Eddie Huang is a writer, director and restaurateur. His memoir, Fresh Off the Boat, was adapted into an ABC sitcom of the same name. His new film, Boogie, about a high school basketball prodigy with NBA aspirations, marks his directorial debut. It hits theaters on March 5. For A.frame, Eddie shares how he’s writing—and now directing—the stories he wishes he could have seen when he was 17.
As a kid in Orlando, Florida, I felt that I was living this life I saw no representation of—and not just Asian representation. Most of the kids I knew hung out at record shops or skated and did things that really cut the cord with their past or their family. They were like, “I’m completely buying into American youth culture.” I was different because I’d still listen to my parents [both Taiwanese immigrants] and I’d still practice a lot of the traditional Chinese culture. But I also embraced all the derelict American youth shit: skipping school, smoking Newports, taking acid and going on a roller coaster—I did all of it.
I felt like there was room for a story where you could do these things, but it didn’t have to end like Kids, the Larry Clark film. I felt like, with youth culture, either you were all the way or nothing. The older I got, the more I realized that the truth was a lot more in the middle. A seminal film for me was Good Will Hunting. It changed my life because my home had a lot of extraordinary violence. My parents fought a lot. My mom drove the car—with us in it—into the garage at one point to scare my dad. She threw boiling water at him. My dad hit my mom in terrible ways. We got hit. It was just very difficult.
Our other family members knew what was going on in my house and they would check on us, but nobody did anything to stop it. Nobody really intervened. They just let us live through it. Police would come to our house, and my brothers and I would get checked for marks at school. I would lie to everyone that it wasn’t going on. When I watched Good Will Hunting—I was 17 at my aunt’s house—I realized that I wasn’t alone, that even these two white guys in Boston I had nothing else in common with perhaps went through the same thing and were telling stories about this. I realized, “Wow, not only can you tell people, but you can make a movie about it.”
Related: 6 Six Transformative Coming-of-Age Films (by Eddie Huang)
From that moment, I just wanted to tell a story so that another kid could feel less alien. That’s why Boogie is structured as a coming-of-age basketball film. Bring your whole basketball team. Bring the kids to watch it. In a lot of ways, I sacrificed my own art to appeal to a broader audience because I feel like the messages in this film are really important.
I think that has been a feature of my career and work: I sit around and I watch Cassavetes and Antonioni films. I even turned in a director’s cut that was very moody and slower. (There were several scenes that I shot just as oners and I refused to shoot coverage; the studio ended up making their own coverage by zooming in.) While those are the types of films I really enjoy, films about nothing that make you sit in the pockets of people’s emotions, my work seems to intersect with mainstream issues going on in the world. In some ways, I feel like the art is sacrificed for a more noble pursuit, which is to reach more people and to change hearts and minds. I’m more than happy to do that.
It’s just something that I think is necessary as a person speaking from the margins.
Finding my voice
As Asian-American storytellers, we’re in a cultural ice age. We’re just beginning to express ourselves in this country. I think there is room for everybody. Everybody should be talking and making things.
As for my influences, number one was Good Will Hunting. Then, there are the Taiwanese New Wave films like Rebels of the Neon God and A Brighter Summer Day and Yi Yi. When I look at those films, I have more in common with those. Asian-Americans, we’ve had to tell kind of Frankenstein stories here. When I watch some of the Asian-American stuff, it's like we’re still feeling out our bodies in this country. There’s the voice of dominant culture so strongly in the background.
I hope that Boogie is a step towards being like, “Look, I’m in my skin and I’m not afraid to talk about all the things that I feel.”
I really tackled the most embarrassing, difficult, intimate things.
When I was growing up in Orlando, I was getting picked on and I was fighting all the time. Wherever I went, I had one, maybe two friends and we just played basketball during lunch. I was really alone. I think that hitting rock bottom in my teens made me realize I had to love myself because nobody else was going to. I found my voice, and I found a lot of truth in it, just by being alone and not having anybody bail me out.
I found strength in being alone. I read a lot and watched a lot of movies because the people that I related to were the ones making movies or writing books, the feelings they talked about. It gave me the confidence that maybe that was the way I was going to connect and find community in this world.
