Patrick Wang [director of In the Family]: Interview
“You’re listening for the spirit of the thing, the heart of the thing, and the honesty of the thing.”
As the writer, director, and star, Patrick Wang is definitely the creative driving force on his debut feature film, In the Family, one of TMT’s favorite films from last year. Wang plays the lead role of Joey, a mild-mannered craftsman whose life is thrust into chaos when his partner Cody dies in a car accident. Set in small-town Tennessee (though shot in Yonkers), the film is a slow-drip Southern drama with a few emotional twists. The conflict centers on Joey’s relationship with Cody’s family, whose response to their loss is to pull Cody’s precocious son Chip away from Joey. The film is a meticulous and moving meditation on grief and the spirals of intimacy that can either bond or unravel families.
With its composed, wide framing, a hushed, at times purely ambient soundscape, and tempered performances, In the Family is distinguished by unusually mature rhythms and instincts. An MIT graduate with a background in economics and theater, Patrick is no Young Turk director fresh out of art school. This, and its two-plus-hours running time could explain why the film met with some initial indifference from the industry, eventually premiering at the Hawaii International Film Festival in October of 2011 before Wang took distribution matters into his own hands. Once the film hit screens (at festivals and theaters booked by Wang himself), it began garnering the attention it deserved. This somewhat belated Cinderella ending yielded glowing reviews (kicked off by The New York Times), as well as an Independent Spirit Award nomination.
I caught up with Patrick Wang a year later, on the eve of his New York re-release of In the Family, now at Cinema Village.
You wore a lot of hats on this project: writer, director, lead actor. What was the biggest challenge for you doing all of those on the same project?
I think the biggest one was the acting, because that’s the one I felt most out of touch with. It had been a number of years since I really acted, and I felt very rusty. I would say that’s the one I probably ended up doing the most preparation for. It also is a challenge when you’re on set, and you have to go back and forth very quickly. When it’s a long take it’s wonderful. You kind of get time, and no one can disturb you for five minutes or however long the take is. But when it’s a very short scene, especially when it’s supposed to be very short and emotional, to go back and forth between [being] an actor who is very emotional and [being] the director, and then right back into the actor for the next take – that was really tough.
I heard you spent several months sort of auditioning yourself, rehearsing?
Yeah, it was a couple of weeks auditioning myself. Because you know you’ve got to figure out if it can happen. [laughs] Can you really give yourself direction, and implement that direction? And then how quickly can you improve? Maybe you can do it, but you’ll be ready in three years. So I had to figure that out, and then once I thought, OK, it can be done, and that there are enough advantages to doing it, yeah, I spent a good five months rehearsing myself.
You would record it and watch the video?
Yeah, I would. At first it was a lot of recording and watching, so it was visual. Then I just started doing audio recordings, because I realized that you can hear a lot about a false performance. And when I was watching I would start to micromanage every little thing I did, and I found that the audio freed me up from that… You’re listening for the spirit of the thing, the heart of the thing, and the honesty of the thing. Once you have that core in there the rest kind of took care of itself. And I think a lot of that happened on set. We would have a performance, and sometimes I wouldn’t need to watch playback at all. You can feel it. Or sometimes you’d watch playback, and it wouldn’t look like it was there, because of the way your monitor is calibrated, or something else, but it’s there, you can feel it in the air. If you build up this sense of the honesty of the thing, I think it helps enormously. In some ways I was preparing my performance but I was [also] preparing another kind of sense at the same time.
So this process of auditioning and rehearsing yourself helped you when directing other actors as well?
It helped me in directing other actors in the same philosophy, that you don’t micromanage the little things, you go to the heart of what’s going on. The other thing is, being in the scene… I knew I wanted to do this with the kid [Chip], I knew that I didn’t want to give him so many explicit directions to have to remember. And so I thought, OK, I’m going to try and direct him from within the scene. And I found an actor who responded to that really well. Then I discovered this works well for adults, too! In that they’re very sensitive, they feel you in the scene. Especially when you have long takes, it’s a way of making pretty much every long take usable. I don’t have to let it go off track for the scene, and have to go back and give direction and correct it. From within the scene you can make a little change in character to get a change in the tempo or the mood of the scene.
Because I wrote the story not really knowing where it was going, and not really knowing who these people were at first, I think it naturally took that shape, where things are discovered as you go along.
So without articulating it specifically you found that the actors would respond to your changes as the scene was happening?
