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ChiTownScreenwriting with Kat O'Brien - *Special Edition* Issue #11 | Dayyan Eng on Your First Feature & Globally Inclusive Storytelling

Welcome back to ChiTown Screenwriting with Kat O'Brien!
In this week’s Special Edition in Conversation with Dayyan Eng:
  • Dayyan Eng on Your First Feature & Globally Inclusive Storytelling
  • … Including Dayyan’s tips, tricks, wit and wisdom for writer-directors
  • Workshops and Events: Facilitating Diverse & Inclusive Spaces
  • Spotlight On: Broke ‘N News, Absurdist Web Series

Kat's Notes
Big thank you last week’s guest contributor Chad B. Anderson, fiction writer and editor, who helped inspire and shape our new Conversation with… series for ChiTown Screenwriting and discussed the importance of writers’ groups as a critical support for any professional writer building their network to connect to opportunities to get their work ready to show. ICYMI, catch up with last week’s issue here.
In this week’s *Special Edition* our guest contributor is internationally acclaimed filmmaker Dayyan Eng (Colordance Pictures). A visionary master storyteller, he also is the writer-director of festival darling Bus 44, celebrated rom com Waiting Alone, the genre-bending Inseparable and indie summer box office hit, Wished. In my Conversation with Dayyan Eng, he candidly shares his advice for getting your first feature made, tips and tricks for getting it done accessibly, wit and wisdom for how to approach it with savvy, and I’m loving his vision for a globally inclusive storytelling community.
Our curated workshops and events are centered on identity and access, diversity and inclusiveness, and we also put the spotlight on a new Chicago-based, indie, absurdist, web-series, Broke ‘N News Network.
Lastly, I’ve opened our call for submissions to publish, produce, or promote your work or upcoming projects in this newsletter. Scroll to the end to find out all the ways we’re trying to optimize this newsletter to build community and create opportunity for creatives, and their collaborators, to connect here in Chicago, and all over the world. Thanks for engaging!
Conversation with Dayyan Eng
On Your First Feature and Globally Inclusive Storytelling
Writer-Director Dayyan Eng, known as Wu Shixian to audiences in China
Writer-Director Dayyan Eng, known as Wu Shixian to audiences in China
DAYYAN ENG (known as Wu Shixian to audiences in China) is an American writer-director of mixed ancestry. After completing film school, he started his career directing TV commercials for the Asian and global markets. Eng first won awards and recognition at Venice, Sundance and Cannes film festivals for his film Bus 44, and soon after for his acclaimed romantic-comedy Waiting Alone – which was nominated for 3 Chinese academy awards, including Best Picture. In 2012, he wrote and directed the genre-bending dramedy Inseparable which starred Daniel Wu and Kevin Spacey. In 2017, Eng directed and co-wrote the indie summer box office fantasy-comedy Wished, which had the highest audience scores for local Chinese comedies across all 4 ticketing platforms. Wished was recently optioned to be remade as an American film with Eng attached to EP. Eng’s films have garnered accolades and awards not just for himself but also for actors he’s worked with, which have included many top stars in Asia and Hollywood. He is currently busy setting up a new sci-fi thriller, and an action-comedy which CAA is packaging.
On Making Your First Feature
K.O. So, tell me about your first feature, and how you got it made? 
D.E. My first feature was 2005’s Chinese film Waiting Alone. After a few years of trying to get studios in China to fund it, I finally ended up getting it made by going full indie, which meant having to do a lot of heavy lifting on my own: I wrote it, produced it, directed it, edited it and even played a supporting character in it – so yeah, exactly the definition of an indie [laughs]. But perhaps what set it apart from other indie films at the time in China was it was an indie that looked like a studio film; it had movie stars (Chow Yun-Fat was gracious to make a cameo in it) and fairly slick production values for what little we budget we had. Now keep in mind this was back in the 35mm film days and pre-YouTube and smart phones with 4K shooting capabilities, so in reality, the only viable way we could even get it made was to try and attach movie stars to the project to in turn attract the financing – much like it still is these days for most features. Problem I had was, how does one get movie stars attached to a noob-director’s project straight out of film school? No one taught us that aspect of it, so I had to learn about the producing side of feature filmmaking while trying to get it made. Especially after it became evident “real” producers didn’t quite get what I was trying to do with it back then.
