In 2004, a few years after Ang Lee’s The Wedding Banquet and a few years before Awkwafina’s The Farewell, lesbian filmmaker Alice Wu’s acclaimed indie film debut Saving Face introduced audiences to Wil (played by Michelle Krusiec), one of our first out queer Asian female characters. The movie closely examined Wil’s relationship with her very traditional mother, played by award-winning actress Joan Chen (The Last Emperor, Twin Peaks). A hit on the festival and art-house circuits, Saving Face was also a wonderful introduction to a promising filmmaker.
As Wu reveals in this OutSmart interview, much has happened between the release of Saving Face and her new movie, The Half of It. A queer 21st-century take on Cyrano de Bergerac, The Half of It, debuting on Netflix this month, takes viewers to high school where extremely bright student Ellie (Leah Lewis), who makes bank by writing term papers for her classmates, is enlisted to write love letters from Paul (Daniel Diemer) to Aster (Alexxis Lemire). The problem is that Ellie is also in love. To say more would give away an essential plot point, but it’s well worth tuning in to see how it unfolds. Alice Wu was gracious enough to answer a few questions about her life and her work in advance of the movie’s Netflix premiere.
Gregg Shapiro: I had the pleasure of interviewing you, as well as Joan Chen, about your first movie, Saving Face. When you look back on the experience of making that movie, how do you remember it?
Alice Wu: It’s funny, people often say that only in hindsight do they recognize a particular experience being as special as it was. But with Saving Face, I knew the entire time we were shooting that this was something rare—even as indie film shoots go, which are always a minor miracle in themselves! I mean, I had a cast of almost entirely Chinese and Chinese-American actors shooting in New York City, most of the cast speaking Mandarin amongst ourselves, chrysanthemum tea at craft service, and a largely non-Chinese crew that was very reverential to the whole experience. There were a lot of “unusual bedfellows.” For example, most of the Chinese cast could have been my aunts, uncles, or grandparents, and they were servicing a film with a gay storyline—and doing so willingly. Everyone just seemed so happy to be there. No one felt like they were there for the paycheck. For me, as a first-time filmmaker and a lesbian reconciling my various worlds, it was at once viscerally bizarre and incredibly affirming. I gained a whole new level of self-acceptance as an Asian-American gay woman after that shoot.
You probably don’t need to be reminded of this, but 16 years passed between your movies Saving Face and The Half of It. What were you doing during that time?
Yeah, it took me a while, eh? [Laughs] I guess I play the longest of long games! After Saving Face I did some work for hire, writing for studios. Then ten years ago, my mother had a serious health issue, and I dropped everything and moved back to San Francisco to be with her. At the time, I truly believed I’d left the industry; I stopped writing entirely. For fun, I did long-form improv, but I assumed my filmmaking days were over. Then three years ago, I got pulled back into the industry by a studio-exec friend who hired me to write a script on assignment. That went well enough that they asked if I’d work on something else. But I had started thinking about the fact that I’d never written anything for myself to direct since Saving Face. Everything had been a work-for-hire. So, I turned my attention to The Half of It, a story I’d had kicking around in my brain for nearly a decade.
The movie world has changed considerably since Saving Face. For example, The Half of It is having its premiere on Netflix. What does such a change mean to you as a filmmaker?
You know, when I first sent out The Half of It, Hollywood hadn’t yet “discovered” diversity in such a big way. I assumed it would be like Saving Face and take years to get made. But within a few months, surprisingly, I had a few financing possibilities. One was Netflix; the other two would have meant specialty theatrical. I’m old school—my first film was shot on 35mm—so I very much leaned toward theatrical. Plus, at that time, the general consensus was that having a theatrical release was always more cachet for a filmmaker.
But the thing is, I wrote a film that I secretly hoped would find inroads in more conservative communities—it’s why I set it in a small rural town. And while I go to the theater religiously, that’s not the case for most people anymore. So, if my goal is to affect the cultural conversation, the best game in town was Netflix. But since I made that decision, the world has shifted again. So many filmmakers I admire have since released incredible films on Netflix. And I will say that Netflix has been an incredible creative partner. I found them wonderfully supportive. And the kicker is that they actually surprised me a few months ago with theatrical-release plans! With the coronavirus situation shutting down all theaters, that is obviously no longer in the works, but honestly, I was just so thrilled that they were willing to back a film without a “name” cast or a big-name director.
What can you tell our readers about the inspiration for your new movie, The Half of It?
