In 2004, writer/director Alice Wu unwittingly created a film that would inspire a generation of Asian-American filmmakers to follow — the queer romantic dramedy Saving Face. Her first film was a game-changer — and then she left the industry. Sixteen years later, Wu re-emerged with her second feature film, a queer coming-of-age love story, Netflix’s The Half of It, and is nominated for Best Screenplay at this year’s Independent Spirit Awards.
Wu’s first film, Saving Face, wasn’t your typical Hollywood rom-com — set in Flushing, Queens, it tells the story of a budding lesbian relationship between two Chinese-American overachievers dealing with family drama and their careers. The film used an all-Asian-American cast, and half of the dialogue was in Mandarin, but the film went on to influence Asian-American filmmakers like Ali Wong, Awkwafina, and Lulu Wang. After taking more than a decade away from directing, Wu returned to the big screen (or rather, small screen) with her hit The Half of It about a smart, introverted Chinese-American teen (who lives in a remote, not so diverse town of Squahamish) who is a real Cyrano de Bergerac way helps a nice, but not so smart jock woo the girl of both of their dreams. It is a smart, tender, yet funny coming-of-age story that was met with good reviews from critics and audiences alike — well deserving of its Spirit Awards nomination.
We Live Entertainment had the pleasure of talking with Alice Wu early one morning while the filmmaker was in Taiwan about her unconventional background, the importance of representation, influencing a generation, and broadening Hollywood’s palate.
LV Taylor: So let’s dive right in…you have a fascinating backstory from being a computer scientist to making your first film, Saving Face, which kind of set the bar high and influenced a lot of Asian-American filmmaking. Then you kind of stepped away from it for a while, then about 15 years later, you come back with The Half of It, which was a sensitive coming-of-age rom-com. What initially drew you to filmmaking — and what was it about The Half of It that drew you back to directing?
Alice Wu: Wow. Thanks, those are really good questions. It’s actually interesting to answer that right now with the perspective of all that’s happened — not just in my life but just in the world in general right now — with COVID and then with the racial reckoning and the gender reckoning. With all of these things happening, I think it’d be tough for any thinking person not to think about what really matters right now. So it’s interesting to go way back when and think about what on earth sent me on this path, to begin with. So this is what I think that it is, I was born in the States, but I didn’t speak English till I went to school. My family moved a lot, so I was a relatively solitary kid, and I would maybe have like one friend everywhere we went. I read many books — my way of even learning English and just generally relating to the world was found in those books. Because I was a kid who lived in her head a lot and daydreamed a lot, I just invented stories to feel less lonely. That was just sort of part of who I was, but certainly at that time — I was born in 1970 — through the 70s and 80s, the Asian-American writers were very very fringe — there were definitely some, but not a lot. There was Maxine Hong Kingston and Frank Chin, but I didn’t know about any of those people until I got to college — I was in college when Amy Tan came out with The Joy Luck Club. The idea of this being a sort of thing that someone could actually turn into a career or monetize in any way didn’t feel possible — honestly my head, it seemed like you had to be a British white person.
It wasn’t until my late 20s that it ever even occurred to me to try and make something of my own. As you know, a computer scientist is very practical, but somewhere in the back of my head — because I read so many books — my dream was to own a bookstore and to sell books and maybe just write for myself when I retired. But even that seemed like a pipe dream. It was one of those global quirks of fate wherein computer science, towards the end of the 90s, the internet rose so quickly. I was working at Microsoft like 100 hours a week. No one could really figure out how to monetize the internet, so all of a sudden, I went from working 100 hours a week to basically just going to work and sitting in extremely boring mission statement meetings where we were all just endlessly discussed how we were going to monetize, but no one really knew how. I was so bored that I ended up taking a night class and that night class turned out to be a two-week workshop that fed into a screenwriting class — so it was kind of completely by accident that I ended up taking a screenwriting class.
You actually wrote in my class, so long story short, I ended up writing Saving Face in that class. I thought it was a terrible mess, but the instructor really encouraged me — I mean, he basically was like, ‘look, I kind of want to option this and take it down to Hollywood.’ But he was very open about the fact that it would be a totally different thing — straight, white — I probably could get made, but it’s a good hook. It was at that point where I was like, ‘no, if this can get made, it will be made how I wrote it. I wrote this for my mom, so if you think there’s any merit in this at all, then I want to make it the way that I see it.’ He told me I need to quit my job and move to New York or LA immediately to learn what it takes to direct this — because that’s the only shot you have at getting it made. He was very clear that it probably would not get made, but if I wanted it to, that was the only route if I wanted to keep it Chinese and queer.
