Pamela Tom on discovering Tyrus Wong and her journey to make a documentary that celebrates the under-credited artist

Pamela Tom on discovering Tyrus Wong and her journey to make a documentary that celebrates the under-credited artist

GOOD DOCS sat down with Pamela Tom to discuss how she first learned about Tyrus Wong and her journey gaining his trust and making a documentary that spotlighted the under-credited Chinese American artist.​


What drew you to Tyrus and what are you hoping to say through his story?
What initially drew me to Tyrus was the fact that he was Asian American, specifically Chinese American, and working in Hollywood during the nineteen thirties. This was a period where you could count the number of minorities one one hand. I was excited about the idea of bringing to light the story of a pioneering Asian American animation artist. I wanted to explore his impact on the film and how he brought his Chinese aesthetics to the visual styling of Bambi. I was completely intrigued and knew he had to have a story.

Do you find parallels between Tyrus’s experience as a Chinese American person making their way as an artist and your own experience?
Yes, definitely. The most obvious parallel would be being an ethnic minority working in the film industry. I had graduated from UCLA film school and one of my first jobs was as a writing fellow at Disney. I couldn’t believe there had been a Chinese American working at the same studio over 50 years earlier. The racism he faced was more blatant. He started his career in the middle of the depression and at a time when blatant discrimination and anti-Chinese sentiment was very strong. He was literally called a chink on his first day of work at Republic Pictures. That never happened to me. I faced bias as a woman and as a minority, but never experienced that kind of outright racism. One other parallel was the strong discouragement he faced within his community to go into the arts. Tyrus was lucky in that his father encouraged his art, but most Chinese families find it too risky and maybe even a little crazy to go into the arts. I think it’s changing as more opportunities open up.  I really admired Tyrus’s ability to bring his Asian aesthetic and culture to such a popular art form such as animation. He didn't hide it or try to mimic what had already been done. While at Disney, I was able to write a screenplay with an Asian American female lead that was inspired by a Chinese ghost story. Unfortunately it never got made. Tyrus drew directly from his cultural roots, and made it distinctly American. I was in awe of that and think it was his genius.

I asked Tyrus, “What drew you to Chinese art?” He said, “I don't know, I was just born with it.” I think that having been born in China and having been isolated and mistreated at Angel Island had a strong influence on him. I was born and raised in Los Angeles and am about as Americanized as you can get, but I can’t deny the influence that my identity, culture and experience growing up Chinese in America has had on me. Being invisible in America often compels artist and filmmakers to create art and tell stories that say, “I exist. I am here. I cry. I laugh. I love. I am human too.” I think this is why Crazy Rich Asians has been such a watershed film for Asian Americans. It accomplished all that on an international level.

What kind of obstacles did you run into as you were making this film?
What kind of obstacles did I not run into? The biggest challenge I faced was convincing funders that Tyrus’s story was a national story and had a broad audience. Because he was not nationally recognized, I had to show what a strong and compelling story he had, his significance and impact as an American artist, my access to him and his art and archives (I had been cultivating a relationship with him for years) and my ability as a director to tell his story.  I first met Tyrus back in the late 1990s and at that time very few people outside the Disney animation and Chinese American community knew who he was. I instantly recognized the value of his work and of his story. but it was hard to sell to other people. When he turned 90,  he started getting recognized by various groups - Disney honored him with a Disney Legend Award, which was huge. The National Watercolor Society gave him a lifetime achievement award. He was being written about in books and articles by Disney historians and critics. His work was being exhibited again. This increased visibility combined with years of filming and fundraising raised his public profile, and that gave me the momentum I needed.

Another challenge was the number of movie clips and amount of archival footage I wanted to use in the film. A funders early on said, “This will be too expensive. You'll never be able to raise the kind of money you’ll need to finish the film.” I decided to make the film I wanted to make and worry about it later. And lucky for me, by the time I finished TYRUS, a dedicated group of lawyers had gone to Washington and were able to expand fair use protection for documentary filmmakers. These legal protections allowed me to make the film I wanted to make and still stay within an independent film budget.

