Filmmaking | Interviews

On the Road to Directing with Lauren Ivy Chiong

1 Oct , 1999  

Written by Alia-Anor Akaeze | Posted by:

After her success with award-winning short 'Holy Tortilla,' Lauren Ivy Chiong has taken on directing her next short film 'Testament.'

To DV or not to DV. Wait a minute: is that really the question? Numerous techie and film trade magazines would have you believe that it is. They would have you believe not only that the digital revolution has indeed arrived, but they would have you believe that if you’re not standing on the station platform ready to board RIGHT NOW, la revolucion is fixing to leave you behind, blinking and coughing in the dust.

Oh, sure, the money problem is solved rather neatly. But you’ve still got to blow-up the footage to 35mm to have your DV film screened in most theaters. Practically speaking, theater owners are not inclined to invest profits on projectors for a new format that might be a sure thing. After all, not everyone is inclined to believe in digital witches, no matter how groovy a web site they conjure.

So what’s an aspiring filmmaker to think?

Well, it just so happens that I recently had an opportunity to speak with a bona fide filmmaker. And it was with some surprise, even a little relief, that toward the end of my conversation with Lauren Ivy Chiong, I learned that she for one is not yet prepared to buy her ticket for that particular bullet train.

"There’s still a lot I want to do with film…There’s a mystique about [film], the texture. It’s beautiful. DV just hasn’t yet captured that. It still looks a little flat to me, although the resolution is amazing. It’s so horrible to have to fund-raise to make movies, so in terms of facilitating films getting made, it’s a really good thing. But I want to see it meet and surpass film [quality] before I make the switch. And when the bigger theaters begin using DV projectors, there will be more motivation for the studios to initiate digital video projects. That will be when the real change happens."

A Texan by birth, Lauren Ivy (she added Chiong when she married three years ago) knew in high school that she wanted to direct. "I had some experience working as an assistant director on high school plays. I was also involved in a local repertory-type theater, and I assistant-directed a couple of plays there, so I had some exposure to directing."

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Emily Lazea (lt) and Jamie Simcoe (rt) star in "Testament."

Photo by Laura Wolf

Chiong chose Yale University as her first stop on the road to achieving her goal. Although not the most obvious choice of film schools, the Ivy League university nevertheless turned out to be an inspiring training ground. Yale didn’t offer a traditional hands-on technical film production program, but with an emphasis on the history and theory of film, the university provided Chiong the opportunity for in-depth study and analysis of cinematic ideas that continue to inform her visual storytelling sense.

Chiong became focused on writing about film and supplemented her studies by making a few short videos. "I always knew that I wanted to work with film eventually… but video was what was available to me [at Yale]. It was cheap, and it was easy to do. I was able to get together a group of actors who wanted to go into film, but Yale tends to be very focused on theater. So I found this perfect group of people who were willing to work with me and make some movies, and that’s what we ended up doing. Very short things–nothing that I tried to distribute. Just for my own education. It was a good exercise."

After completing her studies at Yale, Chiong then chose to continue on her directing path by pursuing a more technical training program at Boston University’s renowned film school. It was at BU that Chiong adjusted her focus toward film. The result was the critically acclaimed short film "Holy Tortilla," the story of a woman who discovers the face of Jesus on a burned tortilla. Chiong’s first 16mm film, "Holy Tortilla" won the 1998 New England Film & Video Festival’s Best Student Film Prize, has been shown in 30 national and international film festivals, and will be screened later this fall as part of "The Independent Lens," a new PBS series.

A scant year later, 26-year-old Lauren Ivy Chiong continues down the road one methodical step at a time. She teaches 16mm silent film production at the Boston Film & Video Foundation, and Filmwriting and Design at Emerson. And she makes films. Chiong’s next film project is "Testament," a 15- to 20-minute short film currently in post-production. Based on a short story by local writer Joanna Kleinschmidt and partially funded by a 1999 Massachusetts Media Fellowship, "Testament" was adapted for the screen as well as directed by Chiong. Kleinschmidt and Chiong grew up in the same Texas town and have remained close friends.

"Testament" is the story of four women and their relationships with each other and with the world. The two younger women are actually pre-adolescent girls–ages 9 and 12–who find strength in their friendship with one another as they attempt to survive life with their abusive mothers. The two middle-aged women are their mothers, religious obsessives who have also formed a close bond in a struggle to understand the changes happening in their daughters and in their own personal lives. It is struggle within the framework of family that interests Chiong.

"Joanna wrote the story in a creative writing class at the University of Iowa. It is a story about her own experiences as a child, so I grew up with these two young girls, one of whom was the writer. In this respect, [‘Testament’] is a very personal story for both of us.

"I’m interested in stories about families like this, families that appear to be normal middle-class families: they have great houses, [the parents have] good jobs, smart and decent kids, but underneath it all, there is always something else going on. In ‘Testament,’ there are some very unusual religious practices going on under those roofs, and part of [what’s going on], unfortunately, is child abuse. Something that I always want to explore in my films is religion and spirituality. This film is not meant to negate the positive influence that religion can have on someone’s life. I’m just trying to examine more closely what can happen when religious experience is taken to the extreme."

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Producer of "Testament" Amy Geller.

Photo by Laura Wolf

Lauren Ivy Chiong’s life is changing as well. She and her "Testament" producer, Amy Geller, have formed a production company–Cornucopia Films. Geller, formerly the Associate Director of the Boston Jewish Film Festival, is also helping Chiong market "Holy Tortilla."

"We want to do projects that facilitate social awareness, and [Cornucopia] gives us a chance to join our creative forces," explained Chiong. "Besides being the world’s greatest producer, Amy is a source for inspiration. She forces me to furnish reasons why I’m doing something. She’s able to go through the script and ask me, ‘Now, why are you doing this?,’ or ‘We need more of this here,’ and I’ve come to really respect her opinions. She’s amazingly on top of things, and she really helps me stay on track by forcing me to be more organized. She’s the world’s greatest producer."

Indeed. And as Lauren Ivy Chiong continues her purposeful quest to direct in 35mm, I have no doubt that one day people will call her one of the world’s greatest directors.

You go, girl!