Watching Patrick Wang’s 169-minute masterwork, “In the Family,” with a packed house at this year’s Ebertfest was one of the great moviegoing experiences of my life. Rarely have I felt so engaged and invested in the lives of characters unfolding on the screen. The audience surrounding me certainly shared in my enthusiasm, as they broke into applause on a number of occasions, before giving the picture a well-deserved standing ovation during its end credit roll. I was then astonished to learn during the post-film Q&A that Wang, the film’s star and first-time writer/director, was a graduate of MIT with a degree in economics.
A glance at the film’s synopsis suggests a standard melodrama. Joey (Wang) falls into a passionate relationship with a widower, Cody (Trevor St. John). Together, they raise Cody’s young son, Chip (Sebastian Banes), who comes to know Joey as his second father. When Cody suddenly dies in a car accident, Joey finds himself in the midst of a custody battle with Cody’s sister, Eileen (Kelly McAndrew), who believes it’s her responsibility to raise Chip. The genius of Wang’s approach is the extent to which he lets each scene breathe, allowing the humanity to resonate in characters who could’ve easily been rendered two-dimensional. Like Stephen Cone’s “The Wise Kids,” “In the Family” is a profoundly moving and insightful work with the power to bridge divisions between ideological enemies.
In this exclusive, in-depth interview, Wang spoke with Indie Outlook about the experience of making his first movie, his plans for the future and the special features accompanying his film’s June 25th Blu-ray/DVD release.
Q: As an MIT grad with a theatre background, at what point did your relationship with cinema begin?
A: Even as a spectator, it started kind of late. It wasn’t until college that there was a Landmark [Theatre] near MIT, and I started going there to discover some movies. That was in the ’90s when indie film was a little different. I first started working in movies as an actor in 2001, so it’s still fairly new in my life. Film was initially just part of my actor’s portfolio. As an actor, you want to do different things, and every so often, a short film would come up. After I moved to New York, I started writing for the theatre. One of the places I got hired as an actor was at NYU in their screenwriting program. They hire actors to read the final screenplay projects of their MFA screenwriters. You get hired as an actor and come in for a week, maybe two, and read solid screenplays. They would have a little festival of readings, and sometimes they would hire you to come into class and read the screenplay for the students to discuss. From these discussions and experiences, I learned what a screenplay was, and thought that it might be something I could write.
Q: It seems that you benefitted from learning the craft without the contrived blueprint provided by many film schools.
A: When you’re in the pragmatism of a program, there are certain things that are done for the sake of progress or moving you in certain direction. I don’t think I would’ve done very well in that setting. I felt terrible for the screenwriters in class. The people weren’t terrible, but everyone was so sure about everything, and I was not. [laughs] I would look at the material and wonder how people could be so sure about these things. A lot of times, people would respond very quickly, and sometimes it would be a very wise response. But if you’re looking at a piece of moderate complexity, you have to take time to digest it, and I found that happening on our set.
A lot of people responded to something in the name of doing their job or in the name of making it “a film,” before they realized how it would fit into the picture. There’s an open-endedness about my approach that may not have fit well into a film school setting. You may learn the same grand lessons and patterns of things, but if you learn them for yourself, you understand how to use them much better. I was very lucky to get a lot of experience in theatre where no one can see that work [laughs], and where you can build that experience and that sense of what is dramatic and meaningful and how things play out in time.
Q: Were there skills you learned at MIT that you were able to apply to filmmaking?
A: There’s this dichotomy of art and science that doesn’t make a whole lot of sense to me. There’s a lot of need for creativity in science and there’s a lot of need for analysis in art. If art just consists of feeling, it’s nothing. It needs some sort of structure to shape it. I learned a lot about creativity and the arts at MIT. I took a lot of music classes, for example. The ability to analyze something and stare down a blank page taught me the most. Suddenly, if you’re in this new world, it’s not as intimidating. You think, “I can figure this out. I’ve stared down that blank page before. I’ve started out not knowing anything, and I’ve built up the knowledge I need.” Whatever your major is at MIT, that’s a huge part of it. People at MIT end up going on to do a lot of different things.
