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“Limit Yourself to Three Setups Per Scene”: Linh Tran on Slamdance Award-Winner Waiting for the Light to Change

Waiting for the Light to Change

in Filmmaking
on Oct 19, 2023

Vietnamese American filmmaker Linh Tran’s debut feature Waiting for the Light to Change tells the story of five friends in their twenties who head to a beach house for a weeklong winter getaway. At the center of the group are Amy (Jin Park) and Kim (Joyce Ha), whose once-close friendship seems to be running out of fuel—especially now that Kim is dating Amy’s longtime secret crush, Jay (Sam Straley). As past regrets and resentments come to the surface, Amy and Kim wrestle with painful questions about whether their old selves fit into the new lives they’re trying to create for themselves. This tale of young people fumbling their way to adulthood was directed by a first-time filmmaker of preternatural poise and maturity. Tran shoots her actors in slowly paced, beautifully controlled long takes that lend a feeling of tranquility to scenes as raw and tender as an open wound.

Tran made Waiting for the Light to Change as she was completing her MFA at DePaul University in Chicago. The film premiered at the Heartland International Film Festival in October 2022 before going on to screen at several more festivals in the U.S. and abroad—including Slamdance, where it won the Narrative Feature Grand Jury Prize. Following brief theatrical runs in New York City and Chicago in September, Freestyle Digital Media will release the movie on VOD, cable and DVD on October 20. The trailer can be viewed here. I spoke with Tran on Zoom soon after she returned from her film’s opening weekend in NYC.

Filmmaker: Can you tell me a little about your background as a filmmaker?

Tran: I was born and raised in Vietnam. I didn’t grow up watching a lot of movies and nobody in my family is in the arts. It’s unimaginable for anybody to become an artist. In 2013, after I graduated high school, I came to the States to go to college. At the time, I had an idea that I wanted to do advertising. I was looking up majors, and communications was probably the closest thing to advertising, or so I thought. I was trying to take classes, but the intro class of that major, the 101, was public speaking, and it was really popular so I couldn’t get in. The other 101 was acting. So I took acting, and that blew me away. It was challenging at first, but I really liked the way it made me feel very uninhibited.

Then I started taking a few film classes. Documentary was the first one. And I was like, Maybe film is the closest thing to theater. You keep the storytelling element and performances, but you don’t have to be exposed all the time and expend this kind of energy that I don’t have. So, I went into film studies at school, studying a lot of film theory and history, and I was taking creative writing and screenwriting classes, and that just led me to making movies. I was about to graduate, and I told my advisor at the time, I think I want to apply to film school, I want to be a filmmaker. And he was like, It’s going to be difficult. Being a female filmmaker of color is going to be extra difficult. It’s not an equal world. Not everybody has the same kind of opportunities. Are you sure you want to do this? And I was like, Yeah, but actually I didn’t know what that meant at the time. And then I went to film school and slowly realized, Oh, this is what he meant—there are all these things standing in the way.

I went to DePaul [University] for an MFA and started making short films. I had already shot my thesis film and was about to graduate. DePaul has this initiative, Indie Studio, that they launched in 2017, led by James Choi. The concept is that the class as a whole is going to make a $15,000 micro-budget feature film with money provided by the school, and when I was about to graduate, they opened that up to grad students. So I applied, pitched and won. Then COVID happened. The script we were going to use couldn’t be made during COVID for $15,000. So, we had to write a new script, and because it was a long period of time, we lost crew and brought new people in. Then when the film was done, it took a year to get into our first festival, and we were struggling with believing that this was going to go somewhere, even though James kept telling us that there’s going to be a place for the film. Finally we got into Heartland and  Slamdance, and now we’re here.

Filmmaker: What were some films or filmmakers that inspired you, either as an undergrad or as a grad student making your first films?

Tran: As a grad student, Edward Yang! The meticulousness of his movies was something I tried to apply to my own process because I really felt like that’s the kind of person I am—or was, as a film student. Detail oriented, wanting to make sure everything is in its place and planned out. And I love how nuanced his movies are. I take a little bit of different things from different filmmakers. I watched a lot of Rohmer before making Waiting for the Light to Change, [how he creates] a structure of scenes that mirror each other. The vibe of my film and Rohmer is very different, but still to this day, whenever I want to watch a movie but don’t want to risk watching one I don’t like, I go rewatch a Rohmer film.

