Wayne Wang Interview

Versatile writer-director talks in depth about his controversial psychosexual two-character drama

Versatile writer-director talks in depth about his controversial psychosexual two-character drama

Wayne Wang's office in San Francisco's Chinatown is so sparsely decorated it looks like he might have just moved into the space and most of his furniture has yet to arrive. His heavy wooden desk is a battered thrift shop find. There are three chairs, one on each side of the desk and one next to the door. On one wall there is a poster for his 1990 Hong Kong gangster comedy "Life Is Cheap...But Toilet Paper Is Expensive." On his desk is a modest lamp, a figurine of the Virgin Mary, a phone, Wang's DayTimer and one liter of bottled water. That's it.

"It's my little monastery," the director laughs, explaining that he does his best thinking when there's minimal distraction.

His easy laugh -- a merry chuckle pitched about two octaves above his speaking voice -- is contagious, and it seems to be something he does a lot. The 52-year-old has slight wrinkles forming around his eyes, not so much from age but from the way he squints when he's cracking up. In fact, dressed in two layers of T-shirts, cargo pants and very basic tennis shoes, Wang doesn't look his age at all. He looks as if he could have skateboarded to work today.

But it's Wang more serious and grounded side that comes out in most of his movies. Perhaps best known for "The Joy Luck Club," the director has an innate ability to find emotional truth in his psychologically layered films, whether it's in his personal, metaphorical musings on Hong Kong's return to Chinese rule in 1998's "Chinese Box" or his retooling of a Hollywood movie-of-the-week like the mother-daughter melodrama "Anywhere But Here."

His latest effort is "Center of the World," a vividly personal, emotionally charged and sometimes graphically erotic two-character drama about an overly stressed, socially stunted dot-com programmer (Peter Sarsgaard) and his desperately warped courtship of a icily beautiful and very skeptical stripper (Molly Parker). The film takes place almost entirely in a Las Vegas hotel room, where they spend a weekend after Sarsgaard pays her $10,000 to stay with him in the hopes that by cutting off the outside world this normally unattainable girl might eventually find something in his uneasy, neurotic soul that she could love.

After a bit more chitchat about his office, located at the modest headquarters of Francis Ford Coppola's production company, Zoetrope, Wang and I sit down in the second-hand chairs at his second-hand desk to discuss the film.

Q: I am a fan of "Chinese Box." I was fascinated by the layers of metaphor, and I thought "Center of the World" was an interesting companion piece because they're both about unrequited love of a rather pathetic man for a complexly conflicted prostitute...

A: Right, right.

Q: ...and they're both snapshots of a particular time and place as well.

A: Hmm. Interesting! Yeah.

Q: You hadn't realized that?

A: I hadn't realized that, but it's absolutely true.

Q: The way you use Las Vegas in this film is interesting. You deliberately shoot the places in Las Vegas that try to look like someplace else -- like the canals of the Venice-themed shopping mall. But you don't show him going into the mall.

A: I like the displacement of this character in a place that's really kind of other places in the world. They're replicas of, you know, Venice and Brooklyn Bridge and whatever.

Q: And Las Vegas is a place that isn't really anywhere.

A: And also completely artificial and fantasy-oriented. I mean, you can knock on any of the walls and they don't seem to have anything behind them. (The whole place) is like a big Hollywood set. I mean, most of them are actually built by set designers who work in Hollywood. Every time I've gone there I've been completely bowled over by it.

Q: What do you think attracts you to that theme -- two-character pieces about socially inept men and prostitutes?

A: Well, I'll tell you in more practical ways where they're kind of more connected. When I did "Chinese Box," I did a lot of research into the so-called "high class" escort world in Hong Kong. You go to these clubs, you pay a lot to have them drink with you, then you have to pay a lot to the so-called mama-san to buy (the girl's) time to go out with you...Then you may have to buy her a present ...You have to court her like that over a period of time, where both sides are playing games, so that you think this is real. Then you have sex. So it's a little more ambiguous and a little more -- I don't know what to call it -- graceful, maybe. It's not like here, where you walk up to somebody and say "$2,000 a night? It's a deal. Let's go." It's very American and very up front. I find this (contrast) to be interesting.

Q: So in a way you applied the flip side of "Chinese Box" to "Center of the World."

A: Well, I kind of got involved with the dot-com guys hanging out in strip clubs, and that's when I had the idea -- what if this guy tried to turn her, you know, tried to meet her, tried to become friends with her, yet at the same time he's paying her to try to sleep with her. It's the same kind of world as that "Chinese Box" world I was fascinated by.

