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Michael Goro Takeuchi


Mike Goro Takeuchi is a professional journalist who has written on film and sports  for numerous outlets sincr 2000. An award-winning creative non-fiction writer, Tak also pens a weekly sports column for a newspaper based in Southern California.

 

He was the production manager for the Santa Barbara International Film Festival from 2006-2015. 

Twitter-@irontak


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Director's Linsanity- Evan Jackson Leong's Journey to Tell Jeremy Lin's Story

By Mike "Tak" Takeuchi

 

( Scene from “Linsanity” Photo Courtesy of the Sundance Institute)

 Not long ago, filmmaker Evan Jackson Leong began filming content on a subject without fully knowing what he had. Although he had an idea of what the story might be, Leong kept an open mind to see what lay ahead for a heretofore unknown aspiring professional basketball player.

     Then "Linsanity" happened. 

 On February 12, 2012 NBA basketball player Jeremy Lin introduced himself to the sporting world and beyond, when as a little-used substitute with the downward spiraling New York Knicks, he entered a game against the New Jersey (now Brooklyn) Nets and dropped 25 points while dishing out seven assists in a comeback win. What followed was unprecedented as Lin led his team on an improbable seven-game win streak that extended the news of it far beyond the boundaries of sports.  Linsanity captivated people from all walks of life-including President Barack Obama who chimed in with his opinion. All of this and more were captured and made into a movie of the same name as the Lin-inspired phenomenon.

  After a smashing debut at the Sundance Film Festival and a follow-up  successful performance at Austin's South by Southwest, the film "Linsanity" was the opening night film of San Francisco's CAAMFest (the Center for Asian American Media Festival formerly known as the San Francisco International Asian American Film Festival) on Thursday (March 14) at the Castro Theatre.

  While Lin-who currently plays guard for the NBA's Houston Rockets-was not on-hand (he did thank everyone via video), his parents Gie-Ming and Shirley, some former coaches and the  people responsible for the film, Leong, and producers Christopher Chen,  Brian Yang, and Allen Lu, were in attendance. 

  "It has been an awesome run so far and I'm really excited  having "Linsanity" as the opening night film in a festival that is very important to my development as a filmmaker," Leong said by phone from New York prior to CAAMFest. "Plus it will be great to come back home to the Bay Area to be with family and friends and get great food too (laughs)."

   The screening in San Francisco was a nice homecoming for the sixth generation Chinese American.  Leong spent his childhood a mere couple of miles away from the Castro Theatre being enthralled by movies like "Star Wars" and "Predator".  Yet despite all the blockbusters he saw on the big screen, the filmmaker said a movie that was a commercial failure was the one that stuck with him the most.

  "It's really odd but one of my favorite movies was (John Carpenter's 1986) "Big Trouble in Little China", Leon said. “I realized back then it was a little racist because they put fantastic ideas of what people in Asian society were like in (San Francisco) Chinatown. But that was also the first time an Asian character spoke perfect English.  Before that you would see a Chinese guy with an accent, but this was an American speaking like me. I found that very intriguing." 

  He nurtured this passion for film while attending the prestigious Lowell High in the City.  People like William Hewlett, the co-founder of Hewlett-Packard, Pierre Salinger, Dian Fossey as well as  Nobel laureates and Supreme Court justices are among its alumni as well as sports figures (current Giants president Larry Baer) and authors (Daniel Handler aka Lemony Snicket).  Another graduate of note, Alex Tse, who wrote the screenplays for "Watchmen" and "Sucker Free City" not only attended Lowell with Leong but became an adviser of sorts to him.

   "Our families knew each other from way back," Leong explained.  "So we're friends. He has actually helped guide me through some of the early stages of my filmmaking career."

  While getting his film degree at UCLA, Leong met another person there that would become his mentor-Justin Lin (no relation to Jeremy Lin) - the cornerstone director of the last three as well as the upcoming edition of the "Fast and the Furious' franchise.  Prior to that, Lin directed the indie "Better Luck Tomorrow" a 2002 film that broke down Asian "model minority" stereotypes.   "Better Luck..." made its world premiere at Sundance and gave Leong, who worked on the crew and had an acting part, a closer look at filmmaking.

