Issue 04, Volume 02
A CONVERSATION WITH PATRICK WANG
by Will Noah
Debut films don’t come much more assured than Patrick Wang’s In the Family, which the writer/director/star is currently self-distributing throughout the country. Wang’s film resists easy categorization: it combines serene, distanced observation with a degree of emotional directness and moral urgency unmatched in recent American independent cinema. Wang plays Joey Williams, whose partner Cody (Trevor St. John) dies in a car accident, leaving him to fight for the custody of their son Chip (Sebastian Banes) after his biological family whisks him away. That synopsis might sound like the premise for any number of pedantic social issue dramas, but In the Family stands head and shoulders above films that trade in the same subject matter thanks to its deeply felt respect for its own characters and their crises. Wang strikes the perfect balance in rendering the inner lives of his subjects, refusing to stray into sentimentality or needless obfuscation. Double Exposure sat down with Wang to discuss his creative process, the film’s struggles on the festival circuit, and the state of heroism in contemporary cinema.
Where did the idea for this film start? Did you decide first that you wanted to make a film, or that you wanted to tell this story, and you thought that writing and directing a movie was the best way to do it?
Each of the roles and responsibilities came in turn. It started with just the writing, and I think even before the writing it starts with the wondering. I didn’t even know it was going to be a script or a film or whatever until I started thinking about it a little bit. It started with just a very modest spark. There’s a small scene, a daily life scene, in the film, where I just caught a glimpse of this family. I don’t know where it came from but I thought, “Okay, that’s interesting. Who are these people? That looks a little different.”
Is that a scene that made it into the movie?
Yeah, it’s the scene where the two dads are playing soccer with their kid. There’s nothing particularly spectacular, but it has enough of a question mark associated with it that it can get its hook into you. It’s funny, as things reveal themselves and you learn more about these people and you think about these events, it doesn’t necessarily make it a movie yet, and it doesn’t necessarily make it worthwhile. The point when it flipped for me into something of real weight was when I found the end solution to the film, when at first it seems like there isn’t one. It surprised me, and I felt like it actually had made the film of some use. We see this picture of escalation often in movies, and we understand very well—too well—how people can grow apart, and how the distance can increase. But as to how to collapse that distance in a realistic way, I don’t think I have as many ideas, and I don’t think films have as many ideas; so when one came that felt honest, and that made use of what these people had in their lives that they may not have realized, that made it worthwhile.
When did you write the script?
I wrote it in 2009. I tend to write very fast, so the first two drafts came together in about five weeks. Six months later I came back for one week of rewrites, and then six months later another week of rewrites. I think around the middle of that year I had started talking to producers. I thought I would just sell the script and let someone else make it and just show up for the premiere [laughs]. That’s how it works, right? I had—which I assume a lot of other writers have—conversations with potential producers or producing partners where the conversation is all about what to change. You think somewhere out there could be the perfect producer, who sees this for what it is, who believes in it as much as you do, and you just get a sense of the tremendous effort it would take to search out that person, and the amount of time. I got frustrated and decided I would rather just put it away than spend all this time searching or have it turn into something else. Then life throws you one of those curveballs: my father got very sick very suddenly, and he was given just a couple of months left to live. That makes you think about things. It makes you think about what you’re doing, it makes you think about the mark you’ll leave on the world; you never know how long you have. And I happened to have this script, and it happened to be about dads, and I happened to have the savings from many years of working. And I thought, “I can do this, and I want to do this,” and I did.
Who were some of the key collaborators, and how did they enter the process?
Just in terms of the longest amount of time we spent together, one of my closest collaborations was with the cinematographer [Frank Barrera]. We started out a good five, maybe even six, months before the film started, and we just talked. We had an interview, and I liked the guy. In particular, being a first time filmmaker, if you can find someone who is experienced, but doesn’t hold that experience over you, and is open, that’s gold. I found that with my cinematographer.
