Grace Yu: Fuzzy Legs is your short film, your first short film that you wrote and directed.
Amber Eswani: It is my first that has been funded very well.
GY: So I know you've shown it for Mezcla [Media Collective], and I saw it at one of those events. Where else can people be watching? Where is it showing?
AE: Friday night October 23 it [was] streaming online live with Free Spirit Media. There's actually a release, a surprise release I [announced] at the end of the event. So the film will be online for people to watch on YouTube.
GY: Amazing. That's really good news. I'm sure you're excited about that. So I'll ask a little bit about the film. Can you tell me how you came up with the concept?
AE: I came up with the concept from personal experience. It was from something I had experienced when I was younger in a similar instance but dramatized. Originally, I had written a pilot idea for a class that I was in in college, my senior year, about a South Asian American woman and it was a different story, but it touched on topics I wanted to cover that I do cover in Fuzzy Legs.
I really wanted to make something that was personal and my own. And so I took that TV pilot and I took ideas from it that I wanted to highlight. I put it in a short story that I felt like could be accomplished. I just had the idea where I sat down and I wanted to get something made, something personal that was related to stories that I wanted to tell. So that's where Fuzzy Legs [was] spurred from, and I sat down and wrote in one line what's one idea, one topic that I heavily relate to that other people can relate to and that was Fuzzy Legs, which is about a Pakistani American girl who starts her first day of middle school, and she goes to gym class and she has hairy legs and she gets teased and bullied for that. And so she has to figure out if she's going to do something about it or not, and if it has to do with her American culture or Pakistani culture or if it's just a beauty standard she has to figure out for herself.
From the places that it's shown—it's aired on PBS, it's shown in the Chicago Cultural Center, it premiered at DePaul University, and then it's been in the Beloit International Film Festival and another film festival at Northwestern, and every time that I show it, people relate to it one way or another. From the pre-production process to distribution, everyone has told me—like every woman or like every person of color–they relate to it in some way and that's just what I hope to hear.
GY: Sounds like the reception has been really good. You've gotten to show it in a few different places and get people's reactions, which have been positive, so that's really great. I'm sure as a creator you really appreciate that kind of feedback. Can you tell me more about the process of making the film, and what production looked like, since you told me a little bit about writing it?
AE: The project, I wrote it in 2017, the summer of 2017. And then I heard about the In Pathways Cohort program with Free Spirit Media. I went to a few of their workshops and I met with Chakka [Reeves] who was one of the coordinators for the program, and I told her about my story idea at a meeting with her, and she told me I should apply for this program because she felt like I could get it and it'd be really good story to tell if it gets selected. So I ended up applying, interviewing for this cohort program, which had 13 people in it. And then we all had a practice pitch, and then six of us got to do a pitch in front of a professional media panel, and one was chosen to be selected and funded and produced and made in that program—so that was Fuzzy Legs. During that process, we had different weeks of what we were doing in the start. The first week or two, we were focused on script writing and getting those pitches out, so I had my script written, and I was just doing rewrites. Then the second, third week, we had to come up together with a pitch. I actually worked with someone else, Joy Duson, who was my associate producer for the film, and we worked on the pitch presentation together because I was going to be out of town for a religious event, a very big religious event in Atlanta and I needed someone to pitch it for me. So I sat down with her, and I went through the pitching process with her—the story that I want to get across, and I had to make sure that she understood what my vision was even though I just met her like two or three weeks before. So it was a very quick turnaround for everything in that program. From there, it's kind of a crazy story. The night before I left for Atlanta, we were practicing the pitch at Stage 18. When I left Stage 18, I was driving home back to the suburbs, and I got hit and run on the highway -
GY: Oh, my god!
AE: Yeah, I was hit and run on the highway, my car was like smushed in—it was a bad day! I just felt like, I don't know—I was just glad I was alive.
GY: I’m glad you’re okay!
AE: I'm explaining this because there's good and bad in the process. Yeah, but that happened, and I was like okay, whatever happens with the pitch will happen with the pitch. It will be fine. Then, a few days later when the pitch happened, I got on the bus with my dad and had a call from Joy that our film got chosen. And I was just like, oh my god -
GY: That is a whirlwind of events.
AE: Yeah, basically! So I heard that we got chosen. Right when I got back, we went into pre-production with a table read with some actors that they got from SAG to run through the lines and do a table read. Every weekend we had a different workshop: screenwriting, pitching, table reads, camera, audio, directing. There was a workshop every weekend that we were doing, and then during the week, we'd have meet-ups two times a week and work on each subject and I'd also work on the film as we were training in this program. So I'd be doing rewrites or I'd be writing the shot list—I went through that whole process. I worked with—he’s a part of DePaul—Eric Liberacki, my DP. We talked with him through the shot list and I'd come up with a mood board, like a mood presentation of what I wanted the film to look like. And then we had rehearsals with—we had one rehearsal with the actress, who I actually found from my religious community.
