Eddie Huang can go ahead and add “auteur” to his resume. The author, restauranteur, and all-around raconteur has made his directorial debut with 'Boogie,' an effervescent sports film out this Friday, March 5. In this FRONTPAGE interview, we discuss the movie with Huang and his mega-talented star, Taylor Takahashi.
Alfred “Boogie” Chin has hoop dreams. The protagonist of Eddie Huang’s upcoming film Boogie (out this Friday) is a high school basketball phenom in Queens, who he harbors aspirations of playing in the NBA — or, at the very least, earning a D-1 scholarship. One day, his father, who is his most ardent supporter, sits him down to watch Michael Chang’s epic comeback from two sets down to defeat Ivan Lendl in the 1989 French Open final on the day after the Tiananmen Square Massacre. The lesson Huang is imparting is that sports hold unique redemptive qualities for Chinese-Americans.
“It just looked like 5,000 years of Chinese culture had deteriorated into hating its own people,” Huang explains. “Emotionally, that was a really tough moment, and I remember it. Michael Chang is so significant, not just because he had probably the greatest upset ever in tennis. He's a 17-year-old kid who has no business playing Ivan Lendl, but he also had the pressure of the world's greatest population on his back, because we were ashamed of ourselves.”
With Boogie, Huang uses basketball to complicate and challenge Asian stereotypes and help sculpt a three-dimensional portrait of Chinese-American culture. Like many children of immigrants, Boogie feels caught in between worlds. After he transfers schools in order to increase potential visibility to college recruiters, his struggles to field offers only increases the intensity of competing parental pressures. As Huang has used food as a racial and cultural interlocutor in his career, he sees the same potential in hoops.
Boogie is a movie of firsts. It marks Huang’s directorial debut, as well as the acting debut for Taylor Takahashi, who portrays Boogie. Takahashi was a standout prep athlete himself and holds the record for most career points scored at Oakland’s Alameda High School. He befriended Huang in 2017 after they became teammates in a rec basketball league named Stinky Tofu. (Here are the team’s stats from their most recent season.) Takahashi became Huang’s assistant, and they wound up living together during the production of the film. The film also marks the screen debut for Pop Smoke, the late Brooklyn drill superstar who plays Boogie’s rival, Monk.
Highsnobiety spoke with Huang and Takahashi together last week to discuss the making of Boogie.
Eddie, what was the inspiration behind 'Boogie?'
EH: The film — it's not some genius plot. You've seen basketball coming-of-age films. I think what this film has that’s never been done is that you're seeing an Asian-American come of age in New York City, intersecting with Black culture and talking about rites of passage and the things we struggle with as a community.
Taylor, how did you become involved in the project?
TT: I showed up one day to a studio in Astoria [in Queens]. Eddie was standing at the front door. He was like, "Let me get your phone, let me get your laptop." And I was like, "Shit, am I fired [as his assistant]? What happened?" And he was like, “absolutely not.” He handed me the lines to scene 44, [where I’m] sitting on the couch with Mr. Chin watching the Chang-Lendl tennis match. And he was like, “I want you to take as much time as you need to remember the lines. We're going to try to record this today.”
It took about three hours. I got a sandwich from a local sandwich shop and we recorded that scene in the office of Mike Tadross, our line producer. I think that was on, like, a Thursday. We sent it to the studio with some words of encouragement [from Eddie.] By Monday, I was cast as Boogie.
Eddie, what did you see in Taylor that made him a good fit for this role?
EH: What I really saw in Taylor was that, culturally, he did not travel the path most Asian-Americans travel. He traveled a path that was quite similar to mine. Every time I tried to do things the straight and narrow way, it didn't work for me. I will always have a spot in my projects for people who took the "other" road and bumped around. And I can't say this for everyone that doesn't go the straight and narrow way, or the corporate way, but for the most part, there is a personal reason why people don't bow their heads and enter the matrix, so to speak. Because, honestly, if you want to join the dominant cultural mainstream world and get a desk job, it's not hard. Anybody can do it. It's about swallowing your pride, swallowing your individualism. And, in many ways, sacrificing this lifetime, because it's just about following rules.
I met [Taylor], and I could just tell that he was counter-cultural. He was in the subculture, and he's really different than a lot of the kids on the [rec] team. It's an Asian basketball team, and me and Tay are the ones that are like, "We don't have jobs!" I really saw potential in him. And I like to give people a shot that didn't just follow the instruction manual for life.
