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Desert Companion

Film: Risky Family Business


Risky Family Business
Photos Courtesy Take Out Girl

Hedy Wong and J. Teddy Garces in Take Out Girl.

Director Hisonni Mustafa on his new crime drama Take Out Girl — and its commentary on the immigrant experience

Over the past year or so, Las Vegas-based filmmaker Hisonni Mustafa’s feature Take Out Girl has played in more than 40 film festivals (both virtual and in person), racking up awards for Mustafa and the movie’s co-writer/star, Hedy Wong. Inspired in part by Wong’s life, Take Out Girl tells the story of Tera (Wong), who starts a side business delivering drugs out of her family’s Chinese restaurant and ends up in over her head with some local criminals.

Set in LA but shot almost entirely in Las Vegas, Take Out Girl is a prime example of indie film ingenuity, with Mustafa, Wong, and Mustafa’s filmmaking partner Alberto Triana (also a Vegas local) taking on numerous roles in the crew, from director to visual effects supervisor. The movie is now available on VOD, and played at the virtual Nevada Women’s Film Festival June 21-27. Mustafa spoke to Desert Companion about Take Out Girl and his filmmaking experience.

Hisonni Mustafa;

Hisonni Mustafa courtesy Take Out Girl.

How did you get involved in Take Out Girl?

Support comes from

Hedy Wong, the film’s lead actress, co-writer and executive producer, had a first draft and the concept already. I met her, and she had a great premise, but it was just her personality and who she was that struck me as interesting. From there, I wrote my draft, which was kind of bits and pieces of her draft, and then calling her on the phone to get more information about her life, and then I implemented that. Of course, because I’m writing, there’s a lot of things that came from my prism as well, little elements of my life and whatnot.


What was the collaborative process like between you and Hedy?

That process was really easy. We didn’t expect it to happen. When we thought about the goals for the film, it looked a little strange on paper having an African American male tell the story of an Asian American female. But when we looked it at in terms of the basic needs of every human being, things started to look a little bit more clear. As our relationship grew, I realized that she was essentially making this film to thank her mother, to show her mother she was going to make something of herself. For me, everything I do is to tell my mom she did a good job.

My mom didn’t have the same opportunities, nor did Hedy’s, because her mother is an immigrant. My mother is Black in America and grew up in systemic poverty like I did. My mother had to make some really serious choices really quickly in her life. She didn’t necessarily fulfill her potential, and I felt like it was my job to do that. We realized how much we both loved our moms. We wrote a character and a story that is essentially about a child’s love for their mother.


How do you balance all of your different crew positions on the film?

They complement one another. For example, when it comes to my contribution to cinematography, if the shot size, composition, lighting, color, and clarity don’t complement the performance, then I’m doing something wrong. If the performance is inappropriate for all of those things I just named, then they’re doing something wrong, or my direction is wrong, or the lighting needs to be adjusted. I look at it as like owning a butter factory right next to a popcorn company. All of these skills make me better at what I truly want people to see.


What was your strategy for convincingly shooting a movie in Vegas that’s set in LA?

Cheating locations, that’s kind of Hollywood’s dirty little secret. They’re always doing that. For me, I figure if Hollywood has to do that for budgetary reasons, then it’s a no-brainer that I have to. Cheating Las Vegas for LA was much easier than people think, because there’s a lot of different LAs. Once I realized where I could set the film, then I could just do the legwork, drive around Las Vegas, ride my bike around Las Vegas, take pictures, until I found something where I knew it approximated that area in LA that I was trying to convey.


Do you feel like the movie is especially timely with everything happening in the world right now?

I think not only is it coming at the right time now, but in general. The entire process of making this film and immersing myself in the culture of another race and the nuances of the family dynamics of another race has just made me not only respect Chinese culture a lot more and Chinese Americans a lot more, but it also made me realize how alike we are. And that’s what this film is going to do.

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