  (*Note- During this time, Leong made an entertaining short film chronicling the making of "Better Luck..." titled "BLT Genesis".  Not only did it further bring out talented Asian American talent like John Cho, Sung Kang and Roger Fan, but it also gave cinephiles a rare glimpse into overcoming the challenges of independent filmmaking. In filming a party scene during "Better Luck... the director Lin had the extras milling around in the front yard, rush to the back through the house to be extras in the backyard of the party scene while he was filming the principles going around the side yard.   "Those were exciting, fun times," Leong said wistfully. )

 After working with Lin on 2006's "The Fast and the Furious: Tokyo Drift",   Leong was a co-producer of the director's next independent feature, "Finishing the Game: The Search for a New Bruce Lee", comedy which also premiered at Sundance in 2007.  While it definitely helped fill out his resume', more importantly the two formed a lasting friendship that continues to this day despite their busy schedules.

  "He was my mentor because when I first started out, I didn't know anything about filmmaking," Leong said.  "But he took me under his wing and I learned everything I knew at the beginning of my career from him."

  Branching out on his own, Leong directed short films and music videos (some of which can be viewed on arowanafilms.com), and then directed the 2010 feature documentary "1040: Christianity in the New Asia". While working on that doc, Leong, Yang and Chen, also started shooting footage of Lin-who was then in the midst of earning All-Ivy League honors while playing for Harvard.  

  The filmmaker and ballplayer had similar backgrounds, including location-Lin grew up in the Bay Area as well.  The latter first made it onto the basketball radar in 2006, when he led Palo Alto High to an upset win over basketball power Santa Ana Mater Dei in the California Interscholastic Federation (CIF) Division 2 state championships in 2006.

  "I had heard about him when he won the championship for Palo Alto," Leong said. "But I didn’t think too much of it other than it was a pretty cool thing that an Asian guy led the team. When he got to Harvard, I saw how exciting he was to watch. He was aggressive and could dunk not just in warm-ups or contests, but in games."

  Despite overtures from Leong, Chen and Yang-the last of whom met Lin while interviewing him for a basketball blog, the player was reluctant to be filmed.  Allen Lu, who is Lin's cousin, then stepped in and convinced the ballplayer that it was a good thing if only to get early footage of himself.

  The shooting began during Lin's senior season at Harvard where he led the Crimson to a program best 21-7 record.  In the February 1, 2010 issue of Sports Illustrated, the magazine featured Lin and named him an NBA prospect-prompting the cameras to keep rolling.

  "During his senior season, we thought there was a chance he could make the NBA, but we didn't know if he would last or not,” Leong said. "We thought that would be a great story if he actually did make it."

 What followed was a two-year period of filming that continued with Lin not being drafted by an NBA team but later signing with his hometown Golden State Warriors as a free agent.  Far from settled firmly in the professional basketball world, Lin bounced between the Warriors and the NBA D-League-the equivalent of the Triple-A minor leagues in baseball.

  Not only a sports story, the film started taking on components of Lin's life such as religion and race.  While Christianity is a major part of Lin's identity, his ethnicity was also a large factor as he was met with prejudices institutionally and individually. All of this was captured on Leong's camera as he crisscrossed the country to take the roller coaster journey with the player.

  "If the story went up, we went up, if it went down, we went down," Leong said. "We watched the same struggle and there were definitely times where we really felt bad for him.  While there were times we shut the camera off out of respect to him and his family, at the same token we had a story to tell. To Jeremy's credit he realized that and was pretty open to film some of the down moments.  I think that his willingness to do so made him more interesting to the viewer as a character and as a person."

   Leong acknowledged that the constant challenge of any documentarian is how to be empathetic yet remain neutral to the subject being depicted as well as letting the story tell itself.

 "You always have an idea of what you want so you set up the structure, but you can't be too confident in knowing what you're going to tell," Leong said. "You can't know the subject better than the reality it is.  You just let the cameras roll and hope something that you never anticipated happens."

  That something was Lin leading the Knicks to a seven-game winning streak in spectacular fashion.   During that period, he was  on television everywhere in the world, the SI cover twice, as well as Time (!) while because of the international attention in Asia (China particularly), Europe and the Americas, it was possibly the biggest global sports story ever.   The timing of Linsanity could not have occurred more serendipitously for Leong.

  "The amazing thing is how it all worked out," Leong said. "Two weeks before, I just happened to have finished a job. I wanted to move onto some other projects and I had some money so I decided to get back into the indie game.  Then it just went crazy. "

 

("Linsanity" Director Evan Jackson Leong preps Jeremy Lin-Photo by Michael Bow Courtesy of the Sundance Institute)

Approximately 100 hours of shooting footage shot in a variety of different methods over a span that ended with Lin signing with the Houston Rockets-one of the teams that cut him before his Knicks experience-to a three-year $25 million contract.  In addition, home movies of Lin's childhood, high school and college career as well as licensed NBA footage were painstakingly put together by Leong and a longtime colleague, editor Greg Louie.

