Signature Move is a hybrid indie romantic comedy and coming-of-age story about a Pakistani-Muslim lesbian who falls in love with a Mexican woman (and competitive wrestling) during the course of a Chicago summer. The film is directed by a woman, Jennifer Reeder; written by women, Lisa Donato and lead actor Fawzia Mirza; and focuses on women of color—a relative anomaly in a domestic cinematic landscape largely filtered through the lenses of straight white men.
Yet Eugene Sun Park, one of the producers of Signature Move and the founder of the Chicago-based nonprofit film and video production company Full Spectrum Features, has a different take. “It’s an accessible love story,” he says. “It’s a summertime love story that takes place in Chicago.”
Signature Move reflects Mirza’s experience as a queer Muslim woman of Pakistani-immigrant parentage; she was recently honored by the White House as a Champion for Change for Asian American and Pacific Islander Art and Storytelling. The film also expresses Full Spectrum Features’ overarching mission: to provide filmmakers of diverse ethnicities, genders, and sexual orientations with the means to share their stories with a broad audience.
On one of his “few days off” from the set of Signature Move, Park and I spoke over the phone about the potential impact of the film, which is set for a 2017 release. We also discussed the genesis of Full Spectrum Features, common mistakes that Park has observed filmmakers making at the distribution stage, and why he believes that the Chicago independent-film scene may be approaching a tipping point.
Leah Pickett: Why is the mission of Full Spectrum Features (“to increase diversity in the media arts by producing, exhibiting, and supporting the work of women, LGBTQ, and minority filmmakers”) important to you?
Eugene Sun Park: As an Asian American growing up—like anyone who grows up in America being immersed in popular culture—I definitely didn’t see people who looked like me or my family reflected in most popular culture. And when Asian Americans were depicted, it was often in a very dismissive, sometimes derogatory, or even blatantly racist way.
I worked in LA for several years after I graduated college—this was in the early 2000s—and saw a lot of the structural problems firsthand and kind of got frustrated with that and left film for almost a decade. And then when I came back to it, I thought, “Well, if I’m going to do this, I’m going to do this in a way that’s hopefully contributing to some change”—because, unfortunately, we just had the whole #OscarsSoWhite controversy. And I think the fact that not that much has changed has really motivated me to do something about it, because if people like us don’t take a stand and try to make this content and put it out there, nothing’s going to change.
It’s important to me, for myself and my family and my daughter, that there’s more diverse content out there that reflects the actual world we live in, not the strange, narrowly defined, and idealized world that tends to be depicted in popular culture.
How did Full Spectrum Features come to fruition?
Park: I started as a filmmaker, as most filmmakers do, primarily focused on making my own work—stuff that I wrote and directed. I got drawn into producing because it was a way to keep working on my own projects and also help someone else realize their vision. And the more I did that, the more I found that enjoyable. It’s more limiting in some ways to just work on your own material—there’s only so many stories that you have inside of you to tell. I’m not one of these storytellers who can tell an infinite amount of stories. And it just got to a point where I felt like, “This has got to be much more practical, given the diversity and social issue aims of the projects that I’m drawn to,” and I realized I could bring all of this activity together under the umbrella of a 501(c)(3) nonprofit instead of going in a piecemeal, less organized way.
When I moved to Chicago in 2012 I had recently started Full Spectrum Features as an LLC, primarily to produce my own films and then expand into producing other people’s short films. Prior to becoming a nonprofit, we had been making things for about three years. Last spring I decided to create a 501(c)(3) nonprofit. We gained IRS recognition in June of 2015, so we recently celebrated our first birthday.
Of all the Full Spectrum Features projects, which do you feel has made the strongest impact?
Park: We’re still pretty young and new to this, and several of our projects are just finishing up—and in the case of Signature Move, still in production. But if I had to pick one that has at least the most potential for impact, it’s probably Signature Move, because it’s an accessible love story. It’s a summertime love story that takes place in Chicago. I think a lot of people can identify with that.
