FEATURE PHOTO OF ALICE WU BY K.C. BAILEY
When Netflix dropped its trailer for The Half of It almost a month ago, it rocked the internet.
People quickly attached themselves to the film’s universally relatable main character Ellie Chu.
Ellie is a shy and smart student who devotes her screen time to helping her best guy friend, Paul Munsky, win over Aster Flores, the hottest girl at their high school. Though The Half of It begins with a seemingly conventional premise, it quickly subverses these tropes (boy meets girl, love triangle, etc.) and gives audiences a refreshingly queer and Asian American take on the American coming-of-age film.
I had the opportunity to speak with the mastermind behind The Half of It, writer and director Alice Wu. In this conversation, I speak with Wu about her beginnings in film, how identity has informed her work, and the importance of preserving a creative vision.
Victoria Chen: First off, I want to say congratulations on The Half of It. It’s a wonderful film, and I had so much fun watching it.
Alice Wu: Thank you!
Chen: I want to start this conversation toward the beginning of your career. Some people who are new to you and your work may not know that you began your career in STEM before entering film. Can you talk more about what that period was like? How did you make that switch?
Wu: I was in computer science, and I designed software at Microsoft. I didn’t think about becoming a filmmaker or anything until much later. I was very practical. I grew up with very young Chinese immigrant parents who had sacrificed a lot for me. So you’re going to major in something practical.
I think the first generation that comes over basically sacrifices their lives. They’re not thinking “what do I wanna do” or “what’s my life’s purpose.” They’re saying “how do we survive in this country that maybe isn’t always friendly to certain kinds of immigrants.”
As the first generation born here, I know a lot of my friends felt this way, that it was our job was to solidify what they’ve accomplished. There’s a sense of financial safety and not wanting to get kicked out of the country—like all the fears we grow up having, whether they’re explicitly said or implicit in the words that your parents tell you.
In my late 20’s, I took a night class totally on a whim and ended up writing Saving Face in it. Once I had the screenplay, I still wasn’t thinking “I want to be a filmmaker”—I was just blowing off steam. But when I finished that screenplay, I realized “oh” especially when the professor was like you should option that. His idea was to option it, take it down, and to fold it and maybe it would make money. It was said that it will probably—if it got made at all—be white and not gay.
And I said, if it gets picked at all, I have a specific idea of how I want it made, and he said well you need to quit your job. You need to go to New York or LA immediately and do whatever it takes to direct it. That’s your only shot. So I quit my job. I saved enough money, and I was lucky enough to pick a career where I could save up. I have a massive fear of debt, so I will never choose anything that will put me in debt. I’ve been financially self sustaining since I was 18. It really was lucky that I chose computer science because it wasn’t the big career that it is now. It was more like oh this will be a solid middle class career, and it just exploded. That gave me enough of a nest egg that I could give myself five years to try to make that film, living on $40,000 a year. At the end of five years, if I still hadn’t made the film, I would still have 6-8 months to find another job, so that was the plan. And that film, kind of against all odds, got made.
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So this is an unexpected thrill. We won the U.S. Feature Narrative competition at Tribeca! I was caught completely unawares by the festival jurors (Cherien Dabis, Terry Kinney, Lucas Hedges) when they showed up in an apparently fake zoom meeting to tell me the news, and I had what can only be described as a "minor meltdown." If you care for me at all, please do not watch the recording of this ridiculous event. I am truly shocked and delighted beyond measure. Go team THOI! #tribecafilmfestival #thehalfofit If you want to read up: https://www.indiewire.com/2020/04/2020-tribeca-film-festival-winners-1202228292/
Chen: You mentioned receiving suggestions about making your characters white, straight, and English speaking for your first film Saving Face (2004). How has this discussion around representation in Hollywood changed since then?
Wu: That was hard. At that point—actually it’s still true—getting any film made is hard. But it felt especially true then. Who thought Saving Face could have gotten made 15 years ago, right?
But you have to remember where I’m coming from. I didn’t go into this thinking “I just want to get any film made.” I was interested specifically because I wanted to make that film. I wrote that very personally for my mother, so I wasn’t willing to make any of those changes. The purpose wasn’t so I could emerge out of it as a filmmaker. The purpose was because I believed in that project. And I fully knew that, as a result, the film might not get made at all. I guess I’m just stubborn that way.
The purpose wasn’t so I could emerge out of it as a filmmaker. The purpose was because I believed in that project.
