Tribeca 2021 Women Directors: Meet Suzanne Joe Kai – “Like a Rolling Stone: The Life & Times of Ben Fong-Torres”

Suzanne Joe Kai received two Emmy Award nominations and was named Best Woman News Reporter while a broadcast journalist at San Francisco’s NBC affiliate KRON-TV. She worked at KCBS Radio (CBS) and television stations KTVU (FOX), KGO (ABC), KGUN (ABC), and Kai holds a master’s in documentary film from Stanford University.

“Like a Rolling Stone: The Life & Times of Ben Fong-Torres” is screening at the 2021 Tribeca Film Festival, which is taking place June 9-20.

W&H: Describe the film for us in your own words.

SJK: From peeling pea pods at his immigrant parents’ struggling Oakland Chinatown restaurant to becoming a trailblazing influencer of American Culture, a Chinese American kid with an unlikely dream, a wicked sense of humor, and only a radio to the outside world helped define the voice of a generation. Ben was caught between two worlds, the American-born son of hardworking Chinese immigrants with fake “Torres” IDs, and the alluring world of rock ‘n’ roll.

“Like a Rolling Stone” is a documentary portrait of journalist, broadcaster, and author Ben Fong-Torres, the original editor in charge of Rolling Stone magazine’s music coverage. Fong-Torres’s writings and editorial direction at the tiny, hardscrabble San Francisco startup with barely room for four desks helped propel its meteoric rise into popular culture.

Ben was not “one of many” music editors, he was “one of one” – the editor in charge of all music coverage during Rolling Stone’s formative first decade. His writings and editorial direction helped propel the mag’s meteoric rise into popular culture.

Ben, age 23, brought many talents to the fledgling publication. A rare combination, he was both an editor and a talented writer. A leader with a quick wit and sense of humor, and mentor who inspired his writers, he was a role model to many. He wrote the iconic cover stories which helped establish Rolling Stone. His legendary cover stories and astute editorial leadership inside the magazine made him the unspoken hero of the “Sex, Drugs, and Rock and Roll” era when music meant more than entertainment.

The film features archival footage and intimate interviews with Ben Fong-Torres, Cameron Crowe, Annie Leibovitz, Carlos Santana, Elton John, Steve Martin, Bob Weir, Quincy Jones, and more, uncovering the personal story of the legendary music journalist.

W&H: What drew you to this story?

SJK: Originally, I was drawn to that great period of rock and roll in the ’60s and early ’70s when music meant more than just a song. I was moved that Ben Fong-Torres was covering this incredible time of change in our society as Rolling Stone magazine’s legendary writer and its first music editor.

I got an even more astounding story as I did a deep dive researching Ben’s life growing up in his hardworking immigrant family and interviewing Rolling Stone staff who worked alongside him when it was a tiny startup publication! Everything kept unfolding as I was doing these interviews and getting to know Ben more.

W&H: What do you want people to think about after they watch the film?

SJK: “Like a Rolling Stone: The Life & Times of Ben Fong-Torres” is truly a multi-layered film. I want audiences to go on this journey with this man whom many knew by name, but little knew more about his life. His work and influence in that great time of change in the ’60s and ’70s — as he was one of the forces that was deeply involved in shaping that time period with his journalism and as the music editor at the legendary startup magazine Rolling Stone — is amazing and historic.

At the same time, Ben’s culture and his family were very important to him then and even now. His Asian Americanness, specifically his Chinese American ethnicity, continues to be important in his life. One of the most striking insights is how contemporary this film feels today.

I hope that maybe this film about his life and work will inspire a new generation of writers and editors to get their voices out there.

W&H: What was the biggest challenge in making the film?

SJK: The biggest challenge was finding that a lot of Ben’s life story is not out in the mainstream, and only a few “insiders” knew. Fortunately, I started this project more than ten years ago and was able to interview many of these sources early on and continued to compile as much of these great stories and interviews over the years.

There is a lot of this great man that needed to be shared. I was so thankful that he was generous and giving and sharing.

W&H: How did you get your film funded? Share some insights into how you got the film made.

SJK: Funding films is always difficult. Basically, I started out self-funding this project, then began receiving grants from film organizations, including Women in Film and others. Throughout the 10 years making this film, I was able to bring on executive producers such as XTR and the Enlight Foundation who shared my vision of telling the story of this incredible unsung hero.

The great thing is that Ben Fong-Torres is alive now, and he is able to see the film. He will be joining us at the Tribeca Film Festival world premiere.

W&H: What inspired you to become a filmmaker?

SJK: I’ve always been a “storyteller” as a television news reporter in San Francisco. I began being assigned longer pieces at KRON TV (NBC) where I worked as a staff broadcast news reporter. It was that process of creating a story and the opportunity to share with many people that kept me making films.

My short films and news stories have continued to propel me to be a filmmaker. And now, with this feature film — taking 10 years to complete — certainly energizes me. Being able to share the story of Ben Fong-Torres with the world and having everyone experience his story keeps me going.

W&H: What’s the best and worst advice you’ve received?

SJK: I called my uncle, who was a judge, on the first day of law school to ask his opinion on me taking a leave of absence from law school to continue working in news media in San Francisco. I had just graduated from college and throughout college I worked as an audio editor at the CBS radio station in San Francisco. I will never forget that he didn’t hesitate one bit and said to go into industries where there were no women. The dean of the law school gave me permission to take a leave of absence, and I came back to San Francisco to continue working in news media. Then I got the chance to work in television on-camera.

Christopher Chow was hired at KPIX (CBS), I was hired at KRON TV (NBC), and David Louie, who is still broadcasting today, was hired at KGO TV (ABC). We were the first three Asian American faces to go on camera at our TV stations in San Francisco. Before this, TV station managers were afraid to hire Asian faces on camera because they were worried that audiences might change channels. They didn’t change those channels, and that set off a trend that spread nationally quickly.

The worst advice I have received was to wait until I develop an interest first in something before I pursue that interest. No! I feel it’s best to just get out there and explore. Only then can you decide whether something works for you.

W&H: What advice do you have for other women directors?

SJK: I highly recommend that all directors learn as much about filmmaking as possible as you jump in and get started. I was lucky to participate in some great filmmaking programs as I was filming my documentary. Education, knowledge, and skill building are key. And you have to keep pushing and be persistent in your vision. Don’t stop.

W&H: How are you adjusting to life during the COVID-19 pandemic? Are you keeping creative, and if so, how? 

SJK: That is the question! Surprisingly, yes, we made it through this crazy time. We are still adjusting and had to pivot many times in the last year-and-a-half. Our last major shoot was backstage with Ben Fong-Torres reuniting with Sir Elton John at his concert. This was right before the pandemic hit. And now, our team is still working well together, even virtually. Everything has shifted, but we are powering on and getting it done. Staying focused on the film has kept me on point and gave me even more creative energy.

W&H: The film industry has a long history of underrepresenting people of color onscreen and behind the scenes and reinforcing — and creating — negative stereotypes. What actions do you think need to be taken to make Hollywood and/or the doc world more inclusive?

SJK: Yes, the film industry still has that history. However, where we are now, we know that we as people of color must tell our stories and not wait for someone else to tell them. We have to stand up and take charge of our own stories from our communities.

With everything changing quickly — and hopefully studios and broadcasters are finally understanding this time period — people like myself, a strong Asian American female director, will be able to keep telling stories and creating more.

In addition, now more than ever, there are many of us BIPOC filmmakers in the talent pool. So no longer can the industry say that we don’t have the talent. We have to keep creating our art and telling our stories from our lens.

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