‘Are We Happy? Not Really. But We’re Fulfilled.’ How Are You Today, Roseanne Liang: The Director Talks Opportunity, Creativity and The Power Of Saying No

Director and screenwriter Roseanne Liang is everywhere in 2021, including directing the recent hit Creamerie AND the voice of a character in TVNZ’s Tales of Nai Nai. She also released the action movie Shadow In The Cloud earlier this year and is a major player on the international stage, being named by Variety as ‘One of 10 Directors To Watch.’ Here she talks to Emma Clifton about aiming for fulfilment, not happiness, the joy of collaborating with your friends and the responsibility that comes with choosing what projects you want to work on.

How are you today?
Good, can’t complain – well, it’s very cold outside but it’s very sunny. Going out there wasn’t enjoyable!

There were a couple of creativity quotes that I wanted to get your opinion on, based on both your career and also your collaboration with Flat3. Last week, Conan O’Brien signed off his final show and he said, “Try and do what you love with people you love. And if you can manage that, it’s the definition of heaven on Earth.” And then Lena Waithe, writer and actor, said in a Hollywood Reporter interview that “Getting your own show is like being beaten to death with your own dream.” I wondered where on the scale of those two quotes does your creative process fit?
[Laughs] Oh my god. I get both of them, actually. There’s this amazing book by Matthew Inman, who does this web comic called The Oatmeal, and he has this web essay online called ‘How To Be Perfectly Unhappy‘ and it talks about the creative pursuit.

There’s that Confucian quote that says “Choose a job that you love and you’ll never work a day in your life”, which a lot of people have since trashed! I trashed it because – while I love the sentiment – I actually think it’s the opposite and if you choose a job that you love, you will have no boundaries between your work and your life. And you choose it – it’s not anything that anyone does to you, Confucius did not do this to me, I do this to myself. I choose to do it to myself because I love it so much, but when people say “Are you happy in your work?” It’s like “I’m not happy, but I’m not unhappy. I’m doing this thing that is its own reward.”

In times of strife and trouble and pain and suffering, which always happen, you have someone to cry with. You have someone to rant at, you have someone to gossip with.

Getting feedback is like being stabbed, and having to compromise your vision when you’re working within budgets can feel incredibly depressing and make you lose faith in fellow humans or just make you depressed that you’re not like other people. It can be isolating. But we keep doing it, for some reason. Because the work is fulfilling, somehow. It’s painful but it’s fulfilling. And it would be like that, no matter who you worked with, but if you do it with people that you love and that you have grown together with, like I have with the Flat3 ladies, then it does make it more worthwhile. In times of strife and trouble and pain and suffering, which always happen, you have someone to cry with. You have someone to rant at, you have someone to gossip with. And all of those things make a difference. Are we happy? Not really. But we’re fulfilled.

I love that as a distinction so much – I think happiness is too much to aim for but fulfilled seems more tangible.
I mean, if we’re going to talk about binaries – if you’re not happy, then you’re unhappy, right? And it’s not the best way to describe it. I mean, it’s hard – this time last year we were prepping to shoot [Creamerie] and we shot through the worst of winter, because our shoot was pushed back due to the seven-week lockdown. And it was fucking cold [laughs]. It was painful – it was painful for our crew, because we weren’t paying them what they would get on an international project, and that hurt. And it was painful, physically, because the poor actors had to wear not very much clothing and they were cold. It is physically taxing. But it’s worthwhile.

One of your most recent projects is a wonderful example of something fulfilling that’s also surrounded by great people – Tales of Nai Nai, an animated kids’ show by Becky Kuek that starts tomorrow on TVNZ HeiHei. Can you tell me about how this project happened?
In 2018, with the rise of Crazy Rich Asians, I started, alongside a bunch of Pan-Asian screen practitioners, an organisation called the Pan-Asian Screen Collective (PASC) and Becky, stood out as a real go-getter of our community. She made Tales of Nai Nai, she got the funding for it, with the support of PASC but she’s a real force of nature by herself. I think it’s incredible that now young New Zealanders have a place to go to experience Asian/Pan-Asian/Chinese culture through this amazing animated series and it’s all because of what a force of nature Becky is. She’s incredibly impressive, as well, and then she asked me to voice a character, which was A DREAM. I really loved doing it, it’s just the best. It’s so freeing. You’re just a dork, with a mic.

