Thursday, February 17, 2022

"If you have an independent vision for something, it won't align with many things, at least not easily and neatly, in a way that will make it easily accepted" - An Interview with Patrick Wang

Over the course of four increasingly ambitious features, Patrick Wang has forged one of the most boldly independent careers in American cinema. Having had his self-funded debut feature In the Family rejected by dozens of film festivals, Wang decided to distribute the film himself, and he subsequently continued in that vein with The Grief of Others, his inventive adaptation of Leah Hager Cohen’s novel. Wang’s crowning achievement is A Bread Factory, his epic two-part study of a struggling community arts centre that is threatened by the arrival of a corporate-backed arts space. As with all of Wang’s films, A Bread Factory is a story told with extraordinary intelligence and wit, displaying a great sense of empathy for all of its richly drawn characters, and always taking turns that defy audience expectations. It ranks among the great film achievements of the past decade, but until now Wang’s work has failed to find distribution in the UK. That sad state of affairs changes this week, with the release of the films of Patrick Wang in selected cinemas, and I had the great pleasure of talking to him via Zoom recently.

I first saw A Bread Factory in 2019 in London. I believe it's the only London screening it has had.

I know exactly what screening.

I'm sure you keep track. And it was in an out of the way place as well, it wasn't central London, so it was a bit of a trek to get there, but it was an extraordinary experience. And I've been waiting impatiently for your films to make it to the UK since then, so this is exciting.

That's amazing. So did you know that venue?

No, because the venue is normally a school. I think a friend put it on my radar, and so a couple of us went down to check it out. I'd heard that it had received some great reviews coming out of New York but that's all I really knew about it, so it was a special thing to discover with an audience.

That's fantastic.

This past week I've watched A Bread Factory again and I've watched your previous films as well, and it's great to go back and watch In the Family and see where you started. It's such an assured debut film, it feels like the work of a filmmaker who knew exactly the story he wanted to tell and how he wanted to tell it. I wonder how you prepared yourself for directing a three-hour feature film as your debut. I don't believe you had even directed any short films or anything as preparation, right?

That's right. One of the big differences in talking about debut films is that I was around 35 when I directed that, which is not what we're used to talking about with debut films, you know, it's usually somebody in their early 20s. I had had a background in many different things, but the most directly relevant were probably a long history in theatre and being an actor on a lot of films and TV, so just from being around the camera and being on sets you have a background. Usually if people jump into film they learn on film, but I learned in building sets and talking to costume designers in community theatre and things like that.

And how did you find making the transition from both directing and acting in theatre to doing the same in film, because they are very different disciplines.

Yeah, it is very different. In some ways is that the thing that makes it possible, which is having some feedback mechanism – you can go back and look and assess your performance in some detail – is also one of the challenges, because you can get hung up on too many of those details. I remember when I was first learning how to direct myself on film, I found that the easiest thing for me when I was rehearsing with myself was to do audio recordings, so you have some information coming back from you, you can hear that if it's truthful or not, but you're not micromanaging every detail and concerned about every visual thing you see. I found that that was just the right amount of information, and apparently that's there's a long history of that. I think Orson Welles conducted his rehearsals in a similar way for film.

It's funny that you mentioned Orson Welles because when I saw your directing credit next to your cinematographer, I thought of Welles and Toland being credited on screen at the same time. I guess Frank Barrera is someone you must have really leaned on as a first-time filmmaker. How did that relationship come about?

When we were looking for people for the first film, I didn't know many cinematographers at the time so we were looking for recommendations. He was one that someone recommended, and we had an interview and we got along very, very well. I think that one of the things that I particularly liked about him and that was very special about how he approached the work is that, even though he was somebody who had a lot more film experience than I did, it was like Gregg Toland did not hold that over Orson Welles’s head, he was just there to help align with the imagination of what the director was doing. He had a voice, there were certain things that just out of diligence he had to say, “In a normal movie this is what would be done and these are the ideas behind it,” but if the decision was made not to go in that direction, he would be a very willing conspirator in this in this new madness.

As far as the cards in the opening credits go, I think that when you come to something not heavily steeped in the traditions of it, like I didn't know that much about film before coming into film, there are certain things that seem very silly to you. I was really surprised how many conversations were about cards, and how many negotiations were about who gets which card, and I just thought, of all the things to spend our time on this seems enormously silly. Just as my own personal statement as to how little I think it means, or how much I think it can mean, it doesn't matter to me if I have my own card or not, and then it's actually kind of nice to share it with somebody who I had a very meaningful partnership with on the film.

