We recently had the good fortune to speak with the talented, prolific filmmaker Wayne Wang about his long career, in particular his film Dim Sum: A Little Bit of Heart, whose Director-Approved Special Edition Blu-ray is now available from Criterion and also streaming on the Criterion Channel. Additional B-Sides we chatted about with Wang included Eat a Bowl of Tea, Life Is Cheap… But Toilet Paper Is Expensive (also on Criterion Channel), Smoke (and its own B-Side Blue in the Face), Chinese Box, and A Thousand Years of Good Prayers.
Wang elaborated on making films efficiently, his career-long ambition to make a different kind of picture every time, how he constructed the perfect “pillow shot” (an homage to filmmaker Yasujirō Ozu) in Dim Sum, and some smaller films of his that he hopes more people discover. There’s also talk about his faltering first steps into Hollywood (Slam Dance) and what he could’ve bought with the production budget on Maid in Manhattan (a pink elephant!).
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
The Film Stage: It’s obviously an honor to have you. I wanted to just start with this because how many filmmakers could say this: You’ve made your own B-Sides in your movies, right? You made Smoke and came in under budget and then you were able to make Blue in the Face with some of the same cast and some new cast. You kind of did a similar thing after A Thousand Years of Good Prayers with The Princess of Nebraska.
Wayne Wang: I also did that with Eat a Bowl of Tea and Life Is Cheap…, which was made that way, but with a separate pot of funding. But the thing is: I get bored making one film. I get bored making a film, especially if they’re scripted. And I have to sort of follow the narrative and follow the dialogue. So afterwards I usually say, “Just get rid of everything, and just make a film free. Free of everything.” So Smoke was a good example. Paul Auster wrote very specific lines and he wanted the actors to follow the lines 100%. And we did, almost like a stage play. So when it was over, I said “Oh, here––where we finished a little bit early––here’s the smoke shop location. Here are all the actors. Let’s just let everybody out of the mental institution and just do something really crazy,” you know?
You’ve referenced how in Chan Is Missing, you’re taking something from the French New Wave and how you’re kind of capturing it stylistically and then with Dim Sum, you’re very much making your Ozu movie in some respects. And I’m wondering: there’s so much about the development. What, all these decades later, stands out for you with that movie, your kind of second solo directorial movie?
Well, what stands out was probably the fear that drove me to it. And Chan Is Missing was so popular everywhere. New York, L.A., San Francisco, long lines around the block, waiting to get in. I kept saying to myself, “How am I going to top this? How am I going to do my second film? I can’t redo Chan Is Missing.” I decided to stay really simple and stay really true to myself, which is my interest in shooting a house. Shooting a house with family members in it and their relationship to each other, and using the empty shots of the house as much as I can. That’s what I remember going to film school, and was most impressed by watching something like Ozu. So I went back to something that I knew well that I could do well, that I could just get inside and be very authentic about it. Because I was still very into just making something that represented a Chinese-American character in a real way.
Yeah, and it definitely comes through. I mean, it’s an incredibly confident piece of work for your second solo film. You’ve talked about the Ozu pillow shots, how you love those shots, and you kind of make them your own in Dim Sum. Why do they work– in your movie, in his movies, and why do they not work in others? Is there any rhyme or reason there? Is that an unanswerable question?
[Laughs] I think you do have to think about them. I think there needs to be some kind of connection, even if that’s a little abstract, that connection. But there has to be some kind of connection. For example, I loved the shots of the shoes. And every time the characters come in and out of the house, they take off their shoes and their shoes are mixed. You know, sometimes there’s mother and daughter shoes there, and one time there was the boyfriend’s shoes there. The no-character pillow shots actually tell their own story, and they carry some of the same feelings and emotions of the characters, and that’s why they work. If you don’t have that sense of it, then they don’t work. They’re just simply shots of the house.
Dim Sum: A Little Bit of Heart
Yeah, that’s a good point. The leads are real-life mother and daughter; essentially non-actors, and that comes through. You talk about the fear there. Very ambitious to do that, God knows, and I think it all pays off. What’s fascinating is you’ve always been very open about not wanting to get pigeonholed in any specific way. On this podcast we talk a lot about the William Wylers of the world, who never became auteurs, like in an Andrew Sarris way. And I feel like you’re one of the last great––you’re like a Wyler. You’re doing every single possible thing. Is there a genre you want to make? A sci-fi movie that you have? Is there something that you’re like, “I need to get it in”?
No, I think I did most things that I wanted to kind of explore. Sci-fi and period movies are not big with me. So I have always been totally afraid of them. But, like action movies. The last film that I did with a studio was called Last Holiday with Queen Latifah. And that one had a lot of action, actually, if you watch closely there. There’s skiing action; there’s fighting action; there’s all kinds of action. There’s people falling out of buildings. And I realized with those movies, half of it is all technical. There’s a bunch of other people figuring out how to make those things work, and it’s all storyboarded, and it’s all very specific, and you keep shooting them until you get them right. It’s kind of like, if I were bored shooting characters, doing dialogue, I would be more bored doing that kind of film. [Laughs]
No; you’re right. I don’t think everybody realizes that. The minutiae that go into those sequences in most films.
