Director Alice Wu On Her New Film 'The Half Of It'
SCOTT SIMON, HOST:
"The Half Of It" is a coming-of-age rom-com on Netflix. But it's not like any of the other coming-of-age rom-coms you may have seen streaming. Think of "Cyrano De Bergerac" in Squahamish, a small town in the woods of Washington state where Paul Munsky, a high school jock, hires Ellie Chu, the brightest kid in class, to express his ardor for their classmate in notes and text messages.
(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "THE HALF OF IT")
LEAH LEWIS: (As Ellie Chu) So what you're trying to say is...
DANIEL DIEMER: (As Paul Munsky) I'm in love with her.
LEWIS: (As Ellie Chu) Have you ever spoken to her?
DIEMER: (As Paul Munsky) I'm not good with words.
LEWIS: (As Ellie Chu) But you know you love her?
DIEMER: (As Paul Munsky) I know. I think about her when I wake up and when I'm doing my sprints and when I'm eating my mom's bratwurst and when I'm saying my prayers and...
LEWIS: (As Ellie Chu) That just means that you're stubborn, not that you're in love.
DIEMER: (As Paul Munsky) No, it's love. Love makes you screwy. Don't you get screwy?
LEWIS: (As Ellie Chu) No.
SIMON: Leah Lewis is Ellie Chu. The film also stars Daniel Diemer and Alexxis Lemire. "The Half Of It" is directed by Alice Wu. It's her first feature since "Saving Face" in 2004, which was lauded for its strong women Asian characters. Alice Wu joins us from San Francisco. Thanks so much for being with us.
ALICE WU: Thank you, Scott. I'm truly so honored to be here.
SIMON: Tell us about Ellie. What a wonderfully engaging character and a young entrepreneur, we should note, isn't she?
WU: Ellie is a Chinese American immigrant moved to the U.S. when she was very young. And she's kind of stuck in a small, rural town. It's kind of one of the towns that feels a little like America forgot about it. And now this Chinese immigrant family is almost practically the only nonwhite family in town. And Ellie, essentially, is kind of a loner. But to sort of help make ends meet - because, unfortunately, her mom passed away a few years ago - she is basically writing school papers or term papers for her fellow classmates for pay.
SIMON: Speaking as a filmmaker who wants to bring Chinese American stories to the screen, did you worry about making Ellie seem to fulfill a stereotype? - the Chinese kid who's the smartest kid in school, also plays classical piano.
WU: You know, I didn't because - I'll be honest - at the point I'm writing the script I don't think this thing is going to get made. Like, I sort of write to understand the world and maybe to understand myself. So I write from this deep sort of personal place that comes from, you know, experiences I've had in my own life or people I've observed. And what I've discovered is that, surprisingly, that ends up making very different kinds of people relate to your characters.
SIMON: It's hilarious the way that Ellie begins to regard her ghostwriting for Paul as a kind of mutual project, making the best case to Aster Flores. Tell us how that unfolds, if you could.
WU: Yeah, I think in the very beginning, the last thing Ellie wants to do is to help what she perceives as this lunkhead pursue the girl that she actually - whether she's admitting it to herself or not, she has a very secret crush on. And in this case, it's literally, like, the electric bill is overdue, the lights are about to be shut off. This guy's offering her money to write one letter for him. And once Aster starts to respond, I think what happens for Ellie is, hang on. Someone in this town that is around my age actually gets what I have to say? And that is a very, like, almost too delicious thing to pass up when you're a lonely kid.
SIMON: Paul is easy to dismiss as a lunkhead - I think is your term - but he's a good soul, isn't he?
WU: Oh, I love Paul. I think he's the most emotionally intelligent character in the film. And the goal for me was always, you know, I don't want to cast, like, someone who you look at, and immediately, they look like a Hollywood pretty boy. But I think as the movie goes on, like, I think everyone falls in love with Paul. Like, I'm gay. I literally - all of my lesbian friends are, like, I kind of feel like I'm going straight for Paul.
WU: Like, it's very funny to me. He really contributes so much to the heart of the film.
SIMON: Yeah. Well, and this brings up - some of the elements in this film, I gather, are frankly autobiographical, aren't they?
WU: Yeah, I think similar to my first film, "Saving Face," the plot is completely not something that happened to me. You know, obviously, I'm not 17. I didn't have a "Cyrano" story in high school. But emotionally, it's very much about my feelings and thoughts about love but very specifically romantic love. And I think as - our society tends to exalt romantic love as basically, like, the love you need to find. Once you find that one person, your life is complete. And it's as if, like, the rest of your life builds into a crescendo of wonderfulness. So I've sort of started thinking a lot about, well, what are all the other kinds of love that really seem to feed into my life? And if I'm very honest, probably some of the biggest heartbreaks, if not the biggest, were not actually romantic. And so thinking about all that - and as a society we've evolved, but I still think we have trouble, sometimes, when things are not sort of cookie cutter. They don't fit the mold of the stories we grew up listening to. So I basically wanted to write a story told from the lens of sort of a lesbian-straight-boy friendship.
SIMON: Well, let me ask you about the ending of "The Half Of It" without saying what the ending is because there's been a certain amount of debate in some film sites that I've seen when I've been reading about the film as to what the ending means or actually what's going to happen after the ending. Let's put it that way.
SIMON: I'm going to venture a guess that whatever happens, these three people are going to be important to each other for the rest of their lives, even if they only see each other every few years. Am I just being sentimental?
WU: No, I think that's a very good guess. You know, it's funny because I don't like unresolved endings. And I do think this ending isn't like there's a neat bow. This is not the sort of - yeah, it's not the sort of movie where a wedding makes sense at the end. Like these kids are 17, right? And the thing is the movie is really not a traditional romantic comedy. It's really more of a journey of self-discovery in the sense that for each of these three characters - because they came together and sort of collided in this sort of clumsy way, each of them, through their connections, ends up learning something about themselves and having to face something in themselves. And that causes each of them to take, you know, the scary step forward that by the end of the movie, I think it's the happiest ending possible for these characters because you feel like, oh, they're going to finally start the life they should have started, you know, that they would have been on if they were not stuck in their habits or in the paths that they were on before.
SIMON: Alice Wu. Her new film on Netflix - "The Half Of It." Thanks so much for being with us.
WU: Thank you so much for having me.
(SOUNDBITE OF ANTON SANKO'S "END TITLES MUSIC FROM THE HALF OF IT") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.