There is a scene in The Paper Tigers in which Hing (Ron Yuan) details how one can tell a certain kick is special. Not the technique or style, but the sound. At that moment, everything else falls away, and Danny (Alain Uy), Jim (Mykel Shannon Jenkins), and Hing listen for the sound. It’s a special detail in a film full of them, thanks in large part to writer/director Tran Quoc Bao.
Both a comedy and a drama full of expertly-built fight sequences, The Paper Tigers is a welcome surprise as the pandemic begins to wane in the United States. Ahead of the film’s theatrical and VOD release this Friday, The Film Stage spoke with Tran Quoc Bao and producer Yuji Okumoto about finishing the film during quarantine, maintaining the kind tone of the picture throughout, and constructing fight scenes that would stand out amongst the fray.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
The Film Stage: Let me start with a question you’ve probably been asked a million times already, but I feel like it’s important. What was the process of getting this movie to the screen and then, of course, navigating completing the film once everything changed? What was that whole world for you both?
Tran Quoc Bao: Yeah. I mean, when we set out, this is basically a ten-year process coming to fruition here. Obviously a pandemic was never in our plans for the release or [anything like that], but it’s been really nice to see the feedback and some of the people noting that this is almost the perfect movie for lockdowns, the perfect movie for some type of optimism or some type of sunshine in a whole year of gloom. That’s been the silver lining. We had to set out to make this film hoping to make it a lot sooner, but in a lot of ways it was right on time. We actually finished shooting right before lockdown here in Washington state. It took so much work and yet, we did it right on time. It’s just a surreal feeling, but I’m thankful because I guess we couldn’t have it any other way. If we waited a little bit longer or our financing didn’t come together a little bit later, I can’t even imagine what would have happened or what we would have to do.
Then, obviously going through the virtual film festivals has been––everyone has been trying their best––but it’s not obviously the same as being in this theater, being with the crowd, and seeing it with an audience, which is why we all, for us, grew up watching movies and that’s what we set out to make. That’s been different. Then, of course, releasing this film now and here, hopefully the country’s on the up-and-up, but it’s interesting going through this whole tunnel of what the film is. And then some people thought ‘Is this is a Cobra Kai rip-off? Did we make this during the pandemic somehow?’ I don’t think you could have rushed it and rode those coattails and suddenly, ‘We’re going to make a Kung Fu movie over pandemic lockdown.’ [Laughs.]
The Film Stage: The kindness element was certainly something that struck me when I got to the end of the film. There’s so much conflict in the movie, of course, but there is always this underlying goodness. Even in the fight scenes, there’s an awareness there. It all works very nicely. Was that something that both of you, Bao and Yuji, had to keep an eye on? You must have been talking about how to thread that tone in pre-production even, and then on set, right?
Tran Quoc Bao: For me definitely, it’s precarious with an indie film. A lot of things can go wrong, and especially with casting, just one little thing off-note or the wrong actor for the part can throw the whole thing off. I had written the script and it was pretty much set when I had started eight years before and then we just pitched and tried to find financing to make that movie. I guess it’s this frozen in ember and time document that maybe speaks to how it was able to have legs and to why people could still relate to it, even if we hadn’t gone through all those changes.
Yuji Okumoto: Just to jump in on what Bao is talking about, I’m a big, huge fan of martial arts movies. I grew up watching Kung Fu movies and that’s what first appealed to me was the whole martial arts aspect of it. When I read it though, the script, I thought, ‘Man, this film is really, really got a lot of heart,’ and that’s the core of this film. It’s about brotherhood and finding yourself, finding each other at the end, no matter what differences that you have before that. I think that’s what was really great about this script. I can see why the actors that we had, the leads, and all across the board were really passionate about this project and really wanted to be part of it. I think, like anything, it all starts with the script and that’s the foundation. I think when you have a foundation like this and a lot of building blocks and there are a lot of different aspects that came together for this film. I think the bottom line is that it’s that heart that keeps it together.
I think that all comes through, definitely. Yuji, I did want to ask you…I grew up with [the Disney channel] movie Johnny Tsunami, which I loved [Yuji plays Johnny’s dad in the movie]. You’ve been in a million things [as an actor]. Now, you are a producer on [The Paper Tigers]. How has that transition been for you?
Yuji Okumoto: Well, let me say this: the transition from actor-producer is not easy. It’s totally different. I own a couple of restaurants here in Seattle and it’s kind of like being a restaurateur. Your day never seems to end. It’s constant. Putting out fires here, left and right. As an actor, you go in, you have your lines memorized, you have your character down, you do your shtick and then you’re done and you can move forward, but, man, producing, it’s just like everything. All the aspects from pre-production and post-production and to shooting the thing, it’s a grind. Even though you sell your film, then comes the marketing then comes everything else along with it because we’re a mom-and-pop, man. We’re a total down-and-dirty indie film and I think that’s what I love about this because you learn so much as a producer doing something like this. I would not trade it for the world, as hard as it was. I learned a hell of a lot. You just got to take the bull by the horns and just go for it. A lot of people say, ‘Oh yeah, that’s too hard. I’m scared.’ I said, ‘You know what? Just do it.’ Magic happens sometimes and we’re blessed with a film like this.
