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Smile DP Charlie Sarroff Talks About Parker Finn, Drone Shots and Seeing Smiles | Interview

Sarroff also talks about *that* transition.

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From the moment its viral marketing campaign took the pop culture world by storm and its brilliant trailer, Smile was a highly-anticipated film for me. The experience of seeing it in a full theater was unlike any other film I’ve seen lately, and it’s a film with some real scares.

But the cinematography goes a long way in assisting the scares. Coastal House Media spoke with DP Charlie Sarroff who discussed his relationship with director Parker Finn, the drone shots, seeing smiles in shots and that transition in the apartment.


Coastal House Media: I know it’s been a few weeks since the movie, or actually probably closest to a month now since Smile came out, but congratulations on the film. I missed the screenings for it, but I went to go see it with some family and we all had a blast going.

Charlie Sarroff: Oh, good. That’s the main thing. I think it’s been really cool to watch. I see a lot of people get back into the cinema for it and, and have a good time and sort of laugh, scream, cry and jump. No, that’s cool.

CHM: Before we get into the actual making of it, what were your thoughts on the viral marketing campaign that they did for Smile? I thought it was stellar, but what were your thoughts?

Sarroff: I mean, I cannot complain. I think they did an amazing job. I don’t know if we’d be quite here in the same position if they didn’t do all these extra things. So credit to Paramount for putting a team together and sort of thinking outside the box. 

The film was originally intended for streaming and then it tested really well and then Paramount got together and they were like, “You know what, let’s have a go,” you know, releasing this theatrically, I should say, and then with all these different guerrilla marketing and the people at baseball games and stuff like that. I mean, some of it I was a little bit like, Okay, this is interesting, like, you know, are people gonna think it’s a different kind of film? There were a lot of comparisons to Truth or Dare with their smiles and all that sort of stuff. 

And I’ll be honest, I haven’t seen Truth or Dare, but our director, Parker Finn knew it was very different — he’d seen it and I think there was a little bit of concern about just all these people smiling and popping up at baseball games and everything; are people gonna think it’s one of those sorts of films? But it is different and I’m glad that people have given it a go. And for the most part, the reviews are good. 

I think they definitely did their job, you know? I was so excited when we went to Austin [Texas] for the Fantastic [Fest] premiere to see all the big murals [that] had been painted on side of walls and lots of different billboards and posters all around town.

This was my first studio film and first theatrically-released feature. I shot a film called Relic, but that was affected heavily by the pandemic. It only went to drive-ins and a few little cinemas around the world — where countries were still open — so yeah, to have this response is amazing. So, I’ve gotta let to thank Paramount for [that] as well. So yeah, I’m quite impressed with how they went about it. 

CHM: And congratulations on this being your first studio film! I had heard of Relic, but I didn’t realize that was a pandemic film. It felt like it was older than it was…

Sarroff: We were really lucky it came out during Sundance 2020. And that was just before the pandemic really affected the U.S. so everything was still open. That was like the last film festival on the circuit at the start of the year. It wasn’t going to go play at South by Southwest as well along with another feature I did actually called Pink Skies. Unfortunately, the pandemic affected that one and everything went online.

We shot it [Relic] at the end of 2018 and then it was like cut and finished through 2019 and then premiered at Sundance. But [when] it was meant to be released, we all were stuck inside

CHM: How did you get attached to Smile? Did you know the director Parker Finn beforehand? 

Sarroff: I met Parker at the same South by Southwest, actually. The event that was put online in 2020. There was a party that they put on, well, it wasn’t really a party, it was like a mixer event in Los Angeles and I think they do it in different cities like New York and stuff where a lot of filmmakers live. It was mainly for the directors, producers, heads of departments like myself and things like that, where [we] would go.

If we were going to attend the festival, it was a good event to go to because they, the people from South by Southwest, would explain how to use their passes and how the festivals run, and they would talk about the different events that were gonna happen there. And Natalie Erika James, who was the director of Relic, was in town at that point and she would ask whether I could come along and meet her there. She was a little bit late, and I got there, and yeah, the first person I sort of bumped into — [it] was one of those awkward events where you don’t know anybody, and it was all bright and not everyone’s sort of standing around sort of waiting to see what was gonna happen — was actually Parker and I said, “Hi,” and, and then yeah, we hit it off and he had a short film playing at South by Southwest and I was telling him about Relic. I think he had heard of it or he may have seen it, but I think he’d at least heard of it, and obviously, him being a big horror fan, was interested and we planned to catch up at the festival. 

Unfortunately, the in-person event was canceled due to the pandemic. We kept in touch through the year and I was really happy to see that his short film, Laura Hasn’t Slept — which was the proof of concept for Smile — won a couple of awards at South by Southwest. I think it won one of the Grand Jury awards and another award for its poster design and some cool things like that. And when they started opening up set-up bars and restaurants and things like that, I think it was around September [or] October later that year — I’m sorry, my timeframe’s a little scattered at this — maybe it was the following year actually, which we caught up in-person. We had a beer and we just had a chat and caught up about everything that was happening and he told me that his feature film, Smile, had been picked up by Paramount at Temple Hill and that he was considering me as DP and he sent me the script. 

