'Always Be My Maybe' Director and 'Fresh off the Boat' Creator Nahnatchka Khan On Creativity and Getting the Details Right
The writer and producer shares why collaboration, not rejection, is always her focus.
It can be scary to put an idea -- that one that you poured your heart and soul into -- out into the world. But the feeling is hardly unique; it's one creative, innovative people have to deal with all the time.
Nahnatchka Khan is one of those innovators. She's the director of the new Netflix hit Always Be My Maybe, about two ex-childhood sweethearts who reconnect as adults even though they come from very different worlds. The film is an independent project written by its co-stars Randall Park and Ali Wong; and it features a nearly all Asian-American cast. Upon its release in late May, the movie resonated widely, especially for the community it wanted to reflect and celebrate.
"When I saw Always Be My Maybe, I recognized parts of myself in the strong and ambitious Sasha, played by Ali Wong, who sought a supportive partner, not a savior," commented Nancy Wang Yuen, a sociologist, pop culture expert and critic who wrote Reel Inequality: Hollywood Actors and Racism. "I reveled in watching [Sasha] choose between three uniquely attractive Asian American men of my generation. With so few images of ourselves, Asian Americans are hungry for the validation of everyday Asian American love depicted in Always Be My Maybe."
Finding collaborators who really see you
Khan, who was born in Las Vegas and raised in Hawaii with her brother by parents who immigrated to the US from Iran, has been working as a television writer and producer since 1997. In 2012, she created the cult favorite Don’t Trust the B in Apartment 23, and for the last five years, she's been the showrunner for ABC’s Fresh Off the Boat, which hit 100 episodes this spring.
But over her years in Hollywood, she says, she has encountered plenty of rejection. It comes with the territory. Still, she doesn't let that deter her. Instead, she focuses on the joy of collaborating with people who really, really "get" her and understand her vision.
"Just keep going," Khan said to Entrepreneur of her philosophy. "Find like-minded people who are on the same page as you and then lift each other up. I personally feel like the end product is always better when you can make a collective. It's like a band. You can have a bunch of individual great musicians, but when you come together, there's a sound that it creates that you couldn't do on your own.”
And if all else fails, Khan said, think about the details and make sure that no matter what, you’re putting out the best product you possibly can. “I thank God for the details, because they give you something to focus on, because I can control that stuff and are all within my power to change,” Khan said, of the anticipation of the film's release. “But I knew I was proud of the movie. I knew everyone who made it was proud of it. And you just hope audiences will feel the same way and the response will be what you wanted it to be. And people will relate to and laugh and care about these characters.”
Lead by allowing your people to be amazing.
Always Be My Maybe was Khan’s feature directorial debut. She said that the experience of running a TV series and directing a film have some overlap. But while some demands are different, the through-line for both is hiring great people and then letting them do what they are great at.
“In terms of leadership, you've got to allow for people to be amazing and to contribute in a way that's meaningful," Khan said. "You can't hold on so tight that people don't get a chance to do what they do best. But at the same time, it is your final say on a lot of these issues. Not everyone is going to agree with you on everything. And you have to make decisions and you just have to choose at a certain point. But I'm happy in that role.”
The experience of making Always Be My Maybe was a project among friends, she said. Co-stars Park and Wong, who co-wrote the movie with Michael Golamco, had also been attached to Fresh Off the Boat -- Park as the Huang family patriarch, and stand-up comedian Wong as a writer for several seasons.
That's true collaboration, Khan pointed out, and, in her view, there's one vital component to all successful creative collaborations: trust.
When there is trust, anything is possible
“In comedy it's so subjective; there is no right or wrong," she said. "You have to have that shared sensibility. You have to trust the people that you're working with and collaborating with and have that same kind of template and bar as to what you think it's funny. Once you do that, once you trust each other, you can try anything because you feel secure, you feel safe.”
The film premiered on May 29 to critical acclaim and trended on social media, with audiences talking both about the chemistry between long-time friends Park and Wong, and the joy and importance of representation both on-screen and behind the camera.
“I'm so thrilled about the response," Khan noted. "We had such a great time making this movie. It was so much fun; it was a labor of love. We all were on the same page with Netflix and with Good Universe, our producers, from the beginning. We were all making the same movie; and then to have that movie come out and just to see this response has been really overwhelming and so satisfying.”
Nina Zipkin is a staff writer at Entrepreneur.com. She frequently covers leadership, media, tech, startups, culture and workplace trends.