SPOTLIGHT May, 2024: ADELE LIM, Cinema Storyteller and Director

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A few years ago, writer/producer Adele Lim wanted to get into directing. She had 17 years of working in writers rooms, producing and show running in tv, and co-writing two wildly successful feature films under her belt, but she questioned whether she had enough experience. Crazy Rich Asians, which she co-wrote, was the first major studio film to feature a majority cast of Asian descent since 1993’s The Joy Luck Club. Raya and the Last Dragon, which she co-wrote, was released in 2021. The animated feature brought Disney’s first Southeast Asian princess to the screen. Her many female filmmaker friends and Crazy Rich Asians director Jon M. Chu reminded her she was ready. Working on those films, and surviving and thriving in the gauntlet of network sitcom and one hour programming perfectly prepared her for the job.

Her directorial debut, Joy Ride, which she also co-wrote and produced, made history as the first studio comedy written and directed by Asian women centering Asian American women and nonbinary stars. It’s no wonder she was recently inducted into the Asian Hall of Fame. As part of celebrating Adele Lim in AWFJ’s May SPOTLIGHT, we spoke to her about her career and impact on the screen industries. Read on to know more about this exceptional woman in film.

A MULTICULTURAL CHILDHOOD IN MALAYSIA

Adele was born in Malaysia, into a culture that was both multicultural and obsessed with all things English and American. A voracious reader, she began writing at a very early age. That led to her having a weekly column in a national Malaysian newspaper as a teenager. Having a family that supported her wholeheartedly in her creative pursuits made all the difference to her self-confidence.

“Early encouragement is everything when you’re a kid. My mother would be the first to say she was not the literary type. My parents are educated, smart, and thoughtful. They worked in advertising. For Asian parents in Asia, reading fiction for fun really wasn’t a thing, but she was really supportive of me. When I was, eight or so I read Reader’s Digest magazines, and filled out a little postcard for a subscription. My mother got this bill for it, and she thought it was a great idea. Any book series that I looked at sideways, by authors like Enid Blyton. she would buy. I would plow through them too quickly, so she would keep all of them on the top shelf and dole them out to me bit by bit.”

I also got encouragement from my father, who was not your typical Asian dad, and very much went to the beat of his own drum. When I started writing for a Malaysian newspaper, he was so proud of me. Though not a particularly expressive man, he went out and bought a bunch of newspapers, photocopied them, and sent them to all our relatives. I remember having this overwhelming sense of pride that my parents were so supportive of this thing I always loved doing. It really meant the world. A lot of my Asian friends in entertainment had to go through law school and finance before pursuing the arts, which would cause a schism in their family. Mine were supportive right off the bat.”

Her experience living in Malaysia had a huge impact on how she saw the world, and the world she wanted to recreate in her own writing. It also allowed her to stay both curious and grounded in her own power, as she travelled the journey to success in Hollywood.

“I have such a sense of belonging and confidence over everything, and that’s something that really wasn’t apparent to me growing up. Being raised in a town in Malaysia, it felt like a really unfashionable part of the universe that no one’s ever heard of. We were very aware of all the culture coming out of America and Britain, and felt like these bigger cultural superpowers didn’t even know we existed. Now, In retrospect, I have so much fondness and gratitude for where I grew up.

“Since Asians are in the minority here, growing up in a place where you feel like you’re the shit factors a lot into how you see yourself and others. Malaysia is multicultural. Our friends were Malays, Chinese, and Indians. Everybody is in a big messy pot. We celebrated all kinds of holidays. There was a sense of multiculturalism, with many religions and languages and dialects bouncing around. It made me curious about and open to everything else in the world. It was fun. It wasn’t until I got here and realized a lot of Asian Americans didn’t have that experience and had to deal with having a majority culture pick on them, bully them, and make them feel like they were not desirable or attractive or aspirational. That is such bullshit. No child should ever have to grow up feeling like that.”

A HOPEFUL WRITER IN HOLLYWOOD

Adele left Malaysia to study at Emerson College in Boston. While there, she dated a boy who had plans to drive across country to LA. He was hoping to break into writing for tv. She joined him, and got her first job as a writer’s assistant on Xena, Warrior Princess. Through hard work and breaks from folks in the industry who trusted her voice, she started moving up the ranks.

“I do a lot of work mentoring younger writers, but all the my initial breaks were given to me by amazing white or Jewish guy writers who took a chance on me. I met some amazing writers on Xena Warrior Princess. I was nobody and didn’t have a network and barely any experience, and I was so supported. Working in Hollywood I always say you’re like baby turtles that get hatched, and you’re just trying to make it to the ocean. There are pelicans and predators and it’s easy to lose your way, but you’ve just got to keep trucking.”

Adele with ZENA

SEASONED IN THE SCHOOL OF SERIAL TELEVISION

She went from writer’s assistant, to working in the writers room, producing, then running the writers room, and then show running. During that time, she was juggling work with raising two kids, a particular challenge for a women of color working in Hollywood. She was fortunate enough to find support from inside the industry when she was at her most discouraged.

