• A Brighter Lens

MEI MAKINO & Inbetween Girl

This week, we chat with writer/director Mei Makino, about her feature film debut Inbetween Girl, which just had its premiere at SXSW! For three years, Mei taught filmmaking to youth in the Austin area which inspired her to tell honest stories about kids and teens. She’s written and directed short films that have played at The Dallas VideoFest, PBS, and ESPN’s Longhorn Network, and is an AFS grant recipient. Makino is a graduate of the University of Texas at Austin with a B.S. in Radio-TV and Film. Enjoy!

Click here to listen to our interview with Mei Makino on Apple Podcasts.

Episode transcription below.

MEI MAKINO & Inbetween Girl

Larkin: Well Mei thank you so much for joining us today. if you could just start by introducing yourself a little bit and tell us about your film Inbetween Girl, which had its premiere at SXSW this week.

Mei: Cool. Yeah. Hi, I'm Mei Makino and I'm the writer director of Inbetween Girl which is a coming of age story, about a half-white, half-Chinese kind of artistic team who lives in Galveston.

And she gets caught up in this kind of pseudo relationship with the popular guy at school, but he also has a girlfriend. So that's kind of like, you know what the logline-ish type thing would be, but beneath that, it's very much a, you know, coming into who you are, type of story and kind of just kind of, you know, a young woman learning her place in the world.

Jennifer: Love it. Can you tell us a little bit about the inspiration behind Inbetween Girl?

Mei: Yeah. So, you know, I grew up mixed and I rarely had representation. Like I rarely watched movies with mixed people. I'm half-Japanese and half-white. And so I kind of wanted to get at that experience and I also just love coming of age stories and YA novels and, um, kind of all of that kind of snowballed together while I was in a writers group. And I kind of spent about three months writing the first draft of Inbetween Girl. And then I met Emma through a youth organization I worked for, and that's, at that point, we decided to make Angie half-Chinese and half-white, kind of as a reflection of of Emma's identity. And so I guess it, you know, there was like an initial inspiration, but you know, so many other factors kind of played in to ultimately make it what it is today.

Jennifer: That's so cool. Yeah, we actually haven't had anyone talk on the podcast yet about a writer's group and about their experience, writing a film, kind of with that support. Could you tell us a little bit about finding your group and how the group kind of helped to, to get Inbetween Girl off the ground?

Mei: Absolutely. No. Yeah. I so it's like the second writer's group, I've been a part of the first writers group I made while I was in college with another friend of mine, Connor Pickens, who was actually the editor of Inbetweeen Girl.

We made this writers group in college and we wrote for a couple of summers with some friends in college and, and that was super great, but then we made a new one once we graduated with some friends from work and then some friends also from college, and the process is really great. Being part of a writer's group is like, one of my favorite things ever.

It's funny because like all of the writers in the group pretty much worked on Inbetweeen Girl in some way, like a lot of them came on as producers, one of them was our script supervisor. But basically the way the process worked was you know, every week we would have to submit something and then we would meet, like, we would submit it on Sunday and then we would meet on Thursday and we would like, we, we read everyone's stuff and then we would spend like about 30 minutes or so, maybe less than that on each person's piece of work.

And we would just, you know, be honest with each other and be like, this is working really, really well. This is not working. And I think having that safe space with like people whose tastes, I appreciated, but also knowing that they would be honest with me, was so helpful. Cause I think, you know, I've been in a writer's group before where, where there is like a very negative energy where, you know like some of the members, if you wrote something and it wasn't their cup of tea, they would be like, this is terrible.

This is awful. But I think like, you know, my writer's group. Everyone had a sense of 'everyone has their own individual voice' and how do we help, you know, each other, you know, get more into that individual voice and how do we help each other tell, you know, how do I help my friend, Kate, tell the story that she wants to tell, you know, so yeah, it was A-plus writers' group for sure.

Larkin: That's so exciting and inspiring, and I love that if not all of them, so many of them had a role in Inbetween Girl. That's such a great just community to build. Also, it was real speaking of writing, it was so refreshing to see these complicated and flawed characters in your film and especially moving to see just the nuanced and very sympathetic relationships between the female characters in particular. And I was wondering if you could just talk about your decision to write the characters in these ways?

