Fay Ann Lee is halfway up the filmmaker’s food chain.
Successful enough to write, direct and star in her own independent film, “Falling for Grace,” the 39-year-old actress must nonetheless work the festival circuit to get her movie seen.
“It’s an exciting time,” Lee says from her home in New York. “When I get an invitation, I tend to say yes and just go. I’ve been to festivals in Vancouver, San Francisco and Los Angeles.” This weekend’s Phoenix Film Festival, she says, is a special treat.
“The Camelview (theater) was recommended to me,” she explains. “They’re the ones who submitted my movie (for the festival) and they’ve already booked it for a run afterward. So I’m doubly thrilled.”
Festival barnstorming may seem like a victory lap for Lee, who wrote an Asian-American Cinderella story, then lived a grittier version of the same thing.
wearing the glass slipper
First, the movie: “Falling for Grace,” one of 130 films featured at this weekend’s Phoenix Film Festival, tells the story of Grace Tang (Lee), an Asian-American woman struggling for her first career foothold in a New York banking firm. Her life flies into hyperspace when she is mistaken for an ultra-elite heiress/fashionista of the same name.
An easily clarified mistake — were it not for the hot guy Grace discovers at the top of the social Ferris wheel. Earthy Grace becomes Heiress Grace, and hijinks ensue. “It really is a feel-good movie. It’s not edgy at all,” Lee says. “I wanted a mainstream film with an Asian-American protagonist in it, and I wanted to express certain things — about self-acceptance and being an underdog. But I really just wanted to a make a movie where people could come out smiling.”
But Lee discovered that spinning Cinderella through an Asian-American lens somehow kicked her script into the realm of “risky.” “I knew that, as an actress. My first (TV) role was on 'One Life to Live.’ I played a maid, complete with uniform. I got an upgrade on 'All My Children,’ playing a nurse. Again, stereotypical, with no personality.”
While theater offered roles of character and complexity — like “Miss Saigon” — television was advancing Asian actresses at a crawl.
“I did a 'Third Watch,’ playing a Chinese mom with a dying child who didn’t speak any English,” she remembers. “As an actor, you’re happy to get any role.”
She wrote “Falling for Grace” as kind of a prayer to the idea of an Asian-American romantic lead. When the script became a finalist for a prestigious Nicholl Fellowship, Hollywood took notice — kind of. “Lots of calls, 'Like the script,’ lots of false starts,” she remembers. “One (studio) said, 'We really like it — can you change it to a Hispanic story?’ I had no idea how to begin doing that.”
Lee had no illusions about playing the title role. “I know I’m not a star — it’s all about having a name actress who can 'open a movie.’ I understand that, from a business point of view.” After efforts to interest Lucy Liu and Sandra Oh failed, “A friend of mine told me: 'If you go through the studios, they will damage this script. If you want to get it made, make it yourself.’ ”
So Lee went the independent route, where free expression is king. The downside?
“I spent the next four years fundraising.”
be your own prince charming
Shoestring financing made Lee the star again, and she thought her job description would stop there.
“I wasn’t the director, and didn’t want to be,” she says. “I was scared of directing.” But in early shooting, the concept seemed to go awry. So Lee and the producers suspended filming. “Then we went through what we (had), and rewrote based on the scenes we could keep.” With a little help from screenwriter Jim Taylor (“Sideways”), Lee refocused her script, then donned the director’s hat.
“It was an arduous process. But I feel like I can’t wait to do it again. I learned so much the first time.”
She was pleasantly surprised with “Grace’s” reception at the Tribeca Film Festival. “New Yorkers tend to be a tough crowd, but we got great word of mouth. Even some of my friends didn’t get in.”
The film has received a positive response in festivals out West, as well. “I like to get feedback from the audiences,” she explains. “I like to go to the cities and towns and see whether we’ve achieved our goal.” Remarkably, they haven’t struggled with an Asian-American lead the way studios had anticipated. “Reaction to that has been surprisingly similar wherever we go.”
With “Falling for Grace” poised to move forward on its own, Lee is turning to other projects. But the process has changed her.
“Because of the way this has gone, I want to do more writing and directing and put acting on hold.” Opportunities for Asian American actors are improving slowly, she says. But writing your own story is still a good way to speed the process.
“Some of my friends have told me this is a Cinderella story on- and off-screen,” she laughs. “I think it came from the sheer will not to give up.”
“Falling for Grace” screens noon Friday, April 4, and 2:30 p.m. Saturday, April 5.
The Phoenix Film Festival
When: Thursday, April 3 through April 10
Where: Harkins Scottsdale/101 Theatre, 7000 E. Mayo Blvd., Phoenix
Cost: $10 individual screenings to $425 patron package
Information: (602) 955-6444 or