While the Tribeca Film Festival may primarily be focused on film, it has also become a hub for television recently. During this year’s festival, there were season premieres of television shows being screened along with pilots looking for distribution. One of them that I was fortunate enough to watch was a pilot for a series called Nice.
Nice is a story of a 23-year-old woman named Teddy (Naomi Ko), who previously fought breast cancer. But when her cancer comes back, she tries to keep it a secret from her family and friends. At about 22 minutes, Nice is a powerful mix of humor and drama effortlessly carried by Naomi Ko, who is a creator of the pilot. It is also directed by Andrew Ahn, who made his initial breakthrough with the feature Spa Night which premiered at Sundance a few years ago. I was fortunate enough to interview both of them on how this pilot came to fruition.
Where did the title come from?
Naomi: The title of Nice is inspired by a phrase called “Minnesota Nice.” “Minnesota Nice” is being nice with an icy exterior. It’s not the cynicism, bluntness, and disdain of the Northeast. It’s not Southern hospitality where folks will be warm and welcoming to your face, but talk shit about you once you leave. “Minnesota Nice” is about being civil and exhibiting restraint. You don’t want to stand out, you don’t want to confront anyone, and you don’t want to display too much emotion. And in being “Minnesota Nice,” you often end up being really passive-aggressive. This is the world Teddy and our characters operate in.
Do you think there will be a “nicer” ending should the story move forward?
Naomi: Yes and no. As Teddy continues cope to with multiple changes in her life — Hana’s wedding, aging parents, career aspirations, romance — some things will be “nice.” Some of it will fucking suck. Some of it will be okay like all things in life. But, no matter what, it’ll still be funny and grounded.
For Naomi, is it partially based on your personal life?
Yup, Nice is loosely based off my life and my own experiences with breast cancer and growing up as a Korean American in Minnesota. First, there are not a lot of Korean Americans in Minnesota and it is truly a unique experience growing up in Minnesota, regardless of race and ethnicity. It was really important to be to display another part of the American and Minnesotan experience, especially from the Asian-American perspective. I have always been inspired by my home state and I wanted to show the world the beauty of Minnesota.
I was also inspired to create and write this show because I saw so many of my friends and family members battle breast cancer. And a lot of my friends in their 20s began encountering major health issues like breast cancer, thyroid cancer, diabetes, etc.. It was interesting to see how we were coping with these life-changing illnesses that made us re-examine how to approach our 20s. Being in your 20s is that promising time in your lives — done with college, out of our parents' house (hopefully), new jobs, disposable income (hopefully), as well as having fun and finding love. But when you find out you have cancer or another major illness, it makes you take a step back and reexamine priorities. For Teddy and Nice, breast cancer is that instigating moment that makes her reexamine how to be an adult. Her decision to keep it a secret also impacts those around her.
For Andrew, tell me about the challenges of making a pilot episode as opposed to a feature film.
On a micro level, the challenges are the same. As a director, I’m trying to find a moment-to-moment honesty. Within each scene, I’m searching for emotional truth and dramatic tension. But on a macro level, the challenges are different. With a feature, you get to tell the beginning, middle, and end of a story in a contained format. With a pilot, you only get to start the story. You want the audience to want more, but you also have to make sure the episode is a satisfying watch all on its own. That balance is really difficult. For Nice, our strategy was to really focus on our characters, to create a community of people on the show that you are invested in and curious about. This means being really efficient narratively, packing in as much character development and insight into each scene as possible. Even if you don’t get to see or hear much of a character in the pilot, you still have to give them something that will intrigue an audience. For example, Teddy’s dad doesn’t do much in the pilot. But his diabetes looms over the story in a meaningful way.
Due to the film’s heavy subject matter, how is it you were able to find the tricky balance between comedy and drama?
Naomi: We were able to find the tricky balance between comedy and drama by keeping Teddy and the world of Nice grounded. Yes, breast cancer is a serious thing. But Teddy is a sarcastic and dry character. At times, she can find the funny and absurdity in her situation. It also helped working with Andrew Ahn and our executive producer Carolyn Mao. I am so lucky to have such great core creative team. Andrew, Carolyn, and I constantly discussed this balance in the script stage as well as production and post-production. To us, it was essential to have Teddy’s experience and emotional journey be grounded and organic. And through that, we were able to toe that line.
Andrew: I agree with Naomi. I think the balance between comedy and drama was on our minds from the beginning of the process, but we had to decide how we wanted to tell this story first. Once we determined that we wanted something honest and grounded, the comedy-drama balance grew out organically from there. Of course, we pushed some moments to be more dramatic and pushed other moments to be more comedic, but we knew how far we could take it in either direction because we knew what was important to us.
Do you think we’ll see you do more feature films in the near future?
Naomi: Oh, yeah. I am working on a couple features at the moment, all in the development stage, that I’m super excited about. I’m currently working on a feature about a Korean American mother/daughter female golf duo with my writing partner Thomas Reyes. I love feature films and can’t wait to work in that particular medium in addition to seeing Nice as a TV series.
Andrew: I’m working on my next feature, getting ready to shoot that in New York in July. I’m also writing an adaptation of a book to shoot hopefully next year. There’s also more work to be done for Nice. I’m at this point in my career where I have to constantly juggle projects. But each one fulfills a different creative need.