The Colors Behind The Pictures You See

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Published on October 8th, 2013 | by Melody Cade

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Philip Chung – Writer, Creative Executive Youtube

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By Melody Cade

Philip Chung is a writer who has worked in Theatre, Television and New Media. Philip has had a lengthy and successful career in all three. He is currently the Creative Executive at YOMYOMF, an Asian American channel on YouTube.

Q: What was the career you wanted right out of college? Have you always wanted to write?

I’ve always wanted to write, create content. I initially studied journalism and started out in the field because I didn’t think I could do the film/tv writing. My parents were Korean immigrants, we had no contacts in “Hollywood”–we were about as far from that world as possible so it didn’t seem possible. Add to that the rarity especially back then of Asians in the business and that made it seem even more like an unattainable goal.

It wasn’t until I graduated from college and took a playwriting class at East West Players (the oldest Asian American theater) that I began to think that maybe this was a viable career path. Seeing David Henry Hwang’s play “M. Butterfly” on Broadway also had a profound impact. To see an Asian American writer reaching the pinnacle of Broadway and winning the Tony was inspirational. So I have to say it’s pretty cool that all these years later, David is now a friend and a part of YOMYOMF as well.

Q: What was your first paying job in entertainment?

I started by doing live theater but the first real paying writing gig in Hollywood was writing for the TV series “Lois & Clark: The New Adventures of Superman.” I worked on that with my best friend from high school Corey Miller who’s now the showrunner on the upcoming CBS show “Reckless” an has written/produced countless episodes of “CSI,” “CSI: Miami” and “Body of Proof” among others. But back then we were both newbies and it was a great learning experience. The executive producer John McNamara took us under his wing and really taught us a lot about the world of TV. I’ll always be grateful that he made the effort to do that.

Q: How did you find this job?

Corey had gotten a job in the “Lois & Clark” production office and had become friendly with some of the staff including John. Corey and I wrote a spec script and John was kind enough to read it. He called us into the office and told us he thought we did a good job but they were already developing an episode that was similar to ours. But he said we were welcome to pitch other ideas and so we did. That was one of the best days. Corey and I pitched our idea to John in the morning, he said he’d get back to us, we went out to lunch, and by the time we got back there was a message saying John wanted to see us. We ran over to his office and he said he had spoken to the other producers and they were going to buy our pitch and bring us on to work on it. It almost never happens that fast or easily so we were a little spoiled out first time. But we soon learned how tough it is.

Q: Talk a bit about the life of a playwright. (I know that’s broad, but you can be broad in your answer)

If it’s hard to make a living as a screenwriter or TV writer, it’s even harder to do so as a playwright. So first and foremost, you shouldn’t go into playwriting expecting to make money or even a living at it. Very few do. You should do it because you love it and are passionate about theater. So playwriting and theater is something I’ve always done for fun and because I love it and so there’s really no pressure in that area except to just enjoy myself.

Q: What inspired you to create your own theater company?

Lack of opportunities for Asian American artists. Plus the idea of having an artistic home where you can explore things that are interesting to you and take risks. Whether you start your own theater or not, I think every artist needs a space like that especially when you’re starting out. No one’s going to give you those sort of opportunities, you have to make them on your own.

Q: What was the most challenging part of this process?

You’re basically running a full-time business but no one’s getting paid, it’s all volunteer so it’s just a lot of hard work and persistence.

Q: What made you jump from writing plays to writing television?

I don’t think there was ever a jump. The forms are different and have their own rules, but I don’t really see any difference in going from plays to TV or any other form–it’s all writing and storytelling. It just comes down to what’s the best medium for telling the story you want to tell. If it’s a story that will take a long time to tell and unfold, TV is the obvious medium for that, but if it’s a story that’s very contained, theater might be a better fit. I’m simplifying, but the story usually dictates the medium for me.

Q: What drew you to the idea of directing a documentary?

Again, it doesn’t matter to me if it’s a doc or a narrative–it’s all storytelling and finding the right fit for the story you want to tell.

Q: You are currently a Creative Executive at YOMYOMF developing projects on YouTube, how did you get this position?

I’ve been working with Justin Lin (director of Fast and Furious) for a few years developing projects on the traditional film side, but I’ve always had an interest in new media–everyone’s said this, but it is the future and we’ve only tapped into a fraction of what’s possible in this space. So when the opportunity arose to pitch our idea for an “Asian American” channel to YouTube for what would become their original channels program, I thought it was a unique opportunity and we had to pursue it. Luckily, Justin agreed. Unlike a lot of other people who are very successful in the more traditional Hollywood realm, he’s not afraid of change and innovation and putting in the real work to try to build something from scratch that may or may not lead to anything substantial.