In our first meetings I was very careful. I told him, “I don’t want to talk any visuals, not yet.” Because I had a sense that we were going to have to invent something, or that the fun of it would be inventing something. And if you want to invent something, it’s very hard on a film shoot to work on a new language, because you’re making decisions so fast, so I knew it would have to be rooted in something. I find that a lot when I’m designing, I try to step back and think of things that will root me. Sometimes they’re thematic things, sometimes they’re design principles, or sometimes they’re just ideas that aren’t literally in the film. For example, I thought a lot about American history, and I didn’t program it into the minutia of the film, but it could kind of run in a parallel track as we were designing and thinking about the movie. So we went through and we talked about some of those principles, and we talked about themes, but we also talked about scenes: What is someone doing? Why? What is not being said? Just emotionally feeling our ways around these characters and these scenes. We went through the whole script that way, and we gave ourselves some time. A month may go by, then we’d come back and say, “maybe let’s talk about some shots.” Field of view surprised me in this movie, or the power of where you set the edge of the shot. Because it says a lot about the volume of an action within the scene, and it says a lot about the mystery of the scene, in terms of what you don’t see. So we’d go through the script and do a set of shot lists, walk away again, and come back. The idea was always that the good stuff will stick with you, and you’ll forget the bad stuff. As things started emerging this language started emerging, but we still didn’t have words to describe it. It didn’t become that kind of shot, this kind of shot, but we understood what was okay. The things that would normally make people jump on set and say, “Whoa, that’s wrong, we’ve gotta fix this.” We learned what was okay, and what we were comfortable with. All that time and all that development went a long way to being able to make those very fast decisions on set into something that’s consistent, but not necessarily overly consistent.
The scene that I had the hardest time getting out of my head after the film was the one that takes place after the funeral, where Joey and Chip sit down at the kitchen table, and Chip brings Joey a beer, and they start sorting the mail. I found that incredibly powerful, especially since the camera was placed in the same position as it was in the scenes before the accident, which created a feeling of life going on. How did that scene come together?
You know, that is one of those very simple answers. On the page, it’s a paragraph or two, and it describes all the actions that you see. What you see in the movie is the first take. That scene didn’t take too much. You have the context, you have the familiar set of things happening: the kid is taking care of the parent; you feel the absence because you set up where you were at the beginning of the movie, and you see the kitchen in a different state. So in some ways it was one of the simpler things. What was very complicated and what changed quite a bit was the context leading up to that. That whole sequence of getting us into the kitchen was very hard because I tried to avoid sentimentality. I tried to be emotional, but to avoid sentimentality, and that’s a little tricky when someone dies and you still want to give it emotional weight. I would say the hardest thing about that scene was actually after we shot it and after I fell in love with it, everybody was telling me to cut it. I think there is this sense that the emotional highs are the only things that are worthwhile. The first half of that scene is very emotional, but then it becomes something else, that getting back to life that you were talking about. That is a real transformation. There’s always a sense of more and more intensity as the valuable thing, whereas I think the valuable thing is to transform this very high-pitched moment into something kind of ordinary. That’s kind of a magical thing that happens in life. We could be fighting, we could be doing something intense in one moment, but somewhere it goes away. We transition in life, and I feel like those transitions are things I don’t feel in movies a lot. And I think that kind of transition says a lot about us.
This film definitely takes a lot of risks, especially considering that it’s your first. There’s the length, the pace, the visual grammar, even the fact that you’re directing yourself. Did any of your collaborators attempt to talk you out of these risks? Did you ever try to talk yourself out of them?
Both of those things happened. Pretty much every collaborator tried to talk me out of it, not necessarily what was happening in their department, but when they saw the thing overall. Because what happened is they loved what we were doing one on one, but when they saw the full effect, with the differences coming from another department that they didn’t quite understand, they got worried. And I got worried. It’s my first film, but I’m not that young. I’m not the age that most filmmakers are when they make their first film, and I knew it would be hard, and I knew as a first film most of these differences would be looked at as mistakes. But I couldn’t hurt the movie. I couldn’t kill the things that were rare.
I can understand a lot of those voices trying to change it and make it easier. Sometimes it comes from fear, and sometimes it just comes from the conventional conversation. Because a lot of people tend to talk about movies in terms of what happens in the movie -- the movie’s information, like “the event,” or “the message.” A lot of people would talk about this film that way. They would love the movie, but they would come out saying, “you didn’t need that much time to tell the story or to get the message across.” And that’s true. But you need that much time for an experience. And I would prefer conversations about film to be more like conversations about novels. We tend not to talk about novels in terms of messages and how long it takes to get the story across. There is the experience, and the interactivity, and the imagination that fills a novel, and I wish we would talk about films in that way.
When you were working out your visual approach to the film, did you ever look at any particular films or filmmakers as sources of inspiration?
I have a pretty limited film background, in terms of films I’ve seen. One of the wonderful things about making this movie has been all the recommendations that people have made, because I had never seen an Ozu film or an Edward Yang film before now, but I love them. But there were two films I chose, really as production design references. They were Scenes From a Marriage and A Woman Under the Influence. I found they were really beautifully organic. It seems like they were making it up. And if you’re choosing something because it’s made up and organic, the last thing you want to do is copy it. But you can take lessons from it, and if nothing else you can take inspiration from it. There are two shots that pay tribute in minor ways to those two movies, where we said, “Remember that moment in…” and it led to that kind of design or that kind of shot.
