teenage life—particularly the confusion of having a multiracial identity. She initially sought to model her protagonist after the Black Latina students she taught in her Austin, Tex., youth film program, but when local actress Emma Galbraith auditioned, she rewrote the character as hapa—of half-Asian descent, like Makino and Galbraith both are.

The resultant Inbetween Girl (which will have its world premiere tomorrow as part of SXSW's Visions section) is Angie Chen, a senior at an Episcopalian school on the Texas island city of Galveston off the Gulf Coast, who prefers to use her Instagram account for her drawings ("doodles," as she calls them) instead of selfies. Angie's Chinese father and white mother have just split up; her workaholic mom has primary custody while her dad is dating a Chinese woman with a seemingly-perfect daughter, Fang—everything Angie is not. On top of all that, Angie is secretly sleeping with school stud Liam (who has a girlfriend, local Instagram influencer Sheryl).

"I'm not the first person to say this, but women are flawed and women make mistakes," Makino tells The Hollywood Reporter. "I grew up in an era where all the teen movies at the time were likely written by men, and the women in them were just there to look pretty. They had worth because the lead male character likes them, which is such garbage. So for me, [the thesis of Inbetween Girl] is having worth just because you exist. You matter, despite any mistakes or flaws you might have."

See an exclusive clip from Inbetween Girl:

What was the first seed that turned into this movie?

I wrote the first draft in 2017. I had been out of college [UT-Austin] for a few years, and I was itching to make something. My first image was a boy climbing through a girl's window, which actually happened to a lot of my cooler friends growing up. I liked the idea that she's a woman of color, he keeps her a secret, and she has to figure out how to deal with this.

I also wanted to play with the idea of her being mixed-race. In the first draft she was half-Mexican and half-Black. I didn't grow up around a lot of Asian people, and I had a lot of Black and Hispanic students when I was a film teacher, and I think it was easier to write about someone who didn't look like me. It was like I could wear a mask. But when we did auditions, we decided anyone who was non-white could come and audition. We were making a proof-of-concept video for a grant we were submitting to, and Emma Galbraith, who plays Angie, just blew us out of the water. It was so crazy how much we had in common and just how mature and smart she was. That was a year before we started production, so I had another year to get to know [the leads] and write the script more for them. Angie and Liam both got more dimensional once I casted Emma and William [Magnuson].

How so?

Emma and I would talk a lot about being biracial. One big thing was I felt like a fraud in my Asian-ness just because I have a white mom, and being able to talk to Emma and my cultural consultant [on the film], who were like, "Lots of people go through this, you're not crazy," was really helpful. And also Emma and William were really amazing at improvising, and their physicality is just so great. There are so many things the whole cast does that's very nuanced. They all made those characters their characters in a really great way.

Is the improvisation one reason why the characters don't seem to talk and act like TV teenagers? How did you achieve that sense of realism?

Every single take we did, we would do a couple by the script, but then I would just be like, "Let's throw out the script. Surprise me; do something crazy." The cast is just really phenomenal, and [so is their] chemistry. They're so good at sharing scenes together. No one is there to just take the spotlight. They all work really well off of each other. That naturalism comes a lot from them.

Cultural consultants are increasingly of interest in studio filmmaking as well. Tell me about your cultural consultant and the role they played in this film.

The cultural consultant is actually another friend from Galveston who I grew up with. His name is Zhelun Chen and he's from China; he came to the U.S. when he was around 7. When we casted Emma, I got really nervous because I was like, "Who am I to talk about Chinese culture?" [Makino is half-Japanese.] Zhelun was super patient with me. I would make him read parts of the script—"Does this feel too big? Does this feel too forced?"—and he would be honest with me when I would text him at the 12th hour while I was buying production design and I'm like, "Are these the right type of dumplings?" He was like, "No, you're getting the wrong type of dumplings."

One plot point in the script he really helped with was when Min [Angie's father's new girlfriend] is like, "All these ABCs have no sense of where they come from." The concept of being an ABC [American-born Chinese] was new to me, and that's something Zhelun talked me through and helped with. I thought that was really, really perfect for the script.

