Post Archives: Ten Questions For Koji Steven Sakai

Wednesday, December 30, 2020


This article was originally written for the YOMYOMF blog which was closed approximately two years ago and is being re-posted here for archival purposes.


I always love to hear about what other people in the AAPI community are up to, so I thought I would throw out some questions to screenwriter, blogger, novelist, and producer Koji Steven Sakai.

1. You’ve been working on a few film projects including your new film Dying To Kill with Dwayne Perkins, Lynn Chen, and Johnny Skourtis (among others) as well as looking to option a screenplay about Japanese Americans. Can you talk a little bit about how those projects are going, what the process has been like, and when people could expect to see the finished products?

I’m happy to report that Dying to Kill is finished! We’ll be releasing a teaser/trailer shortly, so stay tuned. We’re currently looking for the right place to premier it at. I hope to have some good news about that soon.

Working on small indies are extremely challenging. Everything is a problem. Everything is a hustle. Working on these movies has aged me by at least ten years. But I can honestly say that Dying to Kill is probably the favorite movie I’ve done so far. The director Raymond C. Lai and all the actors and crew did amazing jobs with what we had.

Otherwise, I’m just grinding away on a bunch of different projects—including the Japanese American script that I’m still looking for. Recently, I’ve expanded on the kinds of projects I’m doing. So besides features, I’m working on a few television projects, another novel, a comic book, and more! You never know what will move forward and what won’t. So I have to keep pushing on a bunch of things to see which one has legs.

One thing I’ve been working hard on are two Asian American feature projects that I hope to get off the ground this year. Both projects have a talented team already attached. One of the projects, 626 is a finalist at a development program for new musicals through East West Players and New Musicals Inc. 626 is a love letter to my neighborhood, the San Gabriel Valley, in the form of a musical. It’s something I’ve been wanting to write ever since I started writing. I developed it with writer/director Jeff Liu and Scott “Chops” Jung. Scott is one of the guys from the rap group, Mountain Brothers. He’s a hero of mine so it’s been a dream to work with him on something.

2. Word on the street has it that a new project you’re also working on will involve Vivica A. Fox. Can you tell us a little bit about that project?

I was supposed to shoot this project late last year, but it fell through at the last second. We’re hoping to get it going again later this year. Fingers crossed. It’s a horror film called Skeletons in the Closet. It’s a fun project about the Santa Muerte, the goddess of death. I realize I say this about everything but it’s one of my favorite horror scripts I’ve ever written. I can’t wait for it to get it made.

3. One of your first films was Death Ride in 2006 directed by Junichi Suzuki. Fast forward 10 years later. How has the landscape changed for Asian Americans in the business from your perspective? What’s stayed the same and also might be hurdles that you still see the AAPI community has to overcome?

In my opinion, the landscape for Asian Americans has changed a lot and for the better. The fact that we have shows about Asian Americans on network television—re: Fresh Off the Boat and Dr. Ken—is amazing. If someone told me that there would be two shows with an all Asian American cast ten years ago, I would have laughed at them.

Are things perfect? No. But they are getting better. I have to believe that. But the feature film world is still behind. Just look at the controversies around Ghost in the Shell and Aloha. But the fact that we are talking about it, is a big deal. And again wouldn’t have been part of the conversation ten years ago.

The biggest hurdle for the AAPI community is that we have to support our projects more. I’ve seen it done—re: Better Luck Tomorrow and Fresh Off the Boat—so I know it’s possible. We have to show Hollywood that AAPI films and projects can make money. I know this might rub some people the wrong way, but I don’t think all of Hollywood is racist. It’s a business. If we can prove our movies make money, they will make more. But if we’re not even willing to watch them, then who will?

One thing I’ve learned over the last year though is that it’s not just about the audience. We as AAPI content creators have to do a better job of making projects more people want to see. I’m not criticizing anyone—this is on all of us, including me. I’ve taken this to heart. My next two Asian American films are going to be my responses to this very issue.

4. Last year you wrote your debut novel Romeo & Juliet Vs. Zombies. How did you get connected to Zharme Publishing Press and what’s been your experience like so far as a novel author? Do you have any advice for Asian American writers who are looking to get published? Is there a point when they should just give up if they’ve gotten too many rejection letters?

Romeo & Juliet Vs. Zombies started off as a screenplay. I saw that Zharme was looking for scripts to turn into novels, so I submitted it and they liked it. I wish it was more exciting than that.

Being a published author means a lot to me. Not a lot people know this, but when I went to USC for writing I started out as a novelist. That was a dream of mine, to get something—anything—published. I literally used to dream about it. So my experience has been great. I sometimes have to pinch myself that I did it. I never thought I’d actually write something that someone would want to publish!

My advice to Asian American writers trying to get published is to think of writing as a job. Because a job requires working on it all the time and every day. A job requires you to know what is going on in the industry.

One of the biggest differences between a professional writer—who treats writing like a job—and an amateur who waits for inspiration is that a professional writer finds inspiration every time they sit in front of their computer or pick up their pen. So whenever I sit in front of my computer, wherever that might be, I’m ready to write and in the right frame of mind.

