Outside, the Santa Ana winds ravaging the city of Los Angeles as directors Scott Drucker and Yu Gu are holed up inside Gu’s Little Tokyo apartment trying to get work done. Gu’s husband clunks away at a leaky fridge and their cat, Darwin, hunts flies. It’s a challenging work environment, but they must persevere because there’s a lot of work to be done. Drucker and Gu have just returned from their last production shoot in Taipei, Taiwan, for their CAAM-funded feature-length documentary, Who is Arthur Chu? After a year of following Jeopardy! sensation, actor, and writer Arthur Chu, they’ve amassed about 200 hours of footage. The battle to tame the story has just begun. The two directors sat down to reflect on this juncture in making their film, about the road that led them to making a documentary about Arthur Chu, and the road ahead. They recently launched an IndieGoGo campaign for the post-production phase of the film.
Scott Drucker: So what do you think about all this?
Yu Gu: Back in June or July of 2014, when you approached me about doing this, I was in the middle of planning my wedding. And to be honest, I hadn’t heard about the Arthur Chu hoopla, the champion thing, the comparisons to Jeremy Lin. And honestly, I didn’t pay much attention to “Linsanity” either. So what? He plays basketball well. And? Americans love competitions and I couldn’t relate to that at first. The whole idea that you’re a champion or you’re nothing, it’s troubling.
SD: Car stereo speaker competitions? Whoever has the loudest stereo system in their car wins? That says it all. I was a runner all throughout high school and ran for my college track and field team. That’s what I like about running, it’s about beating your own best time. That’s also why I like skateboarding and surfing, it’s about going out there and being the best you can be in that day. Arthur’s story spoke to me because he was such a fierce competitor on Jeopardy! But he’s also all about improving himself and being the best version of himself.
YG: I didn’t see that until I read his viral article on the Isla Vista shooting. I really fell in love with his voice, his perspective. I also read the article on race which talks about his father who came over from Taiwan in the 70s. He writes from within his own experience, but he’s also able to step outside of himself and the communities in which he lives. The tensions, the scars, the tragedies within Asian diaspora communities are difficult to talk about, not only because often the older generation refuses to speak out, but because sometimes those experiences fall into realms beyond language. But there was a candor and an eloquence to Arthur’s writing, which elevated his personal anecdotes and made them universal.
SD: It was also unexpected because he was just famous for being a guy on Jeopardy!
YG: Exactly. I also felt he writes as someone who walks the line between groups but never fits in completely, something I can relate to. One foot is in, the other is out, that’s how I feel all the time, and it’s heartbreaking sometimes. But this no man’s land is also a place of power. I wanted to meet Arthur to give him a nod of “I got you,” and maybe a hug too. Did you relate to that?
SD: I’m a third generation Sephardic Jew, but I also grew up in Chicago with the feeling of being on the periphery. I remember the first time as a kid when it dawned on me, all the other kids have Christmas trees, and they’re getting presents. Meanwhile, my family is going to the movies and eating Chinese food.
YG: What? You eat Chinese food on Christmas?
SD: Yeah, it’s the only places that are open. Also, a lot of Jews didn’t know there’s tons of pork in Chinese food because they couldn’t identify the meat in the dishes. They thought it was all kosher.
YG: It is kosher, in the secular sense of the word!
SD: Well, sure. At the same time, I’m blonde and blue-eyed. I get a lot of looks from other Jews, which makes me feel self-conscious. I always joked with my family that, if I could go back in time, I’d go to Germany during World War II, pretend to be Aryan and save a bunch of Jews from the Nazis.
YG: Wow, we should make that movie. The time machine is in the back of a Chinese restaurant. No? Not good?[Scott shakes his head.]
SD: Anyway. The only reason Jews in America get presents on Hanukkah is because they want to assimilate. My great-grandparents came over and only wanted my grandparents to speak English, they lost their ability to speak Ladino, a Romance language that combines old Spanish with Hebrew. And because of cultural assimilation, that beautiful language is disappearing.