It was a 6 year process from script to screen. You know the saying about getting the first one produced is always the hardest? It’s true. Unless you’re one of the lucky ones that get hired off a short or somehow manage to go off and make a great film on your own, usually for most of us, it requires a lot of time and patience. So back to the problem at hand: how does one get stars attached? There are many ways to go about it, but the way it happened for me was actually a multi-pronged approach, along with a dash of luck…
First, I had to have a script. No one’s going to just hand you a shoot-able script for free. So either go make friends with talented writer-friends or write your own. I came out of the Directing program at Beijing Film Academy, so writing a screenplay was not the emphasis of my studies. But after a year of writing what I did have was a screenplay, which, compared to another script I had also written just before, was the only one I was getting good feedback on. In particular, I remember Chris Lee who was head of Sony TriStar at the time – he was very generous and gave me lots of encouragement – said he really liked the script and that I should stick to my unique vision for it, even if I run into people down the road who will no-doubt try and convince me to change certain things that were considered “unconventional” for rom-coms (and he was right, there really were people who wanted me to make the story more conventional). Coming from the man who oversaw the very successful Jerry Maguire and As Good As It Gets, I took his advice to heart. Waiting Alone being a Chinese-language film, obviously wasn’t a film for American studios or the mainstream US market, but his encouragement stuck with me for years as I looked for funding. Of course these days, with streamers and the market being totally different and much more inclusive of foreign films, there are more opportunities, but back then, and especially when China was just a tiny blip on the global box office earnings that no one cared about; obviously the only place I could get funding for it was in China, and even then there weren’t too many established studios or production companies. 
So after a couple years of not getting anywhere with that project, I decided to shoot a short film to prove to myself and others that I could tell a story. I had saved up enough from directing TV commercials and music videos to fund my first effort: a 35mm short called Bus 44. Thankfully, it ended up winning awards at Venice Film Festival, Sundance, and also getting invited to Cannes, which helped put me “on the map” in the Chinese film industry. And from that, I was able to get movie stars to finally take meetings with me and read my screenplay. But even after that, it still took a further couple years to get the funding in place. Sometimes it was because people wanted to completely change the script to something I didn’t want to make, other times it was real bad casting suggestions from financiers who promised funding if I used so-and-so-totally-wrong-for-the-part-actor, nevertheless, I kept hammering away, pitching to established producers and studio execs, you know, the typical route. But when green-light finally happened, it seemingly came out of left field… Incredibly, my dentist told me about some patients of his who were interested in maybe getting into the film business. I didn’t think much would come out of it, but I still took the meeting on a whim because I had nothing to lose. Long story short, it turned out those very same people would end up being the financiers of my first feature film.
You just never know what will happen in this business! What I tell new writers and directors is you just need to be prepared by putting in the hard work, and with a little luck, your sail will be ready to catch that wind when it comes out of nowhere. Put it this way: if I didn’t spend time writing the screenplay and honing my production skills by directing TV commercials – which also allowed me to have some money saved and contacts to get my short film made, which then helped me get the meetings with name actors in the first place – then meeting my financiers at the moment I did would have meant absolutely nothing. Think of the whole adventure as a process.
Waiting Alone (2005)
Waiting Alone (2005)
K.O. I love that. So, this is a tough question… what would you say has been *most key* for you in sustaining a successful career in the film/TV industry navigating the multiple, seismic industry shifts in form and content financing, production, distribution? Do you think it’s industry-specific, or maybe something about who you are as a person, in your personal outlook on life, and work ethic?
D.E. Well I think we’re constantly trying to navigate it, right? I don’t think anyone has it totally figured out because it’s such an evolving art form / business – it’s a combination of so many factors. One factor that won’t change is people love stories, so cinema isn’t going anywhere; we just have to learn to adapt or die, though that doesn’t mean we have to chase whatever fad is going on at the moment either. During the pandemic, many people were saying theaters will die, and streamers would take over for good. I didn’t buy that doomsday scenario, because I don’t care how big your TV/home projector and sound system is, it just can’t replicate the feeling you get watching a great movie with a bunch of friends (or even strangers) in the dark, on a giant movie theater screen. And if China’s post-pandemic box office is any indication, the US domestic box office is going to bounce right back and then some. Sure, cinemas may just stop showing the smaller movies in the future. And sure, certain genres will probably move to the streamers for good. And most definitely, it would be great not to have all the annoying distractions of loud munchers, texters, and that one dude who just cannot get that plastic wrapper open– but it’s all part of movie-going and experiencing a story communally together.
