SxSW 2022 Interview – BAD AXE director David Siev

“At the beginning of the pandemic in March 2020, I moved back home to my rural hometown in Bad Axe, MI. I began filming my close-knit Asian-American family and our struggles to keep our family restaurant alive during a very uncertain time. What I ended up capturing was a beautiful portrait of the year 2020 through the lens of my family, where we overcame the challenges of a pandemic, racial hate against Asian-Americans, and transgenerational trauma through love, hope, and resilience. That’s my street pitch!” — Filmmaker David Siev on BAD AXE which screens at SxSW 2022.

Welcome to SxSW! Is this your first SxSW experience? Are you attending in person or doing the virtual fest?

Yes it is! I’m very excited to be attending in person. 

How did BAD AXE all come together?

As I had mentioned, I moved back home from NY at the start of the pandemic to be with my family. My girlfriend and I packed up our bags and left our two-bedroom apartment in Queens to make our way back home to Bad Axe. My siblings, who had all lived in the bustling city of Ann Arbor, MI, did the same. We decided it was best to all be together during this uncertain time. Having just lost my job, I made the best use of my time and began filming life as it was. With everyone living under the same roof again, my only intention at the time was to film a time capsule that our family could look back on. So I filmed every day that year, capturing the mixed emotions we felt as we lived through a year of fear, anger, joy, and hope. 

My father’s PTSD resurfaced due to the anxieties in dealing with the uncertainties of a global pandemic. For him, it brought back the hauntings of the collapsing Cambodia in 1975. Being home again, Jaclyn and I had to reckon with the suppressed resentment we had for our hometown since the 2016 election. We were quickly made aware that speaking up in support of the Black Lives Matter movement meant putting our family’s business at stake. As children, we were raised to stand up for what we believe in, but suddenly living in Bad Axe, we were reminded that no matter how much we thought we fit in, many of those around us were eager to turn their backs on us if we made it known that our viewpoints differed from them. 

In October of 2020, the world seemed to start getting back to whatever “normal” was, with COVID restrictions lifted and the anticipation of an upcoming election. With that, I headed back to NYC to begin putting the pieces together of everything I had filmed. Shortly after, I released a trailer for the film to start a crowdfunding campaign to help kick off the feature-length documentary I had in mind. While I did expect some backlash, my family and I were unprepared for the depth that people would go to attack our family on a personal level. Don’t get me wrong, a large majority of our community was incredibly supportive and encouraged us to share our story. However, the wounds from the negative bunch dug deep and seemed to bring to life every fear we ever had about speaking up. Comments such as “go back to Cambodia” or “we’re no longer supporting your restaurant” were hurled at us on social media, on top of threatening phone calls and hate mail from white nationalists. There was a point when my parents sat me down and tried to convince me that sharing our story was no longer worth it if it meant jeopardizing our family’s business and, more importantly, our safety. However, as time went on, I convinced my family that the fear that we had was the very reason that our voices needed to be heard. By sharing our experiences, we could show that our family’s story transcends politics, that at its core, this film is a story of what it means to be American today.

In the edit and through hours of splicing together footage, I realized I had captured a portrait of American history. Through a character-driven, cinema verite approach, I wanted to connect themes of transgenerational trauma, racial identity, and what the modern-day American Dream truly is. The fear of losing that dream my parents had worked so hard to build affected us as our family (and country) plunged into crisis; however, it also brought us all closer together as a family, community, and Americans. After cutting down 300 hours of footage, I found myself with the film I have now that will hopefully be passed down in my family for years to come. 

While working on a project, what’s your creative process?

I relied on a combination of both narrative and doc filmmaking techniques to tell this story. After shooting for about 50 straight days and seeing a story beginning to form in the reality I was living in, I sat down with the footage and wrote a script. I wasn’t familiar with the documentary treatment writing process, so I reverted to traditional scriptwriting. Every scene was broken up by slug lines and included character/scene descriptions with dialogue written exactly how it had played out in the footage. After that, it was a matter of translating that script to the footage that existed in the edit room – not an easy process at all. This is where I really relied on the collaboration between myself and my editors/producers. Collaboration is key to my creative process because the fact of the matter is that I could not have done this without the input of every person on my team.  

What was your biggest challenge with creating this feature, and what was the moment where you realized “Yes, this is IT!”?

