We had the good fortune of connecting with Noelani Mei Lee and we’ve shared our conversation below.
Hi Noelani, we’d love to hear about how you approach risk and risk-taking
“Risky” was the name of the first feature film script I ever wrote. I was fourteen, so predictably, it was terrible. I had put forth a gallant effort to tell an exciting story about a group of kids who got involved with some… well, risky business. At the time, I was a student at a small independent film school in Austin, Texas. I brought my most polished draft to my instructors and was given a harsh lesson in reality that day: not everything you write will get made. In my mind as a writer, handing off my screenplay was the riskiest thing I could do. In a way, I was baring my soul. The worst case scenario? Total letdown, and that’s exactly what I felt. The funny thing is, though, that this ended up being an exponential step forward in my filmmaking career. Had I not faced the rejection of “Risky” as a potential project for the school, the slew of short films I made to prove myself never would have followed. By the time that I actually made my first feature five years later, I had a much better grasp on storytelling. Sending off a screenplay may seem like a pretty small risk. Of course, risk is in many ways subjective and, let’s face it, I’m naturally a risk-averse person. Roller coasters? No thank you. Skydiving? I’ll stay at home. You get the drift. I’m as guilty as anyone about clinging to comfort and resisting change. That’s probably why it’s become so evidently clear over the years that in actuality, almost all of the amazing experiences, opportunities and relationships I’ve had were direct consequence to risks that I had taken throughout my life. One of the riskiest moves I ever made was circumventing the typical high-school experience (I went through an online school to graduate before age seventeen) and skipping college altogether. It was a choice I’d given a lot of thought to, having actually been an outstanding student for most of my schooling, and a choice that ultimately led me to current career. Finishing my education young gave me a unique opportunity: I was able to write, direct, and edit around the clock. By the time I was nineteen, I had an array of short films, a music video, experience on many film sets and my own feature under my belt. Had I taken the traditional path and gone to University, I am certain I would have gained much valuable knowledge–but I would have deeply lacked the experience that I’d allowed myself to gain by carving my own way through my young adult years. When I moved from Austin to Los Angeles, I did so with practically no safety net. I had a thousand bucks to my name with no source of future income and no connections in the industry I wanted to work in. All my friends were in Texas and, last but not least, I took an airplane which meant that I could only bring two suitcases worth of my belongings with me. I was truly starting over. Moving to a new city is always a risk, because you never know if things will work out when you change your life so drastically. At twenty years old, I was very naive. Los Angeles was difficult to navigate at first and I found myself sleeping on couches and sharing apartments with multiple friends in order to afford getting by while I scraped around for work on websites like Craigslist. It was, to this day, the biggest risk I’ve ever taken. It was also the best decision I ever made. Of course, I couldn’t have known it at the time–that’s what makes it risky! In retrospect, though, it’s easy to see why: if you stay in the comfort of your home every day–if you stay on your couch instead of acting on those wild ideas that you have–then you never give yourself the opportunity to grow. I believe that we all have this idea. It’s an idea of ourselves being successful in our field, or looking more attractive, or being thinner, or finally landing that hot date. Whatever it is, it propels us forward, contributing to our decisions day-to-day. Some of us are inspired by this idealistic self and others are intimidated by it. When we find ourselves overwhelmed, we tend to avoid risk-taking and seek comfort in what we are familiar with. Therefore, it is my opinion that in order to achieve the most out of life, it is detrimentally important that we find inspiration in accepting change as a valuable and inevitable part of life. It’s always healthy to have boundaries, but press them! See how far you can get by challenging yourself. In my experience, the rewards are more than worth the effort.
Let’s talk shop? Tell us more about your career, what can you share with our community?
