by Angela Bourassa (@angelabourassa1)
To call Patrick Wang ambitious would be an understatement. His first feature, In the Family (currently on Amazon Prime), earned Patrick a Best First Feature Indie Spirit Award nomination. He followed that up with The Grief of Others, which premiered domestically at SXSW and internationally at Cannes. And now, Patrick’s latest film is actually two films shot consecutively, each spanning two full hours.
A Bread Factory, Part One & Part Two, was recently featured in The New York Times’ fall movie calendar. (The article calls the films “a crazily ambitious project” and Patrick’s first self-distributed feature “an out-of-nowhere wonder.”) A Bread Factory has been playing for the last month in the local community theater where it was shot, and it will screen in Los Angeles and New York next month.
I recently had the chance to speak with Patrick about this truly unique work of art that bridges theater and film, drama and comedy, realism and surrealism. We discussed how this story came together, the importance of community institutions, and the director’s perspective.
Angela Bourassa: From these films, it seems to me that you care deeply about words, so I wanted to start by asking you a few questions about words. First up: “arthouse.” How would you define the term arthouse, and would you call these arthouse films?
Patrick Wang: You start with tough questions…
I do love words, and in the film there is a point where the journalist points out, “You must define these terms.” But I think the reason I’ve never really thought about how to define “arthouse” is that I’ve always thought of it as a term of industry, and from my practice of never really fitting into industry, I haven’t given it that much thought.
That said, I do believe that people who love arthouse films will find a lot to love in these movies. The things that are aesthetically interesting and formally interesting to a lot of people who love arthouse films exist here, but I think there’s something else that is not as common in arthouse films, which is a little more of a vernacular that’s more in line with classic American theater. I think especially in a lot of world cinema that’s arthouse, that’s not as common. This uses a lot of classical narrative elements that arthouse doesn’t necessarily use.
I almost want to ask you, now, to define arthouse.
Angela Bourassa: (Laughs) I mean, it’s almost like a lump category – if you can’t fit it into anything commercial you would just say, oh it’s arthouse, and leave it at that. But I was very curious about what you were trying to do with these films.
Patrick Wang: A lot of people have talked about how when you don’t have the words to define something, it has a danger of slipping through the cracks, and I think that’s happened with my films in the past. They fuse a number of different elements – and I don’t start out thinking, “I want to combine A, B, and C.” It’s more that I just love A, B, and C, and I don’t think of lines between them, and I never think that they don’t belong together, and when I see them together, I get excited. So it’s just a much more basic, childlike guide than anything resembling a master plan.
Angela Bourassa: That was actually another question I had. How did you go about piecing this story together? Because there are so many moving pieces, so many unique characters, questions that you choose to leave unanswered in some cases – how did you organize it, both during the writing process and in the final edit?
Patrick Wang: You know, when I started writing, it started with a lot more characters, and as sometimes happens with my writing – and I’ve heard it happen to other writers, too – is characters start to fold on top of each other. You start to see that this character is also this other character. I sort of thought of them as different sets and storylines. So, you know, people would be at the newspaper office, and I’d think about that office as distinct from the diner, distinct from the Bread Factory, and then I would start to fold those on top of each other to think about the traffic between them.
But it is a lot to track, and it is almost too much.
Angela Bourassa: (Laughs)
Patrick Wang: I always like the line between thinking that it’s too much but also having more of a grasp on it than you expected. I think that’s a lot of fun, because then – because there’s a lot going on – you use a shorthand, which is common human experience.
I think a lot of writing takes time to explain very basic human behaviors and events that we all understand, and so I think we can cover a lot more ground with other things if we don’t spend time explaining, as if to a bear, what it is to be human.
So, yeah, you start folding these things on top of each other, you start whittling some things down when it does become too crowded.
Angela Bourassa: Did you start with characters, did you start with the big idea? What was the impetus for this story?
Patrick Wang: I did start with character. I started with the two women who are at the center running The Bread Factory. The place we ended up shooting was a theater that invited me to show my first film, so I went and visited, and when I met these women and kind of stepped into their space, it was very familiar. You know it. I spent a lot of time in a theater when I was younger, and I’ve been taken care of by women like them, so it was a mixture of them and this idea of theater, a community theater that’s open to everyone, where it’s very easy to walk across the threshold.
So that was a very specific thing that it started from, and then I was thinking about other things like art and commerce that are much colder than those warm memories. And other times, it’s almost ridiculous – there was a point where I just wrote, “Insert young love story.”
Angela Bourassa: (Laughs)
Patrick Wang: Because I wanted to fit in young people and I wanted to think about them in love, and it surprises you, you know? It actually kind of worked out and it also kind of took you to a place you weren’t expecting.
Angela Bourassa: Mm-hm. Max, the teenager who works at the newspaper, he was one of my favorite characters. He really stood out to me.
Patrick Wang: He’s very surprising. I mean, I joked with people that these were comedies because I couldn’t find any hope, so we might as well laugh.
Angela Bourassa: (Laughs)
Patrick Wang: But Max was an unexpected hope.
Angela Bourassa: That’s great.
Going back to words, I think I probably know the answer to this, but I wonder if anyone’s asked you — the difference between “a” and “the.” In the film, the community art center is called The Bread Factory, but the title of your films is A Bread Factory. Why the discrepancy? What was the choice there?
