Tuesday, May 13, 2014

Actress/Director/Screenwriter Fay Ann Lee on her romantic comedy "Falling For Grace"

Christal Cooper

Fay Ann Lee’s      
In Search of Grace

"Do what you can to encourage people to see this, and to recognize that filmmakers and actors and all kinds of folks come in different complexions - and the complexion of the filmmaker does not denote whether the film is good or not, the film denotes whether it's good or not.
People who see this love it, so that means people get it!  Fay and I don't go back, I'm not in the movie - but she's in it...and that's pretty much just as good."
Whoopi Goldberg

Once upon a time a beautiful baby girl was born in Hong Kong, a British colony known for its expansive skyline, culinary sophistication, vibrant night life and a town with the most Rolls Royces per capita.
The girl was given the name Li Xiao Li, which means “Little Darling.” Xiao Li dreamed of becoming an actress but also dreamed of being accepted.  The eight year old girl was so excited to be invited to her wealthy best friend’s birthday party, which was to take place in a penthouse apartment in Hong Kong.

“There were about eight girls and one girl was very jealous of my friendship with the birthday girl.  She got all the girls together and said everyone should go up to the bedroom to play except for me.  Every girl did exactly as told.  I didn't say anything, did not even complain though feeling very hurt, of course.  When the mother saw that I was alone, she asked what happened and I explained.  The mother corrected the situation immediately and brought me to the other girls.  They all got scolded and warned.  But the damage was done.  I felt like a total outsider and shunned because I wasn't good enough and not rich like all the other girls.”
That same rejected little girl is Fay Ann Lee, the writer, producer, director, and star of the romantic comedy Falling For Grace.

Lee’s screenplay is about Wall Street Investor Grace Tang, who like Lee, is rejected by her peers at the early age of eight.  Because of this rejection, Grace Tang doesn’t feel accepted and hopes she can find acceptance and to move out of New York’s Chinatown by climbing the corporate ladder.  She is invited to a prestigious Opera’s Junior Committee Meet & Greet where she is mistaken for another Grace Tang, an heiress from Hong Kong.  With her new identity, Grace is finally accepted into the Upper East Side socialite world.  Along the way, Grace meets and falls in love with Andrew Barrington, Jr., a very wealthy and eligible bachelor.  Whirlwind romance ensues and, in the end, Grace’s and Andrew’s worlds collide through humor, romance, heartbreak, and forgiveness.

Lee, is a lot like her alter ego Grace, searching for acceptance – in other words, she’s always been that little eight-year-old girl left out from the birthday celebration.
Lee was born and raised in Hong Kong: her father was in the hotel business and her mother worked for the American Consulate; as a result, the little girl found herself alone.
“My brothers were much older than I.  I played by myself a lot which forced me to use my imagination – which is how I developed my acting instincts.”
         Her most pleasant memories consist of movies, acting, and drama.  The first movie she ever watched was the 1976 famous-remake King Kong starring Jeff Bridges and Jessica Lange.   
            "I remember thinking how ridiculous it was that the ape was so huge.  It was complete fantasy.  The relationship between King Kong and Jessica Lange is what got me into romantic comedies."
           Lee watched other movies and American programs on television which helped her to learn English at an early age.  She also tried to emulate American English by watching television shows such as Mary Tyler Moore and All In The Family. 
           By the time Lee was in junior high her older brothers were in America.  During her first year of high school Lee’s parents informed her that they, too, would go to America.  
“My parents were expecting China to take over Hong Kong in 1997,  and weren’t certain what might happen.  They decided to get their greencards when they had the opportunity so that the whole family could be together in one country.”

Lee and her parents moved to a suburb of Houston, Texas, where she attended a public high school, and experienced culture shock.  
“I visualized Disneyland, television shows like “Happy Days,” “Laverne and Shirley,” “One Day At A Time,” “Mary Tyler Moore Show” – all of the comedies that I watched growing up in “Hong Kong.”  Everyone seemed so happy on T.V.; but it wasn’t like that at school.  I felt like an outsider and I did face racism at school.  I wasn’t very happy.”
She sought her escape in tennis, which taught her valuable life lessons.
“It was tennis that taught me how to complete, to depend on myself, and how hard work really does pay off.”

Lee still had greast passion for acting, but upon graduating from high school, she made the decision to attend the University of Pennsylvania’s Wharton School and majored in finance.  She did this for numerous reasons:  to be the good Chiniese girl and make her parents happy, and to be pratcical:  What if acting doesn’t ever pan out?
“Ironically, it was at Wharton where I first pursued my acting, with the Wharton Follies, a well-known business school acting troop that spoofs Broadway musicals.”

