Making filmmaking fun

Harrison Xu and Ivan Leung on Extremely Unique Dynamic

by Jennie Kermode

Ivan Leung and Harrison Xu in Extremely Unique Dynamic
Ivan Leung and Harrison Xu in Extremely Unique Dynamic

Getting you first feature as co-writers/co-directors into a major film festival is quite an achievement. Harrison Xu and Ivan Leung could barely contain their excitement about Extremely Unique Dynamic screening as part of the Inside Out Toronto 2024 line-up when I met them to discuss it. Ivan had never been to Canada, so had that to look forward to as well, plus they were still buzzing from Sonoma and looking forward to being able to announce another high profile screening. it was a big moment – and on top of that, Ivan had another new experience to embrace.

“This is my first time going to festivals,” he explains. “I've always worked in the studio system. I do a lot of commercial TV and film, but I've never gotten to explore the festival system. And if I knew how fun it was before, I would have loved to join a lot earlier.”

Making a plan
Making a plan

I tell him that when I first heard about the film I hesitated to watch it, because I’m sent endless films about people making films and they’re almost always the same. This, however, is more of a film about a film about people making a film.

“Yeah, yeah, yeah,” Ivan says.

“It's super meta,” says Harrison. “And it’s based off of heightened versions of ourselves as people. We had a lot of fun making it.”

It’s also a film about friendship. How much is that their own friendship, adapted into a fictional story, and how much was invented for the film?

“There's actually a lot of truths to our film,” says Ivan. “We've been friends for the past ten years. We actually met at acting class. It was actually my first acting class, and Harrison was already in it. I just remember going there, and I saw him, and I was like, ‘Oh my gosh, I recognise you! You’re on TV. I scared him a little bit.” He laughs. “And we didn't talk for four years because I got kicked out right afterwards because I was so bad at acting. I was so bad when I first started. And then we reconnected at an audition, and we've been friends ever since. I couldn't get rid of him.”

“I work in film marketing, and we worked on this movie together called Winnie The Pooh: Blood And Honey, on the marketing campaign for it. We had a lot of fun taking on the persona of Winnie the Pooh in our socials and being really fun with it. And were like, ‘Oh, I think we could be funny together.’ Because, you know, we talked all the time before the movie, and we'd always wanted to be creative and maybe do something. And after doing that, there was really the spark to make our own movie, in the comedy world.

“I feel like Ivan and I are very different people, but, we have great chemistry together. It was right before the strikes, so the industry was pretty slow at the time, so it was the perfect time for us to put our heads together.”

They financed it by themselves, which Ivan agrees was a big risk to take.

Hudson Yang makes a celebrity cameo
Hudson Yang makes a celebrity cameo

“Filmmaking feels so daunting when you think, ‘Oh, I want to make a feature,’” he says. “We kind of forget that when were kids, we picked up a camera, we took a week, went outside and filmed ourselves, and we made stories. I actually miss that a lot. I feel like the other part of the film is, we want to show that filmmaking can be fun as well. And Harrison was actually moving, so I really wanted to do something with Harrison before he moved.

“When I was a kid, I would just have a DV camera and go around with my friends or go around with my family just filming them, and it was the most fun thing ever. I didn't do that for so long, so many years. So to be able to revisit that was really nice and kind of re-inspired me.”

We talk about how odd it is that adults lose sight of the fun of creative projects.

“We have an expectation that we want it to be good,” he says. “We don't want to embarrass ourselves to our peers and our friends and family. I think that's it.”

Aren’t actors taught not to worry about embarrassing themselves? They have to let that go.

“Yeah, yeah, exactly. And it's also fun being able to do this film because we get to explore that aspect. We don't have to please the director because we are the directors. We don’t have to please producers because we are the producers. So whatever happens, whatever moments we capture, we can blame ourselves and give ourselves permission to fail even more and see what comes out of it.”

Did a lot of stuff end up on the digital cutting room floor?

“Oh, yeah,” he says.

“So much did,” says Harrison. “The script is a pretty solid script. It has how each scene starts, how each scene ends. But in between, a lot of it was improvised dialogue. So we would do long, eight minute takes where we would riff on each other on various topics and we would maybe do four takes of these long takes. Each take is slightly different. So if you gave it to five different editors, you would have five completely different takes of the movie. And we could probably, even with existing footage, put together a whole new movie that has that same arc to it, but we're just talking about completely different things. And that was the joy of making the movie.

