Falling for Grace (directed by Fay Ann Lee) is one of the best romantic comedies I have seen in recent times. Every once in a while a movie comes along that just makes you feel happy. (If it involves tears of joy, even better!) It is a mainstream, upbeat and lighthearted love story- a Cinderella tale comparable to the classic Pretty Woman, or the more independent film My Big Fat Greek Wedding, or the Ang Lee film The Wedding Banquet! Falling for Grace (directed by Fay Ann Lee) is one of the best romantic comedies I have seen in recent times. Every once in a while a movie comes along that just makes you feel happy. (If it involves tears of joy, even better!) It is a mainstream, upbeat and lighthearted love story- a Cinderella tale comparable to the classic Pretty Woman, or the more independent film My Big Fat Greek Wedding, or the Ang Lee film The Wedding Banquet! The list goes on but Falling for Grace has its own unique story with all the best qualities of some of the most romantic and cheerful movies of our time!
It is a deep and soulful feature, containing themes involving Asian American cultural identity, class and societal issues along with the struggles of being a professional, attractive woman living and finding love and self-acceptance in the Big Apple! If that last theme sounds familiar- one of the directors of Sex and the City has suggested a new pilot based on Falling for Grace!
A beautiful, talented, intelligent woman named Fay Ann Lee is the writer, director, producer and actress in the film. The incredible reality of how the film came to be is inspiring on so many levels; it is her first film, and is simply loved by all audiences who have gotten the chance to see it!
The main character is an ambitious professional NYC woman named Grace Tang, who happens to come from an immigrant family in Chinatown. One night at an Upper East Side gala she meets the man of her dreams, Andrew Barrington, Jr., an Assistant State Attorney who mistakenly comes to believe she is the heiress of an upscale Hong Kong clothing line (Shanghai Tang). They date, and Grace discovers that Andrew, in his attempt to accomplish good deeds, is shutting down sweatshops in Chinatown. He is, of course, unaware that Grace’s mother works in one of them and that she is a Chinatown girl herself! In comedic twists and turns Grace comes to accept herself and her family for who they are and this sultry, sweet Cinderella-type romance accompanies her along the way… but this story has a more modern ending compared to any fairy tale ending we have read in childhood… … no matter where we are from.
Fay Ann Lee shows us that the future is always near; notions and doubts of old cultures are always changing. However, the never-changing fact remains- true love wins over all obstacles!
A great cast light up the screen and images of New York in all its diverse beauty remind us what makes a classic romantic comedy.
I had an opportunity to speak with Fay Ann Lee after a screening of her movie, Falling for Grace.
ASIANCE: What do you think this film in particular means for Asian American cinema that is different from other films?
Fay Ann: Well, what I was really hoping to achieve with this movie is the ability to reach out to not only the Asian American population. I really wanted us to have a My Big Fat Greek Wedding out there. Because, as an Asian American actress, I feel like the opportunities are still very few and I think it’s partly because people aren’t used to seeing Asian American actors on the big or the little screen. I think that in order for us to progress in the industry on every single level, we need a hit film… And I should say that I’m not talking about Jackie Chan films. I’m talking about smaller Asian American films that reflect us realistically in today’s society. I’ve screened this movie in different cities where the population is mostly non-Asian. Well, what I really mean is that the audience has been mostly white and they’ve been able to appreciate this movie the way I intended them to. So on that level I feel I’ve achieved my goal; I just haven’t been able to get a major distributor to get behind the film the way Tom Hanks & Rita Wilson did behind “Greek Wedding.”
I realized how few good roles there are for Asian Americans so that propelled me to attempt screenwriting.
ASIANCE: The film is a romantic comedy but has so much more substance. Do you think audiences are sometimes uncomfortable with meaningful films, or in other words are they ready for it, with so many superficial films out there today?
