Family Affair: How the Director of Baby Steps Used the Making of the Film to Connect With His Mother
By Barney Cheng on August 15, 2017
About six years ago, I was searching for a feature film topic. I’d already directed six short films. Making a feature was the logical next step for my career.
I knew that it would be a long journey, so I wanted to create something that really mattered to me.
I had just come back from visiting my mother in Taipei. The trip involved getting together with a lot of relatives and friends. A typical family gathering would play out like this:
A well-intentioned but nosey aunt, uncle or friend would always innocently ask me:
“When are you getting married?”
“Do you have a girlfriend?”
I’d often just smile and shrug, hoping that the inquisition would end. But of course their questions kept coming. They would turn to my mother:
“I know the perfect girl for Barney! My friend’s daughter Jennifer also lives in Los Angeles. I can arrange for them to meet in the U.S.”
It was like Groundhog Day. This scenario would replay over and over and over again, every time I visited Taiwan. I always tried to avoid family gatherings, but it was impossible because everyone wanted to see me.
People say that when you come out of the closet, your parents go right in. This is especially true for Taiwanese parents. Out of respect for my mother I would always remain silent about my personal life in front of her friends and relatives. We rarely discuss the gay aspect of my personal life. Slowly, we grew apart.
After I came back to L.A., I came across a story about a gay couple from Israel. They wanted to have a baby, but since it was illegal to hire a surrogate in Israel, they flew to the U.S. to work with an American egg donor. They flew to India to transfer the embryos to an Indian surrogate. Nine months later, they traveled across the globe to pick up their baby.
I was intrigued by the couple’s emotional and physical journey, and I could see that as a movie. I started doing research on surrogacy, attended conferences and interviewed couples who went through the process. I learned that having a baby is an extremely complicated journey for anyone, but especially for a gay person. He or she faces seemingly insurmountable obstacles and conflicts—personal, interpersonal, generational, legal, cultural, financial, ethical and global—and these are rich ingredients for a compelling screenplay.
Then I thought, “What if it were my life? What if I had a partner, and we decided to have kids? What would my mother think? She would be thrilled, but how was it going to work? How would she tell her friends?” I would never bring a child into the world and stay in the closet. Hiding in the closet would have sent a wrong message to my child. I looked into my own life, what I was going through…
Baby Steps was conceived.
Baby Steps trailer
I wrote my first draft in less than two weeks. Since then the screenplay went through at least 50 rewrites, if not more. The most important character is the role of the mother. In 2002, I co-starred opposite Woody Allen in Hollywood Ending. I learned from working closely with Woody that casting is one of the most important aspects of filmmaking. If you cast the right actors for the film, you have already won half of the battle. I knew I needed a very strong actress to play the mother.
From the beginning, I had Grace Guei in mind. I loved her performance in Ang Lee’s The Wedding Banquet. In that film, Grace also played a Taiwanese mother of a gay son. Known as the Meryl Streep of Asia, Grace’s acting was so nuanced, rich and real that she could make you laugh and cry all at the same time.
It wasn’t until I started working with Grace that I realized that her effortless acting came as a result of hard work. To research the character, Grace met with my mother in Taipei. My mother told Grace how she felt after I came out to her. Without anyone to talk to, and feeling isolated as a single parent in a foreign land, she had nightmares every night and often woke up screaming. This was in the early ’90s, when homosexuality was perceived to equate AIDS, which meant death.
My mother was hungry to share her experiences with Grace. It was like a gate suddenly opened, and all of her traumatic memories flooded out. Through Grace, I learned about my mom’s nightmares and that it was the worst time of her life. This was saddening; I wish I had known and reached out more. But it was really difficult for either of us to communicate about the gay aspect of my life.
Initially my script focused on the emotional and physical journey of the gay couple. After Grace shared my mother’s stories, it became clear that Baby Steps needed to focus on the mother instead. Subsequent drafts focused on her evolution—from being in denial, to feeling isolated, to dealing with her demons, to finally coming out and embracing her son’s new family. Through collaborating with Grace, we found the spine and heart of the story.
Casting the mother character was easy, but finding the rest of the cast was difficult. When I was writing the script, I didn’t want to attach myself as Danny. Having that expectation would have seriously inhibited my ability to craft a compelling story. I was more interested in writing a great script and directing a quality film. We auditioned a lot of actors from the U.S. and Taiwan for the role. We needed someone who could speak American-accented English and Taiwanese-accented Mandarin fluently. We needed someone in his ’30s who could realistically play a gay character. With all the language, accent and age requirements, we couldn’t find the right actor. My producer Li-Kong Hsu (Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, The Wedding Banquet, Eat Drink Man Woman) suggested that I play the part. I was terrified.
Cheng (left) and Grace Guei (right) in a scene from Baby Steps
We also auditioned a lot of actresses in the U.S. and Asia for the pivotal role of Mickey, the Indonesian foreign worker who ended up being the gay couple’s surrogate. Again, the role was very specific. She needed to speak Indonesian, Chinese and a little bit of English. The role was substantial with an emotional arc. All of the American actresses we saw didn’t feel right. We auditioned a lot of Indonesian foreign workers in Taiwan. None felt right either. I was seriously considering re-writing the role when Love Fang came in to read for us. We lucked out. She’s from Indonesia, used to work as a foreign housekeeper in Taiwan and was amazing in the movie.
