Two years ago, the actor had been hiking with friend Dave Boyle, who had directed Chen in the first two movies of the indie Surrogate Valentine series, “Surrogate Valentine” (2011) and “Daylight Savings” (2012). A third had yet to materialize — which Chen remembers probing him about. Turns out, Boyle did not intend to make one. “And when he said that, my heart broke, not only because I wanted a job,” she says, “but also because I felt bad for these characters who I wanted to see live on, and I didn’t feel like they’d had their story told.”
For two decades, Chen, a Taiwanese American actor, has carved out a career in film and TV, earning an Asian Excellence Award for Outstanding Newcomer for her starring turn in the 2004 lesbian romantic comedy “Saving Face,” and with roles in “The Affair” and “Shameless.” She casually asked Boyle if she could pick up the final film, despite never having directed, produced or written a feature.
She hammered out the script for “I Will Make You Mine” on a plane ride from Los Angeles to Boston over Thanksgiving weekend, revising it with Boyle over the next few months. The film was shot in 15 days in L.A. In true indie fashion, the crew was a tight-knit group, including Chen’s husband, Abe Foreman-Greenwald (a producer on Netflix’s “Big Mouth”) as editor and Boyle as producer and 1st AD.
The result (available now on demand as well as DVD and Blu-ray) is a thoughtful, moody story centered on the three women from the two previous films — Rachel (Chen), Erika (Ayako Fujitani) and Yea-Ming (musician Yea-Ming Chen, no relation to Lynn) — and their ties to Goh Nakamura (played by Goh Nakamura), an indie rock musician. Each woman examines her relationship with Goh but also with herself in the black-and-white drama, which dives with heartfelt aplomb into the joys and disappointments, micro and macro, of adulthood.
It’s a marked tonal contrast from the previous films, which Boyle describes as “the most low-budget trilogy ever” and mainly focused on the male protagonist, Goh.
“She always knew what she wanted,” Boyle says of Chen. “She was extremely decisive, even when other people were pushing back or giving her notes or whatnot.”
Using the RED Helium Monochrome camera, Chen had cinematographers Carl Nenzén Lovén and Bill Otto shoot in black and white, not only to continue the motif from the prior movies but also to cut down on production time.
“I wanted to make a movie with a very small footprint that could move really quickly, so that we didn’t have to wait for lighting,” says Chen. “It was a very nimble experience.”
Both Nakamura and Yea-Ming Chen contributed original songs to the film’s indie-rock-heavy soundtrack — he with “Hold On to Your Humanity,” she with “Eskimo Eyes.” It’s a soundtrack that’s as much a character as the leads; indeed, the movie’s title is the name of a song Yea-Ming Chen wrote when she was going through a divorce. “Even though it’s very different from who I am in real life, those feelings of heartbreak and revisiting your past and having romanticized ideas of a certain person and being really disappointed — all those feelings are very close to my heart,” she says. “It’s easy to access.”
Editor Foreman-Greenwald says the film’s heavy musical influence dictated much of its pacing.
“Those were some of the most fun sections to edit, especially the scene where Goh and Yea-Ming are writing the song together at the piano,” he recalls, adding that the soundtrack lends an almost cinema vérité quality to the storytelling. “It felt very lifelike and very real and that was what Lynn was going for.”
For Nakamura, it was a chance to revisit his role as an unlikely leading man. “This is like a science fiction documentary,” he laughs.
While the lead cast is almost exclusively Asian American, that aspect is hardly a central part of the story — a purposeful choice, says Lynn Chen. The film offered her the rare chance to work with fellow Asian American female actors.
“So often there’s room for only one of us on the set, and so I wanted to change that,” she asserts. “I wanted to put all of these Asian American women who are so different from one another in the same place, [where] none of us have to do karate, or put on an accent, or talk about our differences with our moms.”