Wayne Wang, A Thousand Years Of Good Prayers
Wayne Wang’s work has always been about a balance of contrasts, whether it be Chinese and American, classical and experimental, or independent and Hollywood. Wang was born in Hong Kong in 1949 and moved to the U.S. in his late teens to study film and television at the California College of Arts and Crafts in Oakland. He made his directorial debut in 1975 with A Man, a Woman, and a Killer (on which he is co-credited alongside Rick Schmidt) but it was his sophomore effort, Chan is Missing (1982), an intimate and realistic portayal of Chinese Americans, that brought him to prominence. He continued to depict immigrants and first generation Americans in Dim Sum: A Little Bit of Heart (1985), Eat A Bowl of Tea and Life Is Cheap… But Toilet Paper Is Expensive (both 1989), while in between helming a Hollywood movie, the erotic thriller Slam Dance (1987). Following a studio adaptation of Amy Tan’s seminal Joy Luck Club, Wang teamed with novelist Paul Auster on Smoke and its unscripted companion piece Blue in the Face (both 1995). With the exception of his 2001 The Center of the World, an erotic drama on which he again collaborated with Auster, Wang has spent much of the last decade working within the studio system, helming a multicultural melodrama (Chinese Box), a handful of family friendly dramas (Anywhere But Here, Because of Winn-Dixie and The Last Holiday) as well as the hit romantic comedy Maid in Manhattan).
Wang returns to his roots with his latest film, A Thousand Years of Good Prayers, an independent movie about the Chinese American community. An adaptation by writer Yiyun Li of her own short story, A Thousand Years centers on the relationship between Yilan (Faye Yu), a naturalized Chinese immigrant living in a small American town, and her estranged widower father (Henry O), who comes to visit her. Father and daughter struggle to connect with each other, and focus their energies on other, more tenuous relationships, but ultimately face up to the ghosts of the past and the paths their lives have taken as a result. Wang cites the movies of Ozu as an inspiration for this intimate and tender drama, and approaches the material with a commendable sparseness and emotional restraint. For the majority of the film, he lets the simple, resonant situations play out, eliciting excellent performances from Yu and O. Another Yiyun Li adaptation and Wang’s companion piece to A Thousand Years, The Princess of Nebraska, is being released on YouTube in October.
Filmmaker spoke to Wang about coming back to indie filmmaking, his attraction to making two movies back-to-back, and nearly choking watching Charlie Chaplin.
Filmmaker: When did you first Yiyun Li’s short stories?
Wang: First of all, when I wanted to get back into doing something that was related to the Chinese community in the U.S., I realized that the biggest change over the past 10 or 15 years are the new immigrants from China, from the more urban cities in China not the Toisan immigrants from the old days. Because of the economic boom, they’re able to come over here and buy up businesses. Anyway, when I read these two stories, they’re both about the Chinese coming over to America more recently and I became very interested in both of them. One of them, A Thousand Years, I related a lot to because the daughter, Yilan, is very much like myself: she comes over here, learns a new language, becomes freer in the new culture and is running away from her past, and has a difficult relationship with her father. All that stuff intrigued me, but I kept obsessing about the fact that here’s this other story that’s about a younger woman who grew up during the economic boom in China, who has almost no past, because China basically erases that stuff from people’s memories and all you care about is really the freedom to make money these days. I was very intrigued by that younger generation and more about her trying to find herself and find an identity for herself. When I finished editing A Thousand Years, I had a little bit of money left, so I was able to convince investors that we could shoot this other film. Hence the two films sort of side by side.
Filmmaker: They are incredibly difficult in style and pace, so how was it to go from one to the other?
Wang: Well, A Thousand Years is very classic, it’s shot almost always with a master wide shot because it was conceived to be projected big in a theater and it’s something that’s observant rather than too manipulative in terms of its film aesthetic. It’s very Asian in that sense, almost like an Ozu film. And Princess is like a jazz riff that was improvised and was shot with all different kinds of digital cameras, including cell phones, sometimes by the woman herself. It’s a mix of all that stuff and all handheld and shot very close up, so it’s almost shot for the very small format on a computer – but I wasn’t conscious that it was going to be shown on a computer, I was just kinda doing it as a film language. So they’re really different.
Filmmaker: Is it too simplistic to draw a comparison between Princess and Blue in the Face, your ad hoc follow-up to Smoke?
Wang: It is kind of similar, but Blue in the Face was very specific. We didn’t have a script, we only had situations while Princess did have a script from beginning to end so in a way it was more constructed. So that’s the only difference, but we shot in the same kind of spirit: very free, and very much like playing jazz.
Filmmaker: Do you feel you have to have certain temperament to be able to rapidly put together a follow-up project? I would imagine most people would be terrified and unable to do that, as presumably your prep time was minimal.
Wang: Very minimal, but you know usually the second film is done from the gut. People think that’s easy to do, but you need a lot of experience and you need a lot of planning, in your head, at least. I would say that it’s quite risky, you’re always scared because you don’t quite know how things will go, but you have enough to work with that you can kind of survive it. [laughs] But I really enjoy working in that process. A Thousand Years is very different in that it’s very crafted: it’s a script we worked on for a while, we rehearsed it, we shot it in sequence, we really worked at things, we tried to really work at trying to find authentic moments for every scene. It’s like painstakingly doing a very realistic painting, as opposed to something abstract expressionist.
Filmmaker: When you read a short story like A Thousand Years of Good Prayers, how clearly do you see how you would want to film it? And also how quickly do you tend to realize that you want to film a particular work?
