Patrick Wang: It is rare I leave a contemporary movie thinking I have seen something that resembles my life and that gives me some useful ideas about how to think about or address the conflict and struggles in it. When I think of my heroes — essentially earnest and peaceful people who get knocked around in life like the rest of us, but who manage to make good decisions and live gracefully and generously — I don’t see people like this on screen. And yet these people do give me ideas about how to address the conflict and struggles in my life. They are a large inspiring force behind “In The Family.” Aesthetically, I want to defend the place of literature and performance in film. I don’t think there’s any reason a film can’t have a novelistic density of people, place, and ideas. Regarding performance, there’s no shortage of tremendous actors, but I think the conventional tools for capturing a performance suck the life right out of it. There is a lot to discover about what makes a performance captivating, how to watch it, and the sequence and rhythm of details that reveal a person’s character…
You also said that choosing to direct was a defensive move. In what way?
PW: I feel a general culture has emerged in film where expectations of craftsmanship are so low, one feels they are able to improve upon something minutes after their acquaintance with the material. That’s preposterous. Commentary is most welcome when it is earned, through work and consideration and insight. I found these things in short supply. Instead I found this maddening chorus of the obvious and the bland. From the writing stage through shooting and through the final cut, it’s amazing how many voices you will encounter trying to convince you to make a bad movie. They say take that wonderful and unique thing you have and turn it into garbage because the people love garbage and what’s safer than garbage and we all live in garbage anyway. This is common not just in the realm of mass entertainment but at the fringes where you would hope to find the laboratories for innovation in the art form. You have to defend original work from these pressures. You need someone to say, ‘Enough already.’ I got tired of waiting for someone, so I said, ‘Enough already.’
The film is 169 minutes and has only 300 cuts and 20 moving shots. What led to your decision to use mostly long, single takes?
PW: With this slice-of-life material and scenes written where there is a constant flow of information, long takes felt like a natural fit. I also like how long takes force a lot of discipline on your production. You have to get the performance right and you have to get the shot composition right. I would only do a long take if I thought the perspective could be compelling throughout the scene. And even if the camera does not move during a long take, the shot composition can still be very dynamic. Actors moving at different depths of the frame can transform the shot from close up to medium to wide. Also, as the audience’s attention shifts between activities in the foreground and background of the frame (and off frame), the shot composition will feel like it is changing with the changing context. Effective long, locked-off takes aren’t just plopping down the camera for a proscenium perspective. They require this layered, versatile design.
When I was designing shots with my DP Frank Barrera, we decided early on that we wouldn’t move the camera unless there was a reason to move it. Similarly with my editors Elwaldo Baptiste and Max Prum, we decided we wouldn’t just cut based on convention; the cut would need to achieve something. And while I think we all knew we would be moving the camera a little less than usual in this movie and cutting a little less than usual, we were all a little surprised how extremely minimal it was. But it was the right language for the material. The scenes were compelling, and we weren’t precious with our tools. There are moments with many cuts and there are moments with a lot of camera movement. I like this. I think over-consistency can kill the unpredictability of a film.
Can you speak to the pros and cons of both acting and directing?
PW: When you are a director acting in a scene, you have this wonderful tool of being able to influence the scene as it happens. I often would do something in character to try and change the tone or pace of a scene. Sometimes a non-participant director may call out direction as a scene is happening, but as an actor in the scene, your ability to influence the scene is more organic and less disruptive. Also, if you are well prepared, being one in the same person, you save all the communication time on set that would otherwise be required between director and actor. The challenges to being both director and actor are a little more obvious: both jobs must get their due attention; you need to make sure your cast and crew are confident in your abilities to perform both jobs simultaneously; and you need to find creative ways to evaluate your own performances in scenes. We didn’t have time on our shoot to always watch playback, so I had to learn how to piece together clues from what I felt during the scene and read the looks on the faces of cast and crew. I also studied the dailies intensely. It may be too late to change the scenes that have been shot, but studying them helps build instincts for evaluating performance.
There is one type of scene that I found particularly challenging as both director and actor, and that is the very short, very emotional scene. As an actor without directing responsibilities, you can hold onto your emotional state between takes. If you are the director, you bounce out of the emotional state as people ask you a million questions between takes, and you have to get right back into it without the support of a long runway you would have in a longer scene.
You mention “Scenes from a Marriage” and “A Woman Under The Influence” as inspiration – what is it about Bergman and Cassavetes’ styles that you admire?
PW: I think they are two directors who love actors and who are fascinated with behavior. These are great core values for a film. But I asked my team to watch these two movies because I love the production design, in particular the good taste demonstrated in density of design in color, detail, number of objects. The films largely take place in domestic spaces, and both these directors are masters at transforming the perspective on that limited space to align with a wide range of emotion states. And in “Scenes from a Marriage” I find this stunning coordination between departments and how they seem to hand off the spotlight to each other so seamlessly and achieving real rhythm in the process. One moment it’s about the architecture of the kitchen, then a plate of food, then the actor, then a sound. The performances and writing often get all the attention in these movies, but it’s my opinion that the overall effect of these films would be significantly less without such solid, constructed, realistic design anchoring them.
What has the response to “In The Family” been like? Did you intend to make a political statement?
PW: The responses to the film are very personal and very deep. The film catches a lot of people off guard and it tends to stick with them for a long time. I have a terrible memory when it comes to movies, and so I find it interesting the very detailed memories audiences have of the movie. It activates something in people, the cinephile and the civilian alike.
I wanted to make a good film that had something to contribute to our understanding of the world and each other. It does so without using the language of politics or identity. It is observational and loving and perhaps a kind of political statement from a different time.
What’s next for you?
PW: My job as film distributor for “In The Family” continues. I’ve written a couple feature scripts. The one that I find myself thinking about most is a collection of monologues and songs. They are from all different characters, in different styles, from different time periods, but together they form this odd tapestry that feels a lot like like urban life, a lot like contemporary life. I wonder about the quality of short-form communication and how seemingly disparate pieces of knowledge and experience in our lives may add up to something more. This is an interesting project in that the script answers these questions only in part, and the execution of the script will answer the rest. There is a lot of comedy in this film, and I’m looking forward to that. It will involve a lot of actors, and I’m also really looking forward to that.
PW: No, this is the right form for this film, and so I have no regrets. The next film, I will also search out the right form and then defend it, whatever it may be. I think too many people work backwards from distribution and it keeps film from moving forward.