How did you come up with the idea and how did you get it going? In 1999 I came up with the premise while visiting New York Chinatown. I tried to enter a “private” Chinese kung-fu club and was told, “Chinese only.” Disappointed, I walked across Canal St into Little Italy for lunch and thought what would happen if a Chinese guy tried to join a “private” Italian club. The story developed from there, scenes coming to mind, until a story came into focus. I sent the script to several “coverage” readers and incorporated their notes into the story, then sent the script to every director and producer in “Hollywood” I could think of. I knew they’d all love it and jump on board. Such naiveté.
What were some challenges that you have encountered?
For over a decade I couldn’t get anyone to read the script or consider the project for production. Then I approached Shing Ka, a veteran actor and student of a kung-fu master I am friends with. Shing was working on another film that featured some actors I wanted for my film and with his help I was able to get a few cast members in place. With that I went out and raised the financing myself. Then the financing fell through due to political issues between our country and the country where the funding was coming from. But I had actors’ time blocked and needed to refinance the film again. I did and we began production.
The burning question: how did you arrange the budget?
One night before Christmas in 2017 I was having tea with a Chinese businessman. He asked me what I was working on and I shared the story. It resonated with him, having immigrated to NY Chinatown as a boy he understood the dilemma of the protagonist. He helped arrange the first round of full funding with investors in China. When that fell through at the 11th hour, I happened to reconnect with an old co-worker who had seen news of the film on social media. He recalled reading the first drafts in 1999-2001 and was excited for me. I told him how the Chinese investor was excited and then how the funds fell away. He then reached to his business contacts and pulled nine people together to cover the production budget. I would then raise the rest of the budget needed for post-production. Well, after committing to final funding and even after being on set over a dozen times and meeting everyone, the final investors never came through and we ran out of funds. This created a huge problem for payroll, with SAG, and of course with some of the cast and crew. But I never gave up, everyone was paid shortly thereafter, but there was a long delay in post-production due to funding. But here we are today, three years to the month of pre-production, and the film is releasing!
What are the plans for distribution?
I am blessed that we signed a world rights distribution agreement with Vision Films. They have 30 years’ experience as one of the leading indie distributors in the US and Internationally. May 11, 2021 Made in Chinatown will become available on cable and streaming platforms and on DVD.
Care to share all the amazing accomplishments, awards and selections?
The biggest accomplishments for me, personally, were getting all these amazing actors that I have admired for decades agree to be in the film. People like Tony Darrow, Vincent Pastore, Raymond J. Barry, Lo Meng and others. I would never have thought my little idea would blossom into a potential cult hit because of the cast that came on and brought their magic to the roles. And of course, getting the film into production and finally out of post-production and picked up for distribution are long fought accomplishments for me. For the cast and crew, the accomplishments are the great work and the huge response from fans and festivals, where the film has won seven awards, including an Audience Choice Award, two Best Actor awards, Best Stunts, Best Action, and others. The positive and generous advance reviews are rewarding, too!
Which film festivals do you suggest submitting to?
The big ones are great if you can get into them, like AFM, Toronto, Tribeca, etc. But for smaller indie films, like mine, we went to where the fans were: Newark International Film Festival (which invited us for a panel discussion and to ne the closing film), Philadelphia Independent Film Festival (we shot most of the film in Philly), Freedom Festival International (we have a broad international cast of Italians, Chinese, Black, Caucasian), and others.
I was dumbfounded when we weren’t accepted at the Philadelphia Asian American Film Festival, since the film was shot in Philadelphia Chinatown, features so many known Asian actors from American film and television, in addition to two legends of Hong Kong cinema. But there you have it: even if you do your best, you have no control over how your work is received. Regardless, with small budgets it’s best to enter festivals that represent your film’s values and are in locations where your potential fans are for best impact.
Why did you choose to film in PA and what do you love the most about working in Pennsylvania?
