I spoke with John Brougher, Asian American filmmaker and actor for the short film, Iron and Rage on his thoughts on Iron Fist, his own origin story, and how he’s lending his voice to the greater conversation.
This Friday, March 17 marks the premiere of the long-awaited, and long-criticized, Marvel/Netflix series, Iron Fist. The series, and subsequently the battle for Danny Rand himself has been wildly chaotic. From a torrent of poor reviews to a year’s worth of some negative public reception to the casting of Finn Jones as the titular hero, to interviews with cast members that paint a deeper picture behind the scenes; it seems the writing is already on the wall for this series. Some people will flat out ignore everyone and watch the show, while others will boycott. There’s also individuals and groups that decide to use this missed opportunity as a tool to highlight and bring attention to Asian Americans in entertainment and their place in the industry (or lack thereof). One of those people is John Brougher.
Brougher, an Asian American filmmaker and actor, used his talents and passion to contribute his voice to the national conversation on Asian American representation in media. His thoughts coalesced into a short film about Iron Fist titled Iron and Rage. The short centers on the hero Danny Rand (played by Brougher) who has “used his powers to help people for years, but a major injury and setback has him questioning who he is and if he’s even a hero anymore”. Supporting Danny is Jessica Jones, played by Chelsea Thaler, and Jennifer Walters (She-Hulk) portrayed by Haliya Roberts.
Tatiana King Jones: How did you get into film making and acting?
John Brougher: I started doing theater when I was a little kid in summer camp, and something about it spoke to me immediately. There’s something about inhabiting a character fully, envisioning a story, and bringing it to life that energizes me. I left acting behind for a long time, and worked in politics and advocacy for many years, but came back to acting after I realized how much I missed that feeling. As I’ve grown older, the desire to tell real, human stories has only increased, and my belief in the power of storytelling is stronger than ever.
TKJ: Did you write the treatment by yourself or with a team?
JB: I wrote the screenplay by myself, but a lot of wonderful friends and collaborators had input and helped hone the final product.
TKJ: How did you get the acting/technical team together for this short?
JB: I was lucky to be surrounded by an amazing cast and crew that I had worked with before. I wrote “Iron and Rage” myself, I met my co-director (Nick Szpara) from a commercial we shot together, and I’ve worked with my cast (Chelsea Thaler, Haliya Roberts, and Craig Houk) on past theater projects in D.C., where I used to live.
TKJ: How long did the entire project take (from concept to execution)?
JB: The idea’s been in my head for a long time, honestly. I started really actualizing the project and finished writing around last March, but the project had to go on hiatus for a bit, and didn’t actually finish shooting until October. The shooting itself, somehow, only took a weekend, and that’s all due to the work of Nick Szpara and the stellar technical crew. We literally worked like hell to shoot the entire short in one weekend. We don’t have the resources of a Marvel obviously, so there’s no CGI or post-production.
TKJ: Why is the short named “Iron and Rage”?
JB: The film is named “Iron and Rage” for a few reasons: first, it’s a probably-too-obvious reference to two of the main characters (Danny Rand and Jennifer Walters), and second, it’s referencing some of the internal battles we all face when we deal with trauma and conflict.
TKJ: Do you mind sharing your personal background i.e. where did you grow up? what’s your family history, etc.?
JB: I don’t mind at all! I was born in Seoul, South Korea, and I was adopted when I was six months old by my parents. My mother’s family is Ukrainian, and my father’s is Irish/Scottish, and they gave me the “Brougher” name, which is hardcore Irish (it sounds like “Brocker”, in case you’re curious). I grew up in the suburbs of Washington D.C., and struggled a lot with my own identity—I felt completely separate from any notion of “Asianness,” but also realized that American society was determined to otherize and separate me, no matter how “American” I felt. I still don’t know how to feel about an identity that’s largely been placed on me by oppressive systems, not created by myself, but that’s the course we all have to chart.
TKJ: Your background is incredibly interesting because you have a lot of intersectional issues to deal with. That being said, how was it growing up in D.C.?
JB: I loved it at the time. I grew up in a fairly wealthy suburb of D.C., and although my family managed to move to the area before it became hilariously unaffordable, I was still lucky to have a very privileged childhood. But at the same time, I was really confused. Being adopted, I felt like there must’ve been something wrong with me, so I didn’t want to be different than my parents, but as a transracial adoptee living in a racialized society, that fact confronted me constantly. My mom tells a story about a probably well-meaning person coming up to her and baby me, and the person looked at me and her, and joyously asked, “Is he yours?”
Looking back, I’m frustrated that I didn’t have the vocabulary, maturity, or emotional intelligence to articulate race, gender, and belonging (and wouldn’t have the capacity to for many, many years), but I also realize that’s a lot to ask of a kid. Then again, I see woke kids on Tumblr all the time, so…maybe I was just slow.
