Wednesday, November 14, 2012

Director Patrick Wang on How to Make a Melodrama Masterpiece

Posted By on Wed, Nov 14, 2012 at 9:00 AM

Writer-director-star Patrick Wang’s debut In the Family follows Tennessee local Joey Williams as he is drawn into a battle for custody of his son, Chip, following the untimely death of his partner, Cody. This Friday, roughly a year after its original New York release, In the Family will reopen at Cinema Village. In the time since its initial release, the film has received praise from Roger Ebert and the New York Times and The L Magazine, been nominated for Best Debut Film at the Independent Spirit Awards, and will be screening in Sao Paolo and Taiwan. We spoke to Wang about how the movie keeps winning over audiences, why he shows the back of the main character's head so much, and what family is.

The story of the movie’s progress is pretty interesting. It had a pretty rough start, didn’t it?
It was a really rough start. It kind of landed with a thud to begin with. You know festivals, distributors and even some of my collaborators weren’t that thrilled about the movie, and so it was a lonely time for about six months. Then the story changed, and it keeps changing. It’s unpredictable, and you never know if it’s going to change again over the next couple of weeks. The progress it’s made has been slow and I don’t know if we’ve had enough time that it’s going to pay off even more now that we’re back in New York. We’re returning to some other cities, too—San Francisco is one I’m very excited about.

Do you feel it’s finally getting the recognition and treatment it deserves?
I think we had a very basic philosophy at the very beginning: just screen it. Every time we screen it, we’re doing it a favor. Even if only two people come, as long as there’s a screening, it helps promote it. I also learned very early on that real word of mouth is kind of slow. Manufactured word of mouth is one thing, but real word of mouth doesn’t start on Friday and pay off Monday. Sometimes it takes a year for people to really talk about it.

Why do you think it was so difficult to get the movie on its feet?
I think it has something that people don’t quite recognize. It’s not like recent movies that you can point to and classify them together, or say "this is the next version of that." People get worried, especially because this came from a first-time filmmaker. Some of the different things in the movie—and I knew this as we were making it—a lot of people look at them as mistakes. That’s the nature of difference. You see something out of the ordinary and there’s an instinctive urge to change it or look at it as a mistake. A more experienced filmmaker may sometimes get the benefit of the doubt; people will be more open-minded. But in this case, it was a lot of "who is this guy and what is he doing?" In some ways, it stems from fear. A lot of the people who liked the movie worry about whether other people will like it. Definitely people in the industry, you can see how they’d be worried about being associated with it, it’s a big risk.

Fear is a key part of the movie itself. It wasn’t so much about homosexuality’s place in our society, but about our fear and discomfort with unfamiliar situations or people. How would you describe your approach to fear in the movie?
I don’t parse it out into concept so much. I definitely don’t approach it thinking about what I have to say. It starts in an observational way. You take two people with different backgrounds, throw them together, and see what happens. Fear is one of those things that plays out, maybe occurring in an instinctual way, like a first reflex. Then other elements come into it, just as in life. If I come and express something different, I may get this little social fear or discomfort to start with; then we like to think some of our more thoughtful elements take over. It’s a blending of emotions, and that is what interests me most, and what I’m proudest of achieving in the movie. There are elements of homophobia or racism, there are also elements of class in it, and they’re all mixed up, just like life. You’re never quite sure what someone is responding to. Maybe in a certain context there’s a buffer, and it doesn’t express itself. But when the buffer is gone, then it expresses itself differently. I think these things are always in flux, always a little uncertain and they pop up in ways that seem innocuous and reveal ourselves.