Most of my life has, in some shape or form, revolved around the pursuit of expanding knowledge by communicating with others. I’m a natural storyteller and, as I grew older, this manifested in a multitude of ways. Most notably, I create films, but I also write music and poetry, and make paintings as well. Art in its various formats was always my most reliable form of catharsis. I learned as I aged that it was also an effective way of discussing important, sometimes difficult issues. That was important for me because I have a pretty significant issue: my mental health. Nowadays, I’m well-versed in what it feels like, for example, to have a nasty panic attack. It simply doesn’t hold the same power over me that it did ten years ago. That doesn’t mean that navigating Bipolar Disorder is easy–quite the contrary, but when I look back at nineteen-year-old Noelani, I see a young woman in desperate need of representation. I see a young woman suffering with an invisible disease that most around her misunderstand. It’s devastating. That’s why, over time, it became clear to me that I needed to do something to change this. I’m no motivational speaker, and I tried on the documentary-style-shooting outfit. It didn’t fit. I found that for me, crafting a relatable narrative story the most honest-to-self method I had to tell the world: “Hey! We need to be aware of this. People are suffering, and we need to take a closer look at the institution in place here.” It is my hope that at some point, someone who feels unseen might see my work and understand that they are not alone. It is my hope that someone with loved ones who struggle with invisible diseases might have some insight into their experience by viewing my films. The road to get to where I am now has been a long one, and will continue to be so. My journey is nowhere near complete, but I know that what I am doing is important. I have faced many rejections and hardships as a director and learned countless lessons “the hard way.” It’s all a part of being an artist, I’m pretty sure. I can proudly say that I’ve paved my own path throughout the years by being motivated and persistent no matter what. That’s really the biggest lesson of all–if you want to make art, you can’t just think about it, you have to DO it. You can’t be afraid to suck. You WILL suck. And eventually, the more you work at your craft, the less you’ll suck… and when you get there, it feels really good. To be able to relieve stress, change the world, and have fun doing it? What more could I possibly want out of my future?
Any places to eat or things to do that you can share with our readers? If they have a friend visiting town, what are some spots they could take them to?
Nowadays, things are pretty strange. If my best friend was visiting the area, we’d likely find ourselves spending a lot of time inside of my home. Prior to the pandemic, however, there were many places I would love to visit with them. Los Angeles is known for having a wide selection of delectable food. Personally, I’m a fan of your traditional American faire, and one of my favorite places to go for it is Home Restaurant in Los Feliz. I’d likely take my dear friend by Spitz as well, which is directly across the street and serves delicious Mediterranean food with beer on tap. My favorite of all is Cha Cha Chicken, a small Caribbean restaurant located in Santa Monica not far from the pier. The black bean soup is to die for, and the jerk chicken…. I could go on. The beach is a no-brainer, of course, especially if my friend is coming from a non-coastal city. Los Angeles beaches may be a little populated, but they are beautiful and relaxing nonetheless. I especially love going at night and having a bonfire. Another go-to is the Griffith Park Observatory. Not only is it full of fun (and easy-to-digest) science, but you get a breathtaking view of the city day and night. Get this, they even serve hot chocolate! Sold! A couple of museums in town are note-worthy. The Museum of Death on Hollywood Boulevard is a staple that I would have to visit with my friend, and another is the Museum of Jurassic Technology in Culver City. Each is a very unique experience you likely won’t find elsewhere. There’s also something to be said for simply exploring the city destination-free and taking in the culture of each area–Chinatown, Koreatown, Little Armenia, Little Tokyo, etc. The city is so diverse and interesting if you just take the time to witness it. With a stomach full of food and a day’s worth of exploration, it’s time for a drink! In my opinion, there’s no better place to sit and discuss the day over a brew than at Footsies, a bar on Figueroa in the Highland Park area–that is, if you avoid the Friday Night rush. Weekends find the place pretty busy, but a weeknight is the perfect time to hang out with your friends at this divey little spot. Another great place for a drink is Walt’s in Eagle Rock. It’s a compact barcade that serves beer, hot dogs and soft pretzels with mustard and cheese. Classic. You can play pinball and buy yourself a a gumball for a quarter while you have a draft beer with your buddies. Who could want more? The Shoutout series is all about recognizing that our success and where we are in life is at least somewhat thanks to the efforts, support, mentorship, love and encouragement of others. So is there someone that you want to dedicate your shoutout to?
I taught myself how to write screenplays on a very old program that I can’t even remember the name of. When I say “taught myself”, I mean that pretty loosely. I learned the structure–where the action went, where the dialogue went, and so-forth. It wasn’t until I was quite a bit older that I truly learned what mattered–character, structure, keeping an audience’s interest page after page. This all came from discovering a book at a Borders in Chicago: “Your Screenplay Sucks! 100 Ways to Make it Great.” Over the years, my patience for sitting through an instructional book has declined. William Akers’s screenplay book, however, continues to hold my attention even after a decade. It may not be “Save the Cat,” but personally, I’d recommend “Your Screenplay Sucks!” to anyone who wants to learn how to craft a successful script. It’s easy to read and feels like you’re chatting about movies with an old, wise friend. I’d also like to make a distinct shoutout to my good friend Mark Dennis, one of the directors of the movies Strings and Time Trap. I was a production assistant on his first movie when I was a teenager and have learned a wealth of information about writing and directing films from him over the years. He is exceptionally talented and has always been an inspiration to me as an artist. One could not ask for a better mentor.
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