Interview on the Making of Independent Lens: Whatever It Takes

March 26th, 2010

“Whatever It Takes” chronicles the struggles and triumphs of an innovative public high school in the Bronx. While the learning environment is a safe haven compared to many of the students’ former schools, principal Edward Tom’s ideals run up against reality midway through the school year. More than half of his students are failing, detention hall is overflowing, and gang members start recruiting at the school. Often acting as a surrogate father figure, Tom uses motivation and discipline to get students to focus on a rigorous and meaningful education and become college-bound scholars.

Independent Lens had a chance to speak with director/producer Christopher Wong about the making of the documentary in this interview.

“Whatever It Takes” airs Tueseday, March 30 at 10pm on THIRTEEN.

Visit Independent Lens for more interviews and film segments.

Independent Lens: What impact do you hope this film will have?

Christopher Wong: My plan is to integrate WHATEVER IT TAKES into a larger movement that seeks to inspire at-risk, minority students to take full advantage of their high school years, with the ultimate goal of getting into and succeeding in college. I hope educators will be able to use WHATEVER IT TAKES to hold practical discussions regarding what they believe results in true change at the high school level. Finally, I’ve always thought that this documentary could go a long way towards breaking stereotypes.

IL: What led you to make this film?

CW: For a number of years, I had been actively searching for the right opportunity to make a feature-length documentary. So when I heard that my long-time friend Edward Tom was going to trade in his career as an executive with Saks Fifth Avenue for the job of a high school principal in the South Bronx, I instantly knew that this was the right project. It had everything I was looking for: a compelling storyline, a natural narrative structure, and a strong Asian American character.

IL: What were some of the challenges you faced in making this film?

CW: While money is always a challenge — we basically didn’t have any — I found that putting the film together in the editing room was the hardest task of all. As a new filmmaker, I was experiencing everything for the first time.

IL: How did you gain the trust of the subjects in your film?

CW: Since principal Edward Tom and I had been friends for years, he trusted me completely — even when I said that there was a good chance that I’d have to show him falling on his face and failing miserably. And because the students and parents trusted the principal so much, they also were willing to be incredibly open with us.

IL: What would you have liked to include in your film that didn’t make the cut?

CW: There were five other students that we followed in-depth whose stories didn’t make the final cut of the film. While I would have loved to share these stories, I had to make the decision to concentrate fully and solely on my main character, Sharifea.

IL: What has the audience response been so far? Have the people featured in the film seen it, and if so, what did they think?

CW: Thus far, the audience response has been tremendous. When we premiered WHATEVER IT TAKES in Los Angeles, we had to move the film into the biggest theater at the Director’s Guild of America in order to accommodate the crowd of more than 500 people that showed up.

Both principal Edward Tom and his former student Sharifea have seen the film multiple times. I’m happy to say that they were both thrilled with the story we told because they felt we had captured the genuine reality of who they were and what the school year was like. Having said that, they both found various parts of the film difficult to watch, precisely because we hadn’t shied away from showing everything.

IL: Why did you choose to present your film on public television?

CW: WHATEVER IT TAKES is a great fit for public television because its audience has such a built-in representation of educators, parents, and people who really want to know what is going on in the world around them. It’s hard for me to think of another broadcast partner who would be so interested in the themes and characters we explore in the film. Also, I’d hate to have my documentary interrupted constantly by commercials!

IL: What didn’t you get done when you were making your film?

CW: I certainly didn’t get the opportunity to spend as much time with my family as I would have hoped. My daughter was born right before I started WHATEVER IT TAKES, and my son was born just as I was finishing the film. So I have to give my wife a ton of credit for patiently bearing with me through this long ordeal. I also didn’t get to pad my savings account — rather the opposite, in fact — but that’s a small price to pay for getting the chance to make this incredibly rewarding film.