"Sometimes I feel like it's a little boring to just tell your own story over and over again"
At the Farmer’s Market with filmmaker Pete Lee
“Chilaquiles first, and then fruits.”
We walk together through the packed Ferry Building, out the back door, all the way to the back of the Saturday farmer’s market, where a tent labeled “Primavera” is selling Mexican dishes. We each order a plate of chilaquiles, then sit down.
I congratulate Pete on having just had his short film, Don’t Be a Hero, at Sundance. “I was so excited for you when I saw that!”
“Really?” he responds, a genuine question in his voice. “I worry a lot. So, when it happened, it just didn’t feel very real. Or it felt like, maybe this is the year where they let in every single movie that was submitted. Then by the time it was sinking in, I had to sign things, I had to worry about how to pay for everything, all the logistics.”
“But once you were at the festival,” I ask, “surely there was a moment where you got to stop, and look around, and enjoy the experience?”
“Yeah, yeah, yeah,” he concedes enthusiastically, “there were a lot of moments. Sundance, they like to remind you that you’re at Sundance. Everything is labeled ‘Sundance.’ In a way it’s a very glamorous event, but nobody there has any money.”
Most of the funding for Don’t Be a Hero came from ad work he did as a member of the collective Scandinavia. Though it’s now disbanded, for four years they maintained a space in Emeryville and worked on commercials (Intel, Mondavi, Credit Karma) and music videos (Aesop Rock, Y La Bamba, The Coup). They were able to set aside money to fund projects like Pete’s short film.
“Why did the collective close?” I asked, though I suspected I knew the answer. And I did. It was time, it was fatigue, it was expense, it was both the shock wave and the building-code crackdown that the Ghost Ship tragedy catalyzed for so many arts collectives and communities.
They call my name for the chilaquiles. We drizzle them with salsa, then grab a small table facing the Bay Bridge and settle into our brunch.
As soon as the Sundance lineup was announced, Pete started getting calls. “My first phone call was from this guy, this bro from Seattle. He calls himself a producer. I don’t know what he’s produced. He’s very young. I think he made his money from real estate. And he was offering me, starting at $4,000. He’s like, ‘I’ll give you $4,000 just to get a producer’s credit,’ and just the way he did it...this guy is doing a really crude approximation of what executive producers do. And he was very aggressive. And he goes, ‘Also, you have to know we’re not just some sketchballs.’ Then he just kept raising the money, he found me on email, found my number, Facebook, Instagram, Twitter, and then like every time he reached out, it’s another thousand dollars more.” The final offer was $8,000. “Which is pretty good. But the trade off is, I don’t know who this guy is. It’s going to be my first time at this festival, and I don’t want this guy going around speaking for me, or speaking about my film. So that made it less worth it.” Though he could have used the $8,000, Pete didn’t take offer.
I’ve only seen the trailer for the film, so I ask him to tell me a little bit about it. “The film is about a middle-aged woman, with a little bit of an identity crisis, verging almost on sexual identity. And it takes place in Bakersfield in the nineties. None of those things I just said are things I can really speak for, as who I am, and my background. So I rely on a lot of input and expertise from the people I work with to really bring it to life.”
As we talk about how he tried to create an authentic tone for the film, Pete reflects on a nonprofit project he worked on, interviewing LGBTQ people about their experiences receiving health care; Torrey Pines, a queer-punk coming of age animated film by his friend Clyde Petersen; people he knows in the Bay Area; a friend of his who worked for Bank of America for years and told him what it felt like to be robbed.
Most of all, Pete leaned on his collaborators to help fill in the right details. Having a cast and crew who’d nearly all spent time in Texas gave Pete insights into small-town mentality. “I think very early on, the type of dialogue I was writing, I wanted it to be super crackly, like Cohen Brothers style. And then my friends who grew up in small towns said, ‘We hate this. Write us like King of the Hill. That’s how we actually talk.’
Sometimes, Pete told me, he needed to ask his crew, “White people also do this, right? And they’d all be like, ‘Yes.’ As an Asian-American filmmaker, you’re very wary of someone not getting your culture right.” Pete didn’t want to turn around and do the same thing even if, we agree, white people are over-represented in popular culture. “I still feel like I have a responsibility to reflect things honestly.”
As we finish our chilaquiles and start digging into a mocha croissant, I ask Pete how he came to this story, and he tells me it’s based on a true story he read about a woman in Texas. (Google “The Last Ride of Cowboy Bob, ” if you’re curious.) There are, Pete assures me, major differences. “But the idea of a middle-aged woman who dresses as a cowboy and robs banks, that’s so evocative to me, and it allows me to hang a bunch of other ideas that I’ve had on it. I feel like I can speak for a few Asian dudes in America, in this sense of being willfully overlooked as a community. But sometimes that’s just not as interesting as if I take that same idea of invisibility and point it over to a middle-aged white lady working in a thrift store.”
At the same time, Pete grants that his personal story might offer him an openness to stories from people that aren’t like him. “Kids who grew up in Taiwan, you grew up on this island that is always struggling with its own identity. It’s been invaded by so many different cultures. Even now, when a lot of people speak Chinese and can claim Chinese lineage, they’re still confused about ‘Well, how Chinese are we?’ We grew up with a much more fluid sense of who we are. So I hope that sense of loss can be turned into a strength in terms of capturing stories from other cultures.”
Pete came to the U.S. in middle school. He went to the same church as my partner, Raph, who introduced us. That was on the East Coast, outside Boston. Pete originally came to San Francisco after college, because he knew there were “a bunch of really talented stunt guys” he wanted to make Kung Fu movies with. The first piece of Pete’s film work I saw was a thirteen-minute Kung Fu movie on a Groundhog Day premise called Rope-a-Dope. Then I watched the sequel, Rope-a-Dope 2.
When he first moved to the Bay, he ran an after-school arts program for kids from low-income homeless communities in the Tenderloin. He worked there for several years, and sometimes made Kung Fu movies on the weekend. He tells me he remembers thinking, “Ok, I can just do this forever, and my kid will be a brilliant filmmaker.” My heart breaks a little for him when he says this. But then the economy crashed and the funding for his program got cut. “The funny thing was, none of my colleagues felt bad for me, because even though I thought I was going to be there forever, everyone else knew that sooner or later I’d pick up a camera again.” I’m glad he did.—Margaret McCarthy