Everyday People: An interview with In The Family director Patrick Wang
I recently had the chance to sit down with Patrick Wang, the director, writer, and star of the amazing indie narrative film In The Family, which just opened its second theatrical run in San Francisco. In The Family is possibly the most surprising film of the year (longer review here), a family drama that steers clear of melodrama even when dealing with tragedy, a movie about a gay interracial family living in the South that’s not about identity, and a film by a first-time director that displays a singular vision and directorial style that recalls work by filmmakers like Ozu, Bergman and Hou Hsiao-hsien. Patrick proved to be as thoughtful in person as his filmmaking suggests, discussing the movie’s unusual distribution trajectory, his love for seeing the film in a theater with a live audience, and how being an outsider to the film world can be an artistic advantage.
beyond asiaphilia: How are you liking it back in SF?
Patrick Wang: I’m really excited because I was here for the (San Francisco International Asian American Film Festival) and I wasn’t able to be here for the opening. This week I get to spend a whole week here—-these days I don’t get to spend a whole week anywhere (laughs).
BA: I was kind of wondering about that—-what’s up with this distribution pattern, it’s kind of random—or is this intentional?
PW: Y’know, it keeps changing. I am the distributor and part of it is that I’m learning as I go along. I think you have to do some of that with every film, so I’ve just been figuring it out. Every few weeks a new opportunity comes up or something doesn’t work out quite the way we hoped so we have to readjust. There are other Bay Area theaters watching what happens this week so if we do well they’ll pick us up pretty quickly. And I’m kind of learning that pattern as well.
BA: But you were here in San Francisco already—-right after the Festival? It’s okay if you come back?
PW: It’s one of those things that—-it’s what’s normal and then, um (laughs). And all I see is there’s this huge gulf between the number of people who have seen it and those who would like it and would get something out of the experience, and I’m going to keep trying to bridge that gulf.
We do a lot of things we’re not supposed to. First of all, we’re not supposed to keep playing this long. People told me at the beginning, “You gotta get your DVD going,” and I said, “No, I’m not ready for that, I still haven’t finished—”
BA: The touring around?
PW: Well, its life in theaters, that’s not done, and I’m barely starting to understand it, there’s still work to be done there. So, yeah, we’ll leave a city, we’ll come back to some cities many times.
BA: Which ones have you come back to?
PW: Miami, Chicago, we just reopened in New York
BA: And people come in?
PW: And people come in, and actually more people. It’s funny, word of mouth is just—-y’know, there’s manufactured word of mouth, which behaves a certain way, and there’s real word of mouth—-for it to organically happen takes time. And it’s a question mark, y’know—if the time we’re giving it and the opportunities we’re creating for people to see it in the theaters will ever align.
BA: That’s interesting because it kind of reflects the aesthetic of the movie itself, right? I mean you have these long takes—-I wonder where that comes from. You’re from theater, I know, but you’re also an economist, and you do other stuff. You weren’t even in film at all—
PW: I didn’t do much, y’know, I acted in a couple (films) and that’s pretty much it. But you know, it’s funny that you sometimes hit these points in life where different strands of your life that seem completely unrelated and completely in different camps kind of come together. And I think everything from the work I did as an economist managing a team—people think, oh, it’s in the business side, but no, it’s the managing the team and realizing how to balance the use of hard and soft powers, and how to help people do what they’re good at, and help them realize that, that’s directing.
And there was a time when I taught kindergarten, and that came back to be useful, too, because I know how five- and six-year-olds talk and I know how to work with that.
BA: As well as the grown-up five- and six-year-olds, I guess.
PW: Uh huh.
BA: That’s pretty cool that you were able draw on different parts of your life together to work on this project. I think a lot of people don’t realize that a lot of the filmmaking is the marketing and getting it out there, people watching it.
PW: Yeah, and I hope this doesn’t happen to too many other films, but y’know, a good film—-you’re sometimes left with no one else willing to do something for it and so you have to decide if you’re going to do it for yourself. And some filmmakers, very understandably, don’t know or aren’t interested or can’t do that.