TKJ: I find that term you used fascinating, “transracial adoptee”–can you express further what that means?
JB: Absolutely, happy to—transracial adoption (nothing to do with Rachel Dolezal) means that my adoptive parents are not the same race as me. In my case, my parents are both white so, like a lot of adopted children of color, it meant charting a very different course in terms of my own identity formation and understanding.
TKJ: You’ve expressed one of the major reasons for doing this short is to challenge Hollywood to portray Asian Americans more authentically. What is your view on the current state of things regarding this issue?
JB: You know, there’s two ways of looking at this—you can tell a story of progress, and note that we’re lucky to live in a world where we’re so openly talking about representation, but you can also look at the last year or so, with “Aloha,” “The Great Wall,” “Ghost in the Shell” (not to mention two straight Oscars where Asians get openly made fun of) and say…what the hell? Despite us as a society advancing further and further in our discourse and our thoughts, Asian Americans (like other people of color, women, LGBT folks) are still not human beings on screen and I’ll even go one further: Asian Americans are often straight-up erased from media. “Iron Fist” is just the latest example.
TKJ: On a recent FanBrosShow with Lewis Tan (and over many episodes) we often discussed why it didn’t make sense that Marvel did not have an Asian American actor play Iron Fist. We focused a lot on what Asian Americans were saying publicly about the casting. That being said, we’ve received feedback from a few folks saying that having an Asian American actor would play into the “kung fu/martial arts stereotype”–what are your thoughts on this?
JB: Basically, it boils down to this: we need more Asian American human, nuanced characters. We need more of that. We don’t need less roundhouse kicks.
This argument gets raised all the time, and I don’t see a lot of validity to it. Danny Rand is a complex, interesting character, and as long as he’s written and acted like that, that would’ve been a great thing for Asian American representation, in my opinion. There’s definitely a way to be racist or Orientalist or something, and you see this in too many portrayals of mystical Asian societies, even in current film and television. But those stories aren’t offensive because they have ninjas—they’re offensive because they rely on accents and tired stereotypes, rather than crafting human characters and telling real stories.
I’m reminded of a story from Sundance, when they were screening Justin Lin’s coming-of-age film “Better Luck Tomorrow”, and a questioner didn’t understand why they made the film, since it portrayed Asian Americans committing crimes and being violent. Roger Ebert stood up and angrily yelled back—can’t you let Asian Americans be human beings? That’s it.
TKJ: Who do you think should have played Iron Fist? Or are you ok with Finn Jones? And why?
JB: I’m pissed at the decision to cast a white actor, but I have no hate for Finn Jones. I think an Asian American actor should’ve been cast, and an Asian American story should’ve been told. If you think about the conflicts and struggles that Danny Rand faces—strange relationship with the Asian place he’s from, living in between two societies (that both don’t quite accept him), using humor as a defense mechanism to hide from larger issues—these are issues that I absolutely see in myself and see in the Asian American community all the time
TKJ: What kind of stories starring/involving Asian Americans would you like to see developed (whether for TV or the big screen)?
JB: All kinds, honestly. But I’m particularly interested in seeing Asian Americans involved in stories that they’re typically barred from: comedies, dramas, and romance. And you also see different representation challenges for Asian American male actors versus Asian American women actors. Our Asian American sisters are seeing more representation (yes!), but they’re often fetishized and hypersexualized. Asian American male actors, on the other hand, just tend to be absent completely.
TKJ: Why do you think Asian Americans are barred from, well, regular roles in areas such as comedies, romances, etc.?
JB: Asian Americans are barred from regular roles in most movies and television because we’re not a part of most white folks regular lives, and thus aren’t thought of as regular at all. Filmmaking and showrunning is still about recreating the worlds of creators, and those worlds don’t include Asian Americans. When we think about casting directors and other folks doing their jobs, it’s all about casting for a “look.” When you go for the role of best friend, or lead, or hacker, or action star, or whatever, a good casting director will look for actors that come into the room and just SCREAM “best friend.” That’s how, in my opinion, even well-meaning, progressive casting directors can still be unintentionally prejudiced because they’re thinking about “look” and not about how their definition of “look” might fit into a prejudiced view. “Well, I’m not bigoted, I’m just looking for someone that has a sexier look,” without interrogating what it means to have a sexy or unsexy look, for example.
And as long as we don’t see more and more human Asian American characters on screen, we’ll keep on having this problem. Like so much of the entertainment industry, it’s a chicken and egg problem, which to me means that we need courageous leadership.
TKJ: What does diversity mean to you?
JB: Diversity to me is about going beyond tolerating and even beyond celebrating difference to embracing humans that come from a different background, and embracing and lifting up their humanity.
