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‘Smoking Tigers’ Filmmakers on Going From Untold Stories to Tribeca Competition: “We Wouldn’t Have This Opportunity Otherwise”

Since 2017, AT&T and the Tribeca Festival have provided financing and support to filmmakers from underrepresented backgrounds through the Untold Stories program, with the winner receiving $1 million, as well as mentorship and guidance, to turn their pitch into a feature film that gets a guaranteed screening at the following year’s Tribeca Festival.

But this year, the 2022 winners, So Young Shelly Yo and Guo Guo, are taking their victory lap even further, becoming the first Untold Stories winners to have their movie, Smoking Tigers, in the festival’s U.S. narrative competition.

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“It’s in competition completely on its own merits,” Tribeca Festival director and vp, programming Cara Cusumano tells The Hollywood Reporter of Smoking Tigers‘ breakthrough competition placement. “It was just really an exciting discovery for the team. I think the world that’s evoked and the characters feel extremely lived-in and there was an authenticity to it that really spoke to us all. It was authentically one of the most exciting U.S. debuts that we were able to consider this year and even more so that it was able to be supported through [Untold Stories] earlier.”

Set in the early 2000s, the film tells of a Korean-American teenage girl who struggles to fit in with her new friends and live out her vision of the American dream as her family goes through changes.

Writer-director Shelly remains humble when asked about Smoking Tigers landing in competition, attributing it simply to hard work.

“Our motto through this entire process was: Just keep your head down, work really hard and good things will come. So that’s kind of how we worked in the edit as well,” she tells THR. “We just made sure that with each round of edits, we felt confident that it was moving in the right direction. And with each edit — and let me just tell you, there were a lot of edits — we made sure to update our Tribeca team, who have been so supportive through the entire process. They were able to watch each cut, provide feedback and thankfully, I think it really sharpened the edit to a point where we were able to be part of the narrative competition.”

Indeed, Shelly and producer Guo Guo recognize that their Untold Stories experience played a key role in getting their vision to the big screen.

“It’s hard to get funding for a feature. There are many more programs to fund a short,” Shelly says. “Having this program support that financially and having Tribeca support us through this entire process is such a blessing because we wouldn’t have this opportunity otherwise.”

Guo Guo adds, “It was a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to be able to make a film this way with so much support all around.”

AT&T chief marketing and growth officer Kellyn Smith Kenny added in a statement that the company was “incredibly proud” of the film and the “deeply talented” Shelly.

She continued, “We’re confident there will be more success to come, as we take untold stories to told. AT&T created this program to connect people to greater possibilities and it’s working.”

Tribeca CEO and co-founder Jane Rosenthal added in part, in a separate statement, “Untold Stories is a testament to the incredible impact that can be created when the voices of historically underrepresented filmmakers are elevated and meaningful financial support and guidance is provided.”

This year, six finalists hope to follow in Shelly and Guo Guo’s footsteps as Untold Stories winners. Those finalists and their story ideas are, as THR can reveal exclusively: David Fortune of Atlanta (Color Book); Maria Mealla of La Paz, Bolivia (Body Shop); Miguel Angel Caballero of Los Angeles (Angel in Retrograde); Moon Molson of Grand Rapids, Michigan (Hyper/Space); and Selyna Warren of Chicago and Marissa Read of Bellingham, Washington (Bat Mitzvah).

The finalists will share their film pitches with a jury comprising actor Derek Luke, Kenny and actor-producer Mo McRae at a live pitch event on June 9 in New York. Brooke Baldwin will moderate the discussion.

Both Shelly and Guo Guo recall that their win was a blur but Shelly notes they went into the pitch well-prepared.

“Before we started pitching, Guo Guo and I went in with the mindset that we’re going to try our best no matter what happens — whether or not we get the funding,” she says. “We just wanted our pitch to be in tip-top shape, so we’re just practicing day in and day out, making sure that our pitch went as smooth as possible. We tried not to think of the outcome we just wanted to make the best pitch. So when the news came that we won the money, honestly, we were in shock for a few hours, and we had to start getting our boots on the ground and start production. It was a very surreal experience and we’re so grateful.”

From left: Kellyn Smith Kenny, Karen Horne, J.D. Dillard, So Young Shelly Yo, Jane Rosenthal, Guo Guo, Robert De Niro, DeWanda Wise and Leslie Cohen at the 2022 Untold Stories event.
From left: Kellyn Smith Kenny, Karen Horne, J.D. Dillard, So Young Shelly Yo, Jane Rosenthal, Guo Guo, Robert De Niro, DeWanda Wise and Leslie Cohen at the 2022 Untold Stories event

Read on for more from Shelly and Guo Guo about how their Untold Stories experience helped them make Smoking Tigers as well as the thinking behind the decision to have the dialogue alternate between English and Korean.

