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Talking With ’In The Family’ Director Patrick Wang

by Sean Au
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Wednesday Jan 9, 2013
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It is the worst nightmare a gay family could face. When one partner dies unexpectedly, the survivor must not only deal with the loss, but also deal with legal issues such as child custody that a straight family wouldn’t have. This is the situation found in "In the Family," the debut film of out filmmaker Patrick Wang.

Not only did Wang direct and co-write the film, but he also stars in the role of Joey, a gay man who loses his partner Cody (Trevor St. John) in an automobile accident. The pair had been raising six-year old Chip (Sebastian Banes), and Joey is prepared to continue to do so as a single parent, but a legal document surfaces that awards custody to Cody’s sister, who chooses to enforce it.

With a running time of just under three hours, Wang takes his time to establish the dynamic of this modern family, moving back in time to establish the backstory of how Cody (Trevor St. John), having lost his wife when she gives birth to Chip, meets and partners with Joey (Wang), an Asian-American contractor.


That unrushed quality is the main reason why the film, which is playing in limited release throughout the country, hasn’t received wider attention, despite having been short-listed last year for an Independent Spirit Award for Best First Feature. "This deeply humanistic, profoundly touching work representing independent cinema at its finest should be seen by far wider audiences," wrote Frank Scheck in reviewing the film for the Hollywood Reporter. "One possible hurdle to this Tennessee-set family drama is its daunting, nearly three-hour running time. But while the film is certainly leisurely paced, every scene feels absolutely essential."

Other critics concur: Roger Ebert noted that he was "completely absorbed from beginning to end. What a courageous first feature this is, a film that sidesteps shopworn stereotypes and tells a quiet, firm, deeply humanist story about doing the right thing." And in the New York Times, Paul Brunick writes "Mr Wang’s slow-reveal psychological drama isn’t just a showcase for his excellent ensemble cast. Beautifully modulated and stylistically sui generis, ’In the Family’ is also one of the most accomplished and undersold directorial debuts this year."

EDGE talks to Patrick Wang about bring to life this heartfelt story.


Inspired by every day life

EDGE: How did the characters in this movie come to you?

Patrick Wang: I just saw this picture -- kind of a daily moment -- two dads are playing soccer with their kid. I just wondered about them. You think about people’s stories and their lives and what happens to them and if you tell it honestly, it feels much more interesting. It is not so programmed, not so forced. I fell in love with this family. I thought about them. I saw this drama that was happening to them. This was maybe three or four years ago when this flash came to me.

EDGE: Why did you set the story in Tennessee?

Patrick Wang: Someone I knew moved to Martin, Tennessee at the same time I was thinking about this movie. Though I had no idea what Martin, Tennessee was like, it seemed like a good place to set it. It is specific, but kind of neutral too. It seemed like anything can happen in Martin, Tennessee.

EDGE: It is definitely a more traditional and conservative kind of location to set this story as compared to some place like San Francisco or New York where people are familiar with custody issues concerning a same sex couple.

Patrick Wang: Some people are used to two-dad families, but they are not used to seeing it in the South. Or they may not be used to an interracial couple. I feel like in this combination of things; no one is going to look at Joey, Chip and Cody and say, oh, I know them. There will be something unfamiliar and I like that. There is something to discover (in the story) for everyone.


Question of family

EDGE: What are the themes explored in the movie that are important to you?

Patrick Wang: There is a big question of family. Some people look at it and they say it is about defining family -- who makes a family? I look at how family members treat each other. A big part of that is between father and son. What is their relationship like? What do they give each other? What do sons remember of their fathers? What do they carry with them? That is a big thing. It is what makes the movie universal.

There are other things too: conflict. People fight. They lose each other. They do hard things to each other. Hurtful things. But it is also about reconciliation, closing that gap. We got very far. We fought. How do we find each other? How do we find our way out of this?

EDGE: When you talk about conflict, much of the differences comes from the sexuality and race of the characters involved. In your movie, we question the legality of gay relationships and the importance of leaving a will.

Patrick Wang: You just named so many things. That’s life! It’s a jumble of so many things; classism is there too, and you never know what people are responding to. If you asked me, is it the way you dress, the words that you use, your education - all these things in addition to race. What is it that people are responding to? That’s life. We don’t know. People rarely announce their prejudices -- exactly what they hate about you, or what they are seeing in you.


An emotional high point

EDGE: So there is definitely something that different audience will identify with: the custody issue, or that of a two-father family. Are these the issues that would draw the audience in?

Patrick Wang: The question is: how do you get people to the movie theater? But once they are there, they see it (the issues) as being very familiar. I love that when we recently screened in Brazil and Taiwan, the reaction was pretty much the same in both two places. It says a lot about us as people, how much we have in common and how much is familiar in these family dynamics.

In Taiwan, someone was shocked at how much people laughed. A lot of the jokes translated well, but I think the thing that is the most beautiful is that there is a moment in the movie when the audience started crying - it was the emotional high point.

At first, I was very confused (with their reaction at that part of the movie). It was a moment when the father is making a little dragon block for his son (when his son has been taken away). That is how Taiwanese families express love. It is not with some big show or some big speech. That is how you express your love for someone. Then, it makes total sense.