GY: I was going to ask you how you cast the actor [Tabish Jagshi] because she had to be able to speak Urdu. So you knew her, or you found her, through your religious community. Had she done much acting?
AE: I looked her up because we went through a casting company but they were having some trouble finding specifically South Asian actresses at that young age that could speak Urdu, so I reached out to my community. I knew Tabish models, like I knew that in the back of my head, so I looked her up online, and she had an old acting demo tape from a class she took when she was quite a few years younger. I was like okay, so she has some experience or some classes that she's taken. So I reached out to her mom, and she came in for the audition. I went through this process of like, “do I go with someone that's more experienced but isn't exactly South Asian, Middle Eastern, or do I go with someone that has less experience and is exactly what I want?” I had a gut feeling if I went the other way I would feel terrible about showing my film, and the representation that I wanted it to be wouldn't be portrayed correctly.
GY: Yeah, I feel that. I was in this webinar where Chloé Zhao was talking about some of the films she's done with indigenous communities and most of the people she's worked with are non-professional actors. Having the professional actors would be much more expensive, but the non-professional actors were already close enough to what she wanted that she could give them direction to achieve the performance she wanted. And it's worked really well for her, she's had a lot of success with those films. So I feel like people who really know their community, or who really know the community they're working with, and are able to represent that accurately, I think you know when it’s authentic, or real, and it kind of beats out either star power or even [professional] experience. So, anyway, I just share that because I think you've made such a smart call and you probably feel really good about it for you as a creator to have that realness.
AE: Yeah, especially with my first short that I'm like, “I wrote this, this is a personal story!”
GY: In general, in terms of your artistic process, how do you relate the stories you want to tell to your own experience, as a Pakistani person or as South Asian living in America?
AE: For this film in particular, I made it so you can see the intricacies of what it's like to have dual nationality—being a Pakistani and American. You don't just have your American values, you have your family's values and what they think of you and you try to keep that in your head and you're kind of living a double life. For a lot of the stories I want to tell, it's like, how do I balance these two worlds—how do I balance my moral compass, and what I want with these American values that are more modern, and my family's values and like finding my own path in that and like being truly myself and taking those both in and not disrespecting one or the other and living, how I want to live - those are the kind of stories that I want to tell where it's not like, “oh, screw my culture, screw my background, I'm American, I don't care” - you can be both. It's just more intricate and there's more layers of complexity to it but that also makes the character more interesting and that makes the stories more special.
GY: That's a really lovely way of putting it. How have you been during quarantine?. And during the pandemic? Is there anything you're working on now or looking forward to working on?
AE: During the quarantine and pandemic, surprisingly, I've been working the whole time. I think I was off for maybe two or three weeks, which was really nice, but then I was working on a streaming project for Chance the Rapper’s Social Works, his nonprofit. He had a workshop series and I was a series producer, making those workshops for March and April. I did that, and then I was a project manager for a month for an online event company, and then I worked on the Allied Media Conference as a production coordinator where I got ALS captioning and helped with translation setup. And then after that ended, I worked on Fargo, as a COVID Health and Safety Office PA for about a month or so and now I'm back on Chicago Fire as an office PA.
During quarantine I picked up longboarding and I was able to walk around and do more hikes in nature. I definitely went through some process during quarantine —or like a spiritual awakening, or something like that—which I'm really grateful for.
GY: Any of your own film projects coming up?
AE: I have some stuff in the works, in drafts. But mostly I’ve been doing a lot of photography and messing around in the little ways that I can at home for now, but mostly I'll just be writing. I'll be writing until quarantine is over or I can figure out a way to be code-compliant on my own set.
GY: What inspires your writing or gets you writing?
AE: What gets me writing: usually I come up with some weird idea, like I'll randomly come up with something, I'll just write in my phone and then I'll start drafting it. I have a difficult time writing, honestly, like I'll start writing a project and then I'll stop and then I'll come back to it. And recently I've just been mostly producing projects and helping other people make their projects and I've been kind of on the backburner with my own creativity.I've been really focused on figuring out what to do with Fuzzy Legs, like how to distribute it, how to make sure people see it. So now that I'm finally releasing it, I feel like a big burden is gonna be off my shoulders and people can watch it. I can focus, refocus again on what different types of things I want to make. I know I want to do more things in the realm of first generation American stories but I also like spooky horror-type things like fantasy that I want to delve more into.