INTERVIEW: The Cast and Crew of Baby Don’t Cry (Fantasia 2021)
Having its world premiere at the 25th Fantasia International Film Festival, running from August 5 to August 25, is a distinct story about growing up as an Asian in the United States. It isn’t sunny. It doesn’t take place in a city of dreams and hopes. The only school here is the one of life. This is Baby, Don’t Cry.
Nguyen Le of JumpCut Online had the chance to dive deeper into Jesse Dvorak’s film’s creative process, cultural elements and the bonds inherent in many immigrant experiences with writer and lead star Zita Bai, co-star Vas Provatakis and producers Qiyu Zhou and Zeron Zhao.
Nguyen Le: Let’s start with how we got to find each other, sit down and say “let’s make Baby, Don’t Cry?”
Zita Bai: I finished the script when I was finishing my first feature film with [director Jesse Dvorak], and I really loved working with him. When I was, you know, thinking about why I wanted to direct this film, I forgot about him! Then I met [producer Qiyu Zhou] on an AFI film set and she was a director fellow there. And I was doing production design or acting – I don’t know exactly what I was doing on that film. But I was there! We just instantly connected. I feel like she’s my soul sister. And we just share, we share the same passion. People even tell us we look alike. So we’re just like, let’s just team up.
QZ: Same here. I strongly feel the story when I read it. Like, this story is crazy in a good way. I’ve never seen someone expressing herself so boldly; she can just put everything she has in her mind on the paper. That is very brave. Because many artists they select, and they feel those things before they type down. But I’ve seen Zita’s script, and I was, like, “This is incredible. And we should just make it. Regardless, I am a director, but I don’t mind producing it for you.” Because I develop it with her and also I just feel the passion and the guts in the script. I just want to do it. Yeah, and also we look alike.
NL: Okay, well, you are now officially sisters.
QZ: Many people saw that I acted in the film, for some reason. (laughs)
Vas Provatakis: I’m just a hired gun! I auditioned for it. And you know, I was lucky enough to get brought on. I can tell you from the very beginning, I felt very excited about the project. It felt very ambitious and unique. And I knew that there’s going to be no other film like this. You know, and those are the kinds of projects that really draw me in, as well as the people. It was like it was just a very awesome group of people as well, who were very generous and trusting of me. So it was a good time.
QZ: I feel like the feeling is mutual, and Vas for sure inspired us about rewriting the Fox character and crafting the Fox character.
VP: There’s a lot of open collaboration, which I liked. They allowed the freedom to tailor each other…
QZ: We found each other!
Zeron Zhao: A great thing about the film, this project, was just getting to start it. I felt like the script was great. And this film is, making it with all the challenges, this is a great opportunity for me to make this film. So I just jump in and want to finish this film, by any chance. We have the passion to finish.
ZB: I just want to mention one thing: Because we were having limited resources, Zeron pulled two all-nighters driving from L.A. to Seattle to make sure the equipment would get there on time. And when I was worried about the, you know, the financial part of the film, and he was, “Don’t worry about it, just act. And if anything happens, I’m not leaving you, we’re gonna get through this together.”
NL: That’s awesome. Community can be the best thing the budget will get you. Zita, I noticed that we start the film with a tag that says this story is true. As we know, it’s not a light story. How do you approach it, then?
ZB: Thank you so much for asking, I feel like the truth in the story is that it’s true to immigrants. Because I was born and raised in China, I moved here, didn’t speak a word of English. And I just felt like oftentimes, I was mistaken as an Asian American kid: I grew up here, I speak perfect English. But that wasn’t me. I was a foreigner. I’m an immigrant. I just felt like I wanted to make a story dedicated to immigrant kids like myself. And that’s so true.
In terms of a true story, I feel like there’s a difference between what’s real and what feels real, especially at the age of 16 or 17, at that tender age, and you couldn’t help but to manufacture truth in your head. Then you create your own reality that’s true to you, but not necessarily to everyone else.
NL: Thank you. Now, the title of the film really catches my eye at first. It’s reassuring before I watch the film and threatening afterward. I know that the main subject and the main POV of the film is Baby, but why did we decide on a title on something that Fox would say?
ZB: I guess Baby, Don’t Cry is, as a creator, what I want to say to young American kids, to young immigrant kids. You are Baby and, no matter what happens, be strong. “Don’t cry.” I think that’s how I came up with a title. It’s what I want to say to all immigrant kids out there, “Baby, don’t cry.”
ZZ: And we also have this Fox, which might be an unreal person protecting Baby, being around her. This is something that we want to express by this film, that you are not alone. You’re protected. For some kind of experience in your life, you are always happy to get around this world.
ZB: Yeah. And one thing is, you know, everything happens for a reason, in a season or a lifetime. Sometimes there’s just that one person in our life that serves as a vehicle to take us to the next spot. And even though we’re by ourselves now, but that person’s spirit, that person’s feelings are still with us. I just feel like in the end, that’s how Baby thought about Fox, the influence he had on her. He helped her to be stronger.