YG: In comparison to Canada, the power and pressure in America to assimilate does feel stronger. They say it’s a “melting pot” and do you know how hot a boiling pot gets? Growing up in Vancouver, Canada, I did experience racism, but it also felt very multicultural and tolerant. People who were racist didn’t express themselves with violence, at least not with guns. When I came to Los Angeles to attend the University of Southern California, I faced immediate culture shock. It’s a private school right in the middle of South Central. Living there, I realized how big of a role racial dynamics play in America—economically speaking and socially speaking, it has such a large imprint. The racial segregation of neighborhoods is an indication of the status quo. And meeting Asian Americans here, they were all about banding together as a cohesive group to push a common political agenda. I can see how that furthers a cause, but absolute definitions of identity can be damaging. The first time an Asian American guy told me I shouldn’t date non-Asians, I was shocked. That seemed like the most f*cked up logic possible. In America, you have this patriarchal society where ethnic males are repressed, they in turn repress women within their own ethnic group. I see this across many minority groups. So when Arthur started to write about nerd culture and how f*cked up it can be, that struck a chord in me. You wouldn’t think that victims of repression would do it themselves, but the pattern gets repeated. And women always get the short end of stick. It’s time for us to stop this. And that’s part of the reason I want to make this film, to examine race and misogyny in a modern light.
SD: The film gained so much more meaning for me when Arthur moved beyond the image of a villainous Jeopardy! champion, and became a man who was trying to do something positive with his celebrity. I want people to see life through someone else’s eyes and get a different perspective on the world, that’s why I make documentaries. There are too many people taking advantage of their celebrity in a negative way, using it to perpetuate the problems that already exist. I want to show there is a human behind the Jeopardy! villain, an imperfect man who is trying to make himself a better person. In a sense, it’s about that birth of compassion in all of us. Maybe you disagree with what he’s doing or how he’s doing it, but you understand where he’s coming from. We want people to watch the film and build their empathy.
YG: I think when I really felt that empathy toward Arthur, was when we filmed with his mom, Shirley, and his siblings, Norbert and Sharon. And of course his dad and extended family in Taiwan. Getting to know his entire family has been amazing. When you’re an immigrant, you’re a seed that’s dropped in the ground and everyone else around you are already trees. You have to compete with everyone for nutrients, for sun and for water, and you’re forced to grow at an exponential rate. Other people have had so much time to build their roots. I think Arthur’s desire to rebel against his family’s expectations is a big source of motivation for him. Even though my dad’s an artist, there’s still pressure. His mantra is work hard, make art, stay strong. He has a license plate that says “GO GU GO” in his office. Sometimes my husband calls me “hard worker Gu” to reassure me. My family has suffered so much and I feel guilty about leading such a privileged life. I wasn’t denied every opportunity because of political status, I haven’t experienced famine, or revolution or torture. My dad became an artist because the only thing that could keep him sane was drawing everyday. The stories of past generations are both a gift and at times a burden. Filmmaking for me came gradually. It’s such a privileged art form, there are no homeless filmmakers, so what I do with this art form weighs on me. I have to prove myself.
SD: Well nowadays, I feel like I come close to being a homeless filmmaker. I’m constantly traveling as a freelancer and living out of a suitcase. I grew up very much under the norm of the American dream. My mom is an accountant and my dad is a second generation jeweler. I was raised to get a good education, get a job and settle down. I’m the first person to do something in a creative field. My family has no reference points of what success means for me, so they judge me according to their own standards. I’m the oldest of three sons. My middle brother is an engineer and my youngest brother is a brewer for an awesome microbrewery. They call me a bum constantly, even though I’m working harder, putting in more hours. But then the other day, my dad told me that my grandfather refused to go to Hebrew school as a kid and played the drums at a burlesque show until my grandma gave him an ultimatum. It’s inspiring when Arthur talks about judging yourself according to your own standards of success, I have to constantly keep that in mind.
YG: Right, it’s about redefining the American Dream, or maybe liberating it from its shackles.
SD: I think we both believe in the importance of this film, in its ability to create understanding, promote empathy and tolerance. And we want it to be a cinematic, emotional experience. We’re not here to make Arthur seem like a perfect hero. He’s angry, he’s troubled, he’s just trying to find his way like the rest of us.
YG: Alright, enough blabbing, let’s get back to work.
+ + +