Patrick Wang is a jack of all trades creative who has directed (among a dozen other duties) ‘In The Family’. It is a heartfelt story woven around “two-Dad” families, loss, interracial relations, the American South, and the human side of the law. Roger Ebert has hailed it as an indie masterpiece, which for his debut film, is nothing short of spectacular. The film also won the “Golden Hammer” Award from “Hammer to Nail”, the online film magazine, and Best Narrative Feature awards at the San Diego Asian Film Festival, the Spokane International Film Festival, and the San Francisco International Asian American Film Festival (with Wang receiving “Best Emerging Filmmaker” or “Most Promising New Filmmaker” Awards at all three festivals as well). He was kind enough to sit down with us and discuss everything from his creative process, distributing the film itself, and his own favorite films. Read below for the full Q&A…
Doing a bit of research on you I came across a variety of accomplishment that don’t necessary connect together. Acting in short films, and excelling as an economist, as well as teaching and directing – how have all these disciplined led you to where you are today?
Patrick: I think my experiences shape my sensitivities and how I interact with the world but they don’t necessarily lead me to a clear place and tell me what I should be doing. They don’t lead me but they do prepare me. And it’s never in the way you expect or can plan. For example, some of the most important skills I learned while working as an economist were how to manage a team of coworkers, communicate with clients, and budget time. They are decidedly soft skills in a profession with a hard reputation, but they were major lessons I learned. And these lessons went a long way to helping me realize this film. I would never have expected that.
Having no experience behind the camera, did you experience any anxiety or pressure?
Patrick: I worried a lot for the quality of the film, but that didn’t have anything to do with my experience level. Someone has to worry for quality, as it doesn’t take care of itself! I’m grateful that a lot of my first experiences with the arts were at MIT. Very few people there were focused on a career in the arts, but there was so much creative energy and so much desire to use the arts as a form of expression. There it was perfectly normal to dive into an art form you knew nothing about and just experiment. Having no experience didn’t weight on you. Instead it made things more exciting as you had more to learn.
It seems this film sheds light on a lot of topics often overlooked in films today such as sexuality and race. As an Asian-American did your own cultural identity lead an influence over the writing of the story?
Patrick: I think a lot of films want to address sexuality and race but they approach these topics as provocations or as a recitation of facts or concise opinions. To see how sexuality and race impact a life you need to understand the rest of that life and how to depict interactions of these elements of identity with the rest of that life.
My parents were immigrants from Taiwan and no doubt this has been a primary influence in my life. From my parents and their Taiwanese friends, I’ve learned deep lessons about family and friendship and how to find a foothold in a new world when it appears you do not have anything. These lessons definitely informed how the story in the film unfolded.
Could you explain a bit about the struggles of distributing a film yourself and how you overcame the obstacle to finally have your film be released worldwide this year (june)?
Patrick: I listen to Cinderella stories about when a tide turns for a film or I hear war stories from distributors about the very clever thing they did to manufacture an indie hit. My experience has been that it’s uphill, it pretty much stays uphill for a long time, and if you’re lucky, for part of the way, you’ll have some company. Sometimes you need to be persistent. We’d try to get some theaters to book the movie for over a year before they finally said yes. If you fail in a city, you forgive yourself and you move on. And the world sometimes needs time to catch up. Sometimes we would open a city and no press would cover us. Then we would reopen the city half a year later, and all the press would cover us. We’ve now played extensively in the US, but in Asia we’ve only played in Taiwan, in South America only in Sao Paulo, in continental Europe only in Ghent, Belgium. You make the most of the opportunities within reach, say thank god for Ghent, Belgium, keep building, and you give the world time to catch up.
While making In The Family, did you already start planning and budgeting for distribution alongside production? Or did you feel Direct Distribution was and is the future for Indie Film?
Patrick: I had budgeted a little money to be able to deliver the film and to support a festival run, but I didn’t imagine I would be distributing the film myself. I learned as much distributing the film as I did making the film. I don’t know what the future of indie film distribution is, but I hope the future of indie film conversation is not about distribution. I hope we can add to our options for distribution and help people new to distribution learn the ropes, but my opinion is that it is currently monopolizing the film conversation.
You have a similar directing style to the great Akira Kurosawa where you seem to keep the visuals on a human scale and instead let the acting of the characters do the work. How do go about creating this dynamic when you are behind the camera?
Patrick: My friend Danny, also a filmmaker, had an interesting way of putting it. After seeing the movie he said, “We spend so much time trying to create mood and tone, but you realized it’s already there.” He’s right. If the scene is full and the actors are capable, the director doesn’t need to scramble to be the entertainment. You let the elements work, observe, and then help to shape here and there. I find that act of shaping is usually small but essential.
It’s great you mention scale, because I think one of the most powerful tools a filmmaker has is field of view. What is the extent of the world you can see, and not just the physical world but the internal and interpersonal worlds. It’s a fun puzzle to solve because the way information (objective and emotional) can be best communicated in a scene is often not through conventional shots. It’s something to figure out anew for each scene.
What are some of your own favorite Asian films?
Patrick: The Record of a Tenement Gentleman, Good Morning, Throne of Blood, A Brighter Summer Day, In the Mood for Love.
You mentioned in other interviews that you didn’t want this film to represent your real life too strongly, yet the protagonist (Joey) and setting seem to be familiar. Do you consider this film to be a personal project and do you see future projects straying further from this non-fiction?
Patrick: Non-fiction, particularly as relates to my own life, interests me far less than fiction. If something feels too familiar when I am writing, I will throw myself a curve ball, something new and unknown, to get me out of that corner of myself.
I am from Texas as well and we operate out of Austin. What experiences do you have as a filmmaker with festivals like SXSW?
Patrick: I haven’t been to SXSW yet, either as a filmmaker or an audience member. I met Janet Pierson at a screening of IN THE FAMILY hosted by the Austin Film Society. She’s great and very passionate about her work. I only caught a glimpse of it, but my impression of Austin was that it had a very vibrant film community. There’s been some reporting on this recently, but I know it didn’t happen overnight. A lot of people have spent decades building the infrastructure and community that’s there today.
Lastly, do you have any advice for any indie filmmakers?
Patrick: As things get difficult and lonely, I have found “This is Orson Welles” and “Cassavetes on Cassavetes” to be excellent company.
To find out more about Patrick’s movie please visit the official website below: