Life’s Lessons: Patrick Wang Discusses In the Family
Joey Williams almost always seems calm. He maintains a consistent position when standing, slouched slightly forward with his hands in his pockets. He looks comfortable, but also concentrated. His eyes never break focus from the person he’s addressing, and when he speaks the Tennessee-accented words drift measuredly out of one side of his mouth. Joey doesn’t command attention so much as he gradually, patiently draws it his way.
Joey is the main character of Patrick Wang’s directorial debut feature, the American independent film In the Family (2011), which will be released on Blu-ray and DVD this Tuesday. The general contractor, faithful lover and father is played by Wang himself, named as one of Filmmaker’s “25 New Faces of Independent Film” last year. Wang also wrote, produced, and distributed the film, with this last responsibility assumed through a combination of faith and creative problem-solving; after receiving rejection notices from more than 30 film festivals, the filmmaker personally arranged a gradually widening roll-out campaign of theatrical engagements that has since led to overwhelmingly positive responses both from critics and from casual audience members.
Joey also faces adversity. His frequently calm demeanor contrasts with his circumstances: His partner, Cody (played in early scenes and then in flashbacks by Trevor St. John), has recently died in a car crash, leaving behind him and their six year-old son Chip (Sebastian Banes). Furthermore, Cody’s loss leaves Joey in danger of losing Chip as well, as Cody’s married and wealthier sister, Eileen (Kelly McAndrew), produces a long-outdated will to help her insist that the best thing for her nephew now would be to live with her.
In other hands, In the Family might have focused on generating tension out of conflict-driven plot mechanics. Instead, Wang and his collaborators have created a philosophical drama. The film shows this early on as Sally, her husband, and Cody’s mother all surge forth to visit their dying kin’s hospital room, while a nurse stops Joey and tells him that he can’t join them because only family members are allowed. We stand behind Joey as he receives the news, preventing us from seeing his reaction. Our not immediately knowing how he feels raises questions: How would any of us feel in his situation? How would we respond? What does it mean to be family?
Many of In the Family’s scenes play out this way, with the viewer facing dilemmas at the same time that Joey encounters them. The path that his struggles take him on is towards deciding not simply what he will do in order to stay with his son, but what he is willing to do, willing to let go of, and what matters to him the most in his life. As Joey talks with friends and sympathizers or simply sits in thought over the course of long one-shot scenes rendered in middle distance, the film gives us time and space to contemplate our own values.
At the same time, the care with which In the Family proceeds gives its universal story a quality of rich, particular detail. Throughout, moments that might initially seem incidental work to develop both character and plot. For instance, after Cody’s funeral, Joey and Chip come back home together. Joey sits at the kitchen table, exhausted; meanwhile, Chip grabs a glass and a bottle of beer, pours, and then, as his father watches, takes the first gulp. The moment humorously suggests that Chip is as capable of making choices as any adult is, and that his father trusts him. Whatever decisions Joey makes about their future won’t be decided alone.
Filmmaker spoke with Wang after the conclusion of the 2012 edition of the São Paulo International Film Festival, where In the Family screened with its writer/director/producer/actor in attendance.
Filmmaker: What’s your story?
Wang: My parents are from Taiwan. They came to the United States for graduate school in Missouri, where they met, then both found work in Houston, Texas. That’s where I was born, and where I grew up. I went to MIT to become a physicist and ended up graduating as an economist, a job I held for years before becoming a filmmaker. In college I discovered theater, which is probably the most important foundation for my filmmaking. With theater I learned the two most important things for In the Family: One, how to work and talk with actors, and two, how to work and talk with designers. When you move from theater to film you have some new tools to learn, but the heart of it, for me, is the same.
