“On the Lot,” Fox’s reality show about 50 directors (chosen from 12,000 submissions), aired its finale on August 21, 2007 with Will Bigham named the winner of the $1 million development deal with Dreamworks Pictures. The series faced many problems, including an ever-dwindling audience that sunk to less than two million viewers (the finale got the attention of 2.5 million), the firing of Chelsea Handler as original host, and the hiring of greenhorn live host Adrianna Costa. The main interest of “On the Lot” to MANAA supporters, though, was the participation of Shalini Kantayya, a 30 year old director originally from Connecticut who’s lived in Brooklyn for the past 10 years.
The Indian American won MANAA’s 2004 scholarship and demonstrated her commitment to the cause week after week, finishing in the Top 10. Guy Aoki, a MANAA Board Member and the group’s founding president, interviewed Ms. Kantayya by phone. The following interview previously ran in an abridged version of Aoki’s “Into the Next Stage” column in the Rafu Shimpo newspaper.
Guy Aoki: Well, first of all, we’re so proud of what you’ve done.
Shalini Kantayya: Oh thank you!
GA: I mean, what’s really terrific is that you used at least one Asian person in every one of your films (SK laughs). And you know, that’s so refreshing because I often hear Asian American writers say, “Well, I’m gonna have to wait ’till I make it [to help Asian Americans].” They get onto the writing staff of a TV show, and they’re still very self-conscious about being Asian American. I understand that: If there’s like only one Asian in the whole writing room and everyone else is white, then they don’t want to be an advocate right off the bat. They want to just kind of fit in and show that they’re like a team player.
SK: Very understandable.
GA: And then you wait and wait and wait and you wonder, “Well, are they going to remember when they make it, or are they just going to get so used to doing white stories and casting white people that they’re gonna forget about it by the time they, quote, ‘make it?'” So I was so happy that every one of your films featured an Asian person, and it didn’t take away from the piece, and it was part of the success! Was it [intentional?]
SK: Well, we had a pool of actors to work from so you’re pretty restricted. Do I have a commitment to diversify? Absolutely. But I think more than that… I never want to be held back or boxed in as an Asian American filmmaker. I hope that if I’m asked to make a film about Latino gangs, I’ll be able to do it, or white American suburban life that I’ll be able to do it. But I think as my voice grows as a filmmaker, we make films about things that we know about. And I happen to know, for instance, the script for “Doctor-In-Law” was great. That script could’ve been about any immigrant community. It could’ve been Czechoslovakian people, could’ve been any first generation family, but I think those kinds of immigrant stories are very close to my heart and Doctor-In Law, I think, was a script asking for me to direct it.
GA: So you didn’t necessarily write the pieces that you directed?
SK: We did write them. Doctor-In Law, I revised pretty significantly. We were asked to write many of the films we directed. I think three out of the four films I wrote, but I don’t pride myself on being a writer; I pride myself on being a director. I think the films that are my strongest are actually the films that there was a script and I rewrote it, you know. But I felt… like a lot of this competition was based on writing ability. And not all directors are writers especially in a short time period when they’re asking you to write a film in 24 hours or 48 hours.
GA: I know they made it sound as if you were really struggling when you had to shoot ‘Doctor-In-Law.” Was that really how it was for most of the shoot: You didn’t really feel like you knew what you were doing?
SK: No. Not at all, actually. Whenever you watch something, be it Reality TV, documentary, fiction, the perspective that you’re seeing is never the truth. There’s never an objective truth… I was definitely very worried about doing a comedy. That was true. But for the most part of my set– and the other directors, actors will speak to this– my set ran very smoothly. I had a lot of fun doing it and what you saw, I think was just a very minute fraction of what actually happened. And I think the larger story, which isn’t shown, was that I worked really carefully with my actors… In order to make a good film, you have to know what you’re doing. People should look at all media with a critical eye and know that what they’re representing is only the story that the producers want to convey.
GA: The way I took it is that, maybe in the beginning you were kinda [worried]- you know, there’s a part where you go, “What am I doing? I don’t know comedy!” Maybe that was real in the beginning?
SK: No, I mean half of the things, Guy, I was joking! When I said, “You’re killing me! You’re killing me!,” that was a joke. Just as we as filmmakers have a particular story that we’re trying to create, the producers have a particular story that they’re trying to tell.
