In the middle of an all-too-brief conversation with Patrick Wang in the lobby of the Intercontinental Hotel in Austin, a man interrupted to shake hands with Wang, having thoroughly enjoyed his second feature “The Grief of Others” the night before.
“The scene with Ricky and Jess, and the bed, was one of the most sublimely acted scenes I think that can be,” he enthused to an obviously flattered Wang, who thanked the man and sneaked a private smile to himself as he mentions to me “I love that scene too” after he has left.
This kind of excitement isn’t uncommon amongst Wang’s fans, who seem to be growing in number by the day. Born in Texas, Wang seems to have inherited quite a bit from the rich storytelling tradition of the South while transcending it with unique, progressive films about family dynamics, particularly in the face of great loss. Taking a most unusual route as a filmmaker, first getting a degree in economics from MIT before starting a theater company in Boston where he learned to act and direct, Wang’s films operate like no one else’s, patient yet practical, not overly precious visually, though striking none the less in the often fixed position of the camera, but extraordinarily involving due to an almost novelistic attention to character and plot.
His debut “In the Family” was distinguished because of such detail, the story of a gay man (played by Wang) whose partner dies and must fight for custody of their son against his partner’s sister, that ran close to three hours, but could envelope an audience in the struggles of its characters in a truly moving cinematic experience. However, its running time prevented it from being booked on the festival circuit, only celebrated once the Hawaii Film Festival accepted it and “Man from Reno” director Dave Boyle wrote an impassioned dispatch about the film for Hammer to Nail, followed by a rapturous review in the New York Times for its single-screen run in the city.
A legitimate discovery for anyone who did see it, Wang’s following may be small but invested in his work in a way only those who felt they’ve stumbled upon something special can be, so it was hard not to notice when Wang’s second feature “The Grief of Others” premiered at SXSW that the audience was full of those in the know. They were rewarded with a drama every bit as magnificent as Wang’s first, an adaptation of Leah Hager Cohen’s novel about John (Trevor St. John) and Ricky (Wendy Moniz), grappling with the death of a newborn to add to their brood, which already includes a 10-year-old daughter (Oona Laurence) and 13-year-old son (Jeremy Shinder), who find comfort as well as unfortunate reminders of their recent misfortune in the unanticipated arrival of John’s pregnant daughter (Sonya Harum) from previous relationship. Like a Russian nesting doll, Wang spends time inspecting each individual character as they go about their lives in their own way, each revealing the fissures that have been caused and what possible paths to reconciliation and healing may exist.
It’s a beautiful film, one where Wang cannily uses the strictures of a limited budget to his advantage to make it feel more intimate, and while he and producer David Chien put together a comprehensive e-book detailing the making of the film, I couldn’t help but ask a few questions to the writer/director a day after “The Grief of Others”’s SXSW debut about what learned from the “In the Family” experience, working with actors to get such soulful performances and the unexpected influence of “Columbo.”
How did you find the book?
Leah, the author of the novel, and I have known each other for 15 years. She was writing a nonfiction book about theater called “The Stuff of Dreams,” and I was an actor in the production that she was covering. She interviewed me for the book, we met and saw each other a lot during that time, and we kept in touch. I would read her books as they came out — they were all nonfiction at that point, and when the novels came out, I started reading the novels. She actually reminded me that when “Grief of Others” was released, I went to a reading of hers and I carried that novel with me. I had it when I was going to Hawaii for the first screening of “In the Family,” so it was with me the whole time I was traveling [with the film].
When “In the Family” started winding down, it moved into the forefront. I started talking to her about “What do you think about this as a film?” Neither of us really knew. I suggested writing the script, and [said to her], “If you don’t like it, you don’t have to use this script, this doesn’t have to go anywhere.” It was nice starting from that place.
This may be ignorant of the timeline, but it seems like this came fairly quickly after “In the Family,” which seemed surprising to me given that that film was only embraced late in its run after facing such difficulty getting seen. Was it easy to bounce back?
It taught me a lot. As much as filmmakers like to say we’re “indie” and care about movies, there’s a lot just as humans that we care about. We care about people liking it, we care about our opportunities and economics, so even though I didn’t want to, and it wasn’t the reason for making the film, you are disappointed by some of the outer markings of whether this is a success. What the experience from “In the Family” taught me is there is a very different kind of richness available here, a type of success you weren’t aware of, [in terms of the] things to be gained. Because [“In the Family”] didn’t have a big release in 50 cities at the same time, I got to go to a lot of them [individually to screen the film]. I got to talk to people.
Because everybody isn’t clamoring to cover you, the ones who want to cover you are the ones who are really interested and you have really good conversations and relationships with those people. It primed me to be in a good place for this one. I understand that things that are different are never embraced with open arms and it may take time, but as long as you yourself are happy with the foundation of what you’ve done, it will mean something to other people in time. Not everyone, but a few people.
