Filmmaker Magazine’s annual 25 New Faces of Independent Film is always one of the year’s most anticipated lists and PSD loves to further introduce some of those talented folks. 1st up in our look into this year’s list of talented people we chatted with writer, director, and actor Patrick Wang, whose film In The Family takes a unique look into the issues that revolve around gay marriage rights. The film isn’t a voice of reason for either side, but rather a heart-felt look into the dynamics of how one family is impacted by a couple’s lack of rights to their child. Patrick was kind enough to take part in an in-depth email questionnaire about his career so far, the film itself and about much more. Click thru for our first series of chats with the 25 New Faces of Indie Film.
1. I’d like to start out by asking about your Texas ties. What was it like in Sugar Land (in the 90′s the area really seemed to blossom with people)? Was it at Clements High School that you took a liking to economics? What about your love of Theater did this start there as well?
I grew up in the Alief neighborhood of Houston, and I didn’t move out to Sugar Land until the eighth grade. It was a bit of a culture shock. Sugar Land was more affluent, the racial composition was very different, and the population and physical landscape of the town were changing very quickly. I didn’t have much interest in either economics or theater in high school. The closest I got was that I really enjoyed writing skits for Spanish class. I left high school thinking I was going to be a physicist.
2. Did you always strive for MIT and what was it like when you got in? Can you talk about what you’ve gotten to do in the economics field?
The final three schools I was deciding between were Caltech, Harvard, and MIT. I visited all three, and I was struck with the freedom I felt at MIT. I sensed it in the people, and it was even in the buildings: they were unlocked and open at all hours. That freedom ended up being very important, allowing me to move from physics to economics. And letting me explore music, then a little theater.
In economics, the first part of my career was in research. I had projects at the National Bureau of Economic Research, the Federal Reserve Bank of Boston, the Harvard School for Public Health, and at MIT. I studied issues like poverty, income inequality, technology adoption, health care decision-making, auction behavior. It was fascinating but a little slow-moving, so I decided to work as an economic consultant. I studied mostly resource industries: oil, gas, electricity. And the context ran the gamut from pricing to finance to policy to market power to litigation. I learned so much. Through MIT and my work as an economist, I learned from the best teachers how to think clearly through new territory.
3. When did you first meet Andrew van den Houten
(I actually meet him this past year at Texas Frightmare Weekend)? What sparked your interest in wanting to take up acting and how did Andrew help with that process? You quickly jumped into the producing world with Andrew, what was your experience like on Surveillances
? You’ve worked with Andrew ever since, including his involvement with In The Family
I first met Andrew when he was casting his thesis film at Emerson. It was a short film, and it was the first time I would act in a film. I was surprised I was cast. I had been acting and directing in theater for years by that point, but I tended to be cast on how I delivered text. In the audition for Andrew’s film I had no lines. Worse yet, I had to dance. It couldn’t have been pretty, but in Andrew’s eyes, it was cinematic.
Surveillances was a great experience. Andrew and I both worked tremendously hard on it, as it came at a point in our lives when we really needed the project. It was grand material, and I got to work opposite a great friend and actor, Stephen Benson. I knew so little of filmmaking at that point that the learning curve was very steep and very satisfying. And just to date the film, our screeners were on VHS.
Andrew has been a big supporter of my acting, and he was the one who convinced me to consider playing the role of Joey in In the Family. I was set against it, but he convinced me to reconsider. That action had an enormous impact on the project.
4. There is a bit of gap from Little Mary
to In the Family
. Can you talk about your published book The Monologue Plays and how that came about?
I was visiting my family in Argentina (I had been an exchange student in high school and am still very close to my host family in Goya, Corrientes). My Argentine father had been having health problems, so I packed up to go spend a month with him. I brought along some notebooks with me, because I had some ideas for a novel. As I was making notes for the novel in one notebook, I started jotting down some other ideas for other writing projects in another notebook. It was the second notebook that started filling up and that excited me. So I decided to develop each idea into a short form play, so I could start making my way through this queue of ideas faster. The plays started coming out as single character monologues, and I decided to stick with that form. Its simplicity allowed me be much more sophisticated with other elements of the play. I learned so much about writing dialogue from this experience, and I think it’s the best writing I’ve ever done. I love hearing from the groups who perform the plays, from a nursing home theater group to a company in India.
