INTERVIEW: Wayne Wang Journeys to "The Center of the World"
by Anthony Kaufman
(indieWIRE/ 04.20.01) — “It’s not a perfect film,” admits Wayne Wang about his latest endeavor “The Center of the World” (coming to theaters this Friday), “but it has a lot of rough edges that requires you to think about it — and that’s what we need, sometimes.” A surprising shift of subject matter for the 52-year-old Hong Kong-born director, the cynical, erotic movie is certainly a lot edgier than his last film, “Anywhere But Here,” the mother-daughter drama starring Susan Sarandon and Natalie Portman, and also requires more significant thought: about issues of sex, money, and intimacy.
While known to most viewers for amenable indies like “Smoke,” “Blue in the Face” and “The Joy Luck Club,” Wang has tackled challenging material before: works like his 1982 ultra-low-budget debut “Chan is Missing,” the 1990 controversial “Life is Cheap, but Toilet Paper is Expensive,” and 1997’s Hong Kong handover drama “Chinese Box.” But little prepared him for the erotic psychological power play he set up between Richard, a dotcom millionaire (Peter Saarsgard) and Florence, a stripper/drummer (Molly Parker) in “The Center of the World” — so unprepared, in fact, that Wang recruited a number of talents to help him: writer Paul Auster; his wife, author Siri Hustvedt; and performance artist/filmmaker Miranda July. Wang was also aided by the technology of digital video, a format well suited to the close, but cold story and deteriorating social relationships on display.
Speaking from his San Francisco offices at American Zoetrope, Wang spoke extensively with indieWIRE’s Anthony Kaufman about his collaborators, DV and porn, mainstream and indie, and getting his actors to have sex.
indieWIRE: So you have this very interesting group of collaborators on this story. Obviously, Paul Auster, you had worked with before?
Wayne Wang: I went to Paul and I was desperate: “I sold this idea to Artisan, I have no script, and I just need you to help me.” And he said, “I don’t know what I can do,” because he was in the middle of a book. But he was gracious enough to say, “Okay, I’ll help you out, but I have to do it very quickly. We’ll just outline it together, and write it.” And he had Siri [his wife] involved, because that would take some pressure off him, and also to get the female perspective. So we sat down basically over one week and went over it in pretty much detail. And the next step was, we both felt we needed more research. And Paul was the one who recommended me to Miranda July, who’s a very well known performance artist. And who at one point, was a stripper/dancer, and I had an incredible four-hour meeting with her and got a lot of really interesting information.
iW: What sort of things did she offer?
Wang: Some of it was very personal. Some of it was about stripping, the relationship between the stripper and the clients.
iW: Her film work is very much about subject and object and the gaze.
Wang: And at one point, the gaze became a very important issue. Because when she was dancing, she was dancing with the peep shows, which is much more about the gaze. And Siri really got into that. But the problem is, peep shows don’t really exist anymore. There’s one place in San Francisco; there might be one in New York. So I decided to change that. And then, a lot of Miranda’s own personal things came into it. Especially the unlocking of cars, which is something that all of us became really fascinated with. It’s a weird element, but it’s an element about opening doors, which is something we were working with as an underlying theme.
iW: And you also had Jason McCabe Calacanis, editor of the Silicon Alley Reporter, who also acts in the movie?
Wang: I talked to a lot of dotcommers here in San Francisco, but our casting agent, Heidi Levitt, somehow heard about Jason and then we met up, and I got a lot of help from Jason. He was the computer adviser.
iW: The digital video lends a lot to the film. What cameras did you shoot on?
Wang: We started out with a Digi-Beta Camera, because I wanted the film to start out looking more traditional, and more kind of like film. And as the relationship breaks down, then we went to the little consumer cameras, the Sony DRV-100. They’re just slightly better than the consumer ones and we used two of them all the time. And the rest of the film was pretty much that, until we come back to LA at the end, and we went back to Digi-Beta.
iW: It’s funny, because I thought that last shot might have been film. One of the things I wanted to ask about that video look is there’s this “porn look” — was that part of the choice?
Wang: Again, with the deterioration of the relationship, I wanted the image to become what it is: not trying to make it look nice or lit. So we basically turned on all the lights in the room and shot like they probably would in a porno film, with shadows all over the place and sometimes it’s all bleached out. I kept telling the cameraman to just keep pushing it; I don’t want it to look good. I want it to look kind of raunchy. We looked at Nan Goldin‘s photographs, and that’s where we wanted to take it.
iW: This dark, psychosexual world is not what we think of when we think of a Wayne Wang film. There seems to be interest in art porn from the independent community lately. There’s Good Machine‘s Uncensored marketing banner and Lars von Trier‘s porn division. Do you think there’s something in the air now, the need to investigate this stuff without maybe a former prurience?
Wang: I hope so. When you have to shoot film, and it’s big budget, it’s really hard to deal with that kind of material. But I think when you can go low budget, and in my case, can go digital, it frees you. Especially when somebody like Artisan says, “We don’t care what the rating is,” it leaves the door wide open. For me, because I haven’t done this kind of film before, I felt like I could have gone even further. I was just letting myself go, as I shot the film. By the end of it, I was ready to really do something with this. It was a very interesting learning process for me. It was very experimental in a lot of ways.
iW: Do you have any thoughts about going out unrated?
