By Randall Yip, AsAmNews Executive Editor
Making a fun film about someone dying of brain cancer isn’t your typical Hollywood trope, but that’s what director Quentin Lee managed to do with his coming-of-age movie, The Last Summer of Nathan Lee.
The film makes its world premiere at CAAMFest in San Francisco Sunday, May 14 at 6:30 p.m. in the Castro Theatre.
Played by Harrison Xu, Nathan is a high school senior who keeps his terminal illness between him, his family and his best friend Dash (Matthew Mitchell Espinosa). An aspiring filmmaker, Dash reluctantly gives in to Nathan’s wish to have his senior year documented on video.
The year proves to be an eventful one for Nathan, who meets Loralei, a free-spirited theater nerd played by Natasha Tina Liu while he is also aggressively pursued by April (Dru Perez).
“I think when he’s like, you know, he has Lorelei. And he has April, I think it’s all very exciting for him because it’s all very new. It’s like, I don’t think he’s ever even had a girl. Like he’s a virgin at the beginning of this. And now you have two girls, and he’s like, wow, like, this was crazy,” said Xu about his character.
Nathan’s love life gets even more complicated because Dash hints at being gay. Nathan knows that his best friend has a crush on him, but doesn’t see him more than as a good friend-at least in the beginning of the movie.
This sort of plot is a trademark of a film directed by Quentin Lee who often features gay characters in his films. Lee himself is gay and identifies as non-binary. He is also a single father who is raising a son conceived through a surrogate.
“I’ve always had this idea to make something really sexy about Asian America. I’m feeling that the whole API community is lacking some kind of like, sexiness, and it’s kind of sex-positive attitude,” he told AsAmNews. “And then I always liked, like, teen comedies from the 80s that grew up, I grew up in the 80s. Somehow the whole genre became American Pie, pretty much. And then now it’s a new wave is coming.”
Liu who plays Lorelei graduated from the University of Southern California and immediately moved to Switzerland to shoot a Samsung commercial. AsAmNews caught up with her via Zoom in Paris where she is staying on a three-month apartment lease. She doesn’t quite know what she will do next.
She says London, Taipei and Los Angeles are all possible next stops.
“Right now, I’m pursuing my own happiness,” she said. “So happiness to me is creating art. I believe in being able to travel and experience life to the fullest.”
She says while she doesn’t currently have a boyfriend, she does have lovers.
Both Liu and Xu agree that the most difficult scene involved a three-way tryst between Dash, Lorelei and Nathan. For this scene, Lee brought in an intimacy coordinator to help with directing the action.
“It was definitely, at first, a little intimidating,” Xu said. “When I first read that I was like, oh, okay, we’re doing this. But I think like, that came towards the latter half of filming. And I think, with the actors, you know, Matt, and Natasha, we had all gotten really close as an onset family. And I think we were all very comfortable with each other.”
Liu says the whole scene involved both choreography and improvisation. While a difficult scene to shoot, she also said it was fun. She said the scene reflected who she is as a person.
“I do risky things and fun things. I kind of follow my heart in the best way possible, but also like, I’m a hopeless romantic,” she said.
You can see exclusive behind-the-scenes footage of the intimacy coordinator working with the cast in the 2-minute clip below.
Lee said he brought in an intimacy coordinator because he wanted to make sure the actors felt comfortable and didn’t feel exploited. He is a big fan of his cast.
He has worked with Xu and Liu before and decided even before the script was written that they would play the leads. He had writer Dennis Escobedo meet with the two of them and Escobedo wrote a script that he felt fit the two actors.
A studio offered Lee $500,000 to distribute his film even before it was shot. The offer came with conditions. It didn’t like that Nathan had brain cancer and it didn’t like the cast.
Lee thinks both Liu and Xu have been overlooked by Hollywood and wanted them both as his leads. He turned the offer down.
“Like, okay, I can’t take a deal like that. There’s no way. We just got to make it the way that we could make it, which is me scraping up whatever, money. So that’s what happened.”
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