Wesley Chan on Re-Envisioning “Shell” Through New Sci-Fi Webseries

I rarely conduct interviews for my website, but when I do, I often center them on writers and storytellers who I either know or admire about their creative process and/or their latest project. This case scenario is particularly exciting for me, as this is a conversation with a filmmaker whose work I’ve come to admire and be inspired by over the years: Wesley Chan.

Wes is one of the co-founders of Wong Fu Productions; an independent production company known for telling relate-able and touching stories, by and about the Asian American community. He is the writer and director of several projects, including the recently released limited webseries, “Shell: The Series.” A spiritual sequel to his 2011 short film of the same name, the stakes and technology are upped a notch as a man meddles with artificial memories called shells that have a lot of potential – both for positive outcomes, as well as drastically negative side effects.

I was so thrilled to have Wes on a Zoom call last week, where we talked about revisiting the concept of fictional memories a decade later, writing and directing a series solo for the first time, plot elements and choices, as well as what he would want to remember. Just as a heads up that there will be spoilers from the series, so if you haven’t seen it yet, I would highly suggest go watching it first before reading any further.

When you made the original “Shell” back in 2011, did you ever think – or at least, aspire to – explore the concept further eventually?

Yes. The idea for artificial memories came up, because that was made for a short film festival in Korea, and I always thought the idea could expand way more beyond those two scenes in “Shell.” And then I guess maybe three or four years later, I was having this idea for a memory dealer, which is kind of what “Shell” progressed into, but I always thought that the idea could expand and cover more ground and explore different themes with different characters too. So I knew that I wanted to, but I was very slow to actually do it.

Why?

Because for me, when there’s too many possibilities, I just freeze. It felt like “Shell” could be an action thriller, it could be a suspense thing, it could be a drama, it could be a love story, it could be a family thing. There were so many different directions it could go, I couldn’t decide on one, and other things came up and it was always that one idea that I always wanted to come back to. And there wasn’t really anything pushing me to do it; no one was really asking for it. So when we came up on the 10-year anniversary, that was a nice kick in the butt.

I heard that this was your first time writing for a series, which it didn’t even dawn on me, because obviously Wong Fu has done limited series in the past. How come you haven’t written for a series before and how was your first go at it for this project?

So this was my first writing and directing a series solo. I’ve done series with Phil [Wang], like “Single by 30.” There’s other ones, but yeah, this is definitely the biggest scale project I did for the channel. I think a lot of my projects tend to be very run and gun, and I’ll take a few people and we’ll go do it.  I don’t want to, like, bother too many people, and everyone on the team’s busy working on something. It feels weird to ask for help, but I’m learning to get better at that.

It was just a matter of time and a matter of the right project, because I’m always a big proponent of if you’re going to do it, do it right or don’t do it at all. And I guess that ties into the series because I was saving it. I felt like I had to –  whatever my series was going to be – it had to be something substantial. I guess I’m pretty critical of myself. Nothing felt good enough yet, but this one, it worked out.

So, once I got started, it was great. I think for the first time, this writing process was different because it was much more dedicated to time. The team let me have time to really marinate on ideas and have my own space to do that. Because a lot of the ideas were brewing in my head for so long, bits and pieces of dialogue and certain characters and ideas, I was able to piece it together in a way that I got an outline done. Then the dialogue wasn’t too hard considering how slow I usually am. I think once things got started, it moved pretty quick. I was actually surprised with the pace of that, but yeah, it was really enjoyable and it definitely gave me more confidence for future projects.

In [one of] the behind the scenes videos, you mentioned how you pulled from a concept of the project a few years ago when, I think, you took a trip to Europe or something. You had something written out. I’m curious, how much did you pull from that, as well as the senior project that you did in college that’s also based around this concept?

So how much of the original is in there is very little. It’s just the springboard to get us into the series. We start right where we left off from the original “Shell”, but we follow different characters, and a lot of the themes, I definitely wanted to come back to reality versus fiction. The idea of if this technology is even a good thing. There’s a lot of themes are retouched upon, but after that, it’s a completely new series, I think. And that was the whole point. It was to present something new.

I took a trip to Amsterdam and that’s when I was like, “You know what? This memory dealer idea, why don’t I shoot it here on this Amsterdam trip?” So a lot of that made its way into “Shell”, following [Adam], visiting his different clients, each using the shells for a different area of fulfillment and happiness because I thought that if memories could be artificial, if they could be created, then they’d be like the most valuable commodity. So super rich people would want it, people that needed to be inspired, people that needed it for motivation, and even maybe less noble deeds too. But the original short of the memory dealer is him going to each of his clients and we get to understand why he does what he does and how this works a little bit and why the people ask for this, like what it satisfies in their life.

In terms of using artificial memories as how we saw them in the original short where it’s something you want to remember, the approach you took with those ones, it’s almost as if it was like a drug dealer situation. It got very intense at times. But what fascinated me about this case is that one aspect of [the series] was seeing a parent go through the reverse effects of dementia. I was wondering what prompted you to want to take that direction?

