Interview with Dir. Tom Huang of “Dealing with Dad” on inspiration, family and depression

Published 1:18 pm Thursday, March 24, 2022

The 19th Annual Oxford Film Festival has begun! Locals and cinephiles can sit down at the theatre to enjoy indie films dealing with stories and tales created by filmmakers from all ages and backgrounds.

One film, Dealing with Dad, explores the story of Margaret Chang (Cloak and Dagger and Wrecked‘s Ally Maki) who reluctantly goes back to her hometown with her hapless brothers, Roy (Fairfax‘s Peter S. Kim) and Larry (The Edge of Seventeen‘s Hayden Szeto), to deal with the sudden depression of their dad (Dr. Ken and Curb Your Enthusiasm‘s Dana Lee).

The thing is, everybody hates him and he’s actually nicer depressed than mentally well.

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Dealing with Dad is set to play at the Oxford Film Festival on Friday, Mar. 25 at 6:30 PM in the Malco: Steven & Gay Case Auditorium. To view the trailer or purchase tickets, visit the Oxford Film Festival’s schedule guide here.

The Oxford Eagle’s Maya Martin got a chance to talk with Dealing with Dad‘s director Tom Huang on his inspiration for Dealing with Dad, depression and relationships between children and their parents.

MM: Hello, Mr. Huang. Thank you for taking the time to talk with me! I really do appreciate this.

TH: Of course!

MM: I’ve read the synopsis and watched the trailer, but could you tell me how the film came to be?

TH: As an independent filmmaker, I find— for me anyway— that the strongest stories come from a personal space. Something that means something to you or something you’ve been through. My own father went through depression way back when I was in college and it took me and my family quite a while to figure out what was going on and how to deal with it, especially in Asian-American communities [where] depression isn’t even really considered a disease. It’s kind of considered a mood you walk off.

So initially, a lot of my family resisted any thought of ‘Oh, he needs treatment,’ or anything like that and myself —having dealt with clinical depression before— I didn’t know what to think. The whole experience was like so weird and difficult and, at times, comical that eight years later when he had finally gotten better, I felt like I needed to write a story about it. I wanted other people to be aware of the kind of issues that happened when you have family members that go through depression.

MM: Margaret, Roy and Larry don’t have the greatest relationship with their father, but they find him more likeable this way. Was that an original spin that you had on the story?

TH: I had a complicated relationship with my parents who in the same way really provided a lot of financial support because they’re really hard workers, are immigrants and were able to come up as engineers in America. But at the same time they were so driven to achieve that “American Dream,” I think in consequence our relationship was hurt by that because of how hard they worked and how much they pushed us to try work hard and become financially successful.

It was interesting because I found that my dad who was usually stern and a strict person who always tried to tell you what to do, when he got depressed I noticed that he started actually doing things like telling me about his life and that strict veneer he put on himself when he was well faded away when he was depressed. It actually strengthened our relationship a little bit because I was able to see him in a different way and learn things about him that I would not have learned if he was not depressed. When we were able to get him better, I saw him in a different kind of light. 

So when I saw that in my real life, I took that same twist and put it in the film, but this father in this film is more of a jerk version than my dad. I think if he was depressed in a way my dad was depressed, he would temporarily change who he was. The children see that and it actually makes it more of a dilemma for them, especially for the youngest [Larry] who still lives with his parents. He actually finds it a lot easier to get along and be in the house when his dad’s depressed.

MM: You mentioned your parents are hard workers and they strive to be the best in a country that still sometimes isn’t always accepting of people who aren’t considered “American.” That translates into wanting their kids to be the best, which I’m sure a lot Asian-American children or children of immigrants can understand and relate to.

TH: Not even immigrants. I think anybody who feels left out of the “American Dream,” who has to work very hard to overcome those things or has parents who work very hard to overcome those things to achieve those dreams understands what it’s like to have a parent who obviously cares for you, but the way they show their love and translate their love isn’t always what it’s like in TV or what you know of other people’s families. It’s a generational conflict.

MM: What comes with a lot people growing up is realizing your parents aren’t always correct or they’re not the most perfect being. It’s a emotional journey when you realize they are people just like we are with experiences and thoughts that have shaped how they go through life and raised us.

TH: And actually when I first wrote the script, the lead character [Margaret] was male like me and as I was writing, I realized it would be ten times more interesting if the lead was female. In Asian-American families and lots of other cultures, the males are put on this pedestal and everyone wants a son. To have a daughter be the one who actually leads an immigrant family that kind of celebrates males puts a complexity to the story and made it a lot more interesting to me. I’m really glad that I did that.