I ended up doing that and moving to Brooklyn. I saved enough money where I gave myself five years to get the film made. I’m thinking if I live on $40,000 a year at the end of the five years if I hadn’t made the film — which is most likely — I still had about eight months to find a job before my savings ran out. So that was the plan. In that, there’s also some luck built-in too. I happened to have picked computer science as my career — when I chose it was not the hot career it eventually turned out to be, but midway through, designing software became this hot career. I was able to save the money — another sort of one of those stars aligning things. Then I moved to New York and worked on a lot of shoots for free. I trained as an editor and ended up getting Saving Face made — literally my five-year deadline hit in the second week of my shoot — that was a huge shocker.
When you say it influenced all these Asian-American filmmakers, I honestly didn’t realize that until 15 years later. Like the New York Times wanted to interview me, and then I read the article, and he was like ‘all these filmmakers credit you,’ and I’m like, ‘wow, really, because in my head it felt like this crazy one-off — who thought that movie would get made. And then I had agents who really wanted to make me like the next big romantic comedy writer-director, but that really meant “the next director of big straight white romantic comedies.” As much as I love watching those movies, it wasn’t quite the right fit for me back then. I don’t think that’s exactly what I do — it’s not even about the story being straight or white — I just love a certain specificity of character. I wasn’t really seeing it in the material that I was reading, most of which I probably would never get that gig anyway.
Looking back, I think it was like throwing a weird kid into the popular kids’ clique and saying, ‘let’s see if this works.’ Of course, it’s not gonna work. For a few years after, I wrote for hire. I was always getting jobs, and I could make a living, but it wasn’t stuff I was wildly passionate about. Then when my mom had a serious health issue, I ended up dropping everything and moving to San Francisco. That’s when I realized that that chapter of my life was closed, I did that for a few years, and now, it’s time to be an adult and take care of my family. I didn’t write for seven years, or it didn’t occur to me that there would ever be a return. I did improv, which is still something dear to my heart, so that was sort of the one creative outlet. But then, a few years ago, due to a whole series of events, I finally was like, ‘what am I doing with my life?’ I had done everything a very practical way, I was financially stable, and my family was doing well, but I think I just hit a point where I suddenly realized that it just didn’t seem like with the resources I had, that I was really applying myself in any way that was meaningful in the world.
That sounds grander than I intended — it was meaningful in that I had really close friends and family, all of that was important — I think I just suddenly had this feeling that I’d won the lottery in terms of my circumstances of life and the freedoms I have — I don’t live in a repressive regime somewhere. So if I’m not going to try and do something or take larger risks, then who would. That’s when I was like, ‘okay, I’ve never written another thing for myself to direct, so I’m going to start.’ That month, I started to really outline The Half of It and then completely randomly, that was when I got a call from a studio exec who had always wanted to work together — it was super out of the blue because I didn’t have an agent — she said I have this project and you should pitch for it. I ended up pitching for it, and I got it. I had a very fun seven months writing for them, which kind of built my confidence back up that I did know what I was doing. Then I came back to writing The Half of It. That’s sort of what pushed me through — there’s more to say about that, but basically, that’s how I got The Half of It written.
When you asked me what made me write it — the thing I’ve discovered about myself is that I’m a very sort of emotion-based filmmaker, so for me, there needs to be a deep driving personal, emotional basis behind any film I do. And that ends up being fictional — the things in Saving Face and The Half of It is fictionalized, but Saving Face was very much like my love letter to my mother. But it was also, on some deep level — I wrote it in my late 20s — my attempt to understand if it was possible to have both deeply romantic love and your family and have them together in an authentic way. At that time, it did not seem possible for a queer Asian woman to have that. Saving Face was my attempt to reconcile and answer that, but also my attempt to say to my mom that it wasn’t too late in her life for her to find love. And I think “The Half of It” very much arose out of my deep heartbreak. When I first came out to myself in my senior year in college, my first heartbreak actually wasn’t over a woman. It ended up being over a straight guy who was my best friend.