Q: "Chinese Box" is also the first time you experimented with DV (digital video), and this entire film is DV. What did you learn on "Chinese Box" and what do you like about DV?

A: In "Chinese Box" I found that DV was really freeing. We could just go out on the street and shoot anywhere and any way -- and we were using a little camera, too. Even with a bad transfer -- it was consciously transferred badly (for a home movie effect) -- the images looked very interesting. It had its own look, its own digital look. That gave me the confidence to say, well, even if we use the consumer cameras -- the higher end consumer cameras -- and shot with that, not only would we get the freedom and (it would be) cheaper, but we could do something really interesting visually with it. I was very interested in making it look digital.

Q: And I imagine there's an intimacy to DV because you can shoot with just you and the actors in the room, and maybe a sound guy.

A: Right. Exactly. Sometimes we would leave a camera -- like in the last sex scene -- we would leave a camera on a tripod and almost leave the room. The sound guy was hiding behind the bed so they couldn't even see him, and it became like a little surveillance camera shooting them.

Q: That's probably freeing for the actors in a scene like that.

A: It makes it a little more private for them. But those cameras are just as voyeuristic and just as much there.

Q: Sure, but there aren't a dozen Teamsters standing around!

A: Or five guys falling over each other trying to focus a shot on a dolly!

Q: What kind of cameras did you use, just out of curiosity?

A: We used a...err...is it DSR-100s? The Sony three-chip cameras. They're about $1,500. You can get them at the Good Guys.

Q: That's amazing, isn't it?

A: Yeah. It's truly amazing. And it's very freeing for me. I can imagine myself retired later on, and I could (on a whim) go out and get these cameras, get some actors, then go out and shoot a pretty decent movie. That is really a relief for me because shooting a movie cost so much money and is so stressful. There are bond companies, insurance companies involved. They want you to have medical tests and all kinds of s**t. So (digital video is something) that is really freeing. The best part of the digital revolution.

Q: So are you more enamored of DV than of film at this point?

A: Film has a certain quality. I mean, when you get a big landscape, when you have epic things (in mind), you really need film. These DV cameras, when it's wider shots they don't cut it. It doesn't have the depth and the crispness it should have. But it's very good for more personal things. It's very good with faces and close-ups. It has that more real quality that I really like.

Q: Of course, this is a decision you make based on the material.

A: Exactly. I've thought about mixing (DV and film). There was a Vietnam movie I was going to do -- but I'm not doing it now -- about this Vietnamese kid coming to America to find his father. Most of the first half of the film would happen in the hull of a boat, which is very interior, very claustrophobic. I thought you could shoot this with a DV camera and shoot it very close. Then when he gets to America open up in Cinemascope and film. I think it would be really interesting, the contrast of these two things in the same film -- to have the film actually open up when you get to America. But I'm not doing the film, so I'll have to save the idea.

Q: As long as we're on the topic, what are you working on now or next?

A: There's a couple things floating around. There's a personal project that I really want to do. It's a book by a Korean-American writer called Chang Rae Lee and it's called "Adjust Your Life." But then I'm also tempted -- Sharon Stone and Antonio Banderas want (me) to do a script called "Stompanato," which is actually quite interesting. I'm kind of intrigued by that.

Q: Would that be about Johnny Stompanato?

A: Yeah. And Lana Turner. Sharon would play Lana. [Wang can't help but grin thinking about this.]

Q: OK, I can see that. That's interesting! I can see how you'd be tempted by that.

A: It's a very black, sort of dark comedy in a way. It begins with Stompanato already dead at the beginning and he flashes back.

Q: "Sunset Boulevard" style!

A: Yeah. It starts "I can't believe I got stabbed by two beautiful women!" [Laughs.] But I'm not committed to it yet. I'm still figuring it out.

Q: Artisan is becoming more of a Hollywood entity now. Did you have any heat from them due to the sexual content of "Center of the World"?

A: Actually, they kept pushing me. They said "It's gotta be stronger. More sexy." [Laughs.] But they were great. From day one they said "We don't care, we just want you to make the best film. Just go out there and do it." They actually welcomed the controversy in a way. I don't think there's any other company in the US that would do that now. Everyone else is very safe. And they're really big on web sites and doing something really new and different with the web site. They wanted to do something completely different. So we did a really out-there web site. (The visitor interacts with Molly Parker's stripper character in the strip club.)

Q: Let's talk casting.

A: OK.

Q: Peter Sarsgaard, how did he get the part? The last thing I saw him in was "Boys Don't Cry" (in which he played one of the ruthless rednecks that killed transsexual Brendan Teena). Talk about a 180-degree turn!