For instance, I remember that in Boston I was directing a production of Edward II that required designing masks to tell the Greek myth of Actaeon and Diana. I had all these elaborate ideas for how the masks would transform with mechanical moving pieces, and then my mask-maker said, “Just look at this.” He took Diana’s mask, which was a generic Greek face mask, and pointed it down. Pointed down, it was the demure Diana bathing. Then he pointed it up—that’s all he did, he just pointed it up—and suddenly it was an angry god. And I will never forget that lesson in how you can metamorphose characters, scenes, and stories efficiently and with elements that already exist. I’ve tried to remember this in everything I’ve worked on since.
Filmmaker: How did you bring your own experiences with romantic relationships and with child-rearing to the film?
Wang: I tried not to use specific details from my life. I do feel like you can’t escape your life, but I try to make fiction thinking as little about what I already know as possible, and much more wondering about these other people. I like to start with things far away from me. I’m not a parent, and I am not in a long-term relationship, and I haven’t lived in Tennessee. The parts of my life where I have been in some type of relationship, where I’ve interacted with little kids or observed other people interacting with them, came into play, but I think it’s nice that they sat in the background while I wondered about these very specific people in the foreground.
Filmmaker: How was your father relevant?
Wang: He was very relevant to the production of the film. I had already written the script, but I wouldn’t have made it myself if he hadn’t gotten ill very suddenly. His illness reminded me that you don’t know how much time you have left. I looked for something meaningful to do. I had this film written, I thought I could do it, and I suddenly wanted to. He passed away in November 2010, a couple weeks after we finished shooting the film. He never got to see the movie, but I’m very glad we got a chance to talk about it.
There are also a lot of elements of my dad throughout the film. My dad was the kind of guy that invited other people to open up, and didn’t draw a lot of attention to himself. But there was still drama in his life. He was still very active, he got a lot done gracefully in messy times, and that spirit was something that I wanted to see onscreen. People like that don’t seem to belong to the current dramaturgical model. It seems like most contemporary dramas come from the idea that you have to have broken people doing terrible things to each other. I think that there should also be other kinds of lead characters who are dramatic the way that life is naturally dramatic, not because they engage in extreme behavior. These are the people who actually know how to navigate life’s disasters, so I think there is a lot to learn from them.
So Joey, even though he’s not literally my dad, shares elements of his spirit. My father was an immigrant, and I thought about him during those scenes where Joey is adrift in the legal system. You’re in this new world, depending on the generosity of strangers, but with some good luck and some hard work, you somehow find your way through it.
Filmmaker: How did the writer part of you come up with the film’s story?
Wang: It is very difficult for me to start to write by thinking of a trajectory of events, what comes to be referred to as the film’s story. I start with this family, these two dads and young child. One day a very quotidian scene from their life popped into my head, and I found myself very curious about them. At first my curiosity stayed in the present tense, what does a day in their life look like, what do they do? When I felt grounded enough in the present, I moved backwards, how did they get where they are? Then you’re really grounded. You return to the present, and now you’re ready to move forward. And you subject the family to shocks and shifts, and because you know them intimately by now, you can have them respond honestly and see where it leads you. Their responses tell you where not to go. Their responses told me that a courtroom climax would be a dud. Eventually, I chose the set of events that tested and revealed the most about these people, the ugly bits and the gorgeous.
Filmmaker: Had you cast yourself in the part of Joey from the beginning?
Wang: No. I thought that I would write the film and then hand it off to someone else. I didn’t expect to direct, produce, or act in it. My playing Joey was my producer’s suggestion. He produced short films that I had acted in, and as I talked to him about the project, he felt that I would be able to play the role, and that instead of investing time in finding and working with someone, I should do it. It took some time to convince me to consider it, and then I spent several weeks auditioning myself and evaluating whether this would be a disaster.
Filmmaker: How did the actor part of you build the character?
Wang: Bit by bit. I sit and imagine the character’s life, I feel out the words. Accents sometimes help me, because they make me think about the patterns of how people think and feel. That core, plus a context of place, is how I like to root accents, rather than working from the outer technical layer of phonetics. It took a few months of working on Joey’s voice before it started to settle. One part of the process was talking to people from Martin and thinking about the range of Tennessee accents I had experienced. But a much larger part was figuring out the pace and rhythm at which Joey thinks.
