* * *
After having his directorial debut In the Family (2011) officially rejected from over 20 film festivals, actor-writer-director Patrick Wang decided to take on one more hat: self-distribution. Refusing to let festival programmers decide the fate of his penetrating and wholly original first feature, Wang is trusting that audiences and good old-fashioned word-of-mouth will give the film the legs it needs to traffic into the world. Not only is his determination admirable, but so is his film, which clocks in at year's end as one of the most mature and nuanced narratives this reviewer has seen in some time. Eschewing formula and stereotype, and comfortable with taking narrative and formal risks, Wang has delivered a heartfelt story woven around child custody, two Dads, parental loss, and the human side of the Law. The project is galvanized by strong performances from a competent ensemble and music by the legendary Chip Taylor, who has written such diverse hits as "Wild Thing" (The Troggs) and "Angel of the Morning" (Merilee Rush). In the Family is the kind of film that creatively circumvents industrial machinations to restore faith in independent filmmaking.
Patrick Wang graduated from MIT with a degree in Economics and studied energy policy, game theory, and income inequality at the Federal Reserve Bank, the Harvard School for Public Health and other organizations. As a theater director, he has specialized in classical verse drama and new works (Surviving the Nian, Jonathan Larson Award). He has taught and directed productions at the Stella Adler Studio and the Neighborhood Playhouse. As an actor, he has appeared in Jay Weisman's Surveillances (Panavision Prize), Saturday Night Live and One Life to Live. His decision to both act in and direct In the Family was—as he puts it—a "defensive" move: "I couldn't stand the things people were saying about the script. They wanted all the good stuff out and they wanted to bring in all the clichés I had managed to avoid. I decided to direct just to protect the movie."
My thanks to Patrick for his willingness to conduct an email interview regarding In the Family.
* * *
Michael Guillén: In the Family is poised to screen at the Quad Cinema in Greenwich Village this coming Friday, how was that stroke of self-distribution arranged? What is your distribution strategy? How have you publicized the event? And what kind of outreach have you effected?
Patrick Wang: Yes, we are self-distributing the movie. If we do well with critics and audiences, we can hold over for additional weeks and book additional cities. The strategy is simple: focus on one city—home for our cast and crew—and let audiences see the movie. Distributors are afraid of not being able to predict how audiences will respond to this movie. That fear will not go away until we show them just how much audiences are capable of. The Quad is an excellent partner. They have a publicist who is helping us with notices and placing a few ads. We've reached out to groups who may have interest in the civil rights and racial issues you find in the movie. But in the end this is a very personal, human movie, and I think its success will come through very personal, human means of recommendation. Friends talking to cousins talking to fathers. I don't understand much about buzz, but I know conversation. And from our first screenings in Hawaii and San Diego, I absolutely love the intimate, meaningful conversations that emerge after people see this movie.
Guillén: You mentioned in our first conversation that In the Family has been officially rejected by nearly 20 film festivals. Surely this is not a comment about the value of the film's narrative content as much as it is about the film's running time and the difficulty programmers experience scheduling films into limited time blocks and venues, which begs the obvious question: why a first film that's nearly three hours in length? Did you consider this crucial to the nuanced maturation of your characterizations and themes? Do you have any regrets about that now? And is this why you are circumventing the festival circuit to have a theatrical run? Do you have concerns that a theatrical run will be one more argument against inclusion in festivals?
Wang: I thought I was making a two-hour film. As we were shooting, it became obvious that the timing and the rhythm of certain scenes were coming out differently than I imagined. Instead of just imposing the shape I was expecting on the scene, I tried to figure out why this was happening. I watched and watched the footage, and then I realized that these wonderfully thoughtful actors were giving me a very honest pacing. Words, expressions, actions all have to be bridged with an individual's thoughts, and they were being honest to that thought progression, which isn't always linear and full of momentum. But it was right. They got it right, and it was a privilege to capture it on film. It takes longer, but it is what makes the scenes and characters captivating. With this movie, I set out to make something meaningful and to do it honestly. Only those goals. I have done that, and so I have no regrets. As far as festivals go, for the most part, I cannot understand what they choose to include, and I cannot understand what they choose to exclude; but, I can understand my film opening November 4. So I'm going to go with that.
