On Location: Producing “Red Doors”

On Sept. 8, 2006, the indie film Red Doors had its theatrical debut in New York after spending a year on the festival circuit; it then opened in San Francisco and Los Angeles. Produced by Georgia Lee (who also wrote and directed the film), Mia Riverton (who also stars in the film) and Jane Chen, the film explores a dysfunctional Asian-American family, including a lesbian daughter.

In this article, Chen writes about the trials and tribulations of making a feature-length film.

Martin Scorsese once told Georgia Lee that she ought to write what she knows. With that gentle nudge, he directed her down a path that would culminate in the Sept. 8 theatrical opening of our first feature film, Red Doors.

I know that Scorsese’s mantra of personal filmmaking influenced Georgia to choose Red Doors as her first project because I happened to be privy to some of her earlier scripts — all of them surreal, and one where a psychotic madwoman blows up Bloomingdale’s.

The decision to make Red Doors our first feature film was further influenced by the reality of fundraising. We didn’t want to spend the next five years of our lives trying to make Hollywood notice us. We wanted to make a film and have it in the can by the end of the year. The only way we could do that was if we raised all the money ourselves.

I remember having a conversation with Georgia and Mia Riverton around Christmas 2003 where we figured out that between friends, family, and maxing out our credit cards, we could pull together $200,000 — about $19 million short for blowing up Bloomingdale’s on film but just about right to explore a dysfunctional Chinese-American family.

So in January of 2004, Georgia dropped out of Harvard Business School, I quit my job, and Mia sacrificed pilot season in Los Angeles to move to New York, in order to begin work on Red Doors. We had the first draft of a script, two “no pre-set spending limit” American Express cards, and lots of youthful optimism.

(By the way, the American Express “no pre-set spending limit” thing is a load of BS. It doesn’t mean “no spending limit”; it just means they’ll cut you off whenever they feel like it and when you least expect it — like in the middle of a 100-degree outdoor shoot when you’re standing in line at Food Emporium trying to buy 10 cases of water. But of course, I’m not bitter about that.)

Looking for Leads

When we started, two of the roles were already cast: Katie, the youngest of the Wong sisters, was going to be played by Georgia’s sister Kathy Lee; and Mia, the lesbian love interest of middle sister Julie, was going to be played by Mia (Georgia is creative, except when it comes to character names). We spread the casting net far and wide, concentrating in New York but eventually opening up to actors in Los Angeles who were willing to be treated as local hires (no compensation for travel, room or board).

We were tremendously lucky in the caliber of talent that showed up at our auditions. Our micro-budget dictated that every actor was going to get paid SAG minimum regardless of how many big TV shows or studio films they had already done.

What surprised us was that many of these veteran, accomplished actors sought us out and asked to be included in auditions. The sad truth behind this is that quality roles for Asian Americans are few and far between, with indies being the only films where they can be leads.

Everybody wanted to play Sam, the oldest Wong sister, whose journey mimicked Georgia’s personal story the closest. But we ended up asking several of the actresses who originally auditioned for Sam to come back and read for the role of the middle daughter, Julie, which is how we cast Elaine Kao as Julie.

In one Julie audition, Mia was present and reading lines with the actress. It was the scene immediately preceding the first kiss between Mia and Julie. When they got to the end of the scene, instead of stopping like all the other actresses did, this one dove right in and planted a wet one on a very surprised Mia.

We almost cast her just for her enthusiasm.