MM: Ally Maki’s character [Margaret], is she the oldest child?

TH: She is not! That’s the other thing that I wanted to switch up a bit. She’s actually the middle child. In immigrant Asian cultures, the oldest male is always the person who is supposed to be in charge and taking care of everything. In any family, the oldest is usually the most responsible because they are over the siblings all the time, but in this case the oldest, Roy played by Peter Kim, he can’t being the oldest and he can’t handle his responsibilities. He’s passive-aggressive, his life is falling apart and he’s going through a divorce. So in this particular family, the middle daughter is the one who takes over the oldest role but doesn’t get the recognition because she’s female and the middle child.

MM: It’s kind of like the women are taking the power back? The mother is taking back over the household now that her husband is not in the best mindset. The women are keeping the whole machine running, while the men are dealing with their own issues.

TH: Actually the mom Sophie (General Hospital‘s Page Leong) is a pretty strong personality just like my mom but because both the mom and the dad have very strong personalities, it creates conflict all the time. So not having that second strong personality, helps relax everything. It’s very subtle [in the film] but it’s clear these parents lead their own separate lives even though they live in the same house. That happens a lot, I think, with couples as they get older. 

MM: Going into casting, the only member I’m truly familiar with is Ally Maki. I watched Freeform’s Cloak and Dagger, which I loved her on. How did you get Ms. Maki onto the project?

TH: With Ally, I actually watched this show called Wrecked on TBS which she starred. She played a very different character than on Cloak and Dagger. [Wrecked] was more like the character in the film where she is very funny and very sharp and I thought she was really perfect for this role. We approached her rep and said, ‘Hey, take a look at this script.’ In Cloak and Dagger, she played a straight-foward, dramatic role but most of what she’s known for is her comedy and she hadn’t had a chance to show her range. So we approached her managers and gave her the script and for Ally, it was the first time she starred in a film.

They sent it to her and it turns out she liked the script and she could relate. Turns out her family is a little crazy, too, and so we instantly got along, had a Zoom meeting and shared all our crazy family stories. I think that it was the perfect mix of she was available at the time and it was the kind of script she was looking to do. You might have noticed she is playing a lot of college or high school roles and she was like, ‘I’m ready to play an adult. I don’t want to be in a show or movie where there are school lockers involved.’ It was really perfect timing and I was grateful she liked the script.

MM: Is there any other cast members or characters you would like to highlight? All of them are pivotal, but is there someone that stands out to you?

TH: One of them is obviously the one who plays the father, Dana Lee. He has starred in a TV show, Dr. Ken, and he’s a long-time, veteran actor. I needed him to play this dad depressed and also well and from the beginning he was up to the task. We shot all the “depressed” scenes first so he could really dress himself down, not shave and have that look of someone’s whose been sitting in bed all day and not taking care of themselves. Once we had a few scenes of him “well,” he was able to shave, clean up and become this character who is a strong part of Margaret’s life. It was key to the film and he was up to the task.

I’ve been so fortunate. All the actors are working actors and have stared in movies and shows themselves and like the script so much or knew someone that were willing to be a part of this small, independent production. I’ve been grateful for that.

Hayden Szeto who plays the younger brother Larry starred in The Edge of Seventeen with Hailee Steinfield and was really lauded for that and he does a lot of guest roles on TV. Peter Kim who plays Roy is actually a stand-up comedian and was recently in the Just for Laughs Comedy Festival in Montreal which is a huge festival. People in supporting roles like Margaret’s husband Jeff is played by Echo Kellum has starred in Arrow and NBC’s Grand Crew and Karan Soni who plays Margaret’s old high school friend who comes and diagnoses the dad. He starred in Deadpool and the TV show Miracle Workers as a star.

So we have all these really incredible and talented people that I’m so grateful were willing to come aboard for this small film and make this film what it is. So I’m really excited for everyone to see there performance.

MM: Is there anything else you would like to tell me and the readers about Dealing with Dad?

TH: Even though it stars an Asian-American family, it has universal themes that anyone that has a family that is slightly dysfunctional or isn’t the perfect family can relate to. I really wanted to make an entertaining film that hopefully has people looking at and discussing their own relationships. I also want it to start a discussion about depression. Hopefully doing a movie about depression is enough for someone to say I can actually do something about this or say I should learn more about this. That’s the key thing I hope to achieve.