It was also at Wharton that she met her future husband and Lauren Bessette both of whom moved to New York City to furthur their careers in finance.
Lee worked briefly as a financial analyst for an investment bank In Los Anglees where it wasn’t uncommon for her to stay up 36 hours straight to work on proposals; while all along she knew this wasn’t what she wanted as a career.
“One of the bank's political consultants kept calling me "Baby" because I was the youngest woman in the department and probably because it was easier than learning my name.   I was too scared to complain, but I knew I had to get out.”
Two years later, Lee quit and moved to New York City to be closer to her boyfriend, now husband, and to pursue a career in theater.  Her first profesional job was in the famous musical Miss Saigon on Broadway.  Since then she’s acted in numerous roles for the stage, television, and the big screen. 

“I think acting is something one feels, one needs to do but I can’t explain why.  I honestly can’t tell you why I have to do it but it feels very natural to me.” 
Lee loved her new life in New York City and had interesting encounters with America’s prince, John Fitzgerald Kennedy Jr.:  she went to one of her favorite restaurants and witnessed JFK, Jr. arguing with a girlfriend; she saw him at the bank she patronized; and she was invited to attend a prestigious tennis club and found him there. Even though there were many instances where they were in close proximity they never actually met. 
“I was too nervous to introduce myself to him and I didn’t wan tto be an annoyance.  Also, I think my self-esteem always needed work, and I didn’t think I was good enough to meet him.”

This lack of self worth made Lee ask herself, “Could someone like JFK, Jr. ever become involved with someone not of his established class, someone like me?” 
Or, rather, would the movie insustry be able to accept an Asian woman the same way they would accept a caucasion, an African Americna, or a Hi-spanic woman as a protagonist in a romantic comedy?  
Lee found herself discouraged when she would read script after script depicting Asians as lowly servants, gangsters, or prostitutes. “Someone needed to write something that reflected an authentic characterization of Asian Americans.”  To answer both dilemmas, Lee enrolled in a screenwriter workshop.

“Writing is arduous.  And writing a screenplay doesn't just take work, it takes understanding of the principles of a screenplay, what proper structure is, what makes drama,  and all the different elements that construct an interesting story for motion picture.  Now that I've been through this process, I admire writers that can keep churning ideas out.”
Lee wrote the bulk of her screenplay in writing class or a night in her home office.  She christened the play In Search of John Jr, and  the male protagonist John.
“I named my screenplay that not because I wanted that character to be JFK Jr., but rather I wanted that character to represent  the rich and famous in New York society, to illustrate what it might be like to have that kind of a “perfect iconic princely life.”  Of course, how the public saw his life probably had nothing to do with his reality.”
“The more I worked on the story, the more I realized this was really about the protagonist, Grace, discovering who she really is and what is really important in both their lives.”
After In Search of John Jr placed in top writing competitions such as The Academy’s  Nicholl  Fellowship, a program sponsored by the Academy of Motion Arts and Sciences, Lee decided to turn the screenplay into a film.  She knew the odds were against her:  she was an Asian American woman, not famous, not wealthy, with no big stars supporting her.  Despite this, Lee pressed on to turn In Search of John Jr. into a feature film.

“Making a movie is a very difficult thing especially when it comes to raising money.  I'm not famous so with me, I have nothing to offer investors other than a good script, my best effort and hopefully an enjoyable movie that will make their money back.  I can't offer them hobnobbing with stars and red carpet parties and things like that.  I truly am an underdog in the movie business.”
       Since Lee didn’t have the funds for the full-length movie she decided to film just the trailer, to give film investors a taste of the final film. 

       “I did this with the help of a true friend who owned a 16 mm camera.  It took about 5 days and probably filmed 10 to 15 short scenes and then cut them into a 2 minute trailer.”
       It took her four years to raise the funds to film In Search of John Jr. in its entirety.  During those four years she supported herself by acting full time in regional plays, television guest starring roles,  and corporate industrials.

       On July 16, 1999 Lee was fast asleep in her bed and dreamed about a plane crash.  When she woke up she turned on the television to learn that JFK Jr., his plane, and his passengers (wife Carolyn and sister-in-law Lauren Bessette) were missing.
“I’m sure my dream of a plane crash was a mere coincidence, but it was so disturbing on so many levels.  I knew Lauren from Wharton.  We were not close friends, more acquaintances.  The last time we spoke was at a mutual friends’s party.  We had actually talked about possibly getting a group of people to play mah jong because she had lived in Hong Kong and learned how to play.”
Due to the tragedy and out of respect, Lee changed the names of the lead male character and the screenplay:  John was now Andrew, and In Search of John, Jr. was now East Broadway, which is also the name of one of the largest streets in New York’s Chinatown. 