And I have tremendous respect for all those people, they are really smart. They’re really good at what they do, and they really make it work. I mean, for example, there was a skiing sequence with a guy who actually shoots only James Bond movies on skis, and he shot a sequence that was completely wild through the trees. And we only used a little bit of it, but he is so good. I mean, I’m surprised he hasn’t crashed into a tree yet, but anyway.
The specialty elements of big movies will never be properly heralded enough. I think that’s well-said. You did Eat a Bowl of Tea and, like we mentioned, Life Is Cheap… was kind of the B-side to that, right? In terms of the way you kind of constructed it. Those movies where you kind of made one, and then made another off the tail of it have a similar kind of format to them. They’re all some version of mixed-media, or they’re playing around in a kind of a modular sense where you could maybe rearrange things. And I don’t want to say structure doesn’t matter, but maybe the flow of time doesn’t necessarily matter as much. And I think it’s interesting that then you take that dive into Hollywood for a while on bigger films, maybe more with these kinds of specialty things before kind of coming back out of it with Princess of Nebraska and A Thousand Years of Good Prayers. Was the bigger element and the more specialty nature of the Hollywood stuff, is that what kind of brought you back in terms of getting out of it?
Well, it was that and also just coming back to tell stories about almost real characters. Simple stories between characters. And I wanted to get back, actually, to the Dim Sum model, which I’ve always loved. You know, A Thousand Years of Good Prayers was a father and a daughter. And in a relationship, you know, it had a lot of little details about the characters rather than these big sort of, you know, Marvel Comics kind of action, or whatever. I mean, the little details of the father coming out of the house, coming out of the apartment, not knowing where he is, and he looks both ways. Those are the kinds of things that I enjoy doing. [Laughs]
The whole sequence with the girl by the pool where he just can’t look at her, is so great. To your point, there could be no dialogue in that scene. It could be a silent movie and it would still be hysterical. There are a few moments like that. All the sequences that take place on that one bench between the father and then their Iranian woman (Vida Ghahremani). They have these series of conversations where they’re speaking very loosely, occasionally in broken English, and then they resort to their own languages. And that also feels kind of like a silent film. It’s kind of a beautiful thing because you’re seeing each of them totally pick up on the non-verbal cues, things like that, and they can fully carry on conversations, which I just think is kind of fascinating.
Yeah, [Vida Ghahremani] was a big, huge movie actress in Iran and she came here, and she hasn’t worked for many years, and she has so many great stories to tell. A lot of what she said about the war in Iran and her daughter dying; they were all coming from her. And going back to the swimming pool. The young girl. The young, beautiful blonde, she was working in a morgue and she was telling me how every day she was cutting up people’s brains, you know? So, I mean––they’re great stories! [Laughs]
Put it in the movie, yeah! I want to make sure we talk about some of those earlier films because it’s just interesting. You make the mystery movie Slam Dance with Tom Hulce, and a couple of other people. Tom Hulce just won his Oscar. Maybe you can tell me I’m crazy, but Life Is Cheap… feels like you’re a little bit doing “I kind of wanted to make this” after Slam Dance. And then obviously, you know, Eat a Bowl of Tea is a whole different type of thing.
Going back to Slam Dance for a moment: I always wanted to free myself, no matter what situation I’m in. And Slam Dance, even though it was kind of a weird, crazy script about a weird Tom Hulce painter character, I was still trying to push the limits of how to make it not so predictable. And that’s something that I learned from watching, let’s say, Godard and Breathless where the narrative is there, but he just would go to anything, and then the characters would kind of float in that sort of more non-narrative space for a moment. So I loved that.
I’m going to diverge a little bit, but I went to film school. I went to California College of Arts and Crafts, and all the teachers were Bay Area underground independent filmmakers. Like Stan Brakhage, who actually made a 30-minute film of the morgue and cut up dead bodies, which is really amazing. So I always want to explore a different language and a different sensibility. And the same thing: again, Eat a Bowl of Tea was very scripted. It was made, actually, by Columbia Studios with David Putnam running it. So they were interested in getting the script right. They were interested in shooting everything that was in the script. There was a completion bond guy who came to Hong Kong to say, “You are going over budget.”
Oh, really? Wow.
So it was more of a studio picture then.
