If there was a phrase that could attempt to summarize Patrick Wang's stunning debut feature film (other than the title "In the Family"), it would be the subtitle of The Poetics of Space by the French philosopher Gaston Bachelard: "The classic look at how we experience intimate places, at the level of cinematic space, physical space, narrative space, and above all, emotional space." In this case, "space" not only refers to the intervals between things, but also to the space given for the viewer to explore -- and the numerous spatial possibilities when experiencing the film on the big screen.
In the Family follows the lives of a small family comprised of Joey (played by Wang), Cody, and their son, Chip. They lead a quiet, harmonious life in a small Tennessee town, until an accident befalls Cody, leaving Joey to take care of Chip. Complications arise when Cody's family wants to honor Cody's will, which identifies them as the legal guardians of Chip. In response, Joey attempts to mount a case to prove that he is a reliable, competent father to Chip in order to get him back.
Such a plot description does not do justice to the film's subtle, powerful storytelling. To a certain extent, it may even betray the film's spirit, insofar as the film is not about overtly tugging the heartstrings provoked by a plot of legal battles, nor is it about the simple question of who is "good" and who is "bad." But emotion and drama the film has: its emotional range is as expansive as the film's bold running time of nearly three hours, as it traces how Joey and Chip reorient themselves to a different rhythm of life without Cody -- and then later on, Joey without Chip.
The flow of life is ceaseless, and In the Family is intent on capturing the emotion and sensation of everyday life through its brilliant pacing. In this sense, perhaps an even more appropriate description of the film can be found in one of The Poetics of Space's chapter titles: "Intimate Immensity."
Interview with Patrick Wang
San Diego Asian Film Festival
Interviewed by Rowena Aquino
Camera by Brian Lam
Video edit by Henry Chen
Asia Pacific Arts: Is In the Family based on an actual experience?
Patrick Wang: It's actually not. I don't know anyone who has gone through that situation. The spirit of the idea kind of came from reading Evan Wolfson's book Why Marriage Matters [: America, Equality, and Gay People's Right to Marry], more than details of somebody who actually went through all of these processes. Evan Wolfson is a civil rights attorney who said: tell the stories of these people's lives. When you talk about a gay or lesbian couple, people get uncomfortable. That's kind of a natural reaction; whenever you see something different, you're a little hesitant, you're a little uncomfortable. He said that's a real thing we have to deal with; we have to address it. These people that have this discomfort, they have within them something else, which is an ability, a desire, to be fair. So when you tell these stories, appeal to that desire to be fair, and these people can understand and become allies for change. That's kind of like the spiritual core of it and inspiration for it.
APA: This is the first time you've directed yourself, though you've acted in other people's films. What prompted you to wear the director's hat now?
PW: This is my first film as a director. I've directed theater before. It's a good question because at first, I wrote it, and I thought I would sell it to people. I thought I had gone out of the business of directing and producing. Then, I think it just became defensive. You hear the conversations people are having about your film, and all the things you love -- you know, the things that you think are really unique about your film -- they're on the cutting block. And all the things that you try to avoid that you're very proud of -- all the clichés you manage to keep out of it -- they're making their way into the discussion. So I just wanted to defend this thing. I couldn't find the team with the people who would protect the film the way I felt I would. So that's what led to that decision.
APA: Did you reference other directors' works as you were working on the film?
PW: There were two references that I used for my design team, for us to talk through. They were Scenes From A Marriage [1973, Ingmar Bergmann] and A Woman Under the Influence [1974, John Cassavetes]. What I love about those two films is: first of all, a lot of them take place just in a house, but this house becomes like a planet. You know, it's shot so well, and I love the production design. What the production design does that I think is rare in most new movies now is that there's this hand-off between departments.
A lot of movies now, it's like these heavy chords. All the departments are doing the same thing. Music is telling you the same thing, the lighting is telling that, the actor is telling you that, the dialogue is also telling you that. Whereas, in these two reference films, there's this beautiful hand-off between departments, where suddenly it becomes about a prop, and we move into the performance and the scenic design, then all these things move in and out of the background and foreground. In a way, that was the intent of this film.
APA: Why did you set the film in Tennessee? Did you ever live there?