Brian De Palma is one of the filmmakers that made me realize, Oh my god, this is how you shoot a movie. This is how you dramatize action and movement between the camera and the actors. It’s like a dance. That’s where I learned blocking, and blocking and framing are so important to me. With filmmaking, there’s the concept and there’s the craft. The craft is something I feel like you can work at, honing your craft. On the craft level, Edward Yang and Brian De Palma really inspired me. The concept is your personality or philosophy or outlook on life—what I want to say, the stories I want to tell and how I want to tell them. I guess style is a part of it. It goes beyond the technical; it’s a reflection of how I see myself, how I see the world, how I experience things.

Kiarostami is huge for me. Unfortunately, I read about his abusive behavior towards the end of his career, and it was so disappointing to me, but still, his films played a big part in how I see cinema. It’s less cause-and-effect storytelling, it’s more like poetry, and opening things up so that people can come in. And I love Joanna Hogg. Her movies are so intimate—like in The Souvenir, you get dropped into a scene and it feels like you’re reading someone’s journal entries. And I don’t know how much time has passed between this sequence and the last sequence. I like that because it leaves so much to the audience to imagine and fill in the blanks themselves, bringing their backgrounds and outlook on life to the movie, and people are more invested that way. I mean, I am very invested when I see Joanna Hogg’s movies. Also, the way she explores relationships between mothers and daughters, or between women, that’s one of my concerns in life.

Filmmaker: One of the things that struck me when I was watching Waiting for the Light to Change was, it’s a first feature made by a young filmmaker, but it feels like you’ve come up with a very mature and personal approach to the meditative long-take style. Not having seen any of your previous shorts, I’m wondering whether that was something you’d been working towards, or was it an idea about cinema that you developed for this particular film?

Tran: I’ll tell you a story. I was storyboarding my thesis film, because I was planning things really meticulously at the time. Then I brought my storyboards to my professor, Ali Khatami, and he was like, Why are there so many cuts? You’re cutting for TV, my friend. Limit yourself to three setups per scene, max. I tried it out after he said that, and it worked for me. It’s become the one rule that I have applied to my filmmaking. And because of the films that I watch—I consume a lot of Tsai Ming-liang, Bi Gan, recently I got into Béla Tarr—I’ve internalized that kind of pacing and rhythm. It’s something I’m used to as a film watcher, so I think it’s pretty natural that something like that comes out [when I make films]. But I’m pretty flexible with it, so if I feel like I need to cut, I always cut.

I have an analogy for how I cover a scene. This might sound really silly, but I’ll share it with you. To me, watching a scene is like going to the zoo. You go to the zoo, and what’s happening in the scene is an animal—think of a dangerous lion in a cage—and you’re the only one there. And how we shoot the scene, how we see the action, is like the zoogoer—you have to pick a spot and stay at a respectful distance to watch the scene. Maybe at some point the animal will move, and you’ll lose that prime spot. Now it’s not the best spot to watch from anymore. That’s when you cut to another setup. Or if the animal starts doing something that makes you so intrigued that you feel the urge to get closer—in real life you can’t because you’re limited by the cage. But with the camera, you can. We can act on that urge by dollying in, zooming in or cutting to a closer shot. That’s a grammar that I use for covering scenes.

Filmmaker: That’s a fascinating analogy. 

Tran: I remember when I was a film student, we had this breakfast event with Qiu Yang. He won the Palme with his short A Gentle Night in, like, ’16 or ’17. And he said something that I would never forget. He said, Where you put your camera to shoot a scene—the reason should be, everywhere else is wrong. That’s really good.

Filmmaker: That goes back to what your old professor said about getting away from just shooting standard coverage. I remember De Palma saying in an interview that he doesn’t even consider that directing. This formulaic thing of wide shots, mediums, close-ups—a robot could do it, right?

Tran: Yeah. [Directing is about] decision making. De Palma also said, Coverage is a dirty word. I love that.

Filmmaker: For much of the film, it’s almost always one shot per scene: these very long takes, all in wide and medium shots. But you break that up a little bit toward the end. There’s a scene where you switch to very tight close-ups of our main characters. Then there’s the climactic scene at the end where, after avoiding it for the entire movie, you switch to a shot/reverse shot pattern where the actors are in singles. Can you talk about those decisions to disrupt the style that you built up for most of the film?

Tran: With the close-ups, I was thinking about how people get drunk or high so they can have the courage to express their feelings — to say the truth, confess their love or whatever. So that moment of the close-ups, that intimacy, I feel like that’s a private moment between the audience and the characters, and not between the characters themselves. This is the one time where you get to see them expressing how they actually feel, but they’re [physically] so far away from each other. When you have that kind of distance, you feel a little bit safer to disclose the information. It’s like when you air out your personal business with a stranger that you don’t know, because you have no stakes. And by this time, I think the audience has earned the right to see their faces because we’ve been distant for so long.

