This week I have something different for you: something old and something new, and they’re related!
First, the new: I had the joy and privilege of reviewing The Half of It, Alice Wu’s new Netflix film, which premieres May 1, for Autostraddle. You might remember Alice Wu because she’s the writer-director of the classic Asian American lesbian romantic comedy Saving Face (2004). That’s right, Alice Wu is back! And I absolutely adored her new movie.
The Half of It is like the best kind of contemporary YA—funny, heartbreaking, and hopeful all at once. It’s about a queer Asian American girl named Ellie Chu (Leah Lewis) who is hired by a classmate to write letters to the girl he loves, in a twist on Cyrano de Bergerac. Yep, Ellie likes the girl too, and nope, things don’t go as planned.
Next, the old: Back in 2005, when Saving Face was premiering in select movie theaters, I had the joy and privilege of interviewing Alice Wu. Today, I dug through my document archive and found the interview for you. We talked about her film’s historic status as the first Asian American lesbian film to be theatrically released; we talked about her love for her mom and about coming out. We also talked about tofu and bulgur wheat, which should not surprise me in retrospect, but it did!
I can’t remember where this interview was first published, and I couldn’t find it online. It might have only been published in a print magazine in a much shorter form. So I’m happy to share the full interview with you here, 15 years later. Enjoy!
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An Interview with Writer-Director Alice Wu
First-time director Alice Wu gave herself a five-year timeline to complete her film, Saving Face, which tells the story of a Chinese American mother (Joan Chen) and her lesbian daughter Wil (Michelle Krusiec). Her decision paid off, as Saving Face, produced by Will Smith’s Overbrook Entertainment, was an official selection at both the Toronto and Sundance film festivals. This week her romantic comedy opens in select cities nationwide. I spoke with the 34-year-old former computer scientist turned Hollywood director in San Francisco, shortly after her film opened the San Francisco International Asian American Film Festival.
[Photo: Left to right: Lynn Chen, Alice Wu, Joan Chen, and Michelle Krusiec in 2005]
What made you decide to set the film in Flushing, NY?
Well, I live in New York now, but I wrote it before I moved to New York. I was living in Seattle at the time. I felt like I could either set it there or I could set it here [San Francisco] or in LA, but the problem was—I love New York. New York is a walking culture, and it’s a very small geographic space where there are thousands of communities, and frankly I just didn’t want lots of scenes of people driving around. [Laughs.] It segregates you. There—you have to walk through everyone else’s community to get to your own, and there’s something about that that I felt would lend itself to the story. There’s something about New York [that’s] symbolic of the entire American experience. Because we’re an immigrant culture, and I feel like you can see it there very cinematically.
You started out in computer science and Saving Face is your first major film. Were you nervous to take on such a big project?
If you had asked me when I was first starting it how I was going to feel about it now, I would have freaked out. But you only see the little thing ahead of you that you’re trying to do. And frankly, of course every director secretly hopes that they’re going to have major distribution and be up at Sundance, but the reality is, I didn’t know. I wrote this for my mom.
I definitely got people along the way approaching me like, “Can we make it Latino? Latino’s much bigger. Asian won’t sell.” I got, “We’ll make Reese Witherspoon the daughter and Ellen Burstyn the mother.” And I was like, no! It is so hard to make a film. If you’re going to make one you may as well make the one you want to make.
I didn’t go into it for money, because if I wanted to make money I would have stayed in computer science. I had saved the money. I had five years to get it done. The fifth year anniversary hit in the middle of my shoot.
Do you feel this is an autobiographical story?
I can’t imagine that for anyone who writes that things aren’t autobiographical, because I’m every character in my story. Most of the things in that story didn’t happen to me directly. It is fiction, but all the emotions are true. I’m really writing about people who feel like, because of their need to save face or to keep a public perception of themselves, they don’t reach for what they want.
I wanted to write about what happens when this woman ends up seeing her mother rebel and reach for what she wants, and that in turn causes her to reach for what [she wants]. It’s really the journey the daughter takes to better understand her mother’s heart, and then that ultimately helps her to better understand her own.
Were there any particular influences on you in terms of movie-making?
There are movies that I love but the thing is, when I love a movie I rarely come out of it thinking, “I now want to go make a film.” I usually come out of it feeling like I want to go live my life more fully. I think bad movies make me want to go make a film. [Laughs.]
I think it’s moments in life that affect my film, because I love the subway, and on the subway people are forced to lead their private lives very publicly. There’s something about watching someone who’s not aware they’re being observed. If they think they’re being watched, it’s amazing what you see! You can look at someone and be like, oh my gosh, she’s lonely. There’s something about that, and that often is what drives me to write something in a certain scene.
This is the first Asian American lesbian film to be theatrically released.
Well then there should be more!