I think it was just one of those chance encounters where I met him and we got along and then I was fortunate enough to receive the script and I responded to it. It was fun, it was gory, it was a page-turner, it had a message and it had some layers to it, you know? It wasn’t like a “full popcorn” kind of studio horror, you know? 

You know, a lot of these horrors that are coming out via NEON and A24 and things like that are a little bit more slow-burn. And I love those films as well, but I felt it [Smile] was somewhere in between and I really responded to that. 

And he mentioned from the beginning that it was probably gonna go straight to Paramount+, which was fine by me. I was excited to do another feature and he was still involved with the studio and I hadn’t really worked in that realm before. And yeah, fortunately, he offered it to me. I had to sort of get vetted by the producers, but we all got along. Some of them had seen Relic, so that definitely helped. That’s sort of how I got on it. 

CHM: I know that you’ve done a couple of feature films, or a number of feature films before Smile, and if I’m not mistaken, this was Parker’s feature-length debut, correct?

Sarroff: Yeah, it was, and credit to him go[ing] from doing a couple of short films that [he] sort of funded himself. I think what you could see in those films — they were great — but I think what it showed were a vision and potential, and I think the producers saw that especially after winning Southwest by Southwest or one of the main awards there for Laura Hasn’t Slept, that caught the attention of different agents and production companies around town. I believe he found an agent through the Southwest by Southwest success and then he was able to present his script and then they helped shop around for him. And sure enough, Temple Hill, to their credit, came on board and they have a strong relationship with Paramount. So they took it there and then that’s sort of how it came about. It was his first feature. 

A still from Smile. Photo courtesy of Paramount.

[Compared to] the films that I had shot before, Smile [was] a little bit smaller on budget and scale. Relic was sizeable for an indie [film]. The other two I’ve done — Pink Skies Ahead and Broke, which hasn’t been released yet, hopefully, [it] will be out next year, [was] was more of a neo-western drama, actually, it’s very different — they’re all sort of different but quite a bit smaller. So yeah, we had some small[er] resources than what I was used to, and it was a slightly bigger scale, so that was cool.

With that, they’re all kind of similar in a way where if you’ve got all the resources in the world, or just a camera on the shoulder and an apple box, it’s the same principles. I think you’re still trying to find a language and just tell a story. I think that was the main thing I got out of doing a studio film that was a bit bigger [is that] it wasn’t as intimidating as I thought it might have been. You’re all there for the same reasons. You might have some more tools and there might be a little bit more bureaucracy that you have to sort of work through, but at the end of the day, it’s a similar thing [and] looking forward to doing many more, hopefully.

CHM: The biggest thing that jumped out from Smile was the drone shots. 

Sarroff: Oh, cool [laughs]. 

CHM: And I first wanna ask: Did you have any inspirations for them? When the movie was finished, my cousin, who’s not like a big movie person, turns to me and goes, “The drone shots felt like a Christopher Nolan kind of thing,” and I was thinking of The Dark Rises, but did you guys have any visual aids? Was Christopher Nolan perhaps an influence at all?

Sarroff: I think probably, even on a subconscious level, filmmakers like Christopher Nolan are our idols. Parker and I are both big fans of his work and we have seen drone shots that are being flipped around, or on Dutch angles, or upside down before. I’m sure there are quite a lot of influences there. There was an old film, damn it, I’m sorry, I can’t remember it. I think Parker really just showed me for its drone shot. It was like an old seventies film that had this sort of sweeping drone shot. I think it was over one of the freeways in LA and then it sort of zoomed in and yeah, he definitely had a vision for a lot of these and then he’d show me references and then we’d sort of discuss how best to kind of go about ’em. 

But essentially, the drone shots, when they flip upside down and rotate and things like that, they’re essentially resembling Rose’s life [being] turned upside-down. It’s quite simple in that regard. You know, everything’s falling. So we thought it would just be some added language to having that sinking feeling of everything turning, not understanding everything that’s going on around you. And she was becoming more and more unhinged and hallucinating and maybe things are real. We sort of toed the line between what is real and what isn’t and I guess just rotating the camera like that gives you a bit of an uneasy feeling, a sinking feeling, I guess. 

But I would say there are quite a lot of influences. There have been some different genre films — I mean, even in The Shining, Stanley Kubrick was famous for those opening helicopter shots when they’re driving to the hotel. I think all of that sort of has an effect on you. And, you know, they’re all just different tools now. I think drones can sometimes be overused, but we wanted to use them with a purpose. It came from wanting to do something a little bit different with it. When I say different, I know things like that have been done before, but it was just our take on it. 

CHM: So now you’re gonna have to answer this burning question I’ve had since the movie ended. There are a couple of shots I wanted to ask about. I know you just said what the upside-down shots were supposed to represent, but I wasn’t sure if it was supposed to represent smiles because there are times when they kind of look like them.