It’s been a busy year for you; Creamerie came out to huge success and you also had a movie, Shadow In The Cloud, come out earlier this year. So now that we’re in the second half of 2021, are you now at the stage of planning new projects?
I have a slate – to visualise it, it’s like a bunch of cars on a track and they’re all moving and at some point, one car is going to pull forward, for whatever reason; maybe the universe just decides, maybe we get an amazing cast, a lot of times movies will move forward when you cast someone who can unlock a certain finance for you. So, on the track I’ve got Creamerie season two – and we’ve just received the news that we’re getting season two development finance, which doesn’t mean we’re going to make it, by the way, because we still need to unlock the production finance, but it at least gets us closer. And then I’ve got a couple of feature films, that are in conjunction with North American studios and producers and then an international directing assignment on a show.

It’s just another example of subjugation: ‘we want to support you… but not too much. Don’t get too over your head. Know your place.’

You’ve had Hollywood representation for the past four years and in that time, there has been a slow move towards the democratisation of who gets the opportunities, who gets the money and who gets a foot in the door. In your experience, has there been a change in terms of what opportunities you’re being offered?
The idea of opening the door and leaving it open for other people… yeah, in theory. I signed up with Hollywood representation in 2017, the year that #MeToo launched, and I like to think I was part of a wave of people, because I think it’s unusual for someone like me to be aspiring to make action movies and then, secondly, to actually be considered seriously for action movies. Do I think that the landscape has changed enough? No, it hasn’t.

There are some amazing women who are making tracks, like Nia DaCosta, who is doing the Captain Marvel sequel, you’ve got Chloé Zhao of course [Oscar-winning director of Nomadland] and Cathy Yan who did Birds of Prey for Marvel. So these women are being given more opportunities and I would hope that Niki Caro breaking boundaries and being the first woman to helm a Disney project over $100m [Mulan] will hopefully become so commonplace that it won’t be noteworthy anymore. But the issue is that the inequity still exists statistically; the doors are being opened, the conversations are being had but it’s not changing yet. We need to keep going and possibly start dismantling the systems. Instead of opening the door, how about we get rid of the doorway.

I interviewed Hanelle Harris a while ago and she said early on her career, she was offered projects that would have been great for her, personally, but would have been damaging to the community she was trying so hard to represent in a fair manner. Did you feel early on in your career that there were opportunities that would have been good for you but would have fallen into a stereotypical portrayal?
Firstly, I love Hanelle and she’s a friend and an inspiration, quite frankly. She’s a generation younger than me and I still learn so much from how she operates. She’s such a bright star. But I feel like the weight of representation on her shoulders is so heavy because she’s one of the most impressive Māori/Lebanese storytellers, who’s just burst out and made it her own. And I guess that’s just want she’s had to do her whole career. It breaks my heart that the opportunities are coming to her but they’re not the opportunity she’s capable of.

For instance, we talk about the action and sci-fi genre space. People still go to the movies to watch this genre and Hanelle loves these movies, but they come at such a price point, that again, it’s not typical for someone like her to be making these huge genre epics. It’s just another example of subjugation: ‘we want to support you… but not too much. Don’t get too over your head. Know your place.’ If you trusted her, imagine what she’d be capable of. It really saddens me, we need to go all the way. I’m climbing a mountain and I get it, I don’t expect anyone to helicopter me to the top because I’m a woman of colour, I know I have to earn my stripes, I know I have to prove my worth. But I feel like even when you’re proving your worth, people will still dangle things in front of you where you know ‘I’m worth more than that, I’m going for something else here,’ and they’ll go, ‘oh, really? You want to go for that?’

Personally I’ve had the privilege of being able to say no to things. I’m not a huge motivational speaker person, but Tony Robbins – a contentious guy – has this saying ‘You get what you tolerate’. I get that you have to earn money to put food on the table for your family. But being able to say no to projects has been one of the most freeing and creatively fulfilling things that I’ve learned. And I get that that’s a privilege, and I accept that. But maybe, privilege comes with a responsibility. Like a superpower. If I have the privilege to say no to something, then I better say yes to something that means something.

Roseanne Liang voices Hui in Tales of Nai Nai season two, coming to TVNZ HeiHei on July 12th

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