Was it coincidence that this film focused on grief and accepting loss, much like “In the Family” did?
I really don’t know. At the same time I was thinking about “The Grief of Others,” I had a few other scripts and ideas that were floating around and, I’m not sure what it is, but something just tells you at some point, “I’m the one.” Sometimes it’s because of topic matter, sometimes it’s because of a certain challenge it has that you just can’t get it out of your head. In some ways, I don’t think you get to choose. You’re influenced and you’re inspired by certain things, and something will just catch your imagination and not let go. Maybe that thing is also about loss again. We’ll see with the third one.
Was the process of adaptation interesting?
It was really exciting. It’s all theory until you do something, and I’ve always had all of these theories about literature. I feel like a lot of films tend to adapt the event. That’s [what screenwriters] think will be what translates into film space — events, physical things and places, but those are usually not the payoffs of a novel. They are psychological spaces, and they are insights, and depth of character, so I thought, we can do this. A good adaptation is like a good translation. It is very loyal to the spirit of the thing and very attentive to the real accomplishments of the piece, but also inventive in its new form.
Speaking of which, one of the really fascinating stylistic elements of “The Grief of Others” is transposing images to express the emotions of the characters as well as perhaps things that had happened to them in the past. How did that storytelling device come about?
That had a very specific influence. There’s a film I love called “The Hired Hand,” a movie that teaches you about those long dissolves and the montages. There’s things that you don’t think belong in a western, but [in] how experimental it is and some of its editing techniques teach you about a place. That was a big point of inspiration. There’s also the very first episode of “Columbo,” called “Murder by the Book.” The murderer kills the victim, and he’s wearing these glasses. As he’s watching over the body of the victim, it goes into a close-up of the killer’s face, and in each of his glasses, a scene starts to play out. Sometimes they’re two angles of the same scene, then sometimes they become two separate things. The rhythms are all different, and it’s a long extended sequence where the base image is this closeup. I thought that was just fascinating. I also had been thinking about lines and degrees of transparency, and that gave me the idea that you can carve out spaces to play these games.
At the premiere, you spoke about how when you watch performances, your hope is to see change the rhythm in a scene. Do you actually like giving your actors a lot of room to explore a scene?
It’s a good question because when people talk about freedom and improvisation, they are very broad topics. For me, we fix the script, so the actors always say what’s on the page, but everything else is up for grabs. We don’t light or design [a set] so specifically that we can’t capture the performance a different way or even the same performance the same way. I like the actors to surprise me and themselves and try things, but what’s very important is having that root: “I know the scene, I know what works, I know these lines.” Something can be central one moment and it can be very earnest or it can be tossed away. I love that range of possibilities, but to actively improvise you have to have the foundation.
There’s been a funny trend in your films, at least to me, that the most famous member of your cast has been known for comedy, yet you’ve cast them in a dramatic role, whether it’s Rachel Dratch here (who plays a small but crucial role as Madeleine, who John seeks out for advice) or Park Overall in “In the Family.” Is there actually anything to that?
It’s very funny, I hadn’t thought of that until you just made the connection. I just love actors and I love when people surprise me. [Rachel and Park] are both very full people. Actors… we seem to expect very little of them, and their range and what they can do. Rachel came in and there’s different interpretations of this [character] — she could’ve interpreted it like one of her other characters, but I found that when you strip that away, she’s a lovely person underneath and there’s a vulnerability. It fit the way the character is written in the novel. John thinks of her as kind of a joke, the way that she is she dresses like a vamp. She does all these things that devalue herself or make her a bit of a clown figure, but then she surprises you at the end. What I thought was nice about Rachel is we’re used to laughing [at her characters] and she plays these kind of grotesque characters, but we’re not used to seeing her as a human character. By nature of who she is, she starts us in the place where we already have dismissed her, so the rest of the work we do is we get to open her up.
There’s an ornate music box in the film that is a bit of a plotpoint. Was that actually something that was in the book? How did you go about designing it?
I was talking to Leah, the author, this morning and she hadn’t seen that one before, though she had seen pictures of some of the other dioramas. There were certain things scripted, so [the music box] was a magician sawing a lady in half, but for example, the book didn’t say that it was a key, and so that was something that the production designers invented. [Leah] loved those inventions because she just thought they were perfect. It was a mixture, and I bet if you ask her, me, or maybe even some of the other designers, we sometimes forget what was in the book and what was not.
What was the premiere like for you?
It was very exciting. There were a lot of new folks [there] and this is a great film loving community that comes here, but I liked gathering not only people who worked in the movie, but [other] people I’ve met in so many different contexts and at so many different times. It was really special to have them all together enjoying that moment.