I also think this story has the potential to confound some people’s preconceptions or stereotypes about Muslims or Latino Americans, because these characters are very three-dimensional and they’re just going through normal human experiences: struggling to find their identities and falling in love and all of the fun things that go along with that.
What’s your impression of the queer cinema scene in Chicago?
Park: I’m still wrapping my head around all of the different film scenes. The strength of the queer scene is definitely something that emerged very quickly since I moved to Chicago in 2012.
One of the first initiatives that we did as Full Spectrum Features was a curated selection of short films called Chicagoland Shorts. With the first volume we did, we never intended it to be a queer filmmaking series, but I think maybe close to half of the films in that series were made by queer filmmakers or were queer-themed films. Just curating this project I was able to see that and think, “Wow, there’s a lot of great queer filmmaking going on here.”
In general, I think that diverse voices have an opportunity to express themselves when there are institutions available that support low-budget independent filmmaking—because of places like Chicago Filmmakers and other local nonprofits. Filmmakers who may have traditionally been excluded from telling their stories through more mainstream channels now have access to cheap but high-quality cameras and editing equipment.
So I’d say the rise of strong queer filmmaking in Chicago is probably a result of the broader phenomenon in Chicago and nationally of more filmmakers being able to find those tools for themselves and make the kind of stories they want to tell: put them up online, make a web series, and go straight to their audience instead of having to go through corporate gatekeepers who are going to say, “Your story’s not accessible, it’s not universal because your main character’s not a straight white man.”
How do Full Spectrum Features’ programs, like the Summer Youth Program and Expanded Cinema, factor in to the organization’s overall mission of supporting underrepresented filmmakers?
Park: We started the Summer Youth Program with After School Matters this year; it’s our first run with this filmmaking course. Our program director Dane Haiken is running that. The program is part of our mission of giving a diverse group of people access to tools and training so they are able to make their own films and tell stories from their own communities. Dane came on to Full Spectrum last year and he was really excited about what we were doing with The Orange Story, which is this narrative period piece about a man going through the Japanese-American-internment-camp experience. And Dane came up with this idea that a lot of people express social issues and topics that have a social-justice aspect to them through documentary filmmaking, but very few people—probably because it’s expensive—express those kinds of issues through narrative film or animation. So, working with local high school students and teaching them, obviously on a much smaller scale, the kind of thing that we’re doing with The Orange Story; this educational side of things definitely fits into our mission of diversity.
Diversity is so much about, or equally about, who is behind the camera as who is in front of it. So if you get young people excited about filmmaking, give them the tools so that they feel confident to make their films and tell stories from their communities, maybe they’ll go on to film schools or directly into the industry and start making original content.
One of the things I’ve experienced is that a lot of people will make really high-quality content that kind of has a limited shelf life. For example, an Asian-American filmmaker makes a short, plays it at a couple of Asian-American film festivals, and then [the film] dies on their hard drive, or they take the password off and just put it up on YouTube or Vimeo for free—which is to say, it essentially goes and dies in a sea of content. And what we were trying to address is the fact that people who make really interesting content need to have additional opportunities for getting it out there to a broad audience.
I hate to use this kind of business-school jargon, but I like to think of Full Spectrum Features as a vertically integrated company. We do everything from initial ideation to getting the funding for the project all the way up to exhibition. And the idea is that by owning and participating in that A-to-Z process, and bringing filmmakers into that entire life cycle of a film, we can really empower them to get the most out of their film, so they’re not just making a film, screening it for friends and family, getting into a couple of festivals, and that’s the end of it. I want to help filmmakers participate in the full process and have ownership of the film in that sense as well.
Expanded Cinema is one of my pet projects. Basically, it’s challenging filmmakers to create more of a live experience around their films, asking them to try to take their films off of the two-dimensional screen and traditional setup where you have the audience sitting there and watching the film [in] static engagement. For example, a lot of the filmmakers brought in a live musical element, a musician playing a live score to their film. We set up multiple screens so filmmakers could do two or three screen projections.
