Most of us have had a similar experience—we hear about a story or a person, and we think, "That would make an amazing movie." Maybe we write the script. Maybe we decide to direct. But how far would you go, and how long would you wait, to make this film a reality? Would you move across the country? Would you crowdfund the film? Would you work for years and years?

Writer/director Evan Jackson Leong has been laboring to make his new feature, Snakehead, for 14 years. It's based on the true story of a human smuggler in Chinatown and her rise through the ranks of a crime family and stars Shuya Chang, Sung Kang, and Jade Wu.

The film will premiere at this week's Santa Barbara International Film Festival, and if you'd like to watch it, you can purchase tickets here. (XYZ Films has acquired sales rights to the film.)

It was completed as a labor of love and with the cooperation of many collaborators, down to the film's colorist, Nicholas Metcalf, who happened to spot the film's character posters online and offered to DI the project for free. As you will see, passion can pay off.

No Film School spoke with Leong and the film's producer Brian Yang via Zoom about the long journey of bringing this film to life. They shared tips for achieving high production value, how to motivate your cast and crew, and what you should do to DIY your own feature film. Enjoy!

Editor's note: This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

No Film School: So can you tell us what the production was like?

Evan Leong: I initially thought we would make this as an indie film. We had a high name, Lucy Liu, she was attached early on. And when we couldn't raise the money with her attached, we just had to do this our own way. And as a filmmaker and as a director, I've always thought of it as a privilege and opportunity to direct. The only way I felt like this was going to happen for me is for me to figure out how to do it myself. Trying to stretch every dollar to the furthest it could go was what we had to do, otherwise, this wasn't going to happen.

So, production-wise, we started this as a Kickstarter project. And we knew that we needed to get community. We needed to get the community to help us. We needed to get free locations. We needed to get free food. We needed to get actors that will work for us for nothing and get crew that will work so hard in the middle of winter, in New York City, on an independent project.

Snakehead_sistertse_characterCredit: Arowana FILMS

I think we had to sell this idea of, "This is why we're in this business. We're in his business to make the Scarface, the Godfathers," because that's why we got into movie making. We didn't get into moviemaking to do two people talking in the store.

So, in my mind, I was like, "Well, I have to get there. I need to sell my idea and my passion to every single person from the top to the bottom. In that sense, we had to ask for everything. There was no paying for really anything. And I think that energy is contagious, in a sense, where if people believe in something, then everyone gives it their all. No one's there to get paid because the budget was so low that you have to want to be there, because it was brutal. We shot this, I think, in February 2017 in New York City, and it was freezing.

And it was just absolutely brutal, every aspect of this production. So, I really had to ask for every single favor. And Brian is the mastermind in getting all these favors and convincing and helping people, getting people to do this for us, because every day I'm asking for, "I need some dead bodies. I need a knife, I need a gun. I need a..." All of these random things that you need. "I need me a lot of dollar bills. We need some dumplings. We need..." All these things that we had to go for, where normally you'd just have production design pay for it, but there was no budget for production design. So we had to utilize all the resources that we could. And I think that's why we got a lot of people excited about it, because everyone there was there for the right reason, and that goes a long way.

Evan_leong_btsCredit: Arowana FILMS

NFS: What would you say was the biggest challenge of the project?

Leong: I think the biggest challenge for me, personally, was this is my first film. So storytelling was always going to be the hardest thing. And I think I underestimated the level of complexity of storytelling and narrative storytelling. I've been doing this for 20 years, but in the unscripted and documentary scene. So going into narrative, I think I underestimated the task at hand.

And you think you can do everything, because you know 95% of the technical aspects of the film. It was that 5% that I didn't experience, working with actors and storytelling and narrative control. That was ultimately my biggest challenge, and that was my biggest weakness. I think what you do see is a lot of my strengths and things that I'm comfortable in, like visual style and color and just overall themes, but in terms of the storytelling and working with actors has always been the biggest challenge. Making any film, every part is a major challenge, but I think for me, the biggest challenge was trying to figure out how to tell the story.

NFS: How did you approach that aspect of working with actors? What helped you get comfortable in that new role?

Leong: I was fortunate to work with some really good actors. I mean, you got Sung [Kang] and Shuya [Chang] and Jade [Wu]. And they were almost my teachers. I think of this movie as my film school, and they were my teachers in terms of like, "Okay, this is how we approach a scene." They're asking me the questions of what I need to think about and answer to them.

They believed in the project, so they believed in me and they wanted to make sure that I did a good job. So they would help me out, trying to understand what is necessary, and how do you make a good scene? Those are the things that, I think, as a filmmaker, you skip over sometimes because you don't realize that that's happening. As a director, going into this, I underestimated that part of it. So they were there to really help me out.