Joey’s physicality was probably rooted in two things. He’s a guy who works with his hands, and a guy who’s very much at ease with himself. For his walk I found the right pair of boots and flashed back to growing up in Texas. Also with physicality, when you have the luxury of time, living with a character for a long time, things can start to emerge unconsciously. I remember watching dailies sometimes and thinking, “Where did that move come from? It’s perfect, I’m just not sure how we got there.”
I’m not particularly Method. On set I flip back and forth really fast, so once “Cut” is called the accent is gone, the attitude is gone, and the director hat is back on. And of course a huge part of why it was so easy to flip the character back on again was because I was working with wonderful actors. The ensemble made this performance possible by doing most of the heavy lifting for me. I cast great actors, and then reacted to them.
Filmmaker: How did the director part of you work with the actors?
Wang: I didn’t have any actor in mind when I was writing the script. Then, once we had the actors, I didn’t change many words. With the exception of a number of times that I can count on my hands, the film’s dialogue was spoken as scripted.
With that said, I still wanted the actors to improvise. I love improvisation, but it doesn’t have to be textual. If you write with enough space, the actors have room for all sorts of interpretations. I love interpretations that surprise me, and I really value surprise, especially moments when characters surprise themselves.
An example from the film is a flashback to a time when Joey and Cody didn’t know each other well. Cody is drunk and feeling bitter. Although it is a dark time for him, the scene was written lightly in some parts. We did three takes on set, and each one was completely different, which is a testament to the range of my scene partner Trevor St. John. The take I ended up using is the only one that has some violence in it, where the lighter moments I envisioned as the writer did not materialize. The way the take unfolded made the eventual relationship between Cody and Joey less obvious. It didn’t have to be. If the scene had been more comfortable, it might have seemed like they would end up together no matter what, but with things being hostile to begin with, and one person hardly even recognizing the other, we were given much more distance to cover.
We were also given more opportunity to reveal the characters. On one hand, you have Cody’s behavior, which shows a surprisingly violent instinct that seems out of place with what you’ve known so far, and then, on the other hand, you have Joey’s response. You see how well and coolly he handles it, and get a sense of what he might have dealt with at other points in his life. The final version of the scene says a lot about who these people are.
Filmmaker: How did you find Sebastian Banes, who plays Chip?
Wang: We auditioned about 15 kids, from five to nine years old. In that age range, there are only so many kids that can remember all their lines, and so the longest, most dialogue-heavy scenes were the audition scenes. Sebastian was six, the same age as the character in the script, and he had a remarkable memory. He was also remarkable for how fearless he was, and for his big heart. There wasn’t anything spoiled about him. As precocious as he was, it didn’t seem abnormal. He had all these very natural, charming elements.
Kids supposedly can’t process a lot of direction at that age, so I decided that I wanted a kid I could direct nonverbally. The way I would direct him would be as a scene partner. I could speed things up, I could slow things down, he could sense the changes in tone and character and react. And Sebastian was phenomenal at this. He loved it. It was a game that kept us connected and kept everything a little surprising. And then afterwards I learned that not only could he do that but, contrary to what a lot of adults think about kids, he was able to remember 50 directions at once, and could perform degrees of variation very easily. When an actor has all those facets, the two of you just need to spend a little time getting used to each other and rehearsing to make sure you can do scenes a few times in a row without problems. And then you play.
Filmmaker: How did you create the theatrical space with your cinematographer, Frank Barrera?
