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Poker: An Interview With Chris Leong

How did you get into filmmaking?

Filmmaking is something I’ve always been into since I was at least 4 or 5 years old, or for as long as I can possibly remember. Having a more innocent mind starting out, my parents would have to do the hard part and tell a toddler the truth behind his favorite shows and movies.

They told me characters like Barney and Big Bird were people in costumes and that my favorite cartoon characters are not actual people. Same went for commercials and any live action presentation where stunts were dangerous, impossible, or a variation of both. While it may be disappointing news for some kids, this child had his mind blown when his parents told him about how voice actors, stunt doubles, special effects, and any behind the scenes stuff all work.

At times, if they felt was an important lesson for kids like me or literally anyone of any age to learn, they would go as far as to explaining whatever the moral or lesson is being conveyed or taught through in whatever show or movie we were watching. As I look back on my overall viewing experiences in life, and while I’m not exactly sure if they really meant to do so, I’d say my parents were the ones who got me into filmmaking in the first place.

What was the first film project that you worked on and how did it go?

The first film that I worked on as a background actor was Steve Jobs; starring Michael Fassbender and directed by Danny Boyle in 2015. It was a fun experience being in their presence after seeing them on the screen and hearing about them all of the time.

Aside from the student films I made exclusively for film classes, the first film I made after finishing undergrad was actually this film, “Poker”.

My professor gave me an F on my proposal even after I pulled an all-nighter in the campus library following just about all of the annotations he left on the proposal’s “rough draft”. Thus I had to start over from scratch with another story so that he wouldn’t downgrade me any further and keep me from walking at the commencement ceremonies that followed.

Poker was the furthest thing from a smooth and perfect journey even after I decided to make it without the usual supervision and restrictions that would be enforced. A portion of the cast and crew I hired in advance backed out days before principal photography commenced; forcing me to eliminate scenes and plug in the vacant spots.

As my grades in the “easier classes” started to tank, I wasn’t given permission to shoot the "Plan B” movie until my professor finally gave the okay for the other script two weeks before a rough cut was due. I had to settle for whatever freelance talent I could find on social media. Neither the casting nor the writing were truly my vision but I was already spending what was then my sixth year in college. However, it was a blessing in disguise since thats how I met J-Kai Hsu who would then become the lead actor for Poker.

Before we wrapped "Plan B movie", I was also in the pre-production phase for another video assignment I had for another class. From there, I not only recruited J-Kai but reached out to Amy Swan; a fellow actress I met on the set of 13 Reasons Why who would then introduce me to her friend and fellow actress Nora Cullinen to fill in the other actress spot we needed.

After production for that project wrapped too, those three eventually signed onto “Poker”. However, another actress spot soon opened up.

Thankfully, I met Jalen O’Neal, a professional photographer and friend I met through Amy when we were all background actors on the set of Jexi (starring Adam DeVine). He would then proceed to introduce me to Sabrina Marie to be the replacement.

I would then go on to recruiting O’Neal to join as an actor to portray Troy the roommate. However, as scheduling conflicts arisen, I had to put on what I learned in those few acting courses I took for electives and what I did as background actor all on display. Though I would’ve loved to be his director, I understood that a deal is a deal. O’Neal would still go on to support me and the project in post and we still keep in touch about whatever gigs or casting calls pop up.

Thankfully, I had friends who would refer me to a handful of the actors in the movie. However, I’d say that the cast and crew I wound up with were the most loyal and selfless team I’ve worked with thus far. Prior to the pandemic, I had the majority of the “Poker” cast and crew ready to shoot a DC fan-fiction; joining a much bigger production.

Unfortunately, we’ll need to wait until it's safe enough to gather in groups of over 10 people again without any consequences or risks of contracting coronavirus.

Which directors have inspired your work?

There's too many to name!

To name “a few”, I’d say Alfred Hitchcock, Clint Eastwood, Martin Scorsese, Francis Ford Coppola, Steven Spielberg, Stanley Kubrick, George Lucas, Ron Howard, Brian De Palma, Quentin Tarantino, Spike Lee, Steven Levitan, Christopher Lloyd, Ridley Scott, Paul Thomas Anderson, Guillermo Del Toro, M. Night Shamalan, David Fincher, Rian Johnson, Paul Greengrass, Christopher Nolan, The Farrelly Bros, The Russo Bros, Todd Phillips, Ryan Coogler, Boots Riley, and so many more!

What genre of filmmaking are you looking to create?

Honestly, I’m looking to create films of all kinds for as long as the available resources I know of and have access to allows; Comedy, Romance, Drama, Thriller, Action, Mystery, etc.

