Enter the imagined worlds and fantasy future of Andrew Thomas Huang
When YouTube was only two years old, Andrew Thomas Huang’s first short film went viral and his phone hasn’t stopped ringing since. The first calls were from J.J. Abram’s office, Anonymous Content, and Endeavor. While Huang credits much of his success to luck, it is truly his dedicated and disciplined love of art and filmmaking that are responsible. Earlier this year Huang effortlessly wove together multiple artistic disciplines to much success for his music video Cellophane with provocative and iconic female artist FKA Twigs. His collaboration with enigmatic Icelandic artist Bjork spans seven years and counting, with the recent release of Vulnicura VR making major strides for 360 VR. Luckily, Huang is as generous with his time as he is with his art and we managed to get on the phone with him in between film festivals for his debut narrative short Kiss of the Rabbit God to ask some pressing questions.
What films have been the most inspiring or influential to you and why?
Orlando by Sally Potter is one of my all-time favorites. I’m in love with the story—an individual passing through various chapters in history unable to conform to the confines and expectations of being man or woman. I watch this film when I just want to feel good.
What roadblocks did you face when you were starting out?
When I was an intern at Sony Pictures Imageworks, I showed the HR guy my first short film (that I was building in my dorm room) along with some of my other work. He didn’t know what to do with my reel. He felt that I did too many things; I needed to pick one thing and be really good at it. He literally said, “I don’t know how to plug you into my system.” That was a wake-up call, I realized I don’t want to be a cog in their wheel. I don’t want to be a part of their system, I want to do my own thing. Initially, I was very angry but it was a blessing because he brought to consciousness how much I refuse to be categorized. Truth is we have way more artists now than ever who do so many things and that’s the future.
Have you always been a multi-dimensional artist? How are you fluent in so many mediums?
Five years out of school, I cut my teeth on a bunch of stuff, but the truth is, I would do whatever commercials came my way and reinvest that into music videos I really cared about. I feel like I just had really bad luck for a long time and didn’t really love what I was doing. So I decided to scrap everything and build a new film that better reflected my Fine Arts sensibilities, that was a bit more thoughtful. I made Solipsist, a non-narrative short film, in 2012, and I took everything else off my reel. I left all of my reps, and I went completely independent with this new identity.
That following year Solipsist also went viral, and Bjork, Thom Yorke, Joe Wright all reached out to me within that year to collaborate. I also did a lot of other personal work in the more experimental realm, continued to work with dancers, and helped Joe Wright on his feature film doing animation direction. I was able to take all of my Fine Art visual skills, digital art drawing, painting, and puppetry and weave it into this arsenal that I would tap into on all these different projects.
What do you think the role of vulnerability plays in storytelling?
I don’t think there is a mandate that someone has to be vulnerable in order to tell a good story. In my particular case, I’ve been lucky to work with artists who are willing to be vulnerable and generous with their own stories. That does cut through the noise. There’s a lot of noise out there, a lot of artists try to construct an image, but very few are truly naked with their art. We’re not however, entitled to an artist’s personal stories. There’s so much entitlement we have as consumers: who are they dating, is that song about their last breakup? It’s voyeurism, just gossip and people wanting to live vicariously through these icons. These are human beings, we can’t expect them to bleed for us. It’s important to recognize the emotional cost. But if we are lucky enough for them to do that for us, it really resonates with a lot of people. There is a universal thing that connects all of us because we’re all soft inside. No one gets through life without being hurt.
Do filmmakers have any responsibility to culture? Do you feel that being a creative person requires that you give back or tell a particular story or not do something else?
It’s hard to talk about what any of our work means when the Amazon is burning, and we have kids in cages. I’ll be honest, I was looking at the news this morning and felt like garbage. Visual culture is what has steered our elections; everyone’s ideas of values are skewed from hundreds of thousands of years of images that have taken root in their minds. From what a leader looks like to what a man or woman looks like. Or what should be saved and what is disposable. That, we do to a cumulative effect, and we still have a great amount of impact and accountability.