Sarroff: Oh sure. I mean, maybe. That’s funny. I personally haven’t really thought about that. Maybe Parker has, [and] maybe other people have, but that’s great. I think that works as well. 

CHM: There’s one shot in particular where you see like woods and trees as far as the eyes can see, and you flip it upside-down and it looks like smiles and I wasn’t sure. Another one, I don’t know if you’ll remember this, but when you guys show the abandoned house where the film ends, I think it’s the first time we really see it and there are two trees behind the house and they kind of look like they’re a smile. Was that intentional? 

Sarroff: I mean, there were some times, no doubt, where we were looking at things and seeing smiles. I couldn’t quite see it as well as Parker, but I remember we were in the color grade and there’s the scene where Sophie Bacon — who’s playing Rose — was sitting in the car and there’s the red light on her from the diner and she’s eating the burger and there’s a profile shot and there are all the car headlights in the background. And there was a moment we were sitting in the color grade and [they] were like “I could see a very clear smile,” and I could as well, but maybe not as much. 

There have been a lot of times when friends or different crew members have seen things and gone, “Oh, there’s a little bit of a smile there,” so, you’re right. I don’t know if that was necessarily intentional with the trees, but there were definitely comments and we were definitely looking at things that sort of had that for sure. So I’m glad you’re seeing that in different things. If that’s coming through, that’s great. 

A still from Smile. Photo courtesy of Paramount.

CHM: I’m glad to have that put to rest now cause that’s been bothering me for a few weeks now [laughs]. 

Sarroff: I mean, of course there are blatant shots. I remember she [Rose] was buying the toy train set and the camera’s looking through the window of the hobby store and then we boom down to that old kind of 1950s, nuclear family-kind of photo, and they’re all smiling with these sort of sinister kind of looks on their face. And that was a bit of an opportunistic thing, to be honest. 

Lester Cohen, our production designer, and his amazing art team definitely threw things like that in. But you know, that was more of a, “let’s see it on the day and find a place to put it and just try and bring some smiles out in different areas,” [thing] and maybe it’s a bit funny, maybe it’s a bit creepy, whatever. 

But we were looking for little opportunities to kind of bring those things in. That sign might have just ended up in the back of the set somewhere and we would’ve really thought about it, but when we would see things like that, we would often put them in. 

CHM: I just have two more scenes I wanted to ask you about. The first one is that first scene with Rose and Laura (Caitlin Stasey) in the medical center. I wish I took notes; I didn’t actually take notes since it wasn’t a press screening, so I don’t remember what it was, but there was something so distinct about your work in the scene. Do you remember what it could be?

Sarroff: We wanted things to be kind of empty and minimalist at having an oversized room like that. We wanted to make people feel uncomfortable. Like, it’s a very big room, right? I’ll let you in on a little secret that your audience will find out about: It was quite big because we also knew that we needed to fit quite a lot of camera equipment in there, even though we could remove walls and stuff like that. Size sort of came into play because of the different things we needed to do there throughout those scenes. Like when she [Laura] had cut her neck open and we had a shot pulling back from her and rotating around 180º to Sosie and into her eye and things like that. We knew we needed a bit of space for all different sorts of things, but at the same time, that wasn’t the prime reason at all. We wanted things to be empty, minimalist [and] uncomfortable. Quite often those rooms, through research that Parker, Lester and myself did, we know that [in] a lot of those sort of examination rooms and interview rooms, there are no sharp objects. Well, there shouldn’t be. Obviously, there is once the flower vase breaks, but those chairs are actually kind of a very real thing for those sorts of places. They’re rubber and they have rounded edges and they’re designed for people that [are] quite unwell and we don’t wanna see them do harm to themselves. 

So in a way, minimalist kind of coverage like the eye-lines when we would cut into the conversation that happens between them before Laura sees the entity. I think Elliot Greenberg, our editor obviously had a massive role in this too [in] really figuring out the pacing and timing of making people uncomfortable, like cutting into these really front-on, intrusive kind of close-ups where the eye-lines would just be straight over the top of the camera, not really left or right of it. 

There’s the movement and then really trying to create tension when Sophie stands up and she wants to look behind her the first time, and we kind of sweep the camera around to be like, Whoa, what’s going on there? but we don’t quite get far enough to actually see that there’s nothing there. We talked about this scene a lot, and this was one that Parker had in his mind before we even met. And I remember he had kind of talked about wanting to create this because essentially, it’s the intro — it leads into the title of the film and that was quite fun. I love how we did that. Like going in through the eye and then having this intense title come up and it was a group effort. 

A still from Smile. Photo courtesy of Paramount.

