In director Patrick Wang's debut film, In the Family, precocious 6-year-old Chip Hines (the masterful Sebastian Brodziak) has never known family besides his two dads: Cody (played by Trevor St. John) and Joey (played by Wang). But when Cody is suddenly killed in an accident, Cody's sister (Kelly McAndrews) gets custody of Chip, and Joey -- a handyman from Tennessee who happens to be Asian-American too -- finds the acceptance he had from Cody's deeply Southern family may not be what he thought it was. The law is not on his side in the custody matter, but eventually Joey finds a resolution that's more expansive than most filmgoers will imagine. Given that it's breathtakingly nuanced film that has been lauded by respected sources such as Roger Ebert and The New York Times, it's hard to believe that In the Family (which is opening in Chicago this weekend and is screening across the country through December)was rejected by 30 film festivals before being accepted to one. Wang talks to us about rejection, marriage equality, and whether kids are in his future.
The Advocate: The film was really beautiful but I read the film was rejected by 30 film festivals before being accepted. Why do you think that is?
Patrick Wang: I can only speculate as I've heard back from just one festival, and they apologized for not having watched the film. My best guess is that this same thing happened with many of these festivals, including the ones with really high submission fees, that they simply did not watch the film. Honest discovery through the submission process is hard. It requires great hope, great investment, and great discipline to adhere to processes that may exist on paper but that become lax in practice. It is far easier to substitute a form of "discovery" by going to another festival or talking to a filmmaker you already know about their new movie or going to the alums of programs you're affiliated with. It's understandable, but it has consequences. Its consequences are atrophy of open discovery muscles, and a narrower range of film makes it into the conversation.
You have an amazing ensemble cast. Since this is your first film, how did you attract folks like Brian Murray, Elaine Bromka, and Park Overall to the project?
Thank you. I think this ensemble is tremendous. It came together because of our wonderful casting director Cindi Rush, the open-mindedness of the actors' agents, and the generosity of the actors themselves. They connected with the script and didn't care about anything else except making a good movie. It was my first film, but I have been a theater director for over a decade, so I think that gave them a measure of confidence that I could align their talents to produce a good movie.
For a film that is seemingly about marriage equality and gay rights, the characters never really say anything specific about those things. Was that intentional?
I didn't begin with that intention. At some point in the writing, I noticed that for the particular moments we were looking at in these people's lives, their conversations didn't really contain political language or the language of identity. I thought, This is interesting, let's see how long it stays like this. And it stayed that way through the remainder of the writing. It feels honest to these characters, and in the end I feel it invites much deeper and personal thoughts on these issues from the audience. I can talk about a right or I can take you through the experience of missing that right. The latter is far more interesting to me.
It seems like you were intending to offer a more expansive view of what constitutes a "family."
When I was in high school, I was lucky enough to be an exchange student to a small town in Argentina called Goya. To this day, I have remained very close to my host family there. I use modifiers from time to time to clarify, so-and-so is my Argentine cousin. But I feel no modifier in my heart. He is my cousin. They are my family. They have taught me how the decision to care for people over time and without pause is a gorgeous thing, and it's the first thing I think of when I think of family.
Sebastian Brodziak plays 6-year-old Chip, who in the film essentially becomes your stepson. What was it like working with him? He had to pull off some nuanced scenes himself.
He's a riot, and I've never had more fun. It's also exhausting. I didn't expect to have to carry around a kid on set all day, but then in the end you realize it's probably the most meaningful thing you've done all day. Sebastian is also a real actor, and it's always a pleasure to be in a scene with a real actor. He has a tremendous memory, real emotional imagination, technical precision, and a way to hide all the mechanics and make it look spontaneous. What's interesting is that while we went on outings to get comfortable with each other, rehearsed lines, and worked on technical elements like blocking and accents, I never once had to explain to him what was happening in the scene and how to react. He understood the setup, the conversation, the story. For kids or for grown-ups, I think that's the foundation for a nuanced performance: that you understand what's going on and react honestly.
Any reservations about both acting in and directing your first feature film?
Plenty. I resisted acting in the film for a long time. When my producer finally convinced me to consider it, and after I convinced myself it could be done, I kept looking for ways to avoid the potential pitfalls. At first I thought I would work with an acting coach, to be my eyes and ears. But then I realized there was a real danger in shifting the responsibility of the performance onto someone else. In the end I rehearsed intensely on my own for five months before I started working with any other actor. I would video record or audio record those rehearsals as a feedback loop to help me develop instincts for evaluating my own performance. Also, the first week of shooting I studied the dailies intensely and learned to read the nonverbal reactions from the crew.
Tell me about your background. Do you have a partner or spouse? Children?
I don't have a partner or children now. Both would be wonderful in the future.
This is a pretty amazing debut film. Why do you think the film is relevant to audiences right now?
Thank you. I think there is a special place for the film now as the vulnerability of same-sex families is very prominent now, whether at the ballot box or immediately in people's lives. For those who may not feel this is their issue, I think the film is an invitation to walk in someone else's shoes and see what comes of that experience. I have been very happy to see a foreign issue transform into a very personal one for some audience members after viewing the movie. And for those living in the crosshairs of these issues, I hope the film can be a comfort. I recently met the nonbiological mother of a two-mom family. It meant a lot to her to see the fears she lives with every day portrayed in a realistic and sensitive way. The fears are obviously still there, but she feels a little less alone in navigating them.
Have you ever dealt with the kind of loss that Joey deals with in the film?
I hadn't at the time we shot the film, but my dad died a couple weeks after we finished shooting. I remember being in the editing room watching the scene where Joey and Chip come back from the memorial service with a very critical eye, thinking something would change now that I had been through that experience. But nothing was false about it, and some of the details were surprisingly prescient. I think imagination and the exercise of sympathies can go a long way to filling in the gaps of our actual experience. Thank goodness, or writers would be so limited in the content of their works.
In the film race doesn't really feature even though Joey is obviously an Asian-American Tennessee native, which we don't often see in film or TV. Did you make a choice not to address it?
I think the film does address it, but it doesn't talk about it. Race hangs in the air, very pointedly in some moments. I remember thinking that those who have faced issues of racial discrimination would be more tuned to pick up on these subtle moments, but I've been surprised how pretty much everyone notices them and gets them. The beauty of modern drama is that we can address ideas in dimensions far richer than sentences. Instead of terminology, we can curate context and psychology to arrive at our insights.