Q: Were there any particular filmmakers or playwrights who made you want to try your hand at storytelling?
A: I’m not sure that any of them made me want to try my hand at it, but when I did, there were certainly people who set the bar so high, and I knew that I wanted it in my life. Tony Richardson was definitely one of them. There are two films he made that I absolutely adore. He did an adaptation of “Hamlet” that has the strangest cast. It stars Marianne Faithfull as Ophelia and Anthony Hopkins as Claudius. Nicol Williamson plays Hamlet, but he looks older than his uncle. It’s really beautiful, and to me, it’s the closest a film has ever gotten to capturing the essence of Shakespeare as I have imagined it. It makes sense psychologically, and it was one of the first film adaptations of a play that set its action in a warehouse, long before that technique became popular.
“The Loved One” is the other Richardson film that I adore. It showed me how big a movie can be. [laughs] At the heart of all my favorite filmmakers is a love of actors. Bergman, Cassavetes…they all love the art of performance, and they have origins in theatre. They love writing too. In theatre, I remember reading plays that effected me quite a bit. I love Arthur Miller and Samuel Beckett. I remember the first time that I saw “Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?” That was a pretty big moment in understanding what theatre could be, especially modern theatre.
Q: “Virginia Woolf” has big enough emotions to fill a stage or screen, and yet it feels intimate at the same time, much like “In the Family.” Other films have been made about gay parents attempting to get custody of their children, and the characters are often painted in very broad strokes. It becomes a formulaic battle between good and evil.
A: Everyone likes to write an interesting story, but if you think about it, most people tend to write autobiographically, whether it’s an autobiographical film or it’s a one-person play, which are often uninteresting. [laughs] It’s all a matter of knowing where to look. You can tell a story that resembles fodder for melodrama, and if you know where to look, it suddenly becomes much more interesting. That’s just my general feeling about story, and you’re right that my film could’ve followed a formulaic pattern. People have asked me how I’ve been able to resist it, and my answer is that it just wasn’t interesting. There are certain places that I don’t think we get anything from by going there, or we don’t get anything that we didn’t already know.
For this particular story, it started out with the family, and then you figure out what their life is like. Then you figure out, bit by bit, what’s going on and what complicates things. You never lose track of the rest of their lives, because I think that’s where they reveal themselves. It’s not the drama that happens to them, it’s how they respond to it. That’s where the character is revealed, so I would never forget about the rest of what was going on. I also let myself not know where the story was going at times, and hopefully the audience will feel that too when they watch the movie. The reason they don’t quite know where it’s going is because, as a writer, I didn’t know either, and I wanted to keep that sense of uncertainty. Sometimes things get so streamlined in scripts to convey a sense of professionalism. It has to be lean and slick, but that slickness makes it quite predictable. You’re only getting essential facts, so you know exactly what the groove is down the road.
Q: If Joey had a black and white worldview, his story would’ve gone in a different direction. His climactic monologue serves as a vital antithesis to our current antagonistic culture.
A: There are a lot of pieces of us that are different, but if you sit down and become familiar with the similar things, they help you through the differences. Who knows if those similarities will resolve anything? But they make you want to resolve it when you understand that there’s a human being on the other side.
Q: I thought of Joey when I saw the parents of a victim in the Sandy Hook shooting respond to the words of a commentator who said, “My right to bear arms is more important than your kid’s life.” Instead of reacting in anger, the parents calmly said, “We don’t want to demonize people, we want to change minds.”
A: Having been on his own for so long, Joey’s a very practical person, and that message of “Fight harder! Fight harder!” is not a practical thing. [laughs] It’s not practical for your own emotional health, and it’s not practical in where it gets you. If you think about his situation, if he fought harder—which would be the direction of most movies—it wouldn’t have gotten him anywhere. He has to look for alternatives, and he learns that you have to appeal to the good things in people. They don’t always show up when you appeal to them, but from time to time, they do, and that gets you a whole lot further, especially with all the other loaded elements that you bring to a new relationship. Finding these common elements helps you move forward, as opposed to a confrontation.
