Screenwriter Adele Lim recounts her career and behind-the-scenes anecdotes during her presentation at the Center for Media and Design, Santa Monica College
Pirate Staff, March 29, 2019
At the Center for Media and Design, scenes from Crazy Rich Asians punctuated screenwriter Adele Lim’s presentation on her screenwriting, as she shared career insights and behind-the-scenes stories from co-writing the film to a packed house. SMC’s Communication and Media Department’s Spring Lecture Series sponsored the event.
Lim first recounted growing up in Singapore, including her immersion in American television as a kid, and her fascination with American culture, calling the impact of the U.S. and its cultural exports “the new Rome.” Later, hearing from friends about how open American colleges were compared to those in Malaysia, she left home to major in television at Boston’s Emerson College, a top school known for its entertainment programs.
As her graduation neared, Lim wondered what her next step might be. Facing family pressure to move back to Singapore and work in local television, she instead joined a boyfriend to head for Los Angeles.
Downplaying the pressure for job-seekers to network, Lim noted that she herself started with “zero connections,” was “terrible at networking,” and found her first entertainment job by searching the Hollywood Reporter ‘s want-ads daily. This technique worked for her; soon after she arrived, Lim found her first job as a writer’s assistant, working on Xena: Warrior Princess.
Describing TV and film writing as a learning curve, Lim described the [paid] apprenticeship aspect of writer’s assistant work as a critical step for anyone interested in writing for production.
Xena was a cult hit, and when that show wrapped in 2001, Lim worked on her sample spec material, and took notes from other people on her work. Referrals from other writers and producers were key to her work trajectory; she notes that writers often work together on projects for “eight to ten hours a day,” and carefully consider who they might work well with when hiring.
After Xena, writer referrals to agents and managers led to a series of smaller jobs, which Lim recalled working hard on, before landing a staff writer position on a Fox Television TV show, John Doe.
After 16 years writing in television, Lim made the leap to feature film as a co-writer on Crazy Rich Asians, a 2018 breakout hit. Describing herself as weaned on American “trash TV” fare as a kid, Lim says she never planned to work in film per se. Adding, “in TV, you’re the boss,” she described how powerful TV writers are in production, typically rising through their ranks to produce and direct as show runners, who speak for and represent the show’s executive producers on-set.
Lim enjoyed her work and status in television; and since her feature-writing friends described their experience in film production as “script monkeys” and worse, working in features didn’t interest her.
However, her Singaporean upbringing came into play career-wise when Crazy Rich Asians started making the rounds in development. Recalling her impression when she read the book that the screenplay later adapted, Lim said, “from page three, I was in!”
This was something she felt she completely got: from the cultural subtexts and interplays between multiple Asian cultures in Singapore, to the family pressures, personal hierarchies, and the food, adding, “in Asian culture – as in many minority cultures – food becomes the language of the family.” Her work on the film included not only writing per se, but also consulting daily as an on-set cultural advisor, helping on-set choices ring true.
She also recounted specific challenges regarding adapting the book – for example, adding a dumpling-folding scene – and explained why those choices helped convey cultural and relationship aspects of the story in a visual and compelling way.
After her presentation and a question and answer time, students were invited for a few minutes to meet and chat with the screenwriter.
For more information on this semester’s upcoming lectures, see: http://www.smc.edu/AboutSMC/Associates/Pages/Events.aspx