Director Patrick Wang on How to Make a Melodrama Masterpiece

11/14/2012 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.