When Alice Wu’s first film, the instant queer classic “Saving Face,” premiered at the Toronto International Film Festival in 2004, no one was more surprised than her. The product of five years’ work, Wu loosely based the film on her own experiences coming out as a lesbian to her traditional Chinese family. Fourteen years before Lulu Wang’s “The Farewell,” Wu’s film was also populated almost exclusively by Chinese actors (many of whom spoke Mandarin in the film) and was deeply rooted in the immigrant experience.
“Who the hell thought that movie would get made?,” Wu said in a recent interview with IndieWire. “I thought, ‘I’ll just have to go back and get a job doing something else.'”
What unfolded instead was something far more unexpected. Wu didn’t have to give up her big-screen dreams — an all-too-common story for female directors and filmmakers of color — but it took nearly two decades before she made her sophomore feature, Netflix’s charming teen rom-com “The Half of It.”
Another personal story that seems primed to enter the queer canon, “The Half of It” is a modern riff on the Cyrano story, this time with a gender-swap that imagines the lead as something of a Wu stand-in: shy young Chinese-American Ellie (Leah Lewis) harbors a secret crush on Aster (Alexxis Lemire), a girl she’s expected to woo through letters for the awkward but sweet Paul (Daniel Diemer). The film is the latest in Netflix’s growing stable of YA-leaning rom-coms with a welcome bent toward inclusion, joining titles like the popular “To All the Boys” franchise and the underseen “Alex Strangelove.”
Still, it’s fitting that Wu traveled an unconventional path to get it made: she always has, after all. Wu first conceived of “Saving Face” while working for Microsoft’s CD-ROM entertainment department (the nineties!). She wanted to write it as novel that would reflect her own journey coming out to her Chinese mother, a major life event that did not go well. Instead, it became a screenplay she wrote in just three days while taking a screenwriting class at the University of Washington.
In 2002, the script won a contest sponsored by the Coalition of Asian Pacifics in Entertainment. After those accolades, however, she found her vision constantly called into question. Everything was a fight: She wanted to direct (studios wanted someone else), her story was about Chinese-Americans who spoke Mandarin (studios wanted to whitewash it), and it was about lesbians (studios wanted to straightwash it).
The film was eventually financed by Sony division Destination Films, which let Wu make the film for $2.5 million. She struggled to find Mandarin-speaking stars, casting relative newbies like Michelle Krusiec and Lynn Chen, alongside the beloved Joan Chen.
Ultimately, Sony Pictures Classics released the film and it made $1.2 million in a limited summer release. Reviews were solid, hailing its true-to-life aspects and wry humor, and Wu started to field offers for her next gig. However, the industry still resisted making films about queer characters and people of color, especially one that weren’t entirely in English.
“I think what people thought was, ‘Wow, this is great, this is a commercial hook, but can she write white characters?,'” Wu said. “In my head, I assumed that’s the way this industry works.”
Wu dabbled in work-for-hire writing gigs before nudging her way into TV, eventually selling a pitch to ABC built around her early experiences as a woman in tech. And then, 10 years ago, her mom got sick. The pair reconnected before “Saving Face” was released — Wu even dedicated it to her — and she didn’t think twice about moving in.
“I dropped everything and went to her, thinking I’d be there like a few weeks or maybe a few months,” Wu said. “At about the eight-month mark, my agent called and was like, ‘What is going on? Are you not coming back?’ and at that moment, I just thought, ‘No, I’m not coming back.'”
Wu didn’t say it out loud, but as she explained, “I thought I’d left the industry. I was 39 at the time, and I was like, well, I spent my twenties doing computer science, I spent my thirties doing this crazy film thing, my forties are going to be about taking care of my family. So that’s what I did.”
She read investment books to make her money work for her and started doing improv comedy for fun. Her mom got better (she’s doing great), and she saw the end of a long-term relationship. In short, life happened and at some point she seemed destined to write about it again.
“I had this moment where I was like, I can’t imagine the universe thinks that my role in life is just to be someone’s good daughter or to be someone’s good girlfriend,” Wu said. “Surely, with my resources, there’s something else that I could be applying myself toward.“
She’d begun outlining what would become “The Half of It,” loosely based on her own teenage bond with an unexpected friend, when an unnamed studio contacted her about a new project. She began work on it, but “The Half of It” remained at the forefront of her heart and mind. She just couldn’t shake it, joking that she just needed to “barf it out” before moving on to whatever was next.