My contribution was hopefully bringing in tension, just with pacing and camera movement; keeping things very locked down and composed at the start and then sort of building a bit more movement into it as things were sort of happening and just really not wanting to really try to direct the audience to certain areas of the frame, but not kind of giving them enough and holding on things a bit too long. When Sophie’s at the phone, she’s not really looking around, it’s really just holding on to these compositions where we’re seeing the back of her head and just really trying to create tension. I think. Hopefully, that answers your question, but that was one that we really wanted to sort of build in tension and sort of start out quite slowly on it as well. 

That was a fun shoot. Like that was a combination of VFX obviously, like we would shoot these different plates at different lens lengths and we did track the camera right into Sophie’s eye, but then after a while, lVFX will sort of take over and it was fun working with our VFX team [and] trying to give them the ingredients that they need and then they would go back and then would sort of rebuild things. It was a good experience. 

CHM: The last scene that I really wanna ask you about is my favorite in the film. I know you just mentioned the editor, so maybe this was a combination of teamwork between the two of you, but there’s that scene where Rose is in Joel (Kyle Gallner)’s apartment and it transitions from the house and then we go back into the apartment and it’s kind of dark. So I wanna ask you about blocking and filming kind of in the apartment in that scene. I imagine you were working closely with the editor because that transition is so seamless.

Sarroff: I mean, it’s a combination of all teams on that. So I will give a lot of credit to, again, our construction and production. Well, first off, Parker, he wrote the script and like that’s basically having Rose running — she’s in [what ] you [can] call it a hallucination, or she’s in a psychotic kind of state where things are real and reality’s bending in on her and all that sort of stuff — [and] she finds herself back at Joel’s apartment. We think everything’s settling down; we think it could even be the end of the film and that she’s found some peace and destroyed this entity that’s been infecting her and things like that. So we’re in that space, and then she has to run out of that apartment — that real apartment was in Jersey City, I believe, or Newark — and she runs out and she has to find herself back in the field at her childhood home [that’s] in a field like literally an hour away from Newark in a kind of a parkland, swampy kind of area. 

So the way we kind of did that was all departments on deck. She’s in the real apartment, but when she turns, we actually rebuilt a part of that apartment [onto] the exterior on the field out in the parkland in the New Jersey swamp lands, if that makes sense. So when she turns around, they actually constructed a part of that set and we matched the lighting. We had to do a lighting transition and then with the help of our colorist, David Cole — he really shaped that — and then as she ran out, we built that on that dilapidated kind of set environment out in the parklands. So yeah, it’s a stitch essentially. So they replicated the apartment twice if that makes sense. I hope that explains it. And then it was just matching lighting to the moonlight that she ends up running out into and all that sort of stuff. That was a fun one.

And it’s one of those like scenes where at the time you’re like, “Geez, I hope this all works,” and everyone’s like, “We hope it all works.” And then to Elliot Greenberg and Parker’s credit in the edit, they made it work. It was cool — I really like that, too. I think they did a good job with the soundscape and having her run out and then everything, just being peaceful and hearing the trees and the wind and stuff like that is quite creepy.

A still from Smile. Photo courtesy of Paramount.

CHM: That’s amazing. I didn’t realize that they went to such extreme lengths… 

Sarroff: Yeah, a lot of the things we did were in-camera, which is really cool. Even the puppetry at the end with the creature and stuff like that. There is a lot of VFX, but there’s also a lot in-camera and that was mostly in-camera (that transition). Building the two sets and stitching it, it’s just in the edit where she’ll run around, I think it’ll cut to Joel — who starts sprinting towards her — [and] when it cuts back, she’s like, “Ah!,” screams and then like runs out but that’s actually not in Newark anymore — we’re out in the countryside [laughs]. 

CHM: So from your perspective, do you think it’s easier to do it the way you guys did it on Smile where you guys built parts of the set again? Or do you think it would’ve been easier just to film both scenes and have the editor transition between them?

Sarroff: I do think this was probably the best way to do it, to be honest. I don’t know, like, there are other ways that you might have been able to do stuff with green screen and there might have been some more VFX kind of stitches and things like that when she runs out. If the camera stayed inside and we just saw her leave and then ran out and maybe you could have had some green screen and actually stayed in Newark and then we could’ve cut outside with her, but I don’t think that would’ve been as cool [or] as an effective, and I think Parker definitely would’ve fought to not do that because it then it becomes a little bit cheaper. It’s a bit like, “Okay, cool. Some VFX have happened there; she runs out, finds herself out there in that environment,” so we really wanted to create that feeling of like, she’s in a dream, or, we call it a “dream,” call it a “psychotic” kind of state or whatever. She’s not well, so we always wanted to really be in that world with her. 

You’ll notice a lot of the lensing and things like that that we did, where [we’re] very close to her, it’s like wide-lenses in very close, we wanted to be in her journey the whole way, so by doing these sorts of things, I feel like we stay on her journey. So rather than having cutting points instead of using camera trickery —  I mean, I guess this was a camera trick, but you know what I mean, more VFX and more cuts, I think it sort of takes the audience out a little bit. We wanna be with her so that’s the reason we kind of did that stuff. 

