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Filmmaker rising

By Jessica Lum

March 5, 2008 9:13 p.m.

Rather than shooting zombies in a manner characteristic of conventional zombie flicks, UCLA alumna Grace Lee wields a new weapon of choice, a camera.

Lee, who received her master’s degree in directing in 2002 from the UCLA School of Theater, Film and Television, initially released her latest independent film, “American Zombie,” at the Slamdance Film Festival in January 2007.

Over a year later, “American Zombie” has risen again and will be making its way to UCLA for a special preview screening through Melnitz Movies at the James Bridges Theater tonight at 7:30 p.m. The film will be officially opening to the public for one week beginning March 28 at Laemmle’s Sunset 5 in West Hollywood.

Writer Rebecca Sonnenshine and filmmaker John Solomon, UCLA alumni, teamed up with Lee on “American Zombie” in a fictional documentary about a new group of underrepresented ““ and perhaps misrepresented ““ individuals: zombies.

“The goal (of “˜American Zombie’) is to be entertaining and also thought-provoking (by) looking at zombies in a different way,” Lee said. “Zombies … are sort of like a blank slate.”

Sonnenshine, who cowrote the script for “American Zombie,” graduated in 1993 from UCLA’s School of Theater, Film and Television. She said she felt it would be unique yet pragmatic to combine two very different low-budget forms of filmmaking.

“Horror is … often as far from reality as you can get, (so) marrying a completely ridiculous and far-fetched genre with something that’s supposed to be true was definitely interesting,” Sonnenshine said.

With a background in journalism and history from her undergraduate work at University of Missouri, Lee naturally gravitated toward the documentary and advocacy film style. Lee uses her experience in documentary filmmaking to create a plausible journalistic documentary about a community of high-functioning zombies who “live” among the living and the filmmakers who interact with them.

Lee has made several social documentaries that focus on marginalized groups of people including sweatshop workers and military prostitutes in South Korea. She is best known for her 2005 documentary, “The Grace Lee Project,” which took a more lighthearted, personal angle on Asian American stereotypes by interviewing other women who share her name. Just as in “The Grace Lee Project,” she appears in the film as the director, catalyzing the plotline.

“I think the filmmaker (and) character Grace Lee would be interested in any unknown community, any underground community,” Lee said of her self-portrayed character. “Zombies seem to be a community that you’ve never heard of before, and there’s probably a lot of misunderstanding and stereotypes surrounding them,”

Though Lee’s movie bears a satirical tone, Lee is wary of labeling it a mockumentary. While she pokes fun at the genre of documentary and advocacy films, her intention is not to belittle her subjects.

“Our film is funny, but in a more organic way; … characters … and the situations are very awkward,” Lee said. “Grace Lee the character would never set out to mock her characters in her film.”

The genre of documentary film can be limiting, as it tends to require a certain amount of gravity.

“There tends to be a lot of seriousness in documentary filmmaking. … I love personal documentaries. I made one, but I sometimes find them a little too self-indulgent,” Lee said.

Lee is the first to admit the “Grace Lee Project” may appear narcissistic, but in her latest film, she does not shy away from self-deprecatory jokes about including herself again in “American Zombie.” She acts alongside former UCLA classmate Solomon, basing characters on their real life friendship.

“(John and I) are extreme versions (of ourselves) in the film. Grace Lee wouldn’t really be interested in zombies. She’d be more interested in immigrants and minorities, but John would (be interested in zombies),” Lee said. “But John has no background in documentary film, so he would need the expertise of Grace.”

Solomon, who is currently a writer for Saturday Night Live, has no background in acting but portrayed a rougher version of himself for the role as a filmmaker.

“(My character) is kind of a jerk for the comedic effect … but I’m not that much of a jerk,” Solomon said. “I was not comfortable (acting), but it was good that Grace was a good friend of mine, and most of my scenes are with her, so that was helpful.”

Lee and Solomon felt similar mutual dependence while making “American Zombie” as they did while working on student projects at the UCLA film school.

Sonnenshine and Solomon attended the UCLA undergraduate film program together, while Solomon and Lee crossed paths in the MFA program.

“The bonds with the people I went to film school with are very strong. I couldn’t have made the movie “˜American Zombie’ without the help of my film school friends. … It was those UCLA connections that really made a difference for me,” Lee said. “UCLA really cultivates people (who have) something to say in an independent voice, which I think is really valuable.”

Although Sonnenshine did not attend school at the same time as Lee, they later met through mutual friends and began to work together.

“We met through the “˜film school mafia,'” Sonnenshine said.

Sonnenshine finds that most UCLA graduates share the same vision toward independent filmmaking because of their broad range of experiences in different fields of expertise while in school.

“(UCLA) is unlike other film schools in that you control all of you own work. You own it. Other schools own your work, but at UCLA you own your own stuff,” she said.

“We may not be rich, but we’re making films,” Lee said.

Correction: An earlier version of this story misspelled “filmmaker” in the headline.

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