INTERVIEW WITH ALEXANDRA QIN - WRITER OF THIRSTYGIRL
When her estranged alcoholic sister lands in the hospital after a relapse, Charlie reluctantly agrees to drive her from New York to rehab in Kentucky. But she must deal with a secret addiction of her own along the way.
Alexandra is an award-winning screenwriter and independent filmmaker based in New York with a background in technology, social justice, and visual/performance art. She was born and raised in Paris, France, to a half-French, half-Filipina mother and a Chinese father.
Alexandra was awarded finishing funds from our Short Film Fund, and she is currently developing THIRSTYGIRL as her first feature, the screenplay for which was the Grand Prize Winner of the 2022 Page Awards, a 2022 Nicholl Semifinalist, and the Winner of the 2021 Finish Line Social Impact screenplay competition.
Outside of her work in film, Alexandra is the founder of Emergent Works, a non-profit that teaches formerly incarcerated people to code and helps them start careers in tech. As a performance and visual artist, Alexandra’s work, inspired by her own addiction recovery journey, explores the many faces of addiction. Her first solo show, Losing Things, an immersive multimedia monologue performed alongside 365 illustrations, one for each day of her first year of sobriety, premiered in New York in December 2019.
Firstly, can you tell us a little about your short film? What it’s about and how did you come up with the idea?
THIRSTYGIRL is a short film based on my award-winning screenplay by the same name. And it’s about a sex addict. Charlie is a young Asian-American woman living in New York who is obsessed with sex. And her life works. Barely. Until she gets a call about her estranged younger sister Nic, a recovering alcoholic, who just relapsed. Charlie now has to drive her sister across the country to rehab in Kentucky. Over the course of the journey, Charlie’s obsession with sex gets more and more out of control, as she uses it to avoid connecting with her sister and the painful memories of their childhood that keep coming up. THIRSTYGIRL is a raw, intimate story about addiction, sisterhood, and Asian-American identity.
Though fictional, THIRSTYGIRL is an incredibly personal story. The relationship between the two sisters is deeply inspired by my relationship with my younger sister. I often say that this film is a love letter to her. I chose the subject of sex addiction because, as a recovering sex addict myself, I feel strongly that we need more human, honest, and empathetic portrayals of this addiction, which is still so widely stigmatized and misunderstood. THIRSTYGIRL is the film I wish I had seen when I was hitting bottom.
What made you want to enter it into the Short Film Fund?
I was very impressed with the caliber of films produced by the Short Film Fund. And as a first-time filmmaker, I wanted as much support as I could get to make a good (hopefully great) first film. And I was in serious need of the funds! I had crowdfunded the film with Kickstarter and used some of my own personal savings to fund the film as well, but as things can tend to happen in production, we spent more money than we planned to. So I was left with limited funds to spend on post-production. Thanks to the Short Film Fund, I’ll be able to finish the film with the support we need to accomplish my vision.
How did you feel when you found out that you won?
I was overjoyed! Once I found out I was a finalist, I was eagerly awaiting the results, and couldn’t stop refreshing my email on the day of the announcement. I felt so honored to join the ranks of Short Film Fund Winner. Especially as a beginner writer/director, this win really means the world to me.
THIRSTYGIRL is your directorial debut. Tell us more about your journey to becoming a director.
Since the very first time I went to the movie theater as a child, I have wanted to direct films. But, growing up in an Asian household, believing I was terminally untalented in the arts, and having a natural facility for science subjects, I decided at an early age to pursue STEM.
I studied Computer Science at NYU, then became a software engineer, an engineering manager, and a director of technology. Along the way I became an activist for underrepresented peoples in technology, having experienced a lot of sexual discrimination and harassment as a young woman of color in tech (you can learn more about it by watching my popular talk “Shaving my head made me a better programmer”). Following my passion for social justice and antiracism, I founded Emergent Works, a nonprofit that teaches formerly incarcerated people to code and helps them start careers in tech.
After 5 years of running that organization, and after getting sober from lifelong addictions to alcohol, drugs, and sex & love, I decided to step down from my nonprofit and finally pursue my childhood dream of making movies. A little over two years ago, I quit my job and started writing the THIRSTYGIRL feature script. I figured screenwriting would be the simplest path to becoming a director.
The THIRSTYGIRL feature script won a few awards of its own, and after a number of general meetings with producers and development executives, who were all pretty excited about my writing, but seemingly not excited enough about THIRSTYGIRL to move forward, I was told I should attach a director, for that would make the project more attractive to financiers. So I reached out to some directors, but none of them were interested.
At that point, a mentor of mine asked me why I didn’t want to direct the film myself. The truth is I really wanted to. The desire to direct is what had gotten me to start writing in the first place. But I didn’t feel ready. I had never directed any films. I had barely even been on a film set. I loved my script and I wanted a “good” director to direct it, not me!
And that may have made sense for another story, but this is my story. Knowing that, and that I’d only ever have one first script, I slowly awoke to the possibility that I might in fact be the best director for THIRSTYGIRL. So, terrified of failure and unsure how to even go about making it all happen, I decided to direct a short proof-of-concept for the feature film.
Do you want to develop the script further? If so, what will you look to change?
Absolutely! As I mentioned, the short for THIRSTYGIRL is a proof-of-concept for the feature. So its purpose, other than being a beautiful work of art on its own, is to convince folks to support me in directing the feature version.
