Critic’s Choice

by Jonty Cruz
Photos courtesy of Iana Murray
Iana Murray’s career was on the rise when the pandemic cost her her job at GQ. Today, the film critic and writer talks about her newest gig at Netflix, why we need more diversity in film criticism, and embracing her Filipina heritage.
In another life, Iana Murray could’ve been your favorite musician. It’s the first thing she wanted to be way back when her parents made her take piano lessons as a child. She jokes that it was “the most Asian thing” but fell in love with it anyway. The tenor horn, guitar, and drums came next as she went on to play in concert bands and orchestras throughout high school. Despite that, she says she didn’t have what it took to pursue it further. “I have a classic case of gifted child syndrome so it took me a while to realise that I wasn’t talented enough for music school,” she says. “I’m a pretty average person.”

She emphasizes being unremarkable multiple times in our interview. She takes hard, sudden stops and sharp turns whenever she catches herself talking about her accomplishments too much. Tries to bury them as if she did something wrong. Ironically, it only highlights them even more.

Iana hated writing growing up and yet she’s found her bylines on some of the most beloved publications in the world, from GQ, i-D, to the critically acclaimed independent film journal, Little White Lies. Most of her work falls under the umbrella of film criticism but she’s also proven to have a deft hand at the difficult art of the celebrity profile. Just as she was hitting her stride, the coronavirus pandemic hit. She lost her job at GQ and all her immediate plans for the future were essentially scrapped. Fortunately, talent like hers doesn’t stay grounded too long and Netflix subsequently hired her for its Netflix Film social accounts.

As she moves back and forth between London and Aberdeen, Iana somehow manages to sit still to talk with us about her career, the state of film criticism, and her Filipina heritage over email.

The following has been edited for publication.
It may seem weird to be scrolling through film Twitter at three in the morning but Iana loves it. “I live for hype, it keeps me going,” she says.
Out of Print:  I guess we can start with first loves. Was it film or literature?
Iana Murray: I think I’ve always loved film even if I wasn’t aware of it. The VHS collection in our house back in the day was immense, but I was just watching Disney movies for a long time before I moved on to the big boy stuff. I’ve joked that I feel like Knives Chau in Scott Pilgrim Versus the World when she’s like, “I didn’t even know there was good music until like two months ago!” It was the same thing with literature, I was the typical Twilight-stanning tween who devoured [Young Adult] clones endlessly. I don’t think there’s anything wrong with either of those things though, they were just a gateway.

My scope was so narrow when I started getting into films. It would just be like the IMDb top 250 and all the American indies that were coming out every year. At some point when I was in high school, I started paying attention to the Sundance lineup and I’d watch as many of those films as I could find. Then I saw Me and Earl and the Dying Girl, and if you’ve seen that film you know Greg and Earl make parody films of classics. I wanted to understand all the references so I made a list and got to work. The first film I saw from that list was Breathless and I just spiralled from there. I’m such a baby, I really dived into all of this so late!

When did you realize you wanted to become a writer?
There wasn’t really any specific catalyst that made me want to become a writer, but when I was 15, I started reading the music magazine NME religiously. I thought it was the most amazing thing that people were getting paid to write what they loved, and I wanted that too. Eventually, I realised I’m a lot more omnivorous when it comes to movies than music so I pivoted to film journalism. It’s not the most exciting story! In my university application, I said Roger Ebert’s review of Synecdoche, New York made me want to be a writer. That’s half-true.

Most of your work is focused on film and TV criticism but you’ve also gotten to  do a variety of interviews. Is there a difference in how you write one over the other?
I’m just going to say first that I’m still learning. I definitely can’t speak with complete authority because I make mistakes all the time. I’m only truly happy with a handful of the pieces I’ve written. I think with criticism and features, your voice can shine through more. It can be more personal but it doesn’t have to be. I’ll admit I’m also a bit flowery with my language in my essays so I can boost the word count. When it comes to interviews, a friend of mine said the best journalists avoid bringing themselves up and just let the subjects speak for themselves. I try to stick by that. In an interview I did recently I broke that rule though so, like I said, I’m still learning!

Was this the Justin H. Min profile? That was really good! I loved that you brought up your Asian heritage in that interview. As far as I know that’s the first time you mentioned being half-Filipina in an article.
It was! I guess I don’t really get to bring it up much because I don’t interview many Asians, but also it’s not about me, it’s about them. If I start bringing myself up too much then I’m just a narcissist. But also, that interview with Justin was an hour long, and when you speak with someone for that long it starts feeling less like an interview and more like a conversation. And those are the best interviews because you know that they’re not just giving the same prepared answers.

