Jane Chen '06 (Producer of RED DOORS, VP of Strategy at AVM)
By Amit Samuel
Under a blackboard sky, in the light of a chalk white moon, a production caravan travels across three states -- Nutmeg, Empire, and Garden -- in a marathon two-day denouement to a two-year filmmaking odyssey.
Jane Chen's personal journey began a lot earlier. In the halls of Harvard, Jane was like any other second generation immigrant, balancing the import of family and culture with the lure of dreams and ambition. So while Jane concentrated in East Asian Studies, she nurtured her dreams by teaming up with a couple of equally ambitious undergrads: Mia Riverton and Georgia Lee. The self-described "Three Chicks from Harvard" shared an Asian-American heritage, but their background only brought them together; their dream of a future different from the one envisioned by their parents kept them together.
Success in the Chen household is a matter of degrees: masters and doctorates -- a baccalaureate is insufficient. Explaining to her parents that she was deferring business school was not easy, but working in the corporate world, which is a pre-MBA path for many, did mollify them for the time being. While building her reputation in the marketing and business side of Hollywood, Jane cultivated her creative side by making short films with Georgia. With each film, Jane found staying in her corporate position increasingly difficult.
It became impossible when she read Georgia's newest script, a deeply personal story about a "bizarrely dysfunctional Chinese-American family." The bizarre aspects piqued Jane's curiosity. She has always been fascinated by the superstitions of her mother and the bizarre events in her own life. Her mother would tell young Jane about good and bad spirits and the mischief they would cause. At Harvard, as the Business Manager of The Crimson, Jane saw a parade of bizarre events: the Harvard President collapsing from fatigue, the Dunster House murder-suicide, a revoked admission because a student lied on her application...about murdering her mother, and finally the revelation that the Unabomber was a Harvard grad. Opal, who?
No matter how bizarre the undergrad experience, the Harvard imprimatur remains undiminished. With that in mind, Jane set out to raise money. With Mia also on board, the Three Chicks from Harvard stormed Wall Street. Without any film school experience or any full-length feature-film producing experience, the trio pitched the movie on the strength of their academic credentials. Their resume was their pitch, and Wall street bit. They financed the whole movie -- not a penny came from studios, distribution deals, or film funds. Jane helped craft an aglet budget that sold Wall Street and reified her dreams. Assuring her parents that she was merely going on sabbatical like any pre-MBA student would, Jane left the corporate world to start producing Georgia Lee's "Red Doors."
On the penultimate day of production, the shoot lasted into the night. After the last take, the cast and crew packed up and left Connecticut. Arriving in New York in the early morning, they changed crews and headed for New Jersey where their big-screen family would finally part ways.
With no budget to pay or house the actors, the producers limited their search to the New York area. The news of their search, though, wouldn't stay in New York. Through the Asian Grapevine, actors from as far away as California were calling to audition. Talented Asian-American actors, largely ignored by the major studios, rarely see scripts with substantial roles for them The roles are usually mired in stereotype or caricature. "Red Doors" was different. Not only did the characters have depth, but the script focused on generational -- not Chinese -- conflict. This duality of universal appeal and personal story was something all the actors were willing to make sacrifices for to bring to the screen.
At the end of the first day of shooting, after numerous takes in front of a black grand piano, Jane noticed that the once shiny piano was smudged all over. With the set designer nowhere to be found and no rag handy, filming stalled. Exasperated, Mia, Chastain-style, whipped off her shirt in front of the whole cast and crew and started buffing the piano. Everyone on the set, except Jane and Georgia, were dumbfounded. They had known Mia since college. Everyone, meet Mia. Mia, everyone.
The movie was shot mostly in Georgia's family house. If her mother held any hope that Georgia would return to Harvard Business School, the film crew traipsing through her dining room erased the last of it. The production also shot some scenes in Jane's apartment and a Buddhist temple in upstate New York. By the time they got to Connecticut to shoot in a hospital, the cast and crew were used to long days. But to keep to their tight production schedule and budget, they undertook a forty-eight hour marathon to finally end in New Jersey, coincidentally on Georgia's birthday.
Jane produced "Red Doors" not only because she identifies with it, but also because it is a good business decision. It had to be for Wall Street to be convinced. For them, artistic vision takes a back-seat to ROI. Considering the growing Asian-American population, their demand for quality entertainment is obvious. The demand doesn't diminish abroad. Jane believes that this movie plays to the Chinese conception of the American experience -- an aspirational story about a family that looks like them but who live American lives. And regardless of cultural differences, the story speaks to the shared experience of generational conflict. No matter the city, Shenzen or New York, the struggle of parents and children to understand each other is universal.
By the time "Red Doors" won Best Narrative Feature at the TriBeCa film festival, Jane's parents began to accept that she was never going back to the corporate world or applying to graduate school. She will focus instead on writing and producing personal, female-centric films with commercial appeal. That her brother took the traditional path to B-school would have to be enough. Considering all of her festival wins and accolades for this movie, Jane's path looks to be red crimson carpeted.