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The Honolulu Advertiser
Posted on: Thursday, July 10, 2003

Filmmaker's Hawai'i roots resonate in work

By Wayne Harada
Advertiser Entertainment Writer

 •  'Charlotte Sometimes'

A film by Eric Byler

Opens tomorrow at The Art House, Restaurant Row

Also: A reception, open to the public, will be held from 5 to 7 p.m. tomorrow at Meritage restaurant, Restaurant Row. A Q&A session with Byler will follow a screening of his film afterward.

Growing up local, filmmaker Eric Byler was able to focus on his Asian-American roots and draw on his multicultural experiences in his feature film, "Charlotte Sometimes," a darling on the indie film festival circuit.

Now he's got a new project: "American Knees," a feature based on a Shawn Wong novel Byler adapted for the screen.

Byler also has been pegged to direct two set-in-Hawai'i screenplays, both with broad island themes. "One is based on the novel 'Tattoo' (by O'ahu author Chris McKinney) and the other is my screenplay, 'Kealoha: The Beloved,' " said Byler, 30, who's home for the Friday launch of "Charlotte Sometimes" at The Art House at Restaurant Row.

"Charlotte" has collected a string of accolades and was previously screened at the Hawai'i International Film Festival here. A very enthusiastic thumbs up from Roger Ebert ("The best of the films I've seen so far at the Hawai'i festival," the critic said last fall) triggered subsequent success on the festival front, and has enabled Byler to move on to other projects while working on giving "Charlotte" a wider reach.

And he's diversifying.

"Recently, I was offered a very lucrative contract to create and write a new television series for Showtime," said Byler. "This will be the deal that gives me financial security after much suffering — sleeping in my car or at the editing suite, drinking coffee instead of eating, cutting my own hair to save money."

Gamble to pay off

It's not always a charmed life for an indie filmmaker, it turns out. He's not yet recouped production costs for "Charlotte Sometimes." "My family and I put in around $50,000 and Visionbox Pictures put in about the same," he said. But "$100,000 will not be difficult to recoup, with theatrical release, cable and DVD/video all turning out to be good money-makers. But I've seen very little money from 'Charlotte' at this point. The good news is that in my dealings with Visionbox, I gambled that the film would make the kind of money it's making, and protected my family's equity in the film, so once it earns beyond a certain amount, most of the profits go to my parents and uncles."

In fact, the film continues to bring Byler buzz, and that has helped him move forward on his other projects.

Byler said his Hawai'i upbringing has been essential to his career, giving him firsthand insight into themes that Hollywood often seeks to include in pursuing "cultural diversity."

"Growing up here, I learned a lot about my Asian roots, certainly more than I would have learned from my Chinese relatives (on the Mainland), who are all fourth-generation and very American," Byler said. "Most Asian Americans on the Mainland don't get in touch with their roots until college. This results in an overemphasis on ethnicity, which is healthy as a way of making up for lost time but not always the best approach to art."

He said "Charlotte Sometimes" worked for both critics and audiences "because it's much more about humanity than ethnicity."

Ebert's rave

The movie deals with a Japanese-American auto mechanic (Michael Idemoto), caught between his restrictive traditional upbringing and his own dreams, and includes a repressed relationship with a Chinese-American woman (Jacqueline Kim). "It is written, directed and acted with the penetrating shorthand of a short story," said Ebert in his rave. "We experience the plot firsthand, without tiresome dialogue in which people explain things they already know so that the audience can be briefed." Ultimately, the characters just "be themselves, in a way that is fascinating and illuminating."

The 1990 Moanalua High School graduate said that in the Islands, he learned to admire Asian and Polynesian culture in a natural, familiar way.

"In Hawai'i, Asian/Pacific culture is so much more than a diversity initiative. It's simply who we are," Byler said. "Asian/Pacific culture is so pervasive here. It's simply part of life. We don't have to scream that we're ethnic here, we just are."

Reach Wayne Harada at wharada@honoluluadvertiser.com, 525-8067 or fax 525-8055.

• • •

Eric Byler

Occupation: Filmmaker, writer, director.

Age: 30.

High School: Moanalua High, 1990.

Ethnicity: Chinese-Caucasian.

Birthplace: California, but calls Hawai'i home, though his operations are based in Los Angeles.

Known for: "Charlotte Sometimes," an independent film that opens tomorrow at The Art House at Restaurant Row.

Awards/nominations: Nominee, 2003 Independent Spirit Award (Byler, for Best Picture/the John Cassavetes Award; Jacqueline Kim for best supporting actress); 2002 Audience Award for First Narrative Feature, South by Southwest Film Festival; Best Narrative Feature, 2002 San Diego Asian Film Festival.

Little-known fact: "I used to deliver The Advertiser and the Bulletin when I was a kid."

Notable and quotable: "I still don't have an official place of residence. I'm sleeping in the pool house of 'Charlotte's' executive producer, John Manulis, right now."

In the works:

"American Knees," a $1.2 million film, based on a novel by Shawn Wong, for which Byler adapted the screenplay; supported by John Sie, the Chinese-American CEO of the Starz Encore cable network; Lisa Onodera, a producer of the critically acclaimed locally produced film, "Picture Bride," is co-producer.

"The Tattoo," a Hawai'i noir project, scripted by Byler. "Sort of a dark crime drama that shows the side of Hawai'i few tourists see; comparable to 'Once Were Warriors,' the New Zealand film, but for Hawaiians, about an anti-hero trying to make a better life."

"Kealoha: the Beloved," a multi-racial story, scripted by Byler. "About a 15-year-old Native Hawaiian girl, who, by Western standards, is enormously overweight; she is the alaka'i (leader or director) of a hula halau, and inheritor of a rich tradition of teaching hula and keeping a community together; she falls for a hapa-haole part-Hawaiian boy ... who has never been able to get in touch with his Hawaiian side until he meets this girl, who, 200 years earlier, would have been considered one of the most beautiful girls but who gets laughed at when she walks by at her high school; a cross-cultural love story about self-esteem that's more than a mere high school romance."