How do you make a high quality movie on a micro budget?
Filmmakers Hedy Wong and Hisonni Johnson have answered this question with Take Out Girl (2020), about Tera Wong (played by Hedy), who delivers Chinese food for her mother’s struggling restaurant in Los Angeles. She takes a job from a local drug lord to move “product” in an attempt to free her family from poverty, crime and their violent surroundings.
Hissoni Johnson and Hedy Wong talk to us about the importance of believing in yourself as a filmmaker, how you don’t need to have all the answers when you write an outline, and offer tips and tricks on how to create a feature film that looks like a studio movie on a ‘zero budget’. The moviemaking duo provide a fascinating insight into the process of shooting the movie, scouting locations, and and submitting the movie to competitions, even before the film had been finalised, for the purposes of feedback.
Wong, who has appeared in music videos with the likes of Chris Brown and Lil Wayne, was ready to shelve her script for Take Out Girl (2020). As fate would have it, she crossed paths with creative artist Johnson, who has made a name for himself for making films on a very low budget with outstanding results.
Hisonni Mustafa Johnson is a talented writer, director, actor, and cinematographer – in fact, if you check the credits for the film, you’ll see just how involved Johnson was and get some idea as to how many creative strings he has to his bow.
TAKE OUT GIRL is out now on VOD and Digital
How it all started
FF: Would you like to tell us a little bit about your background in filmmaking?
HW: I moved to LA for acting because I didn’t know anything else about entertainment. When I got to LA, I thought that you could only write if you went to school for writing, but that’s not so. Many artists just do what’s in their heart, they put it out there and develop it from there. In LA I found I had way more interests than acting. I loved creating art, producing, writing and it helped me to see a project coming to fruition.
HJ: I started making films when I was 12 years old. I have been making no-budget films ever since I was 38, and I think I’ve fallen in love with filmmaking because I lose myself in it. I don’t consider myself a director; I consider myself a filmmaker, because I have my hands on many different aspects of a film. I think that’s the allure for me – that it takes up so much brain power. To be looking at the shot, the shot size, to be paying attention to continuity, paying attention to the dialogue, the acting, the shot movement, the focus, the setback… All of those are things that I take great pride in. I believe it keeps me occupied, and without filmmaking as my outlet I would probably have been destroyed by the events of 2020. For example, paying attention to the George Floyd situation, and all of the violence against Asian Americans, all of the violence against Blacks, all of the violence against protesters in general… When I’m on set I can focus on the potential a story has for change and to serve our agendas. I believe that’s my salvation at this point in life.
FF: I completely understand where you’re both coming from. I think that creatives are, naturally, creative people by definition. We’re not just stuck in one box, and being multi-skilled and multifaceted is important as a creative and as a filmmaker.
What inspired Take Out Girl (2020)
Could you tell us a little bit about what inspired this project and how you decided to make it? Basically how did you guys get together for this particular project?
HW: Aside from the creative stuff, I think artists always use material from our own lives for the arts. That’s a common thing. What inspired me in terms of the making of it was seeing a lot of my musician friends making their art, making their music, without a co-sign from somebody big and without backing. They were invested in their own career, and they were branding themselves. When I saw them, and their hustle, I asked myself ‘Why can’t actors? Why are we waiting by the phone after an audition for a job? Why are we waiting on people to give us a job? We should be making our own movement.’ That’s when I started Take Out Girl (2020). And Lorin Ly, who plays Saren – my big brother in the movie, introduced me to Hisonni because he knew that we didn’t have many resources to work with, and not too much of a budget. He knew that Hisonni had won awards for micro budgeting, and he could be the man who could bring this whole vision alive.
FF: Fantastic. That’s exciting. What about signing the project? Why were you interested? What was it that resonated with you? Obviously, it’s a great story!