I guess it’s the right way to do it for what we needed. There are a million different ways of doing all sorts of things, but this one felt right for us.

CHM: That’s fascinating and I really now wanna go re-watch the movie. I appreciate you giving me a peek behind the curtain for me.

Sarroff: Please do! Take some friends [laughs]. 

CHM: One last fun question for you that I’m sure you’ve been asked in your interviews for the film: After you were done shooting the film, did it take you any time to get adjusted to people smiling in the outside world? Because for me, after watching the movie, it took me a little bit [laughs].

Sarroff: I mean, look, personally, I’d love to say yes, and I’d love to say that everyone that was smiling at me for a year after freaked me out and I’ve got like PTSD from it and everything, but to be honest, not really, because when you’re in the process of making these things and you are like with the characters that, even with Laura — played by Caitlin Stasey — she’s actually an Australian as well, and we had a bit in common, so it was like a quite a fun day at working with her.

She had the most horrific scene where obviously she c**s her neck open. It’s this really, really horrific kind of graphic thing, but there was a lot after in between, and she’s a very funny person. And even though she’s doing these evil smiles that became the face of the poster and the face of the movie. I don’t know. To me, I just see her having a chuckle and a laugh and you know, it was like a good environment. So not really, it hadn’t affected as much because I know that it’s Caitlin and that she’s really funny and cool [laughs]. So yeah, it didn’t really freak me out as much as I’m sure it does with others.

And I’m glad it does with others because that’s the whole point. But you know, I think when you’re there and even with the creature and things like that, seeing how the puppetry is working and there are people with rods working outside of the frame and everyone’s doing their job, it takes a little bit of the fear away.

Don’t get me wrong though, if I watch other horror films or other scary films, yeah, I do forget that I work in film and that I’m a DP and I can easily get absorbed into those films and get scared and stuff like that as well. But when I’m on them and I know them, like even with Relic and things like that, I just think about what happened that day and when people call “Cut” and the different things [like] make-up artists are running in, and [the] lighting’s changing and things like that, it does sort of take a little bit of that fear out of it for me. 

It’s funny, I get asked that a lot. I’ve done a couple of horror films now and people often ask me, “Are you really scared on set? Did really freaky things happen?” and personally, to be honest, it’s usually no because I’m really close to it all and you’re doing different takes, you’re seeing things that aren’t quite finished, whether it be makeup and VFX and all that sort of stuff, I can kind of see through it a bit. It’s quite funny, half the time. 

Smile is in theaters now. 

FILM RATING

Andrew is an entertainment journalist and film "critic" who has written for the likes of Above the Line, Below the Line, Collider, Film Focus Online, /Film and The Hollywood Handle among others. Leader of the Kaitlyn Dever Fanclub.

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Charlie Michael Baker: Journey of Autism, Social Media and Working with Kylie Jenner (EXCLUSIVE)

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Charlie Michael Baker and Kylie Jenner

At just 17, Charlie Michael Baker is giving his all to change the world. Baker is a renowned author, entrepreneur, actor, and journalist and he is on a mission to help millions of people suffering from autism. Charlie Michael Baker previously told Costal House Media he raised over £400,000 to help people with autism. He faced many challenges since childhood but his determination and perseverance were the key to his success.

Baker is a Social Media sensation with over 1.2M followers on Instagram. Charlie Michael Baker is one of the many influencers being bullied on social media every day. He receives 300-500 rape and death threats daily!

Charlie Michael Baker

Charlie Michael Baker

We had the honor to connect with Charlie Michael Baker. You can read our conversation below.

Nikita Pahwa: Congratulations on launching your new book! What can you tell us about it?

Charlie Michael Baker: So my new book is about social media, specifically, the dangers of social media. All young kids now want to grow up and be ‘famous’ but don’t know the bad side of it all. I was one of those kids, I’d always wanted to be famous, it’s something I’d always dreamed of!

NP: How do you deal with death and rape threats?

CMB: The short answer is, I don’t, really. I stopped reading my DMs a few months back because of it all. I don’t deal with negativity and there’s too many trolls to block each and every one, so they all just get ignored.

Charlie Michael Baker Social Media and I

Charlie Michael Baker Social Media and I (Photo: @kaybeephotography2 on Instagram)

NP: What advice would you give to people in similar situations?

CMB: I’d say don’t listen to them, do what I do and just don’t read them. It’s better that way. What you don’t see can’t hurt you!

NP: If you could say one thing to people sending you threats, what would it be?

CMB: Without ruining my career *lol* I’d say just to be a bit kinder. If there’s something going on in your life that you’re not very happy with, ask someone for help. Speak to someone you trust rather than swaying to a life of being a keyboard warrior. It’s not nice!

NP: Is your new book related to Charlie Baker: Autism and Me?

CMB: It is! It will be written in the same – ish way BUT Charlie Michael Baker Social Media And I will be exclusively E – book sold on my website charliembaker.net.

NP: Are you currently working on a new venture with Kylie Jenner?

