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Celebrating the Best Screenplays by AAPI Writers

By Kevin Nelson · May 9, 2022

AAPI writers have made a huge impact on film and TV. Here are just a few of their narrative contributions.

May is AAPI Heritage Month, a time to celebrate the contributions and achievements that Asians, Asian Americans, and Pacific Islanders have made in the United States. On our end, though, we’re focusing on film and TV’s best AAPI writers.

To understand the impact that Asian culture has had on the world of filmmaking, you’d have to look back long before the medium ever existed.

Mankind’s most ancient cinematic experiences were discovered and refined by philosophers, scientists, and theorists from the Asian continent. Shadow plays became popular after genius Mo-Ti discovered how to invert outside light through a small hole in the wall of a darkened room in 500 BCE. Iraqi scientist Ḥasan Ibn al-Haytham, known as Alhazen in the West, further developed Mo-Ti’s optical experiments to successfully project an image for the first time in 1021 AD, recorded in his Book of Optics

With the technological development of film and electricity by the late 1890s, the medium quickly spread around the world. By the turn of the century, films were being made in every major country. Asian cinema saw the rise of film industries parallel with Western counterparts.

The most influential Golden Age of Asian cinema came in the late 1940s-1960s. This era saw legendary filmmakers like Akira Kurosawa (Seven Samurai), Kenji Mizoguchi (Sansho the Bailiff), and Bengali director Satyajit Ray (The Apu Trilogy) creating absolute masterpieces of cinema, which influenced countless Western filmmakers with the ingenuity of their mise-en-scène and narrative styles.

Hollywood has endured decades of slow progress when it comes to diversity and representation, but there have finally been some serious inroads and many “firsts” in recent years that have opened the gates to more diverse storytellers. The impact that the AAPI community has made on the film industry is monumental and needs to be praised.

In honor of Asian American and Pacific Islander Heritage Month, let’s pay tribute to the next generation of voices that are carrying on a legacy of cinematic excellence by looking at some of the best scripts written by members of the AAPI community.

Scripts from this Article

Nomadland

Chloé Zhao often cites her liquid sense of identity. She was born in Beijing and at the age of fifteen was sent by her parents to study abroad at Brighton College, a private boarding school in the UK. She later moved to Los Angeles to finish high school, then traveled across the country to attend the all-women’s Mount Holyoke College in Boston, Massachusetts.

Zhao’s work often deals with these themes of solitude. Her characters are often alone to navigate a vast landscape. She explores her characters’ relationships with their environments, with the locations acting as supporting characters.

Zhao spoke about this during an interview at Cannes’ 70th Film Festival:

“Yes I am not only a woman, I’m from China and a woman of color. I have a lot of strikes against me, but it works for me because I do not feel at home anywhere. That is a blessing and curse. I have always felt like an outsider, like a chameleon, adapting and adopting a new identity wherever I go, just so I can fit in – to create a sense of home.”

She was the first Asian woman to win Best Director honors at the 93rd Academy Awards in 2021 for Nomadland.

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Never Have I Ever

Mindy Kaling was born in Cambridge, Massachusetts — the same year her family immigrated to the United States. Kaling taps into her experiences of growing up as an American teenager balancing the relative carefree spirit of her peers with the traditional values of her mother. 

Kaling explores these themes with her witty signature humor as her protagonist Devi navigates her complicated feelings with a little help from John McEnroe’s voice-over narration. A truly hilarious, nuanced, and honest depiction of what it’s like growing up in an Indian American family. Such a refreshing read. 

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Short Term 12

Before he’d go on to direct Marvel’s first Asian superhero film, which also starred a primarily Asian cast, Destin Daniel Cretton simply made short films as a hobby while working at a group home for children in the foster system. 

When the hobby started taking over as a passion, he went to film school at San Diego State University, where he made a 22-minute short film, Short Term 12 about his experience working at the group home.

The short film premiered at the 2009 Sundance Film Festival and won the Jury Prize in Short Filmmaking. He returned to Sundance three years later with his feature directorial debut, I Am Not a Hipster, which was produced by Ron Najor. Najor teamed up with Cretton again after the screenplay for his feature version of Short Term 12, which earned him the Nicholl Fellowship in 2010.

Cretton found inspiration from his real-life experience and wrote a script that not only packed a powerful emotional punch but also could be filmed on a limited budget.

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It: Chapter One

Cary Joji Fukunaga had always been fascinated with visual storytelling since an early age. He began writing short stories and screenplays in fifth grade and he used his parents’ VHS video camera to shoot little comedic shorts with his friends. At 14, he wrote a 60-page Civil War epic. When The Blair Witch Project came out, they made a spoof about getting lost in their own house. 

When he decided that a professional snowboarding career wasn’t likely to provide long-term success, he worked on film sets for music videos and independent features until he decided to revisit his childhood passion. With films and series like Sin Nombre, Jane Eyre, Beasts of No Nation, and True Detective under his belt, Fukunaga was entrusted with adapting Stephen King’s legendary novel It. The 1990s mini-series is a classic, so the pressure was on. 

