Tom Huang’s “Find Me” is a curious movie about a depressed recently divorce man who is going through the motions of living without experiencing life. Through the search for his “work wife” (the perky Sara Amini as Amelia), he finds new meaning in life.
That might seem like a cliché but this sleepy little movie, the third for Huang as director writer, left me thinking about a river walk through red canyon walls in a place that I’ve been before. The thought hasn’t left me even weeks after viewing it.
Huang wrote and directed for Why Am I Doing This? (2009) and Freshmen(1999). Although he directs and stars in the film, “Find Me” (now available on Amazon Prime Video), the man stuck in the rut of modern mundaneness isn’t him. Huang is married and has two kids. He doesn’t work an office job, but hustles in a gig economy. In the past, he’s written for TV, but now he works on video content for studios and networks as a producer/writer/director/editor. “I have a lot of gigs. This year, I’m working on two independent screenplays.” He went to UCLA for a creative writing degree and finished at Loyola Marymount with a film production MFA. “I get hired because I do a little bit of everything” and that means he’ll get the gig because he comes for “the price of one instead of four.”
Yet juggling filmmaking with gig economics means that “you have to wait to get the elements together,” including the financing. Huang was in the midst of developing a different independent film that was stalled when he began “Find Me.” Hiking in Zion National Park in The Narrows and walking down the river trail in Utah between towering canyon walls, he was inspired to write “Find Me” in hopes that people would find the easy adventure available at national parks. “The national parks are a character in this film.”
“I get so much inspiration, so much joy and healing from going to national parks,” he recalled in a recent phone interview, “I really wanted to show people to see these really amazing places.” These are places you can go without killing yourself, or, he adds, without having to literally lose an arm (Aron Lee Ralston in the biopic “127 Hours”). National park adventures don’t have to involve climb up the rocky face of El Capitan without a rope (Alex Honnold in last year’s Oscar-winning documentary “Free Solo).
These easy adventures are places that Huang discovered only after getting married. His wife, Debi Huang, “started a blog (goexplorenature.com) wanted to show families places they can go” and as a family, they “started to go with our kids to national parks, exploring and discovering them.” But as a family, the excursions needed to be “great places that were not difficult to access.”
Although growing up in Fremont, Huang’s family had been more interested in exploring the randomness of luck in Las Vegas, Huang soon started “going on my own with my friends.” His kids are now 11 and 14.
Three national parks are featured in “Find Me.” The first is Zion which is “a lot of very large smooth rocks” but because this is the “red rock that you see in a lot of movies of Arizona and Utah” and “the first thing you see (in the Narrows) are gigantic towering red rock walls,” it “feels like Mars,” a very angry red planet” and very dramatic. Yet while outside the canyon may be hot, in the Narrows, you’re in a much cooler oasis enclosed in canyon walls.
Death Valley is very different. It’s a place that seems “desolate, but a place you could really think about life” because the “beauty lies in its simplicity.” The heat can be hard to bear, but not in the winter or during early spring. “At night,” Huang noted, “It’s amazing. You’ll see the Milky Way.” And if you’re a science fiction geek, you might, like Huang, almost hear the Tatooine cantina bar music because some scenes from the original trilogy were filmed there.
Yosemite is almost the exact opposite of Death Valley because it is “just a very incredible diverse green area of life. Everything you want is there: woods, streams incredible waterfalls and amazing iconic rock formations like Half Dome.” The rock formations are not just nature’s elements but almost like other beings, other presences.
When asked if he regretted not filming this year during a superbloom, while admitting it would have been different, Huang noted that one of the reasons to go back over and over again is because nature changes and each experience will be different.
Of course, getting people out to wonderful locations isn’t enough to make a movie. It takes planning on a micro budget. Huang says you have to make friends and you have to treat them well. “Find Me” was made by filming only 2-3 days a month with other filmmaking friends who liked the script.
Communication and good food are essential for indie filmmakers. Huang explained, “You have to communicate with them that you are very aware of their time” and if they have a better paying gig or another job to do on a particular day or come in late, not break their backs about it. “They can go to a job gig that pays them or has a bigger presence. I’m all for that. I appreciate their time. On the set, I want to be happy.” But part of being happy is being well fed. “Don’t skimp. Ask people what they like. You still have a budget but you talk with the restaurants, too. Find what will make people happy so at least they know they are going to get a big meal and going to get a break. I don’t want them to get tired and burnt out.”
Huang also advises to keep the actors and camera people involved by asking them “how they want to do this character” and find ways to make it interesting for them. “I always want people to put in a good effort in the limited amount of time we have, but at the same time I want them feel like I’m okay if my production is low on the totem pole.”
While Huang feels friendship and good food is how aspiring and struggling independent filmmakers get their work done, the power of friendship is also the main theme of the movie. Even if you have to work at a job you don’t love, you can “find inspiration and happiness” by “having a friend and forming friendships and social bonds with people.” Huang hopes that his film will “encourage people to see what their friendships are like” and also inspire people to help their friends and look for help as well during those rough times. And, of course, he hopes to inspire people to get out of the house and try an easy adventure in state and national parks.
“Find Me” (the 2018 movie and not the 2014 one) won the audience award at the DisOrient Asian American Film Festival (for Huang and producer Randy Kulina) and Best Screenplay for Huang at the Rhode Island International Film Festival. It is currently available as part of Amazon Prime Video.
Huang will be giving talks (7 p.m. to 8:30 p.m.) at six different REIs in June and July.
- June 13 (Thursday): Woodland Hills
- June 24 (Monday): Tustin
- June 25 (Tuesday): Northridge
- July. 10 (Wednesday): Santa Monica
- July 16 (Tuesday): Burbank
- July 17 (Wednesday): Arcadia