Eugene Ramos interview
Eugene Ramos (2015), went a different route than most of his Clarion classmates and chose to make his mark in film, rather than prose. Tiffany Davis, one of the e-Bulletin co-editors, caught up with Eugene via Skype and chatted about Shakespeare, love interests, and side hustles at the Apple store.
Due to space constraints, we could only post a small portion of the interview in the newsletter itself. We are pleased to offer the entire interview here, for your reading pleasure. Enjoy!
If you’d like to see Eugene’s short film, They Charge for the Sun, here are some upcoming dates:
Boston, MA at the Independent Film Festival Boston
Tiffany Davis (TD): You majored in Shakespeare! That’s pretty interesting.
Eugene Ramos (ER): It was weird because when I was in high school, I remember that I didn’t like Shakespeare. And when I went to college, I signed up for a Shakespeare class for my very first quarter, and I remember, after signing up, I looked at my schedule and was like, “Why did I sign up for Shakespeare? I hate Shakespeare!” But, after that first class, I was just blown away. I took as many Shakespeare classes as I could and, because of that, that qualified me to graduate with a degree in 16th Century British Literature.
So a lot of my writing, because of that, because of that background, is a result of me writing…most of the stuff I write is influenced by Shakespeare. If you read them, you can see the Shakespearian influence. For example, I wrote this romantic comedy about Isaac Newton, and there’s cross-dressing in it, people falling in love with the wrong people, so it’s very much in the vein of As You Like It and, certainly, Shakespeare In Love.
TD: Sweet. Are you a native Angeleno? Everyone I know say that people in L.A., most of them are from somewhere else.
ER: Yes. Originally, I”m from Chicago. I lived in Chicago for most of my life. I lived in New York for seven years, on and off. After New York, I moved to LA.
TD: If you’re doing film, that’s really where you need to be. That’s a major hub.
TD: So you went to Clarion. Do you ever plan to write….most of the Clarionites I’ve experienced are into some sort of novel. There are very few that have done anything outside of books. Even Ted Chiang, he’s gotten a lot of kudos for his short story, “Story of Your Life”, which was turned into the movie Arrival. But he’s, again, books that happened to be a movie. But you’re like, “Movie! That’s’ where I’m at!”
ER: Yeah. I started as a short story writer. I was writing short stories when I was in high school and college. Then, I decided to apply to film school a few years after I graduated from college. Since then, it’s been scripts. It was a weird transition for me to go back to writing prose. I’ve been writing prose on and off, mainly just concentrating on scripts. The funny thing about writing scripts, or learning how to write scripts, is all these rules that they tell you are, in a way, the exact opposite of what you should be doing if you’re writing prose.
Script writing is very stripped down, so you don’t even want to get into character’s mindset, or inside the character’s head. That was really painful for me going to Clarion, because I was so used to writing scripts and not getting into the character’s internal life. Not even describing setting, because that’s not my job as a screenwriter to realize how the set looks; that’s the set decorator, and you don’t want to do anyone else’s job when writing a script.
I got all of these notes from my instructors that blew my mind because they were so common sensical. For example: I wrote a script and my instructor, Saladin [Ahmed], said, “All the settings you write are all white rooms. You never describe how any of the rooms look.” And I was like, “Oh yeah, right! I can describe what a room looks like in a short story!” Another instructor–I think it was Karen Joy Fowler–said, “You do realize that you can get into your character’s head, right?” And it was just a moment of, “Well, of course I can! I’m not writing a script, so I can say whatever is on a character’s mind.”
But for me, I feel like I’m going to stick with script writing. Everyone else in my class are such strong prose and fiction writers; it’s difficult for me, after reading their stuff, to even think about even trying that. I feel like my brain has sort of, I guess, hardened in a way that it will only write scripts and trying to write prose again is a very atypical thing for me. Although I think I’ll try to write a few short stories in the near future.