GA: Well, I thought it actually worked to your benefit because we’re kinda set up to think it’s not gonna be good. And then we see it, and we’re laughing, and we’re going, “Wow! She pulled it off!” So I actually thought that it actually worked to your benefit.
SK: It did, but I represent .01% of directors in ….Hollywood…. as an Asian American woman. There are virtually no Hollywood directors that are women of color or Asian American– or however you want to define me– directing films in Hollywood And although I made a good film, and I feel great about the film, what concerned me about that representation of me is that I feel like there’s already a stretch for people to view me as a director. For people to look at me as this 5′ 1″ Asian American woman and say, “Oh, she looks like a film director!” (laughs)… And had they chosen to show when I was working closely with the other actors, or had they chosen to show some of the really critical work we did together, then I think it would’ve done more for the cause of furthering women and Asians in film.
GA: You mean it would’ve given you more support from the people who were voting?
SK: Yeah. I do. I felt like if they’d shown my set was running smoothly and although my apprehension of doing a genre that I hadn’t done before, that I actually know quite what I’m doing on set, then I would’ve felt that would’ve been closer to the truth.
GA: I guess the thing that seemed to back up the impression that you weren’t sure of what you were doing with the comedy thing was when they talked to that actor [Jamison Yang] who played the son-in-law.
SK: Yeah, I spoke to the actor. The other actors came up to me after the performance and said what a pleasure it was working with me and how professional I was and how competent I was on set. And they were upset about what the actor said. The actor does respect me, and he’s told me that he wants to work with me again. I found his comments to be extremely unprofessional. And I would never speak badly about an actor or anyone, and that this was not the experience of the other two actors.
GA: Again, I respect what you’re saying. I think for the average person that’s watching the show, it still made you look good because the way I took it is, maybe you started off kinda shakey but you really got yourself together and the finished product.
SK: I worked with that actor very closely– much more closely to get the performance that you saw. I worked closer with him than the other two actors. And many of the takes that we took, we took the 8th or 9th take of his performance. So I will say in my defense that I knew clearly what I wanted, and I worked very closely with him to get it. You don’t get performances like that by accident.
GA: It’s nice that you used Jack Ong because Jack’s a friend of mine. He’s a nice guy, right?
SK: I adore Jack! And in fact, I wish you would interview him because he was just telling me how outraged he was about that comment… I was disappointed that they didn’t highlight more of the accomplishments of women in the final episode.
GA: It is kinda weird that the last six [finalists] were all white guys! (laughs)
SK: If you look at that, and if you look at the final episode, I know that I was extremely disappointed that what you saw of the women were you know, them [the judges] saying, “You should’ve called her slut mom,” you know, “they’re laughing at you,” “better leave a man for the man,” “Shalini doesn’t know what she’s doing.” And I was disappointed that they chose to show those moments for women directors and not all the successes that we had. And there were many successes– for me, for Shira-Lee, for Hilary. We all had great moments on that show. I had a moment where the director of Transformers said I had the best visual eye of anyone up there.
GA: So [the] Speed Dating [short], you wrote that?
SK: Yeah, I wrote that. GA: That was good. What I loved about that was that you crammed so much into one minute, and it was also funny. And I was disappointed that the judges didn’t seem to warm up to it, but I just really loved it.
SK: Oh, thank you! GA: There was that little joke about outsourcing from the [Indian] guy who was delivering the singing telegram.
SK: Yeah, thank you.
GA: When you did the gay comic [short], that was really taking a chance because you said you felt like you weren’t sure if the audience was gonna be able to relate with it. But then Michael Bay said he had chills watching it, so that was amazing.
SK: I didn’t know how a mainstream audience would react to a film like Laughing Out Loud. I did take a huge risk making that film. I feel like that’s just the kind of filmmaker I’m gonna be: I’m gonna take risks. I’m not gonna stay where it’s safe, I’m not going to give the audience the same film they’ve seen before. I’m gonna have a strong voice, I’m gonna take a risk, I’m gonna push the box, I’m gonna go to the edge. And that’s the kind of director I really seek to be. Is that scary? It’s scary as all hell (laughs)! I was never more terrified, I think, than when I stepped on the stage to face [the judges for] that film.