Wang: We didn’t talk about any of the visuals to start with. We went through the script, and I said, “I just want to talk about what’s happening in each of these scenes. What’s going on? Why do we care? What are people not saying? What are they feeling?” Something to hang our hat on, some core we could come back to if we ever got confused. We did that for a month, then started talking about visuals. We’d talk shots, scene by scene. We had no master plan, but as we went through, some ideas started to align with each other. We didn’t write too much down. We had something most indie films don’t have, which is a lot of time in pre-production (over five months), so we could afford to let the ideas meander a little bit, let the good ones mature, let the bad ones fall away. You don’t have to nail down too much to begin with, because the good ideas will stick around. You won’t be able to stop thinking about them.
By about a month or two from production, we had a cinematic language. We were aligned to the point of our instincts moving very fast and in tandem on set, which they needed to, because we only had a three-week shoot.
That’s what it was like working with Frank. Each designer’s a little different, like each actor is a little different. I remember when I first interviewed my sound designer, Johnny Marshall, I asked him how he imagined the film’s soundscape. The first thing he said was, “For a film like this, the score is going to be very important.” And I said, “I actually don’t think I’m going to have a score.” He told me later that he thought he had lost the job at that point in the conversation, but what I loved about him was that I could tell him something like that and he was open-minded enough to reorient himself, run in this new direction, and see where we went. That was an important trait for all of my key collaborators — they could take blows to their expectations and still have something to contribute.
Filmmaker: You decided that you would mainly use medium shots and only cut when necessary. Why?
Wang: Being new to directing film, I was in awe of the cut. I tried to use it sparingly — you understand much more about the tool when you’re not wielding it willy-nilly. A lot of the shots seem like what would be referred to as mediums, but they’re not so easy to pin down. Composition is shifting within them. I wanted to have a within-shot dynamic, where we transform, let the medium become a close-up, become a wide, etc. You can do that literally, by actors moving from foreground to background to change the shot. You can do it contextually, too. I used the back of Joey’s head to fill the frame sometimes, so that we were technically wider, but because of the way that negative space was carved out, we gained a contextual close-up of what was happening in the remainder of the frame. The metamorphosis of the shot was very important, and lets you achieve a visual dynamic without cutting or moving the camera.
Filmmaker: Why show the back of Joey’s head so much?
Wang: I think that movies show people’s faces too much. In a lot of instances, it doesn’t take much imagination to get what they’re going through. But there’s also an ulterior motive in my film, which is that I know that when people look at Joey, he’s not what they’re expecting. There’s this dissonance between the American Southern voice and the East Asian face, especially early on. One thing to do to invite people not to worry so much about that is to take away the front of the face, at least to begin with. People are then invited to use their imaginations and put themselves in his situation, which helps it become much more personal.
There’s sometimes a flattening that happens when you lay everything out and give too much access to information. I wanted some mystery in order to attract people. I think mystery is the most interesting force in a film, and it doesn’t flow just in one direction. We want to feel like we’ve gotten somewhere, so we have to answer some questions. And if the subject matter and the people are interesting enough, we’ll have some more. How to give information while adding questions in a way that stays engaging is the dance of narrative in a film. By making sure that we do both those things, we keep the film honest and balanced.
I think that finding answers to questions while asking more questions is also very naturally the shape of how we get to know people. Even though In the Family’s ways of giving information about people may seem unusual for film, they’re not that unusual for life. We meet people in the present day, usually doing something pretty unremarkable, and parts of them are revealed to us as time goes on. We get to know little pieces of their past, though not in order, which raises questions. And then sometimes some setting will come up that can answer some of them. It can be an extraordinary setting, like the legal deposition, where for the first time Joey tells certain stories from his life with Cody to Cody’s sister and her husband. Sometimes you may have known and been close with people for years, but the opportunity to learn about essential parts of their histories doesn’t come up.
Filmmaker: Films in which characters have legal problems typically end with courtroom confrontations. Yours doesn’t. Why not?