Wang: It’s usually pretty clear that I want to make a film out of it. I’m now thinking back on Joy Luck Club and Paul Auster’s short story Augie Wren’s Christmas, and with these I almost immediately, instinctively said, “I want to make a movie of this.” How it looks and what I’m going to do with it is not that clear. You have a strong essence of why you’re interested in these things and you take that with you. I enjoy working with writers who wrote the original piece and building something from there, and usually that collaboration ends up with something.
Filmmaker: This is the third set of companion pieces that you’ve made, after Chan is Missing and Dim Sum, and Smoke and Blue in the Face. Is there a particular reason that you’re attracted to doing these?
Wang: Well, I started out as a painter and my whole undergraduate work was in painting. I used to do a lot of diptychs and triptychs. Recently I went to Spain to promote these films and I went to the Prado museum, and there was Goya’s diptych, which I think is called “The Second of May 1808” and “The Third of May 1808.” There’s these two big [paintings], one of the battle where it’s really violent and there’s a horse in the middle of the frame staring right at you, and the other is of the execution of these captured Spaniards, and they’re staring at you, right down the gun barrel. To see them that big and to see those paintings hanging side by side was really interesting. There’s something about two events or two stories that are side by side or connected, but then they’re not. I find that really intriguing. It kind of breaks the normal perspective of how people just see one thing. Any time that I can go outside the box and break a perspective of something, I find it really intriguing, and this is kind of the most basic way to do it.
Filmmaker: I believe it was incredibly important to you that the two films would be seen in tandem, but today’s distribution system doesn’t really allow for that kind of thing.
Wang: It really doesn’t. I don’t think that Quentin Tarantino and Robert Rodriguez double bill [Grindhouse] helped. If that had done well then maybe there would be some chances, but that did not do well and commercially to put two films together in the theater is almost impossible. People are just impatient to sit that long, the theater would say “We’re losing money, we shouldn’t put two films into one.” That’s why we creatively came up with this idea of putting one in the theater and one on the internet. No matter what you say, it may not be ready now but the internet will be a true option for independent films, more and more so.
Filmmaker: There was a viral video of David Lynch saying that anyone who had seen his film on an iPhone hadn’t seen it at all. How do you personally feel about people watching your work on a small screen like that?
Wang: I love the iPod, but I don’t want to see a film on it. It’s just too small, but I watch a lot of movies on my laptop, which has a pretty decent sized screen, and I’m pretty happy with it. Sometimes when I feel like a movie has a bigger scale, I would then go to a theater and watch it, or put it on my big TV and watch it. I think it’s a viable way of showing certain kinds of things, and as long as the theater and film doesn’t disappear as an option, I think it’s a good alternative. A friend of mine in London just shot a feature film completely on her cell phone, and she did it for so little money and it’s a wonderful little movie and it’s accessible and showable. That stuff is amazing. People ask me, “What’s your dream project?” I don’t have a big dream project that costs $100 million, my dream is that when I’m older I can take my cell phone and make a damn movie. [laughs] And show it also.
Filmmaker: This is your return to the indie fold after a number of years working in the studio system. Did you feel the need to return to more personal filmmaking?
Wang: There was pretty much a moment where I said, “I’ve done enough of these big Hollywood movies, I want to look at more personal stuff, I want to look at the Chinese American community and what’s going on and try to do things on a smaller scale,” so I’ve gotten back into that. I’ve still got things developing on the studio stuff, but I’m also much more careful and selective about what I do there. Once in a while there’s still a wonderful studio movie that comes out that has substance and tells a great story, so I’m still hoping. [laughs]
Filmmaker: I sense from that answer that you look back on your studio experience with mixed emotions.
Wang: I really love [Because of] Winn-Dixie and Last Holiday, I’m not ashamed of them at all. But I do have to acknowledge that these films are made for an audience and to make money, and they’re made so they can go into the previews and really figure out how the audience are responding and adjust to it. There’s no way around that. That’s what they are and I signed on bright-eyed and clear about that, but sometimes it’s difficult because you can’t make decisions on your own and the pacing of these films are so driven by modern-day big movies that you can’t even allow a character to breathe. That’s why on A Thousand Years I consciously said, “Let’s slow down. Let’s watch these characters take a breath.” I have very shallow breathing, especially when I’m under stress, and for years I’ve been taking yoga and always the teaching is saying “Take longer, deeper breaths.” That’s really the bottom line of life, [laughs] and all the big movies in a way are really just shortening our lives and shortening our breath of life.
Filmmaker: Are those big movies less creatively satisfying for you than a film like A Thousand Years?
Wang: I’ve always been completely mesmerized by studios movies. As a child, my dad brought me to movies a lot and I loved the experience of going into a theater, the light goes black, the film comes on and if it’s good, you’re completely sucked into that world. I wanted to experience creating that kind of film, and I remember on Last Holiday I went into one of the previews and I was sitting next to this guy. In the beginning, he was fidgeting around and then all of sudden something locked in and he was completely in with the Queen Latifah character and going with everything. I felt a sense of accomplishment, I felt like it’s magical in a way, and I do enjoy that.
Filmmaker: Who’s got the power: the directors, the producers or the stars?
Wang: Well, on independent movies the director has all the power, but on studio movies basically the studio has more of the power. It’s frustrating on the studio movies, but the good thing with that is that most of the studio people I have dealt with at least respect that I’m a filmmaker and they respect my opinion. They might fight with me, they might say “Let’s try this,” or “Let’s do this here,” but still I think that respect is important otherwise I don’t think I could survive any of it.
Filmmaker: Which film do you wish you had directed?
Wang: Lawrence of Arabia. I don’t know why. I keep watching that film and every time I watch it I’m in awe of it. I wish I had made that film.
Filmmaker: Finally, what was the first film you ever saw?
Wang: I think it’s one of Charlie Chaplin’s movies, and I don’t know exactly which one. It may have been Modern Times. I laughed so hard I almost choked. [laughs]