An e-mail Q&A with Barney Cheng, the director, writer, and star of “Baby Steps,” a new film about a gay Taiwanese American man on an international quest to find a surrogate mother to help him and his white partner have a baby, despite interference from a controlling mother in Taiwan. “Baby Steps” is now available in the U.S. and Canada on iTunes, Amazon, and Google Play.
What had your career as an actor/filmmaker been like up until the production of "Baby Steps?" Why did you choose to self-direct? Can you talk about how you were able to get top talents and producers involved?
Barney Cheng: After co-starring opposite Woody Allen in Hollywood Ending, I moved from New York to Los Angeles to study writing and directing. I was inspired by Woody to be pro-active and to tell my own stories. Baby Steps is a six-year journey from concept to writing to filmmaking to release.
The entire project would not have happened without Grace Guei’s involvement. I admired her work in Ang Lee’s The Wedding Banquet. In that movie, she also played a Taiwanese mother of a Taiwanese-American gay man. When I pitched Baby Steps to Grace, I told her that Ang Lee’s film was about a Taiwanese-American gay son’s coming out. As the world has changed over the next two decades, Baby Steps is timely and relevant, and it’s about a Taiwanese mother’s coming-out story. She was intrigued.
“Coming out” is understood to mean declaring publicly that one is gay. What do you mean when you say this is a “Taiwanese mother’s coming-out story?”
I think “coming out” has evolved over the years to mean being authentic and truthful, whether it be coming out as a gay person, or coming out and acknowledging the truth. In this case, it’s about a Taiwanese mother’s public acknowledgement that she is proud of her gay son.
Through Grace, I met with Oscar-winning producer Li-Kong Hsu (Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, Eat Drink Man Woman, The Wedding Banquet). I flew to Taipei to meet with Mr. Hsu. I told him the story was inspired by my personal life, and that it’s a cross-cultural and cross-generational story that could potentially bring people together through understanding and empowerment. I think both Grace and Mr. Hsu liked that I was authentic and sincere.
When we were casting for the role of Danny, we auditioned actors in Los Angeles and Taiwan. We needed an actor who not only spoke English and Chinese fluently, but with the proper accents -- English with American accent, and Chinese with Taiwanese accent. Most Asian-American actors didn’t speak Chinese, never mind the Taiwanese accent. Most Taiwanese actors didn’t speak English with an American accent. The actor also needed to be in his 30s and could realistically play an openly out gay man. Danny is a leading role with a nuanced character arc, and something was always missing in the actors that came in. Mr. Hsu asked me to play the part. I was terrified.
In the movie, Danny ends up hiring his Taiwanese mom's Indonesian maid to become a surrogate mother to carry his baby to term. This is in the maid's interest because she's promised she'll be allowed to return home and raise her own children afterwards. In real life, do you think this is ethical--to hire a family maid to carry one's child? And do you think the character you've written, his partner, and mother had any moral qualms about this?
I think surrogacy in general needs to be regulated to protect all parties involved and to avoid unethical exploitations. It’s a complex topic that relates to important issues of class, nationality, gender, sexuality, and I really wanted to explore that in Baby Steps. We live in a global world, and interconnected, and a lot of positive things could be achieved through global collaboration.
Surrogacy is illegal in Taiwan, so that elevates the conflicts and raises the stakes for all the characters in the movie. It was important, however, that the “exchange” was rooted in respect and love. It was important for me that the characters respected one another, and that ultimately it was the surrogate’s choice, as demonstrated in the film.
Have Taiwanese/Chinese/Asian audiences reacted differently to your movie than American audiences?
Asian cultures are very different. Taiwanese are very different from Japanese from Malaysians from Chinese, for example.
In Taiwan, gender equality and sex education are part of the school curriculum. As a result, Taiwan in general is very open and accepting of LGBT rights. However, when we released the movie in Taiwan, I was surprised to discover that most gay people were still not out to their families. Baby Steps was never intended to be about a gay man’s coming out story. It was more about the next step, which is LGBT family. I was surprised that a lot of audience discussions centered on coming out, rather than about the rights of family. With the legalization of same-sex marriage in Taiwan, I am excited that more Taiwanese LGBT people are coming out and becoming more visible, and that the focus is more about family.
