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‘I hope people don’t think they’ll need subtitles’ – The Friday Night Bites team on bringing Asian faces to NZ TV

Alex Casey sits down with Roseanne Liang and Ally Xue of Friday Night Bites to talk about diversifying the typical Kiwi TV show, the legacy of Harold and Kumar and waiting for the boomers to die. 

Friday Night Bites is the new web series created by the all-Asian, all-female, all-star team behind Flat 3. Directed by Roseanne Liang and starring Perlina Lau, Ally Xue and JJ Fong, Friday Night Bites delivers snack-sized episodes full of hijinks, singing, stripping and Chat Roulette.

As well as being about a bumbling group of 20-something women finding their footing (or not) in the world, the show also has another important purpose: putting more Asian faces on screen than any other local mainstream product.

I sat down with Roseanne and Ally to talk about boarding the old wooden ship called diversity, and flying the flag for Asian representation on New Zealand screens.

Okay: Friday Night Bites. Give me the pitch. 

Roseanne Liang: It’s 26 Friday nights in the lives of three flatties living in Eden Terrace. It’s based on the idea that Friday night is what happens when you’re making other plans. It’s eclectic, we’ve made standalone episodes ranging from issues of consent and rape culture to quantum physics.

Ally Xue: It is often silly, but there’s some substantial stuff in there I reckon.

RL: We tried to be more grown up this time, more ambitious…

AX: … And less afraid of what people think.

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Is it a true fact that you sourced some of your plotlines from your Flat 3 audience?

AX: We tried. Most of our audience are New Zealanders who tend to not want to overshare things about their lives. Not like Americans.

RL: People didn’t respond well to the call-out for stories, and the stories we did get were just things like ‘i got so drunk in Ibiza and it was amazing’. That’s great, but we can’t really make an episode about that. We’re more about the in-betweeners, the people who are socially awkward. Not the glamorous, drug-fueled ones.

So you were left to pull on your own experiences?

RL: There are some true anecdotes in there, and friends stories. We have this friend who was licking an ice-cream in public and dude walked past and said “I wish you’d do that to my cock” and then walked off. So we made an episode out of that.

AX: I lost my car one night, and we made an episode out of that. We had been shooting one night, and I was really tired. We were on location in Ponsonby and I was in a rush and parked wherever I could find. All the streets in Ponsonby look the same and it was very dark by the time we finished, so I forgot which of the side streets I had parked in. We were driving around for 45 minutes trying to find my car.

RL: That became an episode because both Asians and women drivers have a certain stigma attached to them. We work so hard to stop these stereotypes but Ally is just like “guys, I’ve lost my car.” She’s a double threat.

Watching the trailer, it’s amazing and encouraging to see so many Asian faces packed into one New Zealand TV product. Is it cool or grim that you probably the only thing in this country with this much Asian representation?

RL: It’s cool. It’s really great that we stand out, but we shouldn’t have to. I worry that when people see too many Asian faces they switch off and think ‘oh, that’s not for us’.

AX: I certainly don’t think that for other groups though, like African Americans. It’s not like you watch Fresh Prince of Bel Air or Empire and think ‘that’s for black people, I’m not going to watch that’

RL: I don’t think that, when people think of a New Zealand show, they would think of a show that has a majority of Asian faces.

AX: I hope they don’t think they’ll need subtitles.

Isn’t that strange though, that we haven’t caught up with rest of the world in giving a fair representation of what our changing country actually looks like now? Was that part of the drive?

RL: When we first started Flat 3, we just wanted to make stuff, right?

AX: It was selfish reasons, to be honest. We just wanted to work.

RL: Diversity slowly became our mandate. When we took Flat 3 to some festivals in San Francisco, a man in the audience stood up and asked us why all our love interests were white. We hadn’t even thought about that – because we had just cast our friends who were willing to be exploited.

We hadn’t considered our social responsibility before, and the whole idea that the Asian males are at the bottom of the desirability index and white males are at the top. We didn’t realise that we had been perpetuating societal norms like that. So we worked really hard after that to be diverse, and fight the good fight. There are so many actors out there who never get a chance because of what they look like.

Did you ever try to get Flat 3 on TV?

RL: Webseries is a real chance to be free and control your destiny. I always hear horror stories about working in TV in this country, and whenever you ask a TV person how they’re doing it’s always a big “uuuggggh I’m dealing with notes from the higher-ups.”

I thought that sounded awful, so we just did our own thing. With webseries it’s cool because nobody really cares about us. You can make it on a shoestring, so they just leave us to it.

Did you ever pitch a pilot or anything?

AX: We thought about it, I mean we wouldn’t say no to a TV offer but it has to be on our terms. We don’t want to compromise the creative side of it. But this was never supposed to be a stepping stone to TV

RL: In the end we realised that if there’s more money involved, then there’s more on the line. I get it, it’s financial and commercial risk. But I think it’s possible to be creative and be commercially successful as well. I’m confused as to why it’s not happening here more.

You definitely see amazing low budget things overseas like the Scandi dramas that have more exciting and fresh elements to them, why do you think New Zealand is still obsessed with pouring millions into these big, boring lavish shows?

AX: We’re more risk averse just because we are so small I think. It’s much harder to target a niche here.

RL: You’ll talk to broadcasters and they’ll say things like “we are a victim of our own size”. In America, a show like Empire can grow and become a hit, but here we would never be able to make something like an all Māori musical. But why not?! I would watch that, why can’t we make that?

At times it does feel like programming can be a little patronising to New Zealand audiences I think, in terms of gauging what we can handle and what our tastes are

Roseanne: That’s why it’s cool that TVNZ have picked us up, at least they are attempting to tread into different waters.

Remember when Idris Elba said “when I was a kid I couldn’t see myself on TV, so I became TV”? That kind of seems like what you’ve done…

RL: I really love that, but it is harder than it sounds. I don’t mean to be all down on it, but we never saw ourselves on TV either. There are more now, like Fresh off the Boat and The Family Law, but I still worry that people think those shows are made for “them’ rather than a mainstream audience. It should just be ‘this is us’.

There are some Asian core cast members, like Jess [JJ Fong] was in the core cast of Go Girls. There’s no Asian men in this country, like, why is that? There are heaps of hot asian guys out there

 

Is it annoying that you always have to talk about race in interviews with annoying people like me? Do you think there will come a time when it doesn’t come up?

RL: We’re not annoyed. It’s a flag we wave, but we wish we didn’t have to.

AX: Things will change, the baby boomers will have to die out eventually…


Watch Friday Night Bites on TVNZ On Demand here

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