I do feel that even though we like to think of ourselves as artists, it’s important to know how the business-side of the industry works. So I really try to be aware of market shifts and trends, but without getting completely buried in it – the key is to also know when to do things outside-the-norm and take risks. I mean, as I mentioned above, if I didn’t go meet those financiers my dentist introduced me to, who knows what would have happened.
The other thing is to know when to stick to your guns and when to just “let it go”. For me, the attraction of being a filmmaker was never the money. Sure it’s nice once things start working out, but it’s never ever the main reason I wake up in the mornings – it’s all about the storytelling. I’ve been offered projects in the past that I just couldn’t get into. If I can’t get excited about it, like really excited, or don’t have a way to adapt a project to get me to that state of excitement, I’d rather not do it – it’s also why I don’t have a long filmography [laughs]. In no way does this mean projects I turn down suck, it just means they aren’t for me. I figure if I do them for the wrong reasons, it’ll just make me depressed and it’ll end up sucking, which won’t make the financiers/studio happy either. Keep in mind, it’s an almost one-and-a-half-year process going from the moment a script gets green-lit to showing up in theaters, and that’s if you’re lucky to go that fast. That’s a lot of time to have the same thing in your head daily – so you better really like what it is! I’ve been fortunate thus far to not have to go do something I don’t really vibe with, but who knows, sometimes you have to do what you gotta do, either for the paycheck or for the credit or maybe even for the relationships. The great thing with technology now is if you can’t find anyone to fund you, you can go make a movie you really want to make with almost no budget and even get it seen by masses. The only hardware you potentially need is a phone, good mics, and a computer (and maybe a solid crowdfunding page). The tech is there already, you just need a good script and good actors – granted, easier said than done, but my point is – at least it’s not logistically and physically impossible anymore.  
K.O. Okay, say the script’s done, the movie’s done – what advice do you have to writers, or writer/directors, navigating getting their work seen by “the right people at the right time”, and/or getting it acquired for financing, production, distribution?
D.E Film festivals are a great way to get seen, but not all films fit the festival circuit model. There are lots of great movies that aren’t for the fests, which means you have to find other ways to get out there. Again, with YouTube or other online platforms, you can almost always get seen – way back or even a decade ago, you’d have to first find out where the exec or agent or whoever was, go make some DVDs, mail it to them, total pain in the ass. Now all you need is a link and the person’s email.
Of course, timing is important too, as is the way you go about getting your work seen. First, try to find people you think would be on the same wave-length or most likely to “get” your script or film. Don’t be that person who just forces their screeners or scripts on random people without getting permission first. Be polite, people are busy, and not everyone has the time or interest in seeing your work. Even if you think it’s the best thing ever – try not to take a rejection personally. Even if it really is the best thing ever, when people are dealing with tons of other projects with people they actually know and want to work with, it might take a minute before they can be persuaded to check out something from a total stranger. Second thing is, it’s important to take suggestions, or take criticism well. Sometimes what people say might be garbage, but other times it might be that they’ve got some very good points. So, learn to listen before deciding what makes sense, and try to be detached by keeping your ego out of it as much as possible. Lastly, definitely, do not show your screenplay or film until you are absolutely confident it’s ready to be seen, because you usually only get one chance.
Dayyan Eng on set
Dayyan Eng on set
On Globally Inclusive Storytelling
K.O. That’s so true. And obviously, getting your work seen by “the right people, at the right time” can be further complicated by power and privilege dynamics. So, let’s dig into that complexity a bit. In your opinion, what types of stories are still not as visible on screen? And what then, should we be looking for as writers, directors, producers– whose stories, about what – to tell, write, make, share? 