Could we stay on this topic a bit more. You grew up in Scotland which could very well be the farthest thing from the Philippines, but did any of your Filipina heritage come into play growing up?
I wasn’t really conscious of my heritage until I moved to Aberdeen when I was five. Suddenly the things that were a part of my everyday life weren’t seen as normal anymore. I’d have fried rice in my packed lunch and kids would gawk at me. So I assimilated really quickly. (I developed the strongest Scottish accent soon after I moved.) And I think when I assimilated, I also kind of rejected that Filipina side of myself. Not completely though, there’s fortunately a small, thriving community of Filipino kids in Aberdeen, and so I felt less lonely. My mum never taught me Tagalog either and in hindsight, I wish she did because I just feel even more separated from this large part of who I am. Thankfully, my relationship with my heritage is different now. I’m so proud to be Filipina. 

How’d your relationship with it change? Were there specific instances that made you feel proud of being Filipina?
There wasn’t really an instigating moment so much as I just grew up and realised that being Filipina isn’t something I should try to hide. If I get picked on or someone yells something racist towards me on the street, that’s their problem, not mine. I used to get annoyed when people would ask where I’m from and they wouldn’t be satisfied when I said Scotland, because what they’re really asking is, “why are you brown?” But now I’ll just happily dive into the convoluted backstory of why I’m mixed and how my parents met and all that. It makes me different and I’m okay with that. 

“I used to get annoyed when people would ask where I’m from and they wouldn’t be satisfied when I said Scotland, because what they’re really asking is, ‘why are you brown?’”

Was there any other celebrity you interviewed that really surprised you?
I did a roundtable interview with Willem Dafoe when The Lighthouse was screening at the London Film Festival. A roundtable basically just means that there are several journalists as well as you who are interviewing him at once. He’s such a titan that I think he’s entitled to be rude, but he’s one of the nicest people I’ve ever interviewed. That’s not to say I was expecting him to be mean but with him it felt like he was really engaged and interested in hearing what you had to say. I hate roundtables because you have little control over the direction of the conversation. In that one specifically, some awkward questions came up but he was completely fine.

You’ve written for a lot of great publications over the years from Little White Lies to i-D to GQ. Could you talk about how working for different titles strengthened your own voice as a writer?
You definitely learn about writing for different types of readers. For GQ specifically, I was writing to an audience of mostly men, and I don’t think I sacrificed my voice in any way, but I was writing about things I wouldn’t usually pitch. That’s just a great learning experience in general. It teaches you to adapt and broaden your scope.

What would you say has been your biggest break so far as a writer?
Definitely when I was offered my contract at GQ. It was my first real job as a writer so it was terrifying! I was being thrown into the deep end, writing two pieces a week for a publication my parents actually recognised. I had such a great relationship with my editor, Brennan Carley, as well that I could pitch any stupid idea I had and he’d work with me to salvage a good piece out of those ideas. It was terrifying in the best way and I wouldn’t have it any other way. To be honest, I probably learned more about writing in those nine months than I did after four years of university. I’m aware of what a privilege it was to be able to learn on the job, especially in a field as tough to get into as journalism. It was such an invaluable experience.

It’s funny you say that because I keep telling friends that I learned more about… everything in my first magazine job than I ever did in school. How exactly did having an editor help you develop more as a writer?
To be honest, nothing gives me a serotonin boost quite like getting a draft back and the editor says they have no notes! But it’s actually more helpful when they do have follow-up questions because they really want to make the piece better. One of my friends is one of the most rigorous editors you could ever work with. She’ll pick apart every sentence and ask why you wrote that, or what’s the point you’re making here. It gives me an identity crisis because when those notes accumulate, I start thinking that I’m a fraud and the worst writer ever— but I know she’s just trying to whip it up into shape! The GQ editors are great with notes too. It would usually be small things—because it was fast-paced to the point where I’d write a piece in a day or two and it would get published that week – but those small things are sometimes the little push you need. Eventually, you absorb those notes and you get the hang of what works and your writing gets better over time. 

“We’ve seen how decades of criticism by straight, white men have shaped the canon and what we might initially perceive as a good film.”

