Patrick Wang's In the Family, an extraordinarily original and touching drama about a gay father's struggle to retain the custody of his young son, is the year's stealth, under-the-radar sleeper hit in the nation's art cinemas. (In Charlotte, it's currently playing at least through May 17 at Park Terrace Cinemas.)
After being turned down by countless film festivals and distributors, first-time writer-director-star Wang made the nervy move of putting his film in one Manhattan theater. The result was a steady stream of rave reviews in places like the New York Times ("This is a career to keep an eye on.") and Variety ("A beautifully written and performed plea for understanding on hot-button moral and legal issues"). Soon, the film won a prestigious nomination for Best Debut Film at the Independent Spirit Awards, and began attracting high-profile supporters like Roger Ebert ("What a courageous first feature this is, a film that sidesteps shopworn stereotypes and tells a quiet, firm, deeply humanist story").
Even with this backing, Wang elected to go his own way by distributing the film himself, and frequently appearing with it to engage the audiences in discussion, as he will this Friday evening at Park Terrace Cinemas.
There's lots to talk about. As an Asian-American who's also gay, Wang's protagonist is a character we haven't seen in movies. On top of that, he's a Southerner, and the picture the film paints of the contemporary South is one that may surprise Americans who've gotten another negative cultural image from this week's passing of Amendment One. This startling, subtle, encouraging vision is why I was particularly interested to ask Wang about the film's regional roots when I spoke with him this week.
Your film tells a story that could take place anywhere in the U.S., but happens to take place in Martin, Tenn. Many viewers are surprised to learn that you're from Texas and the film was shot in New York. Why did you choose to set it in the South, and in this particular part of the South?
I love the South, but I rarely see what I love about the South on screen. I wanted to set the movie in a modest sized town in the South because I believe these places can be as diverse, surprising and rich in humanity as anywhere. When I started the screenplay, my Argentine sister and her husband had just moved to Martin, and so I found myself wondering what life was like there. Before I knew it, I had fallen for a town I had never been to.
The character you play, Joey Williams, is a contractor and seems very rooted in his place and his culture. I think some people when they see the movie assume, as I did, that he must be close to or based on you. But he's not, and even his accent is different than yours. Can you talk about how you came up with this character — and his accent?
Rooted is the right word for Joey. There are pieces of my dad's integrity, determination, and generosity in him. I love Joey's good humor and sense of humor. I'm not sure where they came from, but they seem to be the core elements that attract all the other details and events in his life. With imagination, in pieces, and after some false starts, Joey came together. The accent was interesting. It kept changing over the course of several months as I tried to get a grasp on the rhythm of how Joey thinks and feels things. Most accents I tried felt a little too slow and too emotionally narrow, particularly for the key scenes at the end of the movie. Through a lot of accent fidgeting, I finally fit into an accent I like a lot. And I love when people in Kentucky and Tennessee say with pride, "You sound like us!"
Your film deals with very potent issues including gay partnering and parenting, yet it very deftly avoids being typed as an "issues film." Terms like "gay marriage" are not used in the film. It works more on a human and dramatic level. Why did you decide to avoid the obvious terms, and how difficult was it to do that?
At one point in the writing, I realized that political and identity terms were not showing up in any of the dialogue. I thought, this is interesting, I wonder how long this will go on. And it went on for the whole screenplay. I think the reason for this is because in these particular moments in these particular people's lives, that's how they talked (and didn't talk). It was natural, and so that made it very easy to do. I think it does the film a great favor. It makes it more inviting to people who may have strong reflexes to those terms. I also think films become very clunky when different elements repeat the same thing. Like you said, these issues are already in the characters and in their life events. What can be bigger than that? Words cannot compete with that experience and will only slow you down.
The film lasts almost three hours and yet its length feels entirely organic and not at all excessive. In fact, it's a pleasure to spend that amount of time with these characters. Why did you decide to make the film that long, and did it feel like a risk?
The running time surprised me. It's like my movie came out of the closet as a three hour movie, and I said no, it can't be, knowing what a hard life was in store for it. But after some agony and some time, I learned it couldn't be anything else. And time ends up being the secret ingredient for the very deep and personal reactions people have to the film. We need the space to think about our own lives next to the lives of these characters. And we need to slow down to actually experience some emotions. The choice came down to this: I can either indicate an emotion in two seconds or I can actually experience an emotion in four seconds. The world doesn't need me for the former, but I have something to contribute to the latter.
You're going to do a Q&A with the audience this Friday evening in Charlotte. I've seen you do Q&As and I know that viewers are very moved by the film. What have you learned from talking to audiences, and have audiences in the South been different than in other parts of the country?
What I have learned from talking to audiences is that we all have a hell of a lot in common. As dramatically different as our lives and backgrounds look, we understand and feel so many of the same things. And we are not shallow people with short attention spans, but so much of our lives is flimsy and quick, we need opportunities to exercise those deeper and more patient parts of ourselves. As far as audiences in the South, the thing I've noticed so far is that they seem to laugh a lot more. They really know how to enjoy themselves.
Have you had any instances where people have changed their minds about gay marriage as a result of seeing the film?
Yes, I've seen it happen a number of times, and it doesn't happen in a small way. I remember one screening where I noticed a man standing off to the side while I spoke to other audience members for what must have been an hour. He came up to me after everyone else had left and said that if you had asked him earlier to vote on whether same sex couples should have the right to marry, he would have voted against it. But now he would vote differently, and he said, "It's my issue." He said it in that very protective way you reserve for family. These characters start foreign, then become human, then become family.
After a week in which North Carolina voters enshrined bigotry in their constitution, and President Obama came out finally for gay marriage, it's obvious this issue is going to be a divisive one for some time to come. Your film suggests that most people are decent and will make the right choices regarding gay people's rights if approached on a personal and humane level. Are you now more hopeful about this, or less so, than when you made the film?
The results of the Amendment One vote are devastating for a wide range of couples and families, and there is no way around that. Life will be far more complicated for certain people in needless ways. But at the same time, I cannot help but marvel at this diverse coalition of people who worked to oppose the amendment and who spoke out so eloquently against it and who dedicated so many of their resources to the vote because they care. Progress is defeated not when these people are in the minority but when you can't find them. I have no trouble finding them. And I believe in change at a personal, humane level more than ever. My experience with screening this film tells me that there is no shortage of people in the world ready to surprise themselves and change their minds as they are guided by their hearts.
(Patrick Wang will attend the 7:50 p.m. showing of In the Family on Friday, May 11, and hold a Q&A session afterwards. The film is being shown at Park Terrace Cinemas, 4289 Park Rd. Details: http://www.inthefamilythemovie.com. You can also go to this site, click "Screenings" and "Charlotte, NC," and be taken directly to the Fandango page to buy tickets.)