Interview with “Formosa Betrayed” Writer / Producer Will Tiao – Part 1
FORMOSA BETRAYED is now playing at the AMC Creve Coeur 12 in St. Louis! Click here for more information.
Will: Well, there was that too!
K: I read that you started out in politics, is that right?
W: I did. That’s actually my training, in politics policy and political science.
K: Was that originally the big picture?
W: Oh, for sure. For sure. I have Bachelors and a Masters in International Relations from Tufts and from Columbia, and I was a full ride scholar. I worked on and off in DC for about ten years. I started off very young; at 19 years old I was already lobbying for a non-profit. And by the next year I was already working for my father on Capital Hill. I worked for a long time, and I worked both sides of the aisle. I worked for both Democrats and Republicans, both sides of Congress, and both administrations of Clinton and Bush the younger. So yeah, absolutely. That had been the intention, to go into politics. It was never really to go into movies at all.
K: Yeah, well it sounds like you were doing some neat things and what you really wanted to do. So how did you get into entertainment?
W: Well, when I was in DC I took an acting class. Honestly, just for fun. I thought it would be a fun hobby, and it morphed into something much more. I basically went from a class, to a play, to an agent seeing me and then putting me in a commercial, and then a TV show and then a film. I was like, “hey, who says this acting thing was hard?” It was opportunities were coming, and DC was a growing market at that time. And frankly, to be honest, there weren’t a lot of Asian-American actors there. It was basically being called left and right, and I had to turn a lot of stuff down actually. And it just happened to coincide with my kind of burgeoning acting career that my day job, an international economist for the Bush administration, was kind of coming to a stand still. At the time, when President Bush first came in, he didn’t have what was called trade promotion authority – which basically is what congress needs to give him to negotiate trade agreements. So basically, because he didn’t have that, nobody would negotiate with us. And that was my job; I was on the team that negotiated international trade agreements. So we didn’t have any work to do.
So it just happened to coincide with my day job slowing down, and this acting thing blowing up. So I took a leave of absence, and basically tested the water. I moved up to New York, and started studying with a very famous acting coach named Susan Batson, who is Nicole Kidman’s coach. Actually she was coaching Nicole on “The Hours” that summer, which was 2002, that of course Nicole won an Oscar for. And then Susan built another studio up in Los Angeles, and I kind of followed her out there – and that was pretty much all she wrote.
K: So you progressed through acting in plays, to commercials and television, and then onto film pretty quickly. On your newest project, “Formosa Betrayed,” you actually were a writer, producer, and actor. How did you come into that position?
W: Well, once I got to LA things shifted tremendously because this wasn’t just for fun. This was actually my real gig. And I saw all this competition that I had never seen before on the East coast, and sadly the roles for Asian-Americans are pretty small – and few and far between. The ones that are out there can be pretty bad. Having a career, and having been a little older, I could afford to be choosey – but at the same time, I really wanted to do this. I looked at people who were really successful, and people who I really admired in the industry. Like Matt Damon and Ben Affleck, who wrote “Good Will Hunting.” And Billy Bob Thorton, who wrote “Slingblade.” And John Favreau, who wrote “Swingers.” I looked at all these guys, and they wrote their way in. That’s how they got noticed, and they all wrote what they knew. Matt and Ben wrote about Boston, and Billy Bob wrote about the south. And John Favreau wrote about coming up through the Hollywood ranks. So, I started thinking about what I knew, and what I know is politics. And I know Taiwan. My parents were from there, and they were political dissidents. I knew the subject matter very well, and I started to research. I knew that there were a series of murders in the late 70s, early 80s of Taiwanese intellectuals. I started to research those murders, which eventually lead to this film.
K: Where did you find the real passion to pursue this subject?
W: My parents were from Taiwan originally, and they moved to Kansas in the late 60s. That’s where me and my sister were born. One of the things my parents had always taught my sister and me was how we were “not Chinese.” They would say, “if anyone ever asks you are Taiwanese, not Chinese.” Obviously when you are kids, and you’re growing up in America, you have no idea what that means. But as I grew older, I started to realize certain things about my parents. They took a risk to come here, and to call themselves Taiwanese. They told us to be very careful about who we talked to. I realized that they were in essence spied upon by their fellow students from Taiwan who were here in Kansas. And they were essentially put on a black list, and couldn’t go back to Taiwan – their homeland – for a number of years. And when they did they were followed, and harassed. And I later found out that many of their friends had similar things happen to them. And in certain cases much, much worse – even murder in some cases. So when I went to college I studied politics, and my thesis was in Taiwanese ethnonationalism. I just started to get really into the political aspect of it.
When I came to Hollywood to be a filmmaker I thought this could be really powerful story that not a lot of Americans know. I feel that it’s an important story that affects Americans, because Taiwan is a major flashpoint in Asia – particularly with our relationship with China. I thought Taiwanese Democracy, identity, and independence are issues most Americans don’t understand. I wanted to tell it in a way that was very American friendly, and that’s why we wrote the lead character to be this FBI agent that is investigating the murder of this Taiwanese professor. He knows nothing about Taiwan, and he doesn’t need to. All he cares about is who killed this guy, and why. And the investigation through a series of clues leads him to Taiwan. And there he finds out all sorts of things that lead him to certain government conspiracies. And all of these things, by the way, are basically based on actual events. Every character in the movie is a composite of at least two or more real people. And all these things that happen in the movie are based on real events. So, you know, there were professors who were murdered. Student spies were hired by the government of Taiwan. And there were Chinese mafia hit-men who were hired to kill political dissidents.
K: It is a very intriguing story, and you were right when you said that many Americans don’t know about it…
Check back for part 2!