BA: So you’re outside life experience has helped with that—
PW: It’s helped but I think the really big thing is just I saw what happened in the first few audiences when we screened it in New York and I just—-it made me angry that people were not getting the opportunity to see this. It’s this opportunity and I did not want it to be lost. It’s this film that can do a lot of good and now it needed a way to do that and I was willing to learn what that took.
BA: And you’re sort of learning on the job, I guess.
PW: I am learning on the job, but you know, it’s not unlike the filmmaking—-you have certain experiences you bring in. A lot is new and you figure it out, and actually it is very similar to filmmaking—-you put together this team to make the movie, and I kind of put together this team to help get the movie out. And the way we broke rules in the making of the movie, we’re breaking rules in the distribution, too!
BA: So, you’re fairly self-taught so you don’t have expectations about what you need to do—-I don’t want to use the word “outsider” because that seems sort of hierarchical, but you’re not trained from film school, which is a really particular way of thinking of how you have to make a movie or how you have to deal with the movie business.
PW: Yeah, and I really like that word “outsider” because I think it’s very useful. Like every field of endeavor, whether it’s in the arts or something else, I feel like the outsider is very valuable, someone not engrained in the conventions or the general thinking about a kind of long-term path. I think what weighs down a lot of young filmmakers is their head is already in their career and their next two movies. So I feel like there’s quite a bit of freedom being from the outside, of having no expectations for how the thing is received or what’s the next step in your career.
BA: But you must be thinking a little bit about that?
PW: I think a little bit about that but not so much that it changes what I do. I guess that’s the key thing, you want to think enough that you create some opportunities but not so much it changes the important decisions you’re making about your project now, the one that’s right in front of you.
BA: Is that something that’s inherent in your personality, is that something you’ve learned? I mean, it does kind of reflect the filmmaking itself—-
PW: I don’t know, but there is this funny parallel, and I hope I have that very satisfying third act (laughs) that the film has.
BA: Well, I think there’s a certain tenacity the way you’ve approached the film itself. I’ve read about the directing experience—-it’s not that people openly fought you but I know that the way you made the movie is not like a conventional way to shoot a movie and the way you’re distributing it is kind of interesting too—-someone I know said, “It’s coming back to San Francisco?”
PW: (laughs) I think it’s definitely unpredictable, and that’s what keeps me interested in filmmaking and that’s what keeps me interested in the distribution.
BA: So do you prefer people seeing it the theater?
PW: I absolutely do.
BA: Why is that?
PW: I think that there’s this focus that the theater allows. You can’t push “pause” in the theater. And other people, you feel them. Even if it’s a small crowd you to feel them and you feel some sort of responsibility that’s different—-the manners type of responsibility, as in we’re sharing a space and this is how we behave, but there’s also some sort of social responsibility that kind of jumps to life as people interact with this movie amongst other people. And there’s also the sharing of the emotion—-you hear and you feel it in the audience and it forms this type of comfort that you can’t get at home.
BA: That’s an interesting way to describe it. It’s like you’re very bonded to people you don’t know.
PW: There’s this one part in the film that I never expected would be a high point. There’s sort of a series of events and actions that Chip does when they come back from the funeral and when he clinks glasses—-people remember that detail when they’ve seen it at home, they remember that scene, but there’s this release in the theater, people laugh—-there’s like this communal exhale. And it’s across all cultures, it happens here in the U.S., Canada, Brazil, it happened in Taiwan. It’s so unpredictable to me—-I never expected that to be such a vocal moment. But somebody made the point that that will only happen in the theater.
BA: Someone said that you’ve seen the movie a lot of times—-
PW: I’ve seen the movie a lot of times—-I think we’re getting close to 200.
BA: That’s a lot of times.
BA: But you enjoy it every time, it sound like—-you get something out of it.
PW: I still get a lot out of it, and I think it’s mostly because it’s people—-it’s kinda like, y’know, it’s 200 people, (laughs). Y’know, you don’t say, I’ve had enough of people, I don’t need to meet anyone else (laughs).
BA: That could come from being in the theater and performing arts, too, right?
PW: Exactly, and someone had a very interesting way of putting it. A part of the performance is on screen, and then part of it is that the audience performs, and that performance is gonna change.
