‘Dreaming is not enough’

Filmmaker and Columbia College grad Michael Goi on the Oscars, ethnicity and the challenge of making movies.

Michael Goi (left) directs Lady Gaga in 2015 for an episode in the “Hotel” season of FX’s anthology series, “American Horror Story.”

Michael Goi (left) directs Lady Gaga in 2015 for an episode in the “Hotel” season of FX’s anthology series, “American Horror Story.”

Provided by Michael Goi

Michael Goi doesn’t want to hear your movie idea.

“I will not engage in a conversation with somebody if they start out with ‘I’ve got this great idea for a movie,’” said the veteran Hollywood director and cinematographer. “No. Go out and make the movie and show me the movie.”

He tells young people trying to break into the film industry: You don’t need fancy equipment. Everything you need is between your ears and in your back pocket.

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“You live in an era when there are no excuses for not making a movie,” said Goi. “You say you want to be a filmmaker; go out and make a movie. You can shoot it on your phone. You can edit on your tablet. You can post it on social media platforms for the entire world to see. All these things are no longer barriers to you.”

Speaking of barriers. Goi was pitched at me by his alma mater, Columbia College, as an Asian American filmmaker, in context of the success of “Everything Everywhere All at Once.”

But as much as I tried to focus on the first part of that equation, his being Asian American, we kept returning to the second, filmmaker part. He worked on “Glee” and “American Horror Story.” He was executive producer, director and cinematographer for “Avatar: The Last Airbender” on Netflix and on Saturday just finished up shooting the next season of ABC’s “The Rookie.”

A reminder that real-life individuals do not always easily accept the job as ethnic role models.

For instance, Goi was at the Dolby Theatre for the Oscars Sunday night.

“It was good,” he said. “I thought the show moved well.”


“The diversity was better than in previous years.”

Goi serves better as a specimen of the no-nonsense professional.

“First and foremost, this is my job,” he said. “Directing and shooting motion pictures and television shows is my job. It’s what I’ve chosen to do to support my family.”

All that stuff winners kept saying at the Oscars about holding onto your dreams? A dream and four dollars will get you a cup of coffee at Starbucks.

“The industry attracts a lot of dreamers,” Goi said. “It’s always emphasized that you need to be a dreamer. You need to dream big. But dreaming is not enough. You have to be a doer. You have to be somebody that actually does the things that you say you want to do, or is in your heart to do. That is still a small percentage of people.”

Goi’s dream started early.

“I grew up in Chicago,” he said. “My parents were both born in California and put into internment camps along with a lot of people in the 1940s. For being Japanese American. My dad wanted to study to be an engineer when he got out of the camps. They would not allow him to do that. They said you can be either a janitor or be a cook. He elected to be a cook because he thought, ‘At least I know that there will be food.’”

And yet.

“Despite going through all those trials and tribulations, when my parents started having children — my sister and myself — they always told us, ‘This is America. You can be anything you want to be. What do you want to be?’” remembered Goi. “They asked me that when I was 8 years old. I said, ‘I want to go to Hollywood and I want to make movies.’ That was so far out of the consciousness of anyone in my family. But they said, ‘Then that’s what you should do.’ You should go to Hollywood and make movies.’”

For many years, Goi hardly thought of himself as Asian.

“For a long time. I really never recognized I was Asian until somebody else pointed it out to me,” he said. “It took a while for me to understand and appreciate what my culture and heritage could represent in my own industry.”


Michael Goi, Columbia College class of 1980, has made hundreds of movies and television shows. “In this industry, everything revolves around money.”

Provided photo.

There was more of a tight-knit community being a Chicagoan in Hollywood than being Asian.

“There was not really that much of a Chicago community when I moved to Los Angeles,” he said. “A bunch of us who came from Columbia College really formed that community. We made an effort to get together and have lunch together. Ultimately when Joey Mantegna and [his wife] Arlene opened up a Chicago Italian beef place, we made it the hangout every Friday. All of us from the Chicago film community would go out there for three hours and eat Italian beef sandwiches and chat.”

While this year’s Oscars highlighted Asian actors and moviemakers, the bottom line has not changed.

“In this industry, everything revolves around money, and what will make money,” Goi said. ”Things get greenlit because there’s profit potential in it. So Asian subjects, or movies with Asian characters or Asian actors will continue to grow as long as those movies make money and find an audience. ‘Everything Everywhere All at Once’ definitely found an audience. It was audacious enough but accessible enough for the public to wrap their arms around it. Every time that happens, that helps break down whatever mental boundaries the industry feels exists to Asian movies making money.”

Money aside, movies and TV shows touch people in unanticipated ways. You never know how something can impact a viewer. Even a simple aspirin commercial.

“I remember vividly when I was a kid, in the late ’60s, early ’70s, watching TV,” said Goi. “A commercial for Bayer aspirin came on. The guy talking about Bayer aspirin was Asian. It didn’t have anything to do with the fact that he was Asian. He was not doing an accent. Usually at that point if a character was Asian, it was because he was Asian. He was just the spokesperson for Bayer aspirin. That commercial stuck with me. It doesn’t have to be because of the way I look. That’s ultimately what we want to get to. We want to dissolve these artificial barriers.”

Coming Friday: Michael Goi on how to interview for a job in the movies, and whether Chicago is a film center or a mere location.

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