CMB: I am! We’re working with the same brand – glow beverages. We’re working alongside an NBA star too whose name I cannot remember for the life of me – oops lol.

Kylie Jenner and Charlie Michael Baker

Kylie Jenner and Charlie Michael Baker

NP: Are you planning to collaborate with more celebrities in the future?

CMB: I love working with celebrities. Mostly just to see what they’re like to be honest. Kylie is so nice though honestly I keep messaging her life updates!

NP: Last question, is it true that you’re working on the Charlie Baker: Autism and Me movie? Are we going to see it on the big screen?

CMB: Yes, it is! I’m filming something very very special this year with Creation Media 22 which should appear on Netflix and Prime Video which is so exciting! It will be my first time in front of an actual TV camera so it’s a bit different to daily vlogs!

You can get your Charlie Michael Baker Social Media And I E-copy on March, 1 for £0.01 (yes, a penny!). Get your Charlie Baker: Autism and Me copy on Amazon.

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INTERVIEW | ‘The Tiger’s Apprentice’ Stars Brandon Soo Hoo and Leah Lewis Discuss Representation, Positivity, and the Power of Belief

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Tiger's Apprentice
Tiger's Apprentice (Paramount+)

Paramount’s latest animated flick ‘The Tiger’s Apprentice’ has finally been released and garnered positive response from everywhere. Adapted from Laurence Yep’s beloved children’s book series, ‘The Tiger’s Apprentice’ brings to life the thrilling journey of Chinese American teen Tom Lee (portrayed by Brandon Soo Hoo). He is suddenly thrust into a realm he once believed existed only in bedtime tales. After a tragedy strikes his family, the young man discovers his identity as a Guardian. Subsequently, he is mentored by the mystical Tiger Hu (played by Henry Golding) to confront the evil Loo (portrayed by Michelle Yeoh). In between all this chaos, he develops a special friendship with a girl named Rav (played by Leah Lewis) who helps him in defeating the villain and saving the world.

It is one of those films that you can enjoy with your family. It is tender, beautifully crafted, and encourages you to think about how traditions play a crucial role in everyone’s lives. In this exclusive interview, Brandon Soo Hoo and Leah Lewis share their perspectives on the film’s themes, the significance of Asian American and Pacific Islander (AAPI) representation in media, and the impact of portraying multi-dimensional characters. The actors delve into the importance of maintaining positivity in the face of adversity, believing in oneself, and breaking stereotypes in the entertainment industry. From challenging outdated narratives to normalizing cultural heritage, Brandon and Leah express their excitement for viewers to experience the film’s adventurous and tender journey of self-discovery.

Tiger's Apprentice

A still from ‘The Tiger’s Apprentice’ (Paramount+)

Aayush Sharma: ‘The Tiger’s Apprentice’ is a mixture of so many great things love, care, culture, and family. But for you guys, what was the one thing that made you relate to this story and made you proud? And why do you think that particular thing is so important for people to see?

Brandon Soo Hoo: One of the favorite things that I related with my character was Tom has uncanny ability to maintain a positive outlook when things get really tough. And so, you know, he’ll drop in a humorous little quip here and there in the face of adversity. I think that’s such a powerful way to confront anything challenging because life isn’t that serious. And, if you really lean into the negative, and if you really lean into the dark side, I feel like it can really corrupt and taint you. I believe maintaining that light and positivity around you is like the ultimate protection that you have, from the dark stuff when life kind of gets you down. Because if you let life get too dark, then you won’t let enough of your inner light kind of radiate outwards and do what it needs to do. So, you know, hold on to your light, hold on to the positivity. I feel like it’s contagious. It’s very, very healing.

Leah Lewis: I think, for me, one of my favorite things about this film that I would take away, is really learning how to believe in yourself. And I know that’s such a simple statement, but it’s a big loaded one for me. I really feel like when it comes down, to believing in yourself, it’s the things that you care about, the people you care about, where you came from, where you’re going. You see this character, Tom, struggle with believing in himself in any aspect. I think that’s really important too. And I think, when you can believe in yourself too and present yourself, honestly, and vulnerably, that’s also when you find other people who are right for you in your life. You see Tom eventually learns how to be himself, and because of it, he fits into this Zodiac and kind of ends up finding a community that he never would have expected. So, I think that aspect is important for me.

AS: So, you know, besides showing so many great things, this is also an Asian story. The characters, the cast, the makers, and most of the people involved in this project, have an Asian background. But you know when we see the entertainment industry, we still see a lot of talented Asian actors stuck in a kind of stereotype. And they are cast in one kind of role. For you guys, how does Asian representation in movies intersect with a broader discussion about diversity and inclusion in the entertainment industry?

