The Half of It is the best movie this year that you’ve never heard of. Released on Netflix back in May, the film has a 97% rating on Rotten Tomatoes, and was widely considered by critics as one of the best films from the first half of the year. Writer/director Alice Wu’s story of three teenagers in a small town in remote Washington state whose emotional journeys collide is an homage to individuality, friendship, literature, music, and love, in all forms. Its warmth, humor and heartfelt humanity are tonics for a time when we need all the love we can get.
I recently talked to Wu, an openly gay, Asian-American filmmaker, about how much has changed since her first film, Saving Face, came out 15 years ago, as well as what she thinks is subversive about The Half of It, what drew her back to movies after such a long hiatus, and exactly what she thinks of John Hughes‘ movies.
Catherine Springer: I love your movie so much! I see we were both born in 1970, so I need to get into something right off the bat. I can’t help but think of why this movie hit me so much in my sweet spot is because I grew up in the ‘80s and the movie had so much of a John Hughes vibe for me. Is that what you were going for?
Alice Wu: Yeah! When I first finished the script and was trying to figure out who to send it to, I was asked, “what’s it about?” and I would say, “well, it’s kind of Lady Bird meets Some Kind of Wonderful.”
And Some Kind of Wonderful is my favorite John Hughes movie!
There you go.
Were you a John Hughes fan growing up?
I was….I mean, it’s tough, because I didn’t love Sixteen Candles, but I wasn’t politicized enough to know exactly why, but I was horrified by, well, two things [laughs]. One was Long Duk Dong, it was just embarrassing to watch an Asian character like that. And the second thing is, I remember not saying anything about it, because nobody else seem bothered, but if one watches Sixteen Candles now, it’s a little horrific! There’s a whole scene that basically feels like date rape. And I remember, even as a 15-year old, thinking, well, I guess no one is saying anything, so this is ok? I’m a little bit weirded out by that. That said, I saw The Breakfast Club when I was like 16, on a date with a boy, and it was such an anthem for our generation. And then I loved Pretty in Pink. I think Pretty in Pink might have been my favorite John Hughes movie. It’s tough because I go back and some things hold up and some things don’t, but my hat’s off to him for trying to speak to a generation in a way that no one else was at the time and I appreciated that.
It’s funny, I do some funny nods to different films, and most of the films I do nods to are not teen movies. For me, I don’t think The Half of It is a teen movie. I think it’s a movie that has teenagers in it. You can literally take this story and set it in a nursing home. The themes are the same. We all regress to being teens, when it comes to having a crush on someone, feeling insecure, we all regress to that time, which is why it’s kind of rich to show characters at that time. But, ultimately, I really wanted the movie to have a mature look to it. I didn’t want to shoot it like it was a typical teen movie. I wanted it to have a timeless feel. It’s set in the present day, but, similar to Saving Face, which I realized when I watched it again recently, except for one cell phone moment and one pay phone moment, it otherwise really feels like it could be today and I think that was something with The Half of It too, I wanted it to have a timeless quality, that 15 years from now, you could watch it and you could just feel, oh, it could be today, in just another small, rural town.
It’s a teen movie that transcends the teen genre. The ending has gotten a lot of people talking because it’s not a clean, tidied up ending—it reminded me of La La Land in that way—in that the ending brings home the fact that this is a movie about people who will affect each other their whole lives, even if they don’t talk to each other again. The teen years are so influential as formative years.
I think you’re absolutely right. And I think that’s the thing, right? There’s a slightly subversive bait-and-switch that happens where this isn’t a romantic comedy. You start off thinking, ok, this is going to be a “who gets the girl.” But then, at a certain point, you start to realize, if one or the other gets the girl, you are going to be a little sad. I mean, even if Ellie and Aster are totally together, they could sort of be happy, but then what? They are seventeen, and they are stuck in this horrible town and the reality is, this movie was never supposed to be about who gets the girl, it’s really about three people who, because of their collision, as you put it, during their formative time, each of them learns something and ends up walking away with a new piece of themselves that’s going to allow them to become the person that they are meant to be. For me, that’s the happiest ending. You get the sense that maybe they will see each other again, maybe they won’t, but that’s not the question, the question is realizing how much Paul has grown, how much Ellie has grown, Aster is going to art school—that’s what makes it a happy ending, especially for people who are seventeen years old.
