A first kiss, a first taste of adventure, the first time you hurt someone you love – the short film “Ella,” being produced by Mountain View native Eric Cook, is the coming-of-age story of two young Asian-Americans in the Midwest as they wrestle with peer pressure and form their identities.
Cook is collaborating on the film with director Dan Chen and actress Nichole Bloom; they all attended the USC School of Cinematic Arts.
The idea for the movie stems from a class project they worked on: a TV pilot on Asian-American representation in Hollywood.
“I loved working with (Chen). It was a really great experience. He approached me about doing this short film – a passion and project he’d had forever – using the exact same team and crew that we had shot the pilot with,” said Cook, who graduated from USC in 2014. “I was interested in the subject matter, so I hopped on. We’ve been developing the stories for the last few months and bringing everything together.”
“Ella” – which they plan to film in Manhattan, Kan., in April – will feature Asian-Americans living in the Midwest. It’s an ethnic group the film’s creators feel is often underrepresented in movies, according to Cook. But he stressed that “Ella” has a universal message.
“It’s not necessarily about being Asian-American – it’s about seeing Asian-American characters in situations that anyone can relate to,” he said. “It’s about growing up, tasting your first sense of adventure, and fear and love. These themes are something that I really connect with.”
Bloom, an actress on the NBC sitcom “Superstore,” stars as Ella. She has also appeared on “Grey’s Anatomy” and “Teen Wolf.” Cook said they hope to find the other cast members through open castings.
‘Kickstarting’ the project
But first, they need to raise more money. They recently launched a campaign on the crowdfunding platform Kickstarter to fund the project; as of March 8, they had raised $14,000 of their $18,000 goal.
“I’ve had success with Kickstarter before on a project,” Cook said. “We really felt passionate that this project was something that people would get behind, and we’re trying to do it right, using a professional crew. There’s a lot of cost involved with this project, and we aren’t cutting any corners with this, so we are using Kickstarter to help us.”
“Ella” will be shot in large format, meaning that the frame will have six times the surface area of most films. Cinematographer Philips Shum, who has shot for artists like rapper Drake, built a special camera rig to enable the group to shoot in this format at low cost.
“One of the reasons why I’m so excited to be on this project is they built an IMAX camera adapter, allowing us to see more in the frame,” Cook said. “This is a large-scale project that we’re shooting … so we’re really excited to show the world what this camera system (can) do, and how it (can) impact the story and bring you closer to the characters and to the world.”
Ultimately, the group hopes to be able to expand on the project and develop it into a larger film.
“We want to make a feature based off of this short film, something that is a little larger scale. This is something that’s kind of like a proof of concept,” Cook said. “It’s a story or world that we’re interested in telling more about, and it’s definitely this world that we love.”
A Freestyle success story
Cook, who attended Mountain View High School and the district’s Freestyle Academy of Communication Arts & Technology, works for Variant Entertainment in Los Angeles. He has produced videos for musical artists such as John Legend and Lindsey Stirling. He attributes his successes to the education he received at Freestyle.
“Freestyle gave me a sense of confidence going into film school. … They not only give you professional tools, but they teach you important lessons about storytelling, working with others and collaborating,” he said. “I think these tools led me to be successful, and they helped me make this film.”
Cook sees parallels between “Ella” and the community he grew up in.
“Especially for Los Altos, it’s a small community, and I think one of the things that drew me to this story – what’s beautiful about it – is all these small moments. When you’re in a small town, these moments feel so big,” said Cook, who graduated from high school in 2010. “It’s a story about small-town America, and I think there’s a lot of parallels with that.”
The film is set to be released in August, in time for submissions to film festivals. “Ella” will likely be launched online, according to Cook, but he added that they plan to wait until after they finish the film festival circuit before deciding “where it will live.”
To donate to the project, visit the group’s crowdfunding site at kickstarter.com/projects/dchen/ella-a-new-american-coming-of-age-story-in-the-mid.