Computer-scientist-turned-filmmaker Alice Wu was positioned to become a big, romantic comedy Hollywood director. Then, she completely disappeared.
Now, she's waging a great comeback.
Alice Wu started her life as a computer scientist for Microsoft who never went to film school. Her first film Saving Face exploded on the indie scene. As a gay Taiwanese-American filmmaker, Alice Wu was told her career could be huge. All she had to do? Change her films to white, heteroromantic comedies.
But Wu didn't want to make those films. So she didn't. Now, after over 10 years of radio silence, Wu is back. Her film The Half of It won the 2020 Tribeca Film Festival and is now streaming on Netflix.
No Film School caught up with Wu to talk about making her last film, her comeback story, and why nobody ever knows they have the chops to make it until they do.
No Film School: Your first film Saving Face launched your career as a filmmaker. What inspired you to make it?
Alice Wu: I didn't go into anything thinking, “I want to make a movie.” I was a computer scientist. I got my degrees in computer science. I spent my twenties designing software, and I took a night class at the end of my twenties at the University of Washington extensions program. I'm gay and I came out during a time when it was far less acceptable. It was very hard for my mom to accept. And I think I wrote that very personally for myself and then for my mom to sort of work out.
My mom was going through something in her life where I think she had, I was sort of realizing that she had been assuming that her life was just to be a beautiful daughter. She had come to a place where it seemed like was physically living on, but it was as if emotionally it was over.
And I really didn't want that for her. I wanted her to feel like that love was possible. It wasn't the sort of thing I was emotionally mature enough to understand, looking back. I realize that's why I wrote the movie. I think our mind can sometimes circumvent what we really feel in order to make sense of something in a way that we think will be palatable to an audience. We might not even be aware of it, but sometimes we'll skew the story unconsciously or reduce things in a way that we think is more acceptable.
But your emotions are your emotions. Let's say you're depressed and you're like, "Well, I don't want to write about being depressed. So I'm going to write about giants in Swaziland." Well, you’ll end up writing about giants in Swaziland who are depressed. It's inevitable that sooner or later your fiction is going to start to live.
NFS: So Saving Face was a bit of an exploration of what you were experiencing in real life, using the format without necessarily the intent of making this film?
Wu: I didn't think I had the chops to make it. Most people feel like they don't have the chops either, and I tell people this story because I want them to feel a sense of possibility. The fact that you don't think you can do it actually apparently has no bearing on anything because I certainly did not think I could.
NFS: One of the fascinating things about your career, and I don't know how much you want to talk about it, is that you had a crazy launch and then you stepped away for a while. Now you're back. What happened to step away and what brought you back?
Wu: No, I'm happy to. In the past, I've turned to No Film School, and I feel like it's important for people to understand that there are so many different ways to arrive where you want to go. Especially when it comes to something like film. If you want to be a brain surgeon, there are only a few paths. Filmmaking is actually one of those things where there are so many ways.
Wu: My first film didn't come out until I was 34 years old. I didn't start thinking about becoming a filmmaker till my late twenties. And then in 2005 [Saving Face] came out. I had a flurry of activity. At the time, my agents had the conventional wisdom which was probably right for the time: if I wanted a career, the next thing is to figure out how to make me like the Ang Lee of white romantic comedies. To be a “big” romantic comedy director basically meant “straight, white” romantic comedy director. And there were some good scripts, but it just wasn’t what I wanted to do.
I did work for hire, I wrote some things for studios. I started to think about TV, I pitched a series that then shockingly all four networks wanted to buy and we were going to go ABC. And then two things happened. One was the writers' strike hit. But the second thing is just as the strike was ending, my mom got sick. And so I dropped everything and moved to San Francisco, which is where I live now. At the time I hadn't fully processed that I might be leaving the industry. I just it was obviously the most important thing to do. So I went there for an indeterminate period of time that just kept getting longer and longer.
And eventually just before I got to the year mark, I remembered one of my agents being like, "Are you coming back? What is happening?" Finally, I was like, "No, I'm not actually. I'm going to stay here." And at the time I said to her like, "Oh, I'll just take like a small break." And she was like, "Oh, okay." But in my head, I was thinking I'm leaving. I won’t be going back. Because I was 39 at the time. In my mind, I thought, that's fine. Twenties is about computer science and paying off loans and saving a nest egg. My thirties, I did this wild thing where I tried to make a film and that happened and hooray, that's over.
Wu: And I thought that now that I'm about to hit in my forties, it's the time for me to take care of my family. And I was incredibly boring. I've read four books on investing and luckily I've been financially self-sustaining since I was 18. I wanted to take care of some financial things in my family. So that's basically what I did. I was very boring for a few years. That was also very rich.
My mom is a handful, but she's just a wonderful person. I hadn't lived in the same city as her since I was 16. I imagine hell is having your child come back and tell you what you should be doing or not doing. As intense and maddening as it was, it was an incredibly rich time. I didn't write at all. The only outlet I had is I do long-form improv. I just did that and it was only till about three, maybe now three and a half years ago that the exec, Peilin Chou, out of the blue wrote me and said, "Are you still writing? I have this project. And I think you'd be great to pitch for it. Will you pitch my boss?" And I basically pitched her boss and got the gig and wrote this very fun project for them at DreamWorks Animation. And it went well enough that they want me to write other things. And that's when I was I thought about writing something for myself to direct again. So that's what happened.
NFS: And The Half of It became a project that you knew would be for you to direct because it's been a minute?