Can you elaborate what you mean when you say “the rights of family?”
I’m referring to rights of non-traditional families, like same-sex couples, single-parents, interracial couples, for example. Baby Steps is about building a non-traditional family with the most traditional of values -- love, respect and equality.
The State Department hosted U.S. embassy screenings of the film in six cities in China. At the screenings, the American staff handed out study guides to highlight American culture and LGBT marriage equality. After the screenings, I was surprised to learn that many Chinese audiences didn’t think that the story was plausible. It seemed like a fairytale to many Chinese audiences.
What aspects of the movie did they find implausible?
That Danny could be openly out and pursue his happiness. That Danny and his mother could eventually bridge their distance and reconcile their differences. In more general terms, that gay couples could get married, have children and lead a healthy and happy life together.
China censors LGBT content, so I could understand that it’s difficult for LGBT people to see themselves accurately represented on screen.
In what ways do you believe that they’ve (the Chinese LGBT people) had been accurately represented in your movie?
I believe the longing for cross-generational understanding and connection is accurately portrayed in Baby Steps. Danny’s longing for his mother’s acceptance and love is something that Chinese audiences (most people, really) can relate to.
I believe American audiences would be able to appreciate what I had in mind when I made the film -- that’s it’s not about coming out, but more about family.
So you’re saying the focus of this movie is not about a gay protagonist, but the gay protagonist’s mom’s journey and process?
Yes. It’s less about a gay person’s coming out. It’s more about a Taiwanese mother’s evolution of coming to terms with having a gay son and his new family. She evolved from initially being ashamed of her son to reluctantly participating in his surrogacy journey to finally and wholeheartedly accepting and embracing her son and the new family.
The demographics most likely to see your film are Asian and LGBT. Were there any particular perceptions within these communities that you were trying to correct with "Baby Steps?" And if so, do you believe you've been successful?
There’s a homophobia in the Asian and Asian American community, and there’s racism in the LGBT community. As a storyteller, I wanted to humanize marginalized characters -- people of color, immigrants, LGBTQ people -- so that films like Baby Steps can bring people together through empathy and shared experiences.
I spoke to someone who had seen the film recently. He’s African-American and his husband is white. He thought that the Taiwanese mother was just like his Jewish mother-in-law, and that they could relate to the obstacles and journey that the characters experienced. We all have the ability to empathize (unless you’re a sociopath!), and it’s through empathy that we grow together.
Any highlights or challenges in the making of this film you'd like to share?
There’s a spectacular Taipei Pride scene in the movie. Taipei Pride is HUGE! Thousands of people participate in Taipei Pride. There were floats, marches and festival stage performances. We really wanted to capture all the festivities. So we filmed the crowd scene back in 2012 without actors. The film wasn’t officially green-lit then because we weren’t fully funded, and no actors were attached then. However, actors were only available in January 2014, and we couldn’t possibly recreate all the spectacles. By having wide shots from the actual Pride and tighter shots of reenactment with actors, we captured the vibrant energy of the [real life parade] by gluing and editing the footage together to create a seamless scene.
The most challenging and emotional scene to film was the climax of the film: the final banquet scene. Ma is confronted with the choice to be authentic or continue to lie. She hesitates and proceeds to surprise everyone. It was really difficult logistically to film. We only had three hours to shoot the scene, and it was very small space which required complicated technical setups. When we were shooting close-ups, it was difficult for the cast and crew. Actors had to pretend and look at something that did not exist. For example, I had to look at a tennis ball next to the camera pretending that it was my mother delivering her speech. Fortunately, Grace was such an amazing actress. I listened to her passionate voice and imagined it was my mother, and tears just poured down.
This interview was edited and condensed for clarity, and is cross-published in Alhambra Source.