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Writer-Director Alan Yang On 'Tigertail,' A Movie Different From His TV Comedies


Alan Yang has helped create some of the most popular and critically acclaimed shows on TV, like "Parks And Recreation" and "Master Of None." Now he's made his first feature film, and it's very different from those TV comedies. This movie is about immigration, family and lost love. It's called "Tigertail," and it's out now on Netflix.

Alan Yang, welcome to ALL THINGS CONSIDERED.

ALAN YANG: Thank you so much for having me.

SHAPIRO: This is a strange way to begin the interview, but I kind of have to acknowledge that a lot of people are talking about a show on Netflix right now called "Tiger King." Your movie is called "Tigertail." It has nothing to do with big cats. It's totally unrelated. If people looking for one stumble onto the other, they will probably get very confused.

YANG: Yes. I think they could not be more diametrically opposed, although that show is really popular, so I've been telling people it's an unofficial sequel. I'm telling them that Joe Exotic shows up in minute 45 of this Asian American drama (laughter).

SHAPIRO: So this story, "Tigertail," spans decades. It begins with a child in Taiwan who grows up to become an old man in the United States. And how much of it is your own family history?

YANG: It is loosely inspired by my family and my dad's story in particular. I wanted to convey the sacrifice that my parents made and the sort of depth and scope of their story without totally revealing all of their lives. So they haven't even seen it yet. But I just sent them a link to the movie seconds ago because we were going to do a screening at Netflix, but obviously, everything got shut down because of the coronavirus. Yeah. Hopefully they see it that way, and they don't harp on all the things that are negative (laughter).

SHAPIRO: So did getting serious about writing this movie require going to your parents as part of your research and saying, what did this apartment look like? What was this experience? What did it feel like?

YANG: It did. And I wanted to sort of thread this needle where I got enough information out of them so that I could start painting a picture in my head. But I also didn't want it to be an exact duplication. I've said that the movie is kind of my dream of my father's dream of his past. And it's - it should be through that lens. I'm not going to pretend that I'm a Taiwanese person who was born in the '40s or '50s. I don't know that world.

So I was completely out of touch with my heritage. I grew up in a part of the country without a lot of other Asian Americans, and so I wanted to fit in. And that meant bringing a sandwich to school and not fried rice or something that smelled funny. So a lot of my life, I was, you know, kind of running away from that aspect of myself. And over time, I've become more comfortable with my heritage, and I've become more curious.

SHAPIRO: Can you tell me about one of the specific conversations you had with your parents where they told you a story that you needed for research into the movie but that also told you something about where you came from?

YANG: Absolutely. I mean, the period in the Bronx was one of those that did - this didn't make it into the movie, but they told me that when they moved there, they had no friends. And they finally had one set of friends, a couple - another Asian American couple who lived not too far away. The couple came over, and they drove their car. And they had dinner at my parents' little apartment. And then when they left, the tires and wheels on the car had been stolen. And so that couple never came over for dinner again.


YANG: And to me, that was just an example of how lonely it could be and how isolated it could be. You know, when my dad was at work, my mom was at home. And she was probably cooking, cleaning and doing the laundry. And so that kind of sparked a lot of ideas of where that sense and character would go.

SHAPIRO: There's a poignant moment where the character based on your mother is at the laundromat and admits that she takes small loads of laundry just so she can have an opportunity to see and interact with other people.

YANG: Yeah, and that's kind of the detail that you can't make up, you know? That stuff is real (laughter).

SHAPIRO: So that's something that your mother actually did.

YANG: That's based on a friend's mother, so - who is also an immigrant. So - that - I'm trying to marshal a lot of stories here, and that's the kind of granular detail that I feel like it'd be very hard to contrive.

SHAPIRO: So many of the characters in the movie feel a sense of isolation. You know, they're in cities or countries or marriages where they feel totally alone. And I'm just thinking this is a moment when people are told to isolate themselves as much as possible, separated from the people they love, from their friends, from their social circles. And I wonder if you think that aspect of the movie is going to resonate a little bit more right now.

YANG: I hope so. And the movie also has a message in it that it's never too late to connect. Even if you've spent your whole life emotionally isolated, as some of the characters in this movie do, it's never too late to tell the people you love you care about them. And so I hope people get that in the movie.

SHAPIRO: Alan Yang, congratulations on your debut feature film.

YANG: Thank you so much.

SHAPIRO: The movie's called "Tigertail," and it's out now on Netflix. And as a postscript, we recorded this interview a few days ago. Alan's parents watched the movie, and we asked him to send us a voice memo describing their reaction.

YANG: They've seen the movie now, and they texted me their reactions. First, my mom says, we just finished watching "Tigertail." We liked it very much. You have done a great job. I am so proud of you. Congratulations. And my dad texted as well. He said, I've watched it three times so far. I'm speechless. I think by the time it comes out, I will have seen it 10 times. I love it. I noticed that you remembered a lot in our life, all in details. That's amazing. Thank you for trying to understand me.

SHAPIRO: Alan Yang with his parents' reaction to his debut film "Tigertail." Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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