And the fact that Aster might be a throwaway character in another movie, the object of affection or the pixie dream girl, but, in the end, you realize that she has come the furthest. We got to know her as much as we knew Ellie and Paul and I loved that. As a writer, that’s a tricky thing to do, and you really pulled it off.
Thank you! But I also want to be sure to give props to my actors. For Alexxis [Lemire], really, that’s a tricky role. What she does is so subtle. Yes, that is what I was looking for, but very few people had given it to me. I looked and looked and looked until I found someone that made me say, ok, this person is going to give me the nuance that I need in this character. And, again, for Leah [Lewis] and Daniel [Diemer], I looked really hard to find the person, that made me say, ok, this actor and the way we communicate is going to build the character. Each of them just brought so much.
I’m curious, as a writer/director, you have the luxury to massage the script as you go through the casting process. You said you searched high and low for these three, were you driven by finding the right actor, based on chemistry, even if they didn’t fit exactly what you’d written, or did the script stay the same and you had to find actors who matched exactly what you had in your head?
No, the script stays the same. I’m not somebody who improvises on set. But that doesn’t mean I’m looking for an actor who gives me exactly what it is. Sometimes, you find the person that makes you say, this is it, but when you have three roles, there is going to be a process. When I’m looking for certain qualities, if I find enough of them in someone, it becomes a question of how do we communicate. Does this actor hear me? Are they able to understand what I’m saying, and am I able to receive the gifts they are bringing and harness them into this piece. Because you want to find the smartest actors you can. The danger is—and I often give people this advice—don’t look for the actor who looks perfect for the part. In each of these cases, they didn’t look perfect for the part. But there was something about them. They certainly looked within the realm, but, for example, Leah is extremely different than the character of Ellie. And Leah’s impulses were extremely different. In fact, when she first came in to read, I was like, not her. But there was something compelling about her. Then we Skyped and talked about the role and then she came in to read again and I saw how well she took my notes and I realized we could communicate. I sense that, in Leah, she’s built up a wealth of experience. Even though she is young, she’s done a certain kind of acting, and that acting works for a certain kind of TV, but it wasn’t actually what I was looking for. But what I saw, when we talked, was that the kernel of her, if we could get there, it would be really great. And she started peeling the layers and she got there. So there is a little bit of a leap of faith that the actor is going to go with you to go that deep.
She’s really fantastic! She seems so incredibly talented as well. Was that really her, playing guitar and piano in the movie?
No, it wasn’t, but that doesn’t mean she’s not incredibly talented. [laughs]
Jumping back a little bit, I’m fascinated with how you started. You went to MIT and Stanford, you weren’t groomed to be the next Orson Welles, you had a whole career mapped out for you in computers, then you decided to be a filmmaker. Tell us a little about that decision to walk away from probably a very long and lucrative career?
It’s always easier when you step away, you look backwards, especially if you’re a storyteller, it’s easy to start to shape the story into, “this is why,” and “this is what happened,” but the truth is, life is rarely that. You’re always just doing the best you can [laughs]. It was just making the best choice you can and you see what happens.
Did you feel you were always a storyteller, and were just waiting for the right moment for it to strike you?
No. [laughs] I was always a reader. I spent a lot of time alone, so I read a lot. I think I daydreamed a lot, so you could argue I was a storyteller, but to an audience of one—I just told myself stories. People say, “when I was growing up, I was the entertainer of the family!” Well, I was NOT the entertainer. [laughs] Definitely not. I certainly would not have guessed that someday, I would become a filmmaker. But I also sometimes say to people, if anyone were to ask me what it takes to become a filmmaker, I would say one of the best things to do is to read a lot. You are forced to visualize everything. I’m sure watching things helps too, but there’s something about the act of reading that, I think, works that muscle. I’m quite visual, but I didn’t know that until I reached a time when I saw things in a way and realized, oh, not everyone sees that! And I think it’s so much from years of training myself to create these worlds out of books.
So how much of you is in Ellie?