Fay Ann: I don’t think audiences are uncomfortable with meaningful films at all. And thank you for recognizing that I wrote a meaningful film. I take that as a huge compliment. But look at the audience that you were with tonight. They totally got the film and appreciated that it deals with self-esteem, importance of family, social values. They got it all. But they were, I believe, an unusually smart bunch. Because this movie does deal with different issues rather delicately I don’t preach at all, so some might not get everything I’m trying to say, but I do believe every audience member relates to one thing or another. A woman came up to me after seeing the movie and said she completely related to Grace as someone who didn’t think she was enough. And then she told me that she was anorexic as a young woman. Grace, certainly is not anorexic, but you see how that works. Everyone feels like an underdog. It’s already proven from my test screenings in different parts of the country that the audience not only is ready for this, but many want movies that are authentic stories about families, love and friendship with no blood, guts and gratuitous sex. It’s just more difficult for Hollywood to see that. Remember, “My Big Fat Greek Wedding” was also unable to get a major distributor behind it. Tom Hanks and Rita Wilson were the ones that shepherded that movie into the theaters.
Click to watch the trailer. This looks good!!!
ASIANCE: Do you believe this story could really happen?
Fay Ann: I do! For one thing, one can be mistaken for someone else. In fact, I believe there really was a woman in New York who pretended to be an heiress and got away with it for a while. And, of course, sometimes, someone mistakes what you’ve said for something else and you let them run with it because it’s too embarrassing to set them straight. That has actually happened to me. Beyond this, I do think someone from the upper class can fall in love with someone like Grace today, a woman who’s worked her way up the ladder of life – absolutely.
ASIANCE: What was it like to multi-task as director, producer and actress?
Fay Ann: I certainly had no intention of doing everything when I first started. When I first wrote the screenplay, I did not want to produce it. I did not want to direct it. I did want to be in it because that was my path in my career, as an actress. But it is an independent film after all, so one thing led to another and out of necessity, I ended up multi-tasking. I have even joked that in the credits, I should put down Assistant to Miss. Lee,… Miss Lee. But making a movie takes an army, so even though you may see my name all over the place, there were hundreds of people that have passed through this film that contributed tremendously to this film.
ASIANCE: Where did you study film or how did the process all come together?
Fay Ann: Well I didn’t study film. I studied screenwriting. I started out as an actress in New York City and when I started to get into television and into independent film, I realized how few good roles there are for Asian Americans so that propelled me to attempt screenwriting. I enrolled in a class at Gotham Writers’ Workshop and I developed this story in this workshop.
And then when my screenplay started to place in certain writing competitions, I decided to try to raise money to get the film produced by shooting a trailer to pitch investors. So that “s how I started – “ by actually working on a trailer. After that I was invited to direct a short at a short film festival, so I got more experience as a director. I do believe that the only way to learn how to be a director is to direct and shoot a film.
ASIANCE: Can you tell us something about your style of directing? The emotions you are able to invoke?
Fay Ann: The thing about this particular movie is because it is a mainstream movie, albeit small and independent, what I wanted more than anything was to be able to simply tell the story and move my audience. Because I wasn’t a very experienced director, given this is my first feature film, the only thing I could really focus on was whether I was getting my story, themes across on screen. Are the characters sympathetic or understood? One of my mentors on this film was Jim Taylor, writer of Sideways. He gave me great advice. If I’m working on a romantic comedy, then don’t straddle genres and stick to a romantic comedy. In one of the cuts, he felt the film was shy about celebrating the fact that this is a romantic comedy. What makes it different is the Asian American family, which he loved. So, I took a month off, actually, and decided to re-write and re-haul the movie by having more of the family members involved in Grace’s story line and really sticking to the feel of a classic romantic comedy. I also think that if I get opportunities to make more movies, I’ll be able to find a style that might be common throughout the different films that I’ve made. Right now, I just want to tell a good a story.
ASIANCE: Did you make most of your connections through being an actress?
Fay Ann: Yes, my connections all come from acting both in theatre and in independent films. The indie film world is not huge and filmmakers introduce cinematographers to one another, music supervisors, etc. But if you’re talking about how I got such a great cast, I would have to say it was because I had a great casting director. Billy Hopkins is one of the most well-known casting directors in Hollywood and a big supporter of indie films. He cast Good Will Hunting, Station Agent, just to name a couple. When he puts out a request for submissions, agents and managers take him quite seriously and we were able to see a fantastic group of actors.