Q: One reason why your three-hour film doesn’t feel a minute too long is because the audience needs to feel how difficult an undertaking this is for Joey. By the end, you feel like you’ve been through the ringer with him.
A: One of the very satisfying things about the movie is that it is very hard to describe. That tells you when something is in its right form. When you can’t really describe a song or a painting, it’s because it’s in its right form, and you have to experience it in that form. Like you said, you have to spend the time and move through it before you understand what the film is.
Q: I was reminded of “Citizen Kane” when I saw how your opening credit sequence not only listed the actors alphabetically but placed your writer/director credit on the same card as your cinematographer, Frank Barrera.
A: That’s interesting. I’ve seen a number of Welles films. The old company credits would list actors as if in a theatre program. I remember when we were going through and doing the casting, and there were all these conversations about credits and cards, and I was like, “This is silly.” We were such a small film, and yet there were all these strange things that people were fighting for. Of course, every step of the way, people try to tell you how to arrange your movie down to the credits, and I’m the kind of person that you shouldn’t tell that to if you want me to go in that direction. [laughs] They told me what I had to do, and I did something completely different.
I said, “We are a company and this whole mess of cards is silly to me. Our work will come through or it won’t, and the card isn’t going to fool anyone.” I designed the credits to be as unlike the system of negotiation regarding cards as possible. It’s such a superficial, unnecessary conversation to have, and I think it resembles a lot of the places that your energy goes in the process of making a film that make no sense to me. I’m already going to be in a lot of the movie, and the audience already knows that I’m the director, so I thought it would be nice to share my writer/director card with the cinematographer. If you’re not a famous cinematographer, a lot of times your contributions aren’t recognized as much as they should be. Frank was really my partner in this. He taught me a lot while we were making this movie, and it would be so much less without him. He was my Gregg Toland. [laughs]
Q: You’ve mentioned in interviews that you and Frank spent a month just talking about the film’s story before you began discussing how to shoot it.
A: The really good cinematographers feel as much as anyone else. They have to fall in love with the actors, and they have to feel the story. We did spent a lot of time just talking about what was going on in the story. As a director, you need something to hang your hat on to inform you why you’re making this film. You need that, scene by scene, in your design, so if you start going off on a tangent, you can pull yourself back in. If you need to make a quick decision, you can look at where the center is in a given scene and reaffirm why you’re there. It answers a lot of questions that you may have.
Q: Your decision to avoid edits during a scene gives viewers the freedom to observe the characters on their own terms.
A: One of the horrible things that’s done with an edit is it takes away an actor’s performance. An actor’s about to make some change or decision, and then a cut comes or music comes and it hides what the actor is originating. The way a lot of these scenes in movies are designed and edited obscure the work of actors who I suspect may be great, but they haven’t had the chance to act. There are all these tricks that have been developed to make films actor-proof, but the result is they make them actor-free.
Q: There’s a wonderful scene where Joey and Chip come back home and their wordless behavior conveys so much about their relationship. Joey is devastated by recent events, and Chip tries breaking him out of his funk. What was your approach to choreographing scenes like this?
A: Each scene is a little different. They’re driven by what the actors need. For Sebastian, it was very simple. All the actions were written out on the page, and I would just go through them with him. One of the very nice things about working kids is that when you tell them something, they’ll understand it. I tell Sebastian to go get a Coke. Get the glass, go to the fridge, pour it, put the Coke back. Then you get my beer, you come to the table, you get my bottle opener, open it, and then we clink and drink. That’s all he needs to know, and the first take of that scene is the one in the film. Some wonderful things happened in that take. Sebastian struggled to open the bottle, and this is an example of a moment where the props manager would ordinarily rush in to make sure that the bottle would open right away in the next take, and I think that’s horrible.