I’ve spent most of my adolescent and adult life reading, watching, making, and thinking about stories related to romantic love. As a society, we exalt romantic love as somehow a more important love than all other loves. Find your other half and your life will be complete! And romantic love is great. But I’ve had non-romantic relationships in my life that have formed me just as strongly, if not more. In particular, I’m thinking of one of my best friends from when I was first coming out to myself as gay. He was a straight boy, which at the time felt confusing—he was like a soul mate, but you have no desire to have sex with each other. What [would you call] that relationship that isn’t sexual, yet feels as intense as that of any lover, especially between two people that conventional society would assume leaned romantic? So, the original inspiration for The Half of It arose out of that emotional kernel. And perhaps because I’m older now, I also see how the quest for perfect love is doomed. There is no perfect “other half.” But I do think the quest, the desire to reach for someone, even if it is doomed—especially if it is doomed—can set you on the path to learning about yourself and becoming the person you need to be.
How much of Alice, if any, do we see in Ellie?
Hmm. I’m fairly private, but let’s just say that every single one of my friends, whether watching Saving Face or The Half of It, has said, “Oh my God, your actor is doing you!” [Laughs]
Like Saving Face, The Half of It features a complicated relationship between a parent and a daughter. Please say something about why you have returned to that subject.
Does anyone have simple relationships with their parents? Is that a thing? I’m genuinely curious! That would be amazing! [Laughs] I am blessed to have two wonderful parents whom I have loved getting to know over the years. And yes, as young Chinese immigrants who had to struggle, they were in complicated situations that didn’t allow for a lot of self-actualization until later in their lives. I’m lucky that I’ve gotten to know them through that entire time. As hard as it was for them to accept me as gay, which certainly caused a lot of pain for all of us over the years, we have come to a mutual acceptance of each other honestly. Given the way they were brought up, that is to their credit. And because I am aware of how much they have sacrificed for me, I tend to want to pay tribute to their influence on me. Maybe it’s because I’m Chinese, but we don’t really tell each other “I love you.” That’s reserved for lovers. Instead, we do it through action. My mom cooks for me. I make her and my dad films. Kind of an unequal trade, but no one tell her! [Laughs]
Ellie is very lucky to have a teacher such as Ms. Geselschap in her life. Did you have a teacher similar to her?
I did—named Ms. Geselschap! [Laughs] It’s the only character in the movie whose name is from real life. She was my high-school English teacher, and she changed my life. She would do things like assign me to watch Harold and Maude. She was also the only person who believed I could write. I remember coming back to visit her a few times when I was in college. At one point, she asked me what I was going to major in. I told her computer science, and she said, “Well that’s a shame. I always hoped you’d major in English.” For a Chinese immigrant kid, that was revelatory!
The Plato quote, and the drawings you used in the movie related to Plato’s Symposium, made me think about the song “The Origin of Love” from Hedwig and the Angry Inch. Why do you think this theme that Plato wrote about has found a place in queer culture?
I originally chose the The Symposium because of it being such an origin story for this notion of finding your “other half.” But in the animation, I also wanted to be careful to keep “the original whole human” non-binary gendered. It isn’t male or female. This isn’t about a male half searching for a female half, or even a female half searching for a female half. There is something about being able to keep that story from being purely heterosexist that is appealing—and very queer.
A quote by Oscar Wilde, another great thinker, also appears onscreen during the movie. What do you think Wilde would think of The Half of It?
Oh God, he’d probably hate the clothes. [Laughs]
The Half of It features a cast of young actors. What was it like for you to work with them?
I love those kids so much. I wanted to cast fresh faces so that we might have a chance at believing these kids exist. So my poor casting directors probably had me read 500 to 600 people per role. I feel so strongly about the people we chose. In terms of the experience, I spent a lot of time with each of them talking about the physical and emotional lives of the characters. The time between a director and actor before you shoot is pretty sacred. It’s when your actors either decide to trust you, or they feel like they need to protect themselves and their work. I try really hard to earn that trust. One of the ways is to try to be like a “good parent.” Your job isn’t to be their friend; you shouldn’t be trying to make them like you. Your job is to create the conditions so they feel safe going to the deeper places. And once they realize that you will, in fact, rope them in if they go too far, it frees them to play and “go too far” because they know you are watching. And I was very lucky, because I had actors with the talent and willingness to go there.
I truly believe, with Leah, Daniel, Alexxis, and Wolfgang, that we are seeing four stars in the making. And as a middle-aged woman watching these young folks bloom, it’s hard not to feel lucky that I’m getting to be there in the early stages. In a way, it gives me a new sense of life.
Music plays a significant role in The Half of It, from the song that Ellie writes and performs about Aster to the inclusion of the Sharon Van Etten song “Seventeen.” Can you say something about the role of music in your life, and why it was important for music to be a big part of The Half of It?
If I could have one talent, I would write and perform songs. I pretty much listen to music every waking moment that is socially acceptable. I remember, as a kid, trying to record songs off the radio onto cassette tapes, and then listening to those tapes like they were my religion. We were immigrants! We didn’t spend money buying music! Hmm, maybe we were the precursor audience for Napster. [Laughs]
Alice Wu’s ‘The Half of It’ is now streaming in Netflix.
This article appears in the May edition of OutSmart magazine.