A: He came in four times for the role. He really wanted it bad, so that always helps. And he was always auditioning in a very real way. He wasn't trying to impress me, he was just being very real,...very powerful (and) very truthful in what he did. He was wide open with it. He'd go anywhere with it.

Q: And Molly Parker?

A: There were a lot of interesting choices for the woman's role, but I went with Molly because she is a really smart person and very controlling in real life, which I thought fit the character really well -- and also because she doesn't have a stripper look. She's not the kind of person you would think of as a stripper.

Q: I consider Molly Parker a kind of stamp of quality. When I see her name, I know a film is going to be worth seeing.

A: She picks her projects very carefully and I think she makes very good choices with what she's done.

Q: "Kissed" (Parker's break-out film, in which she played a necrophiliac) floored me.

A: [Laughing.] I was surprised by that one! When she came in to read, I go, "Well, I think of you more like a Meryl Streep than playing a stripper character." So she goes, "Well, have you seen "Kissed"?" I hadn't, so she gave me a tape. I was going through it and I go [he mocks a double-take and laughs]. Oh, s**t! So the next day she came in wearing this outfit that was unbelievable! It was sexy, very skimpy and very trashy. The first day she came in...very graceful and sophisticated. The second day she came in, I had seen "Kissed" and she was in that outfit, and I said, "Alright. You're in."

Q: But you had several actresses you were looking at?

A: Actually Carla Gugino (who plays a troubled ex-hooker who throws a curveball into the story) was one of the front-runners. She is great. She is so sexy that I was worried she would eat the movie up with sexuality. It would be a different movie. It would be a very, very different movie with Peter and Carla. I was almost tempted to make a companion movie with those two.

Q: Because of the intimacy and the two-character nature, I'm curious about how much discussion and rehearsal there was before shooting.

A: It was zero rehearsal. We talked a lot about characters. Peter spent a lot of time with these dot-com guys. He actually lived and worked (with them) for about a week. Molly actually went to strip clubs, learned dancing and talked to them a lot. There was a lot of research and talk about the characters. But we never talked about the script. We never rehearsed a scene. And we then shot it in sequence. One scene one day at a time. The two of them talked a lot. I didn't talk to them at all off the set, but I know the two of them kept talking about things. It was very interesting. I don't know exactly what they talked about, but they had a really parallel relationship that was going on.

Q: Well, it worked well.

A: Molly kind of finessed Peter. Peter's kind of a very wide-open kid in a way. That's why I picked him and liked him so much. He kept talking about how the character he's playing was me. He kept saying, "I'm playing Wayne in this!" I was like, "OK, fine." [Laughs loudly.]

Q: Whatever works for ya, kid!

A: Yep. He has this theory that the personal projects a director does, there must be a reason they're so interested.

Q: And what about for-hire projects? A Hollywood film like "Anywhere But Here" -- how do you take a project like that and turn it into something with emotional authenticity?

A: I don't quite know. It's more instinct and trusting the truth of the characters than trying to hype it up. I think that's the only way I can work. Maybe that's the fault of it and why it didn't do well at the box office. Maybe people were kind of expecting "Stepmom."

Q: Especially because it came after "Stepmom" ("Anywhere" star Susan Sarandon's warm and fuzzy cancer patient sob fest) they were expecting that kind of crap instead of a Wayne Wang film.

A: You know, we tested so bad on that movie with the original ending, which I loved.

Q: What was the original ending?

A: The original ending was Susan's character still couldn't let her go, still couldn't come around, and the grandmother actually sent Natalie the money to go to college by selling the land Susan thought she owned. There's a kind of unresolved, you know, letting go. Then it ends a year later with Susan visiting her during Christmas vacation, and at that point there's a little more acceptance because she's kind of found a little bit of her own life. But that tested...[Wang whistles and makes a diving motion with his hand].

Q: And the test audience wanted a pat happy ending?

A: So we had to find a way for Susan to let her go and still be truthful. I think we kind of found something that worked.

Q: That must have been frustrating for you.

A: We shot the ending three times. It was very frustrating.

Q: Yow.

A: That's why from now on if I do a for-hire project, I would only do like Rob Schneider movies or Adam Sandler movies!

Q: [I bust out laughing.]

A: [Cracking up] I don't want to get caught up in trying to make kind of a truthful movie (while) having to be really commercial for a focus group. I'd rather just go all out.

Q: [Still laughing] I'm just trying to picture a movie full of fart jokes directed by Wayne Wang!

[At this point the interview ends, mostly because we just keep laughing.]

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