Always start “starting”. Creating is never a linear process. So if you get ideas for the end, take them. Any ideas you get, write them down and catch them, because that’s low hanging fruit. There will be plenty of time to stress over the ideas you did get. So in the beginning, it’s tough because it’s all a blank canvas, so start filling it. It’s a marathon, not a sprint, and it’s not a straight line, it’s windy.
As a part of our series called “5 Things I Wish Someone Told Me When I First Became A Filmmaker”, I had the distinct pleasure of interviewing Kenneth Lui.
Kenneth Lui is an award-winning narrative film director, producer, and screenwriter. Born and raised in Monterey Park, he graduated from Art Center College of Design with a B.A. in film production. He works as a professional editor for social media and commercials and as a visual effects artist on major motion pictures for Marvel and DC such as Captain America: Civil War, Batman V Superman, and Guardians of the Galaxy. He recently completed his feature film debut, Artists In Agony: Hitmen at the Coda Teahouse, a mockumentary that won Best Comedic Feature at Independent Filmmakers Showcase L.A. Film Festival 2021, and will be streaming on Tubi July 21st.
Thank you so much for joining us in this interview series! Our readers would love to get to know you a bit better. Can you tell us a bit of the ‘backstory’ of how you grew up?
Totally a child of the 80’s. Raised by a single mom in Monterey Park, California, where I fostered a deep fascination and love for cinema. As a kid I didn’t have any toys, but lots of paper and would borrow comic books from friends and draw my own characters and write stories for them. Once I saw THE TERMINATOR and learned that not only James Cameron wrote and directed the film, he designed the Terminator as well, it clicked that it was something I knew I wanted to do. “You mean there’s a job that lets you write, direct AND design the robots!? I’m in!”.
Can you share a story with us about what brought you to this specific career path?
I always knew I wanted to do something, SOMETHING that was in the world of filmmaking. So regardless of whatever I did for money, I’d always have ideas kicking around, always be writing, drawing. One day a college buddy from my Art Center College of Design days, who was in the VFX industry encouraged me to get into the business because he knew I had an excellent artistic eye and it would benefit me as a filmmaker. So I started training at home under his tutelage. This led to working as a professional VFX artist. It was at this time that digital cameras were becoming more sophisticated and affordable, so I used my earnings to buy the best equipment I could and started shooting shorts and it led to me making my first feature film.
Can you share the funniest or most interesting story that occurred to you in the course of your filmmaking career?
So I’m 14. I’m a freshman in high school and obsessed with James Cameron movies. The Terminator is what inspired me to be a filmmaker at 9 years old. I’m drawing Terminators and xenomorphs on my pee chee folders and everything. A random classmate tells me that they can get me James Cameron’s phone number and I lose my mind. Turns out their uncle is James Cameron’s brother’s best friend. Small world! Of course the great James Cameron is just dying to hear from a random 14 year old fan right? But what can I say, I was 14, naïve, and he was my hero, and I just wanted to say how much he meant to me. I didn’t get his number. But they did give me the number to his PARENTS. My classmate goes, “Yeah, just call his parents and ask for his number from them.” So nervously, I called and was talking to James Cameron’s MOM! She was very gracious and sweet, humoring a 14 year old fan boy of her son’s. At the end of the conversation I thanked her and told her I’d lose the number out of respect and never call again, but she insisted I keep it and could call occasionally. I talked to her on and off for 10 YEARS. Finally, things came full circle when I sent her a copy of my award winning college thesis film FALSEHOOD, a film noir fantasy about the Wolf on trial for his crimes against Red Riding Hood, that she enjoyed along with a note thanking her for the support over the years and letting her know that because of her son, it inspired me, so in a way my thesis film wouldn’t be possible without her. Turns out you don’t have to meet your heroes, sometimes their mom is the real hero. Funny thing too, my first feature assignment as a VFX artists, was Terminator Salvation.
Who are some of the most interesting people you have interacted with? What was that like? Do you have any stories?
Honestly I find most people interesting in some way so no one really stands out.
None of us are able to achieve success without some help along the way. Is there a particular person who you are grateful towards who helped get you to where you are? Can you share a story about that?
I am grateful for my wife/co-producer Mariana Lui. She has been nothing but supportive over the years. Between her skill set and mine, we cover a lot of ground and it’s been such a fun ride making art together. One memory that stands out is when we were first dating, we were on a shoot and doing a gag with our actor acting underwater in a pool. I remember her taking a breath and going down to the bottom to fix a piece of set decoration and thinking, “This is a keeper.” She was just so game to make art and was so supportive I had no choice but to fall in love with her.
Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?
Something I like to say whenever I hit a snag in a project is “Don’t get mad. Get better.” Whether it was losing an actor, or a location falling through, or whatever the set back, the philosophy I had to invent was “Don’t get mad. Get Better” because independent filmmaking, in fact ALL FILMMAKING, pretty much means things can get you mad ALL THE TIME. But I learned to be tenacious and patient. So when things didn’t go as planned, first “Don’t get mad.” Getting mad doesn’t help. And it looks bad, so it won’t attract solutions. After I’m done “not being mad” I would employ “Get better!” Naturally meaning, getting myself in a better state of mind, but “getting better” could also mean get a better suited actor, or “get better” at a certain skill and do things myself. The trick is to FINISH THE PROJECT, and use what you learn, and connect with people who will be interested in THE NEXT PROJECT.
I am very interested in diversity in the entertainment industry. Can you share three reasons with our readers about why you think it’s important to have diversity represented in film and television? How can that potentially affect our culture?