5. When did you start writing In The Family
? What was the initial idea behind such a dynamic story? You’ve talked about not wanting to direct or star in the film, can you talk about how those came about? Was the lead character thus not necessarily of Asian decent? How did your starring in the film help or hinder your story?
I started writing In the Family in early 2009. It was a mental image of an everyday moment for this unusual family that started it all: a short visit to one of the dads at work. It was enough to hook my curiosity. I found myself wondering a lot about this family so familiar and mysterious all at once. In pieces and after some false turns, the individuals and then their story started revealing themselves, but still maintaining a touch of mystery. I tend to write the first two drafts very quickly (the first by hand and the second into the computer), and in this case it took about four weeks. I left it alone for half a year, then came back for a week of rewrites. I left it for another half a year, then came back for another week of rewrites. I turned the fourth draft into a shooting script, and we shot a white script.
I had been stepping away from work in the arts and my work as an economist. I was worried that my experiences were becoming too narrow and that there could be all these other endeavors and possibilities in life I was missing while moving in my familiar circles. Writing a screenplay seemed an acceptable diversion, but producing and directing a film felt like too severe a commitment to a place I had already been and was trying to exit. Then came a shock in my life that suddenly put fathers in the forefront of my thoughts, and I wanted to dedicate myself to doing something meaningful. This film would be it. And I saw that my favorite elements of the script were unlikely to survive without someone dedicated to protecting them. So I decided to protect them. In the end I was wrong. This was not a place I had already been.
The lead character was written as Asian American. I think most people can see that directing yourself is potentially a world of hurt. A big part of why it worked in this case was that I had five months to rehearse with myself before I brought in any other actors. In that time, I not only built up the character, but I built up my instincts for evaluating my performance. At first I would record video of my rehearsals, but then I decided to just record audio. This freed me up from micromanaging physical elements of my performance and helped me focus on the honesty of the performance, which you can easily hear. At the beginning of the process there would be frequent mismatches between how I felt during a performance and my opinions evaluating the playback of the performance. With time, this gap closed, and I learned how to much better understand my performance as it happened. While this may sound like a burden for an actor, it really is in line with how many constructive, naturalistic actors work. They have freedom and spontaneity at the same time they have these conscious and technical anchors.
I don’t think acting in the film did much to change the story, but it did a lot to change me. Many actors talk about what they bring to a character, but some characters can bring a lot to you. Joey is an honest, solid, and patient guy. Being close to that as an actor helped bring out those qualities in me as a director.
6. Casting wise where did you find little Chip? What about Cody and Cody’s family, especially the character of Eileen played by Kelly McAndrew
? You have some of the toughest sequences opposite Kelly, what was it like working with her?
Except for Brian Murray and Park Overall, the rest of the cast I met through auditions run by our excellent casting director Cindi Rush and her associate Michele Weiss. Sebastian, even though he was only six years old, had all the qualities of my favorite actors in full: real compassion, real imagination, inventiveness, a great work ethic, and a mind like a computer. From the moment I met him, there was something about him that he felt like my kid. Something very interesting happened as we cast Cody and his family. We looked at all our first choices, and they happened to look like a family. It was absurdly good luck.
Trevor St. John who plays Cody and Peter Hermann who plays Dave are two of my favorite casting choices. They were full of surprises in auditions, and they are the surprise anchors for the film. They also do their work as actors so skillfully and seamlessly, people talk about their characters and almost forget to remark on the acting. Kelly is a dream to work with. She has so many tools at her disposal, is willing to try anything, and she cares enough to stick up for her character if she disagrees with what is happening. Our most intense scene together was on the first day of shooting. It’s one of those scenes where if it goes well, you feel awful afterwards. And we felt awful that day. But I love watching her performance now. It’s a hard scene for Eileen too, and Kelly’s ability to communicate that makes the rest of the film extremely interesting.
7. Why Tennessee? What’s the deal with the accent? How long was the shoot and location wise where did you find some of the homes used in the film? Length wise this film is extremely long at 169 minutes and utilizes long takes with minimal cuts, can you explain your use of longer takes to help tell the story?
