A couple of weeks ago, I posted quite a bit online about interracial relationships featuring black women and Asian men. Even with the popularity of the Twitter conversation, I was still surprised when I was sent an opportunity to watch a new short film featuring a black-Asian couple!
Underneath the Grey, directed by Patrick Chen and starring Michael Rosete and Tia DeShazor, is a short film that has received tons of love from film festivals including the San Francisco Black Film Festival, the Denton Black Film Fest and the Urban Mediamaker Film Fest. Underneath the Grey has also been accepted to Asians on Film and the Queens World Film Fest.
I was able to watch the short film and I can tell you that once it’s out to the public, you’ll love it. As the two leads, Rosete and DeShazor have amazing chemistry and you instantly root for their characters’ relationship to work. While Rosete himself isn’t blind, he does play his character Ethan as a well-rounded character, not a one-dimensional caricature whose characterization is exclusively about his blindness. DeShazor’s Jessica exhibits the inner battle that plagues many who are trying to make it in the arts –is a person’s “worth” about their inner selves or their bank account? At one point in the film, Jessica feels Ethan won’t want her around because she’s gotten laid off from her job. But Ethan makes it clear to her that it doesn’t matter how much money she has–it was her soul that he fell in love with, not material possessions. Overall, at the heart of the film is love, heart, and the message that time waits for no one, so make sure to share your life with people you hold dear. (A spoiler you’ll be happy to know: Ethan and Jessica do spend their lives together, as evidenced by their talk about getting their first grey hairs.)
So how’d this short film come about? I emailed Chen to learn more about the genesis of the film. He wrote that the inspiration came to him while he was learning more about film color grading and “wanted to create a black and white picture with a blind person as the main protagonist,” exploring how a person with blindness adapted their senses and imagination to a world catered towards those with sight.
“The opportunity presented itself with my involvement with Asian American Film Lab’s annual competition,” wrote Chen. “It challenges filmmakers to produce a five-minute film with a designated theme spanning three days.”
The resulting film changed from the original black and white idea, but the focus on a man who has lost his sight and his adaptation to his new life remained a core feature and, even better, a romance between him and an aspiring Broadway star was added, giving the film a driving storytelling force.
“I gathered up my research and team with the confidence of producing this unique perspective of a blind (Asian) man falling with a (Black) woman,” wrote Chen. “I wanted to have a diverse cast and a story that doesn’t focus on the separation of race, religion or gender; and in this scenario, being handicapped. I wanted the world to see that we are not just one color but also a beautiful blend of lives.”
“Underneath The Grey is the discovery of inner beauty through self-acceptance. The challenge was not only producing quality work in 72 hours but to also have characters that felt lifelike and inseparable,” he wrote. “With the support from EnMaze Pictures and the opportunity given by the Asian Americans Film Lab, the production was given form. The 5-minute version was given praises by an audience of different ethnic groups. With this encouragement, I expanded the film to 15 mins with a small backstory and additional scenes of the characters’ relationship. I feel this story is now completed to further serve the audience’s fulfillment of these two wonderful characters.”
Thanks to Chen, I was able to ask Rosete and DeShazor some questions about their characters. I also asked Chen some questions via email about his directorial process.
What was it like to be a part of this short film?
Rosete: Patrick, Shannon, Tia, Joe, everyone involved was so professional, so easy to get along with, and open to each other’s opinions. It felt like a bunch of friends getting together to tell a story, a truly collaborative effort. There was a lot of support for each other, and a vibe that we were all there because this is what we love to do.
DeShazor: Being a part of this film was very exciting. We definitely had some fun times on set. I don’t know if Patrick told you that there was an original version that was shot in 24 hours. That was a crazy, but everyone was completely committed to telling a beautiful story. Patrick and his team are incredible to work with, so I enjoyed every moment of the process.
How did you get into character? Particularly, how did y’all develop the chemistry between your two characters (because it seemed like there was a genuine connection/friendship between y’all off-screen).
Rosete: Tia is such an open, loving and kind person; she was able to let those qualities shine through on this project, which made it very easy to connect with her. We spent a little bit of time before shooting and in between takes getting to know one another like you would in any job; I would find qualities in her that I could connect with. We both knew with this story that if there was no chemistry, it wouldn’t work, so I think we were both mindful of that throughout the process.
DeShazor: Regarding chemistry with Michael, he is a very generous actor. We were able to meet beforehand and we used our time off camera to get to know each other, and we have a lot in common. We also both know what it is like to experience love, be vulnerable and open to it. We are both married now (to other people), and I think having the understanding of what true commitment feels like informed our performances. Also, Patrick created a very safe environment where we were able to feel comfortable in more intimate moments.
What kind of preparation/research did you do to portray Ethan’s blindness?
Rosete: I had a very limited amount of time to prepare, so I called various centers for the blind to ask questions, read articles about what it is to be blind or visually impaired, watched clips of various blind people sharing their experiences online, watched movies that portrayed blind characters, and observed people on the street. Patrick also provided a walking cane, which I would spend hours on using at home and in the street to practice.
This short film is about how love can transcend all the barriers people think can limit love, such as race, disability, career choices (i.e. when Jessica felt like Ethan wouldn’t want her staying at his place because she’d been let go from the bar). Why do you think this message is something we as an audience need to always be reminded of?
Rosete: I don’t think we set out to make a statement about the power of love so much as telling a story of this particular man and woman’s journey together. But anytime we as audience members can be reminded about love, and the power of it—in all of its forms—I’m all for it. Everyone, intentionally or not, has put up barriers out of fear of the unknown or what is not fully understood. I think it’s important not to “look past” whatever we think these “barriers” are, but to acknowledge them, be open as to why we even see them as “barriers,” learn about them, and eventually free ourselves from seeing them as “barriers” at all.
DeShazor: This story is so relevant today because we always need to be reminded that love transcends abilities, careers and ethnicity. We hear that a lot, but there are still so many barriers that make it difficult to really live out. We receive so many messages, whether we are aware of them or not, about love, status and stability that make us fearful to take chances. And it is our nature to choose the safest route, protecting ourselves from the heartbreak of falling in love, from the failure that could come from following our callings or from the isolation and ridicule that could come from choosing to be with someone who is different. We will always need to see people from different backgrounds taking these risks.
What do you think of the positive response to the film?
Rosete: I am thrilled by the positive response; we set out to tell a story that we thought would be interesting, and did the project out of love for what we do, so to see people react positively to what we made is a great feeling.
DeShazor: Having made this film so long ago, I can honestly say that it is the gift that keeps on giving, and I am so thrilled when people connect with the story!♦