“One big break was given me by Liz Tigelaar, who ran Life Unexpected. She’s an amazing, hugely successful show runner now, but this was the first show she ran. At the time, I had just gotten pregnant. I’m not just a minority writer, I’m also a woman, and our industry is very unforgiving of women and particularly mothers. I never felt angry or resentful at the industry, as tough, awful, and misogynistic as it was, until I got pregnant. Liz invited me onto her show and gave me my first shot running a writers room. I wasn’t just a female minority writer trying to fit in and find my footing, I was running the situation. She allowed me to try, and it really gave me the confidence that I could.”

It was the experiences working the 17 years writing and producing on shows like One Tree Hill, Life on Mars, Private Practice, Scar-Crossed, and Reign, that prepared her for the big screen.

“In retrospect, I can really see how these shows helped me level up, in terms of responsibility and confidence. My last show was writing on Lethal Weapon. One of the great things working on network one hour broadcast television was we were all producers. From the time I was a staff writer, I was on set, producing the episodes. As a 26 or 27 year old, I was on set speaking for my executive producers, with a crew of 100 or more looking at me for answers, having control and agency on everything from early on, from pre-production, pitching, all those crew meetings, viciously rewriting on set to a pattern budget, to being in the room looking over my episode in post production. I didn’t know it then, but all that training for 17 years prepped me for the next phase of my career. When I was getting into directing, I thought I wasn’t prepared, but my female director friends and pals like Jon Chu reminded me that the years where I was doing all that hard work in the TV trenches really absolutely prepped me for that moment.”

“The biggest concern or hang up I hear about first time female directors is worry they can’t make the choices. My experience prepared me to be a director: to have that strong vision for the story you want to tell, and be ready to answer 300 questions every hour on the hour”

BURSTING THROUGH ON THE BIG SCREEN

Adele worked with director Jon Chu on Crazy Rich Asians, based on Kevin Kwan’s novel, co-writing the screenplay with Peter Chiarelli, who was not experienced on the small screen, but had produced and written several features. It was a major success domestically and internationally, grossing nearly $175 million in the US, and over $64 million in markets around the world. The film was the first time Adele was able to use her own experience to reflect Asian life onscreen. When the film’s popularity and critical acclaim led to talk of a sequel, she was offered a fraction of her white male co-writer’s fee. She gracefully demurred, walking away from the franchise’s future projects.

Still from CRAZY RICH ASIANS

Walking right into the eager arms of Disney Studios, she brought life and power to Disney’s first South Asian princess as co-screenwriter for Raya and the Last Dragon. Once again, she was able to elevate Asian voices on and behind the screen, this time in animation. Though she found writing from the specificity of her own experience thrilling, it’s clear Hollywood still has a long way to go.

“My arc as a storyteller is that when I was starting out in television, I just felt lucky to be there. I find it sad in retrospect that the only stories I aspired to tell at that time were the stories I had been telling for 17 years, which was for primarily a white cast. I have no problem telling white stories. I did it for the longest time, but I wanted the freedom to be able to tell any story, and not feel that I can’t put a character who looks like me at the center because it’s not gonna get picked up. After Crazy Rich Asians, the floodgates opened. Everyone wanted to pick up a bunch of Asian led stories in TV and film, but that doesn’t mean the industry has done a good enough job of getting creators ready for that position. We haven’t moved beyond the point where our ethnicity doesn’t get blamed if a project doesn’t succeed. I want to get to the point of having not just Asian hits, which we’ve obviously had. I want to get to the point where we can have Asian mediocrity and failures, having the same creative latitude that white filmmakers get.”

READY FOR A JOY RIDE

Adele’s feature directorial debut, Joy Ride, began with her breaking story with best friends Cherry Chevapravatdumrong and Teresa Hsiao. They drew from their own younger days, writing a celebration of female friendship, with all its convolutions and trials, featuring 4 AAPI performers bumbling through a road trip across Asia. It blew past stereotypes and embraced some of the raunchier aspects of living the Asian female and nonbinary experience in the 21st century. She made sure her collaborators knew the subject in and out. To her, “woke” is not a dirty word, but a way to bring more universality to her projects.

Still from JOY RIDE

“I was so excited that Lionsgate and I were completely on the same page. Our crew on Joy Ride was over 50% from underrepresented groups, whether it’s minorities, LGBTQ, or women in my head of department, particularly. And this wasn’t because I wanted to be woke. Looking for talent that hasn’t otherwise been given an opportunity does not in any way degrade your vision, your product, or the quality of work that you’re getting. That’s insane.”

“Speaking as a minority female working under cover of darkness for very mainstream productions for a very long time, there are so many of us, working, honing our skills, ready for bigger opportunity and for whatever reason have not been given it. I just loved being able to give those opportunities. For Joy Ride, because we were working during a pandemic, I had to make Vancouver stand in for a lot of very different locations in Asia. In my mind, because we couldn’t go to Asia, given our budget, the best I could do was make the soul of it authentic. The way you make the soul authentic is you hire heads of department who know the culture inside out.”

“The production designer, Michael Wong, brought in pictures of his grandmother’s kitchen. If you see the grandma’s courtyard house in China, it was shot in downtown Vancouver. He didn’t just know what it should look like, he knew it down to his soul.”