You had plenty of theatre experience but did you always have an interest in cinema? Were you watching a lot of films growing up?

I was a little late to it all. When you say theatre, a lot of people think of you as a kid who grew up in theatre, but I didn’t have my first small experience with theatre until late in high school when I was an exchange student in Argentina. Then I had gone to college before I started really being curious about theatre, going to more theatre and starting to participate, and then film was even later than that, so I guess I was just a little late to it all. I know relatively little about film. I definitely know little in terms of my generation, and the canon that you might be immersed in as you go through film school or film studies. But I had seen many great films, and I feel like if you see one great film, it's like grad school, especially if you're very receptive to the things that it’s teaching you, and the very high bar of what's possible that it's showing you. I think one of the nice things is when you come to things a little late, or when you come to them without professional aspirations, is that you don't get brought up in a certain mould.

Because you hadn't seen as many films as your contemporaries, I guess you're not steeped in those tropes or the more clichéd visual and narrative ideas that people default to.

When the first movie came out there were a lot of conversations about it, and I remember one review where someone was talking about how it seems to use a lot of TV conventions. I just think that it’s about whatever works in the moment, I'm not particularly hung up on if it's an homage to a certain director or if it's something more common to TV. Between the whole range of what I've been exposed to and then these new things that we discover along the way, they’re what the moment requires, and I kind of like that.

I read a book a few years ago about Éric Rohmer, and it said he barely saw any movies in his youth because his family thought they were a low art form and kept him away from them. Maybe that has something to do with the way his films and his observations of human nature and relationships are unlike any other filmmaker. He sees them in a different way and he puts his stories together in a different way because he hadn’t been exposed to the same things as other directors, and I wonder if that’s something that you've benefited from in terms of how you tell your stories.

This happened a lot with early television as well, and at a certain time in film, where you had people coming from one medium, mostly theatre, and then jumping into this new medium. They have a foundation, they have something to stand on, but also this wide-open canvas of, how do we do things now? I feel like that balance is always nice, where you actually have some foundation and some structure, so it's not complete chaos, but you feel a real freedom and nothing's taken for granted.

When you referenced a review saying that In the Family was like TV, that just sounds crazy to me, because when I watched the film I was struck by your patience and your use of long takes, which doesn’t seem like a television convention at all. The film is full of long, often silent takes where we are just watching people. I’m thinking of the scene after the funeral, when you are in the kitchen and the kid is getting you both a drink, and you let that scene play out in its natural length. I want to ask you about allowing audiences to be in the moment and experience these things, because I think that's one of the key things through all of your films. You don't cut away from things that are going on longer than usual and perhaps feeling a bit uncomfortable.

I learned a lesson on the first film, which I was not expecting to be such a long film. When we were going through scenes I was shocked with the times that the script supervisor was reading back to me. I thought, that can't be right, but it was right and your first gut instinct is, "Oh, no, we must change this." But then I thought, let me figure it out first, let me see what's happening. I was watching what the actors were doing and I realised that they were doing a lot. They were doing their own writing into the scenes that always got me deeper into understanding the situation and these people, and this is another carryover from theatre, where the actor kind of determines the performance. I saw that they were producing rhythms that I wasn't expecting, and sometimes those rhythms – if I were thinking about it – would be much more this-this-this-this, you know, a little more linear and faster, but they were very useful both for the information they give you, and because they add a lot of tension. Once you start getting into the obvious rhythms, you kind of tune out a little because you know where it's going to go. What they were giving me was something very unpredictable, and I liked that, so I ended up staying with them a lot more. But like I said, it was very familiar from theatre where we expect the audience to sit there and we understand the power of what an actor can do with that, so when it was relevant I just maintained that.

There’s a great scene in In the Family where you flash back to show how you and your husband got together. He plays the Chip Taylor song and if there's this awkward fumbling interaction between the two characters, and their emotions are all over the place. You just let the scene play, and I think if you had tried to trim that down or cut away it would not have had the same kind of power.

