By Jessica Barzilay
Revisiting high school as co-writer and producer of “White Frog,” Ellie Wen ’05 stayed true to her own high school roots. Playwright David Henry Hwang ’75 served as executive producer. Upper school students and recent alumni acted as production assistants and extras.
“My whole time at Harvard-Westlake inspired me and made me into the person I am today,” Ellie Wen said. “I love my Harvard-Westlake family.”
Wen’s insight into family and relationships carried over into the screenplay she co-wrote with her mother, Fabienne Wen. “White Frog” centers on the journey of a teenager with mild Asperger’s syndrome, Nick Young, as he grapples with the death of his seemingly perfect older brother, Chaz. Delving into Chaz’s life, Nick uncovers secrets that place untenable strains on his family.
At Harvard-Westlake, Ellie Wen’s interests spanned from theater to fencing to community service to student government. Fabienne Wen recalls early signs of Ellie Wen’s excitement for writing and film.
“She had really great teachers at Harvard-Westlake who shared her passion for both, and encouraged her to pursue her dreams,” said her mother, Fabienne Wen said.
By the time she progressed to Stanford University, Ellie Wen remained heavily involved in on-campus groups and activities, like the Stanford Film Society, salsa dancing, acting and a capella singing.
“I’ve always been interested in everything,” she said.
In her senior project at Stanford, “BroadwAsian’’ Ellie Wen explored the representation of Asians in musical theater. The project drew the attention of Hwang, and relationship played an instrumental role in the later development of “White Frog.”
During her time at Stanford, she spent summers interning at casting, production and management agencies “so that I could educate myself on all aspects of the entertainment industry,” Ellie Wen said.
Graduating with a major in drama and a minor in sociology, she moved back to Los Angeles after college to continue acting.
After an interview at Creative Artists Agency, Ellie Wen made the transition into working at an agency in the motion picture talent department. Now in the film finance department, she continues to work on her own film projects outside of work.
Fabienne Wen and Ellie Wen began writing “White Frog,” as a side project “and then we got sucked in,” Ellie Wen said. Although the story is mostly fictional, they said that certain story lines and characters are inspired by people and experiences drawn from their lives.
In particular, Ellie Wen drew on her high school experience volunteering at Las Familias Del Pueblo, a community center on skid row, when conceiving of a place in the film called “The Firehouse.”
“Community service was a major part of my high school experience and it taught me that it was possible for young people to make big positive change in the world,” Ellie Wen said. “I hope ‘White Frog’ can encourage people to be more tolerant and loving and embrace diversity.”
Neither Ellie Wen nor her mother had any prior experience with screen writing or writing professionally, but both described the process of crafting the script as a natural progression once they had begun the story.
“I’m so blessed to have such a cool and supportive mom,” Ellie Wen said.
Once the screenplay was picked up, she and a former boss produced the project together. After Ellie Wen attached Hwang as executive producer, the production’s many components started to fall into place.
“It’s been amazing to see this project through, from start to finish,” she said.
Along with its production staff, the film also has a strong cast: B.D. Wong of “Law & Order: Special Victims Unit,” Tyler Posey of “Teen Wolf,” Joan Chen of “The Last Emperor,” and Harry Shum Jr. of “Glee”.
Jonathan Etra ’11 and Nick Kazimiroff ’07 served as production assistants on the film. From researching in the office to picking up materials to arranging props on set, Etra’s job consisted of “everything and anything,” he said.
Ellie Wen and her mother have written several other screenplays together.