All of your female characters are sympathetic, including those who could have been set up as antagonists or rivals—namely Sheryl and Fang. Was that a conscious choice?

It was very conscious. I feel like we see so many movies where the girlfriend of the boy that the protagonist likes is always really evil and treated really terribly. Sixteen Candles comes to mind. Jake Ryan is just kind of like, "Here's my blonde girlfriend I don't care about, and she's drunk, do what you want with her!" That's really terrible. In my experience, whenever I've been in situations where I've been jealous of other women, I end up meeting them and I'm like, "Oh my gosh, you're so cool." That's what I wanted to do.

And with Fang's character, a similar thing. She's more than just the stereotypical Asian. I wanted to show that. Both Thanh [Bui, who plays Fang] and Emma in the last scene do a really great job. You can see Fang is super smart, but you can also see she's listening to Angie. I love the impression that these two women can learn from each other down the road.

Tell me about your editing choices. In the clip that we see, you cut between multiple scenes. What was the purpose you were hoping to achieve through that, and is that a style you've always had?

I think a lot of filmmakers say this: You write the film first, then you write it again on set with actors, and then you write it again in the editing room. The scene of [Angie] sketching was its own scene, and the scene of her and Rebecca was its own scene, and we ended up deciding to cut them together because the scene of her drawing just wasn't working in the right place. That wasn't something we could have foresaw. Connor [Pickens, the editor] and I really love getting creative and finding smart solutions and just throwing stuff at the wall. I've always liked fast cutting and kineticism. We see Angie, we see that she's an artist, we see Rebecca and Angie talking about Sheryl, we see the comparison, but I think it's less redundant than the version before it was merged together. Cutting around and playing with flashbacks, Connor's edited one other feature but for me I was like, "This is my first feature, I'm throwing everything at the wall. Let's be inventive."

A lot of Angie's personality is revealed through her art. How did you find the artist who "portrayed" her?

I met Larissa [Akhmetova, who drew all of Angie's art] when I was in fifth grade and she was in fourth grade. We both went to a private Episcopalian school, and she's half-white, half-Mexican. We just really bonded, and our lives kept intertwining: We both ended up going to UT and we both got jobs at this art organization called Creative Action. I don't think she knew the scope of how much she was going to be doing [for the movie], but it was one of the easiest partnerships I've ever had because we've known each other for so long, and because she grew up in a similar setting to Angie, she gets Angie so well.

What I love about Larissa too is she always wants to push it further. The scene with the quokka [Angie shows Fang and her father one of her recent Instagram posts, a drawing of the marsupial] originally was just written as the quokka has a top hat on, and at 11 p.m. I get a text: "Can the quokka be carrying a butcher knife?" I was like, "Yes, Larissa. Go for it." She would send me a text of one of the doodles during the sex montage, and she's like, "Is this hamster too sexual?"

A lot of the drawings weren't [scripted]. They were things in post-production, where we're like, "Ugh, this moment isn't hitting super well. We want it to hit better. What if we did a picture of Angie and her dad to really drive that point home?" I think with the voiceover and the drawings and the Hi8 footage, we had these things in our back pocket to use as a crutch for our first feature. We were in control of the narrative in a bigger way than we would have been if we didn't have those things.

Tell me about the decision to incorporate the Hi8 footage as the "time capsule" that Angie is vlogging for her future self.

We used my Samsung Hi8 camcorder from when I was, like, 12, and that was another really late decision. We were like, "Are we going to put a filter on her vlog? What are we going to do?" I just ended up going out and recording things in Galveston at the last minute. We were about to be on the last week of editing. It was great, because I didn't need a crew and I could just go out and film it myself. Ivy Chiu, the DP, was also somebody who really pushed the Hi8, because she's not only an artist, she's a mixed-media artist, and basically the whole movie is what [Angie] is giving to future Angie. It felt so good to see that Hi8 footage in the final version. It just felt really right.

What did it take to mount your first feature independently?