Guillén: Now that you have finished your first film, what can you say to first-time filmmakers to embrace or avoid?
Wang: I would say: be curious; do not be afraid of what you do not know; find collaborators who understand that ignorance can be a creative asset; let your confidence come from the enormous amounts of work and thought you've expended and not from your title. And love your actors.
Guillén: Sticky distribution issues aside, let's approach the title of your film. In the Family suggests some secret that is being contained; i.e., keeping something within the family. What do you think that secret is? How did you arrive at this title?
Wang: I like how three little words can be so evocative and yet be a little unclear and incomplete. I like how it is sort of a mishmash of phrases used to refer to the gay community: "family," "in the life." It's also a part of larger phrases like "keeping it in the family," "running in the family"; these feel a little exclusive and protective. So I liked this mix of inclusive, exclusive feelings I get from the title. I don't remember how I thought of it, I just know what I liked about it and why I kept it. And I get the sense of a secret too. I don't know what it is, but I think the instinct to keep it and exclude others from it is interesting.
Guillén: I'm intrigued when actors take the director's chair. That in itself is enough of a challenge but to then direct oneself as well seems daunting. How did you negotiate these double duties?
Wang: The most important tool I had in negotiating these double duties was time. I had almost nine months of pre-production. Before rehearsing with other actors, I essentially rehearsed with myself for five months. My style as a director and an actor is that 90% of my work is building up a foundation and instincts prior to photography, and only the last 10% of the work—which can be the most explosive and thrilling—is done during photography. So it's not as daunting as it may seem. And there are advantages too. In a film like this, if I were not acting, most of my energy and time on set would be spent communicating with the lead actor. So being both in one person saves a lot of time and energy. Also, you get this wonderful tool as a director / actor, which is you can direct the other actors from within the scene. You stay within your character, but if you need something different, if you want to change the rhythm, you can influence the scene right away. You don't need to wait until the next take.
Guillén: Describe your working relationship with your DP Frank Barrera [official website]?
Wang: I had never worked with Frank before, but we also had the benefit of five months of pre-production. We could take our time. We spent a month going through the script without talking any visuals. We talked about what we felt in scenes, the characters, what was happening and why. Slowly we started talking visuals, and slowly a design philosophy started to emerge. I didn't know what to call it, because it was new to both of us, but we had time to make it up and develop it and develop instincts for it. So by the time we were on set, we could make consistent decisions quickly and with confidence. We understood each other very well, our shorthand was really short, and we could be absolutely honest with each other when assessing the challenges in front of us. Our personalities fit. And he was ready to run with me in whatever unusual direction I was headed. Who cares that he had all the experience? It was just an ideal collaboration.
Guillén: As writer, director and actor, one could argue you're a one-man band; however, you have assembled an outstanding ensemble of actors and woven your performance fairly into theirs. How did you go about casting? Did you have certain actors in mind when you wrote your script? How did you level the playing field between performances, all of which have come off so natural and at commensurate intensity?
Wang: I think this cast is astounding. I didn't write with anyone in mind. I only knew two members of the cast beforehand: Brian Murray, who did a play with a friend of mine, and Park Overall—I had never met her, but I knew her work. Everyone else was introduced to me by our wonderful casting team: Cindi Rush and Michele Weiss. They took the time to understand my tastes and knew that I was not concerned about the superficial elements of character, and so they brought in a terrific range of actors for each role. We were also fortunate that some agents and managers really championed the project.
Independent films seem to be less interested these days in scripted naturalism, but I think that's how you see how great the great actors are. Our cast had different backgrounds but the same set of values when it came to acting. I tried to provide ideas and freedom, they provided care and thought. We rehearsed. And with such a sensitive bunch, we found ourselves all in the same movie in no time.
