Interview: Director Cole Walliser
Cole Walliser is one cool dude. I’ve only met him once via Skype (for this interview) and I follow him on IG. I could instantly tell he’s just a chill guy who happens to be an up and coming director. I mean, he’s already worked with stars such as Miley Cyrus, Pink, and Katy Perry. He’s crushing it. Oh, and he just got a Nintendo Switch. I was thrilled when he agreed to do this interview!
I always start with this question. What are you? What makes you Hapa?
Oh, what makes me Hapa? I guess ethnically I'm half-Chinese and half-German/Swiss. Which is sorta my rote answer. I actually did a DNA test maybe last year and I found out I am 6% Thai and Indonesian and then 6% Balkan, which is Greek/Romanian/Bulgarian. So I have a little bit of extra stuff which might explain my crazy curly hair. Which I think is a little unique, but yeah, that's my DNA makeup
What was it like for you growing up as a Hapa in Vancouver?
Growing up as a mixed-Asian in Vancouver, I have fond memories of my childhood. Race, while it was a topic that came into my life, wasn't like a defining thing or an overbearing thing. It's interesting, because when I grew up in Vancouver, my immediate class in elementary school was pretty much all white. In fact, my whole school was like all white. So when I would go to school, and I'd see other white kids, I just thought I was white. I never really understood that I was any different, because I wasn't seeing it. I was seeing all the white kids and I was hanging out with them, and liked being a part of the group.
It wasn't until later that I realized that "ohhhh," people were probably looking at me a little different. Generally, it was really good growing up. It was a unique experience being a part of two of the main cultures in Vancouver. Vancouver now is very Chinese, and of course still very Caucasian; I was sort of a part of both sides. It stressed me out for a little while, but after I realized that it was fortunate to be able to be a part of both things. You know?
Have you found any differences since moving to LA?
People think I am Spanish more often (laughing), that's for sure. I think that generally the community of Eurasians and Hapas is growing, and I think that it's easier to identify them.. I don't know if that is a function of growing up [as HAPA] or just being more open to it, but you meet more people and you can identify them faster. What's cool and fun is that quick connection you have with people when you realize you're both half.
[That] happened to me at the gym the other day. I'm working out at this squat rack, and this girl beside me just turned and was like "hey are you half?" and I'm like "yeah!!!" and we just started talking and had a good connection right off the bat. I find that really fascinating and fun because it now is a very all-inclusive group I am part of, where growing up I didn't feel that at all. Having been around just Caucasian or just Asians, as a kid your insecure and don't know where you fit in. You can see you don't fit in anywhere. Now having that it's a fun thing to always have a connection and say "what's up" to other Hapa people.
What made you decide to get into directing?
That's a good question. It was a thing that just sort of unfolded, I think. I was skateboarding as a kid, and that was when I first got a camera in my hands. We would shoot each other skateboarding, and more often than not people would be handing me the camera. They were like "Oh Cole, you get good footage you can shoot cool stuff". I started to think about how to shoot skateboarding in a cool way. Then I learned about editing, and I was like, “oh you can edit this stuff together”, so I started doing that on my own. That how it was growing up., And then, when I was in college, getting a degree in psychology, I bought a good camera and a good computer, and then I really started shooting my own stuff.
I realized you could get little jobs from it, and so it was just this progression of doing the thing I really love to do and as I was doing it I realized "oh you can get work in this. Oh, you can be a filmmaker that can be a career." And then, when I realized that, I thought, “alright that's what I'm gonna do, I'm not gonna mess around with anything else.” There wasn't a moment where I was like "I'm gonna go be a filmmaker", I was already making stuff and had decided to keep doing this until I can make money at it basically.
Nice, so do you feel being of mixed-Asian decent has influenced the way you direct, the way you perceive things?
Oh, I mean yeah. You know, obviously. It would be false for me to sit here and say that my perspective through my experience doesn't alter how I direct and create and a part of my perspective and experience is me being Hapa. So they are so tied into each other. For me, I can say that it definitely had an effect... to quantify exactly what that effect is... that's a little trickier. But I do think that having experience in both cultures: western/Caucasian and sort of more eastern cultures has broadened my horizons in subtle but tangible ways I'd say. It's just helped me be open to new ideas and new thoughts.