Long story short, we were really close, and he helped me more than anyone to accept myself as gay, but when he eventually got a girlfriend, she had a really hard time with our friendship. We were like brother and sister — nothing like that going on, or would — I remember him saying, ‘look, she’s not threatened by that we like sleep together, she’s threatened by our intimacy.’ And I always remembered that. So for me, The Half of It arose out of trying to reconcile this deep heartbreak I had, but trying to understand the different forms of love — like what happens if you deeply love someone, but there’s like no sexual basis at all. Why is that somehow less exalted than the sort of deep romantic love — finding your perfect partner. My understanding is that they aren’t sexual, but the truth is those friendships are, in a way, very romantic. So the impetus for starting to write that just arose out of this sort of feeling I had about understanding the different forms of love, but in my case specifically, I was curious about the lesbian, straight male dynamic. In the process of thinking that out, it sort of took on a life of its own and ended up being its own story. Eventually, it brought in a whole Cyrano hook. When I first set out, it wasn’t set in high school, but then I realized that might be the best way to tell the story for different reasons. That’s how we got here.
LV Taylor: That was a great, in-depth answer thanks. So I just have one more question for you. It seems like 2021 is finally a breakout year for Asian artists with the history-making Oscar nominations. Do you think that this is a sign that Hollywood is finally changing and finally giving the Asian community its long-overdue respect?
Alice Wu: Another good question. I’m sure you’re thinking about it, but we’ve had a very tumultuous 48 hours between the highs of the Oscar nominations and what’s happened in Atlanta, but also these last two years. Because I have elderly Asian parents, I’ve been paranoid — even living in San Francisco for the last two years, I’ve been watching elderly Asian people be targeted. It’s just been just hi on my mind. I was telling you earlier, this whole time, there seems to be — and I can’t tell how much of it is a media moment, in the last few years like the Time’s Up and Black Lives Matter — a lot has happened. Although it’s not like these are brand new things we’ve all just discovered — been there forever –, it’s almost like maybe we just hit the boiling point of water, where it’s been hot all along, but somehow something has finally pushed it to where all the bubbles are rising up.
Now it’s no denying that something that’s happening. I’m sure there are far more sophisticated and smarter minds than I know how to articulate what exactly is happening, I can only say from my personal perspective. I know many people who have always been there and working — whether they’re activists or they’re actors or writers — we’ve all been there. I do think there are more of us now. If I just take a very specific example — let’s just take Asian Americans — my generation, the vast majority of us were immigrants or our parents were immigrants. For the most part, when immigrants come to a new country, they don’t usually have a lot of money to throw around. Usually, everyone is hyper-focused on just trying to survive. So we were very highly encouraged to be practical just to sustain ourselves — most of us are not going to go to liberal art colleges and major, and things are not going to make money.
Film it’s just very expensive — it’s an extremely expensive format — and the truth is if I had not been a computer scientist and able to finance myself, I can’t imagine I would have become a filmmaker. But I think now, over the years, you have more Asian-Americans whose economic circumstances have gotten better, so more of them have entered the arts. I think that might be one piece of it, which again, it’s good, and it’s also a separate question about who in our country has access to becoming an artist — that’s a whole other thing I can talk about, and why we get the sort of stories we do because it’s so hard to afford to be an artist. I think some of it is that. Is Hollywood changing? I think of it more as there are more people of color execs, there are more Black execs, there are more gay execs. So yeah, I think it’s possibly changing because some of the gatekeepers are changing. But I also think that there are so many more places to get your story out for the first time — streamers. I think studios actually see that specificity actually does enrich storytelling, and you do have an audience for it.
That audience doesn’t necessarily have to be exactly the ones featured in that — oh, these people are going to like this because they are this color or have this gender identity. I think audiences are getting more sophisticated, and that’s allowing people to take more chances. So in that sense, I’m optimistic. Once you broaden someone’s palate, it’s tough to go backward. It’s never easy to get anything made — I don’t think it’s suddenly easier — but I do think that you’re slowly broadening and making people’s palates more sophisticated. As a result, people will be hungry for different kinds of stories.
LV Taylor: I definitely agree with that. Well, again, thank you so much for taking the time out to talk to me today. This has been great, and congratulations on your Spirit Award nomination.
Alice Wu: Yeah, that was such a wonderful surprise. Thank you.