PW: No, not really. That was part of the attraction. I knew some people from Tennessee, but I didn't know anything about it. I kind of wanted to put myself in the same position as the audience. I think even if the audience knows Tennessee, this is western Tennessee, in a pretty small town. I think it's a place that could kind of be neutral territory for people. I could learn about it, and they could learn about it at the same time.
APA: Where did you shoot the film?
PW: We shot it mostly in Yonkers [New York]. That's where a lot of the homes were and the mansion. And the deposition scene was in a studio in Brooklyn.
APA: Can you tell us a little bit about your trajectory, how you got started in acting?
PW: It's not much of a trajectory, more like a zigzag. [laughs] I started out in Boston, and I just started doing industrials and commericials in college as a way to make money. There's a lot of that in Boston. It was really just a college student trying to make some money. [laughs] [Then,] it was just a series of accidents. At the same time, I started meeting more people in theater; I started volunteering in some theaters. That's when I kind of fell in love with theater, fell in love with plays. Then I started a theater company [Pet Brick Productions] in Boston for a little while. The acting has been coming and going. It had gone for a number of years, so it actually took a lot of work to get back -- to get unrusty.
APA: Did you want to play Joey from the beginning? Or were you casting first and then realized you wanted to own that character yourself -- just like with directing?
PW: Yeah, there was some of that. When I first sent out scripts to other people to read, I knew that, because the character was about my age, some people may think that it was for me. I told them, “Don't read it with me in mind. This is not something I plan to work on.” We read a couple of actors, and in the middle of it, my producer, I think, could see that there was something that I was really reaching for and wanting to defend this character. To him, it was really strange that I wasn't considering playing the character. So he got me to really think about it seriously. I did and I tested myself and auditioned myself -- because it's not a given that I would work! [laughs] I recorded myself, and then I gave myself direction, and I watched to see if I could actually affect the direction that I was trying to do. After some soul-searching, I decided I was going to give it a try.
APA: You don't see Asian Americans from the South in film very often. As Joey, you have a Southern accent. [In real life, Wang does not.] How did you go about developing the accent for the character?
PW: I grew up in Texas, and I do have a soft spot for Asians with Southern accents. [laughs] Again, it was also part of this particular character and this family. Like the setting, it was something I had never seen before, and I didn't know. I liked that. I like that they had secrets, and you say, "Huh, what are they about? What's their life like?"
The accent was very interesting, because I must've gone through some fifty iterations of the accent. Because [Joey] talks a lot, especially at the end of the movie. It was a bit of a challenge to give the accent enough range so that you can listen to him for twenty minutes, so that he can express all of the things he needs to express in the movie. But I'm happy with where it ended up.
APA: We were really impressed by the ensemble cast, from Cody and Chip.... Across the board, everybody's performances are just so nuanced and subtle, but also really powerful at the same time.
PW: Oh my God. They were wonderful. We only had a three-week shoot, and one of the reasons we were able to make that [deadline] is because the actors were so good. Every take was pretty much usable. And I'm very proud of this: in the whole shoot, I only had two line flops. So everything else was usable.
APA: How ever did you find Sebastian Brodziak to play Chip? Did you audition a lot of children?
PW: We auditioned kids. We had a wonderful casting director, Cindi Rush. One thing I'm very grateful for [was that] she got us a great selection. Even though we only had, including call-backs, four days of auditions, she got us a lot of people in, and she found a real range. Usually when you go to an audition, you see people outside the audition room, you're like, "Okay, they're here for the same role, and they're here for the same role." Here, it was like, "They're here for the same role?" [laughs] She understood my taste in actors, which is that they just surprise me. That they have the thoughts, the internal life, of these characters much more than anything external.
Sebastian was just -- he's a really miraculous actor. I think sometimes kids can hide how good of an actor they are. But he's not just being a kid; he has that brain like a computer. He can remember all of his lines. You give him ten different directions, and he can deal with it. And he was six years old; he was the age of the character. I thought I would have to find a tiny nine-year-old. [laughs] The idea is that six-year-olds aren't very good with degrees of things. You can't tell them "a little bit of this" and "some of that." But man, [Sebastian] could digest it all. I could tell him, "You know what you did last time? Just a little of that and not so much of this," and it came out beautifully. He made it seem so natural and never lost being a kid.
APA: What was the rehearsal process with your cast?