Studios don’t believe that films with Asian Americans can be successful. They don’t think the mainstream audience will buy a ticket. Asian American films can never hit it the way Juno does or Greek Wedding does if no one puts marketing dollars behind it.
ASIANCE: The comedy was excellent. Is it in many ways connected to your own experience in life?
Fay Ann: A lot of the comedy in the movie is actually very organic. In fact there were other comedic scenes that I wanted to write into my screenplay that actually happened to me but on paper, they seemed over the top. I think the best-written comedy should come from a real place. I actually am not good with jokes at all. But I do see how things can be very funny when they are born out of a realistic situation. Some day, I will write that thing that happened to me into a play or a movie and I bet I’ll get criticized that that situation would never happen.
ASIANCE: What advice do you have for young Asian American actresses who wish to be on film?
Fay Ann: If one wants to be an actress, then honing their skills would be the very first step. They should take acting classes. I think the best training ground is theatre. TV and film are also great if you have that opportunity but you don’t learn to develop characters as easily on film because they may start shooting the middle of the movie instead of from the top, so you can’t really work on the character if you are a beginner the way you can on stage where you can really develop the arc of the character from beginning middle and end. It’s also the best training any way for physicality and voice projection. These are all important tools to have as a young actor.
ASIANCE: Can you elaborate on some of the stereotypes in this country? Like where the film is set, is New York a place of stereotype in your opinion or is it everywhere?
Fay Ann: I think there are stereotypes everywhere in the country. New York has high society, taxi drivers, sweatshops, Wall Street bankers. I guess I really did utilize every kind of character that exists in New York City. Stereotypes exist because those characters being stereotyped actually exist. So, for example, the characters Ma and Ba in Falling for Grace, an immigrant couple living in Chinatown who do not speak English, may very well be considered stereotypes. But how you treat them in the film is what’s important. Are they in the film simply to be laughed at? I certainly did not want that. In fact, these two stereotypical characters are, in some ways, the heart and soul of the movie. The audience always, without fail, walk away falling in love with Ma & Ba. I loved my Chinese characters so I treated them with utmost respect, I think. I guess I’m not really answering your question well except to say that we should treat every character we write with respect so that even stereotypical characters can provide new insight to an unfamiliar audience. You know, when I was in Arizona showing the movie in a very small town three hours north of Phoenix, I saw stereotypical cowboys too. It’s only when you get to know them that you see them as an individual and not a sample of a collective stereotypical group.
ASIANCE: What are some of the challenges you have faced with distribution of this movie?
Fay Ann: Distribution for this film has been challenging. I think it is for every film that has Asian American characters in them. Studios don’t believe that films with Asian Americans can be successful. They don’t think the mainstream audience will buy a ticket. I think it depends on the product and how you market it. Asian American films can never hit it the way Juno does or Greek Wedding does if no one puts marketing dollars behind it. And I don’t mean a few hundred thousand dollars. I mean tens of millions. Distributors for Greek Wedding spent $20 million on marketing. At this point, comparing any Asian American film with any independent films that have truly made it would be an unfair comparison. It’s like comparing how much money the U.S. has in comparison to a third world country that most Americans have never heard of. But having tested this film in mainstream America, I know that this could be a cross over film if a major distributor would give us a shot.
ASIANCE: There was such chemistry on film between you and the other lead- how does your husband deal with the intensity? (Haha!)
Fay Ann: He knows we’re just acting, haha!
ASIANCE: What was it like working with a lot of actors and actresses that we have covered in Asiance, such as Margaret Cho?
Fay Ann: Margaret is great! She really understands the romantic comedy genre. It was easy to work with her. We had a great time on the set and she is a consummate professional. What is surprising is that she is kind of quiet in real life, and I think that is how it is with many comedians. The woman who played my mother, Elizabeth Sung, I used to watch on The Young and The Restless when I was in Hong Kong! So when she was submitted for the role I was so excited! And Ken Leung, I believe, is a rising star and not just one of the best Asian American actors we have, but one of the best actors of my generation, period! We know each other from working together and he is amazing!
Falling for Grace opens April 18th in Scottsdale, AZ. For more information visit Falling for Grace