Shakefire: Tell us about the movie and your role in it.
Will Tiao: My name is Will Tiao. I’m the writer/producer and one of the co-stars of the film. The movie, Formosa Betrayed, is based on actual events and it’s about a FBI detective, played by James Van Der Beek, who’s investigating the murder of a Taiwanese-American professor at a small Midwestern school. It turns out this professor’s been spied upon by his students and those students are being hired by the government of Taiwan. Through a series of events, he chases the killers to Taiwan and he finds out the killers are Chinese mobsters hired by the government to kill political citizens in the US, and that goes to the top of the government in Taiwan and that the US government knows about it but doesn’t want to do anything about it because of the US-Taiwan-China relationship. And as I said, it’s based on actual events.
SF: How much of the film is comprised of real events versus a story you guys created?
WT: Everything I just said was actually true. There was a series of murders in the late 70’s and early 80’s of Taiwanese-American intellectuals in the United States. They were being spied upon by students from Taiwan. Those students were being hired by the government. It’s true that there were Chinese mafia who were hired by the government to kill political citizens here. There were links that went all the way back up to the Taiwanese government and that the US government was aware of it so everything actually is true in terms of events.
What we did was take several of these actual cases and we made composite characters. Our professor, as are all the major characters in the film, is a composite of at least two or more real people. So the characters are fictionalized and the storyline itself is fictionalized but the events themselves are real.
SF: What kind of research did you guys do for the film?
WT: We basically started off with open source material. There were a lot of newspaper articles written about this in the Washington Post, New York Times, Pittsburg Gazette, Ann Harbor Daily News; where all this stuff was happening a lot of people covered it. It was even in Newsweek and TIME, like major national magazines. Then from there, there was congressional testimony because there were actually a couple of cases that were high profile enough that actually had hearings on them and then there were a number of books written on the subject as well. So by the time my director came on board I actually ended up handing him like 15,000 pages of material, poor guy. I was like, “here, read this.” It’s pretty meticulously researched and like I said, what we did was change different things for dramatic purposes as well as legal purposes.
SF: It looked like you guys used real pictures and videos as well.
WT: Yes, there’s a scene where the character I play, Ming, who’s a political activist, where I speak with James Van Der Beek’s character Agent Kelly about the actual incidents and yes, we did include actual documentary footage and that is actual footage from those events we talked about.
SF: At any point did you think about doing a documentary about this or did you always want to go the feature film route?
WT: Actually there have been documentaries about this. There mostly Taiwanese documentaries but there have actually been documentaries on a number of the subjects that we deal with in the film. We thought that it never really been dealt with in a feature film so we thought that it’d be more interesting to deal with it that way and frankly would get more attention, which it has.
SF: You’ve had political experience before becoming involved in the entertainment industry. Did that factor into the film at all?
WT: They always say write what you know. To be honest with you, my heroes are people like Matt Damon and Ben Aflack who wrote Good Will Hunting and Jon Favreau who wrote Swingers and Billy Bob Thornton who wrote Slingblade. They obviously wrote what they knew. Ben and Matt know Boston. Billy Bob knows the south. Jon Favreau knows what it’s like to be an up and coming actor.
So what I know? I know two things; I know politics and I know Taiwan. My background is that I have a Bachelors and Masters in International Relations; I worked in government for over 10 years. So I know that world very, very well. For instance Wendy Crewson character, Susan Kane – the American liaison in Taiwan, I know her. I literally worked with that type, that State Department/CIA type. I know that type very well because I’ve worked with them and those types of people still exist today. So absolutely, it did inform me of course.
SF: Did you film in Taiwan?
WT: We did not. We actually shot on the outskirts of Bangkok, Thailand. We scouted Taiwan, we obviously wanted to shoot in Taiwan, but we ran into some problems. The first problem was that Taiwan has done so well for itself economically in the last 25-30 years that it looks nothing like it did in the early 80s. It pretty much has completely refaced itself. It’s got new roads, new buildings, new cell phone towers. Everything’s new and that made it very difficult for us because we would have had to recreate ‘83 Taiwan in Taiwan which we couldn’t do. We actually found the outskirts of Bangkok to look more like Taiwan did back then then Taiwan does now.
Another problem we ran into was infrastructure. Our scouts were telling us that we’d have to bring in equipment from mainland China, from Japan or Australia, which would have doubled or even tripled our production costs. We just couldn’t afford that of course, as a small independent film.