We rehearsed that scene a number of times before the shoot, and every time we did it, he would struggle, but he wanted to do it. It’s in line with the idea of not knowing what’s going to happen, and it adds so much to the scene. It’s very realistic, and yet it’s the first thing that people are ready to kill. They just think it’s a mistake. Parents immediately identify differently when they see something like that because it’s so recognizable. You let that moment bring in this texture of character that you essentially can’t write. Maybe you can, but it would take a great deal of forethought to understand that this little nuance would be an opportunity to reveal so much about the character. It was a beautiful accident, and there were a number of those. You write everything you can and then a lot of the richness just comes from these accidents or things you’ve realized in the moment that you can add to it. Suddenly you find that you have something very thick and substantial.
Q: What’s the benefit of acting in a film you’re also directing?
A: Let’s say that I feel a scene is a little too slow. If I’m a participant in the scene, I can change up the rhythm, I can step on someone’s line, I can do some things to shake up the feeling in the room, to pull it towards what I think it needs to be or to add an element to something that will make it more interesting. If I’m just the director, I have to let it play out or cut and give the direction. Sometimes if you’re too explicit with verbal directions, it just ends up confusing the actors and makes them more self-conscious. Not having to be verbal with the direction was helpful, particularly with the kid. When he was getting into rote territory, I would do something to stop and really connect with him.
I’d throw him a little curveball and say a line completely differently than he had ever heard it, and then he’d have to wake up and engage. The nice thing is that the kids will always play with you. When you make the first move like that, they will play back. That was a way of keeping him engaged, and it worked very well with adults too. I remember when the three friends visit Joey. The scene gets funny and they enjoy each other’s company quite a bit, and I remember that I would work very hard to pull down the scene again. You need that opposition, but it would depend on what was going on, and I would adjust accordingly. There are things that you can tell actors, but it would take a couple more takes to get it, and that conversation may weigh down a scene in a way that’s less than ideal.
Q: One of the friends, Gloria, is played by Elaine Bromka, who played the mother in “Uncle Buck.” She brought down the house at Ebertfest when she silently gets up from the table and swiftly dials her lawyer in exasperation.
A: She’s a wonderful actress. Except for Brian Murray and Park Overall, everyone was new to me, and they were very kind to come in and audition. It was really a pleasure to learn about all of these people. There’s a great kindness to Elaine, as well as a warmth and a love for work. She’s also very funny. Her Gloria was very different from how I had imagined the character. I liked the mix of tools that she had, and how much she was able to convey nonverbally. I thought she was a really nice addition to this landscape of characters.
Q: Even though she doesn’t have many lines in “Uncle Buck,” she gets laughs simply by conveying her unease in reaction shots.
A: You have quieter characters in movies who are these rocks. They are very sure and certain of themselves and they have these particular personalities. They are very nice and very reliable but they’re not as popular because it takes a very specific type of person to understand them, and I think that’s what I saw in Gloria. I thought Gloria would bring out an element of Cody, since she was one of his friends. There was a deleted scene that showed Cody and Gloria interacting. Gloria is the sort of character you don’t think about as much but is capable of this great kindness if you get to know her. She functions in ways that are a little different. She doesn’t speak when you expect her to speak, she stands up and walks away when you expect her to remain seated. [laughs]
Elaine made the role a lot funnier, but the reason it was funny was she just let Gloria move in and out. She would be in her own thoughts and then she would connect. How clear those thoughts were and how much they registered was really nice. Other actresses would be blank and then something would come out, but for Elaine, Gloria was moving through her own groove. You could make something active even if it wasn’t directly engaged with a character. Gloria was still there, she was just more in her own world, but she would let you in. You could see what was going through her head, and I think that helps you follow a character that you don’t get to know too well. When you can see those thoughts registering, that’s a great help.
Q: There were a few projection problems at Ebertfest, so when your film began, and a sliver of light appeared in the upper-right corner of the screen, I thought there had been a mistake. Then it bloomed into one of the most striking fade-ins I’ve ever seen, as Chip awakens in bed.
A: I love that. A lot of people would worry that audiences will think it’s a mistake or that they’ll wonder whether the film is starting, but all of those feelings are useful in funneling people into the movie. I look at the opening scene as training wheels for how to watch the movie, and I think that shot is quite important in that process. When we were designing it, I explained it to Frank, and he was like, “We’ll start at the left and then move from left to right, because that how our eye moves.” I said, “No, it’s going to be the opposite,” because this is one of those films where the nature of the storytelling hinges on all of the details that you missed during that left-to-right movement. It wasn’t a hard shot to do, but it was more complicated than it looks.