Which moments are they?
I’ll let people figure that out [laughs]. That’s actually kind of the fun part for me, I wonder who can see it. I love people who love film and know everything about film, but I’m not one of those people. And to me that feels very freeing. It’s the same kind of freedom I feel when I’m not writing about my own life, when I’m not writing about things I know. It feels freeing to have a wide-open door. Afterwards I read that Orson Welles would say, even if you’re not inventing something for the first time, there’s something about you that has to feel like you are. But I think what is really important about those two films in particular is that they set the bar very high, so you don’t have to completely reinvent everything, because you know that you can accomplish so much in a film.
You mentioned that the process of writing this film was one of writing about something you don’t know. I remember at the screening I saw the film at, a couple of people asked you if the film was autobiographical. I find that a lot of people tend to assume that works of art about minority or outsider groups are autobiographical. Is that a response you’ve gotten a lot?
I get that a lot, and I think you’re right, that when something seems like an insider thing, you think it must come from an insider with firsthand knowledge of these particular things. A lot of writers and writer-directors come out of personal experience. I have a particular philosophy about that, which is a bit of a paradox. I actually think just about everybody is fascinating, yet when people write about themselves, or create art based on themselves, I feel it’s often the most uninteresting. And I think it’s because they just don’t quite know where to look, and I feel I’m not immune to that. You’re going to make it into your film no matter what; you can’t keep yourself out. So I feel it’s very helpful, at least for the way I work, to keep yourself out of as many of the literal details as possible, to try to go into some place new. If you know it, there’s no point in doing it. If you know the story, I’m not interested in writing it. If I know what the film looks like, I’m not terribly interested in making it. You know, it’s done, or it could be done by someone else. I look for something that needs you, and that needs you to find it along the way.
It seems like the film had a hard time finding its footing on the festival circuit. What was that like for you?
That was the most discouraging time, because it was a time when a lot of my collaborators had a lot of doubts about the film. We were able to get distributors to take a look at it, but some of them either were frightened by the differences or of the marketplaces they saw it, or were waiting for someone else to make a move, for a major festival to pick it up. So it was lonely, and you question your sanity at a time like that, when you are the only one among all these voices that sees merit and gets excited. It wasn’t just that we were a little bit apart; we were 180. I was very excited and everyone else was very afraid. There could have been the perfect festival that would have completely launched us on the right trajectory; there could have been the perfect distributor if we had searched and searched and waited; but at some point you get the message. You get the message when festival after festival turns you down; all types of festivals, small and big. The first festival that actually discovered the film was the San Diego Asian Film Festival, which is a great festival. It doesn’t offer most of the practical spoils of a festival, but it does something that’s almost more important: it’s very good spiritually for you as a filmmaker, and for feeling less alone. They spoke boldly about the film, and they spoke into the void. I think that that’s very hard, to be the first guy. They worked very hard to get people into this film they hadn’t heard anything about, that had no stars and was from a filmmaker they’d never heard of. They did a lot of different types of hard work. Festivals are still a mystery to me. I think they’re as complex as people, and as fallible as people, and they can drift like people. I hope some of them can come around, because a lot of them are the only ways we can get into a town, or even a country. I see a number of these festivals essentially standing in the way between the film and the audiences that would love the film, and I hope that changes.
Do you think that’s a problem with the current festival system, or do you think you just had bad luck with whoever was on the various selection committees this year?
It’s very hard to know, because of what I can definitely identify as a problem with festivals, in that filmmakers are essentially fungible, and relationships feel a little disposable. Like most filmmakers, I don’t get personal feedback from festivals. You either get a generic rejection letter or you hear nothing, and all the generic rejection letters you get are just about how many films were submitted. I think that’s a problem. I personally won’t accept that as an excuse for being impersonal or for shirking on discovery if that’s what they claim to do. But I think there is something about the culture of unknown filmmakers that’s very unattractive. And that’s the future of film. I won’t judge what a film festival decides to do, but I look for the things they do that the market or the industry isn’t already doing. And I think that real discovery is one of those things -- one of those opportunities to enrich the conversation -- that I don’t think is very rigorously executed.
You’re self-distributing this film. Is this because the offers you were getting from distributors were unsatisfactory? Did you fear that indie distributors would confine the film to an urban art house bubble when you wanted to break it out of a closed cultural conversation?