And then of course there was the political question. Obviously this is very sensitive stuff in Taiwan. No one’s ever done a film about this at this level and there was actually a change of government while we were shooting. We shot between April and June of 2008 and in May there was a change in government. In fact, the government that was in power at the time of these incidents came back in. So we just decided, for all those reasons, we’d probably be better off to shoot in Thailand which we did and we’re happy with.
SF: What was your favorite part of producing, writing, and acting in the film?
WT: It’s so hard because this is my baby. I’ve seen this literally from conception five years ago till now. There have been so many amazing moments. Honestly, it was amazing when the person wrote the first check [laughs]. That was a big moment; the moment when I realized we raised enough financing to make the picture. It was an amazing moment when we got Adam on board, Adam Kane. Interesting enough, Adam’s the one who came up with my character, Ming. My character did not exist before Adam came on board. Obviously some of the critical scenes in Thailand, those were big moments for me.
Then, you know, it was also a big moment when we got into our first film festival, when we won our first award, when we got distribution. It just kept going. There were just all these milestones. It was very emotional.
SF: You’re an actor, writer, and producer. Ever thought about being a director?
WT: Oh God no. I’m so not a director. I think you have to have a certain visual sense to be a director which I don’t have. I’m happy to write, I’m happy to produce, and I see myself first and foremost as an actor. To be quite honest with you I’d probably if I could, just act. But frankly, it’s very hard for minority actors in Hollywood. There are not a lot of good roles for Asian-Americans and one of the reasons I made this movie was to create roles for people like myself. The cast has a number of major Asians and Asian-Americans and we also cast a lot of new faces as well. We wanted to give people a chance. That’s important to me, to create opportunities for people in the film business that wouldn’t normally have them before, and that includes myself. Like I said, there are not a lot of good roles written out there for us unfortunately.
SF: Any dream job or role you’d love to work on?
It’s interesting because, now that people are seeing this, I’m getting a lot of offers from other movies. There are a lot of genres I’d love to hit on. Strangely enough I’d love to do a romantic comedy. I love comedies actually. My background is more in comedy than anything else. I’m much more a natural comedian ironically.
SF: And then you go and do something as serious and dramatic as Formosa Betrayed.
It’s very different. I love that. I love playing roles that are very different. I’m very interested in telling stories that haven’t been told before or told maybe but in a slightly different way. I wouldn’t say that this is an original story in the sense that if you’ve seen Last King of Scotland, there’s a similar vein so I’m not saying it’s an original concept. What I like to do is take things and turn them on their head. Here you have a situation that has never been explored before with an actor, James Van Der Beek, who hasn’t been seen in this role before too. I like doing stuff like that, making people see things in a slightly different way.
SF: What do you think is the overall message you want Formosa Betrayed to send out?
WT: I hope that the film is provocative in the sense that it makes you ask questions. I don’t think we really answer any questions, in fact, we ask more questions than we provide answers. Our job is not to tell you what to think. Our job is to say, “Here’s the situation, this is what happened, and this is the kind of hidden history.”
Most Americans, particularly older Americans 50 and above, if they know this period and time, a lot of them have been taught a history primarily between Mao Zedong in the Communist and Chang Kai Shek in the Nationals. Chang was our guy, the American guy. He was the anti-Communist/free China hero who brought free China to Taiwan and liberated the people and blah blah blah. I think that’s the history most Americans know if they know the history at all.
Obviously we deal with the kind of hidden history. The history of the people on the island who were there before Chang came and the effects of what happened when he came so we make people question what they’ve been taught on a certain level. To me, that’s really the bottom line of what the movie’s about. It’s about exposing and questioning the history we “know” and seeing it from a different perspective.
At the end of the day, this is an issue that continues. Taiwan is not recognized as an independent country however, it is now democratic. There are, as we say in the movie as well, over 1,000 missiles pointed at Taiwan and the United States is required to help defend Taiwan in case it gets attacked. What does that mean? That means, of all the issues we’re dealing with with China, which everybody’s freaked out about; you got human rights, you got Tibet, you got trade, you got currency, and you got privacy such as Google and all these things. Everybody’s freaked out about these things, right? But the only one that could lead to potential military conflict is the issue of Taiwan. I think most people aren’t aware of that. The United States is on the hook to defend it. For us, it’s more about, “Let’s think about this. What does it mean? What does it mean this whole idea of Taiwan independence?” Most people think Taiwan’s already independent. In every way it is. It has its own government, it has its own currency, it has its own military, and it has its own culture. It is except in name and that’s what we deal with. We’re the first feature film to deal with this issue head on. Everybody’s been in a sense too scared or not even too scared, I just think it’s too complicated. It’s a very complicated issue and there’s no doubt this is a complicated movie because we have to deal with all those sides.