Finding Your Freedom As A Filmmaker: A Miniflix Interview With Dean Yamada

Award-winning short filmmaker and university professor talks about Asian-American representation, making films abroad and what it’s like to direct a film with your students.

Much has changed at Biola University since Dean Yamada joined the film faculty in 2005. Unassumingly nestled within the quiet suburbs of Los Angeles County, this film program has quickly ascended to top-tier status among U.S. film schools, being featured in Variety’s 40 Best Film Schools of 2018, along with mentions in major industry outlets like Moviemaker, Filmmaker, Backstage and more. This past July, the Cinema and Media Arts department became an official school of Biola University, with the promise of a brand-new $60-million facility on its way. Yet, one thing has remained the same: the consistency of vision and excellence of the faculty.

After over a decade of teaching visual structure to freshman, making short films abroad with students and winning several international short film awards, Dean shares with us what lessons he’s taken away from his experiences as both a professor and a director.

Miniflix Interviewer: How early did you know you wanted to be a filmmaker? Was it an interest you had since childhood, or did it come along later?

Dean Yamada: I grew up in Davis, California. Davis at that time was very agricultural, so we had one movie theater with one screen. But I still remember seeing Star Wars when I was a kid and it basically changed my life and the way that I wanted to somehow make movies someday. But actually making movies wasn’t a reality until I was in high school, when we got our hands on camcorders. When I was at USC as an undergrad, I received a minor in film and took a film class in which I was able to make five short Super 8 films. That’s when my love of cinema transformed into a way to actually express myself where I felt like I found my voice in a small way. That’s when I saw the power and the potential of cinema. And then I went back to USC a few years later for graduate school and got my MFA in Production there.

Miniflix: What were your projects like at USC as an undergraduate versus your time there getting an MFA? Had you noticed your style or sensibilities changing at all?

Dean: When I was an undergrad, I only took one major film class; it was called 290. It’s where we shot five short Super 8 films. So when I got to grad school, I was beyond excited to be there. I didn’t have all these other things competing with my desire to pursue film…it was purely about studying film and making films. But something was lost in the transition between undergraduate and graduate school. As an undergrad, making those Super 8 films, I felt incredibly inspired and free. My camera was very loose, and I was inspired by what I was able to create. When I got to grad school, there was more structure, and I began to learn things about cinema that I had no idea existed. But that structure also took away from the free-ness of the camera.

M: Would you say that at first you didn’t know there were rules to be broken, so you were experiencing ignorant bliss in your undergrad years that carried you as a director for awhile?

D: I think that’s right. I was just having fun holding a Super 8 camera and having the freedom to do what I wanted instinctually. When you start to study film, you no longer see it the same way. Everything is through a studied lens and there is more structure. Ever since then, really, I’ve been trying to get back to that point in my youth, where I really feel more free with the camera. My wife is constantly challenging me to be looser with the camera, and not so structured visually.

M: Do you feel that, as a film educator, students should be taught how to make “short films” and “feature films” as separate mediums or separate artistic forms of expression? Why or why not?

D: I think, visually speaking, there’s a lot of crossover. What applies to feature films also applies to short films. But when we’re talking about the format of a feature (2 hours) versus a short film (10 minutes), there’s a large difference. A two hour film has to have a certain amount of structure in order to move the plot forward and in order to engage us for those two hours. But with short films, you don’t have to be constrained… you can have a short that doesn’t have a third act or only has a second act. You can see shorts that just throw you into the moment and they don’t need to offer a resolution. There’s so many different ways to tell shorts, and I think we’re even still exploring that.

M: Do you find that most film students of yours are trying to make one kind of short film? Are they trying to adhere to a three act structure or trying to give a huge arc? Or do you find students that want to explore a very particular moment of a character’s life?

D: More often than not for students, I see more of your classic three-act structures within a larger arc. I think it’s because they’re still learning; they’re undergraduates. So they’re needing to learn the rules before they can begin to break them. But I want students to break out of those boxes and let their voice come first. And whatever medium that voice needs to come out through, I think that’s the format of the short film they should pursue.

M: What’s one of the biggest differences between film students now and film students when you first started working at Biola University? Do you find yourself and the film department having to change to keep up with the differences?

D: Having taught for over twelve years, I feel like I can say that film students haven’t changed fundamentally over the past decade. Sure, they’ve become more technically savvy, but technique can only get you so far. They still need to learn story, and even more than that, they need to find their voice. The fundamentals are still the fundamentals. With that said, yes, we’re trying to stay ahead of the curve in regards to technology, whether it’s equipment, facilities or pursuing things like VR.

