A generally pleasant, positive, and polite human being, first-time filmmaker Patrick Wang began to lose a bit of his optimism after completing “In The Family.” A sincere and epic three hour drama with most scenes covered in a single take, the director had few supporters and no festivals willing to screen the film.
But eventually one programmer took a chance with it and word of mouth spread. Before he knew it, ‘Family’ was nominated for an Independent Spirit Award, boosting its stature quite a bit, and demand increased. Festivals remained a tad elusive (likely due to its running time), so instead of the usual route on the circuit, Wang has been self-distributing the movie to various theaters across the country, finding fans in the least likely of places.
Set in Tennessee, ‘Family’ charts the life of dual fathers Joey (Wang) and Cody (Trevor St. John) and their upbringing of the six-year-old Chip (Sebastian Banes). For a while, things are delightful -- the three get by terrifically and though they’re not exactly the model nuclear family, the community appears to have welcomed them with open arms -- until tragedy strikes, with Cody’s life being taken in a car accident. If the loss of a parent and soulmate aren’t enough for Chip and Joey, it is soon revealed that Cody’s will (as the blood parent of the boy, whose mother died during birth) grants custody of his son to his sister, leaving his partner high and dry. Joey begins the fight for the child he has raised, with both the law and Cody’s family against him at every turn.
Sincere and assuredly handled, “In The Family” is an indie drama like no other. The film has cycled back to New York City this week, and we had a chance to chat with the director about the reception to his picture and what he’s got brewing next.
As the film plays continuously throughout the country (and Canada!), the filmmaker has been along with it more often than not, and is always floored by the healthy turnouts and warm welcomes. From Saskatchewan to Kansas City, people come and show their dedication -- and in the latter, even the Mayor dropped by. “Kansas City has a very big interest in movies, and all of this was because of one guy who loved the movie,” Wang explained. “For opening night he got 150 of his friends to come -- I could never get 150 people to go anywhere!” While the director does appreciate the intimacy of an art-house theater, the randomness that a multiplex brings offers a bit more excitment. “Sometimes you get some people who accidentally saw your film -- they just go because of the showtime.” And they, like others, have had extremely kind words to say about the movie.
Anger At Aesthetic, Not Subject
Given the subject, we assumed there would be at least a few irate reactions at some of the screenings. “We haven’t found that yet, and I really don’t know why. There have been people who have been invited against their will and at the end they’ve come around,” he says. Of course, that doesn’t mean the filmmaker has come out of this completely unscathed, and he noted that peoples’ frustration mostly stemmed from their distaste with the slow pace and style. “Some people really hold on to their conventions, you take them away and they’re very disturbed. The type of information and the way it flows to the audience is very different,” he admits.
After relaying a story about an incredibly negative review with a laugh (“I think I made them invent the graphic for the review: an empty star”), Wang remarks that he has come to terms with the reaction. “The history of difference is not that it’s welcome with open arms. People are uncomfortable, they react violently against it, they are frightened by it. I thought about that for awhile and it makes sense.” As noted above, having the film be turned down early on wasn’t a happy time, but seeing audiences turn up at his first New York date and hearing the reaction cheered him up immensely. “People almost had me convinced that I made a movie for five people. When people started coming in New York, I realized that was untrue,” he stated. In his mind, people can take whatever you throw at them -- snail pacing or seizure-inducing editing -- so long as you give them a reason to stick around. “Audiences can be patient, you just gotta give them the reason to be and give them the opportunity to be. And I feel like one of those things is generally missing in movies.”
Instead of remaining behind the camera, Wang played the lead role, knocking it out of the park -- but interestingly enough, the multi-talented artist hadn’t acted in years and originally wasn’t interested in doing it. “Then one of my producers asked me to consider it... of course I said no, but later reconsidered, if only because, as you accumulate hats, you accumulate cost savings also,” he chuckled. He thus started his own self-training, which involved crudely filming himself acting out the scenes and attempting to give personal direction. It was a long process, but eventually things started to click and things came quicker. Within the long takes, he also found his presence within the acting space to be unimaginably useful. “A lot of directors will speak over a scene and give direction as it’s going on,” he mentioned. “We couldn’t quite do that for various reasons, but if the scenes are slower or have an inappropriate tone, as a character within the scene you can do something to get it back on track and have the take be useable.” More than pleased with his performance, being able to direct scenes while in character was a beneficial tool he didn’t realize he had acquired when agreeing to undertake the lead role.
Thankfully, traveling across the country for an entire year hasn’t burned the director out and he’s jonesing to move on to the next project. Titled “Above The Whirr,” the project is described as being a combination of monologues and songs from different characters in different time periods, going back as far as Greek mythology. Shot on a stage with “continuous” sets, Wang praised the short forms that you can find in music and literature but not really in film. “In music, albums have a collection of short forms. You have it in literature with short stories... it’s not absent in film, but it’s kind of rarity. I was curious if these things could make a form of their own.” Discounting collective omnibuses, one could look at the work of Swedish director Roy Andersson for a good idea of exactly what the director is describing, though he admits that it’s ultimately a difficult project to explain. “It all feels a touch wild, but it also feels a completely different type of material. It’s written, my brain is already in that space where I like to think about it a lot, now it’s just a question of how it happens.”
“In The Family” is now playing around the country. Click here for the website with dates and locations.