HJ: It was several things, to be completely honest. Her premise was intriguing right off the bat, but I was most affected by meeting her. I had never met any woman like her before, let alone an Asian American woman. She had a mix of characteristics that I felt were screen-worthy. Not just screen-worthy, they were screen-mandatory! I figured I could make a movie about her just folding napkins for 90 minutes, and she would be entertaining because her character is that rich. That was the initial catalyst, but as I started rewriting the script with Hedy, we started stumbling upon these amazing discoveries. Although the story was about Tera and her family who are Asian American, I was able to pour a lot of the black experience into it, because we found that we had more in common than one would have presumed on paper. With her being an Asian American female playing an Asian American female in her 20s, meeting an African American man in his 30s, you might ask ‘What business do I have telling the story?’ Well it turns out a lot, because our mothers had a similar struggle raising us. We were able to pour a lot of our truth into that, we both knew poverty and struggle from a very intimate place, and we both had similar agendas in the messages we wanted to convey, both thematically and visually. Our truth thematically was poured into the film as well. It was a wonderful experience full of discovering commonalities.
FF: That resonates with me, because while obviously I’m quite clearly not black – most people wouldn’t even think that I’m a person of color – at the end of the day my dad is an African man. When being here, we experienced a lot of racism, we were excluded, seen as outsiders. I think that what I would love to see is more POC people coming together and making films, because the socio-economic structures that exist keep us all down in similar ways, if not exactly the same. Everyone obviously has their own experience. The level of racism that I experienced growing up in a small Scottish town, compared to someone much darker than me in a large metropolitan city, was probably worse, but it depends on the situation. When I read the release for this, I loved the fact that you both came together to tell this story. Asian American life is something that we just don’t see enough of on television, and certainly not in authentic stories. I don’t know if you guys would agree, but that’s my feeling on it. I was excited to see something different.
Putting together a script – harder than it sounds
When you were developing your script, Hedy, how did you go about working out how you were going to format everything and put it all together – if we look at it from a more technical standpoint?
HW: It’s funny, because I knew exactly how I was gonna start. As artists, we typically already have a vision of our projects in our heads, and I could already clearly see many scenes and what I wanted there. We take a lot of moments of joy and pain from our lives and we put them into our art. That’s what I did. It’s not just about the things I was dealing with in unhappier times, but all the moments of joy that stick with you too. However I didn’t know how to write a screenplay or a script, I actually went on YouTube to look at formatting and everything. My script wasn’t meant for a screenplay competition, it was just meant to be given to somebody – anyone who could read my script, see all of the extra notes, get the vision of why I’m writing the scene as well as what I’m writing, why I want this or that scene here or there. Through our creative collaboration, they would say ‘Okay, this is cool, I get what you’re saying, but we’ve got to rework this,’ and then it just stems from there. I think as an artist, you just do the best you can to communicate your ideas and your thoughts to somebody. I began with an outline; for the young writers out there, don’t feel as though ‘Oh, my gosh, I have to write 100 page screenplays’. You don’t, you start with an outline – it could be two pages, three pages, or seven pages. You have three ads, where you fill in what you can, and it’s okay if you can’t fill it out totally. If you don’t have all the pieces at once, that’s fine. Just put in your thoughts and develop it. Then once you have that outline, you can begin writing your script. That’s the advice I would give to young writers out there.
FF: And would you say it was crucial and important for you to join forces with a seasoned Producer and Director?
HW: I was trying to get this made on my own, before I met Hisonni, and I didn’t want to give up on that… but I didn’t see any good leads to make it, because the story is so personal. I didn’t want to put some BS out there that wouldn’t truly represent Asian Americans. The story comes from a very real place. So that is what it is, whatever people think of the story, but in terms of just making it correctly I didn’t have anybody. Then one day Lorin gave me a lead. He said, ‘I know this director who can make a lot out of very little, you should meet with him, because I think he might understand what we’re trying to do.’ I’m glad that I met with Hisonni, because then all the magic happened, and now we’re here in this interview with you Aiysha!
FF: So it all worked out!
