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Interview: Joan Chen and Alice Wu on "Saving Face"
by Peter Sobczynski

Sure to be referred to by everyone who sees it as “My Big Fat Gaysian Wedding,” the new indie film “Saving Face” is a reasonably charming trot through familiar material. Michelle Krusiec stars as Wil, a Chinese-American lesbian trying to keep her sexual orientation a secret from her widowed mother (Joan Chen). This becomes a little more difficult when a.) Wil meets the girl of her dreams in sexy ballerina Vivian (Lynn Chen) and b.) Mom mysteriously becomes pregnant and, after being disowned by her father for refusing to name the man responsible, winds up moving in with her. Although writer-director Alice Wu’s film sounds like the set-up for a silly sitcom, it manages to find humor and pathos in the situation without milking things for cheap laughs or cheaper tears (although the grand finale is a little much at times–can’t someone come up with a better climax than a disrupted wedding?)and the three stars play nicely off of each other throughout. “Saving Face” is likely to go unnoticed amidst the hype for the bigger films currently on display, even among other indie releases, but those who seek it out are likely to come away smiling from this low-key charmer.

Recently, debuting writer-director Alice Wu and actress Joan Chen, best known as one of the stars of “Twin Peaks” and “The Last Emperor” as well as the director of the acclaimed “Xiu Xiu: The Sent-Down Girl” and the Richard Gere-Winona Ryder cancer weepie “Autumn in New York,” sat down to discuss “Saving Face,” Chen’s return to work in front of the cameras and how to go from being a computer analyst to an up-and-coming director in only five years.

For the last few years, Joan, it seemed as if you had largely abandoned acting altogether in order to pursue a career as a director. What was it about “Saving Face” that finally lured you back in front of the cameras?

Chen: When I left acting, it was deliberate–the roles were deteriorating and I know that as actresses age, that is bound to happen. Instead of trying to salvage the problem by having facelifts or whatever, I would go out and find material to write, direct and produce so that I could do what I loved to do even if it wasn’t acting anymore. I knew that if the right part came along, I would go back but I was glad that I wasn’t struggling with aging on screen and that I took that five or six years off. Now I have ripened like a good bottle of wine, it is time to take off the cork. I loved this part and it was right for me. I am fortunate that I can now go back and forth between acting and directing and writing because I love every aspect of filmmaking.

It is interesting that right before “Saving Face,” I did a film where I played Zhang Ziyi’s mother and grandmother in China. Then I came back and did “Saving Face” and when that was done, I went back to China and did another film, called “Sunflower,” in which I played the filmmaker’s mother. When I was growing up in China, I was this dream girlfriend figure in films and now I am the mother.

Recently, you have worked with other up-and-coming Asian-American filmmakers–Alice, of course, and Eric Byler as well. Do you see an upturn in opportunities form Asian-Americans in the film industry today both behind the camera and in front of it, even if your name isn’t Lucy Liu and you don’t float through the trees while hitting people with sticks?

Chen: If you are floating through the air and hitting people with sticks, it is certainly easier Also, I think the American film industry has learned all their gunfights nowadays from Hong Kong. All of the choreography is from Hong Kong and I’m proud that the Chinese film industry was able to offer that. At the same time, there is certainly a hunger for real characters like Alice has created. Asian-Americans want to see real people–we don’t always want to be these fantasy creatures.

Alice, you took an odd road to become a filmmaker. You actually started out working in computer science before making this film. Did you switch because you wanted to become a filmmaker and this story came out of that or did you want to tell this story and film became the preferred method for doing so?

Wu: I got my Bachelors and Masters in computer science and spent five years working in the software industry and was not thinking about becoming a filmmaker at all. It was not in my lifepath at all. At some point, I realized that I was at this place where all my friends were getting married and having kids–not that I wouldn’t want that, but there was a part of me that knew that while I liked what I was doing, after five years I didn’t love it anymore. I was getting very bored–I was just managing people by that time. There is a point where you ascend the ranks enough and you stop doing the interesting stuff and just become a people manager.

Secretly, I always wanted to write–I never thought about being a filmmaker but I always secretly wanted to be a novelist and always wrote little short stories that I never showed anyone as a way to keep myself from drowning in boredom. I was thinking about writing this particular story and I began to think that it might make a better film than a book because as I was thinking about it, I kept seeing scenes and images in my head. I wrote a two-page treatment and then went about writing it as a screenplay. Then I learned that in Hollywood, if you aren’t the director, you aren’t telling the story and the writer doesn’t have much say in how the story is told.

I was in Seattle at this time and I just chucked everything and went to New York with just this script. I gave myself five years and agreed that if I didn’t get it done in that time, it wasn’t meant to be and I would go find another corporate job. That anniversary hit right after the first week of the shoot, so I just barely squeaked in under the wire. I worked for free on other people’s shoots and trained as an editor. I worked with actors and sort of cobbled together my own idea of a cheap version of film school. It was never that I wanted to become a filmmaker and went looking for the right story. It was more that I was dying to tell the story and film was the best medium and by doing so, I realized how much I love directing.

How did the story for “Saving Face” come about?