I make indulgent artwork when I want to on my own time and on my own dime. But right now, I feel there is a responsibility to make work that truly connects with people and emotionally transforms them because if it doesn’t, then who are you making it for? I’ve felt this way ever since Trump was elected. Work that costs a lot of money, which is basically all of filmmaking, just comes with a different responsibility.
“I make indulgent artwork when I want to, on my own time and on my own dime. But right now I feel there is a responsibility to make work that truly connects with people and emotionally transforms them because if it doesn’t then who are you making it for?”
How do you justify becoming invested in a music video that you don’t own? How do you stay motivated?
Legally and financially we don’t own anything. However, there are certain music videos out there where you’re like, that’s a Spike Jones or Floria Sigismondi video. If it’s the right collaboration, you’re given the creative freedom and have offered your own creative stamp, then yes you come away with a cultural cachet of having left your mark on an iconic or defining work for an artist’s career. In this economy, that’s what one would hope to leave behind. The incentive to do it is to really partner with a good musician, and together, you create a universe for people that’s yours. The conversation is shifting and maybe there will be some co-ownership. Truth is we have different costs for the production of a music video versus the cost of producing a song and at the end of the day, it’s a marriage of the song and the visual. The product is a 50-50 split of what these artists are giving and if the musician is getting 100% of that return then that’s kind of messed up, especially if the director isn’t getting paid or paid well.
For a director, it’s important to nurture your intuition and know when to walk away from a potential collaborative opportunity that’s not conducive to your creative output. How do you identify and navigate that?
I struggle with that on a daily basis even now, the question is twofold: how do I know what my gut is telling me and how do I navigate the interpersonal relationship with these people? Making choices whether they’re creative or career choices dealing with people are the two most difficult things about being a creative person nowadays. Sure through experience you learn to gauge warning signs but I do find that my intuition isn’t always right. There were times where one has to make very rational decisions and there are times where one should make highly irrational gut decisions. And I’ve been wrong, I’ve made collaborative choices and realized they were a huge mistake. I guess the art of being a director is being able to navigate those relationships no matter what happens.
I spoke to a talented editor recently and from his perspective as a gun for hire on an indie film, he’s often under fire. If he’s doing a job that someone doesn’t like there’s always the threat of him being under the axe and he’s just saying, look no one is ever going to fulfill all of your needs and it’s your job as a director to work together to find common ground. To steer and communicate what you have in mind and work collaboratively in every job, in every role, is what makes this a highly social career.
Kiss of the Rabbit God, your first narrative short is a coming-of-age story about sexuality is full of rich iconic imagery and asian heritage. Can you tell us your secret for being able to pull it off?
Cumulatively, the luck I’ve had in the music video world helped bring in some talent that I don’t think we would have been able to get otherwise. Cinereach granted me a big chunk of money, I did a job and pretty much reinvested my fee to buttress the film. There was an actual monetary value that we brought to that project that really helped but it was still an indie film, we still did it for relatively nothing. I would say that short was one of the hardest and emotionally challenging projects that I’ve done to date. In a way, I don’t want to go back, I want to keep doing that kind of work.
How do you build your confidence as a writer?
I’ve been sending my script to a variety of people to get feedback, in the act of doing that I suppose I’m also learning to find my confidence. Writing is the hardest thing I’ve ever done. Writers have some of the thickest skin in this business because it’s their intellectual ideas and personal confessions that are on the line. When we criticize the work, they have to be willing to strip it in a heartbeat and start over. They’re the ones whose hearts are getting shredded constantly to find the story. The short answer is, I’m just learning to thicken my own skin and give my work time. Yes, I want this to be done but it’s going to take as long as it takes and sometimes I just need a bit of distance to be willing to sacrifice stuff that I was previously attached to. I had art classes where we would spend 45 minutes to an hour on something and then the teacher’s like okay, now tear it up. It’s a good lesson in attaching and detaching yourself from your work.
Can you tell us anything about your upcoming feature debut?
It’s a coming-of-age film set in 1966 Los Angeles about a young Chinese girl who discovers a tiger living in her attic. It’s inspired by personal family stories about my parents growing up in the 60s and 70s. It’s getting easier but it’s still tricky to get an Asian film made and even trickier to get a fantasy period one made. That’s been my challenge as a visual person because every idea I come up with comes with a bill.