Linh Tran on Having Patience with “Waiting for the Light to Change”

“Dude, I can barely breathe,” Amy (Jin Park) tells Alex (Erik Barrientos), coughing as she shares a joint with him in “Waiting for the Light to Change,” trying to relax over a long weekend with friends. There should be fresh air by the lake in Michigan, but Amy has trouble finding it when she’s rooming with her longtime friend Kim (Joyce Ha), whose boyfriend Jay (Sam Straley) looks to be the one that got away, and she’s expected to entertain the guests outside their circle in his friend Alex and her friend Lin (Qun Chi) (Joyce Ha), but can’t engage fully when her mind is elsewhere. At 25, she should hardly be feeling as if her life is already a failure, but when it’s been so intertwined with her connection to Lin, who has everything she wants it can’t help but feel that way and even a move to California hasn’t been able to provide a fresh start.

The rolling waves nearby have nothing on the thoughts turning over in Amy’s head in Linh Tran’s spellbinding debut feature, but the director’s focus never wavers as the film unspools in long, meditative takes that make it seem as if when the world is moving further away from Amy, she is getting closer to the person she is meant to be. The film’s raw emotion may stem from the fact that it was produced at DePaul University’s Indie Studio with the crew comprised of students of the same age as the characters on screen, but you’d never call it a student film as Tran’s extraordinary patience in observing a toxic relationship reminds of Ingmar Bergman and Eric Rohmer without suggesting them as references. Instead, “Waiting for the Light to Change” emerges as the product of organic personal rumination as its characters wrestle with not being where they want to be in relation to the arbitrary goalposts that exist outside the lake house, but not made any easier when attempting to measure up to one another.

Whether or not Amy and company find their footing, one can take heart in how the filmmakers behind “Waiting for the Light to Change” found theirs, enduring countless rejections before landing a berth at the Heartland Film Festival and then Slamdance a short time later where it won Best Narrative Feature, paving the way for a distribution deal and establishing Tran as a filmmaker to watch. Recently, as the film is now being released digitally, the director reflected on the experience of how “Waiting for the Light to Change” rose from the ashes of a project made impossible by the pandemic, inviting the cast to bring themselves to the project to a greater degree than they might otherwise, and how she found the right rhythm for the film.

How did this come about?

We started in this program at DePaul University called Indie Studio, and this was in January of 2020. I was going to direct one of the scripts provided by the school and then COVID happened and this other script was really big and there were a lot of characters, and we had to submit a school location. And then COVID happened, so all of that became impossible and we had to push the production multiple times. Then in November, almost a year later, we decided that if we stick to the script, we’re never going to get to make the film, so we just decided to push the production date one more time to March and started from scratch. We were looking for a story and one of my producers said, “My family has a lake house in Michigan. You guys want to go?” And that’s how it happened.

We went there and we would see these locations and I [thought], “I like this place and this place” and then we came back and tried to write for the location with a story that is really, really simple. And I had known the location for a long time, a couple of months, and then we were also going there a week early and doing all these scouts again and again, so the sense of place and the location being a character, it all came out from there and it’s quite a subconscious thing rather than trying to make the location a part of the story.

Were there actually certain parameters you had to abide by in terms of keeping the project as a Depaul Indie Studio project when you decided on another script?

Because it was COVID, everything had to be changed a little bit to accommodate the situation and they were very flexible. They let us come up with whatever and the script was approved by the school. The only limitation we [were going to] have was to make it for $15,000, but because of COVID, they added five. so we just had to write something that we can make for that much money.

I’ve heard at least one of the actors you had on the original project ended up in this. When you reconceived it, did you actually have certain people in mind as you were as you were breaking the story for this film?

Jin was one of our candidates that we thought we thought of for this other movie, but we didn’t actually officially cast her until very close to production, so because there was already a seed of a production there, the momentum was still there and we just went ahead and tried out a lot of people. That’s how that’s how Jin ended up in this film because we partially wrote a film in mind for like a character that is like Jin. But we also auditioned a bunch of people from Instagram and from Backstage.

When the actors start making this their own, you know, were there any directions this took that you could get excited about that you might not have expected?

One of the things that I’m always concerned with is realism. My co-writers and I were all in our mid-twenties [so we had that base], but if I could have the actors be super collaborative and work on the film together in terms of the writing as well — because we actually interviewed them after we cast them and asked them if we could put part of thei personality or their stories into the script, to the extent that they’re comfortable with — the script became more of a blueprint. The structure and the scenes are there. We were very lucky to have a week of rehearsal. So during rehearsal, we did a lot of improv and like exercises and a lot of the dialogue and monologue that was in the movie actually came about during rehearsal. And we just brought that on set.

The film plays out in these long takes, which are very economical, but would that have been your preference even without the budget you had? It seems really tricky to pull off.

Yeah, that definitely was a choice that we had before the shoot, considering the budget, but I’ve always been really attracted to slow cinema and I like doing things in real time. Sometimes you want to do it, but you can’t because it’s very challenging for the performers to do everything in one take like that, but knowing our cast and what they could do, I felt like confident doing that. It’s a nice challenge to have as a director, and it’s something that you don’t really see much nowadays, among the new filmmakers, and I think that might be something that could set us apart a little bit.

It was was so striking and because of that, did you have the rhythm of this in mind as far as the edit? Another really interesting element is the points you choose to cut or leave a black screen for a few moments of pause.

Funnily enough, when we were writing the script, it was a certain period of time that [the characters] were going to be there, so the way the blacks used to be were title cards [that announced] let’s say “Thursday” or “Monday.” But then later on, I felt like taking those out would make more sense and make the film flow better and make it more sober. In terms of rhythm, I was always aware that it has a more meditative and slow burn rhythm, so during production, I always asked my assistant director, how long that take was, trying to fit everything together in mind before we actually did it in post production. So rhythm is definitely a big part of how I make movies. It’s very important for the atmosphere and the vibe of the film, and I think this is totally a vibe movie.

You also make great use of diegetic sound – of course, a guitar is lying around waiting to be played, but you’ve got the sound of the waves always rolling in the background. How much was that a part of this from the start?

When we were shooting, I think it occurs to me, not on a conscious level, and I’ve always been drawn to sounds that are like repetitive and setting you into a certain kind of mood and meditative mindset. I always like water, and I think I’m going to make more movies with the beach [as a backdrop]. We were also lucky in post to have a really dedicated and talented sound designer who really took the diegetic sound and the sound of the atmosphere to the next level. The sound contributes to the feelings of the film and I feel like it fit well together, not necessarily planning everything to the T, but more like we just like let everything flow organically. That was more of our process, with sound as well.

This has had to be quite a year for you. What’s it been like getting this out into the world?

Yes, I’ve been really grateful for all the reception that we’ve had from the audience. It’s quite a long process because we actually finished post-production early of 2022 and we got a lot of rejections before we got our very first acceptance to a film festival. Somewhere along the line to me, it occurred to me that this is not for everybody. This is a film where I feel like you have to give the time and the space and have an open mind coming in in order to be able to appreciate it, and I’m really glad that it has reached people that who felt like the film was meaningful to them. That is the most valuable. It definitely has helped with getting work and giving everybody career momentum just moving forward. And it’s been kind of incredible. I just still can’t believe it.

“Waiting for the Light to Change” is available on streaming on October 20th.

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