[Editor's Note: There are many spoilers in Part Two of the interview. Recommended for readers who have already seen the film -- playing in New York starting November 4]
Back to APA Interview with In the Family's Patrick Wang: Part One (Video)
APA: Did you expect the film to reach that running time [169 minutes]? Was it initially longer?
Patrick Wang: That's a good question. Initially, it wasn't that much longer. The first assembly was only maybe 15 minutes longer. There are scenes cut, some pretty big scenes cut, but it's pretty close to the script. There weren't re-writes. Once we got into the shooting script, that was it. The running time did surprise me. I thought it was going to be more like a two-hour movie. But the things that were showing up, the reasons it was taking longer, I fell in love with.
I'll give you an example: in that scene with Joey and Cody, where Cody's drunk, it's a 10-minute shot in the film. No cuts, and there are spaces in there. A lot of the spaces that Trevor, who is a wonderful actor, put in. I was trying to understand them, as we were rehearsing, as I was watching the scene. I was like, "Why did he do that?" [laughs] But then you think about where these people are coming from, and you realize that they're in different worlds. [Cody's] not seeing a person yet on the other side. He's in his own head. He's dealing with his own things. It's too convenient for us to go too fast into a bonding moment between them. And so, it gets very honest to that progression of "I'm just in my own world. I'm frustrated. I'm in my own pain," to generically "I'm feeling somebody's there." So that changes how he's acting a little bit. Then he starts seeing this person as a person, and then he actually starts seeing this person as someone [who] might actually understand a little of what he's going through.
That's a lot of territory. I realized that it was right that we don't make that too easy. That also makes it delicate and a little unpredictable. You don't know where it's going, and it's just this perfect combination of things that let it happen. It was that kind of stuff that is so rare and that I thought was beautiful. I kept it in, and the running time will be what the running time is! [laughs]
APA: One of the most amazing scenes is from the angle that looks out to the kitchen, when Joey and Chip return from the funeral. Joey and Chip enter through the kitchen door, it's wordless, Chip prepares a beer for Joey and a Coke for himself. How did you work through that particular scene? The emotional tenor of it is so rich, but it's also so minimalist.
PW: You know, it's funny. When people come in and they see it, especially industry types, that's the first one on the chopping block. It's the first one they're like, "Oh, you only need half as much. You don't need this scene." On the page, it was written as half a page. It was a description. It played for a good three, four minutes. And that was the first take, the one that you watch.
The idea was very simple. One of the things I'm very proud of was that, if you see the print, you'll hear the sound very carefully. I love that sound: that's an empty house, that's coming home to an empty house. Then, about halfway through, I needed some dynamic, some change, and so I put in this lawnmower. You hear the lawnmower coming in closer and getting farther. That's what it's like to live in a house with neighbors, with this life outside. For some reason, it just really touched me, just hearing that lawnmower and things like that.
It just kind of comes in pieces. You have an idea, and things like the sound enhance it. But me and the kid and that scene were pretty much there from the beginning. Very basic: this is where we are, this is what we're going to do. The kid's kind of taking care of his dad.
APA: One of the things that I really love about this film is that you de-dramatize things, which accompanies the whole minimalist approach to it. You don't see Cody's accident, you don't see his funeral, you don't see him in the hospital. It's not that you're omitting the drama of those scenes; you're finding that drama elsewhere. Had you originally shot any of those scenes and taken them out?
PW: No. I like reflections of the big events. I think sometimes they can make them feel bigger. Sometimes, when you put them front and center, they become very flat. Whereas, if you see someone's reaction to someone having the big event, then you can use your imagination, and it can hit you in a much deeper, more personal way. Because you're not being shown the thing. That's how I like information to come out. This is not a very direct present. This is who I am, and this is how I feel in this moment. It's like life: there're not a whole lot of moments, I feel, in these types of characters' lives where they just stand up and explain and/or show you the big thing.
APA: Another one of my favorite scenes is when Chip listens to the tape of Joey telling that dragon story, and all that you see is Joey's friend, Anne, outside Chip's door. But we hear Joey's voice. With each rewind, the scene becomes that much more poignant.
PW: You know, the rewind was added at the last minute. That was an idea I had at the last minute. I think without it, that scene might not have made the cut. But I left it in there because it's just so rare. I like [the] transformation of something that's simple that you weren't expecting. This scene, even before you get to the rewind, there's the transformation of getting into the sliver of seeing Chip. The transformation of it from being about the story, which is nice -- [because] it gets into all of these allegorical elements of the piece -- to being reminded that what actually the kid hears and what really touches him is that greeting ["Hey Chipmunk"], which he used to pretend he didn't like but now means everything.
APA: Another striking aspect about your film, in relation to the long takes is the visual composition of the scenes and shots. Prior to the kitchen scene when Joey and Chip enter the house from the funeral is a scene when they get out of the car and get the mail. Joey and Chip are found at the very edge of the right frame. Then they move to the center of the frame where the mailbox is and get the letters. What was your thought process about this visual composition where you see people at the edges of the frame?
