December 10, Hidden Smiles: Patrick Wang
Patrick Holzapfel: Since our program series deals with forms of humour, I wanted to ask you how you deal with comedy or humour in your work? Is that something you think about or does it just happen when you are working on and with the characters?
Patrick Wang: I guess the first part of the answer is that humour in all my films has just naturally come up, even though the last few have been dramas. It feels very naturally, as a part of human nature that slips in and out. It has been a lot of fun looking for actors who also understand how to effect that. So there has been a basic conversation about humour not as a genre but just as a thread and recurring moment in life. For A Bread Factory, it was very interesting because if you think about humour in a film you normally think about one type of humour. It’s a very verbal witty humour or a physical comedy humour or it’s a juvenile sense of humour. They seem very separate. Mostly you have one type in each film. Yet, I think a lot of people find very different things funny in life. Just at different moments. So I thought mixing them would be kind of fun and it gives a very unique rhythm to a film. The same could be said about the elements of drama. Some things people might associate with art films, others with TV, and sometimes I think this keeps things unpredictable. It’s about moving with the thing that naturally occurs.
Is the humour already part of the screenplay or do you find it when working with the actors?
It’s all in the screenplay. There are a couple of exceptions but for the most part it’s all written down. The actors execute it really well. They make humour that is marginally funny in the screenplay very funny in the film.
There is a great sense of timing in the film. A lot of absurdities and little ticks people have are a question of timing in your film.
It has a lot to do with what people don’t say but are thinking.
We decided to show both parts of your film back to back. Is that something you prefer or you dislike or is it not important for you? Was it conceived as one film in the beginning?
It was pretty early in the writing but I didn’t know it when I started writing. I knew that the form was bigger than one but I thought for a while it was going to be a mini-series. But it never wanted to be that. Instead it very neatly divided into two in a way that I think produces two views of the world. They make sense next to each other. The differences in form mean a lot more because the film is in those two pieces. I think they do very well when they are close to each other, when you see them in close proximity. Close is good, it doesn’t always have to be the same day. I have always let that be the choice of the programmer.
There is a lot of critical praise for your work and almost every reviewer wonders why you are such a marginalized filmmaker. What do you think about that and how does it work for you, also with funding and so on?
Mostly it doesn’t work (laughs). It’s an interesting question. I also remember talking to Jonathan Rosenbaum about it. My early films were very well received and it’s quite extraordinary to be this unknown after a really warm reception the early movies got. I don’t quite have an answer. What I had in mind, what happens as a trajectory in your career, that you build your audience and making movies gets a little bit easier as you go along, hasn’t happened. I think part of the reason is that there are only a few paths into the pipeline, especially the international pipeline. It’s been said that a lot of my films have not played in a lot of countries. In a lot of countries I am making my first screening with a retrospective. And I think a lot of festivals program after other festivals rather than independently. Yet, all the main review and industry websites have written about my films. So, they are there but it’s a limited number, I think, of people that read and that have enough capacity in their lives to actually explore. I sort of came to the industry as a sort of outsider to begin with. I neither studied film nor was I immersed in film. In a strange way this helped me stay an outsider.
I think this is also very important for your cinema. One can see that it is more interested in the people and places you show than in the next festival.
That is something I was a little worried about. A Bread Factory was the first film that came out of my film experience. When I was travelling to all those theatres showing the movie, almost like the Janeane Garofalo character in the film, that experience changed me. You always worry about being too much of an insider. Is the world getting too small if you are just talking about this particular corner? For me, it was still very explosive, I still learned a lot. I wouldn’t have made A Bread Factory if I had never made a movie before.
And what about your funding situation?
A lot of filmmakers from the US bemoan that there is no public funding of films. I don’t think that’s quite true. We have a tax credit here in New York and you get what amounts to 20 percent of your budget back. That is 20 percent funding for the films, which is very significant. It’s a kind of funding that doesn’t make any judgements on artistic merit. You follow the rules, you submit your paperwork, and you get funding. Every time I have applied – and I have done that with all my projects – with either organizations in the US or the CNC, I got rejected for artistic merits. It’s my slim personal experience, but that told me that, strangely, I do better in a world where they are not judging the artistic merit. So there is some funding. For the first two movies, I funded them myself. For A Bread Factory one friend put in a quarter of the money and that’s the only way that would have happened. Each time I made a movie I didn’t expect any income. When you have no expectations of income it also changes what you are willing to do in the making of the movie.
