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. Below, Eddie shares how he came to cast the lead in Boogie and offers up six coming-of-age movies that inspired him.
For me, it was always writing. Sitting down alone and writing was my thing. I felt like that got me closer to my truth. But after directing a film, I like working with actors. It’s group therapy. I really love watching them work their things out.
Taylor Takahashi plays Boogie. He was my teammate in rec league basketball, and then he started to work with me as my assistant. Ever since I met him, I just had a feeling. The pool for Asian-American male actors is very shallow. It has nothing to do with the skill level of the community, but just that not many people are encouraged to do it.
This role was very demanding because not only are you an actor, but you’re asked to be a basketball player. And I am so picky about basketball or boxing films; it needs to be real. Taylor was the all-time leading scorer at Alameda High School. He grew up in Oakland. I just said to myself, “It’s going to be hard to find another kid like this.” Even though he’s never acted and had no desire to act, I just knew I could pull the performance out of him.
He got thrown on tape in the middle of pre-pro. I sprung it on him one day. I was like, “You’ve got three hours and I’m going to put you on tape.” He’d been involved the whole time with the development of the script, watching other people audition. He’d been helping the other actors with their basketball skills. I just said, “All right. You got to see this on the production side. Now, it’s time to go be in front of the camera.”
Chang Chen—you’ll know him from Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon—his first film was A Brighter Summer Day. Edward Yang cast him because he saw this kid walking around set and was like, “That’s the kid.” He learned to act from that film. That really inspired me because, if that’s my favorite film and that kid did so well, why not Taylor? We also went back and studied Chloë Sevigny in Kids together. And I showed him Kevin Smith’s Mallrats. I was like, “This film’s got terrible sound, really strange acting choices, the sets look crazy—but it is one of my favorite films. There’s not one way to do this film thing. There’s not one way to do this acting thing. Just do it. Just have fun.” And he was so inspired.
That was the moment for him.
I know Scorsese picked it [to be restored] for his World Cinema Project. This is the greatest film to come out of Taiwan from the Taiwanese New Wave era. It is the epic Taiwanese story. It follows the migration of Chinese refugees, people who lost the Civil War, to Taiwan. They showed up in Taiwan with nothing, and a lot of these kids became members of street gangs. Taiwan was under martial law for 40 years. This story is about those kids and the youth culture and how they grew up under martial law in these street gangs. My dad was one of those kids, so this one’s very, very special to me.
In America, you always have hope. It’s a privilege to have hope. When you watch A Brighter Summer Day, it’s utterly sad and shocking how little hope other people have in their countries, unless you’re in the wealthy class or you get lucky. My mom tested into a school and my dad’s brother ended up building a bridge in America. I mean, you’ve got to get lucky to get out. If you’re there, it’s like you’re trapped in purgatory. But then, you also start to see, if you’re not stretching and you’re not yearning and you’re not trying, Taiwan’s beautiful—life can be beautiful there, but it’s tough for the ones that want more.
It’s just an amazing film that got me to feel like you could talk about violence in the home, and also friendship. Robin Williams’ character has that quote in the movie. He says something like, “You know why he’s friends with these kids? Because any one of them would take a bat to your head if he said to.” I had friends like that in high school. I really hung on to that and it meant a lot. There’s a lot of brotherhood in that film. And there’s actually a very sweet, amazing male intimacy.
This is my favorite New York coming-of-age film. It’s tough. The stakes are high. It really portrayed violence in a way that felt visceral and real. It’s a Puerto Rican story in Queens but I really related to it. A lot of those scenes were things that happened with my family or friends of mine. All of those things, I’d seen. That movie made me feel even less crazy.
It came out when I was like 22. That’s when I had outgrown what was going on in Good Will Hunting. My life had gone off the tracks a little bit. It’s like a higher stakes [situation] … Shia LaBeouf’s character is in a bit more of a crucible than Will Hunting was in.
When I was younger, I would read, I would look at art, and I would watch films because I was looking for human connection. I really don’t watch for escapism. For escapism, I watch a Knicks game. I remember reading A Midsummer Night’s Dream as a kid, and Shakespeare’s talking about people who went to the theater to slumber and fall asleep and drool. There’s a big argument in [the play] that you need to stay awake. You need to engage with the art. That’s what drew me to [film]. It was never escapism for me.
This one is just so sweet and I think captures all of the emotions of first love. The most interesting thing about Victor Vargas is that it begins as a very toxic young male’s approach to love and sex. He’s using women as objects. And then, he comes around and is taught something about love by the girl and also by his grandmother and his sister. I know a lot of kids like Victor Vargas: “Oh, I’m a player. I’m a sucio.” And then they meet a girl and it totally changes them and it’s like, “Yo, Mr. Sucio is gone.” I actually saw this film after [I made] Boogie. But when I watched it, I found so many parallels.
I love Harry Potter as an entire coming-of-age series. I feel like it’s such a good guide for young people about right and wrong. He could be in Gryffindor or he could be in Slytherin, but it’s about choice. I think that’s the most interesting lesson in Harry Potter—that you have choice and you are an actor in this play.
But I chose this one because it’s when Alfonso Cuarón directed. He totally changed the tone and feel of that entire series. As a director, you watch it and you’re like, “Man, I would love to do that for a story as powerful as Harry Potter.” Even if Cuarón never touched it, we’d still watch it. It’s just a powerful franchise, it’s generation-defining. But to see him come to this and raise it to the level it deserved to be at … From that point on, they just used his sauce and it’s a Cuarón series.
What Cuarón did with Harry Potter and what Nolan did with Batman are very inspirational to me because more people watch Nolan’s Batman than are going to watch Memento. More people watch Harry Potter than Roma or Y tu mamá también. But it’s really important as a director to remember this is the stage where I’m going to introduce people to cinema. I think two of the greatest achievements in the last 20 years is their work on those franchises.
The Wood is one of the first films I went on a date to. It was incredible. It’s really feel-good. In a normcore way with less stakes, it is just about love and intimacy and male bonding. It really helped me and my friends not feel like we needed to be so fucking hard all the time. It’s just an amazing film. It’s also one of the first coming-of-age films I saw that brought you into the Black community. It was a different side of the Black community than Boyz n the Hood or Menace II Society. I loved those films, but I chose The Wood because it changed the narrative. There’s still the gangster Stacey in the movie, and they interact with gangbangers, but they also portrayed the gangbangers as humans, as funny and approachable. Those are like the gangsters I’ve met. The truth is really in between the lines. I thought that film was quite magical. I love it.