What do you think of the growing democratization of film criticism, through platforms like Letterboxd, IMDb, and YouTube?
I can’t say I read/watch criticism on those platforms but I’m happy that there is something for everyone. I started writing reviews on Tumblr, and I think it’s amazing that there are no barriers for entry when it comes to criticism. People sometimes ask me how to get into journalism and I tell them to just start writing, there’s absolutely nothing stopping you. I think sometimes people can take those platforms too seriously. Without a doubt, the best person on Letterboxd is Mia Vicino (bratpitt). She’s an incredible writer but she also gets awful comments sometimes because she makes jokes. There is no right or wrong way to use Letterboxd, so calm down.

Sidenote: Do you recommend reading reviews first before watching anything?
I would say no but I do it all the time! With every major festival I don’t attend (which is basically all of them except Cannes), I keep track of the schedule and read the reviews of every film that premieres. Almost as thrilling as the real thing. It’s a pretty weird thing to do, especially when the time zones don’t align and I find myself scrolling through reactions on Twitter at 3 a.m., but I love movies too much! I live for hype, it keeps me going.

What kind of film criticism do you think we need more of today?
I think we just need to see a greater diversity of perspectives so criticism isn’t so homogeneous. Thankfully, the industry is taking steps to include more women, people of colour and LGBT writers, but we still have a long way to go. We’ve seen how decades of criticism by straight, white men have shaped the canon and what we might initially perceive as a good film. Hopefully, those definitions of quality will change.

I feel like you have a ton of examples but could you share one movie that straight, white men said was good but in hindsight really wasn’t?
Any Guy Ritchie movie that isn’t The Man From U.N.C.L.E is just fine. I’m not crazy about them. I’ll leave it at that because I get attacked for way less! 

Who’s an up-and-coming or underrated film critic/writer that you feel people need to check out?
Hopefully this isn’t cheating because he’s my friend, but whenever Jack King writes something, I drop everything to read it. He’s the most articulate person I know and he writes about film and queer history in a way that is so thoughtful and well-researched. He doesn’t write very often as well, so you know that when he has a new piece, so much passion and care has been put into it. I’d love to be able to write like him. I also really love Savina Petkova’s writing. She has this incredible essay on Pablo Larrain’s film, Ema, that I go back to all the time for inspiration. She has such a beautiful way with words that I think her writing is more like art than criticism.

After losing her job and dealing with the pandemic, Iana admits it’s been a rough time but she’s gotten by thanks to those around her. “When I said I was losing my job, I was met with this incredible outpouring of support,” she says. “People showed me there were other options out there, so it never really felt like the end of the world.“

You were hitting your stride at GQ until the pandemic happened and forced you to shift gears. Fortunately, you got a new job writing for Netflix Film but what was the transition like in between?
I still feel like I’m in that transition period to be honest, just because I’ve been trying to get back into the swing of freelancing again. I feel like I’ve been in a slump since I graduated in June. My life has been pretty out of order for the past few years: I got a job before my degree, I was juggling my dissertation with my obligations at GQ. So I was just about to graduate and then suddenly I found out I was going to be unemployed. It was a bit scary! Even with all the stress, I was happy with the stability that gig brought me and I was hoping to maintain that for another year or two, but then everything I had planned was gone. Fortunately, I had so much support that my worries dissipated pretty quickly. When I said I was losing my job, I was met with this incredible outpouring of support. People showed me there were other options out there, so it never really felt like the end of the world. I feel so privileged because of the opportunities I’ve had thanks to the people who have believed in me. Because of that, I feel underqualified for everything, but I’m grateful nonetheless! And then I got the Netflix gig so I’m doing better. I’d love to properly get back into writing again but I’m just thankful I can afford London rent now.

You’re now a social media writer for Netflix Film. How do you think your film criticism background comes into play in your new job?
The great thing about Netflix Film is that it has a great variety of content from memes to analysis. My favourite thing the account does is invite critics to write threads about new releases, because they’re always so insightful and well-written. They really do feel like essays just on a smaller scale. Obviously, not everything from criticism translates well to branded content. I wrote a tweet joking about Nightcrawler’s commentary on capitalism the other week that got quite a lot of flack. I think if I had said that in an essay, it’d be totally fine but it reads differently when it’s coming from a brand.

Not really a question but I just have to share Nightcrawler is one of my favorite movies ever right behind How to Train Your Dragon.
Love that! I stand by my opinion that How to Train Your Dragon is probably the only good franchise. All of those films are masterpieces, and anyone can fight me on that.

