Originally, Angie Wang had it in her head that there’d be a sex scene on the beach in “MDMA,” which might seem like a cinematic embellishment for some, but given Wang’s wild youth, on which her debut feature is loosely based, entirely within the realm of possibility. Which of course made it feel a little tame as a location, particularly when her producer Rick Bosner got word that there were other seaside opportunities she could pursue.
“I was like, ‘Fuck yeah, I’d like to shoot it at the aquarium!’” Wang recalls. “I think they told them I had gone there as a little girl and stuff like that, which was really not quite true – my daughter did.”
This was par for the course on “MDMA,” which Wang is fond of saying is semi-autobiographical but with events largely rearranged and recontextualized for the benefit of an audience in following a younger Angie (Annie Q) in the ‘80s, eager to flee New Jersey to attend college in the Bay Area where her advanced chemistry skills prove to be an asset not only in the classroom, but at the clubs where she starts distributing homemade ecstasy. Soon, she’s got enough money to pay for the tuition her father (Ron Yuan) cannot, working all hours running a restaurant, but in insuring her stay in California, the drug gives the immigrant’s daughter entree to the fast life of her classmates at Crockett University, a Stanford stand-in where liquor-soaked frat parties end in threesomes and extracurricular activities can often run afoul of the law.
Though relishing the moments to stretch credibility with all the craziness that happens to Angie as she rises to the level of being a drug kingpin, “MDMA” manages to always feel true, with its greatest provocation being how vividly it conveys Angie’s desire to reinvent herself in the mold of her prim roommate (Francesca Eastwood) or to feel like she belongs standing next to her blue-blooded boyfriend (Pierson Fode) as a symptom of white privilege, with the most terrifying moments in the film arriving not when drug deals go south but when her cultural identity is at stake. In real life, Wang remade herself as a successful entrepreneur in Silicon Valley, using her resources to start a nonprofit to tend to disaffected youth, and subsequently, got the bug to tell their story, though when she sat down, she was compelled to write her own.
After a life full of other unbelievable adventures, Wang decided to find a way to outdo herself by setting out to make a movie with no prior experience in Hollywood and while you wouldn’t suspect it from the final film, she leaves no doubt it was a story that needed to be told. As “MDMA” hits theaters, the first-time filmmaker spoke about breaking into the business while protecting a story so close to her against all odds.
It’s a very long, winding road. I lived a lot of life beforehand. I had a successful run in Silicon Valley. I became a parent. And I found myself in this enviable situation where I didn’t have to continue on in that career to make a living, so it spurred an early existentialist crisis because I was like, “What do I want to do with my life?” I tried to be just a PTA mom, and that does not suit me in the least. So I founded a nonprofit, largely as a love note back to my youth, and I heard so many of these amazing, powerful stories. These kids are so resilient, and [I founded the nonprofit because I] feel like a lot of our kids are just slipping into this precipice, and I wanted to try to do something about that.
Technology has really outpaced our humanity at this point and one of the consequences is that our empathy is being bled out as a society, so I thought well, what can I do to make someone feel something? And for me, film and TV have always done that, so originally, I wanted to write a script about [these kids] because I wanted to highlight what their experiences were because I found when I went to go pitch to my rich neighbors, the reality was so different than their own. Also, they were just really resistant in terms of not wanting to sink into the skin of these kids because it’s painful. Of course, [making a movie is] a crazy endeavor. My friends were like, “You don’t even fucking know how to shoot something on your iPhone, you’ve never done this. What the hell are you talking about?” But the more I meditated on it and the more I wrote about it, the more I was like okay, I have to do this,” and from a tiny little flicker, it became a flame.
Is it true this began with journal entries rather than a more formal script?