Yes, because I think they were good actors. They weren’t in their own space. They were listening, they were feeling, and they were flexible. So it was a combination of that technique plus the right actors.
The cast is definitely something that stands out about the film, particularly because of the visual style you chose, with no typical coverage and few close-ups. I found myself watching their faces more closely than I might if there were a tight close-up.
I’m so glad to hear that, because that’s one of the things I told the cast. Actors are so used to the idea that you have your close-up acting, and you have your wide acting, and I told them, I just want it on a human scale all the time. Even if we’re far away, even if there are five other people in the shot, I don’t want you to be surprised if people end up watching you closely. I think there’s such a thing as a contextual close-up. The way you watch a certain event, to me, says much more about the size of the shot and the action than the technical field of view. A lot of the shots have a static camera, and there weren’t different types of coverage. So I tried to transform it. That kind of dynamic is how you can get people to pay attention, because you keep changing the focus of the action. It was great to find actors who actually believed me when I told them that, and went with it.
So did you find yourself watching the playback? Or you felt that you had developed this language ahead of time and trusted that?
I watched much more playback the first week. I watched a lot of playback, and I watched a lot of dailies. I didn’t quite have the confidence yet. I had all of this information that was feeding back to me and that I felt good about, but I thought it would help just to be sure. And after that first week I became a lot more confident, so that I would just check in to see that there was nothing technically wrong with the take. And then if I was happy with how it felt I would watch maybe a still or two from certain key points, and then I’d be happy.
There are also some moments wherein you let the ambient sound cover the dialogue, or we can’t hear what the characters are saying. You’ve talked about having confidence in the capabilities of an audience. It feels very much like real life, where you don’t always get to hear everything. It didn’t feel any less intimate. Is this something you look for in a film, or you thought it worked for this particular story, or it more generally mirrors your impression of how the real world is?
That’s a big question. It is how I see life. We don’t get access to everything, and that’s what keeps it interesting. You’re right in that a lot of people come in and they don’t recognize it as film language at first, but they recognize it as life. I rarely fall asleep in life, just watching something, but I fall asleep at a lot of movies. I think it’s because they do all of the work for you. I think people like participating in movies, they like figuring things out, and they have the ability to. They understand what certain things feel like. And so a lot of times you can just set up something, set up a context of some sort, and [the audience] can complete it. And it’s much more satisfying for them to complete it. It becomes a very personal thing when they complete it. I tried to do a lot of that early on, kind of have some distance where you’re not hearing one person, or you’re not hearing an entire conversation, so that people would know it was OK.
At the same time, with the character of Joey, you withhold information until very late in the film. The sense of pacing seemed very deliberate.
It was a deliberate choice. I think I can express it a little more clearly now than when I was thinking about it at the time. I think what it is, is it’s the pattern at which you get to know people. People don’t come out and tell you their story. Because I wrote the story not really knowing where it was going, and not really knowing who these people were at first, I think it naturally took that shape, where things are discovered as you go along. I hope because it felt new to me as I was moving along in the writing that it feels new, and a little surprising, to the audience.
So you didn’t quite know the arc when you started the screenplay?
No. I knew there was this family, and I had this glimpse of this very daily activity in their life, nothing more. The story, the backstory, kind of grew very slowly from that. The kinds of things Joey talks about [later in the film], they’re very central things to a person, to their life, their purpose, how they are… It’s the kind of thing I think people don’t talk about enough. It really took extraordinary circumstances for Joey to get to talk about it. I think about my friends, and my family, I don’t know how many times I’ve heard them talk about falling in love, or about their parents, it just seems to come very late in our relationships with people. [he laughs]
Visually the way you worked some of the flashbacks into the film is interesting, with the space or a particular object triggering a memory. The visuals match pretty precisely. Did you shoot those in sequence? Did you pull up the frame on the monitor to look at it?
We did pull up the frame. We had planned some of those transitions. I remember at the beginning we were a little lost – is there a separate flashback language? Does the aesthetic somehow change? And then I think we just stopped worrying about it too much, and let each one be what it needed to be. And as long as it fit in ways that felt emotionally appropriate then we would let it be. And sometimes that emotionally appropriate way is a smooth fade, where we would lead with the sound or do a cross-fade. Or sometimes it would be very abrupt.
That leads me to Chip Taylor. There’s not a lot of use of music in the film, but clearly his music is an essential piece of the story. I noticed that he plays Cody’s father as well. How did he become involved in the film?