If you’re going to have light on the child and in the room, you can’t just do a fade-in. The light in the room was panned in, while at the same time, there was an in-camera exposure change. Except for the first second or two, before that little square of light comes up, there is no fade-in. It’s accomplished through onset transitions and in-camera transitions. I wanted the image to keep changing and transforming without the camera moving at all. For example, the alarm clock goes off and then you see the child, so your attention changes. I like the idea of rediscovering something that was already there, and how a shot can transform and move based on how we shift the viewer’s attention. I was describing this opening to my production designer, and I think that’s when he fell in love with the movie. That’s when I knew I had the right production designer. [laughs] He said, “The way that we change so much in such a short period of time, and how much that does to prepare you for the movie, is very important.”
Q: In many shots, the camera is placed behind Joey’s head, enabling us to view the action from his perspective. But then you reverse it in scenes where the viewer is allowed into the world of other characters, such as when Eileen quietly views Joey from a distance.
A: Yeah, that’s very right. I love this idea of exploring the distance between people. That’s why a lot of the shots end up being pretty wide. If you’re too close to someone, you don’t understand the relationship. That shot of Eileen was pretty wide because we have to understand the distance between these two people. Sometimes not being explicit about what’s going on in a particular character’s head is nice. Giving the information full frontal kills the imagination and doesn’t add anything. Compositionally, the back of Joey’s head—because he has black hair—allows the audience to compose in a way that’s very interesting. I can take a wider shot and use that negative space of the head to make you see more details in the rest of the frame.
The other way you can do it is a POV shot where you don’t get the compositional advantage, and you also feel the need for a reverse shot. But if you see him somehow in it, then you still may feel the need for a reverse shot because that’s the normal way movies are made, but you can live without it a little more. Even from the back of his head, you can detect subtle body language. We didn’t do much ADR, so all of the lines and the body movements that accompany them help you feel him in those moments.
Q: How close was your collaboration with editor Edwaldo Baptiste? Were you both on the same page?
A: That’s a great question. It was a lot like the other collaborations. We didn’t start at the same place. We would always start apart because most people start on a Hollywood autopilot. When I learned the language of the film after it was developed with my DP, we were on the same page, but it took quite a bit of work. And just because we had figured it out didn’t mean that everyone else had quite figured it out. [laughs] That was kind of an awakening at one point. We were a couple weeks away from shooting and we realized that the gaffer still didn’t quite understand this language. That’s a problem if someone doesn’t understand how to light the film the way that you want to shoot it.
It was the same transition when we assembled the footage and I explained to Edwaldo what I was going for and what the style of the movie was going to be. In some of his first rounds of coverage, he would be on Hollywood autopilot. The camera would generally be on the person talking. I had to sit with him for the first quarter of the movie and explain why certain cuts were at certain places, why they sometimes weren’t necessary, and then he started to understand the feel of it. He also influenced me. I helped my collaborators realign their priorities, and their contributions made my values system richer. We had that adjustment period in the editing too, and then by about a quarter in, he was like “Oh, I get it.”
Q: Do you feel that your film’s length and its lack of big names were the primary reasons why it was turned down by many festivals?
A: I don’t know, and that’s unfortunate. I’m in the position of a lot of directors where we don’t really know what the thinking is. I’ve talked to a couple people involved in festivals who weren’t specifically the programmers who saw our film, and I don’t think they were particularly concerned that their festivals passed on the movie. We’re so used to thinking of “independent” as an industry term that we forget how it’s the pipeline and the machine, and if you don’t enter at certain points, you’re kind of lost to the machine. That’s what’s happened in the world of festival programming.
Like you said, if you’re not a known director, then you have a couple opportunities to access this machine, or maybe you know people who can help you access this machine. I didn’t know anyone, so I tried to enter through the open avenues, but I don’t know how seriously festivals take those avenues. The information that I’ve gotten indicates that very few festivals invest in the discovery process. One of the great regrets that I have at this point is that we’ve played a very limited engagement internationally. Almost all of continental Europe hasn’t played this movie, and from what I can see, no one is really interested in it, and that’s a great shame. Everyone from Europe who has seen it in the states or in Canada loves the movie and can’t believe that it hasn’t played in France or Germany.