Why did you want to submit the story that ended up being Smoking Tigers for Untold Stories?

Shelly: For us, Smoking Tigers is a very intimate story and a story focused on a female Korean American character, and those stories can be hard to get noticed in the Hollywood landscape. When we heard of Untold Stories where they uncover stories that normally wouldn’t have the chance to be told in Hollywood, we knew it was the right opportunity at the right time.

After you won Untold Stories, how do you feel like that helped you? Both the money and the victory and support that might have come with that, how did that help when you were making the movie?

Shelly: Through the Untold Stories experience, we met so many people who personally connected with the story. Sharing their personal connections just fueled our desire to tell the story even more and we just felt so passionate about it. Even though we had hard days, it balanced itself out with these moments of honesty from people that really connected with our story.

Guo Guo: We made the pitch video and then we also had some visibility for the project. So when we were reaching out to people, they knew that project was being validated already. And it was great exposure even before we made the film.

Is there any feedback in particular that you can recall as being helpful?

Shelly: I think sometimes, as a storyteller, you think things are very, very clear because you’ve lived with the story for so long. But through the test screenings we learned that maybe some things aren’t so clear. So hearing feedback from that really helped shape and clarify the story in a way that benefited the story that we were trying to tell.

Guo Guo: For a lot of smaller projects, I don’t know if they would have the opportunity to be able to do some test screenings, and it was really great. It was really a great opportunity: Them helping us to pinpoint and do focus groups. So that was great feedback from people who know a little bit about the story or know nothing about those stories, so that the filmmakers can know what the audience is truly thinking about. And then [Tribeca] helped us to run the focus group as well, to be an impartial party in between us and the general audience. I think that was very, very beneficial while we were still locking down the final cut.

Part of the winning package for Untold Stories is mentorship and assistance with screenings and promotion. Were the test screenings and focus groups a part of that? Can you explain what that sort of mentoring entails?

Shelly: Yeah, the mentorship was not only just for story, but a lot of the times what we experienced through production can be mentally and physically grueling. So the Tribeca team has always been there, not just to provide script notes but to just lend an ear and to just to kind of be supportive in any way possible. There’s so many times that we ran into trouble and we reached out to [our point person at Tribeca], and she would always provide some helpful advice or insight. Honestly, without that kind of support, it would have been hard to make the film.

And just to shift to talking a little bit about the film, where did the idea come from for the Smoking Tigers story?

Shelly: The idea just started with an emotion that started when I was kind of excavating memories of feelings of my youth and feeling the strong desire of wanting to belong and also kind of comparing myself to the ideal American family and the American dream. So when I was growing up, I would see a lot of my friends’ family, who had a very traditional nuclear family, and feeling like my family wasn’t enough. And I hadn’t yet seen a film that kind of delved into that aspect of growing up, and I wanted to tell that with a fantastical lens, like the magic moment where she explores the model home and sees her family together for the first time. So we kind of use that as an anchor to tell the entire story.

I thought it was also interesting that the dialogue goes back and forth between English and Korean. Why did you want to do that?

Shelly: For me, that’s just how my world is colored. I always go back and forth between Korean and English, even though my Korean’s not perfect. That’s how I communicate with my family and my husband’s family, so that kind of going back and forth between Korean and English is very natural to me and that’s kind of how I hear the world.

I feel like we don’t often see that, especially in films that aren’t from a foreign country.

Shelly: I think it is super important to showcase what the Asian American experience is and the Korean American experience because a lot of people look at foreign films, but they don’t fully represent what the Asian American experience is. So I feel like our film would be a great way to kind of see through that Asian-American lens.

Did you get any pushback on the dual languages as you were making the film? Were people like, “Just put it all in English”?

Shelly: Oh, never. Tribeca again has been really supportive, and AT&T as well, they’ve just been honoring our creative decisions. So yeah, they completely trusted us with our decision to go that route. We were never questioned for that.

Obviously, we’re in the midst of a writer’s strike. How do you feel about premiering your film or getting ready to premiere it as that’s going on?

Shelly: I know Guo Guo and I are both in support of the strike, and everything that they’re fighting for. Both of us are not in the strike, but we hope that maybe one day we could be, so we do support everything that they’re fighting for. We did want to be extra careful that us promoting our film wouldn’t in any way affect the WGA and anything that they’re fighting for. So we tried to make sure as much as possible that this film premiere wouldn’t affect that.

Guo Guo: What they’re fighting for is what we all want: The industry to be better. And we cannot wait to, in the future, hopefully close enough, to be able to join the fight, officially, as well.

Interview has been edited for length and clarity.

10:41 a.m. This story has been updated with a quote from Tribeca CEO and co-founder Jane Rosenthal.

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