“Office Ninja”: a film that would definitely work in a collection alongside the ’90′s Van Damme films and the ’00′s Jackie Chan films! A cute comedy that is simplistic and enjoyable, perfect for audiences of just about any age. Bin Lee, the director, changed his life in order to do the film. He quit his job, he put all of his own money into it, and he taught himself everything he needed to do in order to pull it off. Now the film is done and Lee took a moment to share his experience with RC!
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KW: So the obvious question, where did the idea for “Office Ninja” come from?
BL: It mainly started off while working in software (shocking, huh?). My co-worker buddies dressed up like ninjas for Halloween, and ran around like idiots. That got me thinking, “why has nobody made a movie about ninjas in an office?” There were plenty of shorts on YouTube, but no feature length movies. I knew I had to right this wrong.
KW: So you financed the whole movie yourself. What fears did you have going forward with the film, and what measures did you take as a producer to ensure the money was well spent and not thrown around?
BL: First thing I did was take a seminar in “independent film producing”, where the biggest nugget of wisdom was an actual breakdown of how to make a “million dollar indie flick” for $200-300K. Obviously I don’t have that much money, but armed with that spreadsheet, I was able to budget each department to something realistic. After, that it was all about hiring the best that my limited money could buy. While most still worked under their normal rates, they were paid a respectable rate. And respect is the key. A fair rate is me telling them that I respect, and trust, their skill/craft/creativity, which they gladly paid back onscreen.
KW: You’ve stated your financing woes paid off in the long run of the film. What was your time table like? How long were you in pre, filming, and post?
BL: Most of the heavy lifting was about a year. But that’s because I just let the premise marinate in my head the year before, jotting down notes/jokes. The writing of the script took about two-three months.
We had about two months of pre-production. As a rookie director, there’s no such thing as being overly-prepared. So I story-boarded the entire movie, even the static talking scenes.
Principle photography was three weeks, Monday through Friday, for a totally of fifteen shooting days. And we beat it by a whole day.
Post was weird. The first “final cut” was finished in six months. Later on, I spent about another half-year on the the ninja fables comic book motion graphics to complete the version that you see now. One of the most under-the-radar aspects they don’t teach you about movie making is that post will always be more expensive and time-consuming that you expect.
KW: You were able to organize a very talented group of actors, who all had a ton of experience behind them. How did the casting process work for you? Did you do that all yourself?
BL: My behind-the-camera MVP was our 1st AD and associate producer Allison Vanore. She had film producing under her belt and was a wealth of knowledge. She helped us set up open casting calls in Los Angeles and the logistics of auditions. We recorded everyone’s performance and put our heads together afterwards to discuss the many worthy candidates. The lesson here: you should be able to afford SAG ultra-low budget actors at $100 per day (it’s a little more than that when you count overtime and SAG fees) and the talent pool is overflowing with quality actors.
KW: One area of indie filmmaking that a lot of filmmakers have trouble with is the marketing side of it, which you have seemed to have had no issues with. Did you plan out your marketing angles before you shot the film or did it just fall into place?
BL: Haha, actually, I don’t feel like I did well in marketing! It’s also one of those things they don’t teach in class. My other associate producers, Ewan Bourne, had tons of experience marketing films, so he was a great asset in guiding me about using social media, schedules, and creating behind-the-scenes material. As a first-time director, I could’ve spent more time and energy into extracting some cooler behind-the-scenes stuff during production. On set, I only wanted focus on shooting the movie, so I’m lucky that Ewan was able to mold my weakness into something respectable.
KW: What was your favorite moment onset? Your favorite part or moment of production?
BL: I know it’s a cop out to say every minute was my favorite, but it’s pretty much the truth. If you’ve directed anything, you know a million things can go wrong, and we were blessed with a talented, professional cast/crew who knew how to pour their craft into the film, but also knew how to have fun on set. Watching the cast take my dialog to a whole new level of funny that I didn’t expect was eye-opening. Laughing my butt off after each take (sometimes during). There were moments of comedic genius from these actors, where in the back of my mind, I asked “how am I getting away with this silliness?”
KW: Where did you draw inspiration or influence from for “Office Ninja”, both as a writer and as a director?
BL: Obviously, “Office Space” was the first thing that came to mind. But I had to resist from re-watching it, because this had to be my brand of lunacy. I value creativity and originality. So every scene, I pushed myself by asking “how can this be funnier?” “what’s the goofiest/smartest thing that can happen?” “what can I do that no one has seen before?”
I have an eclectic taste in comedy, so I just siphoned from every genre/style that made me laugh, like dorky word pun, absurd physical humor, sly observations, parody, and obscure inside jokes. I wasn’t sure if mashing all these together was a good idea, but you don’t know unless you try it!
KW: You not only make movies, but you also have a blog and podcast dedicated to film. What encouraged you to writer and direct your own film?
BL: The time was right. I just got laid off, but was blessed with enough savings to take this gigantic risk. I knew if I didn’t try it now, it might be decades, after I’ve raised a family, before I could really give it a go. I knew no one was going to give me money or a break. I had to create my own break.
KW: What is next for you as a director?
BL: Right I’m more focused in writing. After “Office Ninja”, I was able to sample some different gigs in film, from editing a web series, to assisting a post-house, to good ole’ PA grunt work, to 2nd unit directing. It became clear that writing/creating stories was my artistic sanctuary. I co-wrote a dramedy called “American Born Chinese” that reached quarterfinals of Scriptapalooza, and currently writing a sci-fi/political thriller comic book series called “Delegates”.
I would love to get back into the director’s chair again, but I’m a realistic. Time will tell if “Office Ninja” captures people’s imaginations and gets me noticed. Until then, I’m just going to keep paying my dues, learn from my mistakes, and rebuild my savings to fund my next project.
KW: What words of wisdom would you pass on to upcoming filmmakers?
BL: Keep one foot grounded in financial reality. While you should almost never do anything just for the money, it’s still an important part of making your goals, projects, and dreams come true. Respect the fact that you need it to keep the lights on, keep you warm, and put you in a position to pursue your dreams. The way of the starving artist is not a long-term strategy.
Find a way to balance living comfortably with having the time/energy/means to create what you want to create. Stressing out over not having money is not productive. Suck it up and create a spreadsheet of living expenses and income. You’ll be shocked how much you spend on frivolous stuff. Map out a plan with monthly goals that you can achieve. Remove debt, find a lifestyle that lets you be comfortably artistic, or save up enough to fund your own project.
No one is going to hand you your dream job. You gotta earn it. And one way to stay in the game long enough to pay your dues or create your own big break is to make sure you’re not squandering your time/energy/money over things that don’t matter.
Lastly, don’t be a jerk. Life’s too short and fragile for that kind of nonsense.
You can stay up to date with “Office Ninja” and its screenings and news on their Official FaceBook Page: https://www.facebook.com/officeninjafilm