Interview: Patrick Wang
A few years ago, Patrick Wang made one of the most promising indie debuts in a while with the audacious domestic drama In the Family. His follow-up, The Grief of Others, is a stirring and formally innovative adaptation of Leah Hager Cohen’s 2011 novel, again bringing formal vibrancy to weighty material: this time, the death of a newborn. Each character is in pain, each one copes; none are untouched by the death. The story could come off as melodramatic, schematic, sentimental, but Wang is rather sober in his approach. It’s a testament to both his fidelity to the novel and his faith in his actors that he gives shading and definition to all the characters.
In Wang’s new film, the members of a family in upstate New York suffer and recuperate in their own ways following the death of the baby. The relationship between the father, John (Trevor St. John), and mother, Ricky (Wendy Moniz), unravels. Their overweight adolescent son (Jeremy Shinder) is bullied at school; their younger daughter (Oona Laurence) skips classes to hang out by the Hudson River alone. Out of the blue, the father’s teenage daughter (Sonya Harum) from his first marriage shows up at their door and befriends a neighbor, Gordie (Mike Faist).
As with In the Family, Wang films the developing dramas in wide shots, with long takes, privileging the performances of his strong ensemble. His actors perform within a rich mise en scène, their movements choreographed so that, within a shot, the viewer’s attention shifts to different areas of the image. A new and welcome addition to Wang’s aesthetic is the methodical use of superimpositions and dissolves. When applied to such a plain and forthright style as Grief’s, these techniques are startling. Where In the Family expands, playing out scenes to exhaustion, The Grief of Others compresses, at times transposing two or three scenes on top of each other.
Born in Sugar Land, Texas, a suburb of Houston, Wang graduated from MIT with a degree in economics. During his time in Massachusetts, he satisfied a growing interest in the performing arts by acting in “fringe theatre.” He taught and directed productions at the Stella Adler Studio as well as the Neighborhood Playhouse. He also acted in a handful of indie films, including Jay Weisman’s short, Surveillances, and Andrew van den Houten’s Headspace. In 2011, he shot and co-starred in his first film, the overlooked, and at nearly three hours, epic In the Family, about the custody battle that ensues for a gay Tennessee couple after a deadly car crash.
About 30 major film festivals rejected In the Family, until the Hawaii Film Festival and the San Diego Asian Film Festival screened it. Taking matters into his own hands, Wang self-distributed the film with a theatrical run at the Quad Cinema in New York, eventually earning praise from Roger Ebert. The Grief of Others had its world premiere at SXSW, and FILM COMMENT talked with Wang the week before its appearance in BAMcinemaFest, where it screens tonight.
The Grief of Others
How did you encounter Leah Hager Cohen’s book?
Leah and I have known each other for over 15 years. When I was an actor in theatre, I did a production of Madame Butterfly, and she happened to be writing a book about it. We’ve kept in touch over the years. She happened to have a reading event for The Grief of Others in New York, very close to the time I was about to premiere In the Family. When I started traveling with In the Family, that book kind of accompanied me. So it was on my mind at the time when I was thinking about movies. At the beginning, we didn’t know if we would work on this together. At some point, I thought, well, maybe it would be best if I give it a go. I didn’t even know if it was something I would direct.
It’s interesting that it accompanied you during your trips with In the Family because both are about death, or the events and the actions after a loved one in the family has died, the rupture and repair of the family after a central incident.
Yeah, they live with the aftermath. There are similar shades to them in that there’s a lot of pain in the story. I think there’s an honest and earned hope in the end. I remember we were both getting reviews at the same time too, and there was some unusual overlap in the language of what critics used to talk about the two projects. I think that reflects some similarities in our values and maybe a little bit about how we see the world.
The techniques you choose to film the story are often surprising. Even more than with In the Family, you play with composition, directing the viewer’s eye to different areas, and with different planes in a shot. Something that’s new is the nuanced use of superimpositions and dissolves, which builds to a head at the end. Could you talk a little bit about developing this aesthetic?
There were two main classes of techniques that helped us get at the fullness of what a novel is able to do. One of those is simultaneity of elements. If you have two scenes playing at once, whether its sound and picture, or picture and picture, I feel like doing those two things at once gives you a lot of bang for the buck—understand the person, their history, their psychological space in this very compact way. It takes advantage of how good we are at piecing together what a person is. In real life, we do a lot of work to piece together our understanding of a person. We’re doing it all the time. We learn about people out of order. We get slight reflections of things, we get a piece of a story. We’re very good at forming an opinion or an understanding of people based on these little slices. I took advantage of that in the super[imposition]s, and found that we could create a very complex psychological profile of people, in understanding people, and in these more compact spaces of time.
