Roseanne Liang is intentional about her ambitions: she wants to be a big-time action director, and what better way to prove her abilities than a rip-roaring genre movie that combines zippy action with plenty of winking humor? Enter the World War II-set “Shadow in the Cloud,” the Kiwi’s first action feature — she’s previously written and directed the winning rom-com “My Wedding and Other Secrets” and the lauded drama short “Do No Harm” — which functions as both a punchy midnight movie and a prime example of how an indie-sized budget can still deliver wild action.
Liang’s film makes it clear early on that it’s operating on its own wavelength, combining both a “war is hell” mentality alongside cheeky creature feature jokes. At the center of it all is Maude Garrett (Chloë Grace Moretz), a British flight officer (yes, civilian women did serve in the war, though the fact that Maude isn’t a “real” solider will become a massive bone of contention throughout the film) zipping her way toward a jittery B-17.
Something is clearly amiss as Maude arrives to board “The Fool’s Errand,” a knocked-about bomber about to set off on a sudden nighttime supply drop, clutching a radio bag to her chest and explaining she’s on a secret mission. And, oh boy, is it a secret mission, though not the one many will expect. And that’s long before the first gremlin appears or the nattering boys on the plane are forced to cook up a nutty plan to escape enemy fire. Liang’s ability to keep the tension taut — along with Moretz’s winking ability to do just about anything — sell even the film’s sharpest turns, and the film moves and shifts between genres with all the speed of a fighter jet.
“It was the first opportunity that I had to make a genre film of this scale for a wider and traditional audience,” Liang said in a recent interview with IndieWire. “Coming from New Zealand, I don’t think we often get an opportunity like this, so any opportunity I got, especially a project that is as off the wall and interesting as this one, was something that I felt like I needed to jump at.”
There was, however, one small problem with the script. It was written by Max Landis. The project was first announced in January 2019, more than a year after Landis, best known for projects like “Bright” and “Chronicle,” had been accused of sexual misconduct by a variety of women, including then-editor of MAD Magazine Allie Goertz and former collaborator Anna Akana, on various social media platforms.
As the AV Club noted last year, “Landis’ accusations never resulted in a big, Ronan Farrow-style piece outlining the charges against him, but that didn’t stop numerous people from coming forward with stories of close friends who he had allegedly assaulted, abused, or discredited when they discussed their own issues with abusers.”
Still, Landis went (relatively) quiet, and soon enough, other big names associated with his projects were being asked about his alleged misdeeds and where exactly they fit into #MeToo era Hollywood. That included Moretz, who signed on to the film in early 2019.
In an April 2019 interview with The Guardian, Moretz assured fans the project had moved far away from Landis. Although Landis might still have his name on the project, Moretz told the outlet, “We’ve completely distanced ourselves from him. We’ve rewritten it several times now. His name is kind of far away from the project.”
Weeks later, while the project was filming in New Zealand, Landis was publicly accused of sexual and emotional abuse by eight women in a lengthy, often horrifying exposé published by The Daily Beast. More stories followed, and Landis, who had been bafflingly prolific in Hollywood, soon saw a number of his projects canceled.
“Shadow in the Cloud” was not one of them, but as Liang explained, Landis had indeed been distanced from the project before they even began production. When the film was first brought to Liang by producer Brian Kavanaugh-Jones, there was already a big asterisk attached to its writer’s name.
As Liang recalled, “Brian was like, ‘Well, the situation with the writer is that I’ve worked with him, and he is not a good fit for us, as a team.’ We didn’t know at that time the extent of Max’s alleged crimes, but Brian had worked with Max, and he just felt like, the most diplomatic way to put it, is that he just felt that he was not a fit for us.”
While Landis has never issued a formal statement on the accusations, in February, he attempted to launch a comeback as the founder of “a holistic creative coaching and consulting resource for screenwriters living and working in Los Angeles,” a move that was roundly derided by many. Landis does not currently have an agent, manager, or publicist, and IndieWire left a message with his lawyer requesting comment.
Landis is still credited as a writer on the film, per WGA rules, but so is Liang, who contributed significant rewrites to the film’s screenplay. “Brian went about the task of removing him from the project, and allowing us to take the project and run with it ourselves,” the filmmaker said. “Max was not the producer or writer of this project, and I was allowed to take on the script and make changes with the producers as I saw fit.”
“The structure of the project has remained quite similar to Max’s draft, but there are things that have changed quite a lot,” she added. “I would say that the scaffolding is similar, but the décor and the building materials are different.” Liang said that, among the things she changed, altered, and mostly beefed up, included “the characters, tone, logic, even the men on the plane who, to me, felt like they were all in the same voice in the draft that I read” and were turned into distinct, individual characters.
The filmmaker often referring to the film’s male characters — including stars Nick Robinson, Beulah Koale, Taylor John Smith, Callan Mulvey, Benedict Wall, Byron Coll, and Joe Witowski — as a “wolf pack,” a group of individuals who feed off each other’s energy, for better and often for worse. “They’re all different facets of misogyny, and they become worse when they’re together,” Liang said. “We stay very much on Maude’s point of view [in the film], and we don’t really see the men that often. They do sort of meld into each other, but when I was writing it, I knew what each man represents.”
