Sunday, June 17, 2012

"People are inconsistent philosophical creatures": Patrick Wang on theatre, resourcefulness, and keeping it In the Family

Unfolding as a deeply immersive slow burn, in quiet rooms warmed and lived-in and painted by soft autumnal light, In the Family leads us to a place few films do: it is at once its own very specific world and a world that almost anyone can recognize. When the film is done you feel you’ve lived there for a time. The quotidian calm of the opening scenes is ruptured by an ordinary tragedy, a car accident that will throw everything into disarray without ever resorting to forced theatrics, and the film goes on to tell of a somewhat unusual conflict—a custody battle between a gay man and the family of his dead partner—in terms that are both realistic and generous in spirit. It takes its time to get where it’s going, and there are detours along the way, but every moment is filled with small discovery, a dialogue between memory and the present that builds steadily and complicatedly toward a powerful emotional release.

In the Family is the first feature from Patrick Wang, who has a degree in economics and a long history in the theatre and is originally from Texas. In the canon of great American debuts the film feels closest in spirit to Kenneth Lonergan’s You Can Count On Me. (It’s worth noting that Lonergan also has a background in theatre.) Wang worked long and arduously to get everything right, so right that he wound up writing, producing, directing, starring in and even distributing his film himself: despite its scale, In the Family is very much an artisanal film. Wang made it in Martin, Tennessee, because it seemed like “a place where you could find anyone.” Though Joey, Wang’s character, isn’t just anyone; he’s a man of great integrity, and it’s rare that protagonist so fundamentally decent can be so captivating. As is Wang himself. We spoke about his career and In the Family as the film began trickling into Canadian cinemas a couple of weeks ago.

JB: How did you move from economics to the theatre?

Patrick Wang: For many years I was doing both. My fellow economists were always fascinated by theatre, while my fellow thespians were always asking me about economics. [Laughs] I don’t see them as all that different. In the sciences there’s a great need for creativity, while in the arts there’s a lot of room for analysis. They use different muscles in different proportions. Obviously, it’s very different work.

JB: Had you worked in theatre primarily as a director or actor?

PW: When I started my own company my background was mostly as an actor. So I had lots of questions. I did my first directing with the company. That’s where I learned. And what I learned in the theatre is what got me through this film. I learned to talk to collaborators. I didn’t have a very visual background and always thought that was my weakness, so dialogue with designers was something I worked to cultivate. Theatre is pretty low-key in terms of certain barriers, such as getting people to teach you how they do their work. That inviting atmosphere was everything to me.

JB: In the Family holds this nice tension between what might be regarded as theatrical and cinematic elements. So often filmmakers are taught to think of the theatrical as a bad thing.

PW: All my favourite filmmakers have been people of the theatre: Tony Richardson, Ingmar Bergman, John Cassavetes, Orson Welles. Where they land is pure cinema, but there’s a certain confidence, a set of priorities that includes performance and literature. They know what performance can do on its own without adding all these other elements to support it.

JB: Was it always your intention to write, direct, produce and act in In the Family?

PW: I started with the script and assumed that was the only thing I’d be doing. I thought I’d leave the rest to the professionals. I looked for producers and directors and other people to work on it. There’s nothing in this project that promises to do wonders for anyone’s career—you just have to love the project. I’m sure there are people out there who would have been perfect matches, but you start down this road and at some point wonder if this search is very good use of your time. You start to wonder what would happen if you tried this or that hat on. Can I do these tasks with the proper respect the roles demand? Will the project lose something because of it? Those are hard questions. The roles accumulated over time. First came writing, then producing, then directing, then acting. I was most resistant to the acting.

JB: The part seems tailor-made for you.

PW: When I wrote the part I did not see myself in it. And we didn’t rewrite him for me. I think that over time I simply moved more towards the character. You start to feel this need to defend a character or a story, a play or a film, because you worry that it can be so easily misunderstood. You want to be there to help it, to foster it.