In terms of that shot/reverse shot in the end—this is the big confrontation [between the two main characters]. And to be honest, like the analogy that I gave earlier—I couldn’t find a spot where you could see both characters and be effective with communicating the conflict that is going on. So the shot/reverse shot is because we couldn’t see how else to do it.

Filmmaker: Wow. It’s funny how the best ideas sometimes come out of those situations, because I felt like that was such a perfect expression of how finally separate these two friends are.

Tran: Yeah, that moment is almost like the point of no return for these two characters.

Filmmaker: The film beautifully captures this moment in your twenties when you feel like your identity is formed but you’re still figuring out your place in the world. When you were working on the script with your co-writers, and when you were directing the film, was that something you consciously wanted to capture?

Filmmaker: We weren’t conscious of that at all. We had the goals of telling the story about this relationship, at this particular location. But I feel like that sentiment, the aimlessness of being in your early or mid-twenties, comes out of a combination of the vibe of the film and the performances—and internally, that was just how I felt at the time. I did a lot of listening to my gut and going with it. So it wasn’t intended. I feel like if I had intended it, it wouldn’t have come out as organically. It’s not as simple as, like, you don’t know what you’re doing because you don’t have a job—it’s not [about particular] circumstances, but the strangeness of feeling like you haven’t come fully into yourself yet.

Filmmaker: You collaborated with two writers [Jewells Santos and Delia Van Praag] on the script. What was that process like?

Tran: Chaotic, to be honest. We didn’t have a script. My producer said, I have a lake house, do you want to go over there and see if we can write something for it? So me, my two producers at the time, one producer’s stepbrother and the other producer’s roommate all went—three girls and two boys, just like in the movie. And that was a very melancholy weekend. Not a lot happened: it was in December, it was cold. But I was like, OK, I like this location. I like this room. So, when we started forming the first draft of the script, we mostly wrote for the locations. And that’s one thing that I will continue doing: I will only write for locations from now on, or at least I will keep the script very loose until I find a location, because I feel like that provides so many opportunities to breathe life into something that is imagined.

Because it was COVID when we were writing, the three of us just got on Zoom. The two other writers have a playwriting background, so we did a lot of improv. We’d be on a Zoom call and take a scene and I’d be like, OK, I play Amy, you play Kim. And that’s usually how we would troubleshoot [our way through] writer’s block. And sometimes we’d just talk about concepts in life—like there was one time we were talking about empathy and what that means to us. It’s not something that was included in the script, but the vibe, the sentiment of chatting about the concept, stayed with us. It was part of the process that made it easier for us to work together.

Then we had a draft and only had, like, three months to finish the script and cast and everything before production. So, we would invite potential actors to come in and do a table read, then we’d go back, rewrite and do another table read. So, I was casting at the same time [we were writing]. I think by the fifth draft, we had the cast, and I would interview them and started adding stuff from their lives, or stories they told me, to the script. Now we had a loose blueprint of a script, like 56 pages, and I went out to the location with all the actors and, at our sixth table read, handed out the printed scripts. Then after the reading, I took them away. We started rehearsal and did a lot of improv, for some characters more than others. We had a whole week of rehearsal, which I would record. I would be like, OK, so you guys remember what the scene is about. Let’s do this; how about this, what will you add, how will you say this, can you tell me a story about this… I would record it, would go back and listen, edit it back into the script and then give them the script for real on set. And sometimes we’d also improv on set. So, it was a huge amount of trust in the process, and in each other.

Filmmaker: Speaking of working with actors, the movie is full of long, still silences where it’s placid on the surface but there’s so much going on emotionally inside the characters. How do you direct something like that?

Tran: I think casting is a huge part of it, like 70, 80 percent. It’s literally how these people talk. They talk like water dripping from a closed tap. And I just told the actors to take their time. And on set, we also had the AD timing the scenes, so I knew exactly what we were working with rhythm-wise. The scene where the three girls are in the bedroom painting their nails, then Kim leaves and Lin and Amy have this long conversation — that is the longest scene of the movie, and we shot that first. I really liked the pacing of it, so from then on, I was like, OK, let’s base everything off the rhythm of that scene.

For the silences, I would remind them of how we approach difficult conversations in real life if you’re not a confrontational person, if you’re not someone who talks over someone or gets angry or yells. And you know, that’s something that is really Asian. I rarely see Asian people yelling at each other. We just say things really calmly. So sometimes I would give directions like, Say it like this but make sure you don’t raise your voice. Or, How do you communicate that you’re angry without raising your voice? Or, How do you communicate that you’re annoyed but remain silent? Sanford Meisner said silence is an absence of words but never an absence of meaning, and I was always reminding the actors of that. And they were so fantastic, so I didn’t really have to do that much work.

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