Mei: Yeah. I mean, I think I knew I wanted to subvert, you know, a lot of the tropes pretty early on when I was starting out, I, you know, I kind of, I wrote down catalyst plot point one plot point two midpoint. And I just, that was it.

That was my only structure. And then I kind of just like went from there. But I knew really early on that I wanted like the true love story to kind of be between the friendship between Angie and Cheryl like that, I knew that was something I wanted to explore, and you know, I, I had a lot of different versions of the Sheryl ending, and then like, you know, what Sheryl's interests are, how they relate, and I think what really helped was Emma Galbraith who plays Angie and Emily Garrett who plays Sheryl just have like an incredible chemistry. Like whenever we brought Emily Garrett in to kind of do her callbacks at that time emma had already been cast and, you know, I had them read together and it was just so cute. And, and so, I don't know, you, you just love them and you rooted for them. and you know, they also did like a lot of improv on set, you know, like the scene where they're like running out of the classroom after the Shakespeare presentation and they have like this whole dialogue about, Oh, let me take one from my time capsule, you have a time capsule! Oh my gosh. Like, you know, it's so it's so sweet and so high school and just so you know them and like, They, you know, they came up with that and it just really added so much to the characters.

Larkin: Speaking of improv, that's, that's really exciting that they were able to do that on set. How did you, what was your process with that? Did you have it all scripted or were there some moments where it was just like, Oh, let's do this thing. How did that come about?

Mei: So most of it was scripted uh, but every, like, obviously it was scripted. I, but. Yes. There's like a ton of improv in the movie because like the way I did it was like they would do scenes scripted, but then we would do a couple takes where I was like do whatever you want.

And I all, I knew they were all great improvers. Cause in like rehearsals, I would make them improv and auditions I'd make them improv. I think for me as a director is like, I really kind of want the actors to kind of put their own spin on things, because I think it just makes for a more organic kind of natural feeling film.

And so all of them were, were really, really great at improvising. And I actually think there are there are two scenes that weren't scripted at all, or like two moments that were scripted at all that like on set. I was like I need this moment and we're adding it today, everybody. It was actually the scene where it's like right after Angie asked her dad what the word is for homewrecker and Mandarin, like an Angie walks out. But so that, so that was scripted. But then, the moment where Fang tells her mother, like, you can't do that, like, like stop comparing us, like that was all improvised. And that was like, On set, like being like, we need to add this because I didn't have, I felt like I didn't have a thread in the script of like, you know, why kind of Fang shows up at the end. And I wanted to show that Fang had like sympathy for Angie. So that was a really great moment that just kind of happened.

Larkin: Very cool. That was a really beautiful moment. So that's neat.

Mei: Yeah. Thanh [Phuong Bui] who plays Fang did amazing.

Jennifer: We really loved the way Angie's art was interwoven into the film. Could you tell us about your decision to include the art in this way and how you collaborated with the artist?

Mei: Yeah. you know, her artwork and all the pictures and all the videos, it's all for future Angie. So it's very much a conversation she's having with herself and it's, you know, her therapy, whenever something wrong happens, we go to a drawing and we kind of see how she's coping and dealing with it.

You know, she doesn't have anyone to talk to. The artist is actually, a friend of mine who I met when I was in fifth grade and she was in fourth grade and our lives just kind of kept intertwining. She, she went to UT also, and she, you know, we ended up working at the same youth organization at some point.

And so I asked her to do it and she agreed, and it was just such an easy process. I mean, we live in different states now, so we had to like communicate through Excel docs and emails and phone calls and everything. But Larissa Akhmetova is her name and she, she is just so, so talented and so, so smart and would ask such great questions and, you know, improvise herself like, while she was drawing, you know, like for example, like the time capsule that you see in the film, there's like a bunch of drawings on it. And I was just like, just go crazy. Like just, just draw animals, go crazy. And like with little direction, she's able to like, create this amazing thing that I think is so, you know, so much of Angie is informed by her art.

