Slamdance premieres unusual spy story
'Starring Jerry As Himself’ is a strange and true thriller
“Starring Jerry as Himself” will premiere at the 2023 Slamdance Film Festival at 7:30 p.m. on Saturday, Jan. 21, at Treasure Mountain Inn, 255 Main St.
- A second screening is scheduled for 2:45 p.m. on Monday, Jan. 23, at the same venue. For information, visit slamdance.com/?s=jerry.
What would a 79-year-old retiree and immigrant from Taiwan to the U.S. do when he is recruited by the Chinese police to become an undercover agent and investigate an international money laundering racket?
That’s what filmmaker Lawrence Chen and producer Jonathan Hsu set out to find out when they began working on “Starring Jerry As Himself,” a unique documentary that will premiere at the 2023 Slamdance Film Festival on Saturday, Jan. 21, at the Treasure Mountain Inn.
The film is a docu-narrative-feature hybrid that tells the true story of what Hsu’s father Jerry experienced in his adopted home state of Florida during the coronavirus pandemic.
The idea for Chen and Jonathan Hsu was to make an engaging film that would draw an audience.
“This is such a personal story for Jon and Jerry and we hope people enjoy it as much as we enjoyed making it,” Chen said.
One of the things that makes Jerry’s story interesting is how he didn’t tell anyone about what had happened, Jonathan said.
“When I first heard about what happened, I was completely shocked that he had kept this a secret for so long,” he said. “(My dad) went through all of these procedures for the Chinese police, and the way my brain works is I started picking things apart because I had so many questions.”
Jonathan wondered how the police found Jerry in the first place.
“I was curious about what types of qualifications he met that they needed,” he said. “The more questions I came up with, I knew I couldn’t (resolve) over Zoom calls. I needed to address these things face-to-face, and I needed to record it with cameras so we could collect more information and document this amazing, once-in-a-lifetime event.”
Jonathan, a producer by trade, contacted Chen, a filmmaker and family friend.
“Jon said that his father had been recruited by the Chinese police to be an undercover secret agent, so we went down to Florida to interview Jerry to find out what happened,” Chen said. “Everything Jerry told us was fantastical, unbelievable and stranger than fiction.”
During his investigation, Jerry was ordered to take photos of the bank that was participating in the scheme, and he wore a wire while talking with bank tellers, according to Chen.
“It was a crazy journey for us to find out what had happened,” he said.
Once they began piecing the story together, Chen and Jonathan had to find a way to tell the story in a format that would engage the audience.
They started the project as a hard documentary, but changed their minds after they asked Jerry if he remembered all the conversations he had had with the police.
“He said he remembered everything and offered to write them all down,” Chen said.
Jerry produced something akin to a screenplay, complete with dialog and characters.
“The first thing I did to tell the scenes was to put in details and write it like a script,” Jerry said.
As Chen and Jonathan began talking more deeply about how to make the movie, Jerry found himself interested in the process, because he had been a scriptwriter and actor for some local church plays.
“We knew we had to do some recreations, so the question became whether or not this documentary would become more like a scripted feature,” Chen said. “If so, there were (a couple) of people in Hollywood who could play Jerry, but they weren’t the type to pick up the phone. So we asked Jerry if he would like to play himself.”
Jerry agreed as long as the documentary would look more like a spy film, because throughout the experience, he felt like Jason Bourne and James Bond.
“I wanted to play myself and act, and I liked the idea of being in a spy film,” he said.
Jonathan was surprised at how well Jerry was able to act during the interviews and recreations.
“I had no idea that he had it in him,” he said with a laugh.
Jerry, who had been recently diagnosed with Alzheimer’s, said it felt good to act again.
“I think it shows that I haven’t gotten too much Alzheimer’s yet,” he said.
Jerry wasn’t the only member of his family to appear in the film. The cast includes Jonathan, his brothers and his mother, Kathy, Jerry’s ex wife.
“We were surprised that Kathy wanted to be in the film, because Asian American families keep secrets, and don’t reveal things like this,” Chen said.
Having the family in the film proved to be the best way to put the audience in his shoes, according to Chen.
“It was so important to tell it this way, because Jerry wanted everybody to see things from his perspective and to show how this could have happened,” he said. “We wanted to get the audience to question what they would do if they were put in his position and to get an idea of what kind of experience he had.”
“Starring Jerry as Himself” will premiere at the 2023 Slamdance Film Festival at 7:30 p.m. on Saturday, Jan. 21, at Treasure Mountain Inn, 255 Main St. A second screening is scheduled for 2:45 p.m. on Monday, Jan. 23, at the same venue. For information, visit slamdance.com/?s=jerry.
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