BA: And so that’s still really interesting to you—-
PA: Yeah, and especially some cities, I mean, obviously San Francisco’s huge, there’s lots of voices, local voices opining and talking about the film, but you get to a smaller town and there’s nobody in town that’s reviewing the movie or that’s talking about the movie and so you kind of have to go in there to see what it’s doing.
BA: So what about these small towns, what’s the response been? What’s the smallest city you’ve played?
PW: Y’know, there’s a town, fairly small—-I mean it’s not tiny, I mean it used to be the largest or the second-largest in Maryland—-Cumberland, Maryland. And it was such a feeling of community—-it was at a community college. And it’s people who have had some challenges in life. It’s definitely not an arthouse crowd! The arthouse crowds are wonderful but these are people who have probably never seen an art film. That’s the thing, you get a range, like anywhere.
BA: And how did they like the movie?
PW: They loved it, and some of the smartest commentary and questions—
BA: They could relate to it.
PW: Yeah. And I think that there’s some sort of pride, actually, in smaller towns that we screen in—-the same way there’s a pride in Tennessee, in that “we’re proud this movie takes place there and it reflects the range of what we’re capable of there.”
BA: It’s a very nuanced view of that part of the world that you don’t usually get. I know you deliberately chose to set the movie in the South, and that was interesting-—you’re from Texas.
PW: I’m from Texas!
BA: Do you consider that the South?
PW: Y’know, it’s up for debate (laughs). Different people consider it different things-—I do. But I didn’t set it in Texas because I didn’t want it to be too familiar. I wanted someplace for me to go, because if there’s a place for me to go, I feel like the discovery is a little more honest for the audience, too. Same thing for the story, too—-I didn’t know quite where it was going, and I think that translates to the audience’s experience. It’s not quite predictable.
But everyone I’ve met from Tennessee the few times I’ve been there—-there’s something I see in a middle-class life in Tennessee that is, in my view, dramatic, but I think in most films is not particularly interesting, is not particularly dramatic, these type of characters are not necessarily the stuff of drama, but I see a lot in their lives.
BA: I think you’ve probably heard people tossing around names like Ozu and Bergman, which is pretty flattering for a first-time filmmaker.
PW: It’s wonderful, yeah.
BA: Those filmmakers really do look at middle-class people, everyday people, they’re not looking at extraordinary people at all, and there’s a similarity in that as well as the stylistic similarities.
PW: You know, I’d never seen an Ozu film before, and when the reviews started coming out, I decided to start with a comedy—-I saw “Good Morning,” and I loved it, and I loved how funny it was, how great the actors are. Making a movie is wonderful because you get this great viewing list-—and not even a viewing list, someone compared it to Alice Munro’s short story and I started reading those and they are tremendous. I think she’s pretty much rocketed to the top of my favorite author list.
BA: I wanted to ask you a little bit about the characters and yourself. It’s obviously really important that the characters are a gay couple, but what about being an Asian man, a Chinese American man who is adopted, or fostered, and has a really interesting background. There’s never any overt discussion of his ethnicity.
PW: There isn’t, and one of the very interesting things is when you leave out certain terms, it’s interesting to see how people fill in whatever they want. It’s nice to have that flexibility to fill in. For example, when I wrote it, he’s not Chinese, and yet a lot of people assume he’s Chinese, and so that’s interesting.
BA: His name is not Chinese, obviously, but I guess that’s part of the backstory.
PW: Yeah, but it’s a really interesting combination. I think one of the nice things that happens is that all these things combined kind of jam a lot of signals. For example, though some people may be used to two-dad families, they’ll look up there and they cannot process that face with that voice. So I think when you have that combination of things it helps you start from scratch because it’s so unfamiliar.
I think a lot of times people view places and people as averages, whereas I feel what’s much more realistic are these anomalies from time to time. You know, you’ll be in that town where there’s that one person, and somehow they got there, and they have a story and everybody knows them and they’re okay. I feel like it also helps to provide these situations where you’re not quite sure which aspect of Joey people are responding to, because there’s also a class issue at play, and I think that’s also very realistic, because in life you’re like, “What exactly is this person responding to? Is it how I’m dressed, is it my gender, is it my race?” You just don’t know.