BS: I mean, it’s 2024, we’re past the era of having Asian people playing just submissive roles or playing like the tech support. I think that right now is like a renaissance for Asian entertainers and Asian artists to showcase that we are multi-dimensional people, that we can be the hero, we can be the cool guy. It’s all that stuff is like, we’re really seeing Asians being at the forefront of stories like that. And it’s so important because growing up, if you don’t see all of those things represented in media, it’s kind of hard to feel like, you can see that in yourself. So, it’s almost like this conditioning that we received from a really young age. So right now, we’re trying to reverse engineer all of that by showing you can be the hero of your own story, you know, you can save the day. And you could be more than just like whatever aesthetic or face that people want to put on you. You can kind of step out of those boundaries and as a human being, you can do whatever the heck you want. So, I think that it’s so important for us to be able to share with you all.

Brandon Soo Hoo (@brandonsoohoo/Instagram)

LL: I agree, I think, we’re living in a day and age where we’re moving towards a place where representation isn’t such a flashy, flashy thing. It’s a necessary and needed thing that should already be kind of embedded into our society. So, it’s a huge win for the AAPI community any time there’s an API lead or like, especially something like this film where it’s completely eccentric. But I also think the more and more we start to see those projects, like, it’s important to be able to normalize the difference in all these characters. You know, when I also look at, the list of like, Caucasian actors, I can think of an actor for every kind of character. I’m like, oh, yeah, I know, this actor played that, and this and that. But you know, for Asian, that’s been a long time coming, where it’s like, oh, it’s only Michelle Yeoh, who plays that or like, you know, we have the designated person who plays the geek or the kind of hero or like the dark character. And what’s so cool about this film, too, is like, Tom is just, he’s a cool, regular guy who hails from Chinese American culture. This film shows heritage and culture in a way where it’s so normalized, and just so kind of nuanced. I feel like that sense of representation is so cool for the people at home who are like, hey, casually, I like this guy, or I know those kinds of traditions, and I love the way he builds in this theme because I feel that way. I don’t know, I just, I also wish I had something like this growing up too. But like, now is the best time to see people that look like you, speak like you, or act like you on screen. It really recovers that belief in yourself that things are possible for you. Like we all watch TV. We all care about these characters to feel seen and feel like you know, you have a voice out there somewhere. There’s nothing better than that feeling. So, I hope that this film does that for a lot of people to me.

AS: You guys are working with such huge stars. Michelle Yeoh, Lucy Liu, Henry Golding, and more. What was your reaction when you heard these guys will be in the movie?

BS: Man, I mean, the reaction was and still is just like, almost like a surreal disbelief. I was like, these are people that I watched growing up when I was little, I was like, dang, these are some huge Asian names. They are the biggest names in our community. So yeah, I told my parents immediately about, like, who’s going to be in the project, and we all just like giggled about it together. So, I think just immense pride. It’s such a celebration, and it’s such a win, not just for me and my career, but it’s such a celebration for the Asian community. It’s like, man, look at all of us, like, together just being badass Zodiac warriors.

LL: I felt the same way. I mean, honestly, I tend to do this thing to where if someone tells me like this person is who you’re working with. I’m just like, wait, what? And I’m still like that, you know, like when we were able to even see Sandra Oh, at the premiere of like, let’s go, oh, my God, like, that’s really freakin’ cool. It’s also just like, I think it’s a really proud moment to finally see all different generations of AAPI actors coming together on one screen and to be able to see that there is space for more than just one or two. This whole cast is like a chock filled with it. And everyone is so talented, it’s been an honor. I’m really proud to be a part of it.

Leah Lewis and Sandra Oh

Leah Lewis and Sandra Oh (@leahmlewis/Instagram)

AS: The film has finally been released and it has opened to great reviews. If anyone hasn’t seen the movie, what’s your advice to them? And why should they watch ‘The Tiger’s Apprentice’?

BS: What do you what are you waiting for? Get in there. Watch this movie. It’s special, it’s beautiful. There’s something in there for everybody. And yeah, I think you’re really missing out on something that’s, that’s really beautiful and important. So go check it out. I hope they get to watch it with your family because there are a lot of beautiful lessons in there to share. So, go go check it out. You have to.

LL: It’s like, it’s a cool, like, genuinely cool. It has Steelo to it. Adventurous, tender film about finding yourself and I know we all want to do that. So, you should totally watch it and I hope you find a bit of yourself in this cool tender film.

‘The Tiger’s Apprentice’ is currently streaming on Paramount+.

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Interviews

INTERVIEW | Sarayu Blue Dives Deep into ‘EXPATS’ Journey with Cultural Authenticity and Emotional Depth

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Sarayu Blue stars as Hilary Starr in Lulu Wang's 'EXPATS' (@sarayublue/Instagram)

After taking the world by storm with ‘The Farewell,’ director Lulu Wang is back and this time, she has taken her storytelling prowess to the small screen. Her series, ‘EXPATS,’ is a story mainly about three women trying to overcome guilt and grief in the most authentic way possible. The very first frame of the series encourages viewers to take a remarkable journey into the lives of characters that are connected in one way or the other. Nicole Kidman portrays Margaret in the series while Ji-young Yoo plays Mercy. Both stars have given spectacular performances in the six-part series, but one actor who has managed to nab all the attention is none other than Sarayu Blue, who plays the role of Hilary.