It was very clear to me what my values were around that. There were moments where I was like “this person is well respected…” but then I realized the things people were saying weren’t wrong. No one was wrong. A lot of things people were saying totally made sense from the point of how will we market this and how will this make money? But neither of those things were my concern. My concern was making a film I wanted to make. Obviously things may have taken longer than they otherwise would have, but I don’t see any other path where I would have been happy with the end result.
For The Half of It, all financing possibilities were totally willing to go with what I wanted. They also probably saw that years ago my other film was Saving Face—you’ll probably know what you’re getting! It’s very highly unlikely that I would change in that regard.
It wasn’t easy in the sense that I didn’t have pangs of self doubt shoot down while I was saying no. But they weren’t bad as in is this the wrong choice, creatively? They were pangs of self doubt as in will I regret if this film doesn’t get made at all? Will I regret that, versus, at least something got made? Every time I thought no: the idea of something being out there that is not quite what I wanted and is actually worse (laughs) was worse then hanging on. It was an agonizing struggle, emotionally, and yet, it was also always very clear what I wanted.
Chen: Language plays an important role in both of your films, and for Asian American viewers, Ellie Chu and Wil Pang’s bilingualism makes them immediately relatable. When you were creating your characters, did you intend for that?
Wu: Again both my films come from a very personal place, so I speak Mandarin fluently with my parents. I think Mandarin is my language of intimacy, and English is more my language of thought. As I get older, I use English a lot more now and have used English with partners, best friends—It [Mandarin] was my first language even though I was born in this country [U.S.]. For me, while both films are fictional in the plot, the emotions are all real. There’s something about Will and her mother’s relationship that I clearly draw from my own relationship with my mother.
Similarly with Ellie and her father’s relationship. They’re also important plot lines in the story.
I think Mandarin is my language of intimacy, and English is more my language of thought.
Chen: One thing I noticed after watching both films is that there is this common theme of subverting stereotypes. Which makes me think about the general experience of growing up as a minority figure in America—that there’s this constant push against being defined by others and defining ourselves. Where does the need to subvert come from for you, and how did it find its way into your storytelling?
Wu: That’s a good question. The funny thing is, I’m not a rebellious person. I never grew up thinking “how can I rebel against my parents?” Probably because when you grow up as an immigrant kid and you see how hard your parents are working, your biggest goal is to make their life easier. Even when they’re irritating or you think they’re wrong or when something they’re telling you sounds draconian.
I have double A parents that I love very much. They just worked so hard that I desperately wanted to make their lives easier, and coming out to myself as gay was unbelievably hard. If there was anything I could do to be straight, I would have been straight.
The thing that I rebel against is—sometimes I’ll watch things, and I’ll feel like a message is being shoved down my throat. Of course, I’m crafting a story and there are certain arcs, but I do want the characters to feel real. Even if there are certain tropes that you use that everyone recognizes. My main characters are people you feel like you care about and because of that, I try really really hard to think about what would they do honest to them. It can’t feel arbitrary, and it needs to be something that comes from a deeper emotional place for each of the characters, and it should make sense.
I think a lot of queer stories for example—and Asian American stories even—when you see them, you feel a little bit like the characters are so consumed with the struggle and oppression that they’re facing. And those can be wonderful stories. There’s nothing wrong with that, it just happens that the way my life works—of course I deal with oppression—but it’s not like I wake up and walk out, and I’m immediately thinking about oppression that I’m dealing with. Most days, I’m thinking about what everyone else is thinking about. What are the things I need to sustain myself? Do I have a life purpose and am I working towards it? These are the subconscious things that drive me, and I think maybe that’s why it feels like a subversion— because it just feels true for all of my characters who are Asian and queer: it almost feels quietly subversive because they’re human. That act itself feels subversive.
It’s just the way I tell stories. I don’t think it’s the best way—it’s just my way. I think my work is very approachable, and so it has a very “oh you’re just watching a thing, I think it’s just gonna be-” and then my hope is that by the end, it hits you quietly.
Since its Netflix debut on May 1 of this year, The Half of It has gone on to win Best Narrative Film at this year’s Tribeca Film Festival. It’s also been lauded loudly by viewers and critics alike and has solidified a stunning 96% fresh rating on Rotten Tomatoes. The Half of It is available for streaming on Netflix and stars Leah Lewis, Alexxis Lemire, and Daniel Diemer.
Guest writer Victoria Chen is from Hattiesburg, Mississippi. They are a graduate of Washington University in St. Louis and are currently studying Graphic Design at the ArtCenter College of Design in Pasadena, California.