ER: Basically, in the film and TV industry, in order to get work, you need to write these scripts on spec as a way to show that you can write for that show’s voice, and that you can write TV scripts in general. The point of these scripts is not to get them made, but to use them as sort of a calling card.
TD: How, exactly–besides the obvious length and budget–does a TV script differ from a film script? I know they’re shorter because most TV scripts are series, you know, multi-episodic with character arcs. What are your challenges you see in writing for TV versus writing for film? Your spec scripts, versus your short film, They Charge for the Sun, that was picked up by the International Film Festival of Rotterdam [the film opened on Jan . 30]?
ER: It’s a challenge because, when you write novels, most people don’t have a page count destination in mind. Scripts, I feel, are very different because of the way TV shows have been airing for years. For sitcoms, you always want to them to be 30 minutes or less (to account for commercials); for dramas, 60 minutes or less. For movies, you typically–I think the sweet spot these days is a 90-minute movie. Though, the short of short-handed thing is that each page of a script equals one minute.
When you write a script, you have that page count restraint in mind. For me, I tend to write long, so my Isaac Newton script was probably 140-150 pages, which is about a 2.5-hr movie. I got a lot of pushback from people saying it was way, way, too long. I have friends in my class who write really long short stories that are basically novellas; some of them sit down and they don’t have a page count in mind, they just sit down and write until they feel like it’s done. For film and TV, you can’t really do that. In terms of getting an idea and finding out what the constraints are, for me, personally, every time I come up with a TV idea it’s actually a movie idea; or when I come up with a movie idea, it’s actually a TV idea. It’s weird because, for me, I just have to write it and figure out if it works as a movie or as a TV show.
TD: Let’s delve more into the human interest side. I want to learn more about YOU, Eugene. *laughs* Pets? No pets? And if you covered this in other interviews, I apologize, but the newsletter focuses so much on people and their writing.
ER: General stuff?’’
TD: yeah, like you were filling out a Tinder profile. What would cause someone to swipe right, instead of swipe left?
ER: *laughs* Honestly, I currently don’t have much of a life. I’ve been trying to work as much as I can. I currently work at the Apple store. I try to get as many hours of I can because I have a lot of student loan debt and credit card debt, and I want to get that down as quickly as possible.
TD: Did you finance your film yourself?
ER: The cool thing about that is that I got into a program called Project Involve, which is set up by film independents. Every year, all these people apply for the program and they pick 30 people. They pick six writers, six editors, six producers, six directors, and six cinematographers. They break us up into 6 teams and each of those teams films a movie– a short film. They provided, I think, it was $5,000 and all sorts of in-kind services. We got a free, camera package, we got free post-production coloring and sound design–it was amazing. All that stuff put together was like a $15,000 short film.
TD: Once this film is picked up–you showed it in Rotterdam–and it does well, do you hope that a distributor picks it up? How does that happen?
ER: I’m not that well-versed in stuff like that. I mean, I had a short film that I wrote that was picked up for distribution on an anthology DVD, and then basically the director got paid for that–in short film, the director is pretty much the author of the short–so I probably won’t see any money from this. I don’t think anyone is going to see any money from this. You know, we did this for the love of film making and the story, so no one’s expecting any money. If anyone gets any sort of a claim for it, it’ll probably be the director. It was his vision for this and I hope he gets some more gigs out of it. This guy, Terrence Nash, is working all the time and is at all the big film festivals. I would love to see one of his movies go mainstream.
TD: I was asking about the finances and was remembering Spike Lee, many, many moons ago before hit it big. It was Do the Right Thing or She’s Gotta Have It–whichever was his first mainstream film–and he was talking about how he maxed out all his credit cards to get the financing for his film, because he couldn’t get funding.
ER: I think there a lot of old stories like that, about people maxing out their credit cards. I think even Kevin Smith did something like that. But these days, it’s so much easier to make movies. Almost everyone has a smartphone and the vast majority of those smartphones can shoot HD, or even 4K. I guess, on top of that, you just need to get good sound. But once you get those two things together, and some people willing to work for free with you, you can put something together pretty easily. You just need to know how to put it together.