In terms of how the two projects differ: the plot, the characters, and the tone are the same. But the short is just a taste of what the feature will hopefully be. In the short, the two sisters don’t really go through much of a change. We meet them, we get a glance at their respective inner worlds, we see their conflict, and we get out. But the feature goes much, much deeper. It takes us on a full journey for both of them and expresses many deep truths I hold about being a human. I really hope I’ll be given the chance to make the feature film, so I can explore all of that.
What was the biggest challenge in terms of getting your short script off the paper and onto film?
Oh boy, what wasn’t a challenge? I’ve done a lot of hard things throughout my career, but I have to say, filmmaking might be the hardest one. As a former CEO, I’m used to fundraising and handling complex logistics and large teams. As an activist, I’m also used to trying to make impossible things happen. But having to learn all the aspects of directing on the fly, having to effectively convey my artistic vision to my cast and crew when I wasn’t sure I could trust it myself, and dealing with lots of self-doubts and imposter syndrome the whole way through… that was a new challenge for sure. If I had to pick a single hardest element of making THIRSTYGIRL, it would be learning to ride the wave of my emotional response to the practice of filmmaking. One needs a serious amount of passion, endurance, and faith to make and finish a film.
Do you think about the practicalities of filming when you write? If so, how has that changed your writing process, or have you always thought that way?
I didn’t before, but I certainly do now. I love big, maximalist cinema. I tend to go for wild ideas that are not easy to shoot. But after producing and directing my first short film and really learning how difficult and expensive it is to create every shot, I want to experiment with super simple, micro-budget films. I want to become a better director and to do that, I need to direct more films. So right now, I’m working on a new short script that is set in entirely in my apartment with a cast of three, which should hopefully be much more manageable and cheaper to shoot than THIRSTYGIRL was.
Tell us more about your process for selecting camera format, aspect ratio, crew, location, and other aspects of the production.
As a first-time director, I was lucky to be able to rely on my amazing team for help with making a lot of these decisions. My amazing DP Fletcher Wolfe and I chose the 4:3 aspect ratio to convey the solitude Charlie feels in her addiction, and how hard it is to let anyone close to her. There’s rarely more than one person in the frame.
My incredible producer and casting director Brooke Goldman did much of the heavy lifting for closing locations, hiring crew, and finding the cast. Casting was hands down one of my favorite parts of the pre-production process. I had a very clear, specific vision for who Charlie and Nic are, and we worked hard to find the right actors to portray them, expanding our search to the entirety of the US.
Directing is about making a million decisions, all of which lead to (hopefully) making a film. In Making Movies, Sidney Lumet writes that, in order to not get lost in the process, one needs to hold on tightly to the central idea, or premise, of the film, and let that guide every decision. The premise of THIRSTYGIRL is: addiction is the opposite of connection. I’ve tried (hopefully somewhat successfully) to let that guide all aspects of the making of THIRSTYGIRL.
Where did you shoot your short and why?
The story is set on the road between New York and Kentucky. So we wanted locations that looked like middle-America and the South. I am based in New York, so we chose to shoot in and around small towns in upstate New York over the course of 4 days. We got to shoot in some really cool, classic road movie locations, like a bowling alley and a motel. And we shot a lot of driving scenes on small and big roads, which was very challenging.
What are your aspirations for the film once it’s completed? Certain film festivals? Help with getting a feature off the ground, etc?
I will be taking a two-pronged approach once the short is completed. We’ll be submitting to film festivals, as well as packaging the short with the feature script and a feature budget, and sending that around to interested production companies and financiers.
In terms of film festivals, I’m of course hoping to premiere at one of the big ones (Tribeca, TIFF, SXSW, Sundance), ideally the Tribeca Film Festival, which we will be submitting to first. I know it’s a long shot to assume that my first short film would make it into one of the best film festivals in the world, so I’m trying to keep my expectations at a realistic level, all the while hoping for the best. I would really love to play the Palm Springs Shorts Festival. I’ve heard it’s a really incredible experience with amazing filmmakers from all over the world.
Hopefully, one or both of these approaches will lead to securing the funding we need to make the THIRSTYGIRL feature. And if not, onto the next project!
Do you have any advice for upcoming screenwriters who are either looking to direct their own material, or find a producer/director for their short script?
For any screenwriters who even have an inkling of a desire to direct their own work, or to become a director at some point in the future, I would tell them what was told to me: Just do it now. Start as soon as you can. Directing is a skill that is honed quite slowly over the course of many years, and it’s rare to be given opportunities to do so. So start now. Trust yourself.
And for those looking for a producer/director for their script, I would say: You are currently in possession of the most valuable thing in our industry. A new story. There are people out there who are desperately looking for your project, and you just need to find them, or allow them to find you. In looking for a producer for my short, I was shameless about reaching out to all my contacts in film (and I had very few), and I was diligent about pitching myself and my story to as many producers as possible. It can take a while to find the people you need to make your film, and it can be quite disheartening at times, but with patience and tenacity, it will absolutely happen.
Where are you now in the post-production process?
We wrapped the shoot a little under two months ago. And I’ve been working with our editor pretty much non-stop since. I’m realizing it’s time to take a break and allow the creative process to work me, instead of the other way around. In the same way that many of the problems in the THIRSTYGIRL feature script were unlocked quite organically, when I wasn’t at my desk, I think divine inspiration needs to take the lead now. I trust the film will emerge when the time is right.
Is there anything else we’ve neglected to ask that might be worth mentioning?
Nope! Thanks again to Shore Scripts and the Short Film Fund for selecting THIRSTYGIRL as its 2nd place winner! It’s been such an honor and a gift. And I can’t wait to share the finished product with the world when it’s done!