I mentioned growing up, you're still finding out where you fit in, and looking at the world through different sides, it opens your mind a little bit to looking at new ideas and new things. It's hard for me to say exactly, but I do think that, as a result of really trying to figure out where I fit in, and looking at social circles from different angles and like looking at what makes someone white, what makes someone Asian, how they connect with each other, I think all of those things sort of influence me and how I tell stories; n relevant sort of themes in what I try and push forward to in my work. I guess the short way of saying it is, being Hapa is so closely tied to my identity and my experience and my experience and identity are so closely tied to my creative work it has to be connected. Exactly how I don't know...you can watch my stuff and see (laughing). That's the best way I can explain it I think.
So, as a director of color and specifically a Hapa, what are your thoughts of Representation vs Presentation for the mixed-raced actor? For example, we have Crazy Rich Asians which is coming out, and there has been some backlash about a couple of the actors being Hapa and playing full Asian characters. What are your thoughts on this?
I think it is a tricky thing, right? Because, I think the bottom line is that what needs to be serviced is that there needs to be more and better representation in the media, right? There needs to be identifiable Asian and Hapa people/characters in films that kids can look at and identify with. The fact that someone is Japanese or say Korean and plays a Chinese person in a film... people get upset about that. I think that it's valid, but it's stupid (in my opinion) because the bigger picture is that we need an Asian face that kids can look at, you know what I mean? The bigger picture is that it is far more important right now than having the exact right [ethnic] representation.
But, I understand my perspective leads you down a tricky slippery slope, because then you get into ethnic sub-groups and it is important that their look is right, and you don't have the right actor to play that, and then you get into...oh you have Scarlett Johansson play an Asian person and that's not really helping either. It's an Asian character and that person isn't Asian at all... So I understand my take on it can be a slippery slope, but I think the major thing right now we need to accomplish is just to have proper representation of Asians in film that kids can identify with. And to me, it's less important at this stage that someone is exactly the right ethnicity.
It's just more important that there is an Asian person on screen representing the kids out there that are watching. That's my take on it now. I mean, ideally, sure if you are telling a true story and there's a person with a very specific ethnicity, yeah, find the actor. The bottom line, too, is it's a business; they need to sell a movie. It's this grey line that moves because, it's a business, you have to sell a movie, you have to have a certain star, but then there are also some lines that you shouldn't cross, like the whole Ghost in the Shell thing I mentioned, which becomes problematic. But, I think those days are ending because of everybody's voice today, you know what I mean? Ghost in the Shell could have happened ten years ago, before social media, and people would have been pissed, but then it's like, “I have no voice, I can't say anything.” But now, everybody has a voice—which is good—so companies and studios are reacting to that because ultimately it comes down to the people going to see the movies. And, if there are movements to not go see movies then it's no longer in their business’ interest. As far as the business side goes it's, kind of unfortunate that there's no sort of higher calling for studios to have proper representation: they're still just servicing their dollar. But, if they are servicing their dollar and it gives us proper representation in the end then like, who cares? You know what I mean? I don't suddenly expect studios to become moral and try to like do the right thing, but if we can shape the business so their vested interest is to have proper representation because we won't go see it otherwise, then I'm all for it. I have long answers for things (laughs).
No, its great its great! It’s better than people who give one worded answers... and I'm like okay...
I definitely try to go into detail because I think about this stuff. Especially in entertainment, it's a hot topic now, and I see both sides. I have problems with people who fail to recognize that film is a business and studios need to make money. It is a risk—race aside—it is a risk, no matter who you put in there. The star has to be of a certain caliber, of a certain quality, for them to have a return. I do understand that it is a problem that there are no Asian stars so you just don't have that option, and a part of the reason why there are no Asian stars because nobody puts Asians in leading roles. I get it, I guess the gripe I'm picking is that people just complain and go "oh they can totally do this" and I'm “well they can't.” There could be change happening, but people just get really upset and the studios are just trying to make money. I do think there's also systematic racism in the industry. Don't get me wrong, but there are just more things going on and it's a more complicated thing and it's tied in with business. I think that raising your voice and going to see films that have proper representation is the way to go about it. To foster communities like you're doing, where people can feel empowered in their sort of togetherness to make a difference.
I think that's the right way to go about making change. I just think complaining about stuff is never really helpful.