2017 it was just an idea on paper, but I had a tremendous producing team who was by my side throughout pre-pro, when we were getting those initial funds. We did a Seed and Spark campaign and got about $23,000 from that, and we were part of this competition called the Hometown Heroes with the Duplass brothers. We were finalists, so they awarded us a small grant from that, and then we got another grant from the Austin Film Society, a couple private investors right before production, and we kind of created this educational opportunity on set for teens from this old film camp I went to that we were able to raise some funds from.

I basically messaged every person on my Facebook friends list when we were doing the Seed and Spark. It was the most shameless time in my life. So we had enough money through production, and then we were at this point where we had gone through two cuts of the film, but it was still kind of stagnant because we didn’t have money for music, sound mix and color, and morale was low because we had been working on this film for so long. And then Jane Schwartz, who plays Sheryl's mom in the film, called me up and was just like, "Mei, how is this movie coming? What do you need?" She ended up coming on as an executive producer and bringing together the final private investors to see us to the finish line, and that literally happened like four months ago. It's very interesting how with independent filmmaking, there's a lot of lulls, and then—oh my gosh, we're going we're going we're going. But I'm really proud of how hard our team worked. It's the hardest thing I've ever worked on in my life.

Did the pandemic throw a wrench in any scheduling? When did you guys shoot?

It was summer 2019, so before the pandemic we shot most of it. We did two days of pickups during the pandemic but we all wore masks and got tested. The main thing that I would have preferred to have not been in a pandemic situation was working with the colorist and the composer, even though the composer lives a couple states away. I felt like there were certain things where I would be like, "This would be so much easier if I could just show you really quickly instead of having to explain everything." But everyone was really patient and we got it done. We learned a lot. I learned so much.

What were the biggest lessons you learned, either from this feature debut or from your previous work directing shorts?

One thing I learned is to over-communicate. I'm not shy, but sometimes I would be like, "I don't want to annoy anybody." But now with filmmaking it's just like, "No, you are going to hear all of my thoughts." So that was a big thing. Before making the film, I worked at an organization where I had to make short films with elementary schoolers and middle schoolers. That helped me a lot because it would be situations where I had an hour and a half a day with these kids to get the footage in the can. And I very much had a "footage in the can" attitude on set. We didn't have time to add days, our production just wouldn't allow it, so after three takes, I wasn't precious. I knew we had to move on.

What do you think of the recent hapa representation in the media in recent years – To All the Boys and Pen15—and how they contribute to a more multidimensional picture of what it means to be hapa?

I love both of those pieces of content. To All the Boys is just a sweet watch. Those kids are really, really charming. Pen15 I am obsessed with. I love those women so much, especially since [Maya] is half-Japanese. Just hearing her mom talk in Japanese, and seeing especially in the second season she deals with a little bit of racism, that was very relatable. I love these pieces of content but they are completely different. Each of these main characters is extremely different in the way they look at life and their struggles. You look at Angie as someone who's quiet on the surface but is super loud when she's talking to future Angie. Then you look at Maya Ishii-Peters, who is so loud all the time, and you look at Lara Jean who is more subdued but extremely sweet. I see myself in a lot of them, but like you said, we're not a monolith.

How did you arrive at the decision to use the time capsule to frame the story, and what do you hope will land with the audience?

The time capsule element came to me because when I was a teen, there was a part of me that wanted to be really grown up, but also there was a part of me that was super-nerdy and did kiddish things. It was cut from the film, but a lot of the first vlog was Angie talking to future Angie, and just being like, "Am I this? Am I that? Do you have a hot boyfriend?" All of these questions. She's thinking a lot about the future and about the past, but she's not completely living in the present yet. The time capsule felt like the perfect way to get at that.

As for the thesis for this film, I would say I want young women to surround themselves with people who truly care about them and truly care about making their life better. I'm not the first person to say this, but women are flawed and make mistakes. I get frustrated sometimes when I see perfect depictions of women. I grew up in an era where all the teen movies at the time were likely written by men, and the women in them were just there to look pretty. The way I interpreted that is they have worth because the lead male character likes them, which is such garbage. So for me, it's about having worth just because you exist, and you matter despite any mistakes or flaws you might have.