Writer-actor-filmmaker Kulap Vilaysack is best known for her work in comedy. For seven years, she was the co-host of the pop culture comedy podcast “Who Charted?” on the Earwolf network. She also created the “Bajillion Dollar Propertie$,” a spoof of real estate reality TV shows that ran for three seasons on the now-defunct comedy streaming site Seeso. (A fourth season was shot, but has yet to be released.)
But while Vilaysack was making other people laugh, she was carrying a lot of personal pain. The child of Laotian immigrants who fled that country after the United States' secret war against Laos, she grew up in the suburbs of Minneapolis. When she was 14, she got caught in the middle of an argument with her parents. When she sided with her father, Inhpeng, her mother, Bouaphet, thundered that "he's not your real dad."
Vilaysack didn’t know what she meant, and was afraid to ask. She grew up battling with her mother and dealing with feelings of anger and abandonment. She now calls that revelation her “origin story” — a term used in comic books to describe a traumatic incident that propels ordinary people to become superheroes.
As an adult, hoping to start her own family, Vilaysack knew she had to face the secrets that her family avoided discussing before she could move forward. She decided to make a documentary, chronicling her personal journey to find answers and an actual journey to Laos to track down the biological father she never knew. Called “Origin Story,” it’s an intensely personal, emotionally messy film.
Since she completed the film last year, Vilaysack has brought the film to festivals and special screenings and has been gratified by the response, whether from fellow Laotian Americans or others for whom Vilaysack’s story resonates.
“One of the reasons I did this was to not feel so alone,” she said.
Those screenings are winding down ahead of the release of “Origin Story” on Amazon on May 10. But Vilaysack is bringing the film to Madison on Thursday, April 25, for a free screening at the UW-Cinematheque, 4070 Vilas Hall. Her visit is co-sponsored by the University of Wisconsin-Madison’s Department of Asian American Studies in conjunction with Asian American Heritage Month.
Vilaysack talked with the Cap Times about making such a personal film about her family, the challenges facing Asian-American filmmakers, and whether we’ll ever see that last season of “Bajillion.”
Do you see a connection between podcasting and making this film?
People who have listened to “Who Charted?” on the seven years that I was on it have been witness to an evolution for me as a person, not just as a creative artist. Podcasting was the first time where I could enter a space and completely be myself, versus being an actor where I’m trying to be someone else. It gave me this room to explore who I am. It’s a direct line to the documentary, which was putting form to my past and what was holding me back.
Do you think you made a film primarily for yourself, or for other people?
In general, as a person, I have to trick myself to do stuff for myself. It’s easier for me to do things for other people, which is a process to get my head around. It was something that I needed to do. In the beginning it was just like, let me just have a record and get some family history. At minimum, this will be something for my sisters, for my nephew, for myself.
The first interview was with the dad I grew up with, Inhpeng. I was shocked by how much he shared and how emotional he got. I had not seen this man cry. It became something else once I interviewed my dad, and it really set the tone for the rest of the project.
How did you feel about showing yourself in such emotional moments in the film?
I thought, if we’re going to do this, we have to go all the way. I have a tantrum in the first act where I got really upset, and when I slammed my hand down, I felt myself slightly black out and Hulk out. If you watch it again, you’ll see that I start throwing things down on the ground, but not my computer. (Laughs) I had the wherewithal to think, “Not the laptop, it’s too expensive!”
When people see this film, they will know me intimately. They will see all my sides. But it is what it is.
Did you take a deliberate break after filming to process what you had gone through, do “Bajillion” and then go back to post-production on the film?
We edited solid for at least a year and then “Bajillion” came about, and because it took all my time we did have to take a deliberate break. But it was for the better, because “Bajillion Dollar Propertie$” became my film school. Being a showrunner and creator, I was part of every element. And especially in post-production, I learned how to finish, I learned how to tell a story. I’ve got to hand in a cut to Paramount and Seeso, so I can’t be in my feelings on those.
I gained so much perspective, and just hours underneath my belt, so that when “Bajillion” ended, I was able to dive back in with my editor Oona Flaherty and discern exactly what we should do.
How are the opportunities for Asian-American filmmakers? Are they improving?
It is better because there’s a conversation happening right now and there’s organization happening right now. I’m involved with a lot of Asian-American entertainment groups in L.A. Of course, last year we had “Crazy Rich Asians” and “Searching” and “To All The Boys I’ve Loved Before,” and that’s something that’s going to continue. Because of “Crazy Rich Asians,” a lot of greenlights happened.
But there are still obstacles. There are still people in Hollywood who could care less about diversity, and it’s all for show. So having these organizations come together, sharing resources, promoting each other certainly helps. But it’s just the beginning. The next project that I’m going to work on will have an Asian-American lead, and that’s important to me. Because I didn’t have that growing up.
I have to ask — “Bajillion Season 4”? Will we ever see it?
I want it out too! I’m really proud of that season and what we did. There was some confusion between how long NBC had the rights and when our studio, Paramount, could take it back. Now Paramount has it, but we’re just trying to find a place for it. It’s a step in the right direction. I’m just hoping at minimum we can get it up on iTunes and Amazon. That would be great. I want people to see it.