Taylor, could you trace your basketball journey?
TT: I started playing basketball when I was two. My parents played basketball, my older brother played basketball. Basketball has always been a pretty relevant sport in my life. And I played baseball and soccer, too. I had a lot of success in baseball really early as a kid. It didn't challenge me as much as I thought it could. A lot of people in the community I grew up in said, "You should play baseball, you can go far in baseball." But I knew right away that wasn't something I was going to have enjoyment with.
I picked basketball because it was a sport that I wasn't supposed to be good at — I'm 5'8", 5’9” on a good day. As an Asian kid, I didn't see a lot of myself in the league that I played in in high school. And there was kind of a David versus Goliath thing, where I wanted to defy the odds. At one point in time, it was basketball or bust. It was make it to the NBA or go play overseas, and if you didn't do that, and you didn’t get a college scholarship, you failed at basketball. And I learned as I got older that basketball is going to be my beacon for how I foster relationships and how I build bonds with people. I'm able to gain friendships and socialize through the game. It’s really been the best teacher that I’ve had in life.
Eddie, how did you prepare for the task of directing?
EH: The hardest thing for me is stepping away. At one point, the studio even made me not edit for a month. They were like, "You're not allowed to come and edit, just sit at home."
With being a director, the only thing you have to do is manage the actors. You can literally fuck everything else up or do nothing else, but manage the actors, make sure they're happy, and get the performances you need. That's really your job as a director. I had tons of set design ideas. I had a lot of cinematography ideas. I worked very closely with the DP. I brought a lot of my own clothes to this film. Even if I did none of that, I would have done my job and this would've been a good film because of the performances. It's purely about your relationship as a director with the material and your actors. I really love this job.
TT: Eddie is kind of like Phil Jackson, where he understands people, number one, and he really knows what's going to work for one actor or player. And I think that's really important, because if you come in and you're just like, "I'm going to be this way and treat everyone the same way," I think you end up pushing a lot more people away. He figured that out fairly fast.
In the US, basketball tends to be viewed as a Black sport. What are some common misconceptions of the role basketball plays within Asian-American communities?
EH: [Tay and I have] talked about this a lot and I think we agree. There are a lot of Asian people who want their kids to just play Asian league and mainly play with other Asian kids. It's almost a self-perpetuating model minority Asian stereotype, where it’s like, "Oh, we're smaller. We're not athletic. We're not as good. So, let's start in Asian league."
I remember when I would try to get on the court to play in the neighborhood or after school, no one would let me on until, like, all the other kids went home for dinner. Then I was like, "Do you want five on five? You got to let me play." And they were like, "Alright, we’ll let that fucking Chinaman play."
Basketball was this train that I rode, and it allowed me to explore America. Basketball was my way to go to a different neighborhood, meet different people, see different cultures. I mean, even on Huang’s World, the producer knew there's always a day in the schedule where “Eddie’s gonna go and play basketball.” I’ve played basketball in Mongolia, I’ve played in Paris, I’ve played in Istanbul, everywhere I go. You just learn so much more about culture. If you're a sensitive and watchful person, you can see that culture and assess it in the way they play basketball. You can see everything about a person in how they play ball. And people ask me, "Why'd you know it was Taylor?" I’m like, “I just watched that motherfucker play ball. He plays the right way.”
TT: Basketball was the biggest way to grow my confidence. And it was going to the park, it was getting knocked down, pushed around, getting the racial slurs coming at me. And I'm not a big shit talker when I play. I think I’d pull myself out of the game. I've always tried to take that mentality of like, "My game's going to talk for me. I'm going to earn your respect, mind your own stripes. I come into the sport and I'm going to play the right way."
Let's talk a bit about Pop Smoke. After he died, it became even more apparent that he had been blossoming as an artist. His career was moving insanely fast in 2019. How did he get the role of Monk?
EH: What happened was, Dave East was originally cast, and Dave was fantastic. I love Dave. But Dave ended up in a threesome and got hemmed up. I think he got cracked with a champagne bottle. We had already shot a scene with him, and I remember riding to the set with Taylor that morning and it was all over TMZ. We knew we'd have to recast, it wasn't even up to us.
