Interview: Alice Wu on Making an Experience Whole in “The Half of It”

Alice Wu was hardly sure of what she had on her hands when she turned over a draft of her latest screenplay “The Half of It” over to her writing group. It had already taken her years to even consider the prospect of making another film — already, the story of how she wrote a check to the much-despised NRA to be cashed if she couldn’t finish a first draft in 90 days has become an instant legend — and after polishing a second draft, she still wasn’t entirely ready to show it to anyone, but she knew it was inevitable.

“It’s actually very hard to pry a script out of my hands,” says Wu. “I’ll generally say, ‘This is terrible. I’m not showing it to you,’ but [I have a group] I just trust a lot, and I was like, “I don’t think this is very good,” but they’re like, ‘No, no, send it out.’ That draft weirdly ended up on the Black List.”

Giving it a thought, she adds, “Only in hindsight when all these people say, ‘This is so great,’ do I start to be like, ‘Oh, I guess something that mattered to me personally resonated.’”

It’s almost certainly this unassuming quality that has given Wu’s work such power, quietly creating a landmark film with her debut “Saving Face” in 2004 at a time when both lesbians and Asian-Americans rarely saw their lives on screen at all, let alone with such nuance as they could in her drama about a young Chinese-American woman (Michelle Krusiec) and her mother (Joan Chen), who unbeknownst to each other, share a fear of being open with their romantic relationships given the cultural taboos around them. Her second, “The Half of It,” which debuts today on Netflix, is just as remarkable, following the story of three lonelyhearts in the small burgh of Squahamish, Washington where the teenage Ellie Chu (Leah Lewis) and her father Edwin (Collin Chu) attend to a railroad depot where few trains seem to pass. Ellie is intent on never leaving Squahamish, though college beckons, when her father still barely speaks any English and she remains his only real lifeline to the outside world, ironically becoming that for one of her classmates as well — Paul Munsky (Daniel Diemer), whose first (and likely only) language is English, yet has so much trouble articulating himself that he’s turned to Ellie to help get his true feelings across to the girl he likes, Aster Flores (Alexxis Lemire), only for Ellie to discover she has feelings for her herself.

Although it would be easy to call “The Half of It” an update to “Cyrano de Bergerac,” in which Wu finds impersonation to be considerably easier with the physical anonymity that social media can provide, the filmmaker uses it for cover as a refreshingly sophisticated exploration of identity construction, with the masks that allow the high schoolers to open themselves up in ways that they wouldn’t publicly once Ellie and Aster start trading intimate texts end up revealing the limits of how they see themselves. Watching the teens idealize one another without having the faintest clue of what their lives are actually like, “The Half of It” states upfront, in the words of Ellie, that “people spend far too much time looking for perfect love,” yet you fall head over heels for Ellie, Paul and Aster as they find room in their heart for imperfection as it applies to them personally and one another.

Needless to say, it’s just about perfect that Wu felt her own search for just the right words ended before she felt they were flawless when “The Half of It” so beautifully expresses its complex ideas in the most subtle of ways, and when so many who have eagerly anticipated her return to filmmaking built up expectations that seemed like they’d be impossible to live up to, Wu exceeds them in surprising ways, crafting a swooningly romantic drama as visually dynamic as it is erudite, reflecting how emotional and physical proximity aren’t always intertwined. Only hours before “The Half of It” scored Best Narrative Feature at the virtual Tribeca Film Festival, where it had been scheduled to premiere before the coronavirus hit, the filmmaker spoke about how she created a sensual cinematic experience out of a story that lived largely in the exchange of words, touching on themes of race and class without overwhelming a light and frothy romance, and where the film’s dazzling stop-motion animated introduction came from.

I’ve heard the story didn’t start out with any allusions to Cyrano de Bergerac, so at what point did that open things up?

It might’ve been eight or even nine years ago, [after] I’d left the industry, but in the back of my head I always thought about this. Then I really thought about it as like, “Huh, what would it be?” The idea of Cyrano came to me, which I then proceeded to not write, but I remember I was on a plane when the idea came to me and in part, I was having such a hard time understanding how to write this for twentysomethings because it was just too close for me. I couldn’t find the arc that was meaningful and significant and ended in a way that didn’t feel convenient, so I thought maybe I could set this in high school.

