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Photo: Pete Lee

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Tze Chun on promoting diverse stories in film, television, and comics

Tze Chun talks Gremlins: Secrets of the Mogwai, I’m a Virgo, and TKO Presents.

Filmmaker. Writer. Showrunner. Comic publisher. Tze Chun has worn many hats in his career. Regardless of the role, he’s managed to make a significant impact by promoting diverse stories. Much of that can be traced back to his life growing up.

Chun grew up outside of Boston. He was the child of immigrant parents and was raised by a single mom. Much of his early work such as the short film Windowbreaker and his debut feature Children of Invention, both of which screened at the Sundance Film Festival, were semi-autobiographical. He says, “I just felt that drawing on the experiences of that particular coming of age is something that I’ve come back to multiple times. Whether it’s Windowbreaker, Children of Invention, my episode of Little America, they’re places that inspire me in terms of telling a more grounded narrative”

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His first foray into television was on Cashmere Mafia, a series about four ambitious women who form a support group as they try to break the glass ceiling of the male dominated corporate world. The show might seem out of place on Chun’s TV filmography next to Once Upon a Time, Gotham, and his current projects, but it sparked an appreciation for working in the medium.

“It was really eye opening in terms of, Wow! There’s a job where you can go into a room and write every day with really talented people and learn from them,” says Chun. “So even when I was making my movies, part of me wanted to get back into that work environment. To learn every day and to become a better writer every day. I knew I wanted to get back into it somehow.”

It’s curious to see that he is in a similar position to when he first began his television career. Not long after joining Cashmere Mafia, there was a writers’ strike in 2007. Almost 16 years later, the Writers Guild of America have joined the picket line once again.

gremlins secrets of the mogwai gizmo elle and Sam
Photo: Max

Though his early films were deeply personal drawing upon his own experiences, they also represented Asian stories. Chun would continue to work on projects that advanced Asian representation. He is the showrunner to the animated Gremlins: Secrets of the Mogwai, which concluded its first season this week. The series is a prequel to the Gremlins films from the 80s and 90s set in 1920s China.

“Something like Gremlins: Secrets of the Mogwai obviously draws a lot on the stories that I heard growing up in terms of Chinese spirits and creatures and Chinese mythology,” he says. “Whether that’s something that my parents talked to me about or just things that were in Chinese TV shows or in books I read as a kid.” For those who haven’t seen the show yet, prepare to meet Meng Po the Lady of Forgetfulness, the zombielike Jiangshi, and Nuwa the god to name a few.

Chun’s comic career helped prepare him to tackle the project. One graphic novel he wrote for TKO Presents, the publisher he co-founded, is The Fearsome Doctor Fang. It is a historical globe-trotting Indiana Jones pulp inspired tale taking place in the early 20th century. He found the comic a good primer to Gremlins: Secrets of the Mogwai not only because of epic action-adventure storytelling, but also by using the backdrop of China.

Chun was nervous coming into the Gremlins prequel since it was his first time serving as showrunner. However, he received encouragement from many sources as he put together his vision. “What was really great about it was feeling the full support from Amblin, Warner Bros. Animation, Spielberg, and the director of the original films Joe Dante, who was a consulting producer on the show,” he says. “I think that gave me certainly a lot of confidence as I pitched the show and then put together the writers’ room and the team that eventually made the show In a lot of ways it was a dream experience”

tko presents the fearsome doctor fang
Photo: TKO Presents

Chun is doing his part to help promote other Asian voices. He spearheaded the social media campaign #AASignalBoost. While he was coming up, he had a difficult time and even observed during the ’07 writers’ strike, that he never crossed paths with another Asian writer on the line during the 100 days.

“I think part of the reason why I really enjoy boosting up and coming Asian American creatives is, for the last five years certainly, there has been so many interesting young Asian American creators coming up,” Chun says. “It’s really nice to be part of a community that I always wanted to be a part of but didn’t really exist in its current form until more recently.”

With regards to the entertainment industry, Chun says, “Every month I feel like there is some progress in terms of representation of Asian Americans in television or movies. I think there has been growing proof that audiences want those stories. Honestly, I just think right now is the best time to be Asian American in Hollywood in Hollywood’s 100+ year history.”

