Tribeca 2024 Interview: Yen Tan on Spreading Compassion with “All That We Love”

In the 10 years that they’ve worked together, the fact that Kayla (Missi Pyle) is a foster parent to dogs has never come up in conversation with her boss Emma (Margaret Cho) in “All That We Love,” though the two both love having a canine companion. It is only when Emma’s beloved Tanner passes away at the start of Yen Tan’s lovely third feature that Kayla volunteers this information, and even then after she’s basically given notice that she’s ready to move onto another job when it always seemed like sharing personal details on the job wasn’t ever a good idea, but she can see that Kayla is in a vulnerable spot and beyond offering the possibility of a replacement to Emma when a steady stream of rescues are making their way through her house, ready to be adopted for good, just sharing a bit more of who she is comes across as a major peace offering.

Those little morsels of intimacy have always been a major part of Tan’s films where relief is found among the few who can be confided in, from his 2013 feature debut “Pit Stop,” about a clandestine romance, to “1985,” in which a young HIV-positive New Yorker returns home to Texas to inform his family, and in “All That We Love,” his most light-hearted feature to date, it becomes glorious to watch Emma emboldened to start sharing more about herself with others after first receiving these kindly bits upon her pet’s passing. She isn’t exactly Scrooge when she’s introduced mourning Tanner, singing him to the big sleep with a time-honored lullaby that they shared, but as the film wears on, it was clearly the closest relationship she had in her life, with the possible exception of her friend Stan (Jesse Tyler Ferguson), who lost his own loved one Craig years earlier and has never quite been the same. Her immediate family was blown up by the alcoholism of her ex-husband Andy (Kenneth Choi), who fled to work abroad as an actor when his addiction became too much for others, and her daughter Maggie (Alice Lee) remained cordial, though saw that it would be in her best interests to not depend on anyone and now is considering moving to Australia with her partner.

All of this is only brought into focus for Emma by Tanner’s death, which leads her to start looking for places to invest the emotional energy she once had for her dog elsewhere and while she threatens to strain all her connections even further by possibly rekindling a romance with Andy, “All That We Love” brings to the surface all the compassion that’s out there for her when she’s willing to meet others halfway. Set in a sun-dappled Los Angeles, it’s the people who open themselves up to others that are made to appear the most luminous in the film, carried by Cho in a rare serious role for the actress/comedienne and enlivened by a charming ensemble that also includes Atsuko Okatsuka as Andy’s influencer sister and Devon Bostick as Maggie’s beau. With the film premiering at Tribeca this weekend, Tan, who was inspired by the loss of his own pet and endured the sudden passing of his longtime partner shortly after wrapping production, generously took the time to talk about putting himself out there as his lead character does with the hope of making the grieving process a little less cumbersome for others, getting out of his comfort zone a bit by filming outside of his native Texas for the first time and allowing everyone on the production a sense of catharsis.

How did this come about?

It’s something that was that was initially written and conceived more than a decade ago, back in 2013 when the dog that we had back then, whose name was Tanner [as it is in the film], passed away. There were a couple of months after his death where a lot of my relationships were evolving in very interesting ways and a lot of the observations I made made it into the film. I co-wrote the script with my good friend Clay Liford, and a lot of what was happening in my friendship with him was also unwittingly worked into the friendship dynamic between Emma and Stan, played by Margaret [Cho] and Jesse [Tyler Ferguson] in the film, so a lot of things were just pulled from life and put under this very specific lens of how things can change as a result of losing a pet in your life.

Then over the years, as the script was was being rewritten, it definitely got richer over time. It was funny writing something 10 years ago about characters as old as we are right now and there was a lot of forecast. Then by the time we got to this point of making the film, we are catching up to the ages of the characters and it was interesting to see how much of the forecast remained true. Now that we’re at this age and going through what the characters are going through, it’s become endlessly fascinating to reflect on in terms of, “Okay, this was we thought we were writing, just imagining the way it would be” and then by the time we’re older, it’s like, ‘Oh yeah, this is actually happening now.”

I was struck by these totems that the characters hang onto, most specifically Emma with the songs she sings, either her lullaby for Tanner or the Daniel Johnston song [“Love Will Find You In the End”], which struck me particularly hard when a mural he designed is all I have left of the building where I stayed in college. Did those kind of things actually provide a through line for you?

