Kore Conversations: Jennifer Yuh Nelson & Lisa Joy

Kore invited Jennifer Yuh Nelson, the director behind the last two “Kung Fu Panda” films and one of Hollywood’s highest-grossing female directors, and Lisa Joy, co-creator of HBO’s cultural phenomenon “Westworld,” to sit down for a candid conversation.

Below, the two women-in-charge talk being Asian and female, high school memories and the art of appreciating what they get to do for a living.

Here’s a full transcript of their conversation:

Nelson: We were supposed to have coffee about a year ago.

Joy: Yep.

Nelson: And then we were literally [doing] phone tag, and then you were going off to do “Westworld,” a new season, and I was going off to Atlanta, so we sort of missed, and all of a sudden, here we are! We probably share a very unusual set of circumstances for this industry. Which is, we’re both women, we’re both Asian, and at the same time, we are doing things that are not stereotypical for either of those things. There’s nothing less girly than something like “Westworld.” It’s not a thing that you would expect.

Joy: Part of the great joy for me in working in this industry has been, you know, I am a woman and Asian American, but I get to just tell stories that I want to tell regardless of who I am, which is the same privilege afforded to other people in this industry. And it’s a hard-won privilege, I think. I’m sure you agree. I think fundamentally, as a storyteller, you just want to be able to inhabit the worlds you want to inhabit. Mine happen to be one with robots —

Nelson: It’s cool. And lots of violence.

Joy: — and yours is an awesome panda — like, it’s violence, but it’s adorable violence.

Nelson: It’s fuzzy animals, what can you do? You do things with fuzzy animals that if you tried that with a person, you’d probably kill the person.

Joy: As a live-action film, it would be completely violent.

Nelson: Rated R. I think it’s an interesting time right now because people are actually more open to things that maybe was not as common when we were starting out.

Joy: You know, I just directed for the first time recently, and I made this joke to my DP. There was a goat in the background. I said, “What if we do this slow push-in on the goat, for the whole time, for the entire scene?” Which I would never do! And I laughed and I said, “Well, no woman would ever direct again.” There’s a kind of pressure sometimes that you’re not just representing yourself, but you know that everyone’s trying to make inroads right now, and you know that collectively you’re not just trying to do a good job for you and your vision, but you also don’t want to let everyone down. You want to say, “I can take this franchise. I can take this and I can knock it out of the park.” Which is why I love working with women, because nobody works harder. Nobody has earned more what they’re doing than the women I work with.

Nelson: Because they know it’s a rare opportunity. Very, very rare, and unexpected. I’ve had a lot of times where young women filmmaking students will come up to me and they would talk about how they love doing the craft, but they’re scared of actually being able to make it. I think it’s hard for everyone, anyone, to make it. But they have that extra layer of fear that they’re not going to be able to make it through. It’s something that’s a little frightening to see in someone that’s so young and fearless.

Joy: I think it also comes from having someone to imprint on, or having a role model. I remember the reason why I leapt into directing this year was I was working with Michelle MacLaren on our show —

Nelson: Super cool.

Joy: Yeah, she’s awesome! She was like, “You should totally do this. You’re kind of micromanaging behind the scenes anyway, so you might as well just go direct.” And coming from a director that I like so much and who’s so affected by her job, to hear that and to hear, “Don’t be a coward. Don’t sit there equivocating. Just go do the work.” It was the kind of kick in the pants that I needed. I’m sure your work has inspired so many people to say, “Why not me? Why can’t it be me?”

Nelson: I can speak for myself — when I walk around, people don’t go, “Oh my gosh, that is such an unusual human being to have done that.”

Joy: Exactly!

Nelson: They’re all like, “Well, there’s nothing special about that. If she could do it, I could do it. It’s not like she’s got god-rays coming out [of her eyes] that she managed this opportunity.” No. It’s because the more accessible and the more like them you are, the more encouraging that you can be for other people.

Joy: And we have this whole — in different ways, but, you’re first-generation American, and I am, too. You were born in South Korea.

Nelson: I was born in South Korea, and I came here when I was four and a half.

Joy: When did you start speaking English?

Nelson: I started speaking when I was about four and three-quarters. When you’re that young, you pick it up in a couple of months. So I was playing with the little neighbor boy, and we were just chatting like kids do, and the next thing you know, I was speaking English more than Korean in the house.

Joy: I spoke Chinese when I was a kid first, with my mom. After a while, when you live in a place, that language becomes your dominant language. There’s a whole other set of cultural implications to not being from this country, necessarily, not looking like the typical person who does this industry. For me, the thought of working in Hollywood was something I didn’t even contemplate until I was actually 30. I did all the things first. I did law school, I did all the responsible —

Nelson: Everything normal first.

Joy: Exactly. So that it was like, if it fails horrifically, I can still support myself and take care of the people I need to take care of. But there was never a moment for me that I took for granted, like, this is my destiny. I don’t know, what was it like for you?

Nelson: [joking] It was completely not like that. For me, it was the same way. I was thinking, OK, I’ve gotta do well in school, I’ve gotta get straight A’s, I’ve gotta get scholarships and go to college and do all the things that were the responsible things to do. Especially if you have Asian family, it’s almost like you kind of have all this extra weight of concern. It’s a lot of worry going on. I think it helped me because I have two sisters who are older than me that were already in the business. So they weren’t dying, they weren’t starving, but it was OK. But before they got work, I was thinking, should I be a biologist or an engineer or something, just in case they don’t make it? But you just can’t stop what you actually do. You can’t stuff that down unless you end up getting really depressed in life, I think.