Written by Chase Palmer & CJ Fukunaga and Gary Dauberman, the It: Chapter One screenplay has some great scare sequences and it’s good to see how the writers accomplish it on the page. When tension is ratcheting up, the writers make use of short sentences and 1-3 action lines per paragraph to invoke the action of the scene and the fear of the characters. They also do a great job of dropping King Universe Easter Eggs throughout the script such as the turtle wax and Lego turtle in Georgie’s room.

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Crazy Rich Asians

Hollywood is moved by money. All it takes is one hit to change investors’ minds, and Crazy Rich Asians opened the coffers. At the insistence of director Jon M. Chu, Adele Lim was hired to rewrite the adaptation of Kevin Kwan’s novel Crazy Rich Asians. Lim helped develop the characters and add cultural authenticity with key details. The film was a blockbuster smash and opened the doors for so many AAPI creators. She recently backed out of the sequel due to pay disparity. Talk about a boss move. 

She went on to co-write Raya and the Last Dragon with Qui Nguyen in 2021, which was nominated for numerous Academy Awards. 

Crazy Rich Asians was written by Peter Chiarelli and Adele Lim. The script features a great example of how to include text messages in your own script and makes liberal use of parentheses because the subtle reactions and interactions between characters are so important to telling the story from a deeper level. 

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Fresh Off the Boat

Nahnatchka Khan has a filmography that’ll inspire any writer. While in college at the University of Southern California’s School of Cinematic Arts, she interned at National Lampoon and Fox. Her first story credit was for Recess in 1997. She went on to write for shows like Malcolm in the Middle, Pepper Ann, and American Dad!.

The first series that Khan created was Don’t Trust the B**** in Apartment 23 and the show lasted for two seasons. Two years later, she created the show Fresh Off the Boat based on Eddie Huang’s autobiography, which proved to have staying power. It was the first network sitcom to be centered around an Asian family since the 1994’s All-American Girl. Khan uses a strong first image that sets the tone for the rest of the read, provoking a wide smile that’ll soon turn to laughter. 

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Westworld

Like many of the filmmakers above, Lisa Joy’s journey into the entertainment industry was anything but traditional. She was on her way to practicing law when she got the chance to pivot in a totally different direction. While enduring the intensity of studying for the bar exams, Joy passed on a spec script for ABC’s Pushing Daisies to her friend, who in turn gave it to a producer on the show who brought her on as a staff writer in 2007. 

She’d then go on to be the only woman writer for the series Burn Notice, eventually working her way up to a co-producer credit. She developed HBO’s sci-fi series Westworld, based on the 1973 film of the same by Michael Crichton, with her husband Jonathan Nolan. 

Westworld’s maze-like narrative seems to follow the principle of “form follows function.” The reader is given little nuggets of information that only stokes the mystery further until reaching a climactic reveal in this season finale script.

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Jojo Rabbit

Taika Waititi made his name with his sharp wit and fearless approach to comedy. He has always stood apart from the pack, which was a major theme that attracted him to Christine Leunens’ novel Caging Skies. Given that his Jewish grandfather on his mother’s side fought against the Nazis in World War II, he set out to tell the story of war from the point of view of a child. 

Waititi’s wildly inventive humor is on full display in this script. The juxtaposition of the serious subject matter with the silliness of slapstick comedy makes the pages a delight to read — which is no small feat. 

On Inside Jojo Rabbit for the Blu-Ray release, Waititi explained:

“The world needs ridiculous films because the world is ridiculous.” 

You can say that again. Taika Waititi won the Academy Award for Best Adapted Screenplay at the 92nd Academy Awards for this masterpiece of comedy.

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Parasite

Having struggled through poverty in pursuit of his dreams, the trek to the top didn’t come easy for Bong Joon-ho.

Joon-ho often explores themes of class inequities and power struggles, and this is most apparent in Parasite, a film that took the world by storm — winning four Academy Awards for Best Original Screenplay, Best Director, Best International Feature Film, and was the first non-English language film to win for Best Picture. 

Joon-ho does a great job of using sluglines (as opposed to proper scene headings) to denote the changing of a secondary location within the primary location. It’s clean and efficient on the page, making for a smoother read.

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The Sixth Sense

When discussing the greatest living filmmakers, M. Night Shyamalan’s name should be in the conversation.

Shyamalan was born in India and his family immigrated to Pennsylvania when he was six. He loved to make films on his family’s Super 8 camera from an early age, but his father wanted him to follow in his footsteps and practice medicine. It was his mother who encouraged him to pursue his gift. By the age of seventeen, he had made over 45 home movies. He’d include a scene from these films in the bonus features of his film’s DVDs, except for Lady in the Water, to show his first attempts at a technique he used in the film.