TKJ: What do you think people can (or need to) do in order to raise the profile of Asian Americans in entertainment/media?
JB: We need to support Asian American independent media, and we also need to hold studios and networks accountable. Progress happens when we demand it—we have to see and support our work, and we have to push back against the establishment in Hollywood and the networks if they make art with a cast that doesn’t look like America.
TKJ: What would you say to kids that grow up in similar situations that you did? What advice do you have for them to help cope with identity issues?
JB: The first thing that I thought of when you said that is that I just want to hug them. I want to tell them that they are wanted, that they belong, and that they are beloved. I want to join them in what gives them joy, to show them that their joy has backup—dance to their songs, watch their shows, read their comic books.
More tangibly, I’d tell them that they deserve to be happy and I’d tell them to feel. That may sound odd, but I don’t know how well we tell folks, particularly folks who may feel out of place, that their emotions are wonderful and deserve to be felt. Emotions become performative with social media, but it’s also too easy to think about feelings as weakness, or feelings as unnecessary. Let kids emote again.
TKJ: Do you plan on doing more projects like Iron and Rage again?
JB: I hope so! I want all of my work to be saying something.
TKJ: What other projects or genres would you be interested in joining or spearheading as a filmmaker?
JB: I’m working right now on an Asian American romantic comedy, and I’m really excited about exploring race and gender and sexuality in a way that’s familiar but also completely new to a lot of folks.
TKJ: What’s your favorite part of geek culture?
JB: My favorite part of geek culture is the shared sense of community. Geek culture is somewhat more mainstream now, but I still get a palpable thrill when I sense I’m talking with another geek because they dropped what I think is a Dr. Who reference, or it seems like maybe they know more about comics than I’d initially thought… It feels like you suddenly belong, and for geeks, so much of our lives is about struggling with not belonging.
My least favorite part of geek culture is the vindictiveness and self-myopia of a certain part of geek culture that’s small, but very vocal. Geek culture to me is about joy and welcoming and understanding, particularly because of a broader culture that doesn’t know what a “Brian Michael Bendis run” is or won’t understand if you describe them as “Lawful Evil.” But too many so-called geeks and nerds aren’t about welcome—despite our shared struggle and cultural displacement, they still feel the need to take up a libertarian mantle and cast out an “other” that is almost always people of color, women, and anyone else they consider “non deserving.” It infuriates me. We geeks have struggled against being culturally displaced—shouldn’t we be natural allies of folks that struggle against structural oppression?
TKJ: Anything else you want to share regarding your thoughts on Iron Fist and the future of Asian Americans in media?
JB: I’ll just say what’s been on my mind as I watch more and more new film and television and read more comic books: Diversity is now the starting point. Having a diverse cast and crew is a baseline. If you’re making art in 2017 and beyond, and you can’t start at that baseline, then there better be a damn good explanation that can survive some thoughtful interrogation. We have to question our existing ways of thinking if we have any hope of creating the beautiful future we’re clawing our way towards. That future’s ours if we can make it.
TKJ: Well this wouldn’t be a FanBros interview without some BRAPP questions! You ready?
JB: You can’t see me because this is written, but I’m terrified—I hope I survive the BRAPP segment.
TKJ: Luke Cage or Black Panther?
JB: I am TORN on this one, but I’m gonna go with Luke Cage. As someone who’s constantly thinking about the idea of Americanness, I gotta side with my American heroes.
TKJ: Magneto or Professor X?
JB: Professor X. Remember those cartoons? Yeah. How could you not? I still feel like he’s my mentor
TKJ: What’s your favorite activity (besides filmmaking)? Comics? Video Games? Deep Sea Diving?
JB: I got excited at first when you said “deep sea diving,” but then I thought about how actually scary that is. That fish with the light?
Real talk, I love video games. I play them all the time, and have STRONG feelings about them, particularly in regards to politics and how marginalized communities are portrayed (you got time for a “Far Cry 3” essay?).
TKJ: What’s your favorite Wesley Snipes movie?
JB: Oh lord, so, so many. I mean, I have a weird liking for “The Art of War.” Is that bad?
TKJ: Comic Books or Hip Hop–one gotta go–what do you choose?
JB: You are KILLING me. Comic books gotta go, but now we’re creating a world I don’t want to live in.
TKJ: Star Wars or Star Trek?
JB: Star Trek. How amazingly fantastic is it to have an hourlong drama about folks who are part of a military force and command a vessel with hilarious power, but openly use violence only as a last resort? Also, universal health care and basic income? Check out that society. That’s my liberal future right there.
TKJ: If you could have any one superpower, what would it be?
JB: Invincibility. I think that would make me (more) brooding and melancholy and stuff, but it seems like it’d really come in handy.