Osric Chau, star of Supernatural and Dirk Gently's Holistic Detective Agency, talks to us about producing and performing in new indie feature Empty By Design, creating the work and roles he wants to be part of, and filming in the Philippines.
Photo credit: Haldane Morris
As well as supporting every aspect of independent filmmaking, I'm going to come clean and admit I am also a huge fan of the TV series Supernatural. It's a show that's been in my life for 15 seasons, as long as my beloved family pet, so when it comes to an end later this year I will mourn accordingly.
So, before then, it is a rare treat for me to speak to someone who is creating incredible work in both worlds. I may have come to know Osric Chau for playing Kevin Tran, a prophet of God battling dark forces alongside the Winchester Brothers in that show, but it's his creative endeavours outside of the show that have really impressed.
One such endeavour is producing and starring in new feature film Empty By Design, written and directed and by Andrea A. Walter - who joined us for the chat, as I learnt quickly that Chau and Walter happen to be housemates.
"Right before Drea and I moved in together, we went to Sundance Film Festival. This was my first time at Sundance, and I loved it. It blew my mind in every which way and the day after coming back from Sundance, I looked at her and said, "All right, let's make a movie". [laughs] I was very serious.
"In terms of what we were going to do or how we're going to do it, I had no idea. All I knew was that we're going to make a movie. Coming from an acting background, I knew I wanted to produce and start creating my own content because I was sick and tired of waiting for people and complaining about it.
"Andrea came from the production side of things. She worked as an editor, camera operator, a bunch of stuff, but she always wanted to be a writer-director, so it was a natural fit."
Such was Chau's determination to make a movie, he reversed-engineered the time needed for each production phase of this hypothetical project should it wish to be released at Sundance the following year, and set Andrea a deadline - which to meet would mean writing the script within the next month. The pressure was on.
"To Drea's credit, after freaking out, she did. 'What is it that you really want to do as a director?' 'What is the end goal?' She replied 'I just want to go home.' Drea is from the Philippines, and she wanted to go home. Naturally, I'm like, 'Okay, let's do a movie in the Philippines'."
And so Empty By Design was born, a film about the struggle of identity that is experienced when living and growing up in multiple places surrounded by different cultures, and what it means to call a place home. As a Canadian living in LA with parents from Hong Kong and Malaysia, knows all about mixed cultures. As such he's very aware of a shift in roles created for Asian American actors in the film and TV industry in recent years.
"For me, as an actor, right now, the Asian American community is doing incredible. 10 years ago the roles I'm seeing now would never have existed, not even in the realm of possibility, so it's definitely changing. I've been in it long enough to be frustrated at what is available, and being the type of person I am, I'm like, 'I'm not going to wait'. I have to create my own industry, in essence. I have to create these characters that I want to play for myself, for my friends, and hopefully, that will start paving the way for other people.
"Now, we're part of this massive movement, so it requires everyone to be storytellers. It's up to us to create our own stories because I can't wait for the writers that are established right now to tell my story. The people who are telling my story or our stories they haven't had a chance, so I can't really wait for someone to develop and get there. I have to be part of that."
Then came the small matter of producing the film that would allow Osric and Andrea to be part of that. Chris Pang and Dante Basco were two producer friends who got involved early on. In fact, had already produced a feature in the Philippines, and agreed to do so again after Chau told him of his plans at a party one night.
"I knew he had produced movies, one even in the Philippines, so I asked him if he'd work on ours. He was half drunk and he said yes! He showed up at all the meetings [laughs]. We had our cast pretty much set going in, we had this whole team.
"We were trying to raise funding in LA, and had a lot of interest, but no one would fully jump on board with us. We gave ourselves a deadline, that deadline passed. Then we sat around and asked ourselves 'Okay, what do we do? We have no money. How long are we going to wait for these people? What if nothing happens?'
"We all came to the decision that we just needed to go to the Philippines. Dante was already there for another project, so me, Chris and Drea booked one-way flights to Manila. We had no idea how this was going to play out.
"Dante connected us to a local producer JoAnn Cabalda Banaga, who turned out to be one of the most reputable and established producers in the Philippines. She was incredible. She set us up with a bunch of meetings as soon as we got in, and within two weeks we had our budget."
At this point I exclaim how incredible it is that such a leap of faith could have worked out so well, to which Andrea adds "Got to be crazy, man." High risk, high reward, as they say. Within a month of arriving in the Philippines without a plan or budget, the film went into a whirlwind production. Were things very different there compared to what they were used to back in the US and Canada?
"It was very different but we had a couple of great things going for us. Drea is from the Philippines, so her family was there helping out, and she comes from a crew background too. The camera operator, our grip and gaffer were part of Drea's team that she worked with a lot in Vegas, and they're incredible. Because she was DP as well as director, she found a really nice way of working with a local crew in a way that made sense for them and for us. We couldn't just go in and say this is the way we do things. We had to find a nice balance, and Drea did a spectacular job with their crew.
"It was just astounding to me - and our whole group - what we were actually capable of because none of us knew or thought we could ever do it, let alone do it that year. There are no doors or barriers to entry anymore. The only thing that's holding us back is ourselves."
With the hard work completed, it was time to screen the film to an audience for the first time. It was a big occasion in more ways than one. Andrea is quick to say it was a 'horrifying' experience purely because of the way it went down.
Chau recalls; "The first screening was kind of crazy. I was just worried about getting everyone in that showed up, making sure everyone had a seat. I felt like we're producing an event, not just being able to enjoy the movie."
Walters adds; "I just didn't expect such a big screening for the premiere. We were fortunate enough to get into the Los Angeles Asian Pacific Film Festival as they're closing night film, which I didn't realize was a big deal until the day. There's all that press, and then you show up to a 700 seat theater. It was pretty crazy."
Empty By Design would go on to play at the Soho International Film Festival and the San Diego Asian Film Festival. It's then time to turn attention to distributing the film to a wider audience.
"Distribution. This is definitely the part where we have to learn the most. I think we're really lucky in that the people who funded us, they're a network, and so they already have distribution channels in place, and everything extra is just up to us to figure out.
"That being said, we had two goals making this movie. One, we just want to complete the film. That's already a monumental goal that we've accomplished. The second one was that I wanted to have our next film greenlit before this one was ever finished, and we had that as well."
"I think the most important thing for me was that we stayed in that mindset of we're filmmakers first. We're storytellers, and this is what we're going to do. The first one we didn't really make for money. I know that's a terrible thing, but I think more than anything, we had to prove ourselves as storytellers and that we can run a set and all that. For myself, that's what I wanted to do.
"Now that we have that, I think the next ones we're definitely going to have distributors involved at a much earlier process so that we can go through those channels properly and make sure that we're not completely out of the loop."
Now having this experience, I ask if producing is something he would now consider pursuing independent of his acting career.
"Absolutely. I think there is a responsibility for me. I can't hire all of my friends, but I could hopefully help them hire everyone else. I have a duty because I'm in a position where I can really learn and hopefully figure out this thing that could at some point turn into me being the person that green lights projects and say, 'All right, I believe in you guys. Take a chance. Go. Do your thing'.
"I want to help build industries. I think for me to do that means being a producer. I'm fully involved with developing a full slate of films moving forward already, so I'm very much in that zone."
You can follow Osric on Twitter: @OsricChau