I’ve seen a lot of short films by people who are very enthusiastic about putting something together, but they don’t quite know the language and grammar of film making quite yet. I know that you start young,–one of my friends, his kid is 9 or 10 years old, and he’s making YouTube videos now. They’re not very sophisticated, but he’s starting at 10. When he’s 18, he’s going to be a master at this. It’s an amazing time to be a filmmaker because it can be done pretty inexpensively.
TD: We’re in the age where Netflix is tripling down on original content, and Amazon Prime is jumping into it too. HBO has always been on the forefront of original film. Issa Rae, she started out on YouTube with her show Awkward Black Girl, and Pharrell Williams picked her up under his production company for season 2, which is still on YouTube; now, she has her own series on HBO. Do you see yourself, perhaps, showcasing your work on one of those venues?
ER: If I were really lucky! I would love to write my own TV show. The thing is, it’s just incredibly difficult to get read in this town. That Isaac Newton script that I mentioned won a bunch of awards and has done really well in contests, but for the most part people don’t want to read it or, if they read, it, they just think that…someone mentioned to me that the movie is unsaleable. Because Hollywood, right now, is about sequels; prequels; remakes; stuff that’s in public domain; stuff that is in people’s consciousness at the moment. So something original is difficult to get made. Basically, I would love to do my own TV show but it’s really hard out here. It’s the same with short story writing; I hear my Clarion classmates talk about trying to get published. It’s very competitive and a little depressing, actually.
TD: I’m a self-published author and I used to work in publishing, and trying to get on with a mainstream house is just crazy now. It’s a trend, and as a writer of color, mainstream houses have a perception of what they think certain demographics read. They use the justification “Our number show that ___ people only read…” And I’m like, well, have you polled every ____ person in the country?Do you know that? Certain genres may sell, but we’re not monoliths. So you can’t say that only ___ read this, and only ___ read that. I mean, I like Maeve Binchy novels, but I’ve never set foot in Ireland, and I’m definitely not white, so…what? *laughs*
ER: Right. And it’s crazy because the prevailing belief in Hollywood for a very long time is that no one wants to watch TV shows about Asian Americans. For years, they would just wouldn’t make any. I think, the last Asian American sitcom before the recent crop was the Margaret Cho show (All-American Girl), something like 20 years before Fresh Off the Boat premiered. And I have this Asian American script and I remember talking to this writer/producer who was teaching this class and I pitched it to him in his the class. This writer/producer has gone on to do huge things, and is an Oscar-nominated producer but at the time, he was just getting started. He said something like, “Keep in mind that your movie has too many Asian faces and because of that, the box office potential is really low. So the likelihood of this movie being made isn’t very good.”
That perception is just crazy to me, I mean, you can see all these Asian American-fronted TV shows and movies doing well. You have Master of None, you have Dr. Ken, you have Fresh Off the Boat. Have you seen the show Selfie?
TD: With John Cho. I liked him in Sleepy Hollow.
ER: Yeah. I hate that they cancelled Selfie. One of the brilliant things about the show was that his being Asian American wasn’t a thing on the show. John Cho was just a leading man, he was a high executive in this pharmaceutical company. His race never came up on the show. I mean, friends and I have had discussions about why it got cancelled, why the viewership wasn’t high enough; I think it was because people were uncomfortable having an Asian American romantic lead in a TV show.
TD: I read that it was an issue in the Asian community, because it was an Asian male. IT’s no problem if it’s an Asian female with a white male lead; that’s all good. But the opposite is like *screeching brake sound*
ER: Exactly. I think that’s the case. I’ve had Asian American friends say no, that’s not the case, it’s because they didn’t publicize the show, or it was in a bad time slot, or whatever. I still feel like America is uncomfortable having an Asian male love interest for a white woman.