I always have some music on in the background when I’m writing. And I found that in the middle of writing the first draft Chip Taylor’s music started gravitating towards the foreground of the playlist, to the point that I was just listening to his albums. Then his name, and some songs, started making it into the script. And I’ve been a fan for awhile, much like Cody is in the script. I’m a big fan of his music, and I didn’t want to piss him off, so I looked up his recording company, and I got in touch, and I sent them a copy of the script and asked if they could get it to him, if he wouldn’t mind looking at it, and if it was OK for us to use his name in this way in the movie. That was the first thing, and then we could talk about whether it would be OK to use the songs. And he was wonderful, he was very generous. He read it very quickly, and he wanted to be a part of it. I think like a lot of the actors and other folks later, it was really moving to me how in this age of “What can I get out of it?” it wasn’t the first thought, and I don’t think it was even anywhere in the queue of thoughts. They wanted to help, and be a part of it. Fortunately he was in town when we were shooting, and I thought he could make a cameo as Cody’s Dad. It felt kind of right.
I rarely fall asleep in life, just watching something, but I fall asleep at a lot of movies. I think it’s because they do all of the work for you. I think people like participating in movies, they like figuring things out, and they have the ability to.
That’s the sense that I got, that you had a lot of great collaborators along the way, your Director of Photography, your cast, but that interactions with other sectors of the independent film industry seemed less welcoming to your film. How was that for you as a first time filmmaker? Has it changed the way you see gatekeepers of the industry, eg. programmers? Do you think their authority is legitimate?
That zeroes in on the most trying time of the whole process. When it came to how lonely it was trying to get it into the world, that kind of gets to the core of you. I remember at the beginning, it was distributors, it was a lot of different people within the industry, not even [just] the gatekeepers, it was some people who had worked on the film… I think what would happen is they would be very excited about their direct work, and they would be very excited if we broke the rules in their particular department, they would be so satisfied with their own work. But they would be very fearful of differences in another sector. It taught me a lot about difference. If you think about it, if everybody says “independent” all the time it becomes a term of industry, and you forget that what it means is that you’re just not terribly likely to be in step with anyone. That’s part of being an independent, it’s part of something that is new.
So this incomprehension is almost a signal that you’re doing the right thing?
It can be. But that’s the tricky part. When you’re in the middle of it, how do you get your bearings? Because you look like that insane director who says I have this film, it’s wonderful, it’s three hours long, nobody likes it, nobody wants it…[he laughs] But it’s brilliant! In essence, what made me emerge from that with some confidence is I think I was my own worst critic. I took all those words that were coming from other people, and I added a lot more of my own, and they were much harsher. And I said, is this true about the film? Does this hold water? And let’s pretend that it does, what does that mean? And in the end I thought I had something valuable. I convinced myself of it. And I thought it deserved at least some more work to see if other people felt the same way. What I’ve since learned is that the film is an experience. It’s not plot, it’s an experience in time. And like experiences in life, a lot of people can miss it. If you’re not open to it at the time, if you think it’s supposed to be something else. Like experiences with people. You miss people if you’re expecting and wanting them to be something else. So that was a big lesson. As far as the gatekeepers, and the state of distribution, and festival programmers, it’s definitely not encouraging…A filmmaker put it really well recently at a panel, it seems like films have this artificial shelf-life. It’s like you’re supposed to be discovered within this year, and if you’re not, then it can’t possibly be relevant to the conversation. It really makes me wonder how many films we’ve missed, both because of the gatekeepers, and because of this idea that it’s this year’s films that are relevant to the conversation…I’d like to [see] more people doing the hard work of either bringing the movie into a hostile marketplace, essentially developing a marketplace for the future, or doing the hard work of discovery, which means having hope for this unknown thing after you’ve been disappointed time and time again.
There’s a lot of pressure out there for filmmakers to build their own fan base. But what might make you a brilliant director might not make you a good salesperson, or PR person. I think there’s a little bit of danger in conflating all of those jobs, and trying to breed these “superdirectors” who can do it all. Certain voices might get marginalized because those personalities might not feel that there’s a space for them in the market, or in the industry, or both. I commend you for not giving up. I think there’s a lot of value in continuing to stand by a film that doesn’t initially get that attention.
I don’t think I’ve ever thought of it that way, in terms of what you call a “superdirector,” or somebody who has skills across all these camps. It struck a chord with the economist in me, this idea that you get much more productivity when there’s division of labor, when people specialize, and there’s essentially trade between these specializations. I can understand the push, and the desire, and the fact that sometimes there is no one else to fight for you, and you have to fight for yourself. But I hope that’s not the only solution.