It was in 1999 that M. Night Shyamalan became a household name. The Sixth Sense launched Shyamalan’s career into the top echelon of filmmakers. At the time, the film was the second highest-grossing film ever and he was nominated for nearly every award. 

The twist ending shocked everyone, and if you read closely you’ll see how Shyamalan was able to hide the reveal in plain sight. Well, if you see dead people — that is. 

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Saw

Born in Malaysia, James Wan’s family immigrated to Perth, Australia when he was seven years old. He and his friend Leigh Whannell began writing a script and wanted to shoot a scene from it to use as a concept of proof for investors. They made a short film that quickly gained the interest of producers and the Saw Franchise was born.

Wan and Whannell helped pioneer a new horror subgenre. The “torture porn” horror craze produced many copycats. Wan found his lane and worked it well, bringing about a resurgence of supernatural horror with a heavy sense of dread.

They were able to achieve this by working within the confines of their means. Armed with a proof of concept to support their vision of a contained horror screenplay that featured limited locations and cast, they had the leverage they needed to change the horror genre.

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Master of None

Co-creators Aziz Ansari and Alan Yang developed a friendship while working on Parks and Recreation. Showrunner Greg Daniels read Yang’s script about a relationship between father and son and suggested that he make the characters Asian and get more personal. He declined because, at the time, nobody was buying sitcom pilots featuring Asian leads. 

Yang told Variety:

“It wasn’t even other people that shut it down. I shut it down in my own brain.”

Three years later, they developed a show that tackles the issue of race and class within the faux notion of a post-racial American society. The success of the show was contingent on Ansari and Yang’s ability to broach difficult topics without censoring themselves or holding back.

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The Farewell

Lulu Wang developed The Farewell from a story she shared on the radio show This American Life. Wang told the true story about how her family held a family reunion for her terminally ill grandmother in order to say goodbye without revealing the diagnosis to her. 

*Spoiler: The end of the film reveals that her grandmother is still alive and didn’t know about her cancer. Though, she soon found out when the film was released.

The conflict of the film is the protagonist’s (Billi’s) journey to understanding her family’s cultural choice to practice collectivism and not tell her grandmother. She learns to respect and embrace her family’s culture and traditions even if she doesn’t wholly agree with them. 

Wang spoke with Variety:

“I always felt the divide in my relationship to my family versus my relationship to my classmates and to my colleagues and to the world that I inhabit. That’s just the nature of being an immigrant and straddling two cultures.”

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The Big Sick

Married writing power couple Kumail Nanjiani and Emily V. Gordon wrote The Big Sick when Gordon became ill. The script is based on the couple’s real-life romance leading up to their marriage in 2007, and all the cultural barriers they faced as an interracial couple. Their attraction was undeniable, and Nanjiani kept the budding relationship a secret from his parents. Culturally, he was expected to marry a Muslim woman — which is often arranged by his parents.

While their romance blossomed, his parents started sending him information about eligible Shiite brides. He knew he needed to tell them, but couldn’t bring himself to do so. This is around the time Gordon was put into a medically induced coma in order to treat an infection. Mentally exhausted, he finally told them the truth. They were supportive during recovery, but once Gordon was in the clear, his mother “immediately switched to ‘How could you do this to us?’” 

Nanjiani’s mother grew to love Gordon like a daughter, and the two made The Big Sick from that experience. Kumail Nanjiani has since become a superstar (and super jacked), not only appearing as a superhero in Eternals but will also join the Star Wars Universe in the upcoming Kenobi. I love to see his star continue to rise.

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Ramy

Ramy Youssef digs deep for his introspective self-titled series Ramy. By being his own protagonist, he’s able to explore his own struggle to find a balance between his devout religious family traditions and his American peers. His character wants to honor and embrace both aspects of his identity but it can feel like being the rope in a game of tug ‘o war. 

Ramy approaches his own insecurities through comedy. Youssef does a great job of taking the reader on a rollercoaster of emotions, balancing tender heartfelt moments with hilarious observations that one would only know having lived it. 

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Although I focused primarily on tremendous screenplays written by AAPI writers, there are so many other AAPI filmmakers who deserve praise, accolades, and the opportunity to shine on screens worldwide. 

Daniel Kwan of filmmaking duo Daniels delivered one of the freshest and most imaginative cinematic experiences ever with Everything, Everywhere, All at Once. Directors Karyn Kusama, Ang Lee, and John Woo have had a lifetime of tremendous achievements. Screenwriter, producer, and comic book creator Tze Chun constantly uplifts emerging AAPI writers on Twitter. Comedians Ali Wong, Jo Koy, Ronny Chieng, and Hasan Minhaj have helped people forget about their worries and find laughter in an otherwise troubling world. 

There are so many AAPI creators out there that deserve recognition.

So, to all of you out there creating a better world, thank you!

Scripts from this Article