I don’t know if this sounds crazy but I feel like everyone who uses social media sort of talks like a certain age (it comes easier for some than others though) and the better you are talking to that “age group” the greater chances of success. What do you think is the “trick” to succeeding in social media and connecting with an audience. Especially for a brand or company.
I get what you mean! Strangers online have told me that I tweet like a teenage girl but I’m honestly fine with that. Stan twitter was such an integral part of my everyday life as a teenager that I’ve never really shaken it off, it’s just ingrained in who I am at this point. Hopefully, I’ll start talking like an adult eventually. But it’s just not as fun, is it? Brands have definitely adopted that stan language to promote themselves because it gets a lot of interaction. It’s a bit of a controversial topic but I don’t mind if a brand uses that stan cadence. I know it’s just a person behind that account who’s doing their job. If they want to have fun with it, so be it. In terms of being “successful” on social media… I don’t know. Just don’t take yourself too seriously. This applies to just writing in general as well, but people appreciate when you’re passionate about something, and if that comes across in what you say, they’ll gravitate towards it. Also, I don’t like proper grammar. It’s lowercase all the way for me.

I’m glad you brought up stan culture. I’m curious to know how you think it’s affected the entertainment industry and how the industry adapted to it? Or has it even?
This probably applies more to the Internet than just stan culture, but I think the gap has closed between audiences and studios – or the gap has at least gotten smaller. Stans know how to be bold and loud and get people’s attention. They can campaign like no one else. It might be annoying to some people when you just see an endless stream of replies to a network’s tweet asking to renew X or uncancel Y, but you have to give it to them, sometimes it works! It’s not really something I partake in but I respect the hustle.

“Hopefully, I’ll start talking like an adult eventually. But it’s just not as fun, is it?”

Having worked in independent and mainstream publications and now to social and branded content, where do you see opportunity coming for future writers? Will it be in publishing or branded content?
That’s a tricky question! I don’t think there’s a wrong way to go with your career as long as you’re passionate about it. I never really intended to go into social media, it just happened. I think if anyone is going into writing, they shouldn’t try to narrow themselves down into a specific medium. If any opportunities come up and they excite you, you should take them while you have the chance.

So what’s your favorite Netflix film?
I adore Shirkers. It’s this autobiographical documentary by Sandi Tan about her experience making a road movie with her friends when they were teenagers. Sandi wrote the film but her older mentor directed it, and he’s this very elusive, strange guy who has these fake, elaborate stories. Like he tells them he was the inspiration for James Spader’s character in Sex, Lies and Videotape. After they made the film, he disappeared with the footage, and the film basically addresses how that affected them. It’s so beautiful to look at, but it’s also about these incredible talented women who have been looked over for so long and never got their proper due. They also show some footage from the unfinished film they made, and I’m sure in some alternate universe where that guy didn’t ruin the movie, I would’ve been obsessed with it.

What’s the best thing you’ve seen while being on lockdown/quarantine?
I’ve actually had trouble with watching films during lockdown! I don’t know what happened, suddenly I had all the time in the world and I just couldn’t be bothered spending that time on films. I was watching so much trash TV instead. Glee, Too Hot to Handle… I watched Tomboy the other month though and I loved it so much. It was my one blind spot with Celine Sciamma and I don’t know why I put it off for so long. Her films feel incredibly tactile and empathetic and warm, and the way she approaches gender identity in Tomboy is so careful and considerate.

Have you seen any Filipino films lately?
This is actually one of the things I’m most ashamed about! I haven’t seen many Filipino films and I hate myself for it. At London Film Festival last year, I did see a great little film called Lingua Franca by Isabel Sandoval. It’s about an undocumented Filipina trans woman living in New York. It’s really quiet and restrained and I loved its specificity. There were little nuances that I really connected to. It’ll be on Netflix at the end of the month actually! [Editor’s note: The film is currently unavailable in the Philippines.]

What’s the one movie you can never stop talking about?
I’m incapable of liking things in moderation. When I start liking something, I have to put my everything into it. I’ve had my phases with a bunch of movies where I talk about them exhaustively for a month straight before I move onto something else. Saying that, Call Me By Your Name has endured the test of time. I will bring it up at any opportunity. ︎

Jonty Cruz has written and edited for Esquire Philippines, The Philippine Star, and Rogue Magazine. He also co-founded All Good, a social-impact storytelling platform.