For me, it truly depends on the story, its message, and authenticity before I can really go any further as to deciding what genre to present it in, granted that neither I nor my work will always get through to certain audiences and its members right away. Not everyone has the same palettes per se but I will always do my best to re-emphasize important lessons in life much like successful shows and movies have done and continue to do. The challenge is also the first priority; captivating the audience and reeling them in before any key events take place or before any lessons can begin.

As of now, I am debating which project to commence once it is safe to shoot; between my DC fan film ( or a pilot for a Comedy series I’ve been brainstorming.

What is the most challenging thing about being an indie filmmaker?

I’d say getting the exposure, recognition, and/or credit are certainly a few hurdles for any freelancer working behind or in front of the camera.

As producer, recruiting is a challenge; granted that everyone I reach out to are also freelancers who have a regular paying job, school, or both. “Locking in” a roster of cast and crew months or even a year in advance is not as simple as it may seem, as I learned with Poker and the mood reel for my fan film for life happens to just about everyone.

However, I’d say (for me personally) that getting internships or small jobs at a studio, or anywhere relevant in video production has been the toughest part.

It can certainly be discouraging when you put a portfolio together listing the variation of jobs done on the various sets of various sizes only to be rejected by recruiters for the “entry Level” PA gigs and internships; even when having all if not the majority of the “Preferred Yet Not Mandatory” skills being requested. However, I’d say it's demoralizing when you learn about how someone without any portfolio nor experience get picked over you. Admittedly, I then got overzealous and started applying for film-related jobs that I wasn’t necessarily qualified for to try my luck. Though it was for the best, the results were the same.

Despite the annoyances, I’d say that the rejections and any doubters are the best fuel to go out there and make content to build if not pad the portfolio. From there, I learn more about myself as a filmmaker and person by sorting through the truths in whatever criticism I receive ranging from “Subjective” to “Constructive”.

How many films have you shot and what are your most favorite themes to work on?

I’ve done a total of 10 films (7 as a Background Actor, and 3 Supporting Roles), 2 Commercials (1 Spec Ad for Capcom and 1 Ad for GrubHub), 4 TV Episodes (All Background Work For 13 Reasons Why Seasons 2-4) and 1 Short Online Sketch where I spoke as well.

While I personally have yet to go any further, especially now, I’d say themes about self-acceptance, mental health, cultural identity (me being a Fourth Generation Chinese American), paying homage or tribute to artists before me or any of us, or just anything that covers a personal journey are my go-to’s.

Everything that we see on the screens were initially a vision or at least part of a vision someone had in their heads before he or she worked up the nerve to put it out there. From what I’ve observed, these visionary talents (on and off camera) all have some sort of lingering anxiety about their work being understood, appreciated, and remembered by audiences.

Why do you make films?

I personally make films to convey messages that can’t always be transmitted into words and/or re-emphasize a sense of morality that we as humans tend to forget. Sometimes, its also a personal reminder for me to not get too down on myself nor any vision of mine for which I may have ready or at least have developing.

Like the various legendary filmmakers before me, they too have or had their own personal doubts before, during, and even after the first film that made a name or statement. Regardless of whether I personally agree or disagree with whatever statement is being made in a film or a show, everybody is human and everyone has a voice to express an opinion just as they are to counter it. I find that filmmaking and all phases of the process behind it serve as the common ground for whatever divides us; ranging from political beliefs, generational gaps, cultural differences, sexuality, etc.

Despite the withstanding imperfections in terms of accurately and equally representing everyone of all cultures, ages, ethnicities, genders, sexual orientations, filmmaking has been a platform to start a conversation or at least implement an alternative look at a theory or belief we may not initially believe in or think much about.

As Bong Joon Ho took home his well-deserved Oscars for Parasite, and while Director Ang Lee took some home as well, I as an Asian actor, director, producer and writer would like to serve in bringing Asian Actors back onto that stage somehow.

Though we still have yet to see another Asian talent on the Oscars Nomination list since Rinko Kikuchi’s performance in the film Babel, I am however pleased with the progress both the Asian community and the Asian American community made this past decade (The Walking Dead, Fresh Off The Boat, Always Be My Maybe, The Farewell, 13 Reasons Why, Crazy Rich Asians, Birds of Prey, Kim’s Convenience, Nora From Queens, etc) and I am excited for what’s to come next.

While I look forward to seeing Shang-Chi, a Chinese American Superhero join the beloved Marvel Cinematic Universe, I do not plan on settling for just spectatorship for as long as I’m here.


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