Wang: The way to make a film full of surprise is to let the film keep surprising you as you make it. When I was writing In the Family, I let the plot branch off in all sorts of paths. And to figure out if you’re going off course you have to have a good honesty meter and be able to say, “Ah, this doesn’t smell right.” Every time the film started going into the courtroom, it didn’t feel right. It didn’t feel right for how the people were behaving, but it also didn’t feel right spiritually, in that it didn’t seem like a third party should come in and decide their fates. I think that there are enough movies whose messages are just “Fight harder, fight harder.” And that’s where the courtroom leads you — towards structured fighting. I wanted something else.
I didn’t know what at first, though. It came down to a scene where Paul [played by Brian Murray], a lawyer, is giving Joey advice. The writer and the main character were equally lost. I must have gone through dozens and dozens of versions of that scene by giving myself advice and seeing if it made sense. And finally this advice came across that was not only very helpful, but was what I needed to find a solution for the film. If I had never hit on that advice, I don’t think there would have been a film worth making.
Filmmaker: How was the finished film different from what you had originally envisioned?
Wang: It was very different. Two ways immediately come to mind. One is that it was much richer than I had imagined. The density of detail, and how many different things could happen at once from the different layers of design. As each element and tool of production and post-production came into play, we were able to add to a density that I find shocking.
The other thing that surprised me was the running time. I thought I was making a two-hour film. When we were shooting scenes, they felt great — you can feel the performance on set, and you can feel that something wonderful is happening — but I would hear the times read back to me by the script supervisor and was confused. Things were running so much longer than I had expected. At first I thought that she couldn’t keep time, and I thought, “This is a problem.” But then I realized, “Okay, she’s actually reading back the right times, and I’ve got to figure out what’s happening here. Why is this happening? It’s obviously not something terrible, because we’re loving how the scenes are playing out. They feel right.”
What I found is that the actors were doing something really beautiful. I had written certain words, but the actors were combining what was written with the actions of people processing information, deciding what to say or not to say. It is sometimes in this processing and what we choose not to say that we truly reveal ourselves. The scenes weren’t artificially elongated to emphasize anything — they were just naturally bigger than they appeared on the page because content was expanding. Sometimes, when you’re trying to realize the many dimensions of a character, one of the dimensions the character must occupy is time. I found what the actors were doing to be very delicate, in a way I don’t see in film very often. They were taking their time.
I would come to a decision a number of times in making this film: If something appeared that seemed unusual but beautiful to me, I erred in the direction of keeping that unique thing alive. I wanted to keep things I hadn’t seen before, and they became key parts of the film.
Filmmaker: How did you choose the film’s title?
Wang: I love how these three words are so versatile. They sound like they could be inclusive or exclusive all at once. I like how they are an odd mash-up of expressions for gay people and gay life: “family” and “in the life.” The phrase invites a lot of specific, strong feelings, while staying fluid.
Filmmaker: The film does not contain the words “gay,” “homosexual,” or “marriage.” Why not?
Wang: I definitely didn’t set out with that intention. But I recognized the absence of these words halfway through the writing and thought, “Oh, this is interesting.” These things that I would have expected to see and these words I might have expected to hear didn’t materialize. And I thought, “Well, let’s see where this goes.”
What happens is that, when you look at people at specific moments in their lives, there are certain things you don’t see and certain things they don’t say. These people in the film don’t use the language of identity that way. I don’t know if that’s true for all of their lives, but definitely in the film’s scenes that’s what happens.
I did recognize at one point that because words of identity and political words are very loaded for people, their absence could make the film more inviting. But as a writer, I didn’t have a strong aversion to those words — it was just about being open to what feels honest in these moments in people’s lives, and whatever it is, you’ll go with.
Filmmaker: How do you see In the Family as being educational?
Wang: I only see it as educational in the way it has been educational to me. I learned a lot about people, about the nature of conflict, about families, and about what is possible in film. I never set out with the education of others in mind. It’s more my own education, and I think that if anybody has anything to gain from the film, it’s because it mirrors what I have gained as I’ve followed my curiosity.