Episode 55 | CRA Screenwriter: Adele Lim
Whether it's a female director or a minority writer on staff, if we don't get a voice or we don't hit it out of the park, the immediate thought is, "Oh, well they don't get it because they're just too different and they're never going to get it."
Below is an abridged audio transcript of Episode 55 from Season 4 of Rock The Boat: Making Waves, edited for clarity.
Have you seen Crazy Rich Asians? If you listen to this podcast, you probably have. But if you haven't, it's a romantic comedy with an all Asian cast, the first all Asian cast in a Hollywood production since The Joy Luck Club. This film was long awaited by many of us, and in this episode Lucia talks with screenwriter Adele Lim, who grew up in Malaysia before emigrating to the US.
Before Crazy Rich Asians, Adele worked on TV shows for years. She tells us why she loves writing for TV compared to feature films and what it was like starting out in LA as a young writing assistant.
We'll hear more about:
her first TV writing job in LA
working as a TV writer versus a feature film writer
what it was like to work on Crazy Rich Asians and then see in full
what her parents thought about the film
I. Crazy Rich Asians!
Lucia: I think the dying question that everybody has is like, what was it like working on the script for Crazy Rich Asians and how is your life been different pre and post CRA?
Adele: Oh gosh. you know, I don't know if it's so much that my life has changed that much. I feel like I'm a lot more out there, but you know, I've been writing and producing for 17 years in one hour network drama, television, and the experience of writing for Crazy Rich, it's hard to put into words, which is kind of pathetic.
I'm supposed to be a writer right. But it's this, I'm an immigrant. I came here when I was 19 and I felt my whole career that I was so lucky that I got to write for American television, which I grew up watching. But in that whole time, it never even truly occurred to me.
I don't think that I had never written for a lead character that looked or sounded like me or had, any similarities in how we grew up.
And this was all prior to Crazy Rich and on Crazy Rich, the feeling of writing characters that sounded like my aunts and my mother and my father and my friends. There's truly nothing like it when, it just sounds so sad that you didn't even know that you had this whole resource that you couldn't tap on.
To go back and from the beginning, I'm Chinese and my family is Chinese Malaysian.
So they've been there for a long time. We have our own specific culture. You see a little bit of it in Crazy Rich Asians where there are these Chinese communities who've been there for so long. Some of them have lost a little bit of the language, but they basically combined their cultures with the local cultures.
II. The TV writer's room
Lucia: Tell me about what did you do in LA to get your first writing gig?
Adele: In LA, it was tough. It was tough for the first, like four or five years. I think I was really lucky in that I got my first writer assistant job when I was 21, and that's hard to do in any time in the last couple of decades. These jobs are hard to come by.
And I remember my mother would get on the phone with me once a week with this like fateful sighing, like, "Oh, the spark has gone from your voice, Adele. Over here, you could be working in like a good office job with a paid vacation." And, I'm struggling as an assistant.
The thought that, you know, you'd graduate from college and be someone's assistant, you know, for an Asian family isn't great.
Lucia: How did you take that? How did you take all of those comments?
Adele: Well, you know, again, if you grew up with a traditional Chinese family, you are used to a wall of criticism. And I don't want to say that, you know, Mom if you're listening, that it's meant as criticism. I feel like that's honestly the way they say hello, and I love you. That is a thing that we all have to deal with. That voice of our parents, because we know it comes from love.
Most of the Asians and Asian Americans I've spoken to, they understand that for the most part, it doesn't come from a place of wanting to tear you down.
It comes from a place of them being concerned about your future.
Lucia: So since you worked on Zena Warrior Princess, you ended up working on a ton of other TV shows. Did you always want to stay in TV or have you wanted to work on movies as well? Is that kind of a typical career path for writers?
Adele: I don't know about typical, but I would say that when I was starting out, most writers grew up wanting to write movies and then ended up in television. And I feel like I had the opposite kind of trajectory, cause in Malaysia movies took a long time getting there.
I didn't get out to the movies a lot, but we got American television and I loved it. And I'm not that old. It's just that American TV back then took a long time to get to Malaysia. So I feel like I covered the development of all American television while in Malaysia when we first got our TV.
One of the first shows I remember seeing was the Andy Griffith show with black and white.
And then we got all like the weird, like eighties TV shows like Manimal and the Wizkid things you would not know. But again, it took a long time to get to Malaysia. And then by the time just before I left for college, we were caught up to 90210.
So I'd always loved American television. And when I had a chance to write for it, that's the format I knew and I loved. And this is a detail that people outside the industry are not so familiar with, but in television, writers are king, where the showrunners, and that means we run the show, we run everything.
We cover pre-production, production, post-production, running the writer's rooms. The pilot directors have an important voice in setting the tone of the show.
But after that, all the individual episodic directors, they come and they go, we hold the story. And we control all of it, and it's great.
Whereas in feature films, writers have very little agency. It's really the medium for directors and for producers. So as you're coming up through the industry. I'm hearing from all my feature writer friends, even the ones who are doing well, where they start making a bunch of money doing features or doing rewrites, but the things that they write never get shot or you write a thing and it will be three or five years or never gets made.
Whereas in TV, I would be writing some crazy, insane scenes that I just pull out of my ass. And then the next day we're casting it, and then five days from then, we're shooting it. So really I have a huge TV writers bias.
III. Portraying culture
Lucia: So you were like, "I want to portray my culture and basically your upbringing," in the purest form possible. and I say this a lot to other people who've been on the podcast and other of my friends, I get really upset when I see documentaries about anything Chinese, but it's told from by white professors and I'm like...
Adele: Yes. Because that's the experience over here being told by outside of just by white people, like what your culture is or how you are, and especially with a property named Crazy Rich Asians, it's really easy to have a thing where the characters become like weird circus freaks, you know?
Oh look, they're so far and they're so weird. They're so rich. We can't relate to them at all, but you know, are they fucking funny? And that was the last thing I wanted, and that's the last thing John Chu wanted, we want people to laugh and cry with the characters and not to laugh at them.
Lucia: How much of your own cultural experiences were you able to insert into the script
Adele: You can't have a script and then just say, "I am going to make it culturally correct in this one scene and that one scene." It doesn't work that way.
When I came on , I really sort of went through the whole thing the characters and their arcs and the emotional place where they came from really do have to track through the whole movie.
There were some specific scenes where, that were not in the book that we put in it, between John and I think we came up with like the dumpling scene, the Mahjong scene.
Lucia: I think to your point, right, we are a career podcast. there are a lot of people who I know who work nine to five jobs in corporate America who want to be writers or who want to pursue creative fields. So what advice do you have for them?
Adele: Get into it, man, just do it. It's being actually your life calling. It's totally cool if it is, but if it isn't, then you owe it to yourself. You owe it to yourself to try and, and again, I'll bring up all the caveats, but just, it's not an easy industry to break into.
It's hard to find your footing, but oh my God, when you have found it, there's nothing else like it.
Read more about why Adele left the sequel to Crazy Rich Asians because of pay disparity.