Making a lot from a little
Talking about that, the whole making something from very little, Hisonni, can you talk to us about how you do that? That is the mystical unicorn to most filmmakers, how do you go out there and make a product that looks, sounds, and feels good with very little?
HJ: It’s all because of my mom. I grew up with a single mom, four sisters and myself. She took care of all of us. She kept a roof over our heads. She kept Halloween costumes on our back, and birthdays feeling special somehow, even after she injured her back and became disabled. How can I not take on the challenge of making something feel real in the land of make-believe when my mom is doing it for real? I watched her every day. How did she take this much peanut butter and make sandwiches for five people? How do you take this much oil and fry chicken with it? How do you do that every day? How does she fix a pair of shoes where I rip the entire sole off of it? I saw the impossible done every day, because someone had to, and because she became a master of it. You don’t get intimidated by the tasks that are being asked of you on set as a result. As a matter of fact, it’s almost like I wouldn’t be carrying on the tradition of being a badass like my mom if I did. For me it’s almost my birthright to make situations where money isn’t stretching far enough work out, and to make it wonderful, to make it special, to see how that may actually be a strength as opposed to a weakness. That’s my mindset. That’s my purpose, and to a certain extent, my talent. In the movie Tera’s talent is her ability to code-switch, her ability to be unafraid in terrifying situations. That talent carries her to a somewhat promising future. I’m hoping that my skill set of being able to be undaunted by the seemingly impossible carries me on to a fruitful career as well.
FF: That’s an amazing mindset to have, and one that we can all use to be quite honest with you. So when you’ve got that small amount that you want to stretch, what in a practical sense would you do in order to stretch the money? Would you condense your shooting days? Would you be negotiating more with people? What things do you do to make that happen?
HJ: Well, it all starts with telling an appealing story. You’d be surprised how strongly people gravitate toward a project when they get a feeling it might take off and achieve something special. Also, it’s about being the filmmaker who follows through. Those are two major things that will attract talent, both behind the camera and in front of it, to your project. People will believe not only in what you’ve done, they will believe in you, they will believe in your follow-through, and of course your ability to stick with the project regardless of how terrible it gets on set. They have to know that you are a leader worth following. I do try to live my life in such a way that people under me know, no matter what, that ‘This project is getting done.’
When it comes down to practicality, and how that’s applied, it’s just about understanding the situation I’m in. I knew we didn’t have a big budget, but I also knew it was my job to make it look like we did. So I asked myself ‘how do I move the camera? Well we do it the way major Hollywood Studios would, but spend very little money doing so.’ I bought a hoverboard, and rode that hoverboard to get a lot of shots. You’d be surprised how not having the movement of the hips makes any shot a lot smoother. If I just bend my knees, I can simulate crane and Dolly moves, but I’m keeping up with bikes and I’m keeping up with people while they walk and talk. Sometimes I substitute the hoverboard for a wheelchair, sometimes I’m using traditional Dana dollies, and so on.
It’s all about showing the audience only what they need to see. I was lucky because the performers that gravitated to the project are screen-worthy. They’re all stars. If you put them in the right framing with pretty foreground elements, and some nice color and texture in the background, people will buy what they’re seeing on screen because they’re not looking at that, they’re looking at her. They’re looking at Lalo, they’re looking at everyone else. I think the philosophy behind it is: you can have a skeleton crew if your performers are killing it, and your script is killing it, and you’re you’re lit properly, because you can get away with major continuity issues if people are watching the actors and not what’s in their hand, or the wrinkles in their shirt, or how far they’re standing away from this door. There’s many scenes in Take Out Girl (2020) where Tera is standing and talking with someone and then she turns her head. In real life, it’s three months later, and she’s talking with a brand new actor who was never a part of the scene, but no one ever calls us on our BS because we stay true to what is most important.
FF: Interesting stuff.
So what does the future hold?
Are you working on another story at the moment? Do you think writing is now going to become a permanent part of your creative career?
