SAN DIEGO – “In The Family,” the tour-de-force debut film by Patrick Wang, who is the star, screenwriter, director and producer, returns to San Diego on Friday, Dec. 7, for an encore performance. The movie also opens that day in San Francisco and San Jose, Calif.
Wang’s film was a big hit at the 2011 San Diego Asian Film Festival, where it was named Best Narrative Feature. And Wang was selected by festival programmers to receive the George C. Lin Emerging Filmmaker Award for his stirring drama.
Set in Tennessee, “In The Family” is the story of an Asian-American man who loses his Anglo partner unexpectedly and is forced to fight for custody of their son from his late partner’s extended Southern family. The film highlights the struggles of LGBT couples who face endless legal red tape in attempting to obtain and maintain their parental rights when life takes an unexpected turn toward the tragic.
In the film, Wang plays Joey and Trevor St. John plays Cody, known as “Dad” and “Pa,” respectively, to their 6-year-old son Chip (Sebastian Brodziak). Upon Cody’s untimely death, Joey quickly learns that he has a battle royale to gain custody of his son and to find peace and happiness.
Patrick Wang speaks with San Diego Gay & Lesbian News about the film, his decision to star in the leading role, about the impact the movie has with audiences, and his future plans.
SDGLN: Your film, “In The Family,” was named Best Narrative Feature at the 2011 San Diego Asian Film Festival. What prompted the film’s return to San Diego on Dec. 7, 2012?
Patrick Wang: There are a lot of people in San Diego who would love the movie and who have not seen it yet. While I’ve been working to get the movie to play many places, there’s something special about San Diego. SDAFF was the festival that discovered the film, they were the early champions, and they have been constant friends. It feels like coming home.
SDGLN: Why do you think your film resonates with audiences?
Patrick Wang: I think audiences appreciate a movie that doesn’t treat them like children. That understands you don’t have to explain the basics of being a human being, and so you can move on to the more complex emotions. A lot of those complex emotions surrounding grief and conflict remain unresolved in people, and so to have an invitation to move through that space can be a rare and therapeutic thing.
SDGLN: The film’s plot is so timely these days with LGBT issues making headlines almost daily. Can you elaborate on whether the film has helped to change people’s minds about complex issues involving child custody in the LGBT community, same-sex parenting and interracial relationships?
Patrick Wang: I’ve seen where the film changes minds. For some people, the issues are foreign going in and extremely personal as they leave the theater. But I also love hearing when the film is the beginning of a conversation. I’ve heard from kids who use the movie to come out to their parents. From same-sex parents who bring family and friends to the movie to explain their lives and their fears. And it’s not just outsiders who are changed. I met an interracial couple who were really moved seeing on screen what their own family may look like one day.
SDGLN: Why did you cast yourself in the critical role of Joey Williams, “Dad” to son Cody and partner of “Pa” (Trevor St. John)? And how does one direct himself in a film?
Patrick Wang: My love for the character was always there, but when I convinced myself directing and acting could be done well and that there could be huge benefits to the production to do so, I took on the role. One of the benefits is that it saves time. This is no small thing for a three-week shoot with no margin of error. Also, being a participant in the scenes, I could do a lot, in character, to set the tone and rhythm of the scene. For a film that uses a lot of long takes, this is invaluable. I rehearsed quite a bit with just myself, and I recorded audio of the rehearsals. It’s pretty easy to hear a false performance. I did this for months until I developed some instincts for being able to evaluate my performance even without any recorded feedback.
SDGLN: The film, set in Tennessee, also touches on racism, class inequities, gender issues and the struggle of immigrants to fit into Southern communities. How does this reflect your own upbringing or passions in storytelling?
Patrick Wang: I grew up in a modest area (then later an affluent suburb) of Houston, the gay son of Taiwanese immigrants, so no doubt I’ve been sensitive to those issues and they’ve been in the air for a good deal of my life. But I love getting to show in this movie the very daily ways these elements show up in a life, oftentimes muddled and muted. I feel a big part of my job as a storyteller is to say, look away from the obvious, the loud and shiny thing, and don’t forget this seemingly unremarkable thing over here. But isn’t it much more interesting, and doesn’t it say so much more about who we are and how we live?
SDGLN: How did a guy with a degree in economics from the prestigious MIT end up making movies?
Patrick Wang: There is actually a huge arts community at MIT. I spent a lot of my days there studying music and poetry. The school cares a lot about the humanities. A past president put it something like this: you’re training the people who could build the weapons that could destroy the world, you want those people to have some humanity to them. My passion when I left MIT was for theater. But after a while, I was looking for something more permanent that I could share with more people, so I turned to film. I think most of the important tools I have for film, I learned from theater.
SDGLN: How has being named one of “25 New Faces of Independent Film” in 2012 by Filmmaker Magazine changed your life?
Patrick Wang: It’s helped the movie play in a couple more cities, and I’ve met some wonderful filmmakers and other artists as a result.
SDGLN: What’s next for you?
Patrick Wang: I’m working on writing the screenplay adaptation of the beautiful novel “The Grief Of Others.” If I never did anything but screenplay adaptations from novels and short stories, I would be content. I love literature, and I believe it sets a high bar for insight and detail and depth that we can—but have not yet — met in film.
SDGLN: Who inspires you?
Patrick Wang: Fred Rogers. He cared so much for the emotional lives of others. And I never get tired of watching Cassavetes’ interview where he proclaims that television sucks.
SDGLN: Single or taken?
Patrick Wang: Single.
SDGLN: If you could have a dinner party and invite three other people, dead or alive, who would they be and why?
Patrick Wang: Alice Munro, Conor Oberst and Liv Ullmann. I would like to thank them for what they have done. Dead people are no fun at the dinner table. I’ve been to those parties.
Patrick Wang's "In The Family" can be seen at 10:30 am and 2:30, 6:45 and 10:30 pm Friday through Thursday, Dec. 7-13, at the UA Horton Plaza 14, 475 Horton Plaza, Downtown San Diego.
Ken Williams is Editor in Chief of SDGLN. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org, @KenSanDiego on Twitter, or by calling toll-free to 888-442-9639, ext. 713.