D.E. I feel as though there isn’t enough diversity in the kinds of stories out there. Sure “everything’s been done” already, but not all perspectives have been shared. That’s what you as the writer can bring to the table, a unique perspective. It’s something that only you can bring, so bring your unique spin or take on a subject matter. We all get inspired by other writers or directors, but don’t try and copy them, bring your own vision and voice, I think that’s what makes it stand out. When I made Waiting Alone, I certainly didn’t reinvent the wheel, love stories about young people have been done to death, but no one had done one the way I did mine, and maybe that’s why it resonated with a segment of the population. To this day, if I get recognized somewhere people still quote me lines from the movie. I’m not one to rest on my laurels, but I think I can die happy knowing that at least one of my films made that kind of an impact. That’s what we storytellers chase, that feeling, so try and imagine what that “thing” is and go create or find that. 
K.O. What problem(s) do you think we face culturally and/or as an industry in terms of getting more visibly diverse content on screen? 
D.E. The last several years have been quite interesting in Hollywood. It’s great that the need for diversity is finally being discussed seriously, and many people do seem to be making a genuine effort to make a difference. But as with anything, there’s a learning curve. It’s not going to be perfect right off the bat, but if we really want to be inclusive, it also means doing it in a way that makes sense – and be genuine about it. Personally, I don’t like it if it’s just trying to force an impractical quota of sorts, or doing things just to be politically correct or out of fear of pissing off the wrong crowd – I think audiences don’t like the end results of those efforts either. It’s pandering, and frankly, quite embarrassing sometimes. What studios or execs or “the gate keepers” need to realize, is that telling diverse stories that are appealing and organically inclusive is not only the right thing (and the more interesting thing) to do, but it’s also good for business when done right. To some degree I think with the box office success of Crazy Rich Asians or Black Panther or any recent film that starred minorities that were traditionally considered “un-bankable”, it’s revealing that audiences definitely like to see racially diverse casts on screen – in ways that are organic and not tokenizing. Nobody wants to see the same old predictable thing, right? I think it’s just a matter of making sure the casting feels natural and not forced. It backfires when people aren’t doing it for the right reasons. You can’t just be “diverse” for the sake of it, that sort of tokenization is something audiences can see through. But just by being mindful of inclusivity – who’s on the development team, the production team, who’s handling the marketing and distribution, everyone working on the film behind the camera, in front of it— it does help. In another film of mine, a fantasy-comedy called Wished, originally the screenplay was written to have two younger male leads along with an older male antagonist of sorts. We were having some trouble finding the right older guy, actors we met just didn’t feel right, plus it felt like there were too many dudes in the movie, so I decided to flip the gender and turn the older male character into an older female. It ended up making it much more interesting, even the jokes became funnier coming from an older woman’s perspective. Plus, the actress killed it, and the end result was better than what the co-writer and I had initially written. So it’s really about being intentionally open-minded about gender, race, all facets of intersectional identities – and it will likely result in more interesting, surprisingly satisfying, or even cleverly subversive ideas for the project itself.
While I think it’s important that people of different cultures / genders / races / orientation / ability tell their stories as authentically as possible, and we should let them tell their stories themselves, that doesn’t mean that they should be stuck with only being able to tell stories from their specific culture or intersectional identity, nor should they be the only ones allowed to tell those stories. This is such a complex issue to unpack here, and hopefully we’re finally at a point where people can continue this dialogue, and be open to the different perspectives out there… to find the best solutions for inclusive storytelling on the page, on the stage, on the screen – from the writers to the directors to the actors to the crew and execs. As for me, I happen to truly believe that we can take a more globalized approach to inclusive storytelling – I grew up in a family where we believed in the notion that all the different races and backgrounds are like different colored flowers in one garden, and it is precisely these differences that make a much more interesting garden, rather than a garden with flowers that all look and smell exactly the same.
You can stream Dayyan Eng’s films Bus 44 on YouTube, Waiting Alone and Wished on Amazon Prime.
Wished (2017)
Wished (2017)
On My Calendar: Writing Workshops & Events
If you’re zoomed out, you can still sign up to attend many virtual events and get the video recording later. We are in a unique time for unprecedented virtual access to amazing workshops and opportunities to continue to learn and engage as a community of content creators and collaborators. Thanks to my creative partner Tamika J. Spaulding @tjmadeafunny for curating this wonderful list for us!
Voice With Impact
Voice With Impact
Hi ChiTown community,
I’m writing to share about Voices With Impact, an upcoming virtual film festival that I think may be of interest to you.
