Just six years after graduating from Emerson with a BFA in Television and Film Production, Chen Xu ’15 has sold a TV series he wrote to Disney+ for the streaming service’s slate of originals to be produced for the Asia-Pacific region.
Xu’s Small & Mighty is one of 18 new shows in multiple genres being filmed across the region to attract new viewers in the huge and growing market. Emerson Today asked him about his series, his influences, and what Emerson means to him.
The interview was conducted over email (Xu is in Beijing), and was lightly edited for conciseness.
What is Small & Mighty about?
Small & Mighty is a lighthearted legal drama about an obnoxious lawyer’s self-discovery and reinvention after his perfect life and career gets destroyed by a boy [who unexpectedly shows up].
How did the deal with Disney + come to fruition?
It all started when a producer friend of mine approached me with the exciting news that Disney was looking for content in Chinese language. Honestly, who’s gonna pass on a shot writing for Disney? So, I came up with a pitch of this series and sent it over.
Upon reviewing and evaluating my pitch, Disney offered me a development package deal, which I completed with my best efforts. Later, they decided to expand it to a full writing deal.
Have you been involved with filming or production of the show?
This is probably my biggest [regret] on this project, as I’m in Beijing while production takes place in Taiwan. I never got a chance to go personally due to the pandemic.
Are there differences — regarding taste or trends or production — between writing for an Asian market vs. a Western market?
I used to work as a development executive for Sony Pictures Television International, where we did adaptations for various territories. [Through] this job, I got to witness how writers from different countries develop projects. The approach and style could be very different. Even within Asia, countries like Japan, Korea, China have their own systems. I personally think Japan and Korea are more similar to Hollywood, whereas China is more standalone, considering its already gigantic self-consum[ing] market.
But one thing I’d say is that, the Asia market is growing rapidly – just look at how Squid Game has taken over the entire planet. I always believe that there’s no bad story, it all depends on how you execute it.
What are some of your favorite TV series (Asian, American, or other)? What is it about them?
It’s going to be a huge list if I write down every show I like, so I’m going to answer from a different angle.
My favorite US channel is FX. I just love that FX’s got a perfect combination of humor, plot design, suspense, and genre. Shows like Atlanta, Baskets, Feud, The Americans, etc. are all great inspirations for me and my writing.
In terms of creators, my absolute Goddess is [I May Destroy You creator and star] Michaela Coel. She’s not only insanely talented and smart and funny, she’s also got depth. Such combination is incredibly powerful and soul-touching. She has a strong point of view, an irreplicable personality, and the urge to turn the most personal feelings into universal stories. I have so much respect for her, and I’d kill to be just 1 percent as good as her.
Was there anything you learned (or anyone you learned from) while at Emerson that helped or inspired you as you were writing this?
Ah, Emerson College, home of my dream and the start point of everything. I still remember when I was applying to college, Emerson was the only film school I applied to. My other options were all business schools[.] Going to Emerson was such a great life decision I made. It opened up my entire world and led me onto this amazing journey of storytelling.
Emerson College is also where I met one of my most important mentors, [Friends executive producer] Kevin Bright [‘76]. I was selected to be a student in his class during sophomore year and we produced a reality TV pilot. That was the first time I got to witness how real Hollywood people worked[.]
And I especially want to point out how great the LA program is. I interned for Sony Pictures Television and my supervisor, Wendy Baxter [‘92], was a fellow alum. She not only shed a light on my career, but also taught me pretty much everything, from writing to surviving in this industry, for which I forever owe her.
All that is to say, Emerson College is such a gold mine with great resources and powerful connections. As long as you have the desire and determination to be in this industry, I can’t think of a better incubator than Emerson College.
What do you hope to be writing in five years?
I love Noah Baumbach’s Marriage Story. I myself have been married for a couple of years now. Marriage is a mysterious thing as it [can] be exciting yet discouraging, intriguing yet upsetting. It’s a mix of so many things waiting for me and my wife to explore together.
My personal goal is to write my own Marriage Story (hopefully it doesn’t end with a divorce hahaha). It’d be amazing if I can turn my personal feelings into a universal story, just like Michaela Coel.