I didn’t think of this as an activist movie. But do you think it has a potential to create some kind of change in people?
Well, there are different types of change beyond just advocating a specific type of action here or there. Those types of changes are important and there are people and projects that address that. If you think about it, from a legislative perspective, a lot of race issues are technically “accomplished.” But race is still a big issue in the day-to-day for a lot of people and still needs to be addressed. My thought of a way to do that is more of an invitation than a lecture. Look at these lives, look at what happened, and you can decide if it’s fair or not. When people talk about life in political terms, it gets reduced. People aren’t walking issues. You may have this devastating experience in one corner of your life and then you have the rest, like your family, your friends, good times you’ve had. And I think the recognition of all those elements provides an invitation into other peoples’ lives. I look at the film as an invitation into a particular life that I didn’t know before I started writing, which kind of revealed itself to me in the process. There were surprises for me and hopefully for the audience, too; mostly, it is a chance to exercise some sympathies.

The movie takes certain clichés and presumptions about class, race, region, or sexuality and instead of establishing opposing factions, like many films might, your film de-villainizes them.
It’s my view of people. I don’t think that anyone really has an easy time of life. The film sympathizes and sees reason. I think there are very few people out there with real malicious intent. For the most part, harm comes indirectly out of other personal things someone is going through. Before, you asked about change and what that can instill in people. We think of political change as moving people from one side of the line to the other. One of the things I’ve observed with this is that there are people who are sympathetic to marriage equality or civil rights, but they come out of this film taking ownership of these issues and responsibility in a very different way. So it may be capable of creating a kind of change we’re not used to. Someone who is already an ally may become an even deeper ally with deeper sympathies, and they take it suddenly as a much more personal issue. That’s how you welcome people into your life and are able to treat them like family—like what happens to them is what happens to you.

You mention clichés, and if you depart from them just a little bit, it’s amazing how it can wake up a story. Suddenly you’re not quite sure what to expect from it any more. That’s how people are; we sit down for a few minutes and I think it’d be pretty sad if you believe you’ve figured out what that person’s all about. People can surprise you. You know someone for years, and suddenly they go back and tell you about that time they fell in love or memories of their dad, and that person changes in front of you. All people are capable of that. I’m a believer in this anything goes theory of personality. You can have any combination of elements in a person.

Your answer brings to mind how the story gets told in the film, which is a bit non-linear. You’re the writer, too; could you tell us why you used flashbacks?
If you think about it, the story isn’t all that complicated. It’s pretty straightforward, even a lot of the events in the beginning of the story are not that complicated. That lets you be a little more sophisticated about the other elements: simplify one thing and you can be very dexterous with what’s left. Sometimes I simplified the story or camera, and that lets you see and feel the other elements of the movie.

I generally don’t like the way flashbacks are used in movies. They’re a little predictable in some ways and they reinforce what we already know, the same way music reinforces what an actor’s already doing, and it feels like thing on top of thing on top of thing. Memory can help us move forward. Remembering someone we’ve lost, how that person would deal with certain situations can help us carry ourselves through our present situations. I looked for the emotional shape of the flashback and when we would need it.

It’s nice to get an incomplete story. If it’s simple, we still have to leave some things out. We get these real-time, very rich slices of other peoples’ lives, but we leave other gaps so there’s still some mystery. It’s one of the balances I wanted to maintain in the telling of this story: you have some mystery, but once you fill in some of the blanks, you need to create new blanks. That’s always a tricky business, because it can be frustrating or boring if you get it out of balance.

Joey’s flashback to when he and Cody first kiss adds a whole new color to the history of their relationship as he’s going into the deposition.
Yeah, and I think people are always wondering as they watch, "how did that even end up happening?"

Especially as you give a flashback establishing Cody’s character as a straight man about to have a baby.
They meet and it takes them a while before they see each other in a particular light. I was curious, too; I didn’t know at first how they had gotten together! I thought there was something very natural to their relationship. One of the things that I like about those scenes is that they tend to be long takes. There are all these things going through Cody’s head that he’s not saying, and Joey’s digesting what has just happened; it says a lot about them. In the scene where Cody’s a little out of control, you see how Joey deals with it, and it says a lot about him. Wordless, he’s comfortable with the situation and lets Cody be Cody. The scene’s not going in a single direction; lives are not a straight line.