PW: That's interesting that you bring up that one. There wasn't a moving camera on that one, so it's just the people moving. We have very few shots in the film. The standard for a film of our length would probably be around 5000 or 6000; we have fewer than 300 cuts. We have fewer than 20 shots where the camera moves in any way. It then forces the movement into the people. So one of the interesting ways to get a dynamic out of that is when people disappear and then come back in. And then, they come in and out at different levels of the shot. That's a nice thing about having deep focus: you don't have to stylistically move the shot a whole lot. You can have people in the foreground, background, and it works. So that's one of those places where we take them off camera, and they show up. When they show up at a different level, you see a different amount of detail. You see both of them in their suits, and for some reason, that'll hit you a little differently than when you saw a piece of one in a suit.
APA: There is this really great dynamic that you establish between off-screen space and on-screen space. You sense the flow of their lives even though we don't see it all of the time.
PW: I think that's a big point that I believe in. I love mystery. There are very few people's lives where you know everything. I think that films tend to show too much, and that's what disengages our imagination. So I do like to have this thing you don't see within the scene, but at the same time, there are scenes I leave out. I think that's the same thing of trying to maintain this mystery.
APA: The house that Joey works on, as a contractor, is an interesting space that contrasts with Joey and Cody's home. What did you want to draw out of that particular space?
PW: To me, I always thought that when we were in that mansion, it's kind of America: it's a work-in-progress, it's all this mish-mash of styles, and I saw Paul as this Jeffersonian kind of character. The audience doesn't have to leave thinking that [laughs], but it gives me a place to hang my hat on. You see the book-binding there, and those two books -- French philosophy and immigrant thoughts in the French book there [Le Passager Clandestin] and then English common law in the English book there [The Interpreter] -- are kind of these foundations for America. It just gave me a base to think about those kinds of issues.
APA: You mentioned the book-binding. I thought it was interesting the way you visualized Joey's thought process, in terms of trying to deal with what's happening around him. How did you come upon the book-binding?
PW: You know, I really don't remember. It's one of those wonderful things where I don't remember. It just emerged, like a lot of details emerged. A lot of them are terrible, and so they get cut out. But that one was really nice. I think it gives us some sort of relief that things are so hard in his life at that moment. It gives him a way to have some progress of something. Then you realize at the end, it also serves this spiritual thing for him to connect with his father. Visually, it's our only montage-type sequence, when he's working on things. So the cutting becomes faster, and it becomes a little different film in those sections.
APA: The film concludes with a long sequence, the deposition, where Joey gets to express himself for the first time. How did you build up towards that sequence?
PW: At first, I didn't quite know where the story was going. I loved this place that it ended, with this deposition and the unexpectedness of it. It has elements of common law, the things that I thought were really brilliant. So I was really happy with where we ended up.
Then I felt, "Wow, this is so different [from the rest of the film]." So I kind of integrated it into the shooting style of the earlier parts. If he's going to be talking [so much], and we're going to see him so much later on, it has to contrast. It has to be something new [that] we haven't seen before [in the film]. So I kept away from close-ups of Joey until the very end. There aren't a whole lot of close-ups, period, in the movie, up to the deposition scene. But I definitely then had to keep the camera away from Joey a little bit. It worked out great, because if you're taking away the Joey angle, you suddenly get to read and see a lot more of these other characters in short scenes. So it had that pay-off. So this construction influenced the shooting style of what came before.
APA: How did you prepare for that sequence as an actor?
PW: I rehearsed myself for five months. That was a big piece of it, that scene. Early rehearsals, I video-recorded, then I just started audio-recording, and I would listen to it. It's one of those scenes where the more you can simplify and just be honest, the better. I studied a lot one of my favorite actresses, Liv Ullmann. One thing that she does so well is just honest, simple, yet very humanly complex, kind of direction of dialogue. So that was a lot of the prep. And then, it was wonderful.
Generally, we didn't have a lot of time for takes, and then the deposition scene, especially that last angle on Joey, which is maybe up to ten minutes or so of the scene, is one take. We had two takes: one was technically not usable, so we had one option! [laughs]
APA: How did you come to the decision of ending the film with a freeze-frame? It suspends your reunion with Chip.
PW: The freeze-frame…a lot of people have very interesting comments about that! [laughs] In some ways, it's the classic set-up for a freeze-frame. It's the idea that it continues from here. As far as the moment goes, it's generally the right moment for ending the film. Then the question becomes, “What would a freeze-frame do, as opposed to other ways of visually capturing the setting?” One of the things I love about that freeze-frame is that it calls your attention to what's happening.
It's like what we were talking about before: the transformation. It calls your attention to [the fact that] it's not just Chip and Joey having a reunion. The thing you might expect is you have some sort of close-up on Joey, so we see what he's been through. But to me, what's important about that scene is [that] Chip and Joey are together, and Dave and Eileen are there, and they're letting it happen. To stop it there, at a place where you might not quite be expecting, draws attention to the whole picture of what's happening here.
Back to APA Interview with In the Family's Patrick Wang: Part One (Video)
In the Family opens at Quad Cinema in New York on November 4. For more information, go to the film's official website.