SPOILER ALERT: This interview contains spoilers for “Quiz Lady,” now streaming on Hulu.
The premise of Jessica Yu‘s “Quiz Lady” seems like the perfect recipe for an over-the-top, slapstick comedy: two estranged sisters — the uptight Anne (Awkwafina) and the unhinged Jenny (Sandra Oh) — embark on a cross-country roadtrip to cover their mother’s gambling debt. And there are plenty of moments throughout the film that live up to that absurdly hilarious premise, such as Anne tripping on Jenny’s pills while trying to answer quiz questions as Harry Styles’ “Watermelon Sugar” plays.
But Yu knew there was more to the story than just those laugh-out-loud scenes. Throughout the film, there are touching moments delving into the bond the sisters share. The most emotional of which comes at the end of the film. After teaming up to compete in the charades segment of a quiz show hosted by Will Ferrell’s Alex Trebek-like character, the two sisters openly acknowledge their love for each other.
That closing scene was actually the first one to be shot, which guided Yu throughout the rest of filming: “Keeping the relationship grounded is the key to being able to tweak the humor and to push it, so it was great to have that in our pocket on the first day.”
Yu has worked on numerous projects spanning genres, from the documentary “Breathing Lessons: The Life and Work of Mark O’Brien” — which she won an Oscar for — to TV series like “The West Wing,” “13 Reasons Why” and “Grey’s Anatomy.” She sat down with Variety to break down the most memorable moments from her latest film “Quiz Lady,” which is now streaming on Hulu.
You’ve said you were drawn to this movie by the fact that it’s about two sisters — and two Asian American sisters at that. What did you want to bring to the story?
We don’t see sisters in comedies so much, certainly not Asian American sisters. I think that for these sisters in particular, there’s a way that they felt like outsiders, partially being Asian American in their community, but also the fact that they were outsiders even in their own family. I felt like we could get very specific about their experience, so their mother being first-generation Chinese American, their father being second-generation Korean American.
Also, I felt like there’s a way that when you get together with your sibling, you’re brought right down to being in middle school. There’s a way that you’re not allowed to be a fully fledged grownup around your sibling. I felt like we could get very specific with that.
You’ve worked with Sandra Oh in the past on “Grey’s Anatomy” and “Sideways.” How did that prepare you for what she would be able to bring as a comedian?
I was very excited to see what she could do with a fully comedic role. Sandra is always willing to go even further. She loved the idea of playing someone who’s very inappropriate and very self serving. Instead of her thinking, “Let’s play it safe and make sure she’s likable,” she’d be like, “Oh, no, let’s go further.” Having an incredibly talented actor who’s willing to keep pushing and keep pushing, I think just brought us all there.
A lot of the Asian American characters are subversions of stereotypes, from the gambling-addicted mother to the gangsters who have drained their money caring for puppies. What conversations were had about representation going into the film?
We’ve had some gamblers in our family. There’s some family lore created that is connected to that. But a lot of it was subversion, trying to set up expectations of what should the present day Asian tong be like? What would our expectation be? And then trying to find ways to have a fun reveal, so I think a lot of it was about defying expectations and not going for the expected turn. Awkwafina was especially attuned to that. What have we seen already? What can we do differently? What feels true to the world that we’ve created?
Who came up with the idea for Anne’s “Watermelon Sugar” trip? What was it like reaching out to Harry Styles to get that song cleared?
Jessica Elbaum, one of our producers, suggested like, “Wouldn’t ‘Watermelon Sugar’ high be fun?” It just killed when we first tried it, but we didn’t know if we could get it. We tried at least 200 other songs, thinking if we can’t get the song, and none of them came even close. There was a lot of reaching out to Harry Styles’ team, and then we got word back that they loved the sequence and were happy to allow us to get it. We were jumping up and down, like I was practically crying. So, thank you, Harry.
You shot the film’s final scenes on the first day of production. How did that help establish the tone of the movie for the rest of the shoot — especially since throughout the movie, you’re walking the fine line between comedy and still having that emotional appeal?
This is such a good question because I was really worried about shooting the final scene on the first day. It’s something you usually try to avoid at all costs. Because we had basically a year to rehearse and build those relationships, that’s why we were able to shoot on the first day. Also because Awkwafina and Sandra Oh were total pros, trusted each other, trusted me, trusted our crew, they just said, “Okay, if that’s what we have to do, we’ll go for it.”
What was great though is because it was an emotional scene, it reminded us of where we want to end up. On the very first day, we’re like this is where we’re gonna go. It’s really beautiful to see in the editing room how perfectly it matched up with the rest of the journey. Keeping the relationship grounded is the key to being able to tweak the humor and to push it.
For the quiz show charades segment, what was it like sitting on the other side of the monitor and watching Awkwafina mime pooping in a hole?
It’s so funny, but it’s also very touching to me. That’s what I love about that moment, because it’s so funny and kind of outrageous. And then when Jenny understands that it’s “hero,” I get a little choked up. That, to me, is the film in a nutshell — where the mood goes from something that is kind of outrageous and funny to being something that’s heartfelt and true.
Finally, I wanted to ask about the cameo from Paul Reubens at the end. Who had the idea of getting him in the film, and how did you pull that off?
Jen D’Angelo had the great idea of what if Francine is obsessed with a celebrity, but actually it’s the celebrity’s doppelganger that she has all over her apartment. And then the perfect pairing was Paul Reubens and Alan Cumming. The big thing was would Paul Reubens want to play along? It’s a very funny role, but it’s also a role in which he’s mistaken for somebody else.
We were at Sandra’s house working on the script, and then all of a sudden Sandra comes in like, “I got Paul on the phone.” She asked him, and he said yes.
The moment he was on set, everyone’s spirits lifted. They’re like, “Pee-wee is here!” And he was just really excited to come and play and join our reindeer games. He brought a lot of joy to a lot of people, including us.
This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.