And I think knowing still the sort of political climate of the United States, and still what an issue that is for so many people, and what it was in the last election, I was taking a huge risk. But at the same time, I really hope the audience would see my work as universal. I really say that although they were about Asians, I really tried to espouse being universal and accessible to anyone. And whether we feel like we’re not smart enough, we’re not funny enough, we’re not good looking enough, or we’re not skinny enough- we all have these things- “I’m an artist and my family doesn’t accept it” or “I never quite fit in.” All of us have that feeling. And we all have a dream… And I think the power of that film is something that we all seek, which is overcoming our fears and following the thing that is our highest calling. Now, I was terrified because I didn’t know whether this would be relatable.
And to have a blockbuster filmmaker like Michael Bay say that about your work, no one was more surprised than me (laughs). And it really gave me a lot of confidence to say this work is relatable. All people can get into this. If a blockbuster filmmaker will support my work, then I have a voice that is viable and that people are gonna relate to.
GA: And for a while, they were taking a poll [asking] which person’s film did you like the best and didn’t they vote yours the best?
SK: They did.
GA: That was amazing too.
SK: I think that’s what happens when you take risks! Like sometimes you win, sometimes you lose. But I think that I was so proud that that film aired on Fox. Very proud. And those are exactly the values that I wanna share in my work and the kind of humanity that I wanna see reflected in the films that I create. GA: So there were like 12,000 submissions and what did you submit?
SK: I submitted a film called A Drop Of Life. Basically, it’s about a corporate [woman] executive from India who goes to India to seal a deal that would put plastic pre-paid credit card meters on the village water pump so you can’t get water without a pre-paid card. So I submitted the trailer for that onto the website. I was actually shocked because I submitted really late. And about a week later, they called me back, and they gave me an assignment to make a film in a week [the three minute short, Laughing Out Loud: A Comic’s Journey, which was later shown on the series]. I need to mention A Drop of Life is for sale (laughs) at www.adropoflife.tv. It’s one great way that you can support an independent filmmaker like me, and it’s about the future of water. And it’s a science fiction short. And I think my goal is to take these kind of social issues and really package them in a way that has commercial punch. What I’ve often seen are films that either kind of don’t have a high production value and are true to social issues, or there are a lot of very high quality filmmaking with no story. And I [want to merge these two different types of projects] and create films with deep meaning and a lot of bling (laughs). And it worked with the first film because A Drop Of Life got Steven Spielberg’s attention.
GA: So Steven Spielberg was involved in the actual selection of the 50 [finalists who came to Los Angeles]?
SK: Yeah. I mean, I can’t tell you exactly how it works, but I was told that Steven personally saw both of my films. I’m sure he didn’t view all 12,000 [submissions]. But I was told Steven personally selected me for the show, and that the Top 50 were personally selected by Steven Spielberg. Essentially, we made that film, then based on that, we made the Top 50 to audition for the [Top] 18, and that’s where you saw the whole audition process, which was probably one of the most grueling and difficult processes of my entire life. So we were there in L.A. for that series, and it was a seven-day audition process. And I probably slept six hours in seven days. Total.
GA: Why was it so grueling? What did it entail?
SK: Well, they just kept us awake for six days. Really! I mean, you were given a task and then right when you were finished the task, you were given the next task. So it’s pretty continuous and you could sleep, but it meant that your task wouldn’t get done. And I think they just wanted to separate the meek from the strong basically, ’cause you had to deal with not just the high stress but the sleep depravation, the long hours, the tension, and having to be creative on demand. So it was sort of preparing us for, you know, what would come on the lot.
GA: It was very strange that the first four people that voted out were foreigners and their movies weren’t that bad. It was really strange! I mean, there were so many other people who I thought were worse.
SK: I know for people like Phil, they just didn’t have the voting constituency of the United States. I think when you have 18 filmmakers, the first episode was a lot based on family and friends and your community. They didn’t know any of us, and we already had a community in place that was gonna vote for us.
GA: What I really like was that some of the white filmmakers used AA actors as well like Zach in that scene where the white guy and the office workers are shooting at each other.
SK: Yeah, well, Randall Park, who’s a great actor, is part of our ensemble. There’s a set ensemble and we had a few Asian actors, a few African American actors in that ensemble. So we were basically using the same- the only people who weren’t in that ensemble were Jack [Ong] and Jamison [Yang] who were selected for my film [Doctor-In-Law] because we needed two actors who spoke the same language. And so they were both cast from outside the ensemble. But for the most part, we used the same ensemble of actors.