Definitely. I was sitting in my therapist’s chair and she was like, “You should write.” And I’m [thinking,] “I can’t do that,” but I said, “Well, I can journal.” So I went home and started to journal and there was a lot coming up and a lot to process. Journaling seemed like a really clean way to get it out, but hours later, I was like, “Whoa.” [laughs] Basically it was the scene in the movie where the little girl is witnessing her parents’ huge fight and her dad’s waving this knife around. It’s a real event from my life, one that definitely shaped my sense of who I am and the world and I thought, “Wow, this would be a really powerful thing to see onscreen” because aside from being personally cathartic for me, I think that there are a lot of people who have lived through that who keep it bottled up because [they think it’s] shameful. It’s not like you’re going to be, “Hey, guess what? My parents tried to kill each other.” I felt very broken and less than and damaged because of events like that, so to the extent that you see a representation of that, it may empower you to own your own demons or face them.
Yeah, definitely. The Bree character is the composite of many, many kids I’ve met throughout the years, and I wanted to give her some of the spotlight to show what you go through as a kid in a life like that. I also wanted to show that there’s a story behind everything. For a lot of people, you walk by a homeless person and you judge them, but there’s a story there all the time, and often a very compelling one and when we can share these stories with each other, it deepens our sense of humanity and we don’t feel so alone.
As someone new to Hollywood, where do you even start out setting this up?
Carefully and slowly. [laughs] Rick Bosner was instrumental in helping to really move the needle along. When I started this project, I lived up in San Francisco and [Rick] is a beloved staple of the world of film in the Bay Area too — he had done “Fruitvale Station” — so I reached out to him directly because he actually has his e-mail on IMDBPro. An hour after I sent the e-mail, he called me back and that was like on a Sunday and by that Tuesday, he was in my living room and we were like, “Let’s make a movie.” So he was really instrumental in helping move things along. As a first-timer, people are always like, “Ugh, they don’t know what they’re doing. We don’t want to look at this project.” So I wanted a stamp of legitimacy, so I got Cassian [Elwes as an executive producer, as well] — I stalked him. [laughs] Once he gave it that stamp of legitimacy, the quality of our personnel really notched up in terms of the cast who were coming to read and it became a really desirable role for a lot of young actresses because it’s pretty rich, nuanced and layered.
When it’s somewhat autobiographical as this film is, is it interesting to see it take on a life of its own when you bring in other collaborators?
It’s a collaborative effort, so I had a vision of something and often it is different onscreen, especially with the characters. You write something on paper and you give the actor all the backstory and the tools that you can and then you just have to let go and allow the character to live through the actor. So Angie on screen is not the same exact Angie I was and put on paper. It’s definitely through Annie Q’s filter and who she is, so it’s every bit as much her up on the screen as who was on the paper, and it’s a mosaic of everyone’s heart and soul who worked on the movie.
One of the most beautiful surprises of this entire process was that I built my tribe. My costume designer Kit Scarbo was amazing. We spent a lot of time together going over the look of each character and their character arc and she actually went on like a road trip the summer before and went up and down the Eastern seaboard, [going] to all these different vintage shops to be able to hunt for great items. Rodrigo Cabral, my production designer, bled for me. They worked for no money and he created these spectacular worlds to really kind of lose ourselves in, so everyone gave their heart and soul. I asked a lot of them and they delivered and they were so gracious about it. We’re like family now.
I wanted it to happen organically, so I met with each actor individually and then I called Pierson [Fodé] and Francesca [Eastwood] and Annie together and we all sat around and got to know each other. I wanted especially for the two girls to know each other, so they went off and had dinner and got drunk and talked about boys. And then I wanted the chemistry between [Annie] and Bree to be real, so as soon as Bree showed up, she really took her out for ice cream in real life. All my main actors lived in the same apartment building, so they were always running up to each other’s rooms. It was like a dorm, and [our cinematographer Brett Pawlak] stayed in the same apartment building as the rest of the cast, so he and Annie were pretty tight and [that’s why] a lot of those things are shot with a lot of sensitivity and love and support.
Annie’s a doll and she’s so passionate and has such depth as an actress and is so fearless in terms of going where she needs to go emotionally, she was amazing. She actually came to stay with me at my house for that month of pre-production. normally, the actors don’t show up until after you’re done with that phase, but she hung out and I think that added to the vibe and to the chemistry too because she took that opportunity to…she forged a great relationship with the DP and got to meet Scotty beforehand, who played Tommy, so that was actually the first time I heard lines being run was Scotty was gracious enough, he was like doing a play in Monterey and he drove all the way up to our place, which is not really close to spend the afternoon with Annie and they were sitting at my kitchen table and I remember walking in and hearing them run the lines and I’m like, “Oh, man, it’s happening. It’s happening.”