BA: And sexuality.
BA: I think that’s another thing that’s interesting is the way you elide a lot of the obvious things that could have made the film much more dramatic in a conventional way but by avoiding them you don’t ever touch on them—
PW: Well, even things like coming out—-somebody wrote something very interesting about the film. It’s almost like there’s this continual process of coming out that Joey does but it’s not the way we’re used to seeing it or thinking about it—-it’s so small and unspoken. There’s this film called Nighthawks, a British film, that was one of the first to depict a gay life and it’s tremendous. There’s this moment where the character comes out to his friend but it’s in this way where he just uses the correct pronoun to describe a relationship, and they don’t speak about anything and you see her shocked, adjusting, and then deciding to continue the conversation, and it’s so beautiful. I think a lot of scenes in life are like that.
BA: Yeah, and I think that’s why your film is so real because it’s not melodramatic in a conventional sense. The things that happen are melodramatic but the reactions are very real. The audience appreciates that you’re not forcing them to think the way that you want them to think. You talked a little bit about how the audience is the participant in the making of the story.
PW: It really is, and they’re a participant in the emotional flavor. I do the work to set up the situation and, especially early in the film, I’ll pull back at the height of the emotion, and it’s to let the audience complete it, and I think when they do that it becomes a much more personal emotion.
BA: And this was a conscious decision?
PW: Yeah, it makes sense as the shape of things, and I think most movies do the opposite, right, they give you no context, and this emotional burst comes out of nowhere and you can’t understand it.
BA: Right, it’s like you’re observing more than participating. So when you’re making the movie you’re thinking about how this is going to play as people were watching it?
PW: Thinking about it, but mostly just thinking about how it plays with me, how I feel as I’m going through this, and it’s a basic approach that I know a lot of people talk about but if you don’t assume the audience is any better or worse than you—-both are dangerous—-you get really far. Somebody said, “It’s shocking for a movie to assume that I’m a human being, that I’ve actually had some human experiences,” (laughs) “that I’m not a bear, that you don’t have to explain the basics of being human.”
BA: Which I think is nice-—you leave a lot of space for people to fill in the blanks.
PW: And they can, and they like doing it. We do it in life, too.
BA: It’s like a respect for people’s intelligence.
BA: So I guess the standard question is, what’s next? Are you going to keep touring it around for as long as it will play?
PW: This week will tell us a lot and then we’ll have to readjust, if we get to play longer, if more people want to play us, because a lot of other cities, not just theaters in the Bay Area, but theaters in other cities are watching.
BA: How many prints do you have?
PW: Of the 35mm we have twelve prints, and we have DCP now.
BA: That’s a fair amount.
PW: It’s not a constraint, and that’s the thing I wanted. I never wanted the number of prints to be a constraint and it hasn’t been so far. We had a philosophy at the beginning—every time we screen it, we do it a favor, even if two people come, even if it’s in a place you’re not expecting.
BA: So have you had that experience where only two people come?
PW: We’ve had experiences where two people come.
BA: And have they liked it?
PW: Yeah, I think one of the best screenings I was at there were nine people, including myself, and the two owners of the theater. But it felt like I made the movie for those nine people, it was such an active screening, so much laughter, so much warmth in the room. Because you get disappointed, you see empty seats in the room and a part of you is disappointed, but I’m like, “What kind of person have you become when two people don’t matter, or these nine people don’t matter?”
BA: So they all count?
PW: Exactly. If it has an impact on them, and I think it does, you see people coming out of the theater and you see them just cracked open a little bit, you see something in their eyes, you see them just cracked open to something. They’re feeling something a little more fully, they’re processing a lot of things in their own lives and rethinking, revisiting maybe some of the conflicts and family issues in their own life—so it matters. It matters.
UPDATE: In The Family will open Fri. Dec. 14 at the Roxie Theater in San Francisco. Go see it!
In The Family, dir. Patrick Wang
opens Fri. Dec. 7, 2012
Opera Plaza Cinema
601 Van Ness Avenue, San Francisco, CA, 94102
San Francisco CA 94102