Filmmaking | Interviews | Massachusetts

Staying Power of Tze Chun

1 Dec , 2008  

Written by Karen Sampson | Posted by:

At age 28, Tze Chun has learned the most important lesson of filmmaking: persistence. His latest project, Children of Invention, is pending festival acceptance.

If ever there were a prime example of what a person can do with a camera, the help of a few friends, and a lot of perseverance and determination, 28-year-old filmmaker Tze Chun is it. Over the past six years, he has steadily plotted and followed a career path that has enabled him to progress from an undergraduate student in film studies to an accomplished writer/director with nine feature-length screenplays, 12 short films — and recently, his first feature — under his belt. “Prolific” is one word that could be used to describe him. “Focused” is another. But sheer will and resolve, while requirements for success, work best in concert with another thing Chun has: talent.

Chun traces his interest in film back to high school, when his family first bought a camcorder. “I just started shooting and editing,” he relates casually. But his innate ability to take charge and make the most out of a situation — a characteristic that undoubtedly serves him well as a director — was evident even then. As a junior at Milton Academy in Milton, MA, he approached the school’s audio-visual department and proposed a half-semester video course he had designed for himself.

His affinity for film having firmly taken root, he graduated high school and headed to New York to Columbia University. Chun says there was no film production component to his film studies coursework at Columbia, but true to his nature he didn’t let that stop him from learning what he wanted to learn and doing what he had gone there to do. “I just made movies on my own,” he says.

This fearless, no-nonsense approach to filmmaking has undoubtedly gotten Chun where he is today. Since graduating in 2002, he has been writing, directing, and editing virtually nonstop, honing his skills — and raising the bar — along the way. “Most of my early films had a budget of around $500 or less,” he explains. “Then, the budgets went up to around $1,500 each.” After unsuccessfully submitting two of his shorts to the Sundance Film Festival, he tried again and submitted two short films simultaneously in 2006: Windowbreaker and Cold Feet, Wet Dreams, and the Kitchen Sink. With an initial production budget of $600, Windowbreaker screened at Sundance in January of 2007. “Everyone worked for free,” Chun emphasizes when talking about the film’s budget. “When we got into Sundance it cost us another $1,200 to step up to HD.”

Sundance set into motion a rapid chain of events that gave Chun’s career a life of its own. He traveled the festival circuit with Windowbreaker, about a wave of break-ins that leads to paranoia in a suburban neighborhood. It was shown at about 30 festivals in total. “It felt great to do the festival circuit,” he says. “Since I didn’t know much about the film community and didn’t have many filmmaker friends beforehand, it was nice to be able to meet and talk to other filmmakers at all stages of their careers.”

In April of 2007, Chun participated in the Tribeca Film Institute’s All Access program. Soon after, Filmmaker Magazine’s Summer 2007 issue profiled him as one of the “25 New Faces of Independent Film.” He was selected for Film Independent’s talent development program, Project: Involve. He got a manager and signed with William Morris. Then, he was offered a job as a writer for the ABC television show Cashmere Mafia.

Taking the job at ABC meant Chun had to relocate to Los Angeles, but the Writer’s Guild of America’s strike hit a few months later, leading him to return to New York. Once he was back home, it didn’t take long for his pioneering spirit to kick in. “I decided I wanted to write something that I could shoot in New York,” he says, explaining his decision to turn Windowbreaker into a feature. The adaptation process took him about a year. “With a short, it’s hard to tell a story in such a limited amount of time, but with a feature it’s hard to keep the audience engaged for the duration.” Working to stretch the story, Chun ultimately decided to alter the plot considerably.

Windowbreaker is about home security and paranoia,” he explains. “The feature is very subjective; it’s about two kids left home alone who have to fend for themselves.”

After obtaining funding from Impact Partners and Sasquatch Films, Chun shot the feature, Children of Invention, in 25 days over the summer of 2008. Though a lot of the film was shot in New York, scenes were also filmed in Quincy, Boston, and in Randolph — Chun’s hometown. The biggest difference Chun experienced when making the feature was the size of his crew. “There were 12 to 15 people on the crew,” he says, as opposed to his shorts which are usually just he and three or four people.

Recognizing the importance of having friends and colleagues to turn to for encouragement and support, Chun has nurtured relationships with people who share his passion for creative storytelling. “I guess I’m lucky to have a lot of good friends with a willingness to help. Over the years, I’ve been able to be less precious about my works-in-progress, and now I try to get people’s notes at all stages.”

Chun has known Children of Invention’s associate editor, Sheila Dvorak — a long-time friend and co-director — since 1999. He met Anna Boden (Half Nelson) in 2001, in a thesis-writing seminar at Columbia during the end of his senior year. Chun brought Boden on board as an editor for Windowbreaker and Children of Invention, which she and Chun recently completed and locked. “I’m hoping to premiere it at a big festival in the U.S.,” relays Chun, who has already submitted it to an unnamed few.

When asked what he thinks is the number one most important thing a filmmaker needs in order to succeed, Chun doesn’t hesitate to answer. “You have to believe in your project. When you’re talking to people about your film, especially financiers, they have to believe that you’re ready to spend years of your life on it.”

Just a few short years into his career, Chun already has an impressive filmography, to be sure. But if his unyielding persistence and tireless drive are any indication, chances are he has only just begun.

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