A lot of us set out with the same desires. We feel that something is missing or misrepresented in the range of films we see, and you quickly understand why that may be missing. There are always forces conspiring to move you in a different direction for pragmatic reasons, but there are filmmakers who will refuse to hurt their movie, even if it means changing the running time. My film would mean less if the time was cut down. I know the [running time] has been an obstacle for some audiences, and that it will be interpreted as a mistake by others, particularly since it’s my first movie. But in some ways, none of that matters. I did cut scenes on many occasions, but you can’t cut it where it becomes less.
Q: Oftentimes I find that the deleted scenes in big-budget Hollywood films are more interesting than anything in the final cut, since the filmmakers are forced to cut anything that doesn’t simply move the plot forward.
A: Exactly, there’s too much concentration on event and explicit information. It misses a lot of the emotional space of a story. We can’t just be told these things, we have to feel them, and there’s a lot of information that can come across. Some of it is very subtle but powerful.
Q: Are you planning on making another film? I heard rumors about a project called “Above the Whirr.”
A: In the time since I finished “In the Family,” I’ve been self-distributing it, and I’ve had time to write on the road. I’ve written four scripts and “Above the Whirr” is one of them. It’s the hardest to describe. It’s a series of monologues and songs that are not technically related, but there is a flow through them. It takes the thing that works so well in “In the Family,” which is living with the same people over such a long period of time, and takes it away. You only get these very thin slices of a lot of different people. The challenge is to pull it together somehow and have it mean something. It’s sort of how I see our life. We get these slices of things.
We watch this video, we have this short conversation, we do this errand. Those small moments can be so dense and rich. How do they all fit together? It’s a question mark. There are a couple things I learned after going through “In the Family” that I hope to apply to whatever I do next. My films should have that question mark in that I shouldn’t know what they look like or how they will work. [laughs] If you know those things, then it’s done. The other thing that I liked about “In the Family” that kept me on course is that I didn’t assume I would make anything after it. I feel that with every movie you do, if it ends up being your last film, you should be satisfied with that.
Q: What special features can viewers expect to see on the “In the Family” DVD?
A: I’m falling in love with the DVD and Blu-ray. The film is on there and the extras provide some context. That’s been one of the lovely things about screening it. At Ebertfest, we had someone introduce it and had a conversation afterwards. One of the elements that I wanted to include was video essays. Kevin B. Lee, a critic who was part of the conversation at Ebertfest, made one of them, and a filmmaker, H.P. Mendoza, who led some Q&A’s when we were out in San Francisco, put together an essay too. Kevin’s is beautiful and very scholarly, while H.P.’s brings in a little more of the experience that we had on the road, watching the film with audiences. I put together two video essays myself. One walks the viewer through the deleted scenes and discusses them.
I’m curious about how the other video will go over. I focus on one scene in the film, and take you through the whole process of making that scene. We start with take one, then take two, take three—and I walk you through the differences and how it develops. Then I take you through color correction, and show how the scene gets sculpted along the way. To me, that was a fascinating part of this process. I tried to, in some ways, reveal the filmmaking as well as the path that we’ve been on during production. Then there are four written essays that also run the gamut. They’re written by Godfrey Cheshire, who’s a wonderful thinker and film critic, journalist Michael Guillén, filmmaker Dave Boyle, and Brian Hu, whose San Diego Asian Film Festival was the first one to program us.
I also put together a behind-the-scenes video even though we had no behind-the-scenes cameras. It will enlighten you about filmmaking process more than most behind-the-scenes videos. A lot of times what they do is they pull the camera back, everybody is saying complimentary things about everyone else, and you really have to hunt for the moments of truth, particularly on commentary tracks. I tried to make every extra different so that they give you a range of perspectives, while getting you to the heart of the film much quicker than you ordinarily would.