Guillén: Was the naturalism in performance achieved through improvisation? Especially with your young actor Sebastian Banes (who plays Chip), it seemed the actors worked off him, around him. How did you work with such a young actor? How scripted were these scenes?
Wang: In the whole movie, there's probably fewer than a dozen improvised lines total, most of them inconsequential. The script was set before casting, and we shot a white script. Sebastian does have a few improvised lines, but they are usually only one or two lines at the end of a couple of scenes. I would keep going, and he would keep going, and I ended up loving it, so I kept it. But everything else, it's the result of a really sharp kid who knows his lines and knows how to act with the best of them. He's precocious and sensitive and has real emotional imagination. The playfulness and surprise of improv was always there, but the lines were set.
Guillén: One of the things I most appreciated in your film was the avoidance of melodramatic sentiment to effect the narrative. I noted that your character Joey never cries. Can you speak to the emotional core off which you formed Joey's character?
Wang: One of the challenges I really enjoyed with this movie was to be emotional without being sentimental. One tool for avoiding melodrama is to simply avoid the melo- part of it. No score. The other part of it is to withhold. Instead of showing the emotion directly, show it indirectly, like reflected through another character. And what's interesting is that Joey does cry at one point in the movie, but it's in a wide shot and you have to really look to see it.
As far as playing Joey, he is an earnest character and I love earnest characters. Pericles is one of my favorite characters in theater. Thomas Stockmann. They are rare, but they are a real privilege to get to play. I also thought about my father as I played Joey. What Joey goes through when navigating the legal system is a little of what I imagine it must have been like for my father as an immigrant. Joey is cut off from his family—he's in completely unfamiliar, foreign territory—but like an immigrant, he gets by on a mixture of hard work, luck, and the generosity of strangers.
Guillén: You seem to have a tangible sense of working against stereotype. Case in point would be an Asian American speaking in a Southern accent. Not having the opportunity to speak with you directly, I'm not sure if you actually have a Southern accent or if this is yet more proof of your acting chops? What was the importance of setting this story in the South rather than, let's say, California, which is perhaps the location one might expect?
Wang: I don't have a Southern accent, but I grew up in Texas. I have great affection for the South. I think there are certain groups that don't get very sophisticated or diverse screen treatment: gays, Southerners, Asian Americans, lawyers, wealthy people. So I wanted to contribute to that range and depth. Also, I didn't want the audience to too easily identify with the characters and situations at the beginning of the movie. I wanted some element to be foreign and maybe uncomfortable.
Guillén: Another stereotype you've effectively resisted is that of the oversexualized gay male. You've created such grounded characters who have distinct priorities above and beyond sexual concerns. Where did the inspiration come for these authentic personalities? And how do you feel audiences will negotiate that authenticity, which proves difficult? It's easier, of course, to satisfy an appetite for the superficial and the stereotypical than it is to accept authentic characters with conflicted and confused feelings.
Wang: I had this mental picture of this family that I did not recognize or understand. And so I just started wondering about them, and—bit by bit—aspects of their personality and their history started to stick. As I focused on the episodes in their life that were the most interesting to me, they happened not to involve sex. But I know what you mean, certain people will feel confused or cheated seeing a movie in 2011 with two gay male leads and no sexually driven scenes. Still, I think there are others who are regular watchers of the standard fare who will be relieved to see something different and who will be delighted to see whole people and a genuine romance unfold on screen. I am.
Guillén: How do you conceive your relationship with your imagined audience?
Wang: The audience I make a movie for I imagine to be no greater, no less than me.
Guillén: How pivotal was the presence of the boy in determining the unforeseen attraction between Joey and Cody? The fact that their attraction to each other was as much a surprise to the two of them as to anyone else harkens to an authenticity rarely explored with such nuance.
