Interview: Master of None’s Alan Yang on new Netflix movie, Tigertail

Netflix's Tigertail with Tzi Ma and Christine Ko
Courtesy of Netflix

Tigertail is coming to Netflix this week, and it follows a young Taiwanese factory worker who moves to America to start a new life. In his homeland, he was daring and a romantic who fell in love with a woman from a different class. However, life in the new country has left him emotionless and spiritless. As an older man (Tzi Ma), he is unable to connect with his daughter (Christine Ko), and in order to turn his life around, he’ll have to confront his past.

It’s written and directed by Alan Yang, known for his work on Netflix’s Master of None with fellow Parks and Recreation colleague, Aziz Ansari. In Tigertail, he took inspiration from his own life to tell a very personal film. I really connected with the film’s themes and characters, and I jumped at the chance to chat with Yang about his project. The interview has been edited for length and clarity.

John Nguyen: This film is very personal to you, and I can feel that in the movie. It feels very intimate, and I was wondering which parts of your life you kept intact. What are your thoughts on that?

Alan Yang: Well, that’s good. That’s a compliment. If you didn’t know what was real and what wasn’t, that’s good. Yeah, I wanted the movie to feel very personal, very grounded, reserved and subtle in a way. I was inspired by films that were directed in that manner, and that’s what I was trying to go for in this movie.

It’s heavily fictionalized. It’s inspired by my family and the story of my father, but there are many liberties that are taken for the sake of the film, and I don’t want anyone to think that it’s one to one or a documentary or any of that.

So would you say it’s inspired by true events?

Yes, inspired by. Hopefully, there’s a kernel of emotional truth. It’s not really about every event being the same.

The movie is told in the past and also the present, and there’s a different filming style for each. Is that something you wanted to do intentionally?

Yeah, 100%. I sat down with my cinematographer Nigel Bluck, and we talked about how to differentiate the past from the present and talked about what emotional reaction we wanted from those themes in the past. They’re flashbacks and they’re memories, and we wanted to show Tzi Ma’s character, the younger version who is so dynamic and charismatic and full of energy and passion in life.

We also wanted to convey that it was probably in some ways a rose-colored, glasses-tinted memory. In order to do that, we shot on 16-millimeter film in all the sequences in the past, in Taiwan and in the Bronx. And we made sure to shoot with handheld cameras, and we had all the colors be really vibrant and saturated with a lot of reds and greens, sort of conveying how he saw his past.

What was the inspiration for Angela, the daughter?

I think that was a little bit inspired by my real life and the relationship between my father and my sister as well. I also wanted to make a little bit of a commentary on the role that daughters have in Asian households. I think oftentimes they sometimes get the short end of the stick. They’re not treated as well and sometimes there’s a divide between father and daughter, so I thought that was interesting to explore.

What was the casting like for the different characters? Was there anyone that you wanted right off the bat?

Yeah! It’s a movie with so many Asian and Asian American performers, right? Generally, we had to search far and wide, and I’m so ecstatic with the cast. We ended up with Tzi Ma and Christine playing the Asian American parts, and then a lot of Taiwanese and Chinese actors playing the other parts. It was a vast search and I want to give a shout out to my casting director, Terri Taylor, who did a wonderful job. As for the Taiwanese actors, I flew to Taiwan and met with the actors in person and sort of got to know each one of them before we cast them. I think that was really important to the number of rehearsals and auditioning we did for each actor, which really made the finished product better I think.

How important was it to cast Taiwanese actors for the Taiwanese parts, and was it challenging directing them in their native tongue?

Yeah, absolutely. You know, we did our best to be as authentic as possible. It’s not always possible to cast a Taiwanese person in every role, but we got pretty close. Obviously there’s Taiwanese in the movie – it opens with Taiwanese as shown in the trailer – and that was really important to me, just to be historically accurate. And that was what was spoken in the country at the time. So we had to find kids who spoke Taiwanese, and the actress playing the grandma character speaks Taiwanese. Kuei-Mei Yang speaks Taiwanese. I think we’ve already gotten the reaction on Twitter from people who’ve seen the trailer who said that they got emotional just seeing Taiwanese in a movie for the first time in their lives.

The factory that was featured in the film was the actual factory where your dad worked. What was that like?

It was really incredible, and it was really out of necessity. We were scouting for a factory that looked like a place where people were actually working in the ’70s. And all the places we saw were too new. They were just too bright and shiny and didn’t look period enough. So I asked if we could just look at the actual one that he worked at, which I’ve seen from the outside because my dad had shown it to me. We went inside and it was perfect. It just looked like it was trapped in a time machine.

When developing the story, how do you decide when to take liberties with the fictionalized stuff or paying homage to the past and your personal life?

The story is ultimately in service of the emotional effects you want to create and sort of what your big picture of the whole story is. I wanted to leave space for imagination, and I wanted to leave space for the characters who exist on their own. They’re not replicas of my family by any stretch of the imagination. It is not a strict literal representation of their lives. There’s a good deal of fictionalization. You just have to trust your instincts and to determine in a case-by-case basis what the characters should be doing and what feels right for the movie. So it’s really just instinct at that point.

You can now stream Tigertail at www.netflix.com/tigertail.

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John Nguyen
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