So we ended up pitching our version of what our channel would be with our partners which included some of the bigger Asian American YouTubers–Ryan Higa, KevJumba and Chester See. We wanted to do something that really brought together traditional and new media in an organic way and also anted to expand the definition of what an Asian American channel could be. We didn’t want it to feel like the efforts that came before.

So the short answer is I ended up here because of my interest in this world. It’s exciting. I think we’ve only touched on a fraction of the potential of what new media can become and it’s great to be in a position where we’re able to explore and maybe even help define what the world is and what it can become.

Q: What’s an average day at work for you? What are your primary responsibilities?

There is no such thing as an average day–every day is different. It can be sitting in the office returning phone calls or e-mails or being on the set of a production or writing a script or taking meetings or trying to convince an actor to take a role in a webseries we’re doing. I don’t think there are two days that are ever alike and that’s what’s great about doing this. And as you can see from the examples below, my primary responsibilities are pretty diverse too. I have my hand in anything that has to do with the creative side of things and that can include everything from reading scripts to working as a p.a. on a shoot because we don’t have enough crew to help out. We’re not a big operation so everyone really needs to pitch in in all areas as needed.

Q: What choices have to be made when creating media for an Asian American themed channel?

I think Asian Americans have been put into a box–sometimes by others, but just as much by ourselves too. We wanted to embrace the idea of being able to do whatever we wanted to do without putting any sort of arbitrary restriction on the content. We wanted to try to present Asian Americans in a way that the mainstream wasn’t used to seeing.

Take a show like “The Book Club” starring “Community”‘s Danny Pudi. It’s a series that embraces a wide range of comedic genres starring four normal guys who start this book club–two of them are Indian American, one is Black/Korean American and the last guy is white. Tell me where else in the mainstream that you would find a show like that where three of the four main leads are people of color who are also just ordinary Americans. Add to that the brilliant comedic originality of the show and you genuinely have something that really doesn’t exist anywhere else.

I think sometimes as Asian Americans were so worried about only creating “positive” images of ourselves that we in a way create our own narrow definitions of what we can or can’t do. For me it’s not so much about creating “positive” images as it is about creating three-dimensional images. Whether we’re playing heroes or villains is irrelevant to me as long as these are real characters that eschew simple stereotypes. And that’s what our approach is creating a more diverse landscape of the type of images and stories that can exist.

Which is why something like our YouTube adaptation of David Henry Hwang’s play “Yellow Face” was even possible. No one’s ever done anything like that on YouTube–we didn’t know if it would work or not on any level, but those are the risks we wanted to take so we could broaden the definition of what we can be as an Asian American channel.

Q: In your opinion, how valuable is networking?

I think what a lot of people view as “traditional” networking is pretty useless in my experience–going to parties and events with the expectation that you’ll get discovered or land a gig that way. I can’t think of too many instances where that’s lead to anything substantial, I’m sure it happens but I would say that’s not the best way. From my experience, the best networking is networking through actual work. Working on projects and meeting people that way and having them see your work.

Justin didn’t get to have the film career he has today because he went to parties and such. He got to where he was because he had a project he believed in (“Better Luck Tomorrow”) and he did everything to make that film the way he wanted including maxing out a bunch of credit cards and going into debt. Luckily, it worked out for him, but it was the other people he worked with on that project and the others that came after who shared the same sensibility and passion that he has continued to work with over the years. That’s what I mean by “work” networking. It’s finding other like-minded colleagues through the work. From my experience, that is the most valuable type of networking–find talented people and try to make interesting work. That’ll get you further in this business than going to a 100 cocktail parties where you may or may not be discovered by that big producer.

Q: Advice you’d give to someone starting out in the business

A lot of young people come into this business and I feel like they focus on the wrong things–getting an agent, landing a gig in a film or TV show, going to events and networking. Not that those things don’t play a part, but there’s really only one thing you can control and that’s how hard you’re willing to work to become the best at what you want to be whether it’s an actor or director or writer or whatever. That should be the main thing to focus on and be concerned about and that means studying and doing the real work. You should be constantly doing the things that will be making you better–studying the great films and plays, taking classes, reading, doing plays or making your own YouTube videos–anything and everything to improve your craft. You want to be ready when that potentially big opportunity does come along. I’ve seen people focus on the wrong things (i.e. spending all their time on going to networking events) and when those opportunities do come, they never work out and they wonder why. The simple answer is–they weren’t ready.

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