Six years after the two had made “Daylight Savings” together, Lynn Chen decided to ask the film’s director Dave Boyle if he had any plans to make a follow-up. After all, the film was intended to be the second part of a trilogy that began with “Surrogate Valentine,” charting the romantic misadventures of Goh Nakamura (having the actor/musician playing a version of himself) as he toured solo. But a third film was even more improbable than the second when Boyle had moved on psychologically, having made the 2014 noir “The Man From Reno” and putting the charmingly shaggy lo-fi series behind him — or so he thought. He and Chen were going to visit a friend when the subject came up of whether another “Surrogate Valentine” was in the offing and while the news wasn’t what Chen wanted to hear, where Boyle saw the end of the highway, Chen saw open road.
Chen reprises her role in “I Will Make You Mine” as Rachel, the one who got away and surely inspired a number of Goh’s melancholy love songs, but takes a new one behind the camera as the film’s writer/director and puts a cleverly subversive spin on what’s come before. After starting out as a tale where Goh was looking for her, Chen imagines Rachel looking for him these days, with her search history giving away her nightly excursions from an unhappy marriage by watching his performances on YouTube and a little light social media stalking. Wondering what could’ve been isn’t limited to the character when Chen takes the opportunity to spend time with the other women that Goh pined for over the years transforming them from their initial roles as objects of his affection, finding him reuniting with Yea-Ming (Yea-Ming Chen) to play a few club gigs as he’s in the process of separating from his wife Erika (Ayako Fujitani), with whom he has a daughter (Ayami Riley Tomine), and where he could once pick up and leave whenever he wanted once things got tough, he’s been weighed down by responsibilities that force him to be the singer/songwriter to listen for a change.
One needn’t be familiar with the other two films to enjoy “I Will Make You Mine,” which pulls its infectious energy from the shared restlessness of its characters who have had life sneak up on them in ways they hadn’t anticipated, but by shifting the perspective from Goh to the loves of his life, the film’s reflection on how a million things need to fall into place for a relationship to work between two people over the long term becomes a fitting coda for a story that started out with someone wondering if he’d missed his window of opportunity, if this indeed is the final chapter for the franchise. Regardless, it surely is only the beginning of a promising directing career for Chen, who not only got the band back together behind the scenes, but engineered a two-part production for the express purpose of keeping continuity. Although the film’s planned premiere at SXSW had to be cancelled as a result of the coronavirus, “I Will Make You Mine” debuts digitally today and Chen spoke about her unexpected path to the director’s chair after starring in films such as “Saving Face” and “Go Back to China” and the inspiration she took from previous films while making something distinctly her own.
Were you looking to direct something when this came about?
Of course, everyone has always said, “You have to create your own content. You have to do it yourself.” But honestly, I had no interest. I had tried doing a few scripts and similarly, there was nothing within me that was like, “Yeah, I could direct something.” I barely thought that I could be behind the camera in a producing way, and it was more that I knew my place than I was scared to do it. I had been in this industry for so long and I didn’t want to start from square one again [because] there’s a hierarchy and I wasn’t interested in my forties suddenly going back to the beginning, so I was just like, “Yeah, too late.” And it’s ironic that not only did I do everything on this movie, but that is the theme of my movie is about these second chances and not being too late. Obviously, I have a much different attitude and I did love directing. I want to do more of it, but I did know very clearly after this movie that my instinct was right about producing. I’m not a producer. I don’t need to do that again. [laughs] But I did enjoy directing immensely.
Being good at acting and directing seems like a fine enough a way forward.
That’s what I’ll focus more on. And I did enjoy writing, and I liked that I was directing my own script. But even with that, directing I would say I loved almost as much as acting if not even more because there were days where I didn’t have to be in front of the camera. The entire time we were filming the second half of the shoot with Ayako’s character, I wasn’t in any of the scenes, so I got to be just a director and that was the best. On the last day, I had to get in front of the camera with her and I was like, “Ohhh…I don’t want to.” [laughs] Can I just stay back here and not have to act?” I loved it so, so much. It surprised me. It really did.
It was interested to hear that you divided the shoot into two separate segments in August and November. What was it like to figure this out?
There were pros and cons to it. We did it out of necessity for two reasons – number one being that Ayako had just had a baby in August, so I was not going to ask her to do the movie then, but we needed to film in August because one of our [cinematographers] Bill Otto?, who had shot the first two movies, was in Salt Lake City and teaches in Utah, so he had a very specific schedule as well. There were all these balls to juggle and because of that, we had to have an August shoot and then we had to finish the rest of it in November right before Thanksgiving and there were lots of complications in splitting it up into two, but that said, we did get to edit half of the movie in between to see what the tone was and what we were missing.
That part was very good. But it did make it so that when it came time to decide, “Should we do reshoots?” I was a hard no. [laughs] At that point, I [thought], “We’re going to try to fix this because I can’t rally the troops again. It’s too hard.” And on an indie film like this, to gather everyone up again for a third shoot, it was a bit much, so that’s something that I will not be doing again on my next movie if it can be avoided. But it was not like Bill or Ayako were replaceable on this film, and actually we did end up having to hire another cinematographer when Bill wasn’t able to do his part at the end — his first AC Nenzén [Lovén] ended up stepping up and and it was his first DP job, so it all worked out, but it was stressful.