Yeah, it must be rewarding. The film has been well-reviewed and there’s obviously good word of mouth and everything and like Bao said, it feels like it’s coming out at the right time. Bao, you learned a lot from [legendary action director and choreographer] Corey Yuen. I bring it up to mention the great fight scenes in The Paper Tigers. The fact that you’re not cutting a million times during a fight scene is so noticeable and appreciated. And it seems like more of the audience notice these things now. It helps that you’re an editor as well. What is that process when you’re choreographing on site, then immediately filming?
Tran Quoc Bao: Yeah. I mean, basically to that point, I’ve worked with our action director, Ken Quitugua, for many films, and we have that same sensibility growing up and eating Hong Kong cinema. That was our movie diet and [we really understood it]. When you break that down, Hong Kong filmmaking, it’s a lot different from American style filmmaking, especially with the way the action is and how each shot is a beat and each shot is a moment. The whole thing is, that’s my schooling and that’s where I come from and it also helps me conceptualize. It’s not always trying to get it in one and make your day or whatever. You have to get all the pieces and so it requires a lot of intentionality and planning and foresight. On the day, knowing exactly if you have it or not. The editing, like you mentioned, you have to know where the in and out points are. It’s not just getting the shot and moving on. It takes a lot of work, but it’s honestly just the way our brains are wired at this point. I don’t know. We just think in that way. The single camera is the way and we build on the action [that way]. Even just technically, that’s the challenging point working with the DP and the lighting crew because, even logistically, it makes more sense time-wise the American way that you shoot one side [of the set], you “flip the world.” change the lighting, shoot the other side, but that doesn’t create that glove-in-hand type of action that we were trying to go for and that we grew up appreciating. We had to really work with everyone, cooperating together and flipping the world to get that little insert, flipping the world again to get this other piece because then that feels like we at least know we have the pieces. It’s like that dance that we have on the crew side.
I don’t want to wax nostalgic about everything here, but I [remember as a teenager] when The Transporter, which Corey Yuen directed, came out. It’s such a simple action movie in so many ways but I remember not even understanding why I knew it was better than other American action movies. Then, I go back to it and it’s a conceptual, stepping-back thing in terms of camera placement and fight choreography. So you’re working within this indie budget. Yuji, when you’re preparing the film, was there an alchemy you figured out to stay within scope? Anything that sticks out as a tough decision where you had creative solves? The roof scene jumps out in my mind, but there must be a million things.
Yuji Okumoto: Yeah. There are. When you’re working with a tight budget, it’s all hands on deck, basically. You’re asking for a lot of volunteers from the community to help out. You’re just doing whatever you can to make things work. When you speak about the rooftop scene, that was a bear because we got that location I want to to say a week before and we had to shoot, so this is the stipulation that these people wanted for their rooftop was, ‘We want plywood boards all across the whole rooftop where you’re shooting just for support.’ We’re thinking, ‘God, how are we going to manage to do that? We have to shoot there and we got all the art directors and the production designers breathing down our necks, we’ve got to get this thing done and started.’ We had to literally do it ourselves. DIY man, we had to get… these big ass plywood boards up onto the roof and lay them all down. The producers are doing this stuff and we’re just dying, but we had to get it done. Then, we had to get the guardrails up because you don’t want people falling off the roof, so we had to bring them up. There were 150 plywood boards and probably, I want to say, 90 guardrails, those metal guardrails, so it was insane, but you know what? The location was incredible. We thought, ‘We got to do this. We’ve got to make it work.’ I think for us, we try not to make those sacrifices. If that means pulling up our bootstraps and getting things done, then you gotta do it. That’s our attitude.
How many days did you shoot for?
Tran Quoc Bao: That’s a complicated question actually. [Laughs.] With an indie film, we had financing in place in pieces. Actually, two years before the main production, we had some parts of the money in place that we actually shot, like the prologue, which is the scenes with all the younger tigers in the eighties and nineties. We shot that and we used that as our pitch real to raise the rest of the funding. There’s this Boyhood feel to it, but yeah, that was five days and then the rest of the shoot was about 29 days. It came to about 34 or 35 days in total.
It’s great that that initial footage made it into the final. Very economical! I love it.
Tran Quoc Bao: It didn’t seem so smart at the time and now we look like geniuses. [Laughs.]
Maybe a dumb question here, but is there any hope to continue the story? There’s certainly an element to The Paper Tigers where you could continue generationally.
Tran Quoc Bao: I would say, never say never. Yeah. It’s a little bit of the Pixar school where it’s like, ‘We want to be able to make it organically and if there’s a story that comes up…’ This always felt like [one] story and let’s encapsulate that. Certainly, if there’s something that comes up and inspires me or the team, we certainly look at it from that point of view, but I think that we take that very thankfully, because maybe that’s a testament to how attractive and how charming the characters are in that world. Definitely take that as a token of appreciation.
Have you been able to sit in the theater yet with people or not yet?
Yuji Okumoto: No, we have not. This is a funny story. We did a drive-in screening for the Seattle Asian American Film Festival. We were outside with the cars. One of the producers says, ‘Yeah, I’m going to go walk around and hear reactions and see if we get laughter at this part and that part,’ so he’s literally walking around the cars and listening to the laughter and seeing what works and what doesn’t work. It was kind of hysterical. I pulled him aside, said, ‘Look, man, it’s kind of creepy. I don’t want to creep people out,’ but he said, ‘No, it’s cool!’ At the time, this was all we had. This will be the first time that I think all of us will be able to see the movie with an audience. We’re so looking forward to it.
The Paper Tigers opens in theaters and on demand on May 7.