GA: Well, that was great because when [the directors] were presenting their best work, they kept showing the office thing, and I mean, the audience just loved that, And I hope the message was clear that the Asian guy is not getting in the away of people enjoying this concept. And that’s what I loved: When they would use AAs when they didn’t have to. It was really a great model for people to realize that it’s very integrated. And so I think that because you used Asian actors it didn’t make it seem like you were only going to be able to do that kinda work because other people were doing works with Asian people as well. So that was very encouraging.
The two worlds collide thing, did you write that, or was that something you adopted?
SK: I did write it. And I was nervous about it when I wrote it ’cause I knew it had some flaws in the script. And I’m not a professional writer. I am a writer but it’s really hard to write under those circumstances, under that time crunch. I’m sort of a slow cooker when it comes to writing and I really require some time to slow cook and process the script. And I really feel like, in the end, the critique that they gave was not at all about the directing; it was about the writing. And that’s fine! I can live with that.
GA: So was it true that you mostly had five days to come up with all of these things?
GA: So when you got the reaction to that one, did you get the feeling like, “Oh oh, I’m gonna go home” or what was your feeling at that point?
SK: Yeah, I sort of knew I was going home, and I was fine with it. I think the one thing that bothered me is that you guys didn’t get to see the process of how hard it is to work under those kind of circumstances particularly with writing because we were changing things on set, and there were a lot of things that weren’t fully there. But yeah, the kinds of conditions that we were working under because you know, we were pretty isolated from the outside world. I get a lot of my inspiration from stories in newspapers and magazines and books and family and conversations and these are all things you’re not doing. And you’re tired from the sheer exhaustion of working that hard and producing at that rate. But I did have an inkling that I was going home, but I felt fine about it.
GA: It was frustrating because that was the week where they were gonna get rid of two out of five, so it was really hard. And I think a lot of other directors who started out badly, they kinda improved, so there was a kind of momentum whereas-
SK: No, I think everybody on the show had a film that was not their strongest. And there were sometimes films were good, they were OK, and sometimes films were great. And because of the double elimination, it was just the week it had to be great. You had to knock it out of the box that week. And it wasn’t my strongest work. And that’s OK.
GA: So when you get eliminated, how fast do they ship you back to Brooklyn (laughs)?
SK: Well, there’s a one week delay before the world knows, and so you’re sort of secluded so that the world doesn’t know you’re off the show before they see the film.
GA: Oh, cos they figure if they send you back to Brooklyn, people will know?
SK: Yeah, absolutely.
GA: So where did they keep you guys during the stay of the show?
SK: They keep us in a hotel, basically.
GA: How did you feel about the format ’cause most of them were like two-and-a-half minute or three minute films did you feel really constrained with that kind of a thing?
SK: Well, I feel like the competition is geared toward a commercial- when I say commercial, I mean advertising- style of filmmaking in the sense that you have to do a high concept film that is gonna appeal to somebody in two minutes. And it’s really hard. I know that I was criticized in my first film for shoving everything into a minute; it’s so hard to tell a story in a minute or two minutes. And I think that you both have to have the high concept and ability to kinda whip out a script and without a story and perform at that level. And also the films that you make are more geared towards the commercial style- the advertisers style. Cos you know, what can you tell that happens in two minutes? It’s basically commercials. Trying to communicate a message within two minutes is really tricky.
GA: How did it affect you when [the show] went from two days to one day per week [due to low ratings]?
SK: Well, you lost a lot of the reality part of it, which I’m so sorry about, because to me, that was the most exciting part. We went through excruciating circumstances- circumstances that I think the best of the professionals in the industry would feel challenged by. And I think that even seeing you know, the winner win- I think if you’d seen more about the process and just what we had to go through every week, I think that the audience would’ve appreciated the films more.
GA: I mean, were you rooting for anybody in particular with the top three?
SK: No. I have to tell you that I was expecting us to be clawing at each other because of [how] reality TV [tends to be], and I made 17 friends.
GA: Ahh, that’s nice.
SK: And we are all colleagues. I think a lot of us- if not all of us- will stay in touch. I know any one of those 17 can come to me for anything and I would do anything to help them. I think it’s an enormously talented crème de la crème group of filmmakers. And I wasn’t rooting for anyone. I actually have the highest respect for [Jason,] Will, and Adam.
GA: Cos I was actually really disappointed with the top three (laughs). I didn’t care one way or another who won because you know, when they showed/repeated what they thought were their top two works, I wasn’t really all that impressed by it, you know? I mean, I liked Jason’s thing about forgetting the wife’s anniversary?