Was directing what you thought it would be? Was it different once you got to set?
It was awesome. It was largely similar to the vibe I wanted to create on set and I realized I’m the leader. I’m the one steering this ship, so I wanted it to be fun, I wanted it to be supportive, but I wanted us to fucking move when we needed to move. [Still] it was even more fun than I thought it would be.
They all seemed pretty crazy. There was one day that was a long, long day. We were at Golden Gate Park, so the very first scene we shot was a flashback where Ron, who did such a wonderful job playing my dad, is throwing the little girl up in the air and I was like, if that little girl is terrified – has that look [of fear] on her face – it’s not going to work, so Ron met the little girl before shooting and she got comfortable with him and he got comfortable with her. [Then] I was running across the street to shoot [a big] funeral [scene] and then we took a little break to go to shoot that aquarium scene. Then there was a company move again underneath that tunnel for a rape scene, so that was a very long day.
Was it a battle making this a period piece?
It was. At one point, Rick was like, “Do you want to do this in the ‘90s?” And I [thought] “No, it’s got to be in the ‘80s. It’s an ‘80s story.” It was clear to me [because] a lot of it is told through the costumes, through the production. I think Rodrigo hunted around for Casio watches and posters that were of that time and Kit did a great job of creating that vibe. Everyone didn’t look like Madonna, you know? So there were times when I had to be like, “Cut! Cut! Cut!” because there was an electric car going in the background and I’m like, “Those didn’t exist.” I shouldn’t give this away, but there’s actually one scene [where] there’s a water bottle in one of the shots and I’m [thinking] we didn’t drink water from bottles back then. We didn’t have any water. We had juice. There wasn’t that big a push about hydration. [laughs]
My music supervisor Louis Ferrara was great in terms of approaching these big studios that are used to getting way the hell more money than what we were able to afford, and Most of the soundtrack is comprised of six major titles, which are Kajagoogoo’s “Too Shy,” Adam Ant, The Cars and the “Two Tribes” song by Frankie Goes to Hollywood and we used what they call a step deal, but that left these massive holes, so I was out of money and I’m like, “Fuck me. What am I going to do?” Ron [Yuan], again, is such a beloved guy in Hollywood that he actually directed MC Lyte in a video, so he’s like, “I’m going to call Lyte for you because I think the story is going to really resonate with her,” so she came and screened the movie. She said, “Oh, let’s not go through the managers because that’ll take forever. I’ll just come today. Are you around?” I’m like, “Yeah, I’m around.” [laughs] So she came to the screening room, and after the movie, she [said] “I’m going to give you some music.” Her songs really add so much in terms of the richness of the story, and then Moby also contributed some music gratis, so I was really lucky to find these people who believed in the story and were so generous with their time and their spirit because it really got woven into the tapestry of the story.
What’s it been like putting this out there?
It’s so gratifying. I’m like a proud momma, but it’s like when your child first goes to kindergarten, it’s kind of bittersweet. It was a long process getting this movie out. I think people just weren’t ready for it. Really, we’re having a watershed moment right now as Asian filmmaker, and they’re like, “Well, it’s Asian, but it’s urban,” which is code for black, “so we don’t really know what box to put it in,” so it was like “We kind of don’t know what to do with it.” So it took a while to get out, but as my PR rep Jeremy Walker says, “Movies ripen” and I think this one had an opportunity to ripen on the vine. It’s a gut-wrenching process because it’s arduous and painful, like, “When are people going to FUCKING SEE MY MOVIE?” But as a filmmaker, it’s your dream for your work to just connect with an audience and finally it’s out there. And it’s so wonderful to experience the movie through the crowd because it’s a different experience than when you’re just sitting working on it.
“MDMA” opens on September 14th in select theaters.