Wu: At the time, I was thinking about the various things going on in my life. At the same time, my mom was turning 50 and I suddenly realized that I was really close to her and that she has wanted the best for me but has never looked at her own life as something where she could be a romantic lead. It was as if she would never be the leading lady in a film. To her, when I came along, it seemed to her that her life was over–marriage, kids, job, done–and it just seemed like she was way too young to feel like there is nothing new that could happen. I guess I wrote it because I thought I could express to her that it never is too late to fall in love. My mom had never been in love before and I wanted her to know that it could happen tomorrow if she wanted it too.

Even though the basic story of “Saving Face” is relatively universal, did the combination of an Asian-American setting, a female-driven story and a lesbian subplot cause difficulties in raising money for production?

Wu: Every door was shut in my face. Also, I am terrible at raising money–I had friends in the computer industry who wanted to invest in the film and I would tell them not to do that because film is a horrible investment and anyone who tells you otherwise is lying. I told them that in all honesty, the chances were good that they would wind up losing their money. Frankly, it is hard to find good friends and I would rather have friends over money. Along the way, there were producers who read the script and liked it even though they wouldn’t make it for those exact reasons that you mentioned. I had people say that it was a great story and if it could be done white, they could get Reese Witherspoon for the daughter and Ellen Burstyn for the mother and it would be box-office gold. I love those actors but I think you would lose so much of the story and heart because it is those textures that make it seem so authentic to people. I’ve had people tell me that the characters remind them of their Irish families or Jewish families and while they aren’t exactly the same, it is those textures that relax them into seeing the emotional heart of the story. I have a sense that the story really needed to be told this way.

Practically at the end of the five years, I won a screenplay contest where one of the judges was Teddy Zee, who is the president of Will Smith’s production company. Teddy was a huge champion and thought I could be a big Hollywood screenwriter. In reality, even if that went smoothly, it would still take three or four years to do and I told him that I really needed this film to hit in the next year–if I went away for four years and then tried to do it, I have this feeling that there is a window for projects and I didn’t think I’d want to do it then. Out of the blue, he called up six months later and he said that he had lunch with someone who might really like to do such a film. He responded in ten days and then, at the last possible minute, it all came together.

Having worked in the American film industry before, did you have any advice for Alice as she set off to do it herself?

Chen: No, I don’t think that is how it works. I think my way of supporting the film is to make sure I can complete her vision and tell her version of the story. Maybe in life in general, we chat and and learn something from each other but if I were Alice Wu, I wouldn’t want Joan Chen to give me advice.

Wu: I think part of what she is saying is that you are so stressed on a shoot–there is so much going on–that what she probably wisely noted, having been a director herself, is that you have so many balls in the air and you want to hire the absolute best people that you can to help you with it. I loved my crew and my cast and what Joan gave me was that she made it wonderful to work with her and that was the greatest gift. Everyone in every department did that and I think that is why I feel very fortunate. Someone like Joan, who has this amazing experience and talent, was willing to trust the director. On some level, you have to trust the director–you can’t have the camera operator say “Hey, I’ve acted before and I want to tell the actors something.” It might be useful but the problem is that it wouldn’t be useful in that moment. On some level, there has to be that trust and people were willing to go there with me even though I was an untested rookie. It was very touching.

Chen: Cast and crew are very interesting people. They really want to be led. When I was at that position, I would lead. They actually want leadership and when I was the cast, I wanted to enjoy the experience of acting by surrendering myself to the director. I really want to please the director and help him or her. I am like a little kid looking for approval because that is where you are–you are emotionally open and vulnerable and you want to be in that place. There were a couple of times when I wasn’t able to get to that place because there are directors who you can’t trust and you don’t feel good placing yourself into their hands. We had a great experience and a great time together.

One of the interesting things about the film is that it is, for the most part, played in a low-key and realistic manner. A story like this could easily be played very broadly with, for example, a big scene where the mother learns about her daughter’s sexuality. Here, you take a completely different approach–although we don’t realize it at the time, we have been watching the characters dealing with that particular revelation all the way through the film and it forces us to look at those scenes in a new way.

Wu: For me, and I often say this, it is hard to imagine dealing with any story without some level of humor. On some level, this story is not inherently comic–what is going on is actually a very tragic drama with a mother and daughter both dealing with secrets and shame and a 48-year-old woman being disowned by her father. Sometimes, though, I find that funny because no matter what we as people have accomplished intellectually, emotionally we are retards. It is incredible to me how bad we are at relationships. I think it turns out that you don’t have to be good at relationships–you just have to love. I think these are characters that, no matter how bad they are at trying to do the right thing, really do love each other.

That kind of humor was an important component and if I had gone broad with it, I would have lost that. It was important that the audience feels that they are getting to know these characters as if they are real people. That is how you get to know people–it emerges from them. It turns out that the mother and daughter know more about each other–it isn’t what they know as much as it is what they choose to acknowledge. They are cramped in this apartment and they have these two huge elephants with them and both are basically saying, “I won’t point out your elephant if you don’t point out mine.” There is a lot of comedy that can come out of that but what I love is that while audiences can laugh throughout the film, there are a couple of key moments where they are crying and I am really glad because that says that they actually care. For me, you can’t really ask for more as a storyteller than to see people care so much about whether your characters are broken-hearted.

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originally posted: 06/09/05 08:48:02
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