M: Can you walk us through the typical process of directing films with Biola students as part of an overseas Summer trip? How did this first become a program and opportunity for students, and how has it developed?

D: Dr. Michael Gonzalez [professor of Cinema and Media Arts at Biola] had a contact that lived in Tokyo. So during a visit to Japan, Mike and this man, Paul Nethercott, connected and agreed to make a film together, and they started planning it. When Mike got the greenlight, his daughter got engaged, and the wedding was going to be during the month of January when this shoot was going to happen, so he asked me to take his place. I had already been to Japan several times, so I was excited to make a film there with these students. That film ended up winning first place at the Inigo Film Festival in Sydney, Australia, which led to another production again with a different class of students two years later. This time we tried to raise the bar, and the film went to the Venice Film Festival and a lot of other major short film festivals like Clermont-Ferrand.

And we just continued to raise the bar on these student collaborations each time, until we were ready to shoot a feature. So we finally tackled the feature and actually shot two features in a row.

M: In the case of most of the short films you’ve made, you were not the writer. In a day and age when most short film directors are also their own writers, why have you decided to keep directing other people’s scripts?

D: I started off writing my own films, because when you’re in grad school a lot of times you are writing your own projects. My thesis film was called The Nisei Farmer; which I wrote and directed. And I wrote the film for the first overseas Biola trip, but once we got to the second one, the producer was in touch with a very talented writer named Yu Shibuya, who was bilingual — fluent in both Japanese and English. We asked him to pitch some ideas to us. One of the ideas that he’d pitched was about a bike that gets stolen piece by piece [Jitensha]. So we asked him to write what became a brilliant script. We ended up making three films together (two shorts and a feature). When you can truly trust a writer and his/her process, it’s nice for a director to dig into someone else’s text to find the subtext without being biased about the writing. There’s a certain freedom in directing someone else’s material.

With that said, the next project we have coming down the line is written by my wife and I. Now it’s a process of finding our voices, nurturing them and telling our story.

M: Touring, your most recent short film, seemed like quite a departure for you. Not only is this film in English and takes place in the United States, but it’s also a much more contained work. It has a darker ending than your past shorts; the story is left largely unresolved. Were these departures intentional for you? Were you looking to tell a different kind of story than you had previously?

D: Yes, I absolutely was trying to tell a different story. Persimmon, Jitensha and Cicada were rooted in magical realism. I love those films and those stories, but because I am Asian-American, I want to tell primarily Asian-American stories. Going to Japan was a gift…but shooting abroad can perpetuate the mis-perception in America that Asian-Americans are foreigners. My wife and I want to tell Asian-American stories in America about characters in which their race doesn’t have anything to do with the story: where Asian-Americans can just be Americans. When the writer [Jeffrey Schulder] wrote this story, the protagonist was not Asian-American, but because I wanted the story to be personal to me and my upbringing, we cast an Asian-American actor named Kyler Sakamoto in the lead role.

Representation in Hollywood is important to me. We have seen some changes happen recently with Crazy Rich Asians and with Searching and other films. It’s my goal to help put Asian-Americans in front of the camera and to tell our story.

M: What is it like directing a project in collaboration with your students? How do you tow that line between being their teacher and being a professional co-worker?

D: It’s incredibly exciting because I have known most of the students from the time they were freshman. I get to see their growth and their evolution as filmmakers. Many of these students, who I’ve had the pleasure of working with, have become lifelong friends. That’s a big privilege for me. Even if they are students, they always bring their best. They’re both teachable and talented, and I think it’s reflected in the work. I trust their creative process so when we’re making a film together I’m less of a teacher and more of a collaborator.

M: In 2018, what would you say is the importance of the short film? Is it really only useful to a director’s career as a calling card to the industry, or is there still value in trying to get them made for their own sake?

D: I think that in 2018 someone should want to make a short because they love the medium. With Vimeo and YouTube and even Instagram, you see short content everywhere. Often a five minute short is much more effective than a twenty minute short in regards to the impact it can have on a viewer. It seems to me that shorts nowadays are less calling cards and more for the need to tell a story. I just think that from a personal standpoint someone should want to just get their hands dirty and make a film.

M: What is your favorite short film?

D: There are a few that I show every year in my Advanced Directing class. One is called The Armoire by Jamie Travis.

I also love this short called Five Deep Breaths by Seith Mann.

They are polar opposites in style, but both tell compelling stories in visually interesting, and honest, ways. There are hundreds of others I could probably name. It’s an exciting format that introduces us to new and unique voices every year.

To learn more about the School of Cinema and Media at Biola University, go to: https://www.biola.edu/film