I live in suburban Philadelphia and love the city and wanted to film here. Even though the story is set in Manhattan’s facing neighborhoods of Chinatown and Little Italy, we could shoot 20 of 22 days in Philly, and one day in Collingswood, NJ. We only did two days of exteriors in NY, and most people can’t tell the difference. Philly is great for exterior and interior locations and is much less expensive than shooting in NY. Also, the shop owners are so gracious and accommodating of our needs and with their space.
What are some of your favorite shooting locations in Pennsylvania?
We shot in Chinatown, Head House Square, Old City, on Front Street in South Philly, at the Italian Market, and in Port Richmond. I also think Rittenhouse Square and Valley Green along the Wissahickon are terrific places to shoot. As are small towns like Chestnut Hill, Narberth, Doylestown, Peddler’s Village and New Hope.
How did you get started in the film industry?
I have been in publishing since 1990 and through working with a magazine in Los Angeles, I began making inroads into the film industry. In the mid-nineties I was invited onto television and movie sets and was asked to write a dozen or more spec scripts for both. After ten years of working, networking, pitching, and writing on spec for fairly large groups, I realized on day that nothing had come to fruition. I was spinning wheels while making a living as an editor and publisher. So I stopped that hamster wheel to nowhere, and kept writing and rewriting Made in Chinatown until it was the best I could make it and until I was able to bring it to the right people. Well, the Urban Action Showcase on Times Square was that place, and there I met so many great people, including its creator Demetrius Angelo and our co-director and local Philadelphian, Bobby Samuels. I produced several of Bobby’s film shorts that won many awards, and from there we created our production team for Made in Chinatown, bringing in talent from Philly, New York and Los Angeles (where our co-director and action coordinator, James Lew, resides.). James was one of my heroes coming up, from his first film Big Trouble in Little China though his Emmy award for “Marvel’s Luke Cage,” and we became friends in the 90s.
What do you love the most about your job?
Being a writer who also knows how to produce is an amazing experience. All you need is to make your first project, be it a short or feature or tv pilot. If you are good to people and genuine, the industry can open for you, as it has for me. I developed several very close relationships with some of the actors and producers on my films. I would never have thought I’d be calling and having them over or getting together with them on a regular basis. Getting to know the real people behind their acting personas and being able to collaborate on story ideas and new projects is a blessing. The creative part is what I enjoy most.
What was your most memorable, most awkward, or funniest on set story while shooting this film?
First was getting a call from an unknown number in NY. I answered and the voice said, “Mark, the script is funny. The Chinese kid tries to get made!” I said, who is this? The voice said, “It’s me, Vinny, Big Pussy from Sopranos. I’m, doing your movie.” Another amazing moment was after most of the key roles were cast, and we did a local casting in Philly, Tony Darrow walks in and sits on the sofa. After each audition, I’d look back at him and he’d shake or nod his head. One of my heroes growing up was Lo Meng, a legend in Hong Kong cinema. As a teen I’d watch his kung-fu movies on Saturday afternoon with the bad dubbing and emulate his cool moves and my dream was to meet him one day. Well, we connected with him though our production team and he agreed to play “Hung Phat.” His first American film, and because I wrote the role of the Chinatown Triad boss with a crazy laugh, I wasn’t sure if he’d do it. But he asked me to read his lines in English and do the laugh, too, and send him the audio file. He practiced his lines while filming Ip Man 4. When we met at the airport, and we got in my car, he said with a straight face, “Mark, I have been practicing the laugh.” He then did six variations of the crazy laugh and asked which one I preferred. I was stunned, humbled, beside myself with joy and amazement!
Do you have any upcoming Pennsylvania-based projects?
I am in the pre-production stage of shooting a TV pilot here, and we have been looking to potentially shoot a teen camp movie in the Poconos. The problem is the lack of tax credits available for small budget projects. I was shattered and in trouble financially when we were all but guaranteed our credits on “Chinatown,” and they never came through. I fought hard for them for two years with the support and help of Dave Bowers (Film Incentives Group), Sharon Pinkenson (Greater Philadelphia Film Office), and State Representative Maria Donatucci. No luck. Maria then asked me to come testify about it before a panel, along with other PA filmmakers Night Shyamalan and Nancy Glass. We all did our best and made terrific arguments for the need for these Tax Incentives in PA.