How did your economics background play into your decision to take on distribution of your film, to have the confidence to cultivate an audience?
The point that I found a little shocking, having a business background, is all the things that get done in the name of business. And to me these are things that are not being done in the name of business as I know it, they’re being done in the name of being a cog in this machine that’s running down, as far as I can see. To me a business as I know it is something vibrant, something creative. It doesn’t minimize the risk, it takes the right amount of risk. When you have risk minimization, that’s when you have the crisis we had a number of years ago, that’s what zero risk looks like. And in some ways that’s what it looks like in the film industry. There needs to be a discussion about responsible risks, and these risks that build something larger than the thing right in front of you. And I think a big part of that equation is the audience. A lot of people talk about the audience, I would expect that comes up probably in every meeting and every discussion about film and distribution. And I don’t know how many distributors actually sit with an audience, how many distributors actually understand the differences of audience across place. Or how many directors! I’ve sat through the film somewhere between one hundred seventy and one hundred eighty times, in the theater…And you learn that audiences are not the very limited things that people seem to think they are. They are capable of a lot, they just have not had many opportunities to prove it. You can’t put bad and terrible in front of people and say, “see? They’re not capable of good.” Someone asked me at some point, did distributors test-screen the film, and I wish they did! Because they would have seen that it tests as high as you could hope for. There are many people who love the movie, and they’re ready to change it. And I would love to test it in its original form, and in its altered form.
Actors are so used to the idea that you have your close-up acting, and you have your wide acting, and I told them, I just want it on a human scale all the time.
You mean change it through the editing?
Yeah, through editing. I think people don’t realize the real value and consequences of not giving people what they want. It is actually a force that engages you in a movie. It’s surprising, and it’s frustrating sometimes, and that is a valid force in the experience of a movie. It keeps you awake…You hear a lot of conversations about attention spans, and among Americans teenagers have the worst reputation, but teenagers have loved this film. I don’t know how, but in certain cities we play teenage girls find their way to the film. And they surprise [even] themselves by how they sit through it, how engaged they are. Their lives aren’t like that, it’s different than their lives, and that can be a really refreshing, therapeutic thing. The other thing is, this particular film deals with loss, and it deals with conflict, that everybody experiences in life, and that I don’t think people take the time to deal with completely. Often times we’re rushed on, back to our work, back to our lives, back to whatever’s next. I think the reason the film touches a lot of people very deeply is because it gives them that space that they’ve been needing to deal with these very adult emotions that can’t be summed up in one sentence, that are complex…We seem to look to harshness, and brokenness, and extremes, for drama, but there’s drama in each of our lives, a lot of it unresolved. It would be nice to have more opportunities to [address] that.
What do you see yourself doing next? Do you want to continue making films?
I’ve never felt more natural than when I was working on this film. What felt like disparate parts of my life came together to support this thing I was doing. I love it. I love writing, I love working with actors. I’ve written some other features, and I hope that they can get made. I don’t have a definite, “this is next,” but I think I’ve developed these two ideas of what the next film will be. One is that I want to be happy if it’s my last film. I think that attitude served me really well on this, where I wasn’t thinking about a career…I want to be satisfied if this is the last film I ever do. And the second thing is that I feel like there’s something that should be unknown about it…There should be something to learn about what film can be, or to discover about the story and its themes, that I don’t know going into it.
How do you balance that desire for spontaneous creativity with specific, deliberate aesthetic choices?
That is a great question. The way I ended up doing it is I’m a planner. I plan everything. And then I watch…If something happens that you’re not expecting, my advice is to look at it first, and to consider it, before you respond. I feel like so much of what happens on set is something is out of place, and everybody descends to wipe it away, and it’s done in the name of everybody doing their job. And it ends up — sets look very sterile to me…Especially young directors, [it’s] a sign of strength to have an immediate response, to have this very hard grip on the details of things…I feel like leadership is a combination of these sort of hard and soft powers. If you respond right away, especially as a show of confidence, I’m not sure if it really means as much as if you respond in a meaningful way that’s defensible, and that’s explicable to your collaborators. Especially because it’s your first film, you know everybody’s worried! At first I thought, well, the way I’m going to make everybody confident in the production is I’m going to explain to them all of this work I’ve been doing, I’m going to explain this, and I’m going to explain that…Then I realized that’s just a waste of time, you know, because it’s propaganda. [he laughs]