The first time I heard about multi-lingual, multi-talented Austin S. Lin and his one year-old film production company Ayce Group Inc. was through an old high school friend. The first time I met him was during a game of Turbo Cranium. Upon first glance, followed by second and third impressions on subsequent occasions, I realized that he is and is not like the archetypical Asian-American. He played piano as a child, excelled academically, and has never voluntarily driven a Ford. Instead of spending his free time tricking out his current mode of transportation, though, this chemical-engineer-by-day makes films. While Hurricane Katrina crept across metro-Atlanta, I met up with Austin to learn more about his life, his loves, and utilizing the cinematic medium as a tool for cultural awareness.
The story of how Austin got into filmmaking and then creating his own production company involves the alto clarinet and Lindsay Lohan. Participating in school plays and musical recitals, this Chattanooga, Tennessee native was no stranger to performing on the stage. When asked if he was ever strongly encouraged to play the piano and violin, like most Asian-American kids, he explained, “I had to play the piano. When I branched off into woodwinds, I thought ‘ha ha, I’m so rebellious; I’m gonna play clarinet’.”
Austin continued to nurture his musical abilities throughout high school, and when he started college at John’s Hopkins in 1995, he became involved in theatre, which gave him an “opportunity to work with playwrights, set designers, and lighting people to learn the whole tip-to-toe thing of stage.”
Drama wasn’t Austin’s academic pursuit, though. “I studied chemical engineering,” he noted, “Which is different from chemistry. In fact, we rip-off chemists—that’s the pirate mentality of chemical engineers.”
The difference between the two fields, as Austin expertly articulated, is that “chemists take care of making that one perfect drug, and the chemical engineers say, understanding all the chemical properties of that one perfect drug, ‘how do I make a zillion of them, and how do I make them all the same; how do I make them safely and correctly so that when the person takes it, it cures them of the migraine or something; and at the same time I’m not polluting the environment or being cruel to animals’.”
To earn some money while he was an undergrad, Austin worked as part of the Buena Vista College Network, going to advanced screenings and being “the creepy guy who went to the theatre by himself and had a backpack, a clipboard, sat in the dark, and counted the number of males and females.”
Lindsay Lohan came into the picture—no pun intended—when Austin was on his fifth dose of “The Parent Trap” remake. A brief encounter with a casting agent in the movie theatre’s lobby led to acting. After graduating from John’s Hopkins, Austin moved to Atlanta for chemical engineering work and to pursue life in front of the camera.
Initially hesitant about the acting scene in Georgia’s capital, his agent reassured him by explaining that “Hollywood is known for movies and New York is known for Broadway and stage, Atlanta is actually well-known for commercials and industrials.”
In 2001, Austin and a group of Atlanta actors decided to give filmmaking a try. Four years later, he would start his own production company, Ayce Group, as well as helping out with C.Street Productions, founded by his friend Will Hong.
With an emphasis on projects that feature “Asians and Asian-Americans in non-traditional Asian-American roles,” Ayce Group actively and creatively takes a step to dispel stereotypes, to convey that not all Asian-Americans are smart, mathematically and scientifically inclined kung-fu experts that can shoot fireballs or walk on bamboo.
Far from being the “Asian BET” and casting “only Asians all the time,” Austin clarified that “we wanted to feature Asians in roles they typically wouldn’t be featured in, and it didn’t mean they had to be the lead role—just something where they could speak lines and wouldn’t have broken English. They functioned like normal human beings. The other focus is to take advantage of Atlanta as a film community because we’ve run through lots of ups and downs through our growth process.”
The many people who have guided and helped out Ayce Group—including The People Store and Actorsphere.com—contribute to the close-knit atmosphere and collaborative aspect of filmmaking in Atlanta. In response to my question about how the city’s film scene has changed in the five years he has been here, Austin pointed out that “another great thing that Atlanta has going for it in terms of entertainment is the hip-hop industry. So many hip-hop and rap stars live and work out of here; Atlanta’s name is dropped all the time in songs. They do a lot for Atlanta; they make it a center of film and video production. A lot of the people in the music video business, like Ludacris, are starting to get into film. Gradually, it’ll pull more people here—that’s really exciting.”
Wrapping up an hour or so of chatting away inside a Borders bookstore while panels of rain fell from the sky outside, I asked Austin how (or if) his childhood career dreams reflect what he is doing now. He smiled and told me a short, short story: “when I was in fifth grade, our class wrote a play. My role was to play the part of a chemist that creates a time-travel chemical formula. It’s funny that I was acting as a chemist then, and now I’m a chemical engineer acting as an actor.”