“Costume designer Beverley Huynh also brought in pictures of her family, and she understood not only the cultures, but cultures within that culture. She knew urban cultures in China and generational cultures, and how they dress and act, and it all came from a place of love. Our DP Paul Yee knew exactly how to light Asian skin, and we had a variety of skin tones represented, including these amazing Black basketball players. We were also lucky enough to have Baron Davis, and I wanted to make sure Baron was lit correctly. That extended to the makeup and hair department as well, because they had to know different textures and shades. I really wanted to find people who knew the cultural soul of the movie, snd that gave me so much in terms of production value that we could never buy with the budget and time we had.”

ALWAYS ANCHORED IN JOY

Adele leans heavily into stories that bring her joy, knowing that feeling will be reflected onscreen. Life, she says, is hard enough, and everyone is living it every day. Why not bring some much needed heart and joy to the screen?

“When I’m scrolling through streaming services, I’m looking for a movie to watch, while we want to have stories of pain and truth, the world is on fire, and we see the ugliness day in and day out. Joy is this sometimes fragile, wonderful thing that fuels so much of us in a positive way. That’s what I’m looking for, to be transported. I’m not looking to be lied to or be oblivious, but I am looking for an authentic expression of joy. For me as a creative, being in entertainment is difficult. It tries you. You put so much work into it, and sometimes it grinds you to the ground, and you feel alone in it all and wake up in the middle of the night with your heart pounding, thinking you can’t hit the bar you’re reaching for. You make so many sacrifices in this career, that at the very very least if it’s a project that gives you joy, you have that to pull from.”

“Every time I’ve tried to write a script out of anxiety and fear, it has never, not once turned out well. When I can write a script that makes me authentically laugh and cry, and have a real emotional moment, or I can crack myself up, that spirit doesn’t just stay on the page. It’s communicated with our actors. Through our crew. Through production. Through posts, and ultimately, it’s an energy that gets communicated to the audience. They feel it. That’s such an addictive feeling to have an emotion that you can pull from in your childhood or your experience you can communicate in all these different ways. That energy flows and hits your audience in an emotional way. That’s gold, and it makes the process so much more pleasant and enjoyable and wonderful for everyone.”

BUILDING A FUTURE FOR BREAKING NEW STORIES

Adele and Naia Cucukov
Using her experience across the landscape of tv and film, Adele started 100 Tigers Productions, a company described as focusing on cross-cultural, female forward commercial fare. It is a new venture with business partner, producer and film executive Naia Cucukov. Between them, they have over 40 years of experience. It’s going like gangbusters, but she can’t announce any of their exciting projects just yet.

“We’ve closed on and sold a bunch of things, but the deals are still being closed, so we can’t say what they are right now. I’m excited we sold a feature and a television show, and we’re pitching a bunch more coming up. It’s a tough time in the industry, but we’re still just really heartened by the reception we’ve gotten so far.”

“As a tv writer and feature writer and director, I’ve always loved breaking story and working in that collaborative space with other writers. I did it on television and features and have mentored a lot. I’ve unofficially godmothered a bunch of features and TV shows, but my struggle as a storyteller is that sometimes inside the system, you’re tied to one project, or you’re not allowed to go out and develop other things. For many years now, what I wanted more than anything was the creative freedom to go after those stories that I got excited about, bringing in my writer friends to help develop, and go out and tell those stories using whatever minimal influence or clout I have to help get those stories over that initial hump.”

“The great thing about it is being able to go after all those books and articles and storytellers that might have been overlooked, and find a way to tell them in a commercial splashy ways, but while always adhering to that core of heart, that story through-line, pulling in these amazing actors and the talent we’ve worked with. Being able to pull everything that we’ve loved in our careers, and put it into this company and the kind of stories we want to tell is just fantastic.”

WHY WE CHOSE HER:

Reaching for, finding, and standing in our authentic selves is a challenge in life and in any profession. It is particularly challenging for women of color, especially in the screen industries. In Hollywood, diverse voices continue to be marginalized, and gatekeeping continues to limit the projects featuring them onscreen, behind the camera, and below the line. As viewers, it is important to ask ourselves if we are seeking out stories that feature folks that look like us and whose experience we understand, as well as stories that, though universal in spirit, feature representation of lives we know less about. That’s the kind of art that creates empathy. Through her work in film as writer, producer, and director, Adele Lim centers characters and creatives embracing a wide variety of experiences, including those that have been historically underrepresented. We look forward to what she does next, knowing whatever it is, it will always come from a place of joy. — Leslie Combemale

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Leslie Combemale

Leslie Combemale writes as Cinema Siren on her own website, CinemaSiren.com, and is a frequent contributor to MPA's TheCredits.org, where she interviews filmmakers above and below the line, with a focus on women and diverse voices. She is the Senior Contributor at AWFJ.org. Leslie is in her 9th year as producer and moderator of the influential "Women Rocking Hollywood" panel at San Diego Comic-Con. She is a world-renowned expert on cinema art and her film art gallery, ArtInsights, located near DC, has celebrated cinema art and artists for 30 years.