“I’m a new filmmaker,” Linh Tran tells me at one point, with an emphasis on the word new, when talking about Waiting for the Light to Change. Born in Vietnam, Tran moved to the US to study with a theater background before pursuing directing. She received an MFA from DePaul University in Chicago, and through the school’s program was able to make her directorial debut, which recently won the Grand Jury Prize for narrative features at the Slamdance Film Festival.
Set over several days in and around a lake house in Michigan, Waiting for the Light to Change follows five twenty-somethings who gather for a small getaway in the early spring. But with little to do in the small, lakeside town, everyone finds themselves dealing with the sort of malaise that happens in one’s early-to-mid twenties: growing older, establishing a career, finding a purpose in life, going over past regrets, and anxious about what the future might hold.
Tran’s precise direction lets the drama unfold through long, carefully composed takes, with an emphasis on performance and blocking to convey the inner turmoil of her characters. Citing influences like Hong Sang-soo, Eric Rohmer, and Jim Jarmusch, Waiting for the Light to Change is patient and considered in ways that distinguish it from most directorial debuts to come out of the States in the last several years.
Before the film’s Slamdance premiere I spoke with Linh Tran about her approach to directing, along with the experience of making a debut feature on a small budget.
The Film Stage: I rewatched your film last night, and I was thinking about how this is such a 20s movie. What you deal with in your film is a lot of what I dealt with in my mid-20s. There’s this sense of losing the past, but also the massive weight of the future and all the expectations that come with it. I assume these ideas are things you and your friends have talked about with each other.
Linh Tran: The making of this film was really interesting and was kind of shaped and born out of the necessity for a story. This was a very strange situation where it wasn’t like “Oh, we have a script,” and then you go and look for funding and you develop and get the crew together to make a movie. This is part of a program at DePaul where you just pitch one of these scripts at the school and the budget is $15,000. Because of COVID we asked for extra, so our budget was $20,000. The script that we were supposed to make could not be done due to COVID and all of the restrictions, so it quickly became clear to us that it was not possible [to make it].
At the end of 2020 we had to admit that we couldn’t make this movie. So we decided to do something else. We had a shoot date for March and we were just like “Okay, now we need a story.” We need to make something, so what can we write about and what do we know? I’m the kind of filmmaker who looks inward for stories because I need a deep emotional connection with all my characters, the story, and what I have to say. Because we were looking for a story and trying to make a story out of what we have, the result of a movie about what it feels like to be in your 20s was pretty simple.
What was the defining thing that made you want to take these ideas in particular and develop a film around them?
At the time I was reading a lot, and I was developing a [different] screenplay. My friend recommended Elena Ferrante’s book My Brilliant Friend. It’s a rich story about female friendship, and I felt like I wanted to see the complexity of those relationships onscreen from a woman’s point of view. All of that became the inspiration for this. And since we had so little time to make the film, we didn’t really have time for stepping away from the script and coming back for a rewrite. We did a lot of table reads and invited actors in-between revisions so that we could cast while we heard [the screenplay] and tried to revise it.
This is a process where so many experiments were being carried out. We started interviewing the actors for the script, you hear what they say, and you pick and choose and put it into the characters. By the end of the process, the characters and the performers kind of morphed into one another. I think it’s a process rather than deciding moments. There is a lot of decision-making throughout, but I feel like, as a filmmaker, I always like to listen to my instincts about what the next step is. I don’t really look that far ahead. And then, once it’s done and I look back, things sort of make sense with everything that was going on at the moment.
What was the collaboration like with your co-writers Jewells Santos and Delia Van Praag?
This is the first time that I have more than one co-writer. I’ve had a co-writer before, but the way that I usually run things is I am in possession of the story. The [co-writer] is like another pair of eyes–they bring all their skills–but I feel like the characters are usually mine. For this project I wasn’t brewing this story for a long time. We just started and brought writers on, so we did a lot of improv Zoom meetings as it was during the pandemic. We were doing a lot of improv and writing and then revision, and the other writers went to theater school so they had a background in acting and playwriting.
One of the things I’m kind of grateful for is that we didn’t have that much time to really sit and overthink things. By the time we started shooting I liked the script, but I didn’t think the dialogue was quite there yet. We had a week of rehearsal at the location, all my actors were there, so on the last table read they didn’t get a copy of the script. We started doing rehearsals to get into the relationships. I also did a lot of improv and recorded them, I would go back and rewrite, then I would show them the actual [shooting] script, and a lot of the scenes were improv’d on set. I think that’s how I will do things from now on because it felt so organic and easy. It requires a huge level of trust, but I feel like we set the stage for [the cast] and they can just come in and play.
How does that collaboration in writing and rehearsal translate over once you’re on set directing?
It’s funny–because I do invite a lot of collaboration, but I kind of try my best to not have [writers] on set. Having a writer on set could be a disaster. It could be good, but there are so many things happening at the same time so you don’t really need more voices. Sometimes suggestions are very spontaneous, and if you’re not careful it could just place more stress on you and the crew.