I read something in a Mark Twain autobiography a long time ago. He said something like, “Every character I write is somebody I met. It’s based on somebody I know.” Everything I do, whether it’s making this sandwich or making this film, is something I know. It’s something I’ve tasted. It’s something I’ve felt. And I really stick to that. I try not to write about things that I didn’t feel. That’s my only guide, is my experience and my emotions. That is the sauce that binds it all. It seems to have kept the dish together so far.
Why "The Catcher in the Rye" is not for everyone
I always said that, for my first film, I wanted to do a coming-of-age story. [In Boogie, the students read one of the most famous coming-of-age stories, The Catcher in the Rye, in an English class.] That scene from the movie is a scene that played out in my life. I really didn’t like that book, but I really did like Mr. Antolini’s character. I just felt that the kids in school that liked Catcher in the Rye had a level of privilege that kind of blinded them to a lot of things. It was very hard to read that book and relate to it because their complaints were so much further up Maslow’s hierarchy of needs than mine. While I have complaints that are much further up the pyramid than, say, people I know in Taiwan or China or Jamaica, I do feel like I have an awareness of that.
I have, throughout my life, checked my privilege, whatever privilege I do have. My dad made it a point to bring me back to Taiwan and be like, “This is where I grew up. This is a lot harder. And there are places that are worse than this.” It was very difficult to appreciate Catcher in the Rye and listen to other kids talk about it when they didn’t have any perspective about the rest of the world. I think Holden’s feelings are valid [in the book]. That’s how he feels. But you would like to see more awareness.
I really liked Sally Rooney’s Normal People. I relate a lot more to that story and those issues because, even though [the Marianne] character in that story comes from money, the love interest doesn’t. There’s a balance, and then you start to see intimacy in that way. I also remember My So-Called Life; that was a seminal show for me because there’s balance. You see different perspectives. Catcher in the Rye really feels like a work of white fragility at times.
Fresh Off the Boat and Boogie are my contributions to the coming-of-age genre in American culture. At the middle school near Baohaus [Eddie’s East Village bao shop], they would assign Fresh Off the Boat and the kids would read it and then come hang out at the shop and talk to me. There’s 12, 13-year-old kids that are like, “This is crazy. And then you can own a restaurant when you grow up?” That’s always my favorite thing.
I’m not as big on what the critics think and where they place it. I like the kids. I make this stuff for that audience because that was when I was the most impressionable. That was when I really needed a film like this.
Now, I’m in the DGA so I get every screener. And I’m like, “Dude, who cares what 39-year-old Eddie thinks? I want to make a film for 17-year-old Eddie.” There are built-in stakes at a young age. Everything is so important. I mean, that’s what drives high school musicals, that’s what drives a series like Cobra Kai. You can remember how important these little, minute moments were because you’re experiencing life for the first time. Everything’s loaded. Everything’s super charged. You don’t need guns, you don’t need drugs. It’s already fucked up.
In Raising Victor Vargas, seeing them experience first love, like, “Yo, she’s my girlfriend now. She’s my girlfriend.” I remember the emotions on the kids’ faces. Those are beautiful moments. That’s what I love about coming of age. And then the sadness, too, and the meditativeness. You had so much more time to be sad and lonely as a kid. Those moments stay with you.
As an adult, there’s a start and end to it. “I feel this way, but work starts at 9:30 so I’m no longer sad. And, wait, it’s 5:00 and I get to be sad again.” You’re interrupted, but in your teen years and in coming-of-age films, you just get to sit in those feelings and it’s quite powerful.
Up next: How to build a coming-of-age film for girls
Extra: The “Boogie” Playlist
Eddie Huang’s writing process starts off like this: “I wake up in the morning. I have my coffee. I go to write and I turn on a song. I will always pick one song that captures the emotion of what I want to write about. I will mentally put myself in that space because I don’t write with outlines; I follow emotion.”
These are some of the songs that Eddie Huang listened to while writing Boogie:
Wintertime Zi, “Thru It All”
Lana Del Rey, “Million Dollar Man”
Lana Del Rey, “Pretty When You Cry”
Cam’ron, “Killa Kam”
Sun Ra, “Enlightenment”
Sun Ra, “Hour of Parting”
Raekwon, “Incarcerated Scarfaces”
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