VP: Nguyen, I really like what you said about the title, Baby, Don’t Cry, could be endearing and comforting or aggressive and dictatorial. I feel like that duality is kind of shown throughout Baby’s story as well. It’s like she’s balancing this really tender love that she has in life with this really grim, volatile, lack of love. She’s in this constant battle of trying to let love prevail.
NL: And there’s duality in your performance of Fox as well. Now I want to ask you, Vas, on this. I get a clear picture of why Baby would need Fox. But then I can’t really pinpoint – not because it’s obscure, but because I have many theories and all of them seem to be valid – why Fox would need Baby?
VP: Awesome questions! So I feel like Fox, more than anything, is just kind of entranced by Baby because he’s never met anyone like her. You know, I think that he’s actually I don’t actually know if he’s met or even talked to, like an Asian person, because he’s in his own kind of world. And he’s just, you know, he doesn’t have much exposure to culture. Just meeting someone from a different culture looks different from him, is already kind of like, you know, profound enough.
And I think what’s even more than that is Baby is the first person who doesn’t talk to him or treat him like an aggressor. You know, she talks to him and treats him like a person. And that baffles him, he doesn’t know how to handle it, and naturally his response is aggression. But the more she meets him with love, the more that love, in a good way, wears him down. It wears down his toxicity and everything in it. By the end of the story, it makes him finally accept this sort of selflessness that he’s always wanting to give to someone, but never felt like he had the chance to. She really made him a better person in the end.
NL: That’s right, you really have to transform and all of that as well. And that also makes me think… Zita, is there any chance that the name that you pick, Fox, is a reference to huli jing?
ZB: Yes! Exactly. You know, we’re all Asians, we know like in ancient mythology, Chinese mythology, huli jing means like a foxy person that brings out this fiery sexual energy in you and rocks you in bed. (laughs) That’s a direct translation. But I think what’s precious and what’s important in Baby, Don’t Cry is we wanted to tell a genre story from a female perspective. We wanted to reverse the gender stereotypes. Why are women always being seen as huli jing? Like, why can’t a man serve as a huli jing in a woman’s life?
NL: So with that huli jing reference, it seems like for this distinct coming-of-age story the maturing process isn’t so much “boy becoming man,” or “girl becoming woman,” but “person becoming full-fledged animal.” And, obviously, we have a whole lot of animalistic references in the film, which can really make certain sequences, you know, really tense and twisted. On that note, however, did you all consider that the film’s content would create some challenges for audiences to absorb, to resonate with? Especially with the current attitudes towards Asians and Asian representation?
ZB: For sure, for sure. I think one thing, you know, I was very firm about was, I think there should be more different types of Asians on screen. Not just “model minorities,” not just this Asians doing so well going to Harvard or getting a doctor’s degree, or being a lawyer.
We want to see different types of Asians, especially for Asian women, you know? Asian women only serve as two parts in American cinema, either like a sex symbol, or a nerd (laughs). But Baby, she’s her own character, she has her needs, she is who she is, and she has the environment that serves her upbringing. I think that’s very different.
ZZ: We were trying to make this film an international film in the first place. This is, like, everything as immigrants we’ve experienced. And from all that experience, we all have our emotions and challenges to face in that time. We just told a story about ourselves. We really tried to take out some kind of material that might not fit into this international film, and try to make this film better.
QZ: These characters are real. And then we believe that, as long as these people are real, and emotions are real, we should be the filmmakers to speak for them, make the voice for them. I believe that as long as we are honest, we’re genuine about what we’re saying, and we have good intentions, the audience will get our intentions.
ZB: I want to, you know, thank my team for the courage they gave me and for the courage they have installed in Baby, Don’t Cry. We are not shying away from certain topics because we have to act like the “model minority.” We have to tell the truth, which is important.
NL: Right. That is true because it seems like even if we all have distinct experiences, but really the one thing that we all share is our capacity to be imperfect.
NL: Finally, anybody has interesting stories while filming to share?
VP: I don’t know if it’s interesting, but we’re shooting in the middle of October up until November in Seattle, so it was freezing. While most of us look like we are not freezing, I can promise you that we are.
QZ: [Zita and Vas] are really really great, so dedicated. Also, after seeing how the movie cut together, I feel that having the environment being super cold, but letting the character wearing less clothes will make people feel that, emotionally, they are more cold. They are colder inside.
QZ: Yeah! It helps with the feeling because the coldness does show on their face. And in their lines as well. It helps with the story. These two are supposed to be in a gloomy coldness, in a way.
ZZ: The two characters are warming each other by that little light they have in their life. That’s what we want to express to our audience about our film as well. We all are finding our light in our life.
ZB: Yeah, thank you so much, Zeron.
NL: Thank you all. I know it hasn’t been an easy year, but it should feel great to have something out there in the world. Congratulations again. Stay safe and be well!