  "We knew that it would be a great opportunity but a big responsibility to make a product that the basketball, the film, the Asian and Asian American and the Christian communities will remember," Leong said. "Plus there was literally an encyclopedia of thousands of stories about Jeremy, so it was difficult to know what to leave in or take out at first.  Knowing this, there was pressure to make a quality film that accurately displays all of his qualities."

  After a "cringing" first cut, and with a deadline for a Sundance showing looming, the pair hit their stride in terms of editing,  Meanwhile,  money was being raised for the film privately and through Kickstarter  where it exceeded their $117,000  goal by over $50,000.

  "Months and months of cutting later, we finally did reach that tipping point where everything kind of worked," he said. "It began to feel good, but any filmmaker can empathize, you're not really happy because you always want perfection. Maybe that's unattainable, but you certainly strive for it by trying to improve your film."

  Before "Linsanity" was accepted by Sundance, several other components were put together. Some were major such as enlisting Asian American actor Daniel Dae Kim ("Lost" "Hawaii Five-0") as the narrator and the Newton Brothers to record the soundtrack.  While some details were finer such as replacing the "t" in the Linsanity movie poster with a crucifix in a subtle nod towards Lin's devout faith.   Finally, "Linsanity" made its debut in a packed house in Park City on January 20.

“You’re nervous because this was the first time we're screening it in front of more than the six people who worked on it," Leong said. "I was very, very nervous because here we were given this amazing opportunity by Sundance.   Luckily I was working so hard the week before that I didn't have time to really think about it. "

  Despite the nerves, unlike many filmmakers who opt to pace the lobby or go out for a smoke while agonizing during their own premiere, the director stayed in his seat during the screening.

 "I wanted to see how people reacted and see how they felt about it," he said.  "Plus I was looking for things to fix for the next time.  I was enjoying watching people watch it, but I was still wondering how they felt."

  He needn't have been nervous, in that first of four screenings at Sundance, the filmmakers received a standing ovation from the 525 cinephiles at The MARC Theatre. Following that, "Linsanity", which was projected on HD Cam, got numerous favorable reviews and was screened at South by Southwest earlier this month. Here Lin saw the movie for the first time.

 "He liked the experience especially after seeing the color corrections and hearing the Newton Brothers soundtrack when it was added," Leong said. "But I think he was also happy because he was able to let a period he called 'the craziest thing' that has happened', go."

  Lin and the group have since become friends.

 "I had to keep my distance until we were done of course," Leong said. "Even though it was over, it was only recently where I didn't have my camera with me and I could be myself and feel comfortable hanging out with him. Now it's pretty relaxed.  I think that he forgot how painful that it was for him (laughs)."

  At the CAAMFest Opening Night on Thursday, in front of Gie-Ming and Shirley Lin and 1398 others in the sold-out house, the filmmakers got another ovation before engaging in a Q and A onstage. 

 

  (“Linsanity” Director Evan Jackson Leong Courtesy of the Sundance Institute)

 "We're still going through Linsanity," Leong said.  "As a filmmaker for me this has been awesome. This is what you hope for.  As a filmmaker, I have grown up in the festival community and know how great it is to have your film seen by people who really want to see the film.  Hopefully enough of the audience will like it so they can help get "Linsanity" into theatres (for a theatrical run)."

   The film will next screen at the Hong Kong International Film Festival on March 18 and 30 before continuing what he hopes is a long run.  Leong is prepared to do anything to try and ensure this.

  "Wherever Brian (Yang) tells me to go, I'll happily go," Leong said.  "That's how much I believe in this film."

 

LINSANITY -Documentary (88 Minutes)

408 Films, Arowana Films, Endgame Entertainment

Director: Evan Jackson Leong

Producers: Brian Yang, Christopher Chen, Allen Lu

Executive Producers: James D. Stern, Patricia Sun, Sam Kwok

Cinematography: Evan Jackson Leong

Editor: Greg Louie

Composer: Newton Brothers

Sound Editor: Wildfire Post

Principal Cast: Jeremy Lin, Daniel Dae Kim (Narrator)

 

 

 

About Michael Goro Takeuchi

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