It's like if you're going to complain then do something about it.
Yeah, totally. Definitely just go do something about it! Go see Crazy Rich Asians, I'm friends with Jon Chu the director and I'm super excited about the project, it's really cool! Studio picture, all-Asian cast! Everybody go see that! Because if every Asian goes and sees that and it opens to a huge opening, then every studio is gonna be like we're gonna do the exact same thing with some other story. Let's find some other story with all Asians and tell some cool other stories, and I think that we can create a whole new wave of Asian cinema, and Hapa cinema too, in the industry if that movie does well! If that movie does bad, we're all in trouble, it's never happening again. They would say, “if it doesn't make money so I'm never doing that, right?” So, I think it is really important, and I do think the community should band together and go watch that movie. Go to the theater and watch it, and participate in the box office. If it does well, I guarantee every studio in Hollywood is gonna have an Asian picture next year.
You’ve worked with some pretty famous people. What’s your favorite project so far?
The early work I did with Katy Perry really stands out. It was her California Dreams World Tour, it was her first really big tour, and I wrote and directed a short film that basically broke up every act of her performance. There were like six or seven segments, and there was an opening. She did her first act and there was a little bridge between those two acts, and it was an interesting job because I had to tie in the lighting cues and the costume cues in-between the acts, so it was this sort of seamless story that played throughout her show. There hadn’t been an artist that had done that prior, so we were breaking new ground a little bit and it was kind of a complicated shoot, simply because there were always plans to have three screens playing at once. Normally you have one screen, everything happens in his one screen, but we were telling the story across three screens on the stage, and you had to think in this 3D space as to where stuff moves in the screens, where it happens on stage, and how it all ties in together. It was a complex thing. That gave me a few headaches trying to figure out some solutions for things, but it was a really rewarding fun job because it was breaking new ground. I wrote it and directed it, and then it played around the world for a year. I don't know the total amount of people that saw the show, but it was probably like 12,000 to 15,000 people every night a couple of nights a week. So that really stands out as a big all-encompassing project.
Then there's a ton of other stuff, like the stuff I've done for Red Bull has been really cool and fun. Which I did with Harry Shum, who also is in Crazy Rich Asians and is a good friend of mine and he's fantastic. I would say the Katy Perry stuff stands out, but I like all the stuff I've done.
Is there anything you are working on currently?
I just finished a couple videos for Disney Channel for Asian Pacific Heritage Month, which was really cool! We shot these in April and we took two of their Asian Pacific talent on Disney shows. This guy Karan Brar, who's Indian, and Peyton Elizabeth Lee who's Asian and has her own show, and so we did these cool pieces where they tell a little story about growing up Asian Pacific... what that meant, how the culture influences them and their experience and we had an artist, who was Asian and she drew a mural story about what they were saying. And we showed them a piece of art and they got a piece of art at the end. It was really like a pro-social piece, where Disney said “we want to do this thing to have proper representation for this group, so let's just make a cool piece of content and put it out there.” It wasn't really like pushing a show. I mean, it had a little tag about the shows they're on, but it was really to showcase them as people and to highlight them a little bit. That was a really cool thing to be a part of. We crewed up with as many Asians as we could. They hired me because I'm mixed, we had an Asian DP, we had an all-female camera department, It was a really cool fun job to be a part of.
Is there anything else you would like to add?
I definitely look forward to putting Asian-Americans, mixed-race people, and just having proper representation in my work. I think that is a really exciting thing because it is a tangible difference that I think that I can contribute to. If I can put an Asian into my work, and especially someone mixed I just think that's a cool opportunity for kids to see people that look like them finding success and doing something cool and making art, and I just think that like that's a tangible thing I can make a difference with. So, I'm really excited about having that opportunity and putting that kind of work forward.
I can’t wait to see the work you continue to do! Thank you, Cole! Hope you are enjoying your Nintendo Switch!
End of Interview
Alex Chester is the creator and producer of the theatre company WeSoHapa - a theatre based on diversity and inclusion. She is a New York City based columnist for On Stage Blog and contributing writer for ManhattanDigest.com and HuffPo. She also hosts a podcast with fellow writer Melissa Slaughter, We're Not All Ninjas. Follow her on Twitter/Instagram @AlexFChester if you like food and cats.