HW: I do. I find myself leaning towards producing, I was helping Hisonni with this short film ‘Blunt’, and we finished shooting that this weekend. In terms of writing, I was helping my friend Justin Grace with his script called My Beau. It’s based on folklore from his culture in South Carolina. We’ve been developing that story, it’s a horror supernatural thriller based on a dark adult fairy tale. I hope to make that next and that’s what I’m telling all the artists – it’s not just one lane. It’s not just acting, you’re free. This is a whole business you can stick your hands into, and quite frankly, I love producing and overseeing things, having all the departments come together, and being a support for Hisonni on his projects. That and just learning because he’s a great coach in this business.
FF: That’s amazing. Thank you.
Post-production, where the real magic happens
When you guys are talking about your production period, how long did you guys spend on each section? How long did you take to actually shoot the film with everybody together? And then from your post-production to being released?
HW: Hisonni always has a master timeline in his head, but in life things happen, things have to be moved, and when we were rewriting the script together Hisonni wanted to shoot it that year. He’s always planning, but we both knew that the story had to be great. Just like in music, if the song is good, everything else sells itself, so I said ‘Let’s make sure the story is good.” So we took our time with that one, but we were always working on it. We worked until we knew the script was very strong, to the point where Hisonni even sent it to screenplay competitions, just to get feedback. He’s been such a great partner. Then we just move from a great story, from writing it to planning it, and then that’s where he takes over, because that’s his field right there.
HJ: We spent about a year workshopping the script together. We submitted it to the Blue Cat. We submitted it to Austin, and we got some good feedback, but we didn’t stop refining the script until about a month before we shot the film. We were still tweaking it, getting the vibe right, because the authenticity was key. It took us about a year to pre-pro this thing. We did the key art right away, to try and give ourselves an idea of the vibe we were going for, to see some of the cast members together and see how they felt on screen together, and to build some team chemistry. I drove around Las Vegas for almost a year scouting areas, and to get permission to shoot in places that would look like LA.
We invested a lot of time into just getting the minor details right, we spent 15 days shooting with a small crew of about 7 or 8 people. Then we shot 25 more days with just 3 people. Myself, my cinematographer and producer Alberto Triana, and Melissa del Rosario, and of course, Hedy Wong, our lead actress, co-writer and executive producer. After that, I edited for a little under a year, and started submitting to film festivals.
I just kept refining it down, even until getting it to the distributor, because what people are seeing at the festival circuit is very different from the film that’s coming out through 1091 Pictures. When everything was finished we wanted people who saw it at the film festival circuit and took this journey with us to see a version of the film that maybe even they hadn’t seen before. When 1091 Pictures asked us for our deliverables, I was still tweaking the film to make it better and different.
Advice for the struggling artists of the world
FF: If you were to give one tip to a filmmaker, as succinct as possible, what would it be for each of you?
HJ: Have an unrelenting belief in your own potential, even if it makes you come across as cocky to other people. I would rather you start your journey believing you’re the best filmmaker ever, then have the industry smack you around for a day and have you still feel okay, rather than you feeling okay, get smacked around for a day, and just leave the business altogether or treat yourself poorly as a result of what we all have to go through. The pain is coming and you can count on the industry to knock you down, but you should always be able to count on yourself to pick you up. So be cocky, feel good about yourself, you’re the best ever!
HW: To add on to what he’s saying, I just encourage artists to continue to cultivate the arts, and their art form. Know that this journey is always going to be a constant fight against other people’s disbelief and your own disbelief, and to be prepared for that mentally. Know it will be a fight, but know that everything isn’t for nothing. That it is not in vain, no matter what. We’re all evolving, and just keep applying pressure because something will always give.
FF: Fantastic, thank you much for being on the show, both of you!
Transcript/Editor: Ben Kelly
Headline, Intro, & Second Print Editor: Richard Williams
Video Editor, Visual Effects & Artwork: Richard Williams
Audio Podcast Editor: Juana Rubio
Special thanks to Katrina Wan PR & 1091 Pictures
Scottish Tunisian actress. Yes, that’s a thing. BAME. POC.