Joy: And not just for Asian Americans, or first-generation. There are economic considerations and hardships to trying to launch a career in Hollywood when you don’t have any connections there. The foremost is, how am I going to pay my rent? How am I going to pay off my school debt? How am I going to take care of family obligations? Ultimately it becomes kind of like a gift. Because every day, no matter how hard it is on set, or how difficult the writing is, when something doesn’t go right — you still sit there and go, “I wasn’t supposed to be here.”

Nelson: We’re still living the dream.

Joy: Yeah. This is crazy.

Nelson: This is still crazy cool.

Joy: Absolutely!

Nelson: Like, what’s the alternative? You could be a lawyer. You would be, I’m sure, a great lawyer, but it wouldn’t be as fun.

Joy: Wouldn’t be as fun.

Nelson: You wouldn’t have robots as a lawyer.

Joy: I mean, there is robot law now, I hear. But that is strange and futuristic. And I don’t know who the client is in that. I don’t know how you’re monetizing that. Maybe Google pays big bucks for that. If you hadn’t done what you do, what do you think you would have done?

Nelson: I honestly don’t know, because the reason why I’m doing what I’m doing is because I was always doing that and didn’t know what it was. I was doing storyboards when I was a little kid, and I had movies in my head when I was a little kid. I would draw little action scenes and choreograph it out and figure out what the camera was doing, and then later on I found out that it was storyboarding. Because storyboarding is basically an artist’s way of exporting an image out of their head if they don’t have access to a camera, or a crew or anything like that.

Joy: Right.

Nelson: So if I wasn’t doing this for a living, I’d probably still be doing it as a hobby. Because I keep thinking that stuff up. But you know, I think about that because my family came here to give me and my sisters an opportunity. In Korea at the time, there was no option to do any of that. You’d probably work in an office, or you’d get married and have kids and that was about it. It’s now very different in Korea, which is great. There’s a lot of opportunity. But it certainly wasn’t like that when I was a kid. So I think the other alternative is, I probably would have just been an engineer or a doctor or something. Perfectly fine, but I would have been the most depressed engineer or doctor. I’d walk in, and the patient would be like, “Man, that doctor looks pissed off.”

Joy: “Is the diagnosis that bad?” “No, I’m just not…making a movie. You’re going to live.” [laugh]

Nelson: But it’s true. The alternative makes every day a wonderful experience, even if it’s horrible.

Joy: Yeah, it’s true. [laugh] I can’t believe I get to mess up in this venue with these people doing this art and telling this story. And that’s a gift, I think, to be able to feel anew every day how fortunate we are. I don’t know about you, but on sets, when you feel that way, I feel like other people feed off that energy. I mean, come on, look at how lovely this is that we’re all together trying to create this story. What’s more luxurious than that?

Nelson: You just feel everyone’s energy around you, and everyone’s all — they get the little chillies. “Wow, that exists all of a sudden. It didn’t exist a second ago.”

Joy: I was talking to some of our camera guys on our crew, and I was like, “You know, I feel like this is what it would have been like in high school if I had been any good at sports, and you had a team and you were cheering for the same thing and having Gatorade together, or whatever, going to an after party — is that what it would be like if I had been athletic in high school?” Because it feels really like you have this community, and you’re putting all your collective efforts toward the same vision. How strange that we get to do a team sport as a vocation, right?

Nelson: I know. Especially when I was in school, I was terrible at team sports. And sports in general. Horrible.

Joy: Maybe that’s the key.

Nelson: I was the last one picked.

Joy: Me too! We could have been the worst together.

Nelson: Yeah, we’d both be sitting there.

Joy: I dreaded it every day. When they pick the teams, and you’re in the crowd of people unpicked that gets smaller and smaller, and you’re just [hangs head] — Oh, here I go. Whatever team needs an asthmatic, I’ll go there.

Nelson: One thing I was meaning to ask you, how old is your daughter?

Joy: She’s 4.

Nelson: Four. So knowing what you do now, and I’m sure she’s going to grow up with an amazing role model in you, what would you wish for her in this industry going forward?

Joy: To feel the courage of your convictions in the story you want to tell. For me, meeting people like you, meeting other collaborators that I have had who have inspired me, especially women, for me, it sets the bar at a different place. You feel like you have a community that you can be safe with, that you can be yourself with. It’s like a language that nobody else hears, that you guys can hear together. The same thing happens with, going out in that crowd today and seeing so many Asian American faces, so I’ve never —

[e/n: This conversation was held during Kore Asian Media’s 16th Unforgettable Gala.]

Nelson: It’s cool.

Joy: It’s amazing!

Nelson: And so happy to see other people that are just like us.

Joy: Yeah.

Nelson: We’re all celebrating it together.

Joy: Exactly! It’s like you’ve all been dancing to the same soft tune for many years —

Nelson: It’s like, you were alone, but you’re not alone.

Joy: It’s true. I didn’t even realize I missed it until I saw it, and I thought, oh my goodness, how lovely to be with so many people who share this one aspect of my life. Which I’ve never really shared with anybody in this town before.

Nelson: That’s really cool. We’re going to actually have to have coffee, without cameras. [laugh]

Joy: Exactly! [laugh]


For more: Kore Conversations with Maggie Q and Leonardo Nam