Larkin: Wow. I love that you met when you were so young. That's a really sweet story. We know that getting your first feature film made is a huge feat. And we're wondering, how did you approach financing for your film and what was the process like to get it made?

Mei: Yeah. So that's probably was the hardest part of this whole process, you know? And I think it's the part that keeps a lot of people from making movies. But uh, so 2017, we had no money. We started by doing a Seed & Spark and we got about 23K off of that. And then the Duplass brothers we, we were in this other competition on Seed & Spark called the Hometown Heroes, and the Duplass brothers were like the ones judging it and we didn't win because like the final prize was 50K and like, that would have been incredible, but we didn't get it. We were finalists, but they gave us like a small grant for that. And then the Austin Film Society gave us a grant. And then we had a couple of like private investors that invested right before we shot.

And so we had a very modest budget for production. Like I was at the point where I was asking my mentors, like I have X amount of dollars. Is this suicide? Is this crazy going into this? Because you know, it, it, we had a contingency budget, but it wasn't like huge. So, you know, it, it was nerve wracking, you know, right before the summer going in, because I was just like, Like I, you know, I hope any, like something crazy doesn't happen, you know, to where we would need a lot of contingency.

So we went ahead and shot. It went well. And then my editor, who's my really good friend, we went through like two cuts of the film. And I mean, we were like, morale was low because we didn't have the rest of the money we needed for post production. And like we needed money for color, and sound, composing.

So , it was really frustrating. And I think that was probably some of the lowest moments, because it's just like, knowing that you're so close, but not being able to complete it, it was just like, Oh awful. But actually, so the actress who plays Sheryl's mom in the film, Jane Schwartz is an incredible human and she called me up and she was like, 'Mei I just, I love this movie.

This movie needs to be seen. Like, what do you need?' That's my Jane impression. And she ended up kind of bringing on the final investors to get us to the finish line, which literally happened four months ago. So it's been, it's been like crazy, honestly, so,

Jennifer: Wow. That's an experience. Congrats. I mean, congrats anyway, but that it's, it's nice to hear kind of like the story behind it as well.

It makes it even more special almost.

Mei: Yeah. And, and Jane is just, she's a good friend now. So, and it has been so helpful with the film.

Jennifer: Well, yeah, I guess that kind of takes us to our last question here. What do you hope audiences will take away after, after watching the film that, you know, you really fought to, to bring to life?

Mei: Yeah, I think just you know, I watched a lot of movies when I was younger, where it's like the characters, they got their worth on whether or not someone loved them. And for me that was very toxic because I think, you know, when you try to look for yourself in another person or you feel inadequate because another person is treating you poorly, like that's nothing on you. and you can get, you know, so much worth from just existing, and in Angie's case, you know, creating and being a kind person and learning that she wants to be a kind person at the end. So I think just, just knowing that mistakes will happen and you're still an amazing human, despite them.

Jennifer: we actually end we have a lightning round that we end every interview with.

Mei: Oh boy. Hey, I I've heard this done on podcasts before. I'm so excited.

Jennifer: Oh, good. Yay. Yeah. yeah, so we call it three, two, one, action, and you can answer in a word or phrase. So we'll start with three: your favorite or most influential film?

Mei: I'm going to go with My Neighbor Totoro.

Larkin: Two: dream person you want to work with?

Mei: Adam Driver.

Jennifer: One: best advice you've received?

Mei: Locations and casting are key to making a good movie.

Larkin: And action: where can people follow you on social media?

Mei: You can follow me on Instagram at MEI dot M dot Makino [@mei.m.makino] on Twitter, I'm just Mae Makino, and then you can follow the film at @InbetweenGirlfilm on Instagram.

Larkin: Awesome. Thanks so much for joining us Mei.

Mei: Awesome. Thank you so much for having me.

Larkin: Yeah. And good luck. Have fun with the rest of your festival and keep us posted with what happens with the film

Mei: Thank you so much.

Larkin: Awesome. Thank you. Bye.