You know, the scene you were talking about earlier, after the funeral when they come home, that was designed as a static shot, but the scene with Cody and Joey listening to the song has a real performance by Frank as the camera operator. We think about very complicated long takes with a lot of camera choreography that's very technically elaborate or logistically challenging, but this is as well, even though it's handheld. There's a real performance there that completes it in a way that's very different from the other scenes, which are a little more like theatre. This is much, much more cinematic in how it's completed by the camera, and that's been a fun thing to learn.

Your films also manage to achieve a deep emotional impact while never becoming sentimental. It’s easy to imagine these same stories being told in a way that is very manipulative and mawkish.

In some ways it's very simple. When I'm writing, I don't write because I know what's going to happen, I don't write because I want to tell myself something, I don't even necessarily write because I want to tell someone else something. I write because I want to learn something and experience something new myself, to be surprised by something, so if it's an obvious sentimental scene that doesn't hold anything for me, then it doesn't end up holding anything for the audience. I end up being really captivated by the scenes where I learn something, where I'm surprised and moved by something, and it's really that simple. I'm the barometer. If it does something for me, I don't think too hard about it, I want to share it because I think I've learned to think about this person in a very different way here. If other people have the same experience, that's great.

You talked about In the Family coming out much longer than you expected it to be. Was that the big stumbling block about getting into festivals? Did you get any feedback to tell you why it was being rejected from so many festivals?

You almost never get feedback, so it is a guessing game. There were other films of this length playing in festivals, and so even though it makes it harder for the scheduling – my sympathies and appreciation are definitely with the festivals that did play me, because it's hard work – I think if people really wanted to play it, they would play it, regardless of the running time. I think that there were enough things that were odd about it or hard to fit into the way festivals fit identities of films, that if they were on the fence and worried about some other thing, the running time gives them a reason.

It is an incredible story about you being rejected by all these festivals, and then forging ahead and making it happen by yourself. Can you talk a little bit about how you didn't get demoralised and throw in the towel during that process, because getting all those rejections for your debut film has got to feel like one kick in the gut after another.

You do get demoralised and you do throw in the towel, but then another day comes along and you pick up the towel! And yeah, it is hard, but it also reminds you that in our industry – and it is an industry –the term ‘independent’ is used all the time, and I think in a way that erases what that word really means. If you have an independent vision for something, it won't align with many things, at least not easily and neatly, in a way that will make it easily accepted, and that's just by definition. If you truly value independent things, then you do for them whatever you can and sometimes what you can do is limited. It doesn’t become this story where suddenly things change, you know, like there was this this moment in the wilderness and then things turned around. It's just always that way. I had that fiction that if you get over this it will become easier, but it was the same thing with each of the films where you spent a year trying to get a festival to play it and it still doesn't happen. But then every so often some window comes through, like now for the UK, where there's a chance for a few more people to see it and to find it in theatres or digitally, and it's great. You take it and you just try to keep those opportunities alive and help them as much as you can. But there is no grand solution, you can't clever your way out of the real challenge that independent art always has.

One of the things that certainly been accelerated by the pandemic is this idea that independent film belongs on digital and only the big movies are in cinemas, and that divide is getting ever greater. The idea is that people just won't go out for these independent films anymore, but you've really pushed for your films to play in cinemas and you go on tour with them.

Coming from theatre, there’s the idea that theatre changes every night, it's dependent on the audience and the place, and there's a different performance in front of you every night, but I was shocked to realise that movie theatres are still theatres and it still changes every night. The audience is different and the reactions are different, and so I grew very hooked on that. At first I thought I would see maybe one or two screenings of the movie, but I just couldn't keep away, especially as there was new information in that room. The crowd tells you so much about itself as you watch it with them, and then especially if you're going into a different town that you don't know, this new crowd and this new town is telling you something new about themselves. So part of it was that I just personally grew addicted to that process and learned to love it, and wanted to help that as much as possible. It's not so much that I insist that they can only be watched this way, it's just that if we can encourage it we will whenever we can. When we were releasing the films in the US, when I was my own distributor, we just thought, okay, we're going to try to get as many theatres to play it as possible, and when you’re your own distributor you can break all sorts of rules. I think it was over two years that we were in theatrical release because there was no window we were rushing towards, we just decided to keep going as long as we could keep booking places. We would open some cities three or four times.

That never happens nowadays. It's unheard of.