PW: It was different for everyone. I feel like part of the job of the director is you look at your actors and you see what they need, individually. These actors all have very different backgrounds and very different styles. With Sebastian, our rehearsals were: we went to the aquarium [laughs]; we went to Coney Island; we just spent time together and got used to each other. We did run scenes because I wanted him to not get bored, to understand if he'd get bored and how long he could go. So with him, we did run a lot of the scenes.
With Cody [played by Trevor St. John], we also had rehearsals, but really only about four or five before we started. It was just enough to get used to each other, to understand. There's not a lot of verbal improv, but there's a lot of emotional improv. We go in very different directions all the time, and you kind of need a little exercise to trust someone with that. A lot of the cast were also theatre actors. They liked the more standard sit-down, rehearse. We [would] have a couple of schedule rehearsals, and then we went in.
APA: You do get a sense of how solid everybody is at performing, because you have a lot of long takes, which unfold like theatre scenes. They were like theatre but at the same time, they...
PW: They were very cinematic.
APA: Yes. In terms of form, what was your thought process with regards to the long takes?
PW: That was a natural attraction. As I worked with my DP to design the shots, we stayed pretty minimalist. We wanted to try not to cut if we don't have to cut. We tried to cover it in as few shots as possible. First of all, that would just get us to the soul of the scene. I think when you limit yourself like that, then you really get a sense of "What do I really have to pick up?" I love the challenge. Sometimes, you know the place to watch, and you know just the field-of-view, and you don't need a whole lot. And you actually get a lot more information from keeping one take. I noticed this in rehearsals: you get to see the thinking of all the characters. We were very happy with the single shot. A lot of the shot scenes you see, they do have coverage and they do have some cutting possibilities, even though we really wanted to go with one. But it was successful, in my view, so we stayed with the one.
APA: You repeat certain angles throughout the film that end up becoming motifs, and you can see the journey of the characters. Like that angle that looks out to the kitchen: you see the door and the kitchen in the background and the table in the foreground. Did you experiment a lot to find out which angles you wanted?
PW: A lot of it was ignorance for me coming in. It's my first film. I didn't go to film school. Certain things that just kind of made sense to me, I would start going with, and then Frank my DP was smart enough [to] not always tell me, "You know, this is kind of different. This is not the way it's usually done." [laughs] He was very protective, and he understood how that could be an asset.
For me, it just always made sense that if I had an angle, every time I'm in the space should be somehow relative to this. It's kind of like with the takes and with the cutting: it was minimalist. Unless there was a reason for me to be somewhere else, I can get something out of this [angle we already have]. The other thing is when you choose that single angle and you restrict yourself in one way, then you become much more sophisticated about all the others things that you can control. Then you become much more intricate about transforming that shot, with different types of blocking, so that the same shot becomes a close-up as well as a wide.
APA: During your three-week shoot, did you encounter any particular hurdles, being a first-time director and acting in it at the same time?
PW: You know, the hurdles weren't bad. What was really hard were the really short emotional scenes, where the shot is only like five seconds. It's like, "You've lost your kid, go!" [laughs] and you have to be emotional for five seconds. Usually, if you're an actor, what you get to do is: between takes, you get to prepare. So when they call "Action!" for that shot, you at least have a running start into it. Whereas I would have to go in and out really fast. So the long takes were also a way for me to really get into it and leave some of the directing world behind.
APA: Do you hope to continue in this vein? Acting and directing in film?
PW: For both, it'll depend on the role and the project. I think it'll be a pretty rare thing when [both acting and directing together] comes up again [laughs], even though it was a wonderful experience. As far as directing, I had so much fun, and I've never felt so natural doing something, so I hope to do it again soon.
APA: Are you working on anything new right now?
PW: I have three feature scripts that are done and ready to go. But for now, it's going to be focusing on trying to get as many people to see this as possible, just because I think it's such a wonderful experience that a lot of people can get something out of. I think it's a rare, and I think it's something that can help develop an audience for a particular kind of film. There's a lot of talk in film, "We've lost the audience." I think this can do something to reintroduce people. This is a little different, but there's enough familiar. There's enough you'll see about family, about all of these interpersonal dynamics, loss -- enough for people to hang their hat on and get invested in. So yeah, I really want people to see this. How well it does will determine how long it is until I do my next project. [laughs]
In the Family opens at Quad Cinema in New York on November 4. For more information, go to the film's official website.
Part 2 of APA's interview with Patrick Wang