JB: Working in theatre teaches you to take long breaths, and In the Family is a film composed of long breaths. It allows each scene the space it needs to breathe. The result is that it’s 169 minutes long, which is kind of audacious for an unknown filmmaker making his feature debut, with no stars. But the film’s duration is essential for it to do what it does emotionally, to tell its very particular story.

PW: The running time did make me worry for the film’s life. I kept thinking there’s got to be some way to cut it down. But every time I tried I became only more convinced that this was the length the film needed to be. Otherwise you risk losing its uniqueness. You wind up making things more obvious. The film as is doesn’t clearly signal where it’s going. It takes false turns. It feels more honest. Our lives tend to favour a certain tempo. We’re used to movies and TV that function at this accelerated rhythm. But I think the reason people can roll with In the Family is because it’s inviting. It doesn’t tell you things; it lets you find things. It gives you the space to put your own life up there. We don’t get many opportunities to really meditate on certain heavier moments in life. So perhaps it’s a kind of luxury to sit and deal with these things.

JB: Physical space seems just as integral to In the Family as temporal space. The house your character lives in, this house he’s helped construct, this house from which a huge part of his life has suddenly disappeared: that’s one space. The house that Cody’s sister inhabits is a very different space, one that says a lot about her. The most interesting contrast comes from the house that Joey’s client is having renovated. So space, domestic space, is hugely important, but again, when you’re working with a very limited budget it can’t be easy to define such spaces so precisely.

PW: A lot of our budget went to locations for exactly the reasons you’re addressing. Sometimes you just need the right space. Maybe you cut a day out of your production, but it’s worth the investment. The right space and right density of detail. There’s something about production design that, even when on location, can feel false. Sometimes it’s too neat; sometimes it’s too self-consciously cluttered. I was able to work with a very talented production designer, and we spent a lot of time on density of detail, on searching for that feeling of home, the way a home can change its character over the course of a day. Especially when it’s empty. I think people recognize that, the feeling of an empty home on a Saturday afternoon when the neighbour’s cutting the lawn.

JB: I want to ask you more about Joey. Your performance is very rigorous about not pushing the emotion. But I don’t think it’s correct to say that Joey’s emotionally reserved; he’s very unobtrusive. It’s a quality that becomes apparent early in the film, in the hospital most obviously. He never makes it explicit to the hospital staff that Cody is his partner, that he should be in the room with him.

PW: It’s not that Joey resigns himself. He keeps trying to get what he wants, but not in a way that’s abrasive. I appreciate the care you take with words when trying to describe him, because a lot of people call him passive. I don’t believe that to be correct. In terms of getting things done in his life he’s a very active person. But he’s a peaceful person, and that’s typically seen as anti-dramatic.

JB: He takes enormous risks.

PW: He places his trust in people. His risks hinge on the idea that people can change.

JB: Which I think brings us to politics. In the Family is densely political in so many ways, not the least being the sheer fact that its protagonist is at once Asian-American, gay, Southern, and working class. But nowhere in this film will you find anyone coming out and articulating a polemic. No one’s waving flags. I’m not even sure that anyone even uses the word “gay” once in the entire movie.

PW: You’re right. It’s never used. I noticed at some point in the writing that this language of identity wasn’t coming up. I thought that was interesting. You expect there will come a moment when a character will explain the conflict. But these people just don’t talk that way. I think you see more of what’s it’s like to be of a minority race in this film than a lot of films that place race firmly in the foreground. People are more than any one thing, and in Joey’s case you’re never sure what part of him people are responding to. People themselves might not know what they’re responding to. People are inconsistent philosophical creatures. For a film to neglect that aspect of human nature doesn’t feel as interesting to me. If we talk about this film as an exercise of sympathies, then there has to be some kind of distance for us to cover. We need to stretch a little to reach out to these people. We need to make that investment in faith.

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