I’m in all my characters! I’m also somewhat Paul. And in Saving Face, I’m also Mr. Cho, the hapless guy who’s been in love with Joan Chen for so many years. But it is true that the main characters in Saving Face, and the main characters in The Half of It, there are a lot of specific, almost aesthetic qualities that are very similar, mainly because, in both cases, my costume designers would follow me around, without my knowing , and then pick clothes that were very similar to what I was wearing. And then I’d be like, “I love these clothes!” [laughs] Ellie is literally wearing a coat that I have—I mean, they bought another version—but I literally have that parka. And I think their journeys are also pieces of ones I’ve been on, but also pieces I want to be on, in ways that it’s a wish fulfillment—wouldn’t it have been great at that time, if I could’ve figured this thing out? Saving Face—wouldn’t it be great to have your family and the romantic love of your life, to have everyone get along? At the point when I wrote Saving Face, I didn’t think that was possible. And that movie came out 15 years ago, and I was writing it, hoping it was possible. If there was one criticism I would sometimes get from people, is that “oh, this ending feels too happy” and I specifically said, listen, if I’m going to spend so much energy writing a movie and trying to get it made, I never get to see this. I never get to see the lesbian couple happy in a way that doesn’t feel utterly ridiculous. In a way that I think could happen, so I need to put it on the screen, otherwise, I may never see it happen. And the thing that makes me happiest, is that now, 15 years later, nobody thinks that ending is too happy. If anything, they are irritated with other movies that don’t have happy endings! [laughs] I think the world changed, and that’s great.
The Half of It is also a coming out movie that’s not really about coming out. It’s a movie about love and being open to accepting wherever your heart leads you.
It’s essentially about love, yes. It’s about the different forms of love and the fact that we, as a society, tend to focus on romantic love. But what if romantic love wasn’t the most important love? There’s a slightly subversive thing, where you think it’s going to be about who gets the girl, and then, at the end, it’s actually about all the different kinds of love there are, but, for all three characters, because of the way they start to love each other in different ways, they each come to an understanding about themselves. And then each of them is able to move forward. And I really love that.
I’m glad you saw that journey for Aster. It’s subtle, I don’t’ know how many picked this up, but as a filmmaker, these are the sorts of things that I geek over. Specifically, I love William Kentridge, who is a South African animator, and one of the inspirations for the opening animation. At one point, Aster has done a drawing for Paul and Ellie looks at it, and it’s the flower. I wanted to make sure we had that drawn in advance, and then I was going to use that in the opening animation. So you’ll see in the opening animation there are all these little things—the first time you watch it, you haven’t seen the film yet, so you don’t know that there are tidbits, but in the film, there are all sorts of little beats, like the hot springs get referenced in the animation, for example. It’s very subtle, but when Aster is sketching, if you have very sharp eyes, you’ll see that she’s drawing the hearts of Plato’s Symposium, which also is in the opening animation, so, arguably, that opening animation could be Aster’s submission to art school. Even though it’s something I’m deliberately trying to do, I’m not saying that you’re supposed to get that, but I do think that’s the kind of thing that makes the piece feel as a whole, even if you don’t fully know why. Even though it’s Ellie’s words, it could be Aster’s drawings.
I love that, now I want to watch it again. You alluded to having 15 years between movies. There have been a lot of good things that have happened, especially recently, like Parasite, Minari, Crazy Rich Asians, The Farewell, Sandra Oh’s Emmy. There’s still a lot of work to do, but have things changed?
It feels like it has changed quite a bit. I’m not inside the industry so much, so I can only speak from my experience of it, but when I made Saving Face, it was always, “how can we make you the next big romantic comedy filmmaker?” but, even just saying “romantic comedy filmmaker,” they really meant, “straight, white romantic comedy filmmaker.” Not that I don’t love some of those movies, but that didn’t speak to me. So, at the point I dropped everything to go take care of my Mom, it wasn’t that hard. The stuff I was working on I liked, but I didn’t love. I was just working for hire. So I was like, I guess that’s it. I had left film, I’m now onto a different part of my life, so I didn’t expect to get pulled back in.
How did you get pulled back in?