Lee described New York’s Chinatown as “a fascinating subculture of Manhattan” and the “perfect backdrop” in telling Grace’s story.
       “A Chinese immigrant can literally plant him/herself in Chinatown and live the rest of his/her life within a one square mile radius without ever needing to speak English.”
       Because of this fact it was integral to the story that the actors playing Grace’s family were not only Asian but could speak fluent Cantonese with no accent.

       “I lucked out with a great cast – Clem Cheung (“Ba”) and Elizabeth Sung (“Ma”) are both originally from Hong Kong.  Ken Leung (“Ming”), who played my brother in the movie,  grew up in New York’s Chinatown and spoke Cantonese with his parents.  They were the perfect family for Grace.” 
       During the making of the film,  Lee met two individuals who became her mentors:  Jim Taylor, the Academy Award Winning Writer for the movie Sideways, and producer Graham Place, best known for his Men In Black films.

       “They are godsends.  They took me under their wing and gave me constant advice and recommendations.  They not only made the movie better but gave me much more confidence in my own ability.”

      The film, shot at four different times between 2004 and 2006, was shot in its entirety in New York City.  The very first scene of the film (where Grace is rejected as a child) was shot last in February 2006.  That scene was the most emotional part of filming to Lee.
     “We finally did it.  It was really quite emotional for me because making this film was a complete roller coaster ride with great highs and horrendous lows.  For a while, I had no idea whether this movie would turn out okay, whether or not I could even finish raising all the money I needed to finish...so when the movie was in the can, as they say, it was emotional in the best of ways and I was extremely exhausted!” 

      East Broadway debuted at the 2006 Tribeca Film Festival and it was a sleeper hit. 
        “The word of mouth was tremendous and not only was it sold out all six screenings, at the last screening, people were standing in the back of the room.  The movie has since been seen all over the world.”

        When distributors finally got involved, the title was once again changed to Falling for Grace, a more commercial romantic comedy title.  The movie has since been seen all over the world. 

Lee continues to write, produce, direct, act and sing, and loving every minute of it.  You can purchase Falling for Grace on amazon (http://www.amazon.com/Falling-Grace-Gale-Harold/dp/B002ZDOY8O/ref=sr_1_2?ie=UTF8&qid=1399919655&sr=8-2&keywords=Falling+For+Grace) or watch it on Hulu.

Photo Description and Copyright Information

Photo 1
Falling for Grace movie poster
Fair Use Under The United States Copyright law

Photo 2
Fay Ann lee at the New York City Falling For Grace Opening Party at Asia Society with Whoopie Goldberg doing opening remarks.
Copyright granted by Fay Ann Lee

Photo 3
Fay Ann Lee at age 7.
Copyright granted by Fay Ann lee

Photo 4
Logo for Falling For Grace
Fair Use under the United States Copyright Law.

Photo 5
Production still from Falling For Grace.
Copyright granted by Fay Ann Lee

Photo 6
King Kong Movie Poster, 1976.
Fair Use Under the United States Copyright Law

Photo 7
Screen shot of the Mary Tyler Moore title.
Public Domain

Photo 8
Fay Ann Lee at the U.S. Open
Copyright granted by Fay Ann Lee.

Photo 9
Fay Ann Lee in Miss Saigon, Chicago.
Copyright granted by Fay Ann Lee.

Photo 10
Fay Ann Lee in Miss Saigon with the men of Miss Saigon.
Copyright granted by Fay Ann Lee

Photo 11
JFK Jr in 1998.
Public Domain

Photo 12
Production still from Falling For Grace
Copyight granted by Fay Ann Lee

Photo 13
Fay Ann Lee during the filming of Falling For Grace
Copyright granted by Fay Ann Lee

Photo 14
Production still from Falling For Grace

Photo 15
Piper PA-32R-301 Saratoga II TC (model 1999) same model as JFK Jr’s plane.
Public Domain

Photo 16
East Broadway movie poster.
Copyright granted by Fay Ann Lee

Photo 17
Production still from Falling For Grace
Copyright granted by Fay Ann Lee

Photo 18
Sideways movie poster
Fair Use Under the United States Copyright Law

Photo 19
Men In Black movie poster.
Fair Use Under the United States Copyright Law

Photo 20
Fay Ann Lee
Copyright granted by Fay Ann Lee

Photo 21
Fay in China when invited to screen the film and address students at Tsing Hua University - a leading U in Beijing.
Copyright granted by Fay Ann Lee

Photo 22
Fay Ann Lee with former New York City Mayor David Dinkins and Clem Cheung (played Ba) at the Asian American Arts Alliance Gala where Lee received an award for Outstanding Asian American Artist.
Copyright granted by Fay Ann Lee. 

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