It wasn’t a personal experience, but I thought if there is this technology for creating artificial memories in the first place it should be applied to is memories that are a degradation of memory, and it just seemed to make sense that’s where it would develop, like that science would kind of come from maybe research there and also be re-applied to fixing that condition. So it was like the whole approach was more way more grounded and not just like, “Let’s imagine crazy things and pretty scenes.” It was like, “How could this really affect people?”

That’s the question because it is under-the-table experimental. We don’t know if the effects might be more harmful, but someone said that it’s like reverse “Eternal Sunshine”, like “Eternal Sunshine” is like zap the memories that you don’t want. And “Shell” is he creates the ones that you don’t have.

Throughout the series, there is a novel featured called The Other Side of Yesterday, which is the same name as your 2014 short film. Why do they have the same name and what is the novel about?

Good question. For Priya, it’s proof that she has overcome her dependence and has found self confidence and can break away from her dependence on the shells to write her stuff. So that symbolizes her own journey. For Mabel’s character, it was like a bond with her mom, they both liked to read, and it just so happened to be coincidental that she met Adam, who knows Priya. I think I always knew that Priya was going to be using the shells for a creative purpose. So it was either going to be like illustration, painting, music, dance, crafting… So the one that made the most sense to me was if she was a writer, like a literature writer, and that way her work could spread to the other characters.

So I always knew that there was going to be a book and the choices are either find a real book, which we don’t have permission to do, or make one up. We’ve been making so many things now, I just kind of pulled back from my own work instead of creating something brand-new, because I thought, “Why not tie it into a previous work that fits the themes of ‘Shell’?” So there’s not a huge significance to that story. And the novel that Priya writes isn’t the same as the short that I made.

So by the end of the series, you place you Mabel and Adam in an interesting predicament. To Mabel, all the events that happened throughout the series are real. But if someone were to tell [all that] to Adam, it would sound like fiction to him. Care to comment on that?

I think because of what happens, because of things kind of [taking a] sudden turn in Adam’s choice to basically self sacrifice his memories and hopes of reigniting things, there had to be some sort of redemption for Adam being the cause of all this pain. So I thought Adam needed to give something up to make up for the secret that he kept pretty much endangering Feng the whole time and it’s all on him. So even though he values the relationship that he nurtured with Feng and Mabel, he decides to basically do the greater good and give it up if you can save them. So that is the story aspect, but I’m always a fan of not keeping people together for endings. Not exactly like not keeping them together, but like open endings because there were mistakes made and it’s not happily ever after, but it’s also not all things go to hell either.

And I thought there’s some pseudoscience that’s fun to work with, like this idea that memories can be extracted and implanted and spark original memories. That was fun to explore, and yeah, exactly as you said, the original short explored when fiction becomes reality. When Chris’ character is dreaming of telling Mimi’s character that he has feelings this whole time and it actually becomes reality. That’s the original. In the series, it’s exactly what you said. It’s everything that Adam experienced and the most real form of love and family unfortunately becomes just another story that isn’t real to him.

How have people been responding to “Shell: The Series”?

It’s been good. I think from the people I’ve talked to, everyone says that they didn’t know where it was going. So the journey was fun, the twists and turns were fun. So I’m happy that fulfilled their expectations, but I’m more happy that people keep asking questions afterwards. Like if it sparks questions and the question of, “Would you want to remember something you never had or forget something that you did experience?” Stuff like that or stuff about family: what would you do in any of these characters’ places?

I’m happy that people are asking questions like that, because I think a story should, or like, it is enriching if it continues beyond on the four episodes.

So for anyone who hasn’t seen it yet, what do you hope for those audiences to take away from watching the series?

I hope they enjoy it. I hope they go into it open-minded, not expecting a direct translation from the original. I hope they have 70 minutes free because I think watching it altogether is way better. In the past, I think we’ve gotten certain criticism or certain critique[s] of not really venturing out, and I made this to show those people that we can venture up, but still create something that’s very Wong Fu and very me, and I think I’m pretty proud of it. I think it succeeds there. So I hope if people kind of lost touch with Wong Fu and maybe got busy with their own lives and if they thought that we were still making the same stuff of the same quality from 10 years ago, I’d really like them to watch this and see what we’re up to now.

What would you want to remember?

Yeah, it’s an interesting question because if you want to remember something that didn’t happen, it could be interpreted as what regrets do you have or what would you want to change or what more do you want. I guess I can say I’m pretty satisfied or I can’t complain about a lot, but I never knew either of my grandfathers. So that would be cool.

To get to know them?

Yeah. I don’t even know how that would work. Like that’s where the idea kind of falls apart a little bit. Like for me to remember that would change history entirely. So can’t get too technical, but yeah, I think that just came to mind now.

NOTE: This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

All four parts of “Shell: The Series” are now available to watch on YouTube. You can watch it all here, along with the behind-the-scenes videos on the making of it, as well as the original 2011 short film. Be sure to also consider subscribing to Wong Fu Productions if you haven’t already. They’re creating thoughtful content all the time.

All images courtesy of Wesley Chan.

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