On August 27th, I discovered a new project entitled Raising Dion. The project, in it’s infancy stages, currently includes a 22 page comic book, and a 2 and a 1/2 minute film trailer; Both from writer and director Dennis Liu, and both can be found on his website. After watching the trailer, and also reading the comic book, I knew that we as audience members were in the presence of progressive greatness. It was no surprise that when I researched more about Dennis I noticed he won a People’s Choice Award in the Canne’s New Directors Showcase, has been featured in the Guggenheim Museum, had directed music videos for award winning artists, and even made videos for huge companies like Google, Starbucks, and Pepsi. However, what struck me the most was his commitment to two things: powerful storytelling and diversity. In this interview, director Liu’s answers are reflective of his passion for storytelling and diversity, as each answer is often a rich story in itself. I hope that you enjoy this interview and take the time to read the book, watch the trailer, and support the campaign for this powerful and inspiring project that ushers in a new kind of superhero for the modern era. Check out the video right here:
Your bio says that your breakout piece was the Apple Mac Music Video. What was the inspiration behind the piece?
For Apple Mac Music Video, I was in my office as an assistant at an ad agency doing menial work, and just found myself jamming on my computer to make it more exciting. I was working on a spread sheet or something really boring, and the icons kept lighting up to the beat as I mashed buttons. Then I was like, wait a minute – no one’s done a music video entirely on a laptop before! Boom. I’m always trying to do something different. That sounds trite, but it’s true. I want to push the craft of film and see things I haven’t seen before.
From the Apple Mac Music Video, the YouTube Mosaic Music Video, to PLURALITY on Deadline.com. Online seems to be your springboard platform. What can we expect to see from you next in the online realm?
I like that when making videos online, the feedback is fast and immediate. I direct a lot of music videos, which seem to get most play online too. My next feature project I’m currently planning is completely about the online community. There’s fresh stories on the internet because the technology is so new.
You have some very impressive achievements while you were still young, and continue to do so. What do you feel is your foundation for continuing to persevere?
I’m hardly successful to other filmmakers my age. Destin Cretton is an amazing filmmaker I admire for his writing, storytelling and human performances. Jon Watts was a legend when I was at NYU as a freshman, and he continues trailblazing his own path. Dan Schimpf, Alexandra Roxo – there are so many filmmakers I admire that are so young and successful. I can’t speak for them, but I can imagine it’s because of their love of filmmaking, which makes them fired up. For me, I’ve been doing this since high school and I honestly don’t know what else I would do!! It’s far too late to turn back now!!
Your project RAISING DION has been going viral all over the web. I think it’s pretty obvious by the response that people want to see it come to fruition in the form of a film. Was this your intent?
I have to be honest, my intent for this particular project was to please myself. I have done project in the past for the wrong reasons, and I really wanted to write this one on my own.
I don’t think you can just plan to go viral, if that’s even what’s happening to us now, then great. I just thought it was really interesting that no one has done a superhero idea from the mother’s perspective. To me, that’s a new, fresh idea that pushes the craft. I also really wanted early on, to do a story with a minority protagonist, and a strong female lead. Then the rest of the story came naturally. It’s not going to be a perfect ride, but I’m going to subvert traditional stereotypes as much as i can.
We are all familiar with the ancillary characters in the lives of our iconic and well known superheroes. However, not many have seen more exploration into their lives. From where did the inspiration come to make the mother the superhero in this project?
I think about parenting a lot. I think about how much my parents sacrificed to immigrate from Taiwan for their kids to live in the states. That’s really gutsy. They did a great job raising me, and I think I’m lucky to do what I love because of their sacrifices. Because when you have kids, you really have to sacrifice yourself if you want them to do well. I don’t have any kids of my own, but believe me – I’ve seen it. I have 5 nieces and nephews and I’ve seen all of my siblings sacrifice themselves in various ways for the well being of their kids.
I also wonder about nature vs. nurture. Are you born a certain way? Or do your surroundings, income, and circumstances change you? How much does parenting even really matter? I wonder if I’d be a good parent. Would I be able to take care of my kid? Make sure they’re a good person? Would I be able to make sure they don’t shoot up a school? Is that fate even in my control? Would I be able to raise a kid like Dion? And guide him the right way? Let me be clear – there is a cute kid in this story, because kids are cute. But this is not the kid’s story. This is the mom’s.
I noticed that the comic has the mother speaking a little Spanish, but the film has an African American mother. Was this on purpose to show universality?
I like the idea that Nicole knows some basic Spanish, sure. She’s a smart girl. She lives in NYC. It’s a little play on Dion’s name, so I thought it was cute.
Are you a comic book aficionado? If so, how did your love of comics begin?
