By Devin Wachs, Public Relations Manager, BMFI
Often when a debut filmmaker takes on too many roles in a production, it takes its toll on the final product. Not so with Patrick Wang, the force behind the acclaimed indie In the Family. For his work as the writer, director, producer, lead actor, and distributor of the sensitive drama—his first feature—Wang has received awards at several film festivals and the film was nominated for an Independent Spirit Award for Best First Feature.
But it wasn’t always easy for the thespian-turned-filmmaker; the film initially received rejection from almost 30 festivals before Wang’s inventive distribution strategy paid off, leading to fabulous reviews from the New York Times and Roger Ebert and winning In the Family places on over 25 best-of lists.
Bryn Mawr Film Institute will feature the independent drama for a special one-night showing next Wednesday, September 12 at 7:00 pm, followed by an in-person Q&A with Wang. The story of a gay Tennessee man (played by Wang) who becomes embroiled in a custody battle for the six-year-old child that he and his late partner were raising together, In the Family has been praised for its character-driven approach, subtle storytelling, and authentic-feeling Southern setting.
Wang answered my questions via email about his roles onscreen and off in In the Family, his inspiration, the importance of character, and capturing the South onscreen.
Before writing this film, you had taken a few years away from theater and film. What inspired you to write this story? Why now?
I remember being stunned by a statistic I read about how many kids in the U.S. were being raised by two dads or two moms. Part of the surprise was that I didn't know any of these families at the time. An image popped into my head one day of a particular family: two dads of mixed race raising a six-year-old kid in the South. They had a middle class life in a mid-sized town. I wondered about them and fell in love with them and the details of their lives. The writing came more from a place of curiosity than political urgency.
One of the remarkable things about this film is that, despite the hot-button issues it touches upon (eg. gay marriage, racial intolerance, adoption rights), it is framed as a personal drama, not a political statement. Would you discuss your decision to write In the Family that way?
I don't think I have much of a talent for making political statements. Political complexity baffles me, whereas when I think of the complexity of people’s lives, I seem to get somewhere. When I was younger, I would write from the top down. I'd have all the thematic material and philosophy mapped out, and all the details would be in service of these masters. I was a terrible bore, I'm sure as much to my readers as I was to myself. When you look at people, they are full of surprises, and that is everything. You watch them openly and carefully, and the drama reveals itself. The time for craft will come, but I believe you must observe the characters first. They teach you the politics, the structure, the art.
You have worn an astonishing number of hats for In the Family: actor, writer, director, producer, and now distributor. Which is the most challenging for you? The most rewarding?
I think the acting was the greatest challenge. Of all the positions I took on, I had the most experience as an actor, about 15 years coming into the project. But it is performance, and performance has to materialize at a particular time or you have nothing. So there was a very different type of risk involved with this job compared with the others.
I think being a distributor has been the most rewarding in that I have learned the most in the process. It has taught me so much about theater houses, communities, real-world projection, and responses. And I've met some of the neatest people in the most unlikely places.
How did you decide to cast yourself in film? What were some of the difficulties of directing your own performance?
After I had been resisting for a while, one of my producers finally convinced me to consider casting myself. I spent some time working on a couple scenes and then recorded them with a camera. They were awful, and so I thought, ‘Well that was a horrible idea.’ But then the next day I tried again, and I started to give myself the benefit of direction and trying to improve. I got better, but I needed to answer the tough question: how quickly could I progress through this role? So I spent several weeks in this cycle of performing, evaluating, and revising to test if it was likely I could become fluent in the role by the time I needed to start rehearsing the other actors. At the end of this test period, I determined that it would take five months of rehearsing six days a week on my own to get there. So that's what I did. Vanity is the greatest difficulty in directing yourself. Not necessarily that you're in love with yourself, but that the details of you naturally speak louder than the other details. I found I needed to practice mentally forcing the details into a normal balance to be able to properly evaluate what was going on.
How did you craft your character’s voice, first as a writer on the page and then as an actor, accent and all?
That's a great question. Generally, I think of a character's written voice as a combination of how they think and the particular social situation they are engaged in. One of the fascinating things about Joey is that he doesn't really change his voice based on who he's talking to. He is remarkably, at all times, comfortable with himself and without pretense. That makes the writing a lot easier and the performing a lot harder. To keep things dynamic, it becomes all the more important for Joey's thinking to be transparent when he speaks. I started with what I thought of as a pretty standard male Western Tennessee accent, but for the long stretches of dialogue that Joey has, I found the technical and emotional range a little narrow. So like a good pair of boots, I kind of just lived with the accent a little bit and let it stretch out where it wanted to. In the end, you have something that's not off the assembly line, but it's unique and comfortable.
You’ve said in other interviews that you had never been to Martin, Tennessee where In the Family is set when you wrote the film, yet the film is unanimously praised for its authentic Southern setting. What did you do to capture the town from afar?
There were a couple seeds of Martin in there. I happened to speak to a couple people from Martin at one point, I saw pictures of houses and vegetation, I saw a map and a demographic report. I've spent time in small towns and in different parts of the South. But I didn't dwell much on these things. Perhaps surface details of language and some mannerisms are different, but I assume the human heart behaves in Martin as it does in the rest of the world. I assume that possibility and diversity and change all flow through the town, in a unique way. Maybe the trick to nailing a setting is finding foreignness in some surrounding details, but not at the center of things.
In addition to your stage experiences as a director and actor, you are also an economist. How does the latter influence your approach to theater and film production?
In the decade I worked as an economist, the two most useful skills I learned were how to manage a team and how to walk into the middle of a mess and think clearly. Both skills translate directly to filmmaking. What's interesting to me is that a lot of decisions in the film industry are made in the name of business, but this is not business as I know the term. I know business as something inventive, dynamic, well-risked, and intertwined with humanity, not a thing apart. Not the dominant view in the film industry. I participate in the business of film not to be a cog in today's markets but to be part of creating tomorrow's more interesting markets.
After getting rejection letter after rejection letter from almost 30 film festivals, you decided to premiere the film yourself at one theater in New York City, which led to a fantastic New York Times review and great buzz (and, later, film festival accolades). What made you decide to take a chance on this distribution method?
Honestly, there weren't all that many possibilities left at the time. It was a bit of a Hail Mary, but I have an appetite for risk. And while in some respects I am a patient person, I wasn't going to spend a year waiting for someone else to get a clue. It's hard building something outside of the system, but at least you know where the responsibility lies and know that work is getting done. Progress may be slow, but you can keep it moving forward. I'd rather spend a year slowly building something than a year at someone's mercy.
Is there a question that you wish someone would ask about you or In the Family?
I wish Liv Ullmann would ask me for a copy of the film. I would say, “Yes, of course, Liv.”
Hear that, Liv? Thanks so much, Patrick.
Devin Wachs is the Public Relations Manager for Bryn Mawr Film Institute. She joined BMFI in 2005, following her graduation from Bryn Mawr College. If you send BMFI a message on Facebook or Twitter or are interested in onscreen sponsorships, she's the one who'll be in touch!
This was initially posted on Bryn Mawr Film Institute's blog, BMFInsights.