Regarding rejections, that’s just part of the business. It’s difficult to get rejected, especially when you get your hopes up and when they come in bunches. It’s hard not to get down on oneself. I try to keep in mind that 99% of the time—most of us—will get rejected. You have to know that going in. If you can’t handle it then it’s probably not the right business for you. Personally, I try to focus on the 1% of time I’ll get a yes. That’s what keeps me going.

5. The name of one of your films was Chink (which garnered Jason Tobin a Best Actor award) and then later was changed to #1 Serial Killer. Can you share a little bit about that decision (as I think it had to do with distribution) and the give and take within the different functioning stakeholders of a film?

Chink was very controversial title, the team–Stanley Yung, Quentin Lee and I—knew that going in. We figured that the title would eventually be changed. But we wanted to provoke people into thinking and talking about internalized racism. So changing the title wasn’t something that was totally unexpected.

The distributor who picked up the film told us that the title would alienate vendors, consumers, and buyers—which made sense to us. We debated within the team and the distributor other titles. Here are some of the ones I can still remember: Mask to Kill or Masked to KillCreepChopped UpDis-Oriental. We eventually settled on #1 Serial Killer.

6. A new writing project you’ve just completed is a graphic novel co-authored with Phinny Kiyomura and illustrated by Rob Sato called 442 about young Japanese men leaving their families behind in Internment Camps to fight a borderline suicide mission in France. How long did the novel take to complete? With the graphic novel being published digitally on Stēla, did the platform play a part in how you constructed the story or illustrations?

It took Phinny Kiyomura and I a lot longer to write 442 than I think we both imagined. But if we thought about it, we should have known that going in—since neither of us had any experience writing comics or graphic novels. At the end of the day, we probably worked on it for over a year.

The platform did play a part in the story and the art. Rob Sato (the artist), Phinny, and I, tried to always keep in mind that people were going to be looking at our project on their phones.

I do want to mention one thing about 442. When I pitch a story—be it a film, television project, or in this case a graphic novel—I always try to pitch an Asian American story along with other more “mainstream” ones. So when I pitched the team over at Stela, I pitched a hardcore drama, a zombie story, something based off a fairy tale, and the story about the most highly decorated military unit for its size and shape who happened to have Japanese American soldiers in it. To my surprise, they liked the story about Japanese Americans soldiers the best. In my entire career, that was the first time the Asian American story had ever been chosen. Stela saw the potential and I am grateful that they have allowed Phinny and I to share this story with more people. This is a long way of saying that the folks at Stela should be recognized for this. While a lot of people in the entertainment industry are talking about diversity, they’re doing it.

By the way, 442 will soon be out on the Stēla app — it’s presently just for iPhone, but will soon be on Android, too). If you download the free app you can view the preview of the first chapter.

*Bonus Questions And Lists*

1. Have you ever felt like a sellout, and if you did, in the end did was it just a compromise that had to be made? Is life too gray to call anyone a sellout?

I think when I was younger, I threw the word sellout around a lot. As I’ve gotten older, I know life is complicated and have realized it’s not my place to call someone a sellout or not. In fact, I’m not even sure what that word means anymore. Does it mean financial success? Because if it does, I wouldn’t mind being a sellout if it meant more money in my pocket.

2. Name one or more people you’d like to work with in the future that you currently haven’t had the chance to yet.

I’d love to work with Justin Lin. He’s the god of Asian American filmmakers. Other than that, it’d be a dream of mine to work with hologram 2Pac and Bruce Lee, maybe in the same movie? That would be dope.

3. Outside of your work and projects you’re an Asian American dad raising an Asian American son. What is something you’ve struggled with as a dad (and then overcame or made a decision on) from the perspective of being Asian American or as a Person of Color?

Great question. I’ve struggled with “how to” and “when to” talk to my toddler son about the Japanese Americans concentration camps during World War II. I want to make sure he knows what happened to our people—and our family. As Japanese Americans and as decedents of people who were put in them, we have a moral responsibility to remember and to make sure it never happens again to anyone ever again. But I don’t want to talk about it so much to my son that he gets tired of it. I think there is a fine line somewhere there.

How did I overcome this? I basically decided to not worry about him getting tired of it. I talk to him about it all the time, even if he doesn’t quite understand what I’m talking about. So every time we pass the Santa Anita Race track, I tell him, “That’s where they locked up our people in horse stalls.” This has led to some very interesting conversations. We’re also going on a pilgrimage to Manzanar, one of the 10 camps, in a few weeks. One day, I’d like to take him to all the camps his grandfather and family were incarcerated at.

4. Give us one movie with a predominately white cast that you think could be an awesome remake with a predominately Asian American cast.

I think the 1980s cult classic Red Dawn would be awesome to remake with an all Asian American cast. This is not to be mistaken with the recent—crappy—remake of the movie with the bad guys being Asian. We’d be the heroes and we’d kick ass! Go Wolverines! On a side note, can I be in this movie?