PAFIA has been working hard on increasing the film tax credit in Pennsylvania and bringing more film work to our local crew and talent, but we must all unite to really make a difference. What can you tell our elected officials about the importance of PA film industry and the difference it has made in your life?
PAFIA is doing a terrific job bringing awareness to this issue to the leaders of the state. The more projects that come into the state, the more locals are hired as cast and crew, and catering, and the more hotel rooms are filled, and parking spaces rented, and local shops frequented. These films can become iconic representations of the State, or its cities, and are a terrific way to promote tourism and the birth of a booming business. Let’s keep fighting!
What is your advice for the aspiring actors and filmmakers? Some steps to take? Some mistakes to avoid?
Work hard at your craft and take all the classes you can to improve it. With online courses and master classes from the experts, there is no shortage of training out there. Don’t listen to naysayers or ask opinions of people who don’t believe in your dream. If you are an actor, go to the local principal and background casting offices and let them know who you are and what your capabilities are; get into their databases. Do as many auditions as you can and take whatever first job comes (if it is not objectionable) to get a foot in the door. Once you do one project, you can network on set and expand your circle and get leads for other projects. Be sure to also help those that help you. It you want to write or produce or learn to direct, also take courses, network online and find an opportunity to get hired on a set. You can get in as a grip or driver and start connecting and networking your way to other roles and create side conversations with the director or producers during breaks. There is always a way. Sometimes, like for me, it took two decades for something to finally happen. But all the sudden my career pivoted, and I now have over a dozen projects on slate with a big production company in LA, several with my own company, and two international co-productions. There is always a way if you have stamina, persistence and show gratitude toward others.
Be sure to always avoid situations that cause you anxiety or where you see red flags. Don’t ignore your gut or put yourself in compromising positions for a role or the “chance” of working on a film. And never sell yourself short. You are valuable and so are your talents, and when the right people see them, something will happen.
What are some of the most valuable lessons that you have learned about this industry and wish you knew earlier?
I have read over a dozen books on writing screenplays and bios of actors and directors. I thought the negative things they mentioned were “one offs”, even though many said the same things: too many people lie, mislead, take advantage, make promises they know they can’t keep. This is all true, and I wish I had not been so afraid to replace those principals who I knew were not a right fit for a project, and instead ignored the issue. You need the best people around you, not just friends or associates you happen to know and who say, “trust me.” Always find the best casting director, best production team, best director and director of photography you can. If it is a comedy, hire a comedy director. If an action project, hire a good director and support them with a skilled DP who has shot action in the past. Don’t rely on friends for the essential post-production efforts but hire a professional company even if it means doing a little at a time. All of these are important lessons that cost me hundreds of thousands of dollars and years of wasted time.
What is your biggest aspiration in this industry?
My only aspiration is to keep creating the best projects I can, and either producing them myself or partnering with a company that may have more resources than I, but also sees the same vision (or an improved one) for the project. Most of all I want to keep growing and developing as a filmmaker and creating relationships with those I work with. Sharing in creativity with others makes life amazing.
What would be the best way for our local PA cast and crew to submit to your upcoming projects?
As we have casting and crew calls, we will post them on the local boards. We like to use Heery Loftus Casting for our local background casting, and Caroline Sinclair Casting for principal. People can follow Tambuli Media (.com) and our Facebook page, which promotes our publishing and film work. And people can reach me thought FB Messenger or at TambuliMedia@gmail.com.
And don’t forget, Made in Chinatown will be available to stream on May 11. We have a Facebook and Instagram with updates and clips and fun stuff… and the website is www.MadeInChinatownMovie.com
Pennsylvania Film Industry Association (PAFIA)461 Cochran Road, Box 246Pittsburgh, PA 15228(717) 833-4561 firstname.lastname@example.org