Snakehead_rambo_characterCredit: Arowana FILMS

NFS: I was going to bring up your background with Linsanity. Was there anything that you had learned doing that early feature doc that you brought into this project?

Leong: I think every project is a learning thing. You always catch people at the moment that they have a festival running, but you're learning this whole time and every project, you learn something, you gain something from it. And I think from the beginning of my career as a filmmaker, and following Justin Lin in the documentary [for] Better Luck Tomorrow, I think it started there. I was like, "I want to tell stories about Asian characters in America, Asian American characters." And that is what I've always felt very, very connected to, being Asian American, being sixth generation Chinese-American.

For me to see those kinds of characters on screen and to create them in a way that they're not just the stereotypical character was important to me, because anytime growing up I saw one Asian character in the film, I would be like, "Whoa, what's he doing there?" And that's powerful for a young person. That's powerful for perspective of culture. If you're only seeing Chinese waiters in TV, that's what you think all Chinese people are. And I know I'm not that, I'm not a Chinese waiter, but I did realize, as you get older and mature and understand, this is the way most of America views you.

So I wanted to make, and I wanted to see, more characters like the ones that I've created, that are more three-dimensional and have different kinds of roles that are not just the stereotypes.

And I think that was the key. Like, we give you the massage parlor, we give you the gangster, but we kind of bend it just a little bit. We try to give you another dimension to it. And I think that's what makes characters more complex and exciting.

And again, for me, it's really understanding what that is. Because for me, with documentaries, when you're dealing with a real person, they're already going to be three-dimensional, you can find all those things. But as a character you create on-screen, it's whatever you want them to be. And so you have to find and make sure you show those examples.

Snakehead_bts1_0Credit: Arowana FILMS

NFS: What did you do to make the film look so expensive?

Leong: I guess it started with the cinematographer. Me and Ray Huang are really old friends that have been doing this for a long time. And I think we always agreed on visual style and visual language of pushing the envelope, of having very little money, and how can you make that look premium?

And there's always a way. It's just a matter of utilizing our resources. I think it's very natural for both of us to be like, "That looks good. That doesn't look good." And for us, this film, making it look good was, I think, that was going to be the guaranteed thing that was going to happen, just the way we both are as a director and cinematographer, but trying to figure out how to tell that in the story was always going to be the challenge.

I think production design, utilizing environments to their fullest with just putting a poster here or there and then it's perfect, because the environment already said so much. And using Chinatown, and I think that's from my documentary standpoint—how do you use the environment to tell the story of the character and a moment? That's what we were constantly doing.

I Steadicammed the film. Things like that, trying to get all the premium things that cost usually so much, for really cheap, or the workaround on how to do it. And that's what we were always doing. I mean, we started anamorphic and Ray owned the ALEXA. So, we were able to just scrounge around and use those resources.

I own the lenses. We shot on LOMO anamorphics. And those are something that I had been building up to use for this film for a good 10 years. And I'd finally gotten a set and we used it. But normally you get to use ARRI anamorphics, Master Prime anamorphics, on a real film, but we didn't have that. So we had to go this other way with this old Russian glass from the 1960s, and that comes with so much problems. It's extra steps that you need to do to get that to work with the camera.

Snakehead_daimah1_0'Snakehead'Credit: Arowana FILMS

And I think that the visual style is not settling for locations that were not going to tell us something. And I think the movie looks big because of all these extras and all of the things, and they were all free. They were all people that just came on because they believed in what we're trying to do here. And that's exciting, and I think that adds to it.

We have the restaurant, we have Jing Fong. And it was because I had many dim sum lunches with the owner and his son to convince him to let us use the place for one night. Normally, that's a $20,000-a-night location, and we got it for free. So I think the high production value is a lot has to do with just our networking and the favors we curried. And then also, I think just what's innately involved with me and the cinematographer, what our natural styles are.

NFS: What was your inspiration for following this female anti-hero character? Why was that so interesting to you?

Leong: The story is inspired by a true story, by a Snakehead in Chinatown, Sister Ping. And when I first heard that story, I was like, "God, that's the movie I want to see." And I heard of this in, like, 2007. I've always had strong Asian females in my life. Strong, powerful ones. And I've never seen that on screen. And it would be easy for me to do one about a male gangster, but I just felt like an Asian female was... They just got dealt the wrong card in Hollywood. So I wanted to try to create one like that, and that's what I would want to see. If there was a movie like this, this is what I would want to see.

