Director Patrick Wang on How to Make a Melodrama Masterpiece

11/14/2012 9:00 AM |

inthefamily2.jpg

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.