Along those lines, in the middle of the film, the time line is a jumble. I have to really even think hard about it to remember what comes in what order in historical time. In real time, there’s something about it that makes sense. I think that gaps in time can be very illuminating in understanding a life. That’s something I learned from the writer Alice Munro. She has beautiful breaks in time that I think teach us so much about a life that you can’t fake—this beautiful poetry of what’s missing in someone’s life that illuminates it. Those two things together give a movie—which is so much shorter than how long we engage with the novel—a chance to keep up with all the density of information in the fullness of experience of a novel.
The Grief of Others
There are so many moments that are a breath of fresh air, even shocking. I’m thinking of when Gordie is cleaning up his late father’s home, and he listens to a musical diorama his late father built. The moment immediately triggers a flashback in the form of a superimposition with the father’s voice on the soundtrack.
They also were fun for me because they’re very risky in a way. When Leah first read the script, she thought they were strange. When you’re using something that’s a little different, it’s a question of how strange is it? Is it so strange that no one will get anything from it and no one will follow and the frustration will take over? For example, there’s nothing in that particular moment you mention that makes explicit that that’s Gordie’s father. If you think about how movie information is portrayed, generally people would say: “Oh, you have to do something to let people know that he’s the father. You have to relate the time periods in this way.” I think that very flat way of laying out information is in some ways not similar to our psychology. Bits of things invade our thoughts in these much quicker, and much more abstract—maybe we don’t even realize it—kind of ways. And then they’re gone. Yet as I said, we’re very good at living with that.
I loved that it became very playful. It became a way of experimenting. Eventually, it became a progression in that they start these combinations of shards of time in scenes. They start a little simpler at the beginning, and then they keep changing. I don’t think any one ever repeats the same way twice. Some of the more complex and strange ways they work later on in the film only work because we had the practice of the ones before that were these training wheels into these deeper ruptures.
I love the moment when John comes home late at night after drinking with his colleague, and he’s talking with his wife, Ricky, and the scene immediately goes to a flashback. But then it comes back to that moment again, putting the whole scene in a new light. You’re often bringing about this kind of reorientation with what you’re seeing.
You’re right in that a very simple, straightforward scene—entering a home on an ordinary day—can become a loaded thing, just as in life. You can walk through that door 50 times and not feel anything. You can walk through it that 51st time, and suddenly you’re jolted into a memory. I think that is a part of what makes this so complex, and sometimes inaccessible to other people. We’ll be talking, and then suddenly, we drift into this memory, this feeling, this unresolved thing, and people don’t know where we’ve gone and why. I think in this film there’s a lot about how hard it is to know people. It’s important to show bits of the things that separate us.
I was also struck by the mood of the film. You have all these family members who are living together, but they feel so isolated, alienated, alone. There’s a constrained, muted pain. Did you ever think about mood when filming?
I generally don’t. I think a lot about an emotional experience from the perspective of the characters. I think of it from the perspective of the viewer. Those targets of the emotional experience and the emotional space will in effect create this mood. Mood is often the byproduct of other things going on.
The Grief of Others
How did you select the cast?
We had an excellent casting director, Cindi Rush, who was the same casting director of my first film. Trevor St. John I had worked with on In the Family, and I believe he was the only principal actor I really knew before this film. One of my favorite things—well, I don’t know if I get the privilege of making statements like this having only made two films—but one of my favorite things about making films is meeting actors and meeting new artists to collaborate with. You think sometimes, oh it’s people come in and they show you things, and you evaluate it. You have to interrogate where you could possibly be, and what this person could possibly contribute to the film that is not obvious. I do a lot of research before auditions to try and understand the whole of this actor, and their history, and the types of things they’ve done. I love working with actors.
This relationship with the actors, does that come from your theatre background?
It probably comes from my acting background. The thing that theatre contributes is that you have a lot more faith in what the actor can do. In some sense, you have fewer tools to constantly disturb the performance of an actor, so you understand how they can provide a lot of the tools, just by virtue of you not being able to disturb them every moment. It does teach you that you have a certain faith and understanding of what an actor can accomplish on their own. I learned in Boston fringe theatre at a time when it was great. You could learn so much. You could work with a wide range of people in a very good atmosphere for learning. Theatre at that time was much cheaper than film. Any time you don’t have that financial weight, and this weight of a whole crew and circumstance on you, it’s just easier to learn. You also have more time to rehearse, and so you learn different ways to rehearse. I feel like, if I were growing up in film, and just because the nature of how time sensitive it is, and how expensive it is, I’m not sure I would’ve learned as much.
