Directing a documentary that resonates deeply with critics and audiences comes with what might be called an enviable downside: an awards season that tests a filmmaker’s endurance.
“It never ends,” jokes Bing Liu, who’s been on an incredible run with his film Minding the Gap, beginning in January 2018 with the world premiere at Sundance. It won a Special Jury Award there for Breakthrough Filmmaking, recognizing how skillfully Liu told the story of growing up in Rockford, Illinois where he and friends Zack Mulligan and Keire Johnson gravitated toward skateboarding to escape families torn by emotional abuse.
The film claimed Best Documentary at the IDA Awards last December, and won numerous other awards en route to an Oscar nomination earlier this year. Now attention shifts to the Emmy Awards, where Minding the Gap could earn nominations in multiple categories.
“Part of what has been great about the awards campaign that has already happened, that whole experience, is I’m learning how this all works,” Liu tells Deadline. “I’m just seeing where it goes.”
For Liu, 30, the long awards process has led to some soul-searching.
“I think it tested who I am,” the director reveals. “You get a lot of opportunities to ‘posture’ over and over and over again. And there’s different ways of dealing with that, with sort of putting yourself out there. For me I feel like I was trying to get something out of it too so that it didn’t feel like a job to go and ‘campaign.’ I tried to make every interview…just new and exciting and this new territory of understanding about the film or the industry so that it felt beneficial for everybody.”
The Hulu Original documentary has screened around the world, from North America to Europe and Asia.
“When I went to Mainland China it was like, ‘Ooh, I don’t know whether this film is going to translate at all, it’s such an Americana story,’ but they loved it as well,” Liu observes. “At a festival in Poland, the translation of the title was ‘Tomorrow or the Day After Tomorrow,’ which I thought was quiet poetic. It really spoke to the sense of those halcyon youthful days, kind of like how kids think of summer when they’re 15 years old.”
The film has traveled across cultures in part because the phenomenon of domestic violence extends far beyond the boundaries of one Rust Belt town.
“Violence in the home isn’t particular to Rockford,” Liu comments. “It’s across the spectrum. It’s happening everywhere. It’s just the fact that we don’t talk about it and it’s easier to relegate it to, ‘Oh no, that just happens in like working-class communities.’”
A subtext to Minding the Gap is whether cycles of domestic violence go on indefinitely.
“I think that the point of the film is that they can be broken—certainly, that there are huge ramifications for the cycle not being broken,” Liu states. “But it takes a lot of work and you see that work being done by Keire throughout the film. He puts himself in really vulnerable places and he confronts really hurtful things that are complex and that no one is really giving him a guide for. But he tries to figure it out anyway.”
Late in the process of making the film Liu decided to include a scene where he confronted his mother over the abuse he sustained at the hands of his stepfather.
“Having to revisit that conversation over and over in crafting that scene [in edit] and fitting it in the film wasn’t easy,” he acknowledges, “so I think we should respect and honor the work that it takes to break that cycle as well.”
Liu brought his sensitive eye to another project that’s in the running for Emmy consideration, the Starz documentary series America to Me. He was among the segment directors on the project by doc legend Steve James, which explores issues of race, class and privilege in a diverse Chicago high school.
“It’s a different sort of animal,” as far as the Emmys go, Liu notes. “’Which episode do we pick to represent cinematography?’ It’s a whole different beast.”
He hasn’t let the intensity of awards season distract him from attending to other work.
“I’m two years into my second film that we’re gunning for the Sundance deadline for this year, and developing a third film,” he shares with Deadline. “A lot of spinning plates.”
Liu considers it a good time of life to be devoting his full energies to filmmaking.
“I don’t have a mortgage or kids or anything. I just burn a lot of candles. I burn the candle at three ends,” he laughs. “I’m just a workaholic. I’m 30, so I feel like I can do that. I certainly see people who have kids and have other things going on, and for me, it’s in a way like not having a lot of other obligations outside of work helps me focus.”