He adds, “It’s an exciting time. I also think that there’s no longer the feeling that, okay we just get one of these. We get one TV show on the air. We get one movie in the theaters every year if we’re lucky. What’s been nice is that in having more successful crossover content for Asian American stories, there’s just the feeling that, oh we’re not in competition with each other for that spot. The pie is large enough for everyone to tell their stories and get them out there. I think when that started to happen, we just saw a better diversity in terms of the types of stories that Asian Americans are telling in film and TV.”

i'm a virgo jharrel jerome
Photo: Pete Lee/Prime Video

Chun is also working to promote other people of color’s stories. He is the co-showrunner for I’m a Virgo, which releases today. The other co-showrunner is Boots Riley who wrote and directed I’m Sorry to Bother You. The story follows a 13-foot tall 19-year-old black man who lived a sheltered life in his uncle and aunt’s home. He heads out into the real world and discovers what his hometown of Oakland has to offer.

“The show is very eclectic. It is really very visually bombastic. We had an incredible team from Boots directing all the episodes to the music and the animation,” he says. “We just hope people have a lot of fun. We always talked about the show, pitched the show as a joyride featuring a 13-foot-tall kid. There’s a lot in the show. There’s a lot politically that Boots wanted to get into the show. But also the show is really funny. It’s really weird.”

Because of the protagonist’s size, along with other characters in the series, I’m a Virgo has an almost superhero quality. But he and Riley took a different approach. Chun shares, “We always knew that it wasn’t going to be a Marvel or DC movie or show. It was going to be his own unique take on the comic book mythology. That was really fun to look at the comic book mythology through the lens of someone who is very left of center.”

Tze Chun on promoting diverse stories in film, television, and comics
TKO Presents

Despite all the TV work, he still makes time for his publishing company, TKO Presents. Recently, #ComicsBrokeMe trended on social media following the death of a comic artist and writer. TKO presents might not be the biggest publisher, but Chun takes pride in how they treat their creators.

“I think that most people, almost all people, do their best work when they’re not stressed out about how they’re going to live their lives and to pay for their lives,” he says. “It was important for us to create schedules that were humane, a pay structure that was beneficial to the creators, and one where in success, they would have a passive income for the rest of their lives. We are really proud of that. We’re really proud of paying creators on time. Some of that seems that it should be very basic but that is unfortunately the outlier in this industry.”

TKO Presents also looks to leverage its intellectual property into other mediums. They have partnership with the production company New Regency for television. The Banks from Roxane Gay, Ming Doyle, and Jordie Bellaire was announced that it would receive an adaptation last year. Due to the Writers Guild of America strike, The Banks and TKO Presents’ other unannounced packages are on hold.

Chun’s wealth of industry knowledge is a valuable asset for the publisher. “In terms of the film and TV stuff, we want to make sure the projects are protected not just financially but also creatively. That’s why we want to be really involved with the adaptations to film and television,” he says. “My background certainly helps having a view of the industry that a lot of comic book publishers might not have. Also in terms of transparency in talking creators through possible scenarios for what can happen in an adaptation and trying to protect them.”

Tze Chun
Photo: Pete Lee

So what’s next for the multi-hyphenate Chun? He is currently working on two new graphic novels; one with artist Erica Henderson and the other with artist Ron Chan. Both are expected to be released in a year and a half to two years from now.

His television work has been put on hold for the time being. He was in the writers’ room planning out the second season of I’m a Virgo when the strike happened. Further along is the new season of Gremlins: Secrets of the Mogwai. Season two is almost completed and he teases that it builds on the first season and has a lot of cool stuff.

For those sharp-eyed viewers of I’m a Virgo, you might catch his cameo during the third episode inside a comic shop. Just don’t expect him to switch to the other side of the camera full time. Sure he’s thought about acting, and would consider it for the right project and environment. But as he states, “I always enjoyed the safety of being behind the camera. Every once in a while, I’ll do a little cameo but I’m always more anxious being an extra than I am running a TV show if that makes sense.”

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