I started thinking about myself in high school and the thing is I’m gay, but I didn’t come out to myself until my senior year of college, which means in high school, despite the fact that I had a crush on the same girl for all three years of high school, I was not out to myself. The power of repression is huge and I probably had crushes on girls starting in the fourth grade, but I was just so able to block those out of my head as anything I was going to deal with. If you’re not out to yourself, but you have a crush on someone and you can’t even admit it to yourself, then the arc of love feels tragic, right? There’s no world where you can magically ask this person out and then you go out and it’s wonderful. Meanwhile, all of your friends are dating boys and I was dating boys [too], but I was not interested, so it starts to feel a little bit like a quiet way of getting my heart broken every single day, liking someone and watching them date other people.

So the whole Cyrano component is wish fulfillment where in high school I never could’ve asked out who I wanted, but [I imagine] what if you could pick a handsome jock to puppet, which is what Ellie does with Paul. Honestly, if it were up to me, we’d all just be writing letters to each other now. [laughs] It would be the most romantic thing. But this probably all just feeds into how I like to be wooed and how I like to woo, so the idea that I could woo the object of my affection in a very safe way but actually connect with them and then feel they connected to me in a deeper, nuanced way would’ve been delicious and was out of my own wish fulfillment.

What you’re talking about is so internal and you portray intimacy so dynamically – what was it like bringing that out into a visual medium?

I spent a lot of time thinking about that and when I was in high school, I was very lonely, but now that I’m an adult, it turns out that pretty much everyone is lonely in high school. We all think everybody else seems to have it figured out, but we ourselves are the loneliest of the lonely, so if that’s true, I think there’s a way that we all lead these private lives in our head. We’re all daydreamers. I certainly was. So it was a lot about imagining from the first letter where [Ellie and Aster] really connect, it’s a little like I’m going to enter the first person’s daydream of what they feel like their life is, so you hear what they say, but then we also show the realities of their life against it and sometimes, it’s congruent, but a lot of times, there’s a little bit of fun tension, which I think gives a depth to what we’re seeing, otherwise things feel flat.

When I was writing it, I was picturing what it would look like, so that’s what we shot, but I was purposefully writing lines that on the surface, you could read them and imagine one thing, but what was then happening on screen was commenting on what was actually written in the letter, so we’re not watching something flat. Then when we go to Aster, that same thing is happening, but with her, she’s writing about her life and it’s her voice, so that’s a chance for us to get to see into her actual life and her loneliness, and I think it’s a way for us to see how we narrate our own lives and sometimes we’re reliable narrators and sometimes we’re unreliable and that tension tells us something about the character.

As we move on, [the way the letters are conveyed is] very purposeful. First you have one long letter from one person and then another long letter from another person and then it starts to happen a little quicker where the conversation is happening where it’s almost like they start to complete each other’s sentences. You’ll notice after that, it’s like one person says something for a few lines and then the other person picks it up, so now we’re starting to see it merging. And then it goes to the mural sequence [where Ellie and Aster trade brushstrokes], so they’re not letters anymore. They’re literally writing graffiti back and forth to each other as they build this beautiful mural together. And from there, there’s a tiny sequence of letters after where one person says one line and then the other – they literally complete each other’s sentences, and there’s a little bit of a cheat in there because neither person is writing anything, but what’s happening there feels like they’ve now popped off into a realm of ESP where it’s like these two are having the same thoughts and completing them.

The point isn’t that a viewer is watching this and they notice that the first time – hopefully they’re just experiencing it, but as a director, it’s a way to show people who are not sharing any screen space together get closer and closer so it’s almost like they’re sharing the same dream and eventually, they do share the screen space. In pre-production, I’d talk about this is how I want this thing to build so we’d really watch the emotional growth of these two.

Another thing I marveled at is how this town of Squahamish is constructed as a place – it’s obviously a small town, but it’s sprawling so how the characters move through it becomes so interesting, particularly Ellie on her bike. How did you figure out the setting?

