On Location: Producing “Red Doors”

23 Days of Heaven and Hell

One of the necessities of low-budget, independent filmmaking is keeping shooting days down to a minimum. We shot over 16 locations in and around the tri-state area over 23 days in June of 2004. Moreover, we shot on Super 16 mm film, which required an entire truckload of camera equipment, lights and gels to follow us everywhere.

The first two weeks we shot in New York City during an early summer heat wave. It was brutal. We nearly got kicked out of two locations (my apartment building and Georgia’s), and we had a run-in with the local union at another.

We were very lucky that our crew was small and efficient. We were able to convince the union guy that came by our set that we were shooting a commercial for a local access TV channel. It was also raining that day so I don’t think he wanted to hang around to make sure.

We had two cast members drop out at the last minute.

I remember the day when we were shooting the bar scene at Milk and Honey. It was the first scene we shot that featured the burgeoning lesbian romance between Mia and Julie. It’s a very sexy, seductive and intimate scene. While many actors like to stay in character on shooting days such as this one, poor Mia spent all her time between takes on the phone strategizing with our casting director and yelling at agents trying to find replacements.

I think one of the reasons for why Julie and Mia’s chemistry worked is because the two of them spent so much time together during pre-production and production.

While in Los Angeles, they took tango lessons together for their dance scene, and while in New York, they lived together in the same apartment. Mia even took Elaine out to Milk and Honey a week before they shot their scene together so they could really experience the social aspects of a first date.

We spent the last two weeks of the shoot in Waterford, Conn., in Georgia’s childhood home. Her parents had given us permission to shoot in the house, but I don’t think they were expecting 50 cast and crew members to descend on them like locusts.

We kept displacing Georgia’s family (which included her mom, her dad and her elderly grandmother) from one room to the next. We painted their pristine white walls an assortment of colors, and we completely commandeered the refrigerator and kitchen for craft services. On top of that, Georgia, Mia and I slept on “hot sets” in the house so we could literally roll out of bed and into work every morning.

Film Festivals: Taking our Show on the Road

A funny thing happened on our way to Sundance: Another Chinese-American lesbian film called Saving Face beat us there. Well, that and the fact that we didn’t really finish our film until December 2004 — about three months after the Sundance deadline.

We watched the progress of Saving Face with great interest and trepidation, knowing that they were going to get into the market at least six months before we were, and that their performance was going to directly impact the prospects for our film. There was never competition between our films, but certainly we looked to Saving Face as a trailblazer and a harbinger for Red Doors.

We had our world premiere at the Tribeca Film Festival on April 22, 2005, in front of our hometown crowd. It was a horrifying and exhilarating experience to see our film on the big screen in front of a real audience — kind of like speaking to a large crowd while naked.

While we were frantically running around trying to drum up buzz about our film at Tribeca, I received a call from David Courier, the senior programmer at Outfest, who had heard about our film and wanted to see a screener. I hastily sent him a DVD and promptly forgot about his call. We ended up winning the Made in New York award for Best Narrative Feature at Tribeca.

(Be sure to watch the special featurette, Behind Red Doors, on the DVD to see Georgia giving her acceptance speech where she forgets to thank Mia and me. If you see Georgia around, be sure to give her grief about it.)

Two weeks into our Tribeca afterglow, I got another call from David Courier. This time he was inviting our film to screen at Outfest. At first I was thrilled. We were hoping for a big Los Angeles festival to showcase our film to the industry, and Outfest is not only one of the biggest, it is also a great marketplace for film buyers.

My second reaction was panic. I was worried that our film wasn’t “gay enough” for the Outfest crowd.

True, we had a main character who is a lesbian and embarks on a romantic relationship with another woman, but the film is really an ensemble story about a family. I explained my trepidation to David and instead of agreeing, he convinced me that not only should Red Doors play at Outfest, but that it should be the featured film on All Girl Friday.

David Courier is certainly a charming rogue, but the argument that he used to win me over was quite compelling. He explained that Outfest was interested in showcasing films that presented the queer experience in a variety of contexts. They liked Red Doors because it featured a lesbian character in the context of a family unit.

Queer films, he argued, don’t have to be just about romance or homophobia or coming-out. In addition, he felt that many of the other characters in the film would be relatable to a lesbian audience even if the characters themselves weren’t gay.

I am so glad we did it. The Outfest screening was by far our best. The 600-seat theater at the Directors Guild was sold out, and the crowd was vocal and enthusiastic. David was right:

During the Q&A afterward, there were just as many fans of Katie, the youngest daughter, as there were of Julie and Mia. We picked up two more awards at Outfest: the HBO Audience Award for Best First Feature and the Jury Prize for Screenwriting.