Gearing up for action
Gearing up for action

“I feel like doing something like that requires a lot of trust. If you don't know the person or you don't trust them, it's hard to talk about certain things, especially when you get into more of the vulnerable conversations that they have in the movie. But yeah, a lot ended up on the cutting floor. There were a lot of jokes that we loved that didn't make it because, you know, it either didn't need to be there, it was extra fluff or it just didn't service the story. But there are a lot of really great moments that hopefully one day might see the light of day.

“We shot it very quickly, over five principal shoot days, and then we had maybe three to five days of reshoots. We were able to do the big shoot days within a week, and that was mostly because, as a self-financed feature. we had to be really smart about how we used money and when were able to get a full crew.”

“It really loosened me up as an actor,” says Ivan. “I realised that everyone is good to an extent. It just depends on how it fits the story in the editing process, how it's paced. It made me more of a relaxed actor because I know how everything works now.”

The film is also being sold as a stoner comedy, which seems odd to me in some ways, I note, because there isn't that much drug use in it. It also feels much more natural than most stoner comedies. Has the dynamic changed as laws have changed?

“I think there's a lot of shades of being a stoner,” says Ivan. “It's not all going outside and having wild parties. Sometimes you're just enjoying it like a drink, and you're able to just loosen up and talk to a friend. It’s similar to just because you are LGBT doesn't mean that you have to act a certain way. And that was also really important to me in that aspect, too, because I'm also LGBT. The typical way that that's portrayed on media, I do get. So it was just really nice to explore that as well.”

I tell him that I like the fact that it’s there in the film but without any romantic or sexual story elements. It’s also important to tell stories about how it can factor into friendships.

He nods. “You don't need romance for it to be an LGBT movie. It could be, you know, a gay best friend and a straight best friend's relationship, because that is still, in my opinion, an LGBT story. We’re trying to expand what that actually means, you know?”

Looking at things from a different perspective
Looking at things from a different perspective

Harrison agrees.

“It's not your typical stoner movie. It's not your typical queer movie. It's also not your typical Asian movie. When we set out to make this movie, we didn't do it with these genre confines in mind. We wanted to tell the story we wanted to tell, and I think that's why we were able to make the movie we did. And why we're proud of it is because it doesn't fit any particular box. Everyone always says there isn't a movie like this.”

Do they think that can help to break down stereotypes, so queer people and Asian people can get more diverse roles in the industry?

“I think so,” says Ivan. “It is an LGBTQ experience, and it's a common Asian-in-the-entertainment-industry experience as well. We just never really get to cover it in that way.”

“A big part of why we made this movie is because Ivan and I audition for a lot of the same roles, and often there's one Asian male role in the whole project,” says Harrison. “So it's very rare for two Asian males to be in the same movie unless it's an Asian movie. Because for whatever reason, it's so hard for Hollywood to see two Asian guys in a friend group. There can only be one! So Ivan and I would probably never be in the movie together unless it's an Asian movie. We really wanted to make a project that we can be in together as just regular Asian dudes. You don't have to be labelled as a martial artist or a nerd. They don't have to be hunky leading men with six packs. It could just be guys existing. And, yeah, that's something that hopefully this movie helps to push forward.

“When we started the project, we wanted to really make this film as an avenue for us as actors, to showcase our talent, to play things that we usually don't get to play. But then the last year has been so much fun as a filmmaker, really having ownership of the project – so Ivan and I are looking to make our next project, and I think we want to definitely do it with comedy because that's what we love doing. We're talking about potentially turning this into a TV series as well.”

He’s pretty busy, though.

“I just moved to Vancouver three months ago, and it's been super fun. I’ve worked on a TV pilot since I've been up here. I'm shooting another Apple TV show next month. So just continuing to act while also having that filmmaker side of things.”

Extremely Unique Dynamic
Extremely Unique Dynamic

“I have a movie coming out with 50 Cent and Josh Stolberg called Skill House,” Ivan says. “Hopefully it'll hit theatres soon. If you like horror movies in the Saw realm.”

He’s looking forward to watching short films at Inside Out, he says, because there’s some great stuff in the line-up. He also wants to see Susie Yankou’s film Sisters.

“I'm tied at the hip with Ivan, so I go to whatever he goes to,” says Harrison. “But yeah, I’m very excited for a lot of them. I'm really excited for My Old Ass.”

“I hope that everyone enjoys our movie,” says Ivan.

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