ABOUT THE PRODUCTION
per•se•vere: \per-se-vir\ vb: to persist (as in an undertaking) in spite of difficulties.
"If you truly believe in something, passion is contagious," co-writer, producer and director Justin Lin emphatically says of his experience making "Better Luck Tomorrow. " "Everybody that came on board came on for the right reason - to make a film that is real, one that resisted the standard stories and stereotypes prevalent in cinema. "
"Better Luck Tomorrow" began as Justin Lin's short-form thesis script at UCLA's School of Film and Television. But as Lin wrote, he discovered that the rich characters he created could not be limited to a mere thirty pages. Bolstered by the project's creative possibilities, the writer/director eagerly enlisted the help of friends and co-writers Ernesto Foronda and Fabian Marquez to develop "Better Luck Tomorrow" into a feature-length film.
Though excitingly productive, the process would prove challenging for the trio. "We knew that we wanted to explore the psyche and power dynamics within a clique that leads to the creation of a "gang" mentality," Lin says
"Better Luck Tomorrow" is a morality tale about a group of honor students who become involved in petty crime, violence, drug use and excess in a frantic pursuit of self-discovery, recognition and public adulation, while at the same time maintaining their 'A' averages. The cautionary tale is also a harsh and unapologetic examination of the insecurity and volatility of today's youth. As the lead characters become involved in more serious crimes, the film examines how American culture glorifies the gangster lifestyle. The film observes how a small sequence of events - beginning with a snide article in the school newspaper - can permanently transform a student's innocence to cynicism.
Though the story is hardly autobiographical, Lin infused the character of Ben with much of his own struggles as a person of color. "My family and I came here when I was in second grade," Lin explains of his youth in Orange County's Buena Park, California. "I think having grown up in a mostly Caucasian environment as an Asian American male, I had a sense of wanting to be an all-American kid. But at the same time, I never felt totally accepted. Now looking back at my writing, I realized I tend to be attracted to stories and characters with sensibilities of existing on the margin. " It is this unique bifurcated perspective that has afforded Lin a keen understanding of identity and difference. Creatively, it gave him the ability to design characters that are at once challenging, controversial and engaging.
Lin, Foronda and Marquez continued to develop and rework their script. Through the process, the characters were defined more clearly, as was their collective descent into amorality. Fifteen drafts and nearly two years later, "Better Luck Tomorrow" was ready for production.
Though the script was deemed insightful and provocative by its readers, financiers were not exactly knocking down Lin's door. Investors responded to the material, but cowered at the idea of backing a potentially controversial film about a group of nihilistic Asian American teenagers. Suggestions ranged from writing in a white lead to adjusting the screenplay for Latino actors.
Lin set out to fund the film on his own.
"I started out with ten credit cards, and I took out all my savings," he recalls. "A low budget film often has a budget of about five million dollars. We didn't have close to that amount. We had such a minuscule fraction of that amount, we had people working for free along with donated equipment. "
The economic challenges faced by Lin prompted a newfound exploration of his artistic and personal motivations: "I had to keep on asking myself, 'Why did I want to make this film? Why did I want to take all my money and put it towards this film?' I decided, 'This is it. If this is going to be the last film I make, this is going to be it. ' There were no holds barred. "
Financial support came from a few unexpected yet timely sources, including MC Hammer, who met Lin at a trade show in Las Vegas. "Justin has a real honest personality," Hammer remembers. "The fire I saw in his eyes, and his desire - I wanted to help out. I wanted to see him fulfill the dream of 'Better Luck Tomorrow. '"
Despite the production's constraints, Lin assembled an eager group of talented, young actors. At "Better Luck Tomorrow's" center is Parry Shen, who plays Ben Manibang. "It was the first Asian American project I wanted to work on," Shen says. "The ones I had looked at before weren't very good. They were so into their own soapbox that the message would get lost. "
Shen relished in the challenge of playing Ben, and enjoyed portraying his character's delicate dance between honesty and deceptiveness. "Everyone has that dark side inside them. Not everyone makes the right decisions. The hard part was showing that dark side, but still being likeable. " Shen, a high school drama teacher, came to the project with an acute, first-hand awareness of this internal conflict. His day-to-day interaction with his students gave him a realistic, complete sense of Ben's desire to succeed and belong.