TD: That movie with Jet Li and the late singer Aaliyah [Romeo Must Die], though the interest wasn’t that overt. You have Sleepy Hollow (the one-sided love interest between Cho’s character Andy and Abbie); it was no problem; it was more that she just wasn’t digging him like that (And that his character was possessed by a malevolent spirit), than the fact that he was Asian. It is–I hate to say it is what it is. As long as the people in power–who are white–make the decisions, things won’t really change.
ER: Unfortunately. Do you watch Big Bang Theory?
TD: I haven’t gotten around to it, but the people I know love it.
ER: It’s an okay show, I have friends who really dislike it because it does a disservice to nerds, but the main thing is that the main character is pursuing the neighbor Penny, and in one of the season finales, the main character’s best friend, Raj–the Indian character–the last scene of this episode kind of hints that maybe Raj has slept with Penny. And I was like, this is awesome! And then in the season premiere, a few months later, they revealed that they never slept with each other because they were too drunk, and Raj wasn’t able to put the condom on, and it just deflated the whole thing of this Asian guy who may have slept with the white girl. Such a bummer.
TD: IT was a little better than That ’70s Show, where the Indian/South Asian character was more of a buffoon. Progress! *sarcastic tone*
ER: *laughs* Right.
TD: I apologize. When I’m tired, my filter goes away. I haven’t read any of your stories, so I apologize. When you do your love interests in your stories, you just concentrate on the interests, and who the love interests are?
ER: It depends on what I want to do. For example, that Asian American script that I mentioned. It’s called “I’m Not Phil”. It has a double meaning because if you read it phonetically, it sounds like the shorthand for Filipino.
ER: The main premise of the script is that the main character, Ray, He’s Filipino American but his whole life, he’s been mistaken for this other Filipino American guy named Phil. Whenever Ray does something great, Phil takes credit for it and whenever Phil does something wrong, Ray gets blamed. What happens is that this incredibly cute white girl thinks that Ray is Phil, and Ray plays along with it and pretends to be Phil. For me, in that movie, it was important for me to make fun of all those Asian stereotypes, especially the stereotype in America that all Asians look alike.
On the other hand, to also have an Asian romantic lead with a white female romantic lead. It turns out that she can tell Asians apart for real, but there’s a twist at the end that reveals that she’s not part of perpetuating the stereotype. But in that case, in that movie, it’s a part of me that wants to show the romantic dynamic between an Asian man and a Caucasian woman. For something like my Isaac Newton script, which takes place in 17th century London, it has to have two white romantic leads.
TD: You’ve had short stories that have won awards. Are you planning on releasing those as a collection?
ER: I don’t have enough short stories to put together a collection, and the awards I’ve won, compared to some of the stuff my cohorts have won, doesn’t really compare.
TD: So it’s not like you’ve won a Hugo,or a Locus, or a John Tiptree.
TD: How are you feeling? Since you’re getting over bronchitis, and I’ve been there, I don’t want to drag this out.
ER: No, I’m fine.
TD: Okay. Is there anything that you want to put out there, that you want people to know?
ER: Let me think…I don’t know. I mean, can you think of something that will prompt a response?
TD: Let’s see: What is it that draws you, since you’re the Sci-Fi Shakespeare Guy, that draws you to science fiction? What is it that gets your creativity going and allows you to write the types of stories that, though they eventually go to film or boost your script writing, what is it about the genre that lights you up?
ER: I love the idea of placing the real world in a setting that is just as little bit off. Setting something in the future, or in a fantastical world, that could comment on things that are happening today without directly commenting on them. I know, in some cases, if you write about something specifically happening today, like certain comparisons, in science fiction it can be a little more subtle and people are more receptive to that sort of medicine because it’s a bit sweetened, if that makes sense. I feel like, if I were to write a story criticizing some of the stuff that is happening in America today, but set in the future or in a futuristic world, it would be easier for someone to swallow who doesn’t share the same beliefs I do.
TD: Cool beans. Thank you for taking the time to do this interview.
ER: Thank you for having me!