At first, Hilary seems to be a no-nonsense woman who has moved to Hong Kong to make strides in her professional life. She does brilliantly professionally, but her personal life is in a bit of turmoil. Her marriage is not going well, her best friend seems to have lost almost everything, and she is overburdened with the pressure of becoming a mother. Wang knows how to extract a powerful performance from an actor and Sarayu is no different. Sarayu’s portrayal of the character is truly magnificent, capturing Hilary’s frustration and compassion with authenticity on screen. I sat down (virtually) with Sarayu Blue and discussed several aspects of her character in the Prime Video series. The actress opened up about how she learned Punjabi to make her character more authentic and also, how South Asian parents show love most uniquely.

Sarayu Blue in a still from ‘EXPATS’ (Prime Video)

Aayush Sharma: Congratulations on the series. It’s getting such beautiful reactions. Your character is written so beautifully, but Lulu Wang made some alterations to your character’s journey in the series, particularly regarding her approach to motherhood. So, how, as an actor, approached the shift in your character’s arc? And what kind of discussions have you had with Wong regarding these changes?

Sarayu Blue: Actually, the changes had already happened before I came. Because in the book, Hillary is not written South Asian. And so that was one of the changes. And so, when I auditioned, it was already South Asian, of course. I think when I got on board, I was able to read all the scripts, and I just devoured them. I mean, in one sitting, it was like, you know, I couldn’t get enough. It was such an exciting experience to see this South Asian woman who’s so human, she’s so layered and complicated, and messy, and real, and beautiful, and funny and vulnerable, and raw and hurting. And so, then it just became the biggest gift I could ever imagine.

AS: One of the best things about your character was her backstory, and showing the kind of Sikh family she was born into. But what was that one thing that you wanted viewers to see in your character to understand why Hillary sees the world in the way she does? Also, how challenging was it for you to learn the Punjabi language to make your character sound more authentic?

SB: I’m so thankful to our team and our wonderful consultant, Inder, who was like the most patient and kind human. I kept reciting it repeatedly, because somebody who speaks Telugu, and I’ve tried to teach people Telugu, pronunciation is everything. It’s everything, along with the accent, and every emphasis that matters so much. So, I was so thankful for that support. Also, Sudha (Brinder) speaks Punjabi, so I had Masters constantly working with me, and I was so thankful. Meanwhile, I think as far as the view that Hillary has, or what was important to me, it was important to see the hurt for both Brinder and Hilary. You know, what I love about the dynamic you see in Episode Four is you really see that they’re both hurting, and there’s aggression because that’s how we speak to each other. (laughs) I mean, that part is so universal, because my mother and I have a very contentious love. But, you know, that hurt underneath, and the vulnerability underneath is why it feels so real. And that representation of that specific dynamic was very important to me.

AS: Yeah, I mean, I can understand as an Indian, I know the kind of relationship that we share with our parents. I mean, they would just bash us, and then say that’s how we show our love for you. That’s, that’s our love. (laughs)

SB: I said to my dad, my dad was calling. I was FaceTiming with him, and he said, ‘So what are you doing? Are you doing anything interesting?’ I said, ‘I’m just doing a lot of press for this show. Remember that show? I did EXPATS? And he said, ‘I remember that.’ He added, ‘So nothing. You’re not doing anything.’ (laughs) But I get it.

Sarayu Blue with Sudha Bhuchar and Jennifer Beveridge (@sarayublue/Instagram)

AS: Your Punjabi was so amazing in that scene because I’m a Punjabi and when I was hearing that conversation, I had to pause the episode and go to the internet to see if you had any Punjabi roots because your accent was so authentic.

SB: Let me tell you how much that means to me because it’s the most important thing for me. Because Telugu is not easy to speak. It’s not, and I was raised by a Telugu professor and a Telugu short story writer. Also, I’ve tried to teach Telugu to somebody, and if it doesn’t sound right, it won’t feel good. That’s why it’s all I wanted to show. You must speak the language with the right pronunciation. That’s very important.

AS: Now that EXPATS has premiered three episodes on Prime Video and receiving so much love. But for those who haven’t started the series, what would like to tell them and why they should be watching this show?

SB: I am so honored to be in this show. I really am. I get goosebumps even talking to you right now, seeing you smile, and having this conversation. I want people to watch the show for everyone. There’s so much good talent in this show. You know, Sudha who plays Brinder is extraordinary. Kavi Raz, who plays my dad in Episode Six, is brilliant. You know, all these actors, Ruby Ruiz, Ji-young Yoo, Brian Tee, there’s so much brilliance that I hope people just watch and realize how many actors of color are getting to do amazing work. It feels like a dream. But, of course, there’s so much to see in this show, you know.

Cast of ‘Expats’ with director Lulu Wang at the premiere. (Getty Images)

The first three episode of ‘EXPATS’ are currently streaming exclusively on Prime Video.

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