“Everything I do is based in my personal experience, but I prefer viewing it through allegories,” Maegan Houang says of her general filmmaking ethos. “But hey, you’re talking to someone who’s watched The Godfather hundreds of times.” Houang watched that film and The Godfather Part II “every single day” growing up, but ultimately “only thought of film as an innocuous pastime.” So, when choosing a major at Wesleyan, Houang gravitated toward hard sciences and only considered studying film at her mother’s suggestion.
Houang graduated in 2010 with degrees in Mathematical Economics and Film, then immediately enrolled in Wesleyan’s Film Studies MA (specializing in Johnnie To’s filmography). The program revealed a huge disparity between her classmates’ resources versus her own. “I was watching their parents give them $30,000 to make a short,” she recalls. “I’m not from nothing—my parents are academics—but they could never do that.” Instead, she read Ramit Sethi’s I Will Teach You To Be Rich, saving $10,000 during the two-year graduate program to fund her move to Los Angeles.
“I became obsessed with getting as much experience as I could to become a better filmmaker,” she says, “so, I decided to make music videos.” Houang’s first video, for Chastity Belt’s 2013 song “Black Sail,” showcases her early affinity for genre via a group of pioneers who slowly become zombified. Houang knew the band’s drummer from high school and offered to fund the shoot if she received creative liberty: “That was my way of making a piece of work that was a calling card, and it did better than anyone expected.” To survive in between shoots, she worked as an assistant, eventually becoming the writer’s and showrunner’s assistant—simultaneously—on the Starz show Counterpart: “I was a naive, eager millennial who was like, ‘I’ll do twice as much work!’”
She eventually joined We Direct Music Videos—a collective spearheaded by Daniel Kwan advocating for better working conditions—and started cold-pitching artists she admired via email. After listening to her 2014 album Bury Me At Makeout Creek, Houang’s white whale became Mitski. (“If she existed while I was a teenager, she would have saved my life.”) After directing a trippy, nail salon-set video for Skylar Spence’s “I Can’t Be Your Superman,” her dream manifested. Given creative control and $3,000, she directed the video for “Happy” from Mitski’s 2016 album Puberty 2, which involves a 1950s-inspired Asian housewife whose white husband possesses a heinous secret. The video was a success, but Houang still had trouble securing representation, as a result of which she “fell into a slump because I’m not sure how an indie video could have done better.” Even so, a long-standing collaboration between Mitski and Houang flourished. She’s subsequently directed innovative, genre-inspired videos for Vagabon, Charly Bliss and Hana Vu.
The “slump” ended ended when Houang received the VSCO Voices grant, allowing her to helm her first narrative short, In Full Bloom, released in 2019. The surreal 11-minute film stars Kieu Chinh as a hoarding widow who receives havoc-wreaking magical worms in the mail. Around the same time, she began writing a script for Panos Cosmatos (based on a story by both) after screenwriter Aaron Stewart-Ahn—who she befriended after he shared her Mitski video online—recommended her. Houang finished penning Nekrokosm, the director’s follow-up to Mandy, earlier this year. Bought by A24, casting on the project will continue after the SAG-AFTRA strike. Says Houang, “I love Panos and working with him. Our movie is absolutely batshit.” Houang was also developing a series with A24 that will continue after the strike, though specific details remain under wraps.
Her latest short, Astonishing Little Feet, was financed by Glenn Kaino’s RTM Incubator Project. Originally conceived as a VR exhibit, the 9-minute film depicts the insidious injustice faced by Afong Moy—the first known Chinese woman to arrive stateside in the 1800s—as she’s put on display for wealthy elites. It was important for Houang to have Cantonese dialogue in the film: “It’s the language of my family, and it’s awful to watch it slowly disappear.” This familial dedication became even more vital when her mother—and first filmmaking advocate—was diagnosed with Stage IV cancer on the last day of filming. Houang currently lives between Michigan and LA while her mother is in hospice.—Natalia Keogan/Image: Christopher Good