I collected some comics when I was growing up, but I didn’t take them as seriously as I do now. I love comic book films. They’re fun, and I always wanted to try one. I will say after my first issue of RAISING DION, I’m completely hooked. It was the most fun thing I did all year. You can really imagine whatever you want! You do not have to think about the logic of where the camera goes, how much things are going to cost, and how many hours you get to film due to the sunset. You don’t have to think about pleasing anyone but yourself. You’re just making your stuff. I just read SEX CRIMINALS and was absolutely blown away. I’m digging where comics are headed.
RAISING DION connects with people on multiple levels. Why do you think this story in particular has hit such a nerve with people?
I think minorities have wanted for some time to be represented more in superhero stories. I thought about it, and I realized it was never going to happen unless content creators created new characters and universes themselves. I would love that you could just make Batman Chinese or African American and call it a day and no one notices – but we’re not there yet. Far from it. And there’s an argument to be made that, that shouldn’t happen anyways, because that’s not true to their character. But I hope people see the relationship between Nicole and Dion as really special and sacred.
I noticed while reading RAISING DION and watching some of your other work, that you have an incredible ability to really take the viewer/reader through a connected journey of relatable private moments. Is this the crux of your work?
I never thought about it that way! I like the old saying that artists are never really self-aware of their tendencies!! I have noticed that I really enjoy UI design in some of my work. My Apple Mac Video was User interface, and you can see it in the glass touch screens in Plurality, and the security cameras that Nicole uses in Raising Dion.
I hope that a main crux in my work is that it feels unique and different. Fresh. I want my audiences to come to a Dennis Liu piece and be excited they’ll be seeing something they haven’t quite seen before. Even if it’s a small thing. For Plurality, it was being the first film to feature the Freedom Tower in a short film before it was even built. That was a visual I wanted to see in a story before anyone else. And it became such a symbol to that film’s theme — the idea of increased safety by giving up your privacy.
Do you have other projects that are comics and film pieces?
Hmm. It’s kind of crazy, but I’ve worked on Dion so long in the scripting phase, that I think I have quite a bit of it mapped out already. So yeah, I have a ton of Dion ideas.
I really try to vary it up as much as I can though; so I doubt my next piece will be a superhero related project. I look up to Ang Lee a lot; the guy is so versatile. Think about it. Pushing Hands. That’s an Asian American story. Crouching Tiger. That’s back to Asia. Sense & Sensibility. Female protag, period piece. Ride w/ the Devil. A western. Ice Storm. Family Drama. Brokeback Mountain. The Hulk. Comic book movie. Life of Pi – a huge VFX movie in the water with animals! I wish I had that versatility.
I see that much of your work is diverse. Is this your influence?
I’m a huge advocate of diversity. It’s a mandate in my work when I’m not forced to cast a certain way (yes, this happens in a passive way). I’ve faced so much racism in my life I don’t ever want anyone else to have those experiences. Kids threw rocks at me when I would walk home from school, and they really hurt. I grew up in a very Anglo Saxton Connecticut town. Diversity is just the right thing to do.
Speaking of diversity, I see that you’re involved with the EDSC (Eastern Diversity Steering Community). How did you get involved with them?
There’s not many DGA directors that self-identify as a director of color or as a woman on the eastern seaboard. I found about the EDSC through a DGA newsletter, and after one meeting, I loved everything they were about. It’s a solid, tiny community and we talk about real ways to fix the problems of diversity in the media, starting with the director’s chair. There are several women directors and ADs there who I deeply respect on the council, and probably influenced me into creating strong female characters. My wife, Marie, influences me too. She’s really strong to put up with my dreams.
Who is on the committee and on what kind of projects is the committee working?
They committee is composed of all dedicated and fantastic DGA members who self identify as a minority or a woman and want to make a difference. We’re all really actively trying to do something. It’s not just a bitch session, “oh man, it sucks, no one hires minorities and women to direct” and we go home and cry about it. There are training and networking events.
But I think the main issue is there’s a lack of mentors for minorities and women. So, two years ago, I personally decided that if no one was going to seriously mentor me, then I was just going to do what I could on my own and take control of my own destiny.
What do you feel your biggest contribution to the EDSC has been?
It’s probably this project. Ironically, Raising Dion has nothing to do with EDSC. It’s not like EDSC funded this. I dumped all my own money into this project. But EDSC has been critical for me to this moment to the point where I know exactly what I want to talk about.
How do you see diversity in entertainment changing?
It’s getting much better, but there’s a long way to go.
What is your ideal job as a director?
I’d love to tell stories I want to tell. I want to be able to fail and not get penalized to director jail for the rest of my life, because there’s no other job I would rather do. I love making movies and want to do it for the rest of my life.
How do you measure success?
Success is happiness. However you can get it. For me, it’s filmmaking and family. For Nicole, it’s drawing, and Dion. They will have tough times together, but it is Dion. I hope whoever’s reading this finds whatever makes them happy in their lives.
Great words to live by. Thank you, Dennis!
I’m looking forward to seeing Dennis usher in of a new kind of superhero for our modern era, and am looking forward to be the development of Raising Dion. I hope that everyone supports this project in a big way!