Given your own strong attachment to this, did you actually talk to Yea Ming or Ayako about where they’d want to see their characters go before putting pen to paper?
Actually the day that Dave and I went on that hike and he gave me his blessing to do the movie, we were meeting Ayako. She was pregnant and we were meeting her for breakfast, so as we met her and her family, I said, “Hey, we’re going to do ‘Surrogate Valentine 3.’ Do you want to be in it?” And she goes, “Great.” And once she said she would be in it, I wasn’t sure what this movie would be about or who it would center on, but I just [thought], “Oh, let’s see who we could get back from the other movies.” So I e-mailed with Yea Ming and once she said yes, I didn’t talk with [either of] them about it. It was like two days later when I was on a plane and that’s when I started writing the script. Basically, I took what I imagined their characters to be and I presented it to them and wanted to see if they felt weird about it or if they felt it didn’t track, but everyone really gave me a lot of freedom in terms of just making it.
Did it immediately lend itself to shifting the perspective away from Goh? That’s one of the most exciting elements to me about it.
That actually happened because I was sitting there and the very first shot of the movie is Goh on the computer screen singing. Originally, that song was supposed to be Goh’s cover of “Just Like Heaven” that has over a million hits on it on YouTube, and when you hear that song, it brings you back to this nostalgic [place] and who you were when you were there, so [the film would start with] that video with him singing it and [you’d] think that we were having this other movie with Goh [where] he had become successful and then twist it on its head and realize this is an old video. But in that first draft when I sent it out, Dave immediately was like, “We’re not going to be able to afford that song, just so you know.” [laughs]
I really just let the movie tell me what it wanted to be, so with that first shot, I just thought this is how we can be reintroduced to Goh and as I was writing it, I was like, “Oh, maybe this isn’t Goh’s story anymore. Maybe it’s Rachel’s story.” I didn’t even know who was going to be in it. Obviously, I’m an actor and people say write for yourself, so I [thought] I’m going to write a nice juicy part for myself, but then when I started writing it, I was like, “This can’t just be about me. This has to be about the other women who were also in it.” Everything just came together from there. There also wasn’t [any feeling] like “Ha ha, they gave me permission and now I’m going to tell the story from the female perspective.” That just presented itself because I [thought], how can I tell this story differently? The only way I knew how to do that was to show what Rachel and Erica and Yea Ming were thinking when they weren’t around Goh, because we don’t really see that.
I watched the first two movies really quickly again before I went on that plane trip and as I was watching it, I was like, “I don’t know these women and I want to. I think they should be heard.” And I didn’t know where Goh is going to fit into this, but I couldn’t write from his perspective at this point. All I knew was I wanted to answer the question of who he ended up with in the end, and there’s a line in “Surrogate Valentine” where his character and my character are talking about how many sisters he has and he said, “I was drowning in a sea of estrogen.” I just thought to myself, that’s what I want to do. I want to drown Goh in a sea of so many women because the other two movies are such dude movies with him going on road trips with guys, it’s always a man’s world and these women come in and out and we don’t know much about them. They’re always mysterious and they say cool things and they go away. So I just wanted to know what would happen if you just surrounded Goh with everyone, including a daughter, and his life has just become this place of being around women and hearing from women and serving women. What would that look like? It all just wrote itself at that point.
Since it’s such a crucial part of the film, at what point do you start talking about music with Goh and Yea Ming?
When I told Goh I was going to make another movie, he’s like, “Great, I can’t wait to see what you do,” and because we’re pretty good friends now, [I was sure] I could just be free to ask him to write something new or he could probably just let us use his old music if need be, so I just felt a lot of freedom to just see it as a character and not have it be defined by what music it’d end up being. But I didn’t know Yea Ming very well because she and I actually never worked together. We never had any scenes together and we only met briefly on set, so I did have to like have to get to know her music and as I was doing that deep dive, I heard the song “I Will Make You Mine,” which I chose because I thought the title would make a good title for the movie. Once I started to listen the lyrics, it started to inform the story and it was actually kind of shocking how it fit so perfectly into the story – she even puts Goh’s name in it, and she talks about being left with his things. None of this was written for the movie, so it just so happened that it fell into place.
There’s a lot of moments of making this movie that just felt so kismet and so meant to be that that’s what gave me the faith to keep going with it. It’s so hard to make a movie and you need those little glimpses, like a sign from the heavens and the muses to be like, “You’re on the right path,” and that was one of those things [with] Yea Ming’s music, knowing that “Oh, this is going to fit perfectly into what I would love to try to tell because once I decided we’re going to focus on the women, it had to be about Yea Ming’s music and it all hinged on her and her voice. It was really funny because when she first read the script, she was like, “Is this what you think of me?” And it’s a very, very fictionalized version of Yea Ming. It’s not even anything close to who she is in real life, so she did an amazing acting job in it, but it’s very interesting to take someone’s music that they created for one purpose and then pretend it was all for something else in a movie.