In an always-evolving entertainment industry, diversity remains as one of the most important aspects when tackling a project. As an audience member, you want to see yourself represented in the films, comics, and TV series’ that you’re watching. In terms of Asian representation, the need for proper, non-whitewashing, representation continues, and two indie creators have taken it upon themselves to further diversity in the industry.
Dennis Liu is an indie filmmaker whose short film Plurality was featured on the Deadline.com 2012 Director’s Viewfinder’s list for best short film of the year. In 2015, he crafted the comic Raising Dion, the story of a single parent raising her super-powered son. The comic was given a straight-to-order series from Netflix, starring starring Alisha Wainwright, Ja’Siah Young, Jason Ritter, and Michael B. Jordan, and is debuting in October 2019.
Looking to replicate the success of Raising Dion, Liu, along with his wife Marie Iida (best known as the interpreter on Tidying Up with Marie Kondo), have crafted another superhero comic, LING. An Asian-American superhero, Ling is not sexy, not good at math, not submissive, and she skateboards. She has a birthmark on her face, struggles with cyberbullying and self-image in high school. One day, Kitsy, a magical three legged fox, teleports into her washing machine to tell her that she’s a “which”: she has the ability to transform to be, whichever girl she wants to be.
Recently, I had the amazing opportunity to interview Liu and Iida, to discuss their work within the entertainment industry, creating Raising Dion and LING, as well as their thoughts on the current state of Asian representation in film and television.
Nick: Can you tell us a little bit about yourselves?
DENNIS & MARIE – Believe it or not, we met in an Asian American cinema class at NYU. We sat next to each other like peas and carrots. Eventually, we got married. It’s been so many fun years since. So to that end, we’re so happy to put LING out in the world because it’s all coming full circle now.
Nick: How did you come up with the idea for RAISING DION?
DENNIS – Several random reasons that totally came together. Marie and I were on our honeymoon in Sweden looking at the Northern Lights. We were discussing whether or not we would be good parents. What would our child be like? What if we weren’t good at it? Especially since filmmaking always leaves you on the road? Next, I also was doing work at the DGA East (Director’s Guild of America) to help promote diversity in the TV directing rosters, and was wondering what I could do to help fix the systemic problems of hiring women and PoC as directors. In addition, I always thought African American single moms were the ultimate hero. I eventually ended up interviewing a few and was inspired by their stories. I was also messing around with found footage movies because I wanted to make something cheap. On top of all of this, I was also wondering why parents always died in superhero movies. And what if we didn’t do that? So to answer your question — there were so many different reasons – so maybe that’s why it came out so original. I think creativity is simply combining things in your life and making sense of it in your art.
Nick: What was your approach to crafting the story for RAISING DION? Was it always more of a parent-centric story (seeing the development of a hero through the eyes of a parent)?
DENNIS – Yes it’s always been cool that’s it’s from Nicole’s POV, but she has no powers. Raising Dion is dope because it takes a role that’s constantly overlooked and puts that true hero in a true spotlight!
Nick: What was the excitement level when you found out that Netflix and Michael B. Jordan would be developing the comic for the streaming service?
DENNIS – I was thrilled. Now, four years later, I’m still super thrilled! (But I think I can speak for the team, more relieved we all made it to the finish line! Lol!). I don’t think CREED 1 was even out yet at the time. Or it was about to come out. Anyway, it’s been an exciting journey watching the whole team blossom and grow.
Nick: Do you have any fun on-set stories from RAISING DION?
DENNIS – It was like the Navy Seals of filmmaking . Our kids were like ticking time bombs – 4 hours shootable time due to labor laws. We had an amazing staff and crew that managed Dion and his friends’ time properly though! Then there were all the VFX plates we had to shoot, so that was fun. While I did not write any episodes (Veteran showrunner Carol Barbee wrote this adaptation for television), I DID direct episode 106, which I’m super excited about, so please stay around for that!!!
Nick: What was it like working with each other on LING?
DENNIS – In addition to working as an interpreter Marie is also a writer and a translator, so I always like to test out my ideas on her first. She does the same to me. Brainstorming ideas and helping each other became a natural part of our creative process over the years.
MARIE – We have a strong understanding of each other’s strengths and weaknesses. It’s great to have someone you can count on to be honest and tough with you, but also be your biggest supporter and fan no matter what!
Nick: For LING, you mention that the comic stems from the “lack of diversity in film/television for Asians.” Can you tell us your thoughts on the current state of Asian representation in film and television?
MARIE – I’m emboldened by the positive changes that are currently taking place, and there are many inspiring leaders in entertainment and beyond who are telling the multifaceted experiences of Asians and Asian Americans in unique and interesting ways.
DENNIS – We were lucky enough to have Randall Park play Kitsy in LING, and we have always been a huge fan of his work. What he was able to do in Always Be My Maybe as an Asian American leading man was incredible. Asian representation in rom-coms and dramas is getting much better, but I do believe that there is still work to be done, specifically in the genre superhero space.
Nick: Did you look to any other stories for inspiration when crafting LING? Or did you pull more on personal experiences?
MARIE – We drew inspiration from films such as Who Framed Roger Rabbit and Space Jam in terms of aesthetic, but we worked with animators in Japan and also Asian American artists who were versed in manga and anime since we haven’t seen many instances where anime becomes combined with live action film. We also love Sailor Moon, Sally the Witch, and of course, Miyazaki’s Kiki’s Delivery Service.
DENNIS – I did draw on a personal experience for Kitsy. Let’s just say I became quite friendly with a very moody and independent three-legged cat in my neighborhood, and I hope she doesn’t mind that I’ve turned her into a fox for LING.
Nick: The news on LING getting a possible TV adaptation from Temple Hill also dropped recently. Can you describe the process behind that? Did Temple Hill reach out to you? Have you already had meetings with studios on a possible adaptation?
MARIE – We met with a number of production companies to discuss possibilities for adaptation, but we ultimately decided to work with Temple Hill. Temple Hill represents diverse voices especially in the YA and teen spaces, so we feel incredibly fortunate to partner with them. They’ve produced Power Rangers, Twilight, The Hate U Give, – all these amazing YA franchises.
Nick: What was it like creating the cinematic trailer for the comic?
MARIE – Like the short film for RAISING DION, we made LING on a tight budget and a limited number of locations. It took a lot of grit and teamwork to get all the moving parts of live action and animation together, but it was rewarding to see that this is possible. Like the short film of RAISING DION, we made it as financeable, and cheaply as possible. Often times it was just Angie, our actress, talking into an empty washing machine! (lol. yeah.)
Nick: What changes do you think need to be made in the current film and television landscape in order to further Asian representation?
MARIE – We live at a time when as audiences we can demand changes and voice what we would like to see. I think it’s important for our community to support the work that is championing diversity and pushing the boundary of what’s possible.
DENNIS – Marie worked on the show Tidying Up With Marie Kondo, and she says that the format—a reality show with an on-screen interpreter—was a new challenge for everyone, but it ultimately worked thanks to the support and ingenuity of their diverse production staff and crew. What’s represented on screen comes first and foremost from the diversity and inclusivity of the people working behind the scenes.
Nick: Is there a dream project you have in mind (original or based on an existing IP, Marvel or DC, etc.)?
D&M – Right now it’s LING! 😀 Go watch it now! It’s fun and goofy and we hope it puts a smile on people’s faces.