The dearth of available roles for Asian American actors also disturbed Jason Tobin, who plays Virgil: "At that time in my life," he remembers, "I was really beginning to question whether or not there would be roles that I was right for. I always wanted to do something important. I became an actor to do roles like this - roles that have depth and range. "
"When I read the script," Tobin continues, "I was like, 'Yes!' The script was nothing about being second-generation Asian or a self-pity script like, 'Poor me. ' I had a role that I could go different places with. "
Tobin was eager to portray Virgil, certainly the most volatile member of the group. "He's an immature character," Tobin says. "I saw that so vividly in my mind. "
Like Tobin, Sung Kang, who plays Han, had grown frustrated with the roles he was being offered. "Ninety-nine per cent of the time, I'm called to play an asexual bad-guy villain. If not that, then a waiter in a Chinese restaurant. "
"I think all of us are frustrated when we see Asian Americans on screen," Lin says. "They're either a tourist or a doctor. They're usually there for an 'Asian' reason. We rarely see Asian American characters that are three dimensional. "
Landing a part in "Better Luck Tomorrow" was both a victory and a relief for Roger Fan. "Sitting across from Parry, Jason and Sung," he remembers, "We were all going through the same thing. The most we could ever hope for is the third lead, never the guy who the movie centers around. "
Collaborating on "Better Luck Tomorrow" made friends out of a group of previously competitive actors. "One of the greatest things that has come out of working with Parry, John, Jason, and Sung, was finally being able to be on the same team as them and ironically, through the process, realizing that in the biggest picture, we have always been on the same team," Fan says. "It's just that the mechanics of Hollywood prevented myself and many Asian American actors from seeing that. I have never worked with a group of actors who were as talented, trusting, and supportive than 'the boys. '"
Karin Anna Cheung, who plays Stephanie, the object of Ben's affection, could not share in her fellow actors' frustration: "Better Luck Tomorrow" was Cheung's first audition. "This part was the first thing I ever auditioned for, and I found it was something I loved. I feel like the cast and crew are family, like all the other guys in the film are my little brothers. "
John Cho, who plays Steve, is perhaps the most recognizable member of the cast, having appeared in the hit films "American Beauty," "American Pie," and "American Pie 2," as well as the WB series "Off Centre. "
"This is an unprecedented collaboration," Cho says, "and I'm extremely proud to have been included with this group of incredible actors. "
Principal photography began in Orange County in early 2001. Again, the shoestring budget came into play in nearly every creative choice. "It was a constant struggle," Lin says. For instance, in "Better Luck Tomorrow's" party scenes, the boys walk into a house party amidst a sea of partygoers. The camera follows them through the house and into the back yard, where they join yet another large group. Unfortunately, the crew could only assemble about twenty extras for the scene. Lin's solution involved having the extras appear in the first part of the shot, then run off-camera through the side of the house and into the back yard to return for the second part all while he was following the lead actors around the other side of the house in one continuous shot. Though the extras were out of breath, the trick worked beautifully.
The only problem? The house belonged to Foronda's parents. Explains Foronda: "My parents weren't too happy. When the extras ran through the house they destroyed my dad's gardens, both in the front and back. "
Filming "Better Luck Tomorrow" was a labor of love and a triumph of Lin's unyielding will. The cast and crew's devotion to the project did not end when production wrapped. Everyone involved had high expectations: "You want your film to get into a prestigious film festival," Lin says. "Getting into Sundance is the ultimate dream for any independent filmmaker. "
Thankfully, "Better Luck Tomorrow" was accepted at Sundance. Moreover, its screenings won raves, sparked discussion and caught the attention of distributors.
