When I first met my tai chi teacher in Denver we went to lunch together in the Vietnamese slum on Federal Blvd—not that far from my old high school. His studio was very eccentric and was part of a warehouse where the freight train ran right behind the building—literally 15-20 feet away. And when the train would pass, we could not hear our conversations and the walls would rattle.
Most of his students were afraid of him, not because he was threatening, on the contrary, he’s very down to earth. They respected him as “master” and unless he extends himself, they never got personal with him. So it was funny that when I asked him where a good place to eat Chinese was, he invited me out for dim sum.
He’s a great storyteller. During class, he loved to intersperse the lessons with funny anecdotes. My teacher is part street fighter, part businessman, part Mencius, and deep down inside, still like a high school kid—young in spirit. Like most masters, martial arts came to him by necessity—from growing up in a violent environment. Kids used to try to beat him up all the time ‘cause he’s Chinese, but they never won. His father was head of the Chinese mafia.
One of the stories he told me about was his wife and how they met. He told me he had lots of girlfriends in his youth and was never faithful, but when he met his future wife, he stopped dating other girls. They have been married now for over 30 years.
I asked him what the secret was and what it was about her that made him quit dating. He thought about it and with an exasperated sigh as if he was revisiting the moment, said, “I don’t know, she put me at peace. She made me calm.”
He said all the girls he dated before made him restless and worried or insecure. But when he met his wife, who was a cheerleader at the time, she made him feel secure and nobody else did that for him.
I made a mental note to never forget that story. To me, they are a living model of something so rare.
After about two years studying with him, I did something that most of his students would never do—which is to part from their teacher. Some of his students studied with him for 30 years. It would take a major crisis to pry them away. Denver was a temporary parking ground for me. And while there, I was rebuilding my life after living long and stressful—although epic—years in New York. But I knew I had to go to LA, to fulfill some unknown journey.
I moved to LA without any contacts and started a chapter in my life anew. I often passed by an empty lot in my neighborhood that was half a block long and fenced in. There was a construction sign that said, “Coming soon, the G building” followed by, “Building your Vision into Reality.”
I wore a gold ring with diamonds with the letter “G.” I used the construction site as a way to track my progress, to keep me on track. I told myself that by the time the G building is finished I should have finished creating something for myself—I should have built my name.
Over the years, I watched the dirt being unearthed by tractors. A homeless guy that used to sleep like an emaciated dead Jesus under the lone Bodhi tree got kicked out. The surviving tree stood for a good six months and later inconspicuously vanished.
I watched crows feed off the worms pulled up from the fertile soil. I took pictures, documenting the transformation of the lot and by the second year, symmetrical square holes were cut into the earth that signified foundation and progress.
The G building started to form a skeleton while I filmed NUNE.
During each stage of making NUNE, I watched the landscape change alongside the changes I was going through. And I vowed that the process of finishing the film had to coincide with the completion of the building—and that I would be damned for life if the building got done before I did!
Production was hard. It was probably the hardest thing I’ve ever done. To go from being an avant-garde artist to a full production team was a heavy undertaking. The only way that I achieved it was to give it everything I got.
My tai chi teacher used to not teach the most proficient martial artists that would come to him. The reason he wouldn’t is because as he said, “Their cup was too full.” The same is true with gaining any great knowledge in life. To receive it, you have to approach it with the openness and emptiness of an amateur.
Perhaps the emptiness, but not the attitude. Despite entering areas where I lacked experience, my attitude and expectations were professional. And because of this, I weeded out all the amateurs: the people who did things inefficiently, ass-backwards and would cost me time and money.
The film went on for too long. It should have been completed in three months but ended up taking at least six. And each day cost more money. I learned in three months what a producer learns in 30 years—baffled by how every stereotypical thing that can happen in a Hollywood film (or what you read about) has happened to me—except for the worst (which I fear to mention; and I am glad that did not happen).
I was a producer by necessity. It was never a choice. If you look at the film credits, there is no producer credit.
The best financiers know something that a lot of filmmakers overlook: producing is not a title. It’s a job. And if someone takes on that credit but isn’t doing that job—he is not a producer. I was doing that job but I will not accept credit for it. Subconsciously, I left that slot opened as a promise to myself: that I have a void in my life and that void needs to be filled. If I put myself as producer, I would be qualifying my role as director-producer. I had learned something very sacred during this production: about why it’s a bad idea for a director to do both. So I accepted an “executive producer” credit instead; which simply means I financed the whole thing myself.
For six months, I went MIA. It was one of those classic experiences where you put your life on hold to make a movie. Some people do it with their eyes closed because they get paid to do that. But when you’re indie, you don’t have the luxury of having someone else take care of your laundry. I have learned in making NUNE that filmmaking is the hardest thing a person can do and the next hardest thing is doing laundry. You will understand that if you ever make a movie.
After I finished filming, I ran into people that I hadn’t seen in a long time. One friend said to me, “You seem so calm.”
I said, “Really? I’m really not.”
She said, “No really, you seem so calm, like you got something out of your system—you’re not frantic and looking for something anymore.”
This was an interesting observation. I didn’t believe her but I took note of it. And as time passed, I noticed the nervousness in people, and the times when I am nervous—when I’m in search of something. I find this nervousness very painful. It is like being a teenager still looking for sex, looking for love, looking for direction. I want to come to a place in my life where such pains of unknowing and instability are absolved because it hampers mastership.
During post-production, the exterior walls in the G Building were erected and the windows framed out. After post-production, the carcass of the G held a view of electricity lighting up fluorescents through large glass-less window frames—rendering the place habitable for squatters.
I’ve been thinking about my tai chi teacher and how finding his true love made him calm and how my friend told me that I appeared a lot calmer after I “found” (or made) NUNE. But I’m still not calm.
Last night, I dreamt long and hard and I don’t know what happened, but I woke up with a sense of inner peace. It was a kind of peace that lingered with a sweet contentment that made you feel sure of yourself, as if Life has you in its trusting hands, like you have no place to hurry to. I wished everyday could feel like this.
I woke up with a sense of knowingness with the maturity that you feel only after you’ve done something great and everyone believes in you—where they don’t question or doubt you. Then they and everyone who are behind you—believes in the “director’s vision.” And although it felt great to feel what that’s like, I still do not feel calm because I know that until the “Ji building” is established—I won’t have the foundation that makes me secure to do whatever I want.
Like my tai chi teacher and his wife, I too need something to center me. For me, it’s not a lover, a spouse or a romantic relationship that would do it. Although I feel that most successful people have some kind of “president’s wife” behind-the-scenes that grounds them, for me, it’s a wasteful pursuit that I can’t create. Strategic romantic-partnering is what people in the film business do all the time. I’ve never exploited my sexuality and I don’t plan to. I could never pretend to love somebody—or love them more because of their power or position.
What I CAN create are stories, ideas and things I want to make into a reality. But I what can’t create is someone to love.
I’ve been doing a lot of thinking about what makes me calm. I feel that if I gained complete clarity about that—then I would get it. What I want more than anything in the world is the right producer/director relationship. I need the right producer. More than the right DP, I need an executive producer that shares the same vision. Like Kubrick and Jan Harlan. When you have a trusting relationship like that, you can rule the world: not through power but through the confidence that true love exudes a sense of security and trust in a vision. That to me is unparalleled. Call me quirky, but finding my visionary twin is better than sex, better than having children, and is like finding your true religion.
Until I find that, it is just a miserable, unhealthy lifestyle of always wanting something more.