Not initially. Initially, it’s very simple: theatrically, there were no offers. We weren’t standing in the way, in terms of bringing it to cities; we wanted it to play everywhere. The cinephiles and the art houses are wonderful people, and thank god they’ve kept a lot of films alive. But I think films can be many things at once. I think that art is not antithetical to something traditional, to something accessible. It’s not that the audience that goes to see one summer movie won’t see anything else. It’s not that they’re not capable of anything else. Distributors had been telling me, “You’ve made a movie for five people; people won’t put up with this,” and “people are terrible,” and all these negative things about what people will and won’t tolerate, and I just couldn’t believe that. I think that people will be suspicious of differences sometimes, or they’ll be skeptical, and it may take a little time, but I think if you give them something to hold onto, they will stick with it, and they’ll come around. I do love going outside of the art houses. I love the art houses, but I love playing at multiplexes, where sometimes people walk into the wrong movie, or they choose your movie because of the show time. I think that’s also good for film. Because somebody walks out of this movie and goes, “I wasn’t expecting to like that,” or “that was different, but I’m okay with that.” How can that not be good for film? I think it helps some people fall in love with film, and makes people take more risks in what they seek out in the future.
It’s funny; I feel like a lot of what you just said could be applied to the film’s characters if you switch a few of the terms around, in terms of having faith in people’s ability to overcome initial barriers of difference. I think it’s enormously to the film’s credit that it does have this faith in human goodness.
That is something I wanted to get across. Those are my favorite characters in literature. They’re earnest, and they’re good. Terrible things happen to them. Some of my favorite characters, Thomas Stockmann in An Enemy of the People, Pericles in Shakespeare’s Pericles, all this stuff happens to them, but they maintain this kind of faith, and this path, and they do what they can. They take a stand behind certain principles, and they make inconvenient choices based on those principles. And in life too, those are people I know. I think that dramatic theory has shifted—I don’t know if it’s recently, but you can definitely feel it in contemporary cinema—where there is this theory that the broken and the extreme and the hurtful is essentially dramatic, and that if you just put that onscreen, that is your dramaturgical force. And I think some of those instances can be dramatic, but not at the exclusion of everything else. There is drama in life, in different registers of life. One of the things I’ve always been inspired by is when Mr. Rogers was talking about the philosophy behind his show -- he said he was worried about all this violence that kids were being exposed to, and he said, “You don’t need that to add drama to kids’ lives. They have drama. A baby brother comes along, that’s drama to them. A friend says something about them that hurts their feelings, that’s drama to them. And no one’s telling them what to do with these feelings they have.” I feel that way about adults. We have these very adult feelings that we’ve dealt with in some ways incompletely. I think art is one way to work through it.
I feel like I don’t see a lot of contemporary films that deal with the kind of heroism that this one does. When we think of heroism in films today, we tend to think of Spiderman or these other figures whose status as heroes seems like a lame excuse for the film to exist.
Well, I feel like it’s a bad cover of heroism. Grand stories like that can be beautiful. A Spiderman can be beautiful. But I feel it’s just sketches of heroism. What’s missing is the core of the hero, the decision making, what they feel. That’s a big thing, the decision making. When people make inconvenient choices and difficult choices based on principles, that’s not far from what I’m talking about in this film. It’s what makes for a very moving heroic film. You can go back to the comics and you feel it. You feel that emotional space, and those transitions. And for some reason, it’s okay to make a superhero movie without them, without the essential elements.
What’s next for you, both in terms of this film and any new projects?
I’ve written a couple other scripts, and I’m working on writing my first adaptation of a novel, which I’m really enjoying. It’s a novel called The Grief of Others. I love literature, and I feel like there’s a lot of unexplored territory in terms of what film can do to try to keep up with the novel. But this film, I have no idea where it’s going. I’ve been distributing it for over a year now, and the story keeps changing. You have to keep looking at where you are. Last month what looked like opportunities, those doors may have been shut by now, but new opportunities may have sprung up. We’re reopening in New York after a year, and a couple of weeks ago it occurred to me, have we really just been playing a year of previews [laughs]? I’m still looking for that city where we can play for months. Maybe that’s New York. We have some California openings coming up in a couple of weeks that we have a good shot at getting some really nice audiences for. Ask me in a couple of weeks and you’ll get a completely different story. I’ll stick around with it as long as there is real hope and real opportunity for the film. Wherever we go from now, it feels good what we’ve been able to do so far.