Wu didn’t complete the studio project, but it did remind her of the weird power of deadlines. So she handed over $1,000 of her own money to a close friend and said if she didn’t finish her first draft in five weeks, the money could be donated to the NRA. (She finished.)
Just like her first film, she didn’t expect “The Half of It” would get made, at least not right away. “‘Saving Face’ took five years to make, so I assumed this also would take five years to get made,” she said with a laugh.
The film was written with a Chinese-American lead and was unquestionably queer. Like “Saving Face,” Wu wanted to direct it, but worried that Hollywood still hadn’t gotten hip to the value and appeal of diverse stories and creators. In 2017, Wu sent her script around, just to see if anyone would bite — and in just a few months, she had three financing possibilities. One was Netflix, two were theatrical. (In 2018, the film landed on the Black List, people were definitely interested.)
This was before Netflix established its filmmaker-forward bonafides with movies like “Roma,” “Marriage Story,” and “The Irishman.” She didn’t want “The Half of It” to get overlooked as some sort of teen-leaning trifle, twisted into something it wasn’t. Still, she had a sense Netflix might be the right fit.
For one thing, they didn’t yank her around: After receiving Wu’s script, the streamer called her within days (right before Memorial Day weekend, no less, a notorious industry dead zone). They wanted Wu, and they wanted her film. “Even then,” Wu said. “I was still like, ‘I’m old school. “Saving Face” was shot on 35mm. I love the theatrical experience. I really don’t know if I want to give that up.'”
Mostly, Wu wanted to honor the characters that she had written: charming but underestimated Ellie, the unexpectedly sweet Paul, the complex Aster, and even Ellie’s dad, an immigrant widower struggling to fit into a world that doesn’t quite know what to do with him.
“I want to show characters that you don’t always see,” Wu said. “The moment someone starts to feel real to you, you can relate to them, and if I can get a 55-year-old straight conservative white guy to suddenly start to feel for a 17-year-old possibly closeted queer immigrant or her depressed 40-something dad, well, anytime you can increase the human capacity for empathy, you’ve won.“
Wu began writing “The Half of It” in the aftermath of the 2016 presidential election, and the emotions it stirred up pushed her to recognize the populist value of Netflix. She could reach people.
“So if that’s the goal, I was like, God, I should accept this,” the filmmaker said. “I don’t fully understand what’s happening with our country. Of course I know sexism, racism, and homophobia exist, I still battle them even though I’m an old Asian dyke. I don’t think it’s possible to grow up in America and not have been imbued with those attitudes. And hopefully we’re all working on it, I just didn’t realize there are whole sections of the country that didn’t want to work on it.“
Wu realized that the very people she wanted to see the film might never go to a theater to watch it. But they might be willing to try it on Netflix in the privacy of their own home. She went with Netflix.
After production wrapped, Wu’s instinct was proven out. They screen tested around the country, including a small, conservative-leaning town in Arizona. Wu knew the film would play somewhere like New York City, but the reactions out of that town shocked her.
“I was surprised by how many people would mark the film [on their survey] as excellent, said they were conservative, but then when asked if they’d recommended to a friend, they wrote no, ‘because I’m okay with this, but my friends would not be,'” she said. “That basically confirmed it for me. Those people are never gonna be like, let’s go to the theater to watch this movie, but privately in all their houses, they might watch it.”
Early reactions to the film’s first trailer have also been very positive and the first batch of reviews have been similarly strong, but now she’s a little worried about delivering on those expectations. That includes the “vocal minority” of potential viewers who seem to already have a stake in how the film’s complicated relationships play out (mostly, people seem to hope that Ellie and Aster end up together, the rare happily-ever-after for a queer film).
“It’s about people feeling some sort of hunger for certain kinds of things, and maybe this film will provide it, and maybe it won’t, but I think that hunger is valid,” Wu said. “I want to be able to affect the cultural conversation. But if you want to affect the cultural conversation, then you have to allow there to be space for conversation. You put it out there, everyone’s gonna have the reaction.”
Wu is eager to put the film into the world, and no matter the reaction, it’s done what she needed it to do: allow her to make another film, her way, in a world that might be a bit more open to it than it used to be.
“Who the hell thought I’d make that first film?,” Wu said. “And then who the hell thought I’d somehow make it back to make another film after having left the industry? Honestly, at this point, anything is gravy.”
“The Half of It” will be available to stream on Netflix starting Friday, May 1.