What do you hope students gain from watching the film?
There's so much history in the film that is relevant to our society today. Through one artist’s life, the film also tells the story of the Chinese in America in the 20th century. It touches upon our immigration laws, our housing covenants, the Great Depression and WPA art, life in Chinatown during the 1930s, the Japanese internment camps, the art of animation and live-action production illustration, Chinese painting, the studio system during the Golden Age of Hollywood, and mid-century California design. The film covers so much because Tyrus’s life was so diverse and expansive. I’m really hoping that young people can learn about things like the Chinese Exclusion Act, and our discriminatory housing laws but also about the resilience and contributions made by Chinese Americans. Although a large percentage of high school and college students may not have heard of Tryus Wong, most of them have seen it. Most everyone has seen Bambi, and if not, then the many Disney films, like Finding Nemo that have been inspired by it. I want students to be awed and surprised and inspired that this Chinese American immigrant who came over as a young boy with not even two nickels to rub together, created this beautiful and enduring art. That's definitely a powerful point of the film. Slowly seeing how Tyrus was able to defy so many unfair and racist, discriminatory obstacles, but still made these contributions.

But how even today in 2018, we’re not crediting people who have made these kinds of contributions despite us being familiar with their contributions.
Yes, exactly, exactly. They’re under-credited, their stories aren't told, and I think it is so important for them to see these stories. I hope the film reaches as broad an audience as possible, but I particularly hope immigrant and minority students see it. I want them to see somebody who maybe looks like them, and who started off with few resources and felt like an outsider embrace their culture, own it and do something really creative and successful with it. I think that’s very American and I hope people get inspired by it to pursue their dreams. There are so many messages in the film. Tyrus just wanted to be an artist, but everybody tried to talk him out of it. The odds were so stacked against him. Few artists looked like him. And yet he just persevered and worked hard and never gave up.  So that's a message I want to send kids who are pursuing their dreams. Find mentors. Work hard. Ignore the naysayers.

Do you have any advice for female filmmakers like yourself who want to create meaningful work?
I think one of the biggest obstacles for female filmmakers, is believing that there is a place for them in the industry. That they don't have to ask permission. They don't have to apologize for being there. They have a rightful place at the table and that they have to start with that assumption. That is half the struggle, half the battle. Just because we don't see our faces among the ranks of these high-powered executives or directors doesn't mean that we don't belong there. So I think there's an emotional and psychological recalibration of how we view ourselves. And then two — find your allies because we're going to get so many no's. Creators of all stripes get a lot of no’s, but we can't be discouraged by them. We have to find the people who say yes and reach out to them. Find a mentor and try to draw strengthen and encouragement from them. Reach out to people who are doing work you like, doing what you want to be doing, who have the experience and maybe who can open doors for you. I really believe in the power of mentoring and I've had several who have been extremely generous and helpful and supportive with my work. It may take several tries, but they’re out there. And third - have a great attitude. Work hard, aim for excellence and don’t take people and opportunities for granted. Show them you deserve their time, help and respect. Tyrus is such a great example of this. He was not afraid to enter workplaces and industries that were closed to minorities. He always found that one person who said yes and ignored the rest. He always aimed for excellence. As an adult, I still learn so much from his example. We’re all students. We’re all still learning.

How did your relationship with your subject evolve over the course of filmmaking?
It took me seventeen years to make the film and my relationship with Tyrus evolved a lot. In documentary filmmaking, trust with your subject is key. You’re asking a lot of them --  to follow them around with a camera and crew, to poke through all their drawers, to borrow their photos and art to scan, and to sit for hours and tell their stories and open up about their pain and losses. Tyrus was a pretty private person. Even though he loved being around people, he generally liked to keep it light and funny. As our relationship deepened, his interviews became more personal and revealing. With time, he was more open about this feelings for Ruth, his wife of 50 year and experiences with racism. A real turning point came when I was able to show a rough cut of the film to Tyrus and the family and they were able to see that I was telling his story with sensitivity and depth.

Is there anything that we've not discussed that you feel would be important to include about the film or your process or what you hope to communicate?
We as a society have more in common with each other than we think. Even though Tyrus was Chinese, an immigrant, an artist, and a centenarian, his hopes, joys, and struggles are universal. I’m hoping that “meeting” Tyrus will help erase the deep sense of  “otherness” we hold towards each other. These are views that continue to keep us apart, fuel ignorance and racism, and degrade entire populations and religions. Whether it’s an interest in animation, art, or the Chinese American experience that initially draws someone to Tyrus’s story, I hope that after watching the film, the viewer is touched by his humanity and leaves with a deeper appreciation of our common and shared experiences.