Sundance Features

January 21, 2007

Tze Chun, Windowbreaker

It feels great, obviously, but it took a long time to get to this point. I think I probably submitted about six shorts before I got in.

A still from Tze Chun short film Windowbreaker

(This feature is part of an ongoing series of Reeler profiles of New York films and filmmakers at the 2007 Sundance Film Festival. Click here for a complete list of this year's interviews.)

So what can you tell me about the movie you're taking to Sundance?

My movie Windowbreaker is about a string of break-ins in a mixed-race neighborhood, and the kind of paranoia that ensues. It's an ensemble drama, and it kind of blends together a bunch of different stories, but mainly it's two paranoid children, their workaholic mother, and gang of Vietnamese tens and one security store employee, and, of course, the question of who's breaking all these windows. It's about the paranoia in the town.

What drew you to the story?

It's based on the town I grew up in in Massachusetts; it was a small suburb that was predominantly white, and in the late '80s, some Chinese families started moving in -- my family being one of them. Some, but not all, of the people in the town were wary of these new residents who possibly bringing down their property values, and in the early '90s, Vietnamese people started moving into the town. What ensued was kind of a three-way distrust that still continues to this day in the town where I grew up; it was actually shot in my childhood home, and the woman who plays the mother in the film is my mom.

How was that?

It was great, except I had to trick her into being in the movie. I told her she was in the background of one of the shots, and then I told her to say a few things, and then we repeated that for all the scenes she was in. When she actually saw the movie, she was surprised to be in almost every scene.

A previous film of yours, Back to the Front, has similar issues of racially based distrust or antipathy. As a filmmaker, how has that theme evolved for you into what we see in Windowbreaker?

Back to the Front was more based on research -- it's a historical movie. This movie is much more based in personal experience, and so in many ways I think Windowbreaker is more successful in getting to the core of what I wanted to say about race. In the movie, not everyone is good and not everyone is bad; there are no angels or demons, I guess.

You've been extremely prolific of late, and now you're taking work to Sundance. What was your reaction when you heard you got in?

It feels great, obviously, but it took a long time to get to this point. I think I probably submitted about six shorts before I got in. I submitted two shorts this year. Also, I went to Columbia, but I was an undergraduate, so I didn't go to the film program. I think I'm the only one of the Columbia filmmakers who didn't, so I did feel like getting into Sundance was some sort of affirmation that I can do this type of thing on my own without having to go to film school. That was a great feeling getting that phone call.

That said, was there any relationship at all between you and the high volume of Columbia film schoolers who got accepted? Was there still a bond there?

I think there's a bond between every young filmmaker who's trying to make it --especially young filmmakers who are trying to make it in New York City, where you're slightly disconnected from the industry. I hadn't talked to a lot of the Columbia filmmakers before, but at a lot a festivals where Windowbreaker and some of the others have screened, I have talked to them some. They're just starting out like I am, and it's great to have a support network of people you can talk to about movies. But I did send (filmmaker/Columbia film professor) Eric Mendelsohn the short film very early on -- pretty much as soon as it was finished, because he was always a filmmaker I respected. He was the one who got in contact with me.

I'm interested in knowing your expectations for Sundance after all these tries to get in. Have you been before?

No. I wanted to go last year because I painted the poster for Half Nelson, so I definitely felt like it would have been great to be there. But I felt it might be too depressing to go without a real reason to be there. But as far as my expectations for this year, I'm going to try to meet as many people as possible and hopefully it'll be a good experience, but in the end I'm going to continue doing what I've been doing for the last eight years, in college and after college, which is continue making movies and continue writing.

You painted the poster for Half Nelson?


It's kind of iconic these days, especially around New York and, to some degree, in the Oscar race.

Anna (Boden, Half Nelson co-writer/editor) and I were in our undergraduate program together, and I remember when Half Nelson was just a script that Ryan had written. Ryan was PA-ing and doing all sorts of odd jobs, and he said he had this script that he had written, and he'd wanted to go through rewrites. Just to see the dedication that it took for him and Anna to get the short off the ground and the way that everything fell into place afterward was definitely inspiring. It was amazing to see other young filmmakers be able to follow their dreams. Everyone talks about the movie they want to make and all the expectations they have for it. It was just great to see that actually come true for them. And Anna edited Windowbreaker as well.

It's a small world.

It really is.

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