A studio exec who had always wanted us to work together wrote to me out of the blue and asked me if I was still writing. I didn’t write at all for 7 years, I do long-form improv actually as my one creative outlet, but other than that, I didn’t’ do any writing. And then I finally started thinking about writing again when, out of nowhere, I get this email and she called and said, “listen, I’m at DreamWorks Animation, I have this project that I keep thinking you’d be the right person to do it, are you still writing?” I had a very fun seven months writing for them, and they were great. They wanted to hire me for something else but since Saving Face, everything I’d done had been a project that someone brought to me—I was working for hire–so I decided to take some time and write The Half of It for myself to direct. At the point I started to write The Half Of it, Crazy Rich Asians hadn’t come out yet, so Hollywood hadn’t discovered diversity in this big way, so I thought, ok, if this thing gets made, which it very well might not, it’ll take another 5 years, but I don’t care. I want the main character to be this Asian-American kid, I’m just going to write the thing that literally speaks to me. I’m going to put in everything I love. Every movie reference is a movie I love, every song is a song I love. So I wrote at the time not thinking it was going to go anywhere, which gave me the freedom to make it very, very specific. And so that’s the thing that surprised me–I finished the second draft and sent it out to people and within a couple of months I had three financing offers and we were off to the races.
So was the 15-year break because you had to go take care of your mother?
Yeah, it was. Saving Face came out in about 2005, I spent about three or four years in the industry writing for studios. I had just sold a pitch to ABC when my Mom got sick. I dropped everything, moved to San Francisco, thinking I’ll be there for a few months, and it just kind of went on and on until finally, I remember the day my agent called and said, “are you ever coming back?” [laughs] And I was like, “no, I’m not!” I was 39 at the time and I was like, it’s ok, my 20s were about computer science, my 30s were doing this crazy thing where I made a film, I was bopping around in Hollywood for a few years, but really not doing anything of note, so I thought my 40s would be about taking care of my family. So that’s sort of what happened. I was fortunate that I was in a position that I had saved enough money financially that I could live off my savings—for one thing, I don’t cost a lot—so that’s kind of what happened. I didn’t know, as I neared the end of my 40s, that I’d be making another movie! [laughs]
Is the ball rolling now? I see you contributed to the script of Over the Moon, a much-talked about movie…
You know everyone is being so generous to me! They totally deserve all the credit for Over the Moon! I frickin’ love [director] Glen Keane, I’m also a big fan of Audrey Wells, who wrote the script. As I was getting ready to make The Half of It, there were some producers there who were fans of my work, who I’d done some work for before, who—I guess it’s ok to say now, because everyone knows, but Audrey was quietly going through chemo and they asked if I could step in and get them to their next milestone. I was like, I only have two weeks. I had no time, but because I love them, I told them I have two weeks of time for you. And it was an incredibly fun two weeks. Super intense, but they just needed to get to their next milestone. So yeah, Glen Keane is marvelous, he’s just an amazing director. And all the producers were so great. And then they surprised me with, “you were so helpful, we’re giving you a credit!” And I was like, what? I only worked on this for two weeks! But I do sometimes script doctor.
So are you officially back in the industry now?
Ok, one never knows, especially this year, anyone who thinks they can plan out the future—at this point, I don’t even know what my next month looks like!
Do you have ideas?
I do! Maybe because I’m 50 now, I think about how, in my perfect world, when I die I want to have written and directed films that are very much Alice Wu films. But, to be honest with you, I don’t feel like I’m the kind of person who can churn out a film every year. I need to be super moved by a project. There’s one project that I really do love and we’ll see, but, my own stuff, I do have a couple things that I want to write and the question is going to be, I don’t know when they’ll be ready, but if one of them ends up hatching in a way and I really love it, I’m going to do everything I can to get it made. And if it doesn’t, then I guess I’ll hopefully be doing something fruitful with my time! Maybe just making a lot of meals for my friends, which is a little more Zen. I don’t think it’s about looking for a film to make, it’s about living the best life you can, and, along the way, if there’s something that moves you, then make that thing. I love being a director, so, fingers crossed, I hope I get another few swings at it.
Interview has been edited for brevity and clarity.