If you’re not already a fan of Alice Wu, you’re about to be. If you haven’t already seen Saving Face, you will. If you’ve ever lamented on Twitter that there are NO GREAT TRAGEDY-FREE LESBIAN MOVIES, you’re about to start adding some asterisks.
It’s been almost 16 years since Wu’s first — and until now only — film debuted at TIFF. And while it’s beloved by many, MANY people, I’m always surprised by how many queers haven’t heard of Saving Face or haven’t gotten around to watching it.
Tomorrow, May 1st, Wu’s second film The Half Of It arrives on Netflix and it’s just as special as her debut. She’s a filmmaker unlike any other and a new film from her — especially in a moment as fraught as this — feels like an incredible gift.
Somehow I managed to contain my fangirling and talk to Wu about staying true to her stories, playing with romantic conventions, and the awkward angst of high school.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity. It contains light spoilers.
Drew Gregory: Hi!
Alice Wu: Hi, Drew!
Drew: It’s so nice to talk to you. I love Saving Face so much and now I love The Half Of It so much and I just love your movies so much.
Alice: Oh my God. Thank you for everything you’ve written. I’m really grateful for your support.
Drew: Yeah, of course! Obviously this is a difficult time, but I’m really excited that it’s coming out now and is being released on Netflix. It’s going to be accessible in a way that queer movies often aren’t.
Alice: I know! It seems weird that that’s true. I guess, I would’ve thought when I came back fifteen years later the landscape would be very different.
Drew: Yeah, for sure.
Alice: And it is different in a number of ways. But we’re still talking about things I thought would’ve been further along.
Drew: Do you mean like the accessibility of queer movies?
Alice: Yeah, there are obviously more, but it seems surprising it’s even a concern. The L Word came out around the same time as Saving Face so somehow I would’ve thought that by now— it’s tough to say because there definitely are more queer stories out there. Maybe the issue is there aren’t many queer teen stories made for a commercial audience.
Drew: Well, I feel like Netflix romcom has become sort of a subgenre and even if The Half Of It differs in some ways it still fits as far as how it’s going to be released and who I hope is going to watch it.
Drew: I know when you were trying to finance Saving Face some executives wanted to make it straight and some wanted to make it white and then they at least wanted to make the love interest white. You stuck to not doing that. Over the years how have those pressures changed? And how as an artist do you stay true to your voice and the stories you want to tell?
Alice: I’ve been thinking about this a lot and here’s the thing: when I made Saving Face I didn’t go into it thinking I want to become a filmmaker. I wrote it very specifically as a love letter to my mom. I was just trying to get that movie made. And, honestly, who thought that movie was going to get made? Especially fifteen years ago it felt like the stars had to align. But because I didn’t enter the industry with the goal of being in the industry I didn’t feel like I had to make compromises. I came into it saying this is the story I want to make and I’m just going to keep bulldozing forward until I can’t financially afford to do so anymore. I’m also practical and I didn’t want to go into debt, but I’d saved some money and gave myself five years. If at the end of five years I hadn’t made the movie then I was just going to go back and make more money.
That attitude gives you a lot of freedom. If your goal isn’t to try and interest a studio exec or a producer because maybe you’ll get another gig — if your goal is literally just to make what you want to make — there’s a simplicity to that. I think it was a little astonishing to everybody else in the industry. But I didn’t know any different! I didn’t know it was super weird! I just thought well this is what I’m trying to do and it’s totally okay if this is not what you want to do. And there were a lot of smart people who didn’t want to do it and they’re not wrong. It just means that this is not the film they want to get on the bus for. And I’m just going to keep moving ahead until I find the people that will get on this bus.
And similarly with The Half Of It I felt very much like this is the film that I want to make and I’m going to do the same thing again. It’s okay if somebody doesn’t want to do it. Eventually I will either find somebody who does or I won’t and that’s also okay. But what I don’t want to do is make compromises that will weaken the story. You make compromises all the time. For me, they generally tend to be budgetary. There are all sorts of things I wanted to do in both movies that we just didn’t have the budget to do. But the actual integrity of the story stayed very, very true. I refuse to make creative choices purely to compromise. Making the second film makes me feel even stronger about this. When someone tells you to make a change, sometimes they’re right. But if you’re not sure? If your instinct says this other thing? My feeling is if you don’t know if you’re right and you don’t know if they’re right, why not bet on yourself?
Drew: Wow. Yeah.