But it became a blessing. At that time, "Welcome to the Party" was going crazy. [Pop] was the hottest thing in New York. I don't know if it was national yet, but in New York, we were all listening to it. And our executive producer, Raphael Martinez, was friends with Pop's manager, Steven Victor. I've known Steven and his people for a minute, too. And also, Despot is on set — he plays the assistant coach — and he’s like, "Yo, you know Pop played ball, right? Like, he was a top recruit in high school.”
So we hit up Pop. He was in Connecticut doing the show. And he's like, "Yeah, I'll be back tomorrow. I'll just come through the crib." So Pop came to the crib. I got home. Nine of his homies were in the lobby, just posted up. And I remember the security doorman says, “These guys are all here for you?” “Yeah, yeah, yeah, these are the homies.” I ran Pop through some basketball drills to make sure his jumper was wet.
We just became fast friends. And when it came time for the audition, Pop knew his line, but I could tell he got nervous for one second. It's the only time I’ve ever seen him nervous, he kept holding his phone real tight. He kept looking down at it and putting it in his pocket and taking it out again. And I said to him "Yo, just put it in your pocket, bro. Don't worry about it. You know these lines." And he was like, "Are you sure?" I was like, "You know these lines, bro. Just be the character. It's not about the work. It's about being the person." And he's like, "Oh, I got you."
And from that moment, Pop figured out acting. He's really that good. We had a lot of first-time actors, but Pop just had it. And what is special about him that's different from a lot of actors, is that Pop has no fear. He's been through a lot in his life. Zero fear. You never get the same take with Pop, but you get something spicier and something different. On days that he was there, I would tell everybody, "Just get ready. It's showtime. Catch this lightning in a bottle. I don't care if he's not on his mark. I don't care if we've got to throw three cameras at it. But he's going to do stuff."
Taylor, you were going up against Pop in a lot of the basketball scenes, including some of the more physical ones. What was it like feeding off his charisma at close range?
TT: Pop is hands down one of the most talented people I've been around. You can just tell right away. [I’d say,] "Oh, where'd you come from?" He’d say, “I just came from the studio. I was in there for six hours recording a song.” It's like, where the hell do you get all this energy, man? He had a whole other set of batteries that we don't carry. And I'll never forget, I think it was during the cage basketball scene. We were walking, just resetting the play, and he looked at me and called me “Tak.” He's like, “Tak, how you be doing this?” I’m like, “I just started two weeks ago, too. I'm figuring this shit out, man. Let's figure it out together.”
EH: Pop would coach up Taylor a little bit to get him in that space of, like, "No, man, you bad. I'm going to fuck with you. I'm going to fuck with you. I'm coming up to you." And it was really cool to see him do that. A lot of actors, they'll worry about stepping on a director's toes, but we just had such a chemistry between the three of us, as brothers working on this film, that Pop actually felt comfortable in scene with his mic on.
A lot of the basketball scenes take place at night. What were those night shoots like?
EH: The overnights were crazy. After five overnights in a row, we would basically start around 11:00 p.m. and we would end around 5:00 a.m. We could only get that court booked five days, so we knew we were going overtime. We knew we were going to be in penalty, but we were just like, "We're going to do this." We had five 16-hour days in a row. I didn't sleep for a couple of them because I was too hype. But they were unbelievable. I felt like I was kind of on drugs because I was taking Adderall, but I felt like I was on drugs the whole time.
TT: They were some of the longest nights I've ever been a part of. You have to flip your sleep schedule in the middle of production. It’s not pretty. A personal challenge for me was, after the first day, I sprained my right wrist pretty bad. It was pretty much not usable. But you get this adrenaline when the camera's rolling, and you try to push as much as you can.
EH: We literally shot all of our basketball scenes with a lead with one arm. He could not use his other hand. We had a lot of challenges on this film, but I felt that this one was karma and a godsend. When he hurt his hand, I was disappointed, because I knew it would affect some of our scenes, but I was like, in the arc of Taylor's maturation as an actor, this is a good thing. And while we cast him because he can play basketball and all these other things, it was acting that got him across the finish line. And he did a really incredible job. He was cast two weeks before the first day of shooting. Had never taken an acting class in his life. But then he carried the film. And I do think that that injury was a thing where I kept telling him, "Look, man, focus on your acting. You are an actor. From the first day you stepped on, you were an actor. So put the acting first.” Blessing in disguise.