Patrick Wang: Right. Just the idea that this is a kind of struggle that repeats in so many places. I think of these efforts and these places as the glue that essentially keeps us all from spinning apart, and it’s kind of unlauded, unspoken. But it takes people like this to keep communities together, to keep people strong, to take care of each other. So, yeah, in the film it’s The Bread Factory – it’s specific to them – but this telescopes out into so many communities.
And there’s also this sense that – I visited a lot of these theaters while on tour here and in France, and in some ways it seems silly, because I go, and no one really knows who I am, I’m not bringing in the public, and the theaters themselves aren’t huge sources of revenue for the film – so there’s a question of, “Why do we do this?”
But it was so incredibly valuable. It’s valuable to be connected with people in a similar struggle. So that’s the idea, that it’s also helpful to other Bread Factories beyond this one.
Angela Bourassa: The cast is just phenomenal. They’re all such amazing actors, and you really let them shine with long shots. As you mentioned before, it has the feel of theater, almost more so than film. Could you talk about the choices you made in terms of composition and the feel you were going for, just the overall ambience you created in this film?
Patrick Wang: Well, I think it starts with these characters – they get a lot of words. And I’m glad to hear what you said about these actors, because I adore them. I think they do miraculous things both on their own and then as a company.
I generally start from a place of, how can I see a scene that just lets me feel what the character’s going through? And that perspective is not always intuitive. You may see something in a film that you feel like you’re supposed to see in close up – that’s how you feel the emotion – but it may be that sometimes you need to see the person next to them. They need to feel very small or you need to read their body language in a certain way to actually feel their emotion.
And the nice thing in film is that when you have the words, the words can be close even when the picture is far away. So I can feel a lot of what traditionally is done in close up – with good acting, the details in their voice can accomplish that for me – and I can use the picture to tell other parts of the story.
I also generally try to start from one perspective and one shot and look for reasons why I might need more, and if I can’t find them, then that’s usually what I end up with. I usually find there’s a sweet spot where you just get the right flow of positive and missing information that really keeps you riveted in a scene.
And when you don’t divide up your shot, what happens is that you take away some of the control of rhythm from you, the director, and I think that’s useful, too, especially when you put it in the hands of good actors, because when it’s too much the director’s rhythm, sometimes that can quash some of the character. And you know, we’re telling a story about a community, a wide range of people, and that let’s diverse rhythms come up, too.
Angela Bourassa: Shifting topics a bit, can you talk to me about May Ray.
Patrick Wang: (Laughs)
Angela Bourassa: Because this is the part of the film that has me the most confused, if I’m being completely honest. There’s a great deal of emphasis put on their Chinese-ness, their otherness, and they are also portrayed as absurd, but your name – Wang – is a Chinese name… Can you help me understand what’s going on there?
Patrick Wang: Well, May Ray, as performance artists, there’s an element of performance art that I find very funny. It’s generally not what I do, but with May Ray, I took the first idea that came into my head and ran with it – I took it very seriously. I think in the end, I and a lot of people do end up loving them in a way.
At the beginning of this film, they’re seen as the other and the invasive force. They have a lot of money behind them, they have a lot of attention on them, and they’re sort of intruding into this small town, soaking up all of the air and resources. And they are spoken of as Chinese, and China is invoked many times in the way that happens a lot in commercial conversations – you’re talking about the next market, you’re talking about opportunity. And for a country as complex and diverse and interesting as China, it gets reduced to this single thing – this dollar sign – and I think that happens with countries, it happens with cultures, it happens with people. They all become props, a thing that doesn’t really mean anything – just the thing we’re using as shorthand for “more.”
And so I think May Ray is confusing. They seem to have cast this spell over people the same way, whenever you’re in the middle of a craze and you weren’t there at the beginning and you just drop in in the middle, you go, “What is everybody talking about?”
It’s just kind of this group mentality of the thing of the moment – the very profitable thing of the moment. We also all like to share that thing of the moment; there’s a very human need to talk about the thing of the moment. But in a world where there is so much amplification when we find that thing, the real sadness is that one or the other has to win. I would like to see a world where May Ray can exist alongside The Bread Factory and no one winner has to take it all.
Angela Bourassa: Is Janeane Garofalo’s character in Part One a surrogate for you?
Patrick Wang: (Laughs) It was a role I was going to play. You know when I was younger, I would watch these interviews with John Cassavetes, and I would think, “Why is he so angry?”
Angela Bourassa: (Laughs)
Patrick Wang: And as I’ve grown up, I both understand why, and I also understand that it’s not anger. So that’s sort of what’s in the character. It is the part of me that feels a lot of kinship with that kind of passion that John had, and with Janeane, it becomes something very different, and I like that. I like what happened when it became a female director. She has a very different dynamic with kids than I do that I like a lot more. So, it did start with some roots in me, but it became more interesting than me.
Angela Bourassa: Her whole speech about how filmmakers shouldn’t be pigeonholed into a certain style because it’s something they’ve succeeded at before, is that something that rings true for you in your career?
Patrick Wang: I mean, I think it’s so true that it will happen between Part One and Part Two. There will be people furious about the differences between the two.
Angela Bourassa: (Laughs)
A Bread Factory, Part One & Part Two, is currently previewing in Hudson, NY. It will open in New York and Los Angeles on October 26. Learn more at abreadfactory.com.
Angela Bourassa is the founder of LA Screenwriter and the co-founder of Write/LA, a screenwriting competition created by writers, for writers. A mom, UCLA grad, and alternating repeat binger of The Office and Parks and Recreation, Angela posts articles through @LA_Screenwriter and unique daily writing prompts through @Write_LA.