Yeah, and I don't know if it could happen nowadays. A number of theatres have closed since I first took In the Family on the road. I hope it had nothing to do with us! The other thing about that process, is when you get to do it in a place like France, I was telling my French distributors about this beautiful process we had in the US and Canada with In the Family, and they were very enthusiastic to set up that same kind of tour. As distributors, there were some theatres they had never seen, or some they hadn't seen in years, and it was very good for them that it didn’t become this just conceptual thing, it's very tangible. They get to know this space and the people that come in. I didn't know it at the time, but that process of visiting these community spaces meant so much to me, and A Bread Factory really came out of this love for community spaces.

This whole process would have been an enormous learning process, where you're learning on the job, both as a filmmaker and as a distributor. So when you go into The Grief of Others, what were the key lessons that you learned from In the Family that really helped set you up to make your second feature?

I think the kinds of things I learned were not the things that made it easier, they were just all the things that made it possible. For example, with the first film, I had 18 days to shoot, which now feels like an absolute luxury. With The Grief of Others, we had so little money that we only had 12 days to shoot, so if you think there was a little fat or some mistakes you made the first time, you try to streamline the production process, but it becomes that much harder because you’ve got to fit it into these 12 shooting days. The other things we learned were, for example, having the same DP and working so well with Frank, there were new things we could do that were a little more complicated. It's not any easier the second time around but there are benefits. You're not just starting to breeze through this thing, but it's like you're using the little pennies you save to spend on your new designs. With things like distribution, there are some mechanical things you learn but it's a whole different thing. By the time you're talking two or three years later, the world of distribution has changed, the theatres have changed booking policies of certain places have changed. You have to reinvent it a little each time mostly from looking at just whatever is possible around you, but it’s a different set of possibilities in every moment.

The thing that really struck me about watching The Grief of Others is how much you started playing with the form. There's a lot more experimentation in the layering of image and sound and playing with the structure. Was that a direct reaction to how you saw the novel, or was it a case of you and Frank trying to expand your toolset as filmmakers?

I think that it mostly came from the novel. In the novel, there is a character that makes these dioramas and I think that is just a very interesting idea. I've always been fascinated looking at them, just the idea that you take these very ordinary things and rearrange them at odd angles to each other, so they express a very extraordinary picture from very modest means. We took that idea, that concept of the diorama, and applied it to the whole film, and I think that leads to a lot more experimentation. Because it was a much shorter film, I thought that we could afford it, you know, it's hard to have an experimental three-hour film, but something that was an hour forty you can live with that much more. The pieces of the experiment sit closer in your head and kind of reverberate in this much tighter package. I felt like it fit the novel. It was quite a departure from the much more direct realism of the novel, but I think that it was exactly the transformation needed to become a movie.

In terms of the structure, maybe this is a good chance to talk about your work with your editor, Elwaldo Baptiste. Can you talk a little bit about how the finished film reflects your screenplay? You use flashbacks and you have multiple narratives that you’re weaving together. Is that something that you have clearly planned out, or do you develop that structure in the editing room?

It’s pretty much exactly as written. In each of the movies, there's been one scene that's cut and that's it, and everything else appears in the same order that it's scripted. So in some ways, the editing is quite straightforward, you're just choosing shots and you're choosing takes, and you're choosing when you're in and out. But in another way, each of those choices becomes much more important, because when you choose the take you're living with that for the whole scene, and when you're choosing the in and out, that's really the big rhythmic control you have across scenes. It's a very different kind of editing game, but I like it because it also makes it move very fast.

You're playing with such contrasting tones as well. In A Bread Factory, there's a scene where Max has a blazing row with his parents about wanting to quit school and work on the newspaper, and I think the very next scene is maybe the tap dancing in the cafe or more of a comical scene, and it's such a breakneck contrast. It’s a very bold thing to put those things side by side and you do that quite often.

I guess I'm very used to that in theatre, you know, because we don't have that many cuts within scenes. Sometimes our changes between scenes do a lot of that re-energising and the different tones can be quite drastic. I think that it's also a carryover from theatre where, until quite close to the end of the process, we're always rehearsing things out of order, and the director has to use a lot of imagination in the rhythms of how the scenes align. I think when I'm writing I have that imagination in my head, and so it seems quite natural to use these shifts in tone.