Paying homage to all the strong Asian woman in my life, that was my goal. And it was 2007, 2008. At the time, nobody was talking about the #MeToo movement or anything like that. So, when you look at this film, it's almost like a time capsule because it took me so long to make it. And once we finished production, editing, and then the MeToo movement happened, I'm like, "Oh, great. This works perfect because it's relevant."

And Donald Trump and then the immigrants. It all kind of worked together. And even now, with what's happening with the Asians in America right now. It's interesting how that coincides with it. Obviously, none of this was thought ahead, but for me, trying to capture an element of what's relevant and social in our culture right now.

And hopefully, in 30 years we'll be like, "Oh, this was a depiction of what people were thinking at the time."

Snakehead_sistertse3_0'Snakehead'Credit: Arowana FILMS

So having an Asian woman [in] film, really a lot of it comes down to my grandmother, my mother, my wife, all of these women role models that I've had in my life that I just admire so much. And again, then in learning this process, how much I don't know what it's like to be a woman was very humbling, because I didn't—as a man, you're like, "Oh, this is what I should make a character." And I really had to look inside of myself in the process, like, "What did I do? How do I do this in a way that is relevant and justifiable?" And I think I was very lucky with Shuya, because Shuya embodies strength and power, and I didn't really have to figure out how to deal with that with her. I was lucky that she was such a good actress.

NFS: What advice would you have to someone wanting to do a film DIY like you did, maybe a young filmmaker?

Leong: Well, there are two things I would say. It's understanding the craft and respecting the craft. I think a lot of times directors just underestimate—and you have to be a little delusional, but sometimes they're too delusional. You have to be able to be grounded in the craft. And then secondly, you have to be a leader. I couldn't get this film done if I couldn't convince people to give me this free location, to work for free, to stand out in the cold and watch this truck for three hours. You have to be a leader in a sense, where people know that we're doing this together and you would do the same for them. And I think for me, that really is being a leader.

Snakehead_sbiff'Snakehead'Credit: Arowana FILMS

And using your passion as the currency that you pay people, because when you're making art on this level, on this scale of a movie, it has to come from a place of passion, because if you don't... If I was just like, "Oh, I'm just going to make money off this," no one would have helped me.

And I tried to tell them, "This is what I want to do. This is what I'm trying to do. We're trying to change the game. We're trying to change culture. And if we don't try it, no one's going to do it." Because even to this day, there isn't yet another film like ours. I don't know any. In Hollywood, definitely not. Even anything on their slate to do something like this.

I think that's exciting. That's exciting to be a part of. I was excited to be a part of something. I didn't make Godfather, but hopefully the next one will be like that. It's a weird thing, right? Because in the end, the director wins. But at the same time, hopefully, they are believing, and I will be able to continue this mission.

Brian Yang: You brought up Linsanity. An interesting element of this whole thing was he moved to New York City to do this, from LA, to make Snakehead, moved to Chinatown, immersed himself in the community, made friends, contacts, studied, everything. And then this relatively unknown Harvard basketball player popped up on the scene. And then that's when he and I met, because we decided to pursue this doc on him. And this was before he blew up in New York in 2012. And then when he blew up, our little project, which was supposed to be kind of a weekend, after-hours type of hobby went into overdrive. And then we had to put a pin on making Snakehead for like three years, because it was full-time once that thing took off, the festival circuit, the distribution, everything.

Snakehead_daimah_characterCredit: Arowana FILMS

So, I always feel like that's kind of an interesting piece of information in terms of his own experience or own journey as a filmmaker. We were blindsided by Linsanity, but in the big picture, it really helped him. You are the sum of your parts, so it shaped his abilities. And then getting back into this, I think it reframed things. And we're still grinding. Advances are never there for us. The doors are always still needing to be kicked down, but he is the ultimate DIY person, which we hope not to have to do forever. So, this is a long time coming in terms of bringing this thing home and premiering it next week.

Leong: Yeah. I mean, I'm going to go back to the idea of craft. To do DIY, for me, there's not a single job on the set that I haven't done it for a day or I don't know how to do. I think a lot of times directors just like, "Okay, I just direct. I just write." I had done everything from PAing to gripping, to post, to color, to directing. And for me, I love the craft from top to bottom. And I think as a director, you should know every single job and you should understand what each job does so that you can execute a job.

Anytime I think of a scene, I'm like, "Okay, well, how do we do this with three people? How do we do this with no money? How does that shot work? How does that lighting work?" And I think that's the way you can do it. A lot of times, you're like, "Oh, I want all this stuff." And then the producer shows up with a budget of $100,000 for that one day. That's one way to do it. But then on the level that we were working at, I have to know every single, what's necessary and what's not necessary, because there's just so much unnecessary in what we do.