Let’s talk a bit about your film. You already mentioned that there is a sense of TV series in the film. It’s about a certain mode of narration, a way you have of coming back to the characters… What specifically do you draw from TV?
For me, the TV series I really love are from the ’70s in Europe. Like Fassbinder’s Welt am Draht or Ingmar Bergman’s mini-series. I think they are extraordinary. Of course, also Rivette’s Out 1. They showed me how to dive into people’s lives. When you see the Bergman in comparison to the cut they made, you know, when they made the series into a feature, you see how different it is when you have a feature length to work with. Even if you are Bergman and if you are as dense as possible. But how much deeper do you understand the couple in Scenes from a Marriage if you have gone through the mini-series. But then, looking at the Bergman, it’s pretty limited in time. TV series are generally many more hours. Yet, by limiting it to four hours it stays dense, there is a sense of pressure that the tightness of the form puts on how information can come out. It’s one of my main complaints about a lot of TV series. It has the effect of what people joke about with soap operas… You can come back a week later and they are still in the same scene.
I remember Jacques Rivette writing about our perception of time. He stated that nowadays, which was around the 1960s, we need so much more time to tell the same story than filmmakers from the 1930s did. To me, that rings quite true. In the 1940s, you showed a couple falling in love: in the next scene they kiss, in the next scene they are married. There is a sort of natural density that also has to do with our expectations of stories and of life? It also reminds me of writers struggling with putting words on paper. I think it was W.G. Sebald who said that it started with Flaubert walking up and down in his study to write down one single word and it got harder and harder throughout the decades.
I haven’t thought about it that much but my basic feeling is that it takes less time. The early movies tell a story but the depth of information is not that much. My films leave a lot out, for example. But what they leave out is something we understand from human experience. You don’t need a movie to explain to you what mothers are. So, we can work on and dive into deeper things. To me it’s exciting: taking advantage of human experience and also taking advantage of what we learned from dramatic representation. We have a lot of range of theatre, a lot of range of film history, TV history and many different people are very familiar with different types of visual media techniques. In some ways this lets us move faster. Yet my films are longer than is average. What I like about it is that it leads me closer to a deeper, like a novel experience. I am not the first person to say that but film is much closer to a short story experience. I feel you need a longer form or something very dense to get something that is even close to being novelistic.
Maybe you can tell me a bit about how this might or might not relate to something that comes up in the film called “the age of crumbs“. Are we living in the age of crumbs? What does it mean?
When I was in university I studied economics. There were two issues I did a lot of research on. One was health economics and the other was income inequality. It’s very striking and since the ’70s there has been a lot of research on this increasing inequality. It’s nothing new and it’s nothing new for people in the arts. They have essentially been cut down since the beginning. What’s interesting to me is not that story, it’s how people still survive. Not only what they do but also how their will survives all of that. You take away so many of the resources, yet a certain vitality still thrives in certain places. What’s sad is that you never know what you actually loose. But the fact that something still exists is quite extraordinary to me.
We don’t see a lot of films about cultural institutions. How did you meet this place?
The Bread Factory is based on a real place. It’s a theatre up in Hudson, New York. It is a place I visited as a filmmaker. If you have been to a lot of these community art centres in your life, they feel instantly familiar. When I was in France I also travelled to all the small towns to show my films. I think those places for art there are amazing. I got a kind of energy from being at those places. It’s very funny because they were very happy to see me and I was very happy to see them but neither of us is solving any of the problems the others have. Nobody is going to show up because I am showing up. Yet, we need something from it. So, this idea of art and commerce was on my mind and I was trying to find a place to think about those things. I try to make films that are not about something I already know but more like a scenario for me to learn and think about certain ideas I am having trouble with. This seemed like a nice place because industry and commerce is a very cold thing where you can become very unhappy and cynical. It seemed right to put it in a place which is the opposite, that can provide some warmth, a sort of guiding light as to what’s important.