When I really sat down to write it, I knew I wanted to set it in a small town for a whole host of reasons, and I thought that was going to be my best shot at affecting the cultural conversations in present day. Because when I was growing up, I actually biked everywhere. I was called “Chug-a-Chug-a-Wu-Wu” [like Ellie Chu is] — it wasn’t in a horribly menacing way. It was just in the fabric of my life. And that’s something that could still happen in small, more conservative towns. I also wanted to write a story that was a little bit more timeless where it wasn’t like “Here’s a period piece from the ‘90s.” I wanted it to feel like today. So when I thought where would this story most resonate, that’s where I came up with this fictional town of Squahamish. It’s set in east Washington state and I spent my twenties living in Washington state, so I knew that area and all the other towns in Washington state are all real towns, but I wanted to create the name of one town so that if I actually chose a real town, that town would be like, “That’s not what our town looks like.”

Because we didn’t have the budget to shoot on location in Eastern Washington state, but I knew what that train [depot] looked like, I had to figure out a way to cobble it from upstate New York because that’s where the budget was, and in these towns, that’s just the way it is. You either get around in your truck or you bike or you walk, but the way I drew the location, there’s the center of town and that’s where the school is and that’s where Trig’s family, the richest people in town [are]. There’s only one industry in this town — gravel — and that’s [their] Carson Gravel company. So they live in town, but then the further you move away, the lower you are in the social caste of the town, so Ellie and her father are the furthest away — I have them 10 miles away from town where the train depot is.

The main town is where everyone is, so that shows where [everyone’s] class background is, and it also is a way of talking about how this is a town that America forgot. They exist all over the place in our country, but I wanted to be able to talk in a more nuanced way about xenophobia or racism or homophobia and class without it being a big message. [I thought] maybe at one point, Squahamish was going to become a bigger [city], like 50 years ago, but it never ended up happening and so that’s why maybe the Munskys are living four miles from town, but their sausage shop is actually across the street from the train depot because in my head, I imagine there’s this little run-down patch of stores that maybe at one point was supposed to be a great place to shop. Then the economy went south and now it’s just this crappy, tiny strip mall. I’m a big fan of having very detailed backstories for all your main characters, so you know how they’d all be interacting with each other. It’s a way to create texture and it was important for me in the course of this story — it makes it a little bit deeper than your basic movie with teenagers in it.

That’s something you make clear upfront with that wonderful stop-motion animated introduction, quoting Plato. How did you pull that together?

I always wrote it as animation, but when we were in preproduction, there were things I wanted to establish because I knew that Aster drew, and when she brings that flower that she paints for Paul that Ellie ends up looking at, I knew I was going to want to create that at the beginning because my whole goal was, on some level, I would love it if someone just subtly thought at a certain point, “Oh, interesting. It’s almost like the opening animation was eventually Aster’s submission to art school.” There’s actually some aesthetic similarities that you can actually see through the film.

Once the movie was shot and I was looking at animators, I I found Haley Morris, who I just love, love, love and I’m really inspired by William Kentridge, who’s an animator I love, and she of course knew him, so the very first part of the animation has William Kentridge to it, but then at a certain point, I wanted the paper to be ripped, like the paper rips them apart, and at that point, I thought the charcoal would dissipate into ash and it would become like a sand animation. But Haley said, “What if we made this two-and-a-half scenes?” where the paper ripped and then she creates paper figures actually out of paper? That’s when I was like, “Or we just crumple the paper up and that paper kicks up to become a letter?” So it was a very wonderful collaboration where because this is about letters, she could do the stop-motion.

I pulled two other things from [later in] the film [for the intro] – one is the paper falls into a puddle and then I really wanted the paper looks at its reflection and that’s going to be a callback…well, a call forward because you don’t know it the first time you’re watching it, but the two girls at the hot springs and their reflections are floating. Similarly, if you look at that flower that blooms out of the ground and that watercolor background, it’s very similar to the flower that Aster ends up giving Ellie, so these are all very purposefully seeded in there, but the first time you’re watching the animation, it’s telling a story – you’re not paying attention to that, but I think when you’re watching a movie and these things subtly appear and make the movie feel of a piece, the second time you’re watching it, you realize, “Wait a minute!” That’s the goal. [laughs]

“The Half of It” is now streaming on Netflix here.

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