Alice: This is not a commissioned portrait for a patron that I have to please. I’m trying to make a movie that will reach people and I think as a filmmaker my job is to the story. My job is to try and make the most resonate, pure story that can come out of me. I can’t actually make the story that would come out of somebody else. And that just hasn’t changed at any point. I left the industry ten years ago thinking I was never going to come back. My mom got sick so I moved to San Francisco to take care of her and I really thought this chapter of my life was over. But now that I’ve come back that just hasn’t changed about me. It’s just who I am as a filmmaker.
Drew: I think that commitment is really felt in your work. Especially how unique they feel in their genre. Well, do you think of your movies as romcoms? Is that something you own?
Alice: No. I mean, I think Saving Face is a romantic comedy of manners. I think with Saving Face I am trying to make the biggest romantic comedy I can on a tiny budget with all Asian-American and Asian faces. Right? Like I was trying to prove that you can have a wonderful, authentic, and grounded romantic comedy, where hopefully a few minutes in you’ve forgotten everyone’s Chinese — they’re just people. And that’s my way to help breed empathy.
Now with The Half Of It, there are romantic comedy elements, but I think of it more as a coming-of-age story. My work has a commercial hook and there’s always something that feels very approachable about it. But I think both of my films are a little bit subversive. With The Half Of It, I lull you in with the romcom hook and then part way through hopefully you’re just invested in the characters. Maybe you want this person to get the girl or that person to get the girl, but I’d like to think at some point you realize ugh but if that happens then this other person will get hurt. There’s some part of you that isn’t clear who you should be rooting for, because even if you really want certain people to get together you’re aware of what that means for someone else.
For me, it’s not really about who ends up getting the girl. It really ends up being about how these three people learn something about themselves. It’s about how their collision gives them the piece of themselves that allows them to move on and become the people that they need to be. Each of them finally takes a step forward at the end of the film and the film is like the beginning of their lives. That for me is the happiest ending. But then that’s technically not a romantic comedy. Or maybe it is? I don’t know. I don’t feel like it’s a pure romantic comedy. I would say I tend to make small humanistic comedies where the people feel grounded. My goal is hopefully you’re laughing, but at some point I hope you cry. If I’ve not made you cry, I have failed.
Drew: Well, both movies definitely made me laugh and cry. I also think with Saving Face it’s a romantic comedy that you realize is as much or more about family. And then with The Half Of It it feels like that with friendship — and also family. Is the use of romance to get into other types of relationships part of what you mean about lulling in an audience? Is it a tool using romance in that way?
Alice: Maybe. I should say it’s not like I think to myself as I’m writing that I’m lulling someone in. That might just be my way — it’s even my way in life. I’m very approachable. I don’t know what it is, but if I’m standing in a group of people and someone needs to ask for directions or someone wants to convert someone to their church or someone is asking for change, I’m absolutely the person they go to. I don’t know if I’m the weak sheep in the flock or what, but I have some quality.
My superpower is extreme approachability and I think it shows up in my work. Generally I’m not an edgy filmmaker. I tend to show characters you don’t always see and that’s something I subtly try to do. But none of these characters are like fuck the institution. They’re not like I hate my parents. They’re really just trying to get along in their lives which I actually think is most people. I think most of us love our families and maybe they drive us crazy, but we don’t actually want to make our families unhappy. We just also want to live our own lives. This becomes the central human question: what happens if we genuinely want everyone else to be happy? We feel torn because often we can make someone else happy or we can make ourselves happy. So what do we do?
Saving Face isn’t about whether these two women get together or not. The romantic comedies I love the most are not like and then the two people got married and that’s it. Saving Face is about whether this woman can have romantic love and still have her family. As a queer Asian woman I feel like I never got to see that in a realistic way. I really wanted to show that arc because I think the romantic comedy component is not just between Wil and Vivian but also between Wil and her mom. And, similarly, in The Half Of It the romance isn’t just between Ellie and Aster — it’s between Ellie and Paul and also Ellie and her dad. So the question is actually how do you service all these characters in a meaningful and authentic way knowing that there’s heartbreak? Obviously, it’s hard for Ellie’s dad to let her go and yet there’s a triumph in him moving ahead in his life. I want to show that none of this is easy but it is growth.
Drew: Honestly, I think there is something edgy about that! I mean, you said subversive, and I think that’s very true. It’s a complexity we don’t often see granted characters with these identities or characters within love stories. It’s definitely something I respond to in your work.
Alice: Oh thank you.
Drew: As you said, this is very much a coming-of-age movie, so I’m curious: what was your relationship to queerness when you were a teenager?
Alice: I was super closeted. I was not aware that I was gay at all. I came out to myself when I was 19 and it was a violent realization. I’d had crushes on girls since probably the 3rd or 4th grade, but I was just that repressed. I grew up in a very conservative Chinese family. I’d have crushes that I wasn’t admitting to myself and that probably just made them even more intense. My experience being a closeted teen who wasn’t even aware meant I just listened to melancholy songs and imbued an unrealistic amount of meaning to them. I was really obsessed with music.