The entire process has been very challenging. I don’t know if I can pick one out more than the other because when it’s your family’s story you’re telling, there’s a lot of responsibility to make sure you’re doing it justice. This project is meaningful to me because it’s a piece of family history that will hopefully get passed down for generations to come. That pressure is challenging. And then there are also the responsibilities that come with being an independent filmmaker like applying for grants, managing budgets, sending out cold emails into the abyss and the like. Our team who worked on this film is very minimal. There’s no staff or someone who is helping run day-to-day operations. It’s just me, my editors, and my three godsend producers and that’s it. If I don’t show up ready to work for a day, it’s hard for anything to move forward because I’m the one who is responsible for answering to everyone so that they can continue to do their job. I take great pride and passion in having that responsibility of leading a team that believes in me, but I’d be lying if I didn’t say that it’s a challenge. 

I am a tech person, so I would love to know about the visual design of the movie from the cameras to the formats used and how it was made from a technical standpoint!

I shot about 90% of BAD AXE on the Blackmagic Pocket 4k/BMPCC 4K meaning the main codec and format used was 4K BRAW. The other 10% of footage is divided between the Sony FX6 and iPhone 11 Pro. The decision to shoot on the BMPCC 4K really came down to budget. When I first began shooting BAD AXE, I didn’t have any grant/financial support. The BMPCC 4K cost just under $1300 at the time, so it was something I could easily put on my credit card without too much financial stress. If I could go back in time and choose a different camera to shoot with, I don’t know if I would. The BMPCC 4K sensor produces such a beautiful image, and it shows in the color science when you bring it into Davinci Resolve. Filmmakers 10 years ago would not have dreamed that they could shoot 12-bit raw on a cinema camera that’s the size of your standard DSLR, but here we are! However, there were some challenges to shooting ten hour days with the BMPCC 4K. Because of its compact size, it’s no secret that the internal battery and LCD screen are just not feasible for long run and gun shoots. To compensate, I really had to get creative and customize a rig to add a v-mount battery, a 7-inch monitor, and a Zoom H-6 for audio. By the time the BMPCC 4K was all rigged out, it probably weighed a good 12-14lbs. The ergonomics were somewhat awkward with all of the customizations of different accessories, but I adapted and made it work. I’ll share a photo below of what it looked like when it was all built out. Near the end of production, the Sony FX6 came out, and now that we had some financial support, I upgraded. Both the Sony FX6 and BMPCC 4K produce a beautiful image, but where the Sony FX6 wins for me is its ergonomics. The full-frame camera comes ready to shoot out of the box, which is just a game-changer when it comes to run and gun production because it’s fewer accessories you have to fiddle with, and you can really focus on capturing your scene. The internal ND filters are also a huge plus. As far as the decision to shoot on the iPhone 11 pro, that came down to those moments when I didn’t have my other cameras available to me, and it became more important to capture the scene rather than worry about which camera was being used. While the image doesn’t compare with that of the BMPCC 4k or Sony FX6, the convenience of having a camera in your pocket saved me during those moments because a lot of them ended up making it in the final cut.

What are you looking forward to the most about showing your movie at SxSW?

I’m trying to not set crazy expectations for myself because this is my first major festival I’ll be attending, so I’m really looking forward to just sitting with my family in the theater and watching the film together on the big screen. We don’t always get to do a lot together outside of the restaurant, so it will be nice to just enjoy each other’s company and celebrate our story. 

Where is this title going next? More festivals or a theatrical or streaming release?

We have some very exciting festivals coming up in the next few months that we aren’t able to announce yet. Following that, I have my fingers crossed that we land a distribution home that loves the film just as much as SXSW hopefully does. 

What is the one thing that you would say to someone who is wishing to get into making movies, especially now as the world is changing at such a fast pace?

I know it gets said a lot, but just pick up a camera and start shooting. Technology is so accessible today, and it’s amazing what you can do with just the device in your pocket. And the thing is – shoot anything. I often find myself sometimes just getting my camera out and walking around my apartment filming random tools / appliances. I think you’re a filmmaker, you’ll always have the natural instinct to want to do that – so just go with it.

And final question: what is the greatest movie you have ever seen at a film festival?

I absolutely loved watching ME, EARL & THE DYING GIRL at Sundance in 2015. It’s one of my favorite coming of age films because it’s a love letter to filmmaking and how we can use the power of film to heal ourselves and become better people.

This film and many others like it will be showing at South By Southwest taking place March 11-20. For more information point your browser to!

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