It’s important to have diversity represented in film and TV because the AUDIENCE is diverse, and could possibly be an untapped market. It’s also more realistic to life, so the drama will also be more realistic. Having role models is very important to the people represented but also to show the universality of being human. We as humans all have struggles and to share them through story just unites us more. It’s always refreshing to see a relatable story in a new light and one of the easiest ways to do that is through diversity in cast and crew.
What are some of the most interesting or exciting projects you are working on now?
Currently working on a couple pitch decks for feature scripts. I’m also working on a horror script that I’m excited about, always wanted to do a “body snatchers” type story, and for the first time I get to end the world! (or does it end??? *Dun-dun-dunnnn)
Which aspect of your work makes you most proud? Can you explain or give a story?
I’m proud whenever I get a good idea and get talented people to help me pull it off. I love doing the “roundup” and getting all the artists together, it’s like getting all the thieves together to pull a heist in Ocean’s 11. When the artists have an angle of attack on an idea I have, I get a rush because I feel “seen” and it’s such a thrill to have artists not only understand your idea, but show you an interpretation that’s BETTER than what you imagined.
Ok super. Here is the main question of our interview. What are your “5 things I wish someone told me when I first started” and why.
- Always start “starting”. Creating is never a linear process. So if you get ideas for the end, take them. Any ideas you get, write them down and catch them, because that’s low hanging fruit. There will be plenty of time to stress over the ideas you did get. So in the beginning, it’s tough because it’s all a blank canvas, so start filling it. It’s a marathon, not a sprint, and it’s not a straight line, it’s windy.
- Always have another project going on. Whenever an idea is giving me trouble, regardless of how sweet I am, or how hard I’m trying to move the ball forward, I’ll cheat on that project with ANOTHER PROJECT. It never fails, if I’m blocked on a project, I stop and take a break from it with another project that DOES offer me ideas, and invariably that makes the first project “jealous” and ideas DO start flowing. So I try to be a moving target. While people are hating on one short, it doesn’t matter because I’m working on another short, and if there’s insecure feelings happening there, doesn’t matter, I’m working on my feature script anyway. So it projects my feelings because it’s not tied to any one project. In the end you’re building the filmmaker not the films, when you do that, the films are inevitable.
- Never take things personally. Feelings can run high, especially when you’re independent, but if you serve the project, do what’s right for the piece, you can move forward with a clear conscious. A buddy of mine wanted their girlfriend to play the lead for a short of mine, THE GIRL WHO COULDN’T COME, about a girl who can’t climax sexually without hearing Johnny Cash, funny idea right? But the girlfriend wasn’t comfortable with the sexual nature of the short. I assured her that there wouldn’t be any nudity, and the joke of the show hinged on her comedic performance. But she insisted I change the story. So out of respect for her wishes, I cast someone else which infuriated my buddy and we were no longer friends. It made me sad, but it was the right call.
- Drink water. When you’re on set you’re so in your head you WILL forget and die of thirst. Happens to me ALL THE TIME.
- Don’t give up. There’s no FOMO if you don’t finish. So figure out a way to finish. No matter what, finish. Always start starting because it never be in the mood so just start, but even more important is to finish. Forget what you THOUGHT the piece would be and embrace what IS because there’s gold in the unexpected. Life is unexpected. That’s a very important lesson I learned with my feature improv project ARTISTS IN AGONY because it taught me to embrace the zig-zag nature of filming. If an actor flaked, then I killed them off and gave the part to my sister-in-law. If an actor and I had a good relationship, I made their part bigger. Make do with what you have, don’t get stuck on one thing and finish because it’ll make you “larger” in different ways. As artists we tend to look back and cringe because to our “retrospective eyes” older work always “lacks” but if you look close, those “lacks” is what made you learn.
When you create a film, which stakeholders have the greatest impact on the artistic and cinematic choices you make? Is it the viewers, the critics, the financiers, or your own personal artistic vision? Can you share a story with us or give an example about what you mean?
It may sound boring but it IS my own personal artistic vision. If I find an image that truly GRIPS me, I go through Hell to make it happen. The impetus of my first feature project was no exception. It was very serendipitous. A buddy of mind just got out of a relationship and me and my co-producer/wife were keeping him company. He turns to me and casually says “I would love to be in one of your film projects shooting at some bad guys.” And for some reason, the vision of my buddy shooting at bad guys was very clear to me. It’d be a hand held shot, very run and gun, verité documentary style and that vision kicked off ideas to make ARTISTS IN AGONY, a mockumentary film about bumbling hitmen, which is something I’d never seen before. Once a visual idea gets it’s hooks into me, I do everything I can to make it happen.
You are a person of great influence. If you could start a movement that would bring the most amount of good to the most amount of people, what would that be? You never know what your idea can trigger. 🙂
I’d start a movement of kindness. We need more kindness and empathy. Kindness to ourselves and others. Especially during this time in human history its important to know we’re all in this together. Everyone I know, including myself, is “going through it”. I would like to start a movement of kindness.
We are very blessed that some of the biggest names in Business, VC funding, Sports, and Entertainment read this column. Is there a person in the world, or in the US whom you would love to have a private breakfast or lunch with, and why? He or she might see this. 🙂
Oooooh. That’s a long list. Would love to have breakfast with one of my heroes. James Cameron. Guillermo Del Toro. That’d be cool.
How can our readers further follow you online?
Follow me on kennethlui.com where I post a lot of my work.
We also have a website for our feature film artistsinagony.com
@mental.pictures.productions on Instagram
Mental pictures on Facebook
This was very meaningful, thank you so much! We wish you continued success!
Kenneth Lui: 5 Things I Wish Someone Told Me When I First Became A Filmmaker was originally published in Authority Magazine on Medium, where people are continuing the conversation by highlighting and responding to this story.