Drew: Like what music?
Alice: Oh my God, no, it’s terrible. Let me be honest: I’m not cool in any way.
Alice: It would be… oh gosh back then what were the things I loved? I loved Depeche Mode. I was super into Depeche Mode. I loved Squeeze. Big fan of Squeeze. But then also pop songs. Oh God I’m just thinking like — well certainly I loved Madonna. Cyndi Lauper. I loved pop. I would literally listen to Casey Kasem Top 40 every weekend. I have a very large record — Oh I loved Fleetwood Mac! I still have records — Oh I loved Karen Carpenter! I have a very large vinyl shame pile of music that now maybe seems cool but at the time was not cool at all.
And I would date boys, but I just thought I must not be romantic. It wasn’t until I came out to myself in college that suddenly everything made sense. It was like the dominoes falling. And I literally had a crush on the same girl in high school for three years! I just wasn’t admitting it to myself. That’s how crazy repressed I was.
This is something I think about a lot. The arc of love in queer stories is often tragic and I think it has to do with the fact that if we’re not allowed to even be out to ourselves — if you can’t even tell your friend I have a crush on this person and play it out because you think it’s dangerous — then how can there possibly be a happy ending? If you think you’ll lose your friends, your family, if that’s what you grew up feeling, then you think the best case scenario is nobody ever finds out and they leave you alone. And the worst case scenario is potentially death. Love feels tragic. I love this person and we can never speak, but maybe there will be an unspoken awareness between the two of us. No one will say anything but we both know we love each other. That’s as good as it can be. So when you think about that no wonder queer stories have for the longest time been tragic. I think that was probably the subversive thing about Saving Face — at the end there’s celebration.
Drew: I have to ask. Was the person you had a crush on for three years in high school your best friend? Or was it someone from afar?
Alice: Oh, no, no. They did not know I existed! Well, they knew I existed, but very peripherally. She was a year ahead of me. One time I was walking down the hall and she said my name and I immediately skittered.
Alice: I just was like AHHH. I literally just pretended I didn’t hear and immediately walked away. I’m not really sure why I did that. I was also very, very unpopular and she was quite popular. I think I just responded to the fact that there seemed to be this essential niceness to her. But yeah, yeah, I think, um, yeah, yeah, so.
Drew: (laughs) Did you ever see her again?
Alice: No. I actually totally forgot about her until years later. Because when I went to college so many different things happened. It’s not like I harbored this interest. I have no idea what this person is doing now actually.
Drew: Well, the last thing I’ll ask about is sort of connected — Aster’s sexuality. I think it’s possible to read the movie as queer girl in love with straight girl but that’s not how I read it. Her sexuality is uncertain in a way that I find really interesting. How was that character developed? Did you always plan to leave her sexuality open ended?
Alice: I really love that you see the nuance in that. There’s a way where I keep writing the character and keep writing the character and at some point the character takes over. I didn’t know as I was developing Aster what was going to happen at the end. And I think that mimics her experience in the film. These kids are not growing up in a town where they are self-actualized in terms of their sexual and gender identities. So I think for Aster she could be attracted to boys, that feels clear, but I also think your reading is correct. That feels right to me. I do leave it open because I think that’s true for a lot of kids. I think even for Ellie. It’s funny on Twitter this thing erupted about whether Ellie is queer or a lesbian. People were getting all up in arms about it and my thing is like Ellie is 17-years-old.
Alice: These are 17-year-old children! The thing I can say for sure is that Ellie is definitely attracted to girls. We don’t know if maybe one day she could be attracted to a boy or she could be attracted to a nonbinary person. We don’t know any of that. She doesn’t know any of that. I personally have a feeling about what I think will happen, but it doesn’t really matter what I think. She’s definitely queer, but in terms of where that will go and what will happen with her, I think she has a lifetime to live. And I think it’s similar with Aster. The whole time she was being wooed by a girl and she just assumed it was this boy. So she hadn’t even thought about the question, right?
I don’t think she’s conscious of it but at the hot springs I think she feels something that she’s not ready to admit to herself. That mimics my experience. But at the end she’s had five months to think about this whole thing and obviously the question has entered her head. She hints that it’s a little too dangerous for her to fully go there, but she lets Ellie know she’s thought about it. She’s not ready to experiment, but she leaves a future possibility open.
We don’t know! She might go to art school! What’s going to happen there?
The Half Of It comes out Friday, May 1st.