From June 21-25, the nonprofit Art With Impact will be hosting an online short film festival focused on stories related to Black and immigrant mental health.
The festival kicks off on Monday, June 21 with a virtual premiere of short films and will be followed by a week-long series of (FREE!) arts-based sessions that center the voices and experiences of Black and immigrant folks.
If you’re interested, you can learn more about the festival here, and you can register for the premiere and sessions here.
Andrew Kirschner (he/him), Managing Director, Art With Impact
Voices With Impact Film Festival
  • Art With Impact
  • Week of June 21
  • Writers Guild Foundation
  • Tuesday, 6/22 @ 4 pm PT
  • ScreenCraft
  • Tuesday, 6/22 @ 5 pm PT
  • Roadmap Writers
  • Wednesday, 6/23 @ 1 pm PT
  • Writers Guild Foundation
  • Wednesday, 6/23 @ 4 pm PT
  • The Walt Disney Family Museum
  • Thursday, 6/24 @ 5:00 pm PT
  • The Walt Disney Family Museum
  • Friday, 6/25 @ 5:30 pm PT
Writers' Spotlight: Someone You Should Know
Broke ’N News Network (BNN) is a Chicago-based absurdist web series: not quite news, not quite talkshow, and fully unexpected. As soon as viewers think they are wise to the joke, the team behind BNN deftly shifts gears into uncharted fodder, slick editing, and whimsical tongue-in-cheek.
Broke ’N News Network (BNN) is a Chicago-based absurdist web series
Broke ’N News Network (BNN) is a Chicago-based absurdist web series
The concept came together when Jon Schwolsky and David Zepeda both graduates of Harold Ramis Film School (now Second City Film School), started talking about current events and the state of the world over this past year, as well as their mutual fondness of The Daily Show and frozen pizza. 
As these conversations continued and the news cycle became more absurd, and the pizzas became well-cooked, BNN started to take shape. Schwolsky and Zepeda recruited fellow HRFS alumni Sara Bieker, Mike Greenwood, and Hannah Zahn to round out their writing and post production team. 
At its core BNN is a collaborative effort put forth by writing contributors spanning from New York to LA. After the release of episode 1 the team continued to grow on an almost weekly basis, welcoming corespondents and writing contributors including Phillip Ty Moore, Rodrigo Fernandes, Nathalie Galde, and Eric Ochoa.
Connect & Contribute to #chitownscreenwriting
Writers and creators, in Chicago and around the world, please share ChiTown Screenwriting with anyone you think might enjoy it, and be sure to let us know how ChiTown Screenwriting can uplift or support you and your projects. As we continue to build community + opportunity, I’m actively seeking to hand the feature reins over to other voices besides my own. I got this party started, you can find me at the bar/on the dance floor, I want to put *you* in the spotlight/center stage!
Upcoming Issues | Call for submissions!
We’re looking for feature essays, random thoughts, creative pieces, images and/or videos exploring the following topics:
Ongoing Call for Submissions!
As this grassroots movement finds its voice and expands our reach, we’ll continue to solicit content contributions in the areas of:
  • advice on writing and creating
  • tips and tricks on twitter (tag me @uknowkatobrien if you got some!)
  • wisdom, think: self care, mindfulness, changemaking and more
  • workshops and events to continue our professional development, and foster opportunities for connection, and collaboration
  • as well as writers and creators you should know
  • cool projects launching that we should spotlight
Who’s someone that I should know, ChiTown Screenwriting creators? Ping me @uknowkatobrien.
If you enjoyed this, or have writing/creative life questions I can unpack and answer, or are looking for support to promote your work and projects, reach out and let me know? And please share widely! #grassroots #letsgo
Thanks for reading, and see you next week #chitownscreenwriting!
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Kat O'Brien
Kat O'Brien @uknowKatOBrien

ChiTown Screenwriting is a publication that I write and edit, for writers and creators to find community on their journey to getting published and produced.

More ambitiously, ChiTown Screenwriting is a movement, and a mindset. Global and local, we're a community connected by creative collaboration, and we're all about connecting collaborators to creative opportunities!

Each issue shares the wisdom and advice from storytellers and changemakers, with the goal of demystifying some of the more elusive processes and strategies for navigating the business, art and craft of getting our stories to our audiences.

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