Wang: I think it’s good that we can go out unrated. There are certain problems still associated with that. But if you go out rated, it’s going to end up X, and if it’s X, you can’t even buy ads. If you go out unrated, you can still buy ads, and you can still play it at certain theaters. But we had a problem with a trailer that was visually strong, and there was one sequence we shot that we didn’t use in the film that we put in the teaser trailer, where Molly’s character is looking into the mirror and saying, “You’ve got the hottest, tightest, wettest pussy.” And it’s sort of the gist of the whole trailer, and Artisan attached it to “Requiem for a Dream,” which is unrated. Some theaters wouldn’t play it, because they were morally offended. So there is a certain kind of censorship that goes on, whether it’s X rated or unrated, that’s sort of built into the industry.
iW: The film isn’t about censorship or pornography, so you wouldn’t want the film to necessarily bring up these issues, would you?
Wang: If it becomes an issue for people, it is an issue. I don’t think it’s pornography, but if people somehow see it as pornography and they do want to censor it, then I would have a problem with it. Then, it’s political.
iW: In the midst of the mainstream films you’ve created, you have ventured off into more experimental film. When you spoke about “Chinese Box,” you mentioned that in another context, you would have made Chris Marker’s “Sans Soleil.” So it’s interesting that the director who made “Anywhere But Here” also wants to make “Sans Soleil”? How do you reconcile these two sides?
Wang: It’s somehow easy for me, because just as much as I’m Chinese from Hong Kong, I’m also very American. Even when “Chan is Missing” came out, I was dealing with personally two cultures clashing. And aesthetically, I have both of those strands in me. I went to the California College of Arts and Crafts and at that time, it was primarily Bay area underground filmmaking. I came up with that and then also, European filmmaking traditions, more so than American. But I also love mainstream, well made Hollywood films. But the two don’t really mix. At least, it’s very hard for me to put them in the same film. So I end up trying to do both on their own terms. But the danger is also that you can get homogenized by either one. And sometimes it comes out as a bastard, or a bitch.
iW: One of the things that I liked about “Chinese Box,” is that it’s this sort of Hong Kong “city symphony,” as one of our critics described it. And here, it’s not exactly in the same way, but you do something similar with Las Vegas as a backdrop. What did you gain from that location?
Wang: I went to Las Vegas actually before I conceived of the film. It was this incredibly surreal experience. And the places are actually designed by set designers from Hollywood. To look down the street, and have the Brooklyn Bridge on one side and the Eiffel Tower on the other, and Venice further down the street, it’s just incredible. It’s quite amazing, so when I conceived it, I thought they’ve got to go to Vegas, because that’s what their dream is about, which is a fantasyland to begin with.
iW: How much time did you spend before shooting with the actors?
Wang: We didn’t rehearse a lot. I sent Molly to a strip club and she hung out with strippers for a few days and she had a choreographer work with her. She did a lot of practical rehearsal. Peter did the same thing. I had him go to a dotcom and literally work there and hang out with those guys; that’s where he got the Quake game. So the rehearsal and the prep was more about becoming the character, rather than reading the script.
iW: Peter is fantastic. I think Molly is great in everything she does, but Peter really inhabited this guy.
Wang: He did, he really did. He made a lot of choices that I felt were important. He didn’t want to play him too stereotypical. He took it very subtly. I think he’s really talented. And nothing that he does is false. I think he’s one of the really, interesting young actors coming up. He reminds me a little bit of Nicholson in his early days. For example, in the scene on the second night when the third woman enters, he had very little to do in the script. But he went and got an apple, and bit it at that moment, which makes this wet sound — things like that were very telling about his character. There was an innocence and child-like quality. The sexual stuff, too, he really went for it. Once he understood his character, he was really going to touch and feel her and go for it.
iW: Did it ever get uncomfortable?
Wang: They both knew going in that it would get uncomfortable. And I think they had to work with it. One interesting question that was brought up when we were casting was that I wanted the two characters to really have sex. I didn’t feel there was a moral issue, although some actresses were ready to kill me on this argument.
iW: Do you mean the characters or the actors?
Wang: Well, I mean the actors, too, in the scenes when they’re playing the characters. Because there’s one time where they’re really having intercourse. And I’ve always felt that that should actually be real. Because he turns around and says, “This is not real.” And it became a real moral issue for actors to say, “Do I really have to slash my wrists if I commit suicide as a character.” And I say, “That’s different: that’s comparing oranges and apples.” So that was always an argument. And that was always interesting keeping that as a tension point between the characters and the actors.
iW: When making this film, were you influenced by Cassavetes?
Wang: As soon as I decided to shoot in digital video, I went back and looked at the Cassavetes films. I remember thinking John would be so happy if he had the digital cameras now. I used that as one of the sources of reference, like letting the actors go and do what they need to do and just let the cameras document it.
iW: How do you feel about the film’s digital look?
Wang: When you go online with the digital image, you can start really playing around with it. I was very interested in electronic grain — which is very different from film grain. Film grain is very organic; they’re like little microorganisms in the film. Electronic grain feels very zappy. And the film deteriorates into more of this electronic grain.
iW: Were there color design elements that you did in the postproduction?
Wang: We took some color out and we added a lot of warm tones to it. The other color that we really pumped up in the end was the red room. In the flashbacks, we drenched the colors out, so all the memory is in a kind of black and white. But when it’s very vivid in his memory, then it turns very vivid color. Like in the strip club, there’s a naked women bending backwards and you pan to her face and her lips go all red.
iW: Are you excited by the digital revolution?
Wang: I think it’ll never be film. And sometimes when I see a beautifully shot crisp looking film, I go, this is magic and it will never be replaced. Light going through silver is always going to be something special. On the other hand, for certain things, if you use its advantages and disadvantages, the digital cameras are terrific. Digital has its own qualities, and sometimes, it frees you from certain things. As I said, if Cassavetes were around today, I think he would have a field day.