Patrick Wang (Joey) and Trevor St. John (Cody). Photos from In the Family's Facebook page.
When Patrick Wang’s In The Family begins its Los Angeles theatrical release this week, it arrives as an Independent Spirit Award-nominated film that has received almost-universal acclaim from critics including The New York Times, Variety, and their most recent champion, Roger Ebert, who has called it "an indie masterpiece." Set in Tennessee, the film follows Joey (played by Wang himself) on a quest to maintain custody of his six-year-old son Chip after his partner Cody (the biological father) dies. The film has been traveling across America for the last five months, premiering in a new city each week. Yet, there was a six-month span after the film's completion when nobody wanted it. Only seven months ago, In the Family was just an unknown filmmaker's low-budget passion project that was rejected by 30 film festivals and had no foreseeable prospects for distribution.
“For a long period of time, I was that nutty director who was saying: I have this wonderful film. It's my first film. It's three hours long. And everyone's going to love it!” says Wang, laughing.
He can joke about it now, but it’s been an arduous road for Wang, who luckily enjoys intense situations with steep learning curves. In October 2011, In the Family finally screened at the Hawaii International Film Festival and took home two awards at the San Diego Asian Film Festival. But even after that, it still didn't have much lined up -- festival-wise. By that point, Wang had already decided to self-distribute his film at the Quad Cinema in New York (where it would premiere in November), because he didn't want people who sell movies to have the final call. He believed in the experience that the film could give people and wanted audience members to have their say.
"At certain points, it looked like we were on death's door," says Wang. "Even going into the New York run, it looked like, 'OK, we'll have our week, and then we'll go into the night.' But then something would happen. The New York Times review happened. Then, the Independent Spirit nomination happened."
In some ways, much has changed since then. The film's list of accomplishments has grown, the buzz amongst cinephiles has increased, and more people are given the opportunity to see In the Family in theaters.
But at the core, nothing has changed. Wang is still that nutty director who is telling everyone that he has a wonderful first film that's three hours long that everyone's going to love. ("Anyone with a pulse, anyone with a family, anyone who has hurt and lost in their life," to be infinitesimally more specific.) He's still the guy that believes that this movie can change people's opinions. For people who might not know minorities, who might not know gay couples, who don't seem to have a stake in these types of issues and struggles, these characters can become their connections. The only difference is that now, his theories have been proven to him. As he's been traveling with the film, he's seen people in towns big and small, conservative and liberal, embrace the film.
"I love the magic of the perspective," Wang says. "Something can look very ordinary, and a new perspective can make it seem so rich." He's talking about his movie, but he could be talking about his life.
Born in Texas and based in New York, Wang has lived many types of lives. In addition to writing, directing, producing, starring in, and composing an elegiac hymn for In the Family, he graduated from MIT with a degree in Economics, he studied abroad in Argentina, he was a kindergarten teacher, he ran a theater company in Boston, and he studied energy policy, game theory, and income inequality at both the Federal Reserve Bank and the Harvard School for Public Health.
“Sometimes you get into your field of endeavor, and you can miss a lot of the rest of the world,” says Wang. “I think the balance between focus and randomness is something I've always looked for in my life. So, I'd be very focused for a few years, and then I'd decide it's time to be random again.”
He had taken a break from focusing -- and was debating whether his next bout of randomness would involve writing a novel or moving to another country -- when he learned that his host father in Argentina was sick. He visited him in San Dimas, but shortly after he recovered, Wang learned that his biological father in Texas was given a diagnosis of a couple months left to live. With mortality on his mind, Wang decided what he really wanted to do was to revisit a script he had written about fathers that had always been meaningful to him.
“I wanted to make a good film,” says Wang, who was the sole investor behind In the Family. “I wanted to make a film that was not concerned with my career, with how it would be received, with any sort of financial return. How many filmmakers get, in the entirety of their careers, to think like that? I felt like it was a real privilege to get to think that way, and I felt a great need to defend that type of purity behind it.”
An early supporter of the script was singer/songwriter Chip Taylor. The characters in In the Family are fans of Chip Taylor's music, and early in the game, Wang reached out to him to get his permission to proceed.
Taylor admits he didn’t expect much when his record company delivered the script: “I just thought, ‘That's flattering, and hopefully it'll be OK,’” he says. “And then I read it, and I was overwhelmed. Yes, it was a nice tribute to me, but I had forgotten about that. It was the best script I'd ever read, and I thought the project could do nothing but help people, mend people, and make people think about the true meaning of kindness and love. It brought tears to my eyes.”
“It’s really just a touching story about a father and son and their struggle to be together” says Trevor St. John, who plays Cody in the film. “What's wonderful is that there are a lot of elements that are socially topical, that are the subject of a lot of political, moral, and ethical debate. But Patrick doesn't make it about that. He just makes it about people, fatherhood, and what it's like to be in a relationship -- irrespective of the framework.”
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