While repeatedly trying in vain to recreate her grandmother’s beloved chicken dish, writer Ithaca Deng had a thought: would a robot be able to cook it perfectly, if it had detailed instructions? That small idea, which hinged on the space between culture and technology, was the seed that grew into “The Chef,” a short film about Pu, a Chinese cook, and the humanoid robot he’s ordered to teach so that the robot can eventually take over his job.
Directed by Hao Zheng, “The Chef” went on to win Best Futuristic Film in the 2019 AT&T Film Awards. It also won a silver medal in the Student Academy Awards domestic narrative category and Best International Film at the Show Me Shorts Film Festival, making it doubly qualified for the short film Oscar and under consideration for the Oscar shortlist. It’s also been screened at almost a dozen film festivals around the world and has secured several other awards, as audiences take in the story of man and robot.
How does it feel to finally get a breakthrough short film seen internationally, and what goes into making it through film school, to the student Oscars, and then to the doorstep of the real thing? We sat down with Deng and Zheng to chat about what makes a good story, how they create, and how “The Chef” went from a strange little idea during dinner prep to a lauded short.
How did it feel for “The Chef” to get nominated for and win a Student Academy Award, and therefore to qualify for consideration in the 202o Oscars?
Ithaca Deng: When we got the email about the student Oscar nomination, we were very excited because we were so proud to bring this Chinese story to the world. That was my first feeling.
Hao Zheng: I got a call from the Student Academy. In the call, they asked if I’d be here in L.A. for the awards and I didn’t really understand what was happening. Ten minutes in they said, “By the way, congratulations!” It was very exciting.
Before you won this award, you won a category in the AT&T Film Awards. How was that experience?
HZ: I was browsing online and I saw something about the awards. And that year, I saw they had a category for futuristic films. And I thought, that’s perfect, that’s our genre. And when we actually won the award, I was really excited. That was the first award that our team won.
It was actually the same amount of excitement as when we heard from the Academy. It was our first validation.
Did that create momentum for you?
HZ: Before AT&T, we weren’t even thinking about concrete goals and awards. We were just thinking about how we could get “The Chef” seen by as many people as possible. At that moment, we felt like our hard work finally paid off. We hadn’t imagined this for our film, and suddenly we started to think about how far our film could actually go.
What makes for a successful short film?
HZ: You have to be concise and precise. You have to know the exact theme you want to get across to the audience. For us, that was going into a specific story. “The Chef” is a Chinese-American story about food—but it’s also about the conflict between culture and technology. But because we didn’t have a big budget, we could only focus on one specific moment of that story, one emotion. We had to think: how are we going to narrow this story down, but still have a big impact on our audience?
ID: I think the important thing is that short film has a heart in it. Although we have some sci-fi elements, the story is about humanity. My favorite dish is my grandpa’s braised chicken, and my mom and I cannot recreate the flavor. So one day I just thought: if there’s a robot that can exactly copy every step of making this chicken, would the flavor be the same? That’s where this idea from.
What’s your advice to new filmmakers who are working with a limited budget but want to tell a science fiction story?
HZ: My advice is to embrace limitations. If we had had $1 million, we would not have filmed “The Chef” as we did. It’s with that limitation that we started to be more creative. And going back to earlier, the emotion is always the key. With a limited budget, we initially already knew that we had to focus on the character and focus on the story rather than spending money on special effects or building the world. Because ultimately it’s the character and story that affects people.
What’s your advice for up-and-coming writers and filmmakers who are struggling right now?
ID: My experience is to not be afraid to tell your own story. As a new filmmaker, you will always worry about whether your stories should be told or whether there will be people interested in that. But I think you have to be brave so that your voice can be heard. And also as a student filmmaker, you may not have like a lot of money. Your budget and schedule will be very limited. But if you think creatively, you can use small details to create a big world.
HZ: Going off of what Ithaca is saying, don’t be afraid of digging into the deepest pain in your heart, and your experience because those are the same. You have to move yourself in order to move others.
One other thing I learned from this process is to put your effort into collaboration. Especially as a director, it’s very easy for young filmmakers to try to control everything. But you can get the most out of your film by hearing what others have to put into it as well. They can provide you surprises that you can never imagine if you just try to micromanage it yourself.
Hoa, You’re also an actor. What have you learned about writing and directing from being an actor?
HZ: I started acting at a very early age, like eight years old, and I wasn’t thinking too much about any other things. I was just like enjoying that process of acting. But reflecting back now that I’m directing, I do see a very big impact from my acting experiences. I know what actors need, and I know how vulnerable actors can be. I always care a lot about what my actors are feeling if they’re comfortable. I feel like that can come across on the big screen.
What are your inspirations and what inspires you to create?
HZ:I’ve been in the U S news I was 15. I came by myself for high school, then college, and then graduate school. And I feel it was being here that I realized for the first time that are so many diverse voices and nobody is afraid of speaking out or telling their own stories. And so in general, I feel like this culture is a big, big influence on me. I feel like I can be myself and tell my story.
What’s your creative process like?
HZ: Usually it comes from my own experience, my story. And it usually comes from my pain. I’m a very visual person, so I usually have an image in my head. It can be pretty abstract. Then I will start to create a soundtrack that I can hear as I’m picturing the images. Then I send that picture and the soundtrack to my collaborators. With images and sounds, it’s very easy to get on the same page. Then we dive into the story.
ID: I always create first—create the characters and the background. My strength is to create like two or more very different pairs and put them together to create an interesting dynamic. So the people can act and react to each other and the world. Then I can being in the story and explore the themes of the story.
A lot of our readers fear rejection and failure on the road to success. How do you deal with rejection?
HZ: We’ve gotten so many rejections. But you have to make the shot. This is the nature of filmmaking, it’s normal life. Instead of trying to blame yourself or trying to fight back, first ask whether or not you can learn from it. Can you benefit from it? Sometimes rejections are a very subjective and shouldn’t affect you, but sometimes there are lessons you can learn from failures, so that you know to do things differently next time.
For example, in the script development process, how are you going to take notes? If your ego is too high, you will probably reject all of those notes, and lose valuable advice. Or you will try to incorporate all the notes, which I don’t think is a good thing either because you’re losing your voice if you listen to everything. You need to find balance.
What are you up to now?
HZ: Right now we’re working on the feature version of “The Chef.” We’ve been talking with companies, investors, producers, about how to make this happen. It’s in development and hopefully we’ll have a feature version in five years.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
This announcement was sponsored by Submittable partner AT&T. Submissions for the 2020 AT&T Film Awards are open through April 30, 2020. Categories include Spanish-language, Youth Film Concept, Merged or Augmented Reality, Virtual Reality, and Mobile/360/Drone. Complete information regarding submission rules, deadlines, and eligibility are available at attfilmawards.submittable.com.
Read more about the 2019 AT&T Film Award Winners.