And, of course, it’s a film built around a woman, which Liang instantly connected with. “There’s just an experiential authenticity to Maude’s journey that I feel is very personal to me, and to women like me,” she said. “What’s wonderful about Maude Garrett is that here is a superhero who could only be a woman. And that’s not to take anything away from the superheroes or protagonists of action films that have been men, but only Maude Garrett could do what Garrett does in this film, and that’s what I love about it.”
Liang is careful, however, to emphasize that while Maude’s journey is rooted in her gender and her experience within that, “Shadow in the Cloud” is not meant as a screed against men. “The reason why I keep on hesitating when I mention misogyny, or feminism, or women empowerment, is that I’m constantly aware of where we are in this polarized world, and how those words have become synonymous, erroneously, with misandry and man-hating,” Liang said. “It’s not about man-hating, it’s not about trying to dump on men. I’m just speaking from my own position, and writing something from my point of view is not meant to be man-hating.”
After all, some of Liang’s most enduring cinematic heroes are, well, men. Growing up, Liang was a Jackie Chan junkie (Bruce Lee, she said, came later), and her affection for Hong Kong action films soon blossomed to include “big American and British blockbusters,” like “Terminator 2,” “Alien,” and “Die Hard.”
If she wants to be an action director, it’s only because of the kind of heroes — all kinds — that first captured her cinematic imagination. “I think it comes from the kind of movies that I love, the ones that I keep coming back to, the ones that entertain and mean something to me at the same time,” she said. “I think action gets a bad rep for being hollow, but the best action is just as meaningful as normal, meaningful drama.”
So, how to make a big action movie on a relatively small budget? “Me and my stunt coordinator Tim Wong are action design nerds, we love to break down our favorite action sequences and figure out why they are so great, why they mean so much to us, and why they’re stuck in our heads, and how they’re so re-watchable,” Liang said. “I wanted to apply that interrogation to every limited budget thing that we could do.”
Despite its relatively modest budget (while producers declined to share the exact figure, the filmmaker referred to it as “low”), Liang endeavored to use every dollar to her advantage. Her New Zealand roots helped — Peter Jackson’s Wellington-based WETA Digital provided the digital effects necessary to make the film’s sneaky little gremlin — and so did her background in computer science, especially when it came to meticulous mapping out set placements and stunt sequences. “It was a real challenge on a budget, but then again, sometimes the stretching of resources leads to more creative inspiration,” she said.
The production didn’t have the use of an actual B-17 bomber (for one thing, there are less than 50 complete planes still in existence; for another, any plane they might have used doesn’t survive the film’s snappy 83-minute running time), but the filmmaker and her effects team tried to replicate the feel of it, including building out a fake fuselage on a boat-like hull that could rock; the cockpit was crafted as part of a rolling, 360-degree barrel rig.
So while the production itself might not have had all the bells and whistles of a multi-million dollar blockbuster, it sure as hell felt that way, especially for Moretz, who Liang clearly adores. The filmmaker said that Moretz, the kind of star who is “wise beyond her years,” knew exactly what was required of the role. She brought in her own personal trainer, set about her own diet regime, and gamely went to work in a confined space that would have made anyone crazy, let alone someone who has to juggle being “genuinely claustrophobic” with reciting 15 pages of dialogue in a single take.
For fun, Liang said, Moretz and Wong would engage in pull-up contests. Mortez always won. “She just knew what this was about,” Liang said. “She’s a muscular action hero, physically and psychologically as well, and she’s imperfect as well. She’s kind of messy. We talked about Ripley and Sarah Connor, but we also talked about Indiana Jones, and even sometimes we’d talk about Jackie Chan. When Jackie Chan does a punch, it hurts him. I think Garrett is imperfect in a really fun, grounded, and relatable way.”
The film debuted in September at the Toronto International Film Festival, where it was programmed in the fun-loving, genre-heavy Midnight Madness section and screened both virtually and through the festival’s drive-in schedule. (Liang, who said she’s only really familiar with drive-in movies from seeing them, naturally, in American movies, was delighted with the reception programmer Peter Kuplowsky gave the film, including hiring people to dress up as gremlins and scare movie-goers.)
At the end of the festival, “Shadow in the Cloud” won the People’s Choice Award for its section, where it joined the festival’s other big winners, all directed by women. Liang is still delighted by that, too.
“It’s the dream for your first entrée into the commercial Hollywood filmmaking scene, for this to happen, for your work to win the People’s Choice Award,” she said. “The People’s Choice means so much, because it’s from the audience. That’s who you make the film for. … And then, to find out that all the People’s Choice winners were all women, was again, just another level up on how lucky I am. What a time, right? I think the agony and the ecstasy is kind of the theme of this year on a bunch of different levels. On a personal level, on a humanity and existential level, but also on a career level for me, I want to believe that things are changing.”
Making the kind of films she wants to is, hopefully, just a part of that change. “I do believe that while making an entertaining [film], you can [also] be an activist for delivering a really fun and great story, which is why I’ve chosen this genre and which is why I love genre filmmaking,” Liang said. “It’s not so much like hiding the vegetables in the meal, but having a meal that is substantive is just more delicious and memorable.”
Vertical Entertainment and Redbox Entertainment will release “Shadow in the Cloud” in select theaters and on VOD on Friday, January 1.
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