It’s certainly not clear what is going to happen. It even seems like they may end up fighting.
That’s the part that feels like life. All those things are possible, and sometimes when I watch it, I’m wondering what’s going to happen! I think a lot of that has to do with the actors.

Could you talk about casting and working with Sebastian Banes and Brian Murray, who were fantastic as Chip and Paul Hawks?
Brian Murray I’ve always been a big fan of. There is an intelligence and sympathy in him that I think is very rare. It’s in him as an actor and as a person. I was very excited when I had this role that fit him very well, and he loved the script when he read it. That was one of the easier casts. Except for Brian and Park Overall, who played Cody’s mother, everyone else was through open auditions.

We saw about 15 kids for Chip. That was fun; you’d go into the audition rooms and at about four o’clock it would be full of kids, because they’d just gotten out of school. It was hard because all Chip’s lines were scripted and for a kid to memorize and execute them all was really challenging. But Sebastian still managed to inject his own crazy kid-ness without interfering with the script. I remember there was this opening kitchen scene where he had so many lines and actions, he was bouncing all over the kitchen, talking, and I think I had one line. In the third take, it was me who messed up the line! In some ways, the kid outdid us all.

He came in and, not only was he really good with his lines, but he was just such a warm spirit. Even with adult actors, there’s a lot you can fake, but with fake compassion, people can feel the difference. He had a good heart. The other thing that was important to me was how he would move in the scene. When I was reading with them, I was interested in seeing how the kids would react when I changed something or went a little faster or slower, if I was more bored or excited, would they move with me. He was so sensitive to it, and he loved it—it was like a game to him. He would just move with me wherever we were going, it was no big deal to him, and that’s how I knew he was going to be Chip.

He was impossibly endearing right from the start.
It makes the movie. He’s in a lot of the early movie, but there’s a big chunk he falls out of. Even though Joey is in about every scene, the mistake some movies make when they have a lead protagonist is that they feel like because they’re in every scene, they’re the main thrust of every scene. And that’s just not true with Joey. A lot of times, he’s the least interesting person in the scene. Sometimes we need to see what the other characters are all about, and that way we can understand Joey better by seeing how people react to him.

How important to you was it that the movie be restrained?
Some people ask why I showed the back of Joey’s head so much. My response is that I think movies show the front of peoples’ faces too much! I think movies are too loud. This is restrained relative to what’s standard in movies. But it’s not restrained relative to what life is like. I don’t think that loud is the most effective or realistic register. With something like this, you might expect a melodrama where people may be shouting all the time. And there is shouting here—where it’s appropriate—and there are some tears, but that’s not where people live their lives. There’s a balance to how much of our lives are loud or confrontational and how much consists of other things. It’s a big part of what makes us. Let’s say we have a fight; we spend a lot more of our lives feeling that fight than we do in the moment of the fight itself. That’s really interesting to me: how we deal with that stuff. That is a lot of our hurt and a lot of our desire, and if we only concentrate on the explosive moments, you leave so much out of life. I think that’s why the movie gets to some people; there are these things we haven’t quite dealt with. Some are fortunate and can talk to others about it, or work through it themselves, but for a lot of people, it sits there unresolved. It’s an unfortunate thing about modern life. That’s why when they get this chance, they heal so much, it helps them through that stuff.

This movie brings into focus less the legal definitions of family than the emotional definitions. How would you describe your attitude towards redefining family?
That’s right, but the word I don’t feel much responsibility for is "redefine." I see the family, how they are, and the world needs to figure out how it comes together and how to protect that family. But I’m not setting out to draw new lines or move old lines. It’s just what I see and what I recognize as family in terms of behavior, love, the things you hope for in a family. It’s something I learned as an exchange student in Argentina, where I had a wonderful host family. I was amazed how when you treat someone like family, first just by calling each other family, that’s family already. Then, when I go off later in life and start my own family which much more recognizably fits into the definition of family, that has its roots in something. It can be confusing to people; sometimes for clarity, I’ll use modifiers like my "Argentine mom" or "Argentine dad" but when it’s in the house, it’s just "mom" and "dad."

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