How do you feel about that?
I didn’t know until Sundance when an interviewer said, “You do realize you’re making history.” And I said, “I am?”
I am out as a lesbian. I’m a private person, but I made that realization once the film was getting out there that people would ask me if I was gay, and I knew if I said, “I’m a private person,” it would sound like I think there’s something wrong with being gay. As hard as making a film is, the hardest thing for me was coming out to my mom.
When did you come out to your mother?
I came out my senior year in college; I came out to myself. And then shortly after that, kind of inadvertently I ended up coming out to my mom—and this will sound harsh, but I really understand where she came from—for her it was not even an option that I be gay. She said, “Look, if you ever have a lover I never want to see you again.”
It took a number of years of trying to work it out, but we stuck it out and now we have an amazing relationship. It took ten years to get there, but I really give her credit. I think it’s when the parent has the guts to make changes in their own life to be happy. It really has nothing to do with the child. It has to do with if they’re willing to look at their stuff and say, you know what, I’m not happy about this [and] make those changes, which is no small feat when you’re in your late 40s or your 50s. I think that is what opens up the space for them to accept their child.
Living in New York there’s a huge gay community and a smaller queer Asian community. Do you personally identify with that community?
Yeah. A lot of my friends are Asian or queer, and there’s a sizable portion that are both queer and Asian. There’s such a wonderful comfort when I’m around my Asian lesbian friends. First of all, none of us are vegetarian [laughs], which is a big thing in the lesbian community. None of us have food allergies—none of us eat cheese—but aside from that, we don’t really have food allergies!
I don’t really know how you can be Chinese American and vegetarian.
I know! I agree! It’s a problem. I felt like I was the only Asian lesbian around. Everyone else was white and they were eating bulgur wheat, which was disgusting.
They do weird things with tofu.
Yeah, I’m like, what’s up with that? It’s good if you add minced pork. [Laughs.] I think I just offended like half of my ex-girlfriends.
So I won’t lie that there is an understanding there that is really important to me. One of the things I’m proudest of is, several couples stood up last night—one Chinese American woman got up with her Asian American partner and said, “We’ve been together for twelve years, and thank you, this is the first time I’ve ever seen anything that feels true to me.” And I was like, I could just go somewhere and cry now.
What was it like working with Joan Chen, Michelle Krusiec, and Lynn Chen? Were you nervous as a first-time director?
Of course I was internally, but the thing I know about actors is they need to trust you. It always happens that the director-actor relationship is very parent-child. So I think as a director it is your job—even if you are internally uncertain about something—it’s your job to maintain a really safe environment for them, and that includes letting them know what you think about things. You can’t be like, “You do anything you want.” That’s like telling a child to discipline themselves. That’s not really what a child wants. What they want is to know you in fact have rules, and you’re watching out for them so that they can then go wild.
And what an actor wants to know is, they want to understand your vision. If they believe in it and they believe in you, then they know they can go wild because you are watching to make sure they look good.
I think the fortunate thing is that I have three leads who are so smart. I always tell people that when you’re casting, don’t just go for the person who looks perfect for the part. Go for the person who is the smartest actor you can find, who has the essence—like their truth that they can dig to is going to be true to that character. ’Cause the other stuff, you can work around. But if they’re interesting to watch, that’s gold.
Was it difficult to cast the roles of Wil and Vivian?
It was. Over four months I auditioned over a thousand people. I saw everyone. Like I really don’t think there’s a commercial or a Law and Order episode—if there’s an Asian character on it, I have seen the actor.
Did you encounter any resistance from actors due to the lesbian storyline?
Rarely. Most people who go into acting are fairly liberal. Very, very rarely, there may have been two.
Do you feel that being an Asian American woman, much less a lesbian, limits you in terms of your career?
I have no doubt that because I’m a woman, because I’m Asian American, that certain scripts people don’t even think of me for. But the way I see it is there’s also so many great things about the experiences I have that I wouldn’t trade it for anything. I think that gives me a shot at coming up with a voice people think they might have not heard before and then making that universal. That’s what I was trying to do with this film, and I want to keep writing. I’m open to directing things other people wrote, as long as it’s something that I feel like I can bring heart to it, like I’m the right director for it.
I can look at this as my career, or my passion. And I had a career before, in computer science. It’s actually not that hard to find a career. It’s actually very hard to find a passion. I only get one first film, so I want to enjoy this. Hopefully it won’t be the only film. There’s that Chinese saying, “If it’s meant to be yours it’ll be yours,” and I really do believe that.
My Writing Diary
During the last couple of weeks I’ve finished (“finished”) the research for my work in progress. I’ve also been reading page proofs for Last Night at the Telegraph Club again. Believe me, I’m really tired of my long sentences! Fingers crossed that I can actually start revising my WIP soon.