One of the most important aspects of the story was creating the different worlds that the mother and son are from. There are four distinct worlds in the movie—West Hollywood, Mumbai, Bangkok and Taipei—and each has its specific texture, color and mood. Authenticity was very important for me. This led to the decision of hiring two sets of production teams. Taiwanese designers would create the looks for our Asian cast and locales, and American designers would create Danny’s looks and his world. Working with two sets of local designers required communication in multiple languages. It was challenging, but worth the efforts. We were able to create authentic worlds to accentuate the themes and the emotional arcs of the characters.
What I couldn’t say to my mother, I put it on the screen. What my mother couldn’t say to me, she expressed it through her actions.
When we filmed Baby Steps in Taipei, my mother would make me breakfast each morning to make sure that I was well-prepared for the long, hectic day ahead. We would have early 5 o’clock calls, and my mom would get up at 3:00 a.m. to make me breakfast. She didn’t have to say anything, but I felt that she cared.
The shoot was very difficult. Every day felt like racing against time and sunlight, and the end of each day always felt like a miracle. We had very limited budget and only had 34 days to shoot four different countries. What made the process even more challenging was that our American cast and crew didn’t speak Chinese, and our Asian cast and crew didn’t speak English. Although I’m trilingual (English, Mandarin and Taiwanese), it was still a very difficult process having to explain everything twice in two languages and making sure that it was clear and understood.
Cheng in a scene from Baby Steps
On top of all that, I was directing and acting at the same time. I would do a scene, then take off the “actor” hat and put on the “director” hat. Walk over to the monitor to review what we’d just filmed. Give adjustment notes to cast and crew in English and Chinese. Then quickly go back to the scene. Stay calm. Breathe. And do it all over again. We did this for every single shot that I was in. It was crazy.
The most challenging and emotional scene to film was the climax of the movie: the final banquet scene. Ma is confronted with two choices: to be authentic or continue to lie. At the banquet, she surprised everyone. The scene was powerful and needed to be executed perfectly. We only had three hours to shoot the banquet scene. The space was very small, and it was very complicated technically and logistically.
The tiny space made it very difficult for actors. When we were shooting close-ups, we all 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 giving her touching 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.
Guei in a scene from Baby Steps
There’s a spectacular crowd scene in the movie that takes place during Taipei Pride, which is the largest LGBT Pride in Asia. Since it only occurs once a year on the last Saturday of October, we knew we were going to have difficulty filming that pivotal scene. We filmed the crowd scene without actors back in 2012, even though the film had not been officially green-lit then. Two years later, we had to recreate the scene with actors. We reached out to all the LGBT organizations in Taiwan, and a lot of volunteers came out to be our extras in the scene. Through the magic of editing, we seamlessly glued the footage from two separate years to create the Taipei Pride scene. When we were ready to release the film, we went back to those community organizations, and they all came out to support the movie.
The movie was released theatrically in Taiwan. When we were promoting for the release, it was very important to me to be an openly out filmmaker and actor. One of the important themes of Baby Steps is being open and authentic, and our promotion campaign had to be consistent with that vision.
We were doing a lot of print, radio and TV interviews. I secretly wished that my mother would join me and share her stories. To my surprise, she did! She joined me and Grace on a TV talk show. My mother openly shared her struggles of coming to terms with having a gay son. She invited all of her friends to see the film in theater. And my mother enrolled friends and relatives to join her at marriage equality rallies in Taiwan. Through Baby Steps, she “came out.”
Art imitates life, but sometimes art shapes life. Through the Baby Steps journey, my mother and I took baby steps in real life to connect. It brought us closer. I never would’ve imagined, however, that Baby Steps would eventually become a larger conversation in Taiwan and around the globe.
Cheng (left) and Michael Adam Hamilton (right) in a scene from Baby Steps
Many LGBT activists referenced Baby Steps in their discussions about family and same-sex marriage, eventually leading Taiwan to be the first democracy in Asia to legalize same-sex marriage. On a greater global significance, the U.S. State Department hosted U.S. embassy screenings of Baby Steps in Mongolia and six major cities in China, where LGBT-themed stories are strictly censored. The U.S. Embassy in Myanmar also sponsored events and screened Baby Steps in Yangon. I never would’ve imagined in my wildest dreams that the U.S. State Department would screen my film to share the American value of LGBT equality around the globe.
It’s such a daunting task making a feature film, and I remember being completely overwhelmed by all the things that I needed to do. In practical filmmaking terms, I learned to focus one step at a time. Break down into baby steps. And focus on those steps, no more, no less. By taking focused baby steps and always marching forward, before you know it, the film is finished. Baby steps. MM
Baby Steps is available on DVD, Blu-ray and VOD in the U.S. and Canada August 15, 2017, courtesy of Gravitas Ventures.