In terms of everything else: I would say I have a vision for what the film feels like. I always wanted the film to be more like an experience, so not putting too much emphasis on the story or plot points. It’s more of a character piece and the rhythm of the film really matters for it to be an experience. I was working with my DP very closely to design that, and we were trying to kind of challenge the audience a little bit. We weren’t doing coverage that much just because we didn’t have much money and not enough time. I would say I normally know what I want on set. We sometimes improv and like trying new things, but we stick to the mood and the vibe.
How long was the shoot?
I was on location for 30 days. The first seven days was just prep: fitting, rehearsals, location-scouting. Then there were a lot of snow days because it was spring, [the weather] was very unpredictable. I think we shot in total for 14 days or something like that, and the rest is just weekends, snow days, and rehearsals. It was a quick process.
What was the biggest logistical hurdle for you while shooting?
We were still operating under the school, and I can’t really blame them for trying to follow very strict safety regulations. But there were times where we got an email from the school like, “Your bonfire scene cannot happen. You cannot have an open fire.” So in the movie we have a propane lamp.
Sometimes we would have to rewrite a couple of scenes entirely or be like “Okay, I’m gonna take one writer with me and we’re gonna rethink this real quick.” There’s a lot of rolling with the punches, and also trying to reassure the school that everything is going smoothly since we’re a bunch of students on free range. But it’s a great test of character and a great challenge because I think, moving forward, you will always have the studio or the executive [to deal with]. It was my first time working with someone else’s money, so I guess it’s a great practice of “When life gives you lemons, make lemonade.”
What’s your working relationship with cinematographer David Foy like, and how did you two develop the visual language?
This is the very first film that David and I worked on together, but in school we worked together at the school’s equipment center. So we knew each other beforehand. Because of the other project that didn’t get made, we bonded for a long time. It was 10 months of doing what you think is pre-production for one movie, so we bonded through that, and you always kind of bond with people through overcoming challenges. David and I have the same way of expressing things: we’re both very straightforward, no bullshit, and because of that we feel comfortable challenging each other. It got to the point where, sometimes on set, I would say something and he would get it, but nobody else had any idea of what we were talking about.
I try my best to include my DPs whenever I do rehearsals, and I always prioritize the performances before anything. David understood that, and he has a great point of view as well, so together we cover all the bases. It helps that we communicate really well because sometimes it’s hard to explain to people when they haven’t seen the film yet. We didn’t need coverage, so it’s a risk that you’re taking. Sometimes on set I had self-doubts, and one time David was telling me if I make a mistake that’s fine; I have to make a mistake and then own it. I can’t get pulled into different directions and regret it later because I listened to someone else and didn’t follow through with my vision.
I felt like there was a visual shift in the final act. At one point you have a close-up, which stands out from the medium and long shots beforehand. Then there’s the confrontation between Kim and Amy, which is done in shot / reverse-shot rather than a single take.
One of the things I like to do a lot is challenge the audience, to shock or surprise them and move them in certain ways. I think using the close-ups, especially after you’ve withheld that for a long time, I wanted to play with that. When I thought of that I wasn’t very sure about it, but we did it anyway. And with the confrontation at the end, I feel like the separation needs to be there–hence the shot reverse-shot. But honestly, I wasn’t really thinking that deep into it.
You do a great job with blocking in your film. How do you work on developing the blocking with your cast?
I really like blocking, and trying to figure out how to have the camera and the movement of the performers dance well together. That’s one of my favorite things to do. I love Brian De Palma movies for that reason. I saw this interview with Noah Baumbach and Brian De Palma and he said coverage is a dirty word, so I ran with that. I feel like meaningful blocking is one of the key things that I need to have for my films. I take into consideration the relationship between the characters, so I position them so that you kind of see the push and the pull, and I also want to make it feel lifelike. I try to use that to enhance the atmosphere of the experience and find the right way to paint this picture emotionally.
You’ve already touched on the casting and the rehearsal process. What was it like to work with the actors and develop their performances with them?
This was very challenging because I never saw them in-person until they got to the location. We were doing a lot through Zoom. Breaking the ice and getting them to be comfortable with each other and with the team is really important to me, because I feel like that sets the stage. Once that’s done, you don’t need to rehearse the scenes a lot. For me, the big chunk of rehearsal is molding these relationships into what is real and meaningful. I’m always trying to pull personalities out of the performers so they feel comfortable, like disappearing into the characters. Before meeting them in-person I would have interviews with the writers and the [actors] individually, and I would put them into a Zoom call together and be like “Hi, guys. Just wanted to have you talk to each other and be comfortable.” Then I turned my camera off and went to do some cooking or something, and just facilitate the connection.
Sometimes it can get a little awkward but the ice would eventually break. And when we went on set we did a little bit of meditation and warm-up exercises every day. I tried to hang out with them so that we see one another as people and be comfortable with one another. The funny thing is: they all got put in a separate Airbnb once the crew arrived. So they’re making friends with one another, and we were basically living the movie while making it. It was very fun, and I would do it again.
Waiting for the Light to Change premiered at Slamdance Film Festival 2023 and is seeking distribution.