Yeah, there’s this theme of nostalgia and Daniel’s song is one of those elements where I think Emma’s character loses a dog in the beginning of the film and she’s had the dog for more than a decade, so it’s this idea of revisiting your past. And for me, when I lose something or someone I love, there’s a lot of reflection of the history, [which] comes with so many things that were like that. There’s definitely the milestones, but then there’s also little things that are significant of something that is more emotional, whether it’s old songs and so forth. Daniel’s song was one element of Emma trying to remember what was Stan and Craig’s song together, in relation to remembering her own song that had special meaning to her, which was “After All,” [which] was her and her ex-husband’s song. That’s something that I’m always toying with, just objects or pop culture stuff that means something to us at that significant time of life and then we just bring it back to the present again.

Was it difficult to find the right mood? It’s quite beautiful how the lighting and the production design have such a light touch for such a potentially heavy subject.

The film starts on such a somber note where it’s basically the passing of an animal, and the movie is very much a balance of the light and the dark. I always knew that I didn’t want to make a really dark and gloomy movie, but for those who have pets, losing a pet feels like a major tragedy. But then for everyone else who don’t, it’s viewed as something that’s a minor, incident in a way, so I wanted to keep both perspectives in balance and it’s treated in a way where, yes, it’s a very significant loss for Emma, and it causes her to spiral into this deep reflection and sense of nostalgia, but when you watch it as an audience, there’s a lot of moments that are amusing, just playing on subtle humor.

And diving into this specific experience of having and losing a pet, I think a lot of people who worked on the film brought a lot of their own experiences into it. [They were also] pet owners and pet lovers, so there were a lot of opportunities for them to see themselves in the story and that may have been expressed in what they contributed to the film, whether they expressed it to me or not. Every now and then I would see little details here and there, like you talk about production design. I’m definitely catching things here and there as I watch it later on and not know some of these choices, but I see the personal touches.

What led you to Margaret?

Margaret is someone that I’ve admired for a really long time as an Asian-American comedian. She was meaningful in my life because not only she’s very funny, but how brutally honest she is about everything that’s happened to her and how she’s able to use humor to filter a lot of it and relate it to audience in a way that feels completely identifiable and feels very grounded. That’s why I was drawn to her as a comedian, and when we found Margaret and I talked to her, I think she was exactly at a point right now where she’s gone through enough life and the highs and lows that when the script came to her, it was meeting her at that place. She’s lost animals in her life and she’s had friends who have battled with addiction and all that stuff, so I think it just felt very true to her. She responded to the role, and thankfully, it was between us thinking about her and her reading the script that we were all in sync.

A few years back, you had mentioned that people had told you that being Asian was a liability in the film industry and you’ve made your first film with an Asian family at the center. Was it something you had wanted to do for a while or was this the story that simply called for it?

Yeah, there was definitely this idea of putting Asian-American talents a little bit more in in the front and center of a film. We’re at a moment where we can explore that and put these characters as leads and co-leads in a film without it being frowned upon. That was definitely intentional between my producers and I, but I also never wanted to lean into it too much either. It was just a matter of these are characters that look like me, and they never really discuss race per se in the film. It’s just their lives as they are.

It’s also a Los Angeles movie, which seemed like it could be a bit out of your comfort zone after previously shooting your films in Texas. Was that an exciting prospect?

Yeah, Los Angeles is a place I’ve visited many, many times and I have a lot of friends there, but I’ve never made a movie outside Texas until this time. So it was challenging in some ways because ultimately it’s still a low budget film, but then it was very refreshing and in some ways energizing to just like work with a complete different groups of people.

What’s it like taking the film now to New York and Tribeca?

It’s kind of bittersweet, to be honest, just given thematically what it’s about and also the events in my life in the past year. I’m trying to be very mindful that what I’m what I’m going through right now is obviously very challenging, but I also feel very privileged that a lot of it that is expressed through the film and now feels like the right moment to put it out there. I’m able to talk to people who hopefully respond to the film in the same way, whether they share their own experiences and about their own losses, too.

“All That We Love” will screen at the Tribeca Festival on June 8th at the SVA Theatre at 2 pm, June 9th at 8:45 pm and June 11th at 2 pm at the Village East.

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