"Better Luck Tomorrow" has the distinct honor of being MTV Films' first theatrical acquisition. Michael Cole, Vice President of MTV Films, saw something unique in "Better Luck Tomorrow" "At MTV it's very rare to find somebody who has a command of storytelling and has a style and sensibility that our audience can relate to. The great thing about this movie is that this is a unique perspective that we haven't seen before. At the same time it's a universal story. We're hoping we can help blow the door open. "
"We are very fortunate to be releasing this film at this time," agrees David M. Gale, EVP of MTV Films. "'Better Luck Tomorrow' handles a very sensitive subject with integrity and insightfulness. Though the events of the film are astoundingly complex, 'Better Luck Tomorrow' shows that certain acts of violence - particularly those involving youth - stem from a basic human need: the desire to belong. "
pos•i•tive \pah-ze-tiv\ 1: expressed definitely 2: CONFIDENT, CERTAIN 3: of, relating to, or constituting the degree of grammatical comparison that denotes no increase in quality, quantity or relation 4: not fictitious, REAL 5: active and effective in function
A heated Q and A at the film's third Sundance screening addressed "Better Luck Tomorrow's" more controversial and subversive elements. Following the screening, one enraged audience member asked Lin how he could "make such a bleak, negative, amoral film. "
"What kind of portrait is this of Asian Americans?" he asked. "Don't you have a responsibility to paint a more positive and helpful portrait of your community?"
The audience member's views on race and representation elicited an intelligent discourse from the rest of the crowd. After Lin and his cast defended "Better Luck Tomorrow," film critic Roger Ebert chimed in with the following articulate and succinct response: "What I find offensive and condescending about your statement is nobody would say to a bunch of white filmmakers, 'How could you do this to your people?' This film has the right to be about these people, and Asian American characters have the right to be whoever they want to be.
The problem of representation has long been addressed by cultural and media critics, who have argued that films like "Better Luck Tomorrow" do not portray their race in a "negative" light. Instead, they expand the complexity of racial categories and chip away at essentialist perceptions.
"One of the things we wanted to do with this film was to redefine what a 'positive portrayal' is," Lin says of his film. "The word 'positive' is very loaded. It can be misconstrued as a 'feel good' portrayal. I want to see Asian American faces in film. I want to see Asian American characters who have flaws, big or small. I want to see them exist in a world without having to explain themselves. "
"As an Asian American filmmaker, I wanted to make a movie that was real and non-apologetic," he continues, "I wanted to create a film space that did not define Asian Americans in opposition to whiteness, but rather, to establish them as active participants in the ever-evolving face of Americana. While the film heavily deals with identity politics, I tried to steer clear of being didactic or polemic. "
Lin is quick to point out that "Better Luck Tomorrow" may follow a group of Asian American teenagers, but its themes of identity, alienation, angst and violence are universal to all ages. "This film definitely has an Asian American perspective, but it also has universal elements that everyone can relate to. Everyone searches for an identity. "
"I think that what is positive and empowering is when you stay true to the essence of what you're trying to explore," Lin says. "I think as an artist, that's what you'd ultimately look for anyway not having any limitation or betrayal, and not always having to cast your characters in a bright, good light, like choir boys. For me, 'Better Luck Tomorrow' captures all these qualities. "
MTV Films is the feature film development and production division of MTV that releases films in conjunction with Paramount Pictures. Since its inception in 1995, MTV Films established itself as a unique movie label with a slate of diverse and successful films that have grossed nearly a half-billion dollars at the box office. MTV Films has released a dozen films including "jackass the movie," "Martin Lawrence: Runteldat," the outrageous comedy, "Orange County," Britney Spears' debut film "Crossroads," the teen romance, "Save the Last Dance," the breakout comedy, "The Original Kings of Comedy," the poignant coming-of-age film, "The Wood," the Academy Award®-nominated and critically acclaimed dark comedy, "Election," the rousing high school football movie, "Varsity Blues" and the animated feature, "Beavis and Butt-head Do America. "
Paramount Pictures is part of the entertainment operations of Viacom Inc. , which is one of the world's largest entertainment and publishing companies and a leading force in nearly every segment of the international media marketplace.