I think Tennessee is a tremendous place, and I love the people. I don’t often see Southern life in a modest sized town portrayed the way I believe it to be, which is as diverse and as rich and as surprising as anywhere. I think combining Tennessee with this interracial, two-dad family (including an Asian American with a Southern accent) jams a lot of signals from the get-go. Things are foreign and familiar all at once, and I think that’s a great place to start.
Our shoot was three weeks. We shot mostly in Yonkers once I found the two key locations there: the family home and the mansion. The deposition scene was shot in studio in Brooklyn. The right locations and predictable access to them are key, and so a significant part of our budget went to securing these three locations.
Long takes were a natural balance to the scene structure of the script, which was composed of these narrow slices of life with some of the material in-between left out. That is, something continuous and detailed to balance out the discontinuities and missing details. I had a skilled cast who, given a long take, could communicate an incredible density of character information. And because you cannot control certain elements of pacing in a long take, they feel a little more dangerous and unpredictable. Strangely enough they add tension to the film. A long take with a locked off camera also encourages the audience be a more active observer. They choose where to look and notice the changes taking place in the characters and their world.
8. In previous interviews you’ve discussed how “Scenes from a Marriage
” and “ A Woman Under the Influence
” were two films that both inspired you but that you also showcased to your team. What is about Bergman and Cassavetes that you wanted to invoke or highlight with In The Family
? Are there particular scenes from those films you used as “blueprints” for you sequences or even location choices?
Those two films are excellent examples of how to let the dramatic material and performances be the core of the film. All the filmmaking seems invented to align with those elements. In particular, I think the shot design and production design are tremendous and give you this fascinating flow of information. If you’re highlighting something as an example of how organic it is, there’s not much sense in transferring something literally from those films to your own project. So they were more spiritual guides. But because we had these films in our heads and in common, there were three times I can remember when I referenced a specific scene from these films to help us sculpt a scene in our film. They are minor but fun. I won’t tell you what they are. They can be a treasure hunt for the academics.
9. Roger Ebert has already brought up that this film isn’t really a “gay rights” film, but with the real legal issues addressed and the current political rumblings with gay marriage this film gets at the heart of that argument, fair and equal rights? You’ve played the film all over the place how has the reactions varied and were you ever surprised by a festival/city’s response to the film?
Many people have noted this is not a gay rights film or an Asian American film because it does not fit how we generally experience films with this subject matter. This film approaches identity not through linguistics or politics or proclaimed philosophies, but through how we think, our sensitivities, our daily activities, and our capacity for love. That’s what I think underlies these statements, but that said, once you make a movie, you don’t get to control how it is interpreted. It’s been satisfying to me to see a wide range of passionate (and sometime comical) interpretations. From playing the film in many different places, I can tell you there is no relation between the size and politics of a city and how they respond to the film. I love that places that could be described as conservative and religious have some of the most enthusiastic and profound responses. I love visiting that small theater in the suburbs and discovering it has the best projection in the country. Montreal was fun. For our audience who only spoke French, they couldn’t express themselves in English, so their feedback came in the form of an embrace and a kiss. In Victoria, we had an amazing Q&A that went on for 90 minutes.
There have been two reactions recently that caught me a little by surprise, and by chance they happen to be from gay audience members. I’ve seen some kids take their parents to the movie as a way of coming out to them or to introduce them to a part of their life that may be difficult to talk about. And while I expected the film would hit close to home for families with same-sex parents, I was really happy to hear from this very young interracial couple that it meant a lot to them to see a family on-screen that is what their family might one day look like.
10. What is next for the film and yourself as a writer/director/actor?
I’m handling the theatrical release of In the Family, and so playing in more cities and supporting those runs will take up most of my time the rest of this year. I expect we’ll screen in at least 50 more cities before this is done, including returning to some cities where we’ve already had a commercial run. I’m working on writing the screenplay adaptation of a beautiful novel, The Grief of Others. I have a few other scripts written, including one I hope to shoot before long. It’s this terrific tapestry of monologues and songs that has muscled its way to the front of my thoughts. It’s funny, and I’m fascinated. I wrote it, and I will direct it. For the moment, no acting projects.