GA: I loved that one.
SK: That was one of my favorite things.
GA: And who was the other guy who had the musical at the bakery? That was really good.
SK: Yeah, I loved that one too. It was great.
GA: But it was just seemed inconsistent. You know, they just didn’t seem like- like Get A Room. That was such- oh, that was so bad! And he was lucky you know, America voted that their favorite, so whatever! (laughs)
SK: I know, you can never tell. I think all three of those filmmakers deserved to win. And I’m really happy for Will. I think he worked really hard, and he’s gonna do a great job.
GA: So has it changed your life at this point? Are you really feeling that impact?
SK: I think there’s a recovery process from reality TV and from performing at that level because I mean what’s different from the world of real filmmaking is that you’re always- In production and post production, you’re always under the gun, and you’re always producing and editing. But to have to write under those same pressured conditions is crazy! I mean, people spend months prepping for something that’s gonna air on TV, so I know before I would start a film, just the sheer knowing that something that I do in the next 72 hours– because we went essentially right from shooting, we went right into the editing room. No sleep. Nothing. Write it in the editing room.
I think working under that pressure and sort of up and down- and I also hadn’t seen the show because we don’t see the show when you’re in it. So it’s a whole process of figuring out what the show was and coming back to our lots. But I will say that I’m really grateful for this opportunity. I feel extremely proud that I was one of the last women standing. Well, I’m not proud of that- I wish there were more women in the competition, but I was basically one of the last women standing in the competition. And I feel like I am definitely gonna become a better filmmaker- I have become a better filmmaker and person because of this.
I feel like this was an opportunity of a lifetime, and one of the most rewarding- in spite of all of the hardships and challenges that we went through. This is one of the most rewarding experiences that I’ve had as a filmmaker, and I think just the knowledge that I was hand-picked by Steven Spielberg to be among this group of extremely talented filmmakers, and that I had this community of people all over North America voting for me means so much to me.
And I feel immensely grateful to the crews I worked with, the cast I worked with, to all the communities who got together. And I think also what was so meaningful to me is that I got hundreds and hundreds of fan letters from young girls in Texas saying, “I’m so happy that you put this message out” or “it meant so much to see a woman like you kicking butt because for many people, we’re seeing- it means so much to have someone from the Asian American community doing this while the rest of us are in finance because we’re supposed to (GA laughs)” and seeing how audiences respond to my work.
And I will say this- that is what I’m living for- that feeling of “you moved me, you inspired me, you made me feel a chill. You made me feel something!” Now, that is why I get up in the morning and there is no better feeling. And all of those people, all of those audiences, that’s why I’m a filmmaker. It’s not even for reality TV. It’s for the audiences.
GA: Yeah, I think if you hadn’t been on this program, you wouldn’t have had such immediate feedback week after week.
SK: No! And people all over the country saying, “Your voice is so important and we need people like you and we need people who are making films that have some social values or say something about the world that we live in.” And to have people say that to me means so much to me. And to say that you can run with the best of them. I got this wonderful letter saying, you know, “it’s so wonderful to see you there competing with some of the best emerging filmmakers in the industry” and that means so much. Nothing means more to me than the support of the communities and the audiences that have supported me. GA: So you can’t talk about [original host] Chelsea Handler or Adrianna Costa (laughs)? SK: I can talk about my opinions on that.
GA: Yeah, what’d you think? Cause Chelsea was there just for like the one show and then she’s replaced (laughs)!
SK: Chelsea is really, really funny and I’m a great fan of her’s. Adriana- I think that no one realizes what it takes to do a live show and I have enormous respect for [replacement host] Adrianna because I couldn’t do her job.
GA: Yeah because she kept flubbing her lines!
SK: I’m just gonna say that. I think it looks easy from the outside- just as it looks easy to make a film and it’s easy to criticize. I think that it’s enormously difficult to do a live show and to perform at the level– that you have to perform to be a live host on a live show. And I have respect for what she does because I couldn’t do it.
GA: Cos I heard that Chelsea had to be taken off because she had to do like 72 takes for every line she did.
SK: How did you hear this?! You’re getting all the dirt! GA: Someone who’s with MANAA has a friend [who worked on the set] SK: Oh, you’re so funny. I’m not allowed to speak about that. Just out of respect for those two women, I would never speak bad about either of those two women.