Wu: I wrote it not thinking that movie was going to get made. Crazy Rich Asians hadn't come out yet. Hollywood had not discovered diversity in a major way. And with Saving Face all along the way people kept being like, “This could be a really big movie… if you just made it straight and white.” The thing with The Half of It. I'm like this is probably a much bigger movie if I set it in some suburb of New Jersey or Orange County. That’s not the movie I want to make. So then I was like I'm going to write this thing and probably it'll never get made, but it's what I want to write.
NFS: So suddenly Crazy Rich Asians happened, there was a big push for diversity, big push for women filmmakers, all good things?
Wu: We managed to finance The Half of It before Crazy Rich Asians came out. So it was kind of shocking. I had three financing possibilities, and I took months to decide between them. But one of them was Netflix. One of them would've been theatrical. I'm a purist; I would love to have done a theatrical release. But I knew I wanted to cast fresh faces. I didn't have any big stars I could put in there and I really wanted people in red states to watch it. I knew [conservatives] were never going to go to the Landmark Theater to watch this movie. And luckily I love my Netflix exec. I was just getting to know her and she was just so good about letting me know, A) she's going to let me make the movie I want to make. And then, B) that it became very clear that if I wanted to reach as many people as possible, Netflix was the best game in town.
Someone might be conservative, but in the privacy of their own home, they might press play. And that's born out where a lot of shockingly conservative people have also random thoughts about my film. My agent will be like, "This big football star was watching it with his team and loves the movie." Or one of my best friends conservative uncle's in Maine are like, "Have you seen this movie?" That's the power of streaming. I really appreciated Netflix for giving the movie a platform that I think it wouldn't have had otherwise.
NFS: You mentioned how in The Half of It, there’s a little bit of a Trojan horse in trying to help communicate with people or reach people across a divide. Can you tell me more about the intention of making a movie that would help people see a side of things that they haven't considered in a time that's certainly divided?
Wu: I think it might just be even the way I approach things in my life. I'm by nature not a rebellious person. I often use humor to disarm in my life. I think I can come across something quite approachable. And maybe this is even when I came out to myself as gay, I think a lot of people would not have immediately guessed that I was, especially in the early '90s.
I noticed that one of the ways I would get to know someone would be very quickly let them know, "Oh, by the way, I'm gay." I noticed that there's a way that maybe it's even unconscious or conscious where I think I was trying to disarm them a little bit. I like to think my films are quietly subversive. It's not like a big political commentary. What I like to do is lull someone in with this is kind of an interest: I really liked these characters. I'm starting to fall in love with these characters.
And then suddenly you identify with a character you don't expect to. For example, the character of Paul I started to write after Trump had been elected. I was trying to reconcile in my head that there were sections of the country where it seemed like we were so far apart in our beliefs. And not that I hadn't known before, but I don't think I had realized it was that many people. I don't think I fully understood that. And so the character of Paul for me was a way to try and empathize. Hopefully, people fall in love with Paul, and then two-thirds of the way through the movie he does something that shocks you a little bit.
Wu: I wanted that moment to show, someone could be an incredibly lovable person who strives to be good and still hurt you. And not out of maliciousness. And then to watch that character come to his sort of awareness and realization and see his growth, was something I wanted people to see on any side of the political aisle. That maybe we could all give each other a chance to grow. I think that was my way of seeing if there was a way to create more connection maybe between myself and the world and hopefully within people within the world with each other. That for me was very much the sense of purpose for the film. Which is why, when I was deciding between financiers I ended up going for Netflix since I had to finally be like, "Why did I write this?" And then that ended up influencing the choice.
NFS: So the genesis of the script is similar to Saving Face where you were personally exploring an issue, and asking how can I address this or explore this dramatically?
Wu: I'm very much someone who writes to try and understand the world and myself and my role in it. In both my films, when I wrote them, I didn't think anyone would ever see them. So it freed me up to put a lot of specificity in there. The Half of It was filled entirely with things that I love. I love Wings of Desire. I actually love meat that you can eat by hand. So taco sausage, when I came up with that idea, I actually was like, "That's the greatest idea possible. I don't know what's going to happen with this movie, but that is going to be a big seller." If you had told me I'm writing this for an audience, I might be like, "Does anyone know what these things are? Should I change them?" So that's the freedom of writing from an anonymous place.
NFS: You’ve had such an unusual career path, and you’ve been able to make films that are very personal. What would you advise to filmmakers on how to get started?
Wu: My specific trajectory has been so non-linear. If anything, I hope people take hope from that, because honestly, I joke that I made two movies that on some level I have no business in making. I didn't go to film school. I know nothing about film. And it took years to figure out, but I made that movie at a time, especially when it really felt like who the hell thought that was going to get made. I think it would make more sense getting made today, right. Conventional wisdom says if you don't strike while the iron's hot, it's over for you. But apparently, I walked away, and I'm 50 this year, and I've just made a teen movie.
So no one knows anything. I hope that no matter how old you are, no matter where you come from, you take some sort of solace from the fact that only you can actually write your story. Just make sure you're writing the thing that only you can write. Don't worry. Do not even think about an audience because you don't know what they're going to respond to. Nobody knows. Be true to you. So I don't mean it has to be factually true, but they're very emotionally true.
Wu: I am a firm believer that if this matters enough to you, you will get there. I have to feel that only I can make this movie or that it matters so much that there's a deep sense of purpose. And I don't think you can force yourself to have a sense of purpose
You don't get married to the person because everyone tells you that that's who you should be married to. Be with the person when you feel like you're really in love. You’ll know that. If you feel like you don't know yet what you want to write about, it’s okay to continue writing or taking writing classes to work on your craft. But ultimately I think one will be more satisfied at the end of this huge amount of effort if you keep checking for that thing that you feel very deeply.