That's one of the things that I loved about A Bread Factory. The other thing about these two films – and I know you strictly classify them as two films – is that they are quite different as films. The first one is more realistic and naturalistic, and in the second film you've got these elements that play up the theatricality and artifice, and in a way the film seems to be commenting on itself. The second film begins with the re-staging of events in Part One on stage, and you end the first film with the Chip Taylor song, so there are these elements that remind you that you're watching a film. That's something that seemed like a big departure for you.

In some ways it was possibly more expansive to begin with. I think I was even playing a bit with some sci-fi genres or some other ideas at the beginning, and it was too just much. It did get reined in from what it might have been.

We still get May Ray in their space outfits as a sci-fi element.

There was also a supernatural element, there was a point where Greta had certain powers. [Laughs] You have to have really absurd ideas before the coherent ones start asserting themselves. The thing I particularly liked about the story that emerged and the way it’s told, especially as a comedy, is that usually if you think about a comedy it operates in a certain type of form, and different types of comedy don't usually mix. In the same way I talked about, sometimes I'll use something you'd see on TV, sometimes it's something you'd see more in an art film. I like this idea of high and low, anything that the scene is calling for. These changes of tones or surprises or jolts give you a different kind of rhythm as you move across them too. I think that because it is a comedy, one of the basic elements is that it doesn't take itself too seriously, and some of the things you highlighted – like the credits song and the recap of Part One – are done more out of a sense of fun and looking at what we have than I think any other design.

As someone steeped in theatre, I wanted to ask about how you approached the filming of theatre in A Bread Factory. The performance of Hecuba is shot with a lot of close-ups and has a real intensity.

I'm very happy to hear that question because it's something that Frank and I cared a lot about, and we thought a lot about. It was also a mad day of shooting because we shot all that in one day, the whole Hecuba performance. You know, we talked about self-awareness, and one of the things that we thought about early on is that we didn't want it to be one of those things where it’s self-aware or referencing theatre in any way. It's not like you see lights or you see backstage through the performance. We wanted it to be as close to the experience of going to the theatre as possible, which means you fall into it, which means you buy it. The other thing it means is, this is theatre in a black box, and in a black box you just have this mental flexibility, it can become anything. A big way that it can magically become anything is if you leave out references to geography, so that's why you're talking about it tending to be closer. What is very magical about those black box spaces is that it really lets you fall into the performance of an actor, and that is like a close-up. It's not a literal close-up in theatre, but it's an emotional kind of close-up, and so to replicate that it required a filmic close-up. Those were some of the basic ideas behind it, and they guided us in certain ways that I really loved. There were things that came to me even as I was doing colour correct. I had this idea that because it is so separate in some ways, I liked giving it this very odd opening, where the scene kind of opens up and there are these blocks that reveal. That's a colour block thing that we did and it has an element like a curtain opening. One of my favourite theatre directors, Robert Wilson, did this play I remember where it's just this strip in the middle of the set at the back, and he lights that for twenty minutes in these ever-changing ways. It's so captivating, and I just had the idea of starting from this strip and opening up. So it has an odd ragtag of origins but I'm very happy with where it ended up.

As I said at the start of the interview, I saw A Bread Factory back in 2019, before the world changed. Watching it again now, I felt it resonated in a different way because the kind of community theatre and arts space that it is about are facing even more perilous times. How do you view that aspect of the film now?

In some ways you would be more expert on that because I haven't seen it since the pandemic, but I can imagine the things you're saying, and I can imagine that now it would play very differently, especially in these spaces that are facing more than ever this perilous existence. One of the things they're very good for is that they give people what they need, whatever that is, it's a wide range of different needs and backgrounds of people coming in that they can address, and I think as people need community this is a great way to go back into community. I think one of the things that is my favourite about these movies is that, you know, we can talk in broad themes about big institutions and the role of art and all these things, but it really happens in very modest ways. I'm thinking about the end of Part One, where it looks like everything is on the line for this institution, but then where the film ends up is just one kid with a broken heart, and it's about what art can do to help him through that moment. It's not for any professional means, it's not this great wisdom that he carries with him forever, but it's just to help him through that moment. It's quite modest, but it's also everything.

The Films of Patrick Wang will be released in selected UK cinemas from February 18th, and will be released on digital platforms in March.