This our first year of doing [Expanded Cinema], and I’m really interested in—and to me, this is part of the long-term goal and mission of diversity in cinema—pushing not just the content, but the form of cinema. I think it’s progress to have people of color, say, represented in traditionally structured romantic comedies or other kinds of genre films, but I think the next step is to challenge those very structures, and say, “Well, maybe an Asian-American film or an African-American film doesn’t fit into this typical Hollywood trope.” We need to think about different ways of presenting cinema, whether that’s through transmedia projects or Expanded Cinema. And I think that for different communities, finding their voice cinematically means also challenging both the content and form of the status quo.
Could you tell me a bit about the Visiting Artist Series and what you hope to accomplish with it?
Park: That was our first time doing that. We partnered with IFP Chicago, DePaul, and Columbia to put on this series of events. And Patrick [Wang, one of the visiting artists who presented at Columbia in April] is a filmmaker friend of mine. He’s very much an artist and cares deeply about his films from an artistic perspective, but he’s also a very skilled businessperson. And I was really intrigued by his model of basically taking your film on the road by yourself. There’s something kind of romantic about it, like a rock band putting all of their gear in the van and going on the road.
What most filmmakers do is they make their film and they don’t know what’s going to happen with it. They don’t have a plan, or the plan is, “I saved up $2,000 to submit to film festivals, and hopefully we get into Sundance, and hopefully a studio will see the film and we’ll get a distribution deal.” But that doesn’t happen for 99 percent of the thousands and thousands of indie features that are made every year. So, it boggles my mind that—I don’t even want to call it a plan, because it’s not a plan—this way of working keeps happening year after year. And Patrick is one of those few voices saying, “There are other ways that you can do this.” And I thought it would be important to bring him out, because I think that’s the sort of mentality that I’d like to see a lot of Full Spectrum Features filmmakers adopt so that they think of themselves as active participants in the distribution of their films, and so they don’t keep thinking, “My work is done after I make this film.”
How would you describe the local filmmaking scene in Chicago, and how have you seen it change since you moved here in 2012?
Park: I feel like there are two distinct but very closely related scenes that are on an upward trend. There’s the film industry that’s very much connected to Hollywood and out-of-town stuff, a lot of the Dick Wolf shows and the bigger-budget films that come and shoot here. That industry is definitely growing, in part thanks to Cinespace [Chicago Film Studios]. There’s more work here, and that stuff’s really good for the local film scene because it offers a chance for local filmmakers and crew to earn a living wage and gain, I think, terrific professional experience.
And then there’s a whole kind of separate, indie-film scene going on, that is to some extent made possible by the more mainstream stuff. On a lot of indie projects, you can get a really great crew working on it who can [take the] low-budget, independent-film wages only because their paid job, so to speak, is working on Empire or something like that. So, I don’t think that these scenes are in any way opposed to each other; I think it’s one of these “all boats rise together” situations.
I think what the indie-film scene is really struggling to do—and hopefully we’re at a tipping point, or approaching a tipping point—is create a viable ecosystem and sustainable film economy here for independent filmmaking. I see a lot of films get made in a way that’s not economically sustainable; I see a lot of people draining their savings, or getting a lot of investors and the film doesn’t make any money. So we can’t have a viable, ongoing industry if most of the films [turn out] like that. I mean, there will always be some duds, financially speaking, but the industry has to take more steps to get to the point where the local independent scene can actually be self-sustaining economically, so that people aren’t just getting their film degrees here and moving to a coast, but they’re thinking, “I should be moving to Chicago, a place where I can make my career as a filmmaker, not just make a film and see what happens.”
Chicago Media Angels and Stage 18 are two important initiatives in Chicago that are really geared toward bringing more financial savvy to independent filmmaking. People [in these organizations] are working in a model where they are thinking about distribution; they’re thinking, “How are we going to generate revenue?” They’re looking at self-distribution and alternate forms of distribution as viable revenue sources, instead of the typical “make a film, send it to Sundance, and hope it hits the lottery” kind of approach. I think that as long as filmmakers and producers become more sophisticated on the business side of things, then the independent film scene will continue to grow.