Did they bring anything to the project that surprised you, any of the actors?
They definitely did. A lot of the director’s stance is to understand what are the useful surprises and which are the non-useful ones. We set some parameters; for example, one thing I generally like to do is to stick with the script, but even within the script, you can change the meaning of a line. You can change the focus of a line. It could be the most important thing or a throwaway line. You can mean it sincerely or you can say it ironically. You always have to fix something [in place]. Fixing one thing gives you other types of freedom. But then, we can just be all over the map in how we interpret these things. That’s why it’s very useful that a lot of scenes are covered in one shot. I don’t have to try to re-create. That gives you even more freedom. You don’t have to try to re-create and match all these things. You can really just be inspired by that moment and let it lead you to an unusual place.
In the Family
So the long takes come out of maintaining the totality of a performer’s abilities?
I don’t know if I think that necessarily going in. What happens is I always look for a place, a perspective that can hold my whole attention to the scene. I ask that as my first question. Is there this magic point where I just love the type of information I’m getting and not getting in a scene? It’s still dynamic even though I may not be moving the camera. Many things can still change within that. If I can find that place, that I feel is rich enough, then that’s great. I don’t have to worry about things like coverage and perspectives. I can just stick with that and it lets me deepen all the other elements. There are all sorts of things that long takes buy you.
You worked with your DP, Frank Barrera, and shot In the Family digitally and printed on 35mm, right?
And with this film, you shot on Super 16. Could you talk a little about the texture of Super 16, and also the color? There’s a prominent use of pink.
The impetus is that we had a very short shoot, two weeks. Frank and I felt that to be able to move that quickly, film would be a major asset. For me, there was also this sense that I wanted to learn what it is like to shoot on film. We mixed some formats. We shot some Super 8. It was fun because I actually got to shoot some of the Super 8.
Is some of the Super 8 in the final film?
Yes. In the opening shot, in the hospital where Simon’s being born, the peach-tinted shot is a composite. It’s black-and-white Super 8 composited with—we shot a piece of peach cloth on Super 16. This is indicative of some of the play we used in that the Super 8 makes sense because the shot’s from an infant’s perspective. But I didn’t want people to feel like, oh we’re in this home movie. Super 8 has this distinctive signature, and so to clear away some of that signature, we composited with Super 16. That dilutes some of that feeling. I also spent a lot of time cleaning up the images of a lot of those Super 8 artifacts. Hopefully, you don’t feel like, oh we’re watching a Super 8 shot. It just feels it has qualities, and mixed qualities. I felt what a nice way to begin the film on a composite in the way a lot of the film will later composite shots. It doesn’t advertise itself as such, but it’s hard to identify.
There’s something about compositing film shots that’s much deeper and more emotional than compositing digital shots. There is an interference between the grain and the sources of the shot. Sometimes, like in the first shot I described, an interference can actually lead to something calmer and more of a harmony, that they can work together in a way of diluting the noise of Super 8. Or, it can add a source of tension in other situations depending on how they are interfering. It gives a kind of depth, picture-on-picture film that digital doesn’t do.
In the Family
In the Family was shut out of major festivals. Did you run into any obstacles with The Grief of Others?
With the experience of In the Family, at first what feels like an injustice or a source of frustration, you learn a lot from it. What I learned was: I love this film, and, simultaneously, I am so frightened for this film, precisely for the reasons I love it. The reasons I love it set it apart. I felt the same thing when I finished The Grief of Others.
I am seduced by language sometimes. The language of independents is so often used in industry, but the industry’s use of the word is very different from the natural meaning of the word. Things that are different will have a hard time, that’s the history of art. It’s also the present of art for a lot of artists. I think it was good to learn that early, to build up a toughness for persevering and wanting to help the film no matter what the rest of the world perceives it, and giving it a space, understanding that it doesn’t have to fit a particular profile of how films come into the world and are accepted. Even in the four years since I released In the Family, so much has changed in the world. You have to make up a new way to help this new film into the world. It will have a hard time, but it’s having a hard time for all the right reasons.