The Universal Asian got to know Lava Buckley, a talented filmmaker and producer. She recently won Outstanding Female Content Creator in the Asian American Film Lab™ 2020 72 Hour Shootout!
Tell us about yourself.
Oh boy. Well, I grew up in Appalachia, Ohio on the border of West Virginia, in a town called Athens. My mom is from Thailand, and so I would say I’m one of the early generation mixed race kids. It was shortly after the law passed that mixed race couples could marry. I was born in the mid-'70s, so growing up in Appalachia as a mixed Asian kid was very challenging. We weren’t allowed to have our own culture, not allowed to speak our language, I got spit on quite a bit, and called ‘jungle baby’. All in all, not really pleasant. I’m always happy to see how much more accepting kids are now of being mixed race. From eight-years-old on, I lived with my mother; and I was raised very Thai. I ended up in the international district. All my friends were from different countries, different races—so I went from growing up in a small, kind of scary, racist town to a much more accepting, diverse community. It was nice to have the two dynamics.
What got you into filmmaking?
When I was eight—when my parents divorced—we lived in a domestic violence shelter called My Sister’s Place. The shelter was amazing; it’s an amazing organization. They set us up in a small apartment and got us some basics to start living and surviving. I remember shortly after we got out of the shelter, I was watching TV and I saw Audrey Hepburn on the TV with children. And, I thought "if I get into the film industry, I can help poor kids too." I could become an ambassador! That actually kind of stuck in my head for most of my life; the idea that if I work in film, I could do some good that can change and help people.
What can you tell us about the process of creating your latest short film, “Charlie”?
It’s very interesting! I actually love all the different aspects of filmmaking: the pre-production, the production, and post; it’s all really exciting. What I like is that every project is so different, and I’m grateful that I have a foot in both the indie world and high budget studio work. So, I can take a lot of that studio knowledge and experience I have and do what I can with an indie film. When I was writing “Charlie,” I knew that I would have very limited resources. I was like, okay I know how to shoot this with a certain budget, $2000, and I want to make sure I pay everyone involved. I can do that, at least. I wanted everyone to feel good about participating. So, I found this story probably five years ago after working on a western. I was in the casting department, and I was working with someone who didn’t believe there was much diversity in the Old West. I started doing my own research and I found the story about Charlie. We don’t know much about her, so I decided to write it as an inspired story. I wanted it to be real and not say "based on a true story," because there’re a lot of elements I did take out, such as the fact that there should be three white men and two Chinese people. I had to work with my resources. I had a really fantastic Chinese woman, whom I loved working with. I knew I could find a white actor, and I knew the location. I really felt inspired because those railroad tracks in the town I live in actually have a plaque dedicated to the Chinese railroad workers who helped build it. So that was my process in creating the story, and I really wanted to stick with the idea of trying to make sure Charlie stays strong and not a victim.
Does your cultural identity influence the work you produce? If so, in what way?
I will say that most of the stuff I want to create— “Charlie” included—is totally influenced by my cultural background. I like writing stories about strong Asian women. I know “Charlie” is about a Chinese immigrant, and I’m Thai, but I still felt very connected to her. I could actually see my mother doing this role. My mom has overcome so much. I don’t know, Charlie just has that feel to me of what my mom would be like, fighting back, finding ways to be resourceful, and just kicking ass. That’s how I see Asian women. I see them strong; I see them resilient, determined. I just think they’re badass.
Do you think art should be political? Why or why not?
I would say, not always. For me, it is what I’m interested in. I do tend to write about the experiences of Asian women because I do feel like we have been ignored and incorrectly perceived by a lot of the public. If I can, I will write stuff with political stories. I think we need a balance. We have lots of great entertainment out there. My mind just feels more driven to write about this to show that racism towards Asians has existed since the 1800s; this is not new. The way that we fetishize Asian women, that’s not new. The way we try to make them weak, this is not new stuff, and it drives me. I’m not saying I have it right; I’m not going to do it perfectly—even people in our own community may not like it, but I realized a long time ago with filmmaking and art, you can make the best project in the world, and someone will hate it.
What advice do you have for aspiring filmmakers?
I have a couple things. One, I’ll just say it again, no matter what you make, someone’s going to hate it and someone’s going to love it. Accept that at the beginning. What can you do? You can’t satisfy everyone, not even your own community. People want to be gatekeepers on how you can present yourself and talk. Nobody is your gatekeeper. No one’s the gatekeeper of my voice anymore; I used to let people tell me my ethnicity, tell me how much I belong or don’t belong. I don’t give them that permission anymore. That was important for me, to own my voice. Another thing I would say is—I recently did life coaching, and my life coach asked me, "do you know enough right now to make your film?" Once I realized it didn’t have to be perfect and I knew enough to get it done, I knew I’d rather have it done than never completed at all. So, I just want to encourage people: don’t wait for perfect. Work with what you have and see what happens. You’ll just get better each time you do that.
What impact does social media have on film? Would you say it’s an overall good or bad effect?
Oh man. I struggle with social media. It’s finding a balance, that’s what I’ve been discovering with my own film career and social media. I do see the benefits of having it for promotion, to connect with other people in your community or people who would be interested in your projects. It has a lot of good. There is a lot of not-so-good, in the sense that it can suck up all your time. Also, there are a lot of assholes that just hide there. I don’t even know, it’s like, did you even see the movie? Are you just writing that to be a jerk? You gotta just let those people roll off you. Easier said than done because I do get a little bit affected by that stuff. Social media is an interesting place because it’s kind of unhinged, you know? The good of social media has brought a lot of awareness for the Asian community and mixed-race community, giving us voices that we didn’t have before. Also, it’s shown other people that we have things to say, and you haven’t been listening. I try to take the good, and I’m just trying to navigate it myself.
Do you have any projects in the works you can tell us about?
Yes, I do! I’m in pre-production for a documentary. It’s about honoring and celebrating our Asian clothes. I was thinking so much about identity, and it’s very important to me that we keep having our own clothing. I have my western clothes, nothing’s wrong with that, but I think we should learn from history. One of the first things that colonizers did here is take away the clothing of the natives from some of the tribes. What that does is strip them of identity, and I really sat with that idea for a bit. We should embrace that we are different, it’s okay that we don’t all wear the same clothes. I fear this idea of assimilation and losing who we are. We often get accused of being the model minority and being white adjacent, and it’s like, well how can we point out that we actually have a rich culture? It’s with clothing. So, that’s my documentary, kind of exploring this idea of identity through clothing.
You can also connect with Lava on Instagram: @lifewithlava