Wang: You ask a very interesting question in how pivotal Chip was in determining the attraction between Joey and Cody. I'm not sure I know the whole answer; but, I think part of the answer is that the boy brings out a tenderness in each of the men, and witnessing that tenderness adds to the attraction between Cody and Joey.
Guillén: Speak to me about some of your actors. Not only is Trevor St. John attractive for being so handsome, but his volatility, his vulnerability, registered like flint sparks. The anger smoldering beneath his grief made him presumptuous and a bit arrogant but I liked that he wasn't a pure angel. Cody's darkness and the fact that he was somewhat unfair to Joey in the beginning made him more human, and succeeded in generating compassion towards him for coming to terms with his grief and, subsequently, his tragic and untimely demise.
Wang: Trevor is just a stunning actor. He understands the anything-goes aspect of personality, that you can find any combination of things in a single person. And he has the range and dexterity to give you many of these elements at once. In addition, he works so hard, and he cares about his work. It's a privilege to watch him do this thing. Sometimes he's a moron and I have to set him straight, but mostly he's brilliant.
Guillén: Kelly McAndrew as Cody's sister Eileen and Peter Hermann as Cody's brother-in-law Dave likewise struck me as amazingly genuine characters, right down to their conflicted confusion and their struggle to compromise.
Wang: Kelly was just a pro. She has more tools than any actor has a right to have and she defended her character and portrayed Eileen's struggles so fairly. It makes the movie. Peter was such a surprise in auditions. His performance was not how I imagined the character looking and sounding, but—in his interpretation of Dave—Peter deepened the character with more facets to Dave's personality than I had given him credit for. I love actors that surprise me.
Guillén: Brian Murray as retired attorney Paul Hawks was outstanding for being so central to the film's narrative traction going where it had to go. His compassion was inspiring, salient and warmly avuncular.
Wang: Brian Murray is a marvelous actor and an even greater human being. We were freezing when we shot that library scene, but there was a different kind of warmth in that room that I will never forget.
Guillén: As accomplished as these actors are, I am admittedly unfamiliar with most of them. Where have they come from? In the Family is without question an actors' showcase. How important was it for you, as an actor yourself, to achieve this? As an actor, what's it like directing other actors?
Wang: These actors come from everywhere: theater, TV, soaps, left field. Wonderful actors are everything to me. And each actor is different. They need different things to feel comfortable, to bring out their most creative work. Help them. Study them and help them, that's how I view my job as director.
Guillén: What are your hopes for this film? What is it you hope its narrative themes will advance?
Wang: It's easier to answer this question now that the film has screened. The audiences have reminded me why I made the film. I want people to feel something beyond the catalog of the five basic movie emotions. I want us to think about loss, family, unintentional hurt, the distance between people, the things we don't talk about, how we misjudge people. This movie is an exercise in sympathies, and I hope it can make us a little more attuned to the hurt and opportunities in our lives.
Guillén: Finally, tell me a bit about your own performance background and what led you to this creative juncture where you secured such control over a project?
Wang: I came to performance when I was about 20. Shortly after, I started a theater company in Boston where I learned how to direct and design. Theater was my great teacher and I have some very modest credits in television and film. I came to this project very much as a film outsider but—I like to think—pretty well versed in its fundamental elements: literature, performance, and photography.
I thought I was stepping away from the arts a few years ago, but this project brought me back. My father was dying and it was a wake-up call that you can't wait around to start living. You never know how much time you have. I was the single investor in this film. My life savings went into the movie, and I'm prepared to make zero income. When I tell people that, they think I mean breaking even, but no, I am prepared to make zero income. I think that's the mentality you have to have going into a project like this, otherwise you start to protect whatever little piece of the pie you've imagined for yourself and fear drives your decisions. I don't know if I'll ever make another movie but I'm going to make this one and I'm going to make it right, with no regrets. Wherever I am in life, I want it to be something I can point to and say, I did that. I did it honestly with people I love and I am so proud.
* * *
Of related interest: Scott Eriksson's interview with Wang for Asians On Film and Richard Kuipers' rave review for Variety.