EDGE: How does that compare with the American audience watching the scene?

Patrick Wang: It is a quiet scene in a quieter section, but I think the audience sees how much Joey misses his son. That scene, though, resonated more when we were in Taiwan.


Casting himself

EDGE: Where do you draw your inspiration from?

Patrick Wang: There are lots of sources of inspiration, but one key one was my father. He was an immigrant from Taiwan. The way that Joey was lost in the legal system, I sometimes think about my father’s immigrant experience - coming to
a new world. You are trying to make some sense of it. You try to work hard to build something, make some progress; but sometimes you rely on just luck or the generosity of strangers. I thought a lot about the different aspects of my father as the story was coming together.

EDGE: Do you know any couples in America that have gone through similar experiences?

Patrick Wang: I did not before I made the movie, but since have met people in family configurations like this. The thing you worry about is that when you write about things you don’t know about first hand, you worry if it’s fair and authentic to that experience. It has been nice that people say that it is.

EDGE: Tell me about your research process.

Patrick Wang: The biggest part of that is knowing when to stop. There was a time when I was thinking this (the plot) was going to become a big legal battle. I was researching about child custody cases, I realized that even though it is very colorful, these details change the movie. It is suddenly not about the movie, it is about the system. That is a different type of movie, interesting in its own way. Then I realized that I didn’t need all this. I would do a little research to find some place that is nice. You go to that place, look at pictures. You can call people in Martin and hear them talk, but for me, the most important part is to know when to stop.

EDGE: This is your first movie. It is a bold decision to cast yourself in it. Why this decision?

Patrick Wang: The roles came one by one. I wrote it, but did not think I would be directing it; but then I was the producer, and then I was the actor -- that came last. Each of those things you do it just to protect the movie. I feel like it I were to continue my career as an actor, that would be what I look for in roles. Certain roles anybody can do, but there are certain characters that you feel like they may be misunderstood, certain elements can be passed over; so you want to play them just to defend them, to give their story a full picture.


Subtle racism

Patrick Wang: We actually faced few challenges in getting the film made. The bigger challenge is to get people to pay attention to it because as a first time filmmaker, no one knows who you are, especially if you are from outside the system and did not work deeply in film before. And getting people to look at it with an open mind, because there are certain elements to it that are different (than other films, such as unconventional framing and having the characters entering an empty frame a la a stage play.) A lot of people who looked at these elements as if they are mistakes...

I also think there is a difference between someone in their twenties making his first film and someone in their thirties making his first film. That has confused some of the conversation too because I am a little late getting to the game in terms, but it means I make a different type of film.

EDGE: Let’s discuss about the racism that was touched on very subtly in your film.

Patrick Wang: What I feel is that there is this kind of low-level racism that is not necessarily brutal. It does not lead to violence or big, loud dramatic events, but it interferes with our lives and changes our relationships and our daily actions. What we in the minority go through. It is not really the loud obvious things, it is that look of surprise, people trying to figure out whom you are.

I think there is a lot of that. Those ideas can change very fast in small daily interactions and you see people coming around. Sometimes, they cannot understand you and make certain assumptions about you. They do not see a person. My view of what interests me in this movie is these lower level things that you cannot quite put your finger on what it is but it is there in the air.

EDGE: Is it also that Asians are sometimes seen as ’invisible’ as well?

Patrick Wang: Yes, and it is very interesting to hear other people talk about race, because they would describe something to Joey’s "Asian-ness" as opposed to other aspects. For example, he is not a passive person but he is a very peaceful person. A lot of people say that is a very ’Asian’ or a very ’eastern’ thing; but if you look at the movie, there are other characters that are even more so: the brother-in-law Dave is a pretty quiet person. He does not speak as much or is as assertive as Joey, but no one looks at him and says he is so ’Asian.’ People interpret that sometimes, and that is life. They attribute certain things to the race that sometimes reflect their own biases.


Spend time with this family

EDGE: What would you like the audience to experience from this movie?

Patrick Wang: I would like them to see this family. To see them, live with them a little while. I think a big part of why the movie works is that I don’t tell them what to think. See them and draw your own conclusions. I just want audiences to spend time with them with an open mind. The best kind of things that could happen is when people remember their own families and experiences, and add that to their experiences with the film. It ends up being very personal to them. I hope that will happen.

EDGE: And the potential political changes down the road?

Patrick Wang: I hope that it will lead to an eventual type of political change. You have the laws that change, sometimes you have the laws change a little ahead or behind where individuals change. So even though the laws may change but people’s hearts may lag. I hope it helps people who may not know families like this, who may not sympathize with families like this, I hope it helps them see a family like this in a way that maybe they did not get to encounter in life. Maybe they will change things for them. I have seen that. A lot of times, it may seem different, but until you get to exercise your sympathies and your desire to be fair, they stay foreign.

EDGE: Those are the universal values.

Patrick Wang: Those are the important types of change. You have the legal things, but you have the hearts. If people are uncomfortable and afraid, this is an invitation to see the familiar and have some of the fear move to the background.

"In The Family" is showing in select cities. See the film’s website for play dates. www.inthefamilythemovie.com


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