It is a studio picture. So after that there were some Hong Kong investors, they were all bankers, and they said, “We’ll give you $200,000. You can do anything you want.” So I was so frustrated with some of the things that happened while we were shooting Eat a Bowl of Tea with the gangsters, actually. For example, one day we were shooting outside an old building and it was the third day of a shoot. And, you know, we were finishing up, and we had to put up these white silks to block out the sunlight. And then, all of a sudden, we were surrounded by gangsters. And the lead gangster guy came out and said, “My driver died this morning, and it’s because you put up white all over my territory, and white is the color of death. You’ve got a debt to my community. So you guys have to get out of it.” That kind of thing just happened, you know? [Laughs]
That’s great. Wow. Did you tell that to the completion bond guy?
I couldn’t tell that to the completion bond guy! [Laughs] Well, there was another great completion bond company story: we shot Joy Luck Club in Shanghai. We were way over budget on that one, by that time. But they sent a completion bond guy who was afraid of heights. So now we had all our production meetings on the top floor of these tall hotels. And then he couldn’t get up there. He couldn’t get into an elevator and go to like the 30th floor!
I wanted to bring up one more movie because I love it: Chinese Box. Fascinating movie, very mixed media. There’s a whole Maggie Cheung sequence that’s kind of separate from the rest of the movie to some degree. Jeremy Irons is ostensibly the lead, and it’s all so fascinating now. When you’re making that movie, Hong Kong was kind of gaining independence. And today it’s this weird moment––some of that freedom is retracting. So the movie is a fascinating kind of artifact or living organism.
Well, it was set in such a crucial moment in Hong Kong. I thought something really interesting would happen at that time, but then I guess China made sure nothing happened. Absolutely nothing but positive things happened. So: I was there with so-called half of the script, and I brought two great writers: Larry Gross, who wrote for Walter Hill, and Jean-Claude Carrière, who wrote for many different French directors. And I brought them so that we could write scenes on the set looking at the newspaper every day. So what we did in the morning was: we opened the newspaper and said, “Well, what’s a story that we can use and write something off?”
But nothing happened, you know? So I had to depend on Jeremy Irons and Gong Li’s love story to make it work. And most of it worked, except for Gong Li’s English, which wasn’t very good at the time. But the kind of interaction between them was great. Maggie was terrific. And Maggie just sort of took that film and ran with it, and Jeremy ran along with it. I have great respect for Jeremy for taking all the risk on that film, and not knowing what he was doing every day, and just going along with it, which is pretty amazing.
You’ve mentioned that Because of Winn-Dixie, which is probably your Hollywood B-side, as one of the movies that comes up the most with people. Why do you think that is?
[Laughs] Well, I read the book. I think some kid gave me the book, and I read it and I go “Wow, this is a good story. It’s a good story, simply told.” And I wanted to just make the movie. I never worked with a dog or a young girl before. So I went out to Thibodaux in Louisiana and I shot this film. For me, it’s an amazing film. It was incredible working with dogs. [Laughs] What I realized was that if you train dogs too well, they will only do what they’re trained to do, and they get really bored. If you tell them to go from A to B, they’ll just go from A to B. So we had to throw in, between A to B, something surprising for them. So they get kind of confused and that’s when they become real. So it’s the same thing with actors: if they get too rehearsed and too dry, then it’s always the same thing. You have to throw in some surprise, either with the other actor or with the new action, and then all of a sudden that becomes life again.
I love that you love that movie. And I think the thesis of this whole interview brings you back to the earlier films. You’re just fighting for excitement, trying to avoid boredom. You’re using that as your North Star.
Every day I have to live on a set to make it interesting. To make it different and interesting. So that’s basically for me where the battle is every day. So some days I would get a call from the studio and they’d go, “What the hell are you doing?” And that’s probably a very successful day for me.
But you offset it by coming in, in a lot of cases coming in under-budget and on-schedule. That’s so rare for somebody.
I shoot pretty fast. I’m really also quite responsible for not wasting people’s money. I mean, I can have anything. Like on Maid in Manhattan: I could ask for a pink elephant to walk through Fifth Avenue in the middle of the night. But I didn’t do it!
And the movie is poorer for it! We’ve mentioned a lot of your films. Is there one film that you’ve made that you would just tell people, “Hey, this is a little gem, seek it out?”
Well, there is. There is. I’ve made a film in Japan called While the Women Are Sleeping, and it actually stars “Beat” Takeshi, and it’s based on a Spanish novel. We translated everything to Japan, and it’s a wonderful film. I recut it because it was cut kind of for a Japanese studio, which I didn’t like very much. But I recut it and it’s a great film. It is very underrated and nobody has seen it. Nobody even knows it exists.
Well, it starts here. And then Justin Chon was in your most recent movie––he’s a great filmmaker in his own right.
That’s right. Coming Home Again is another one that sort of got lost during COVID. It was released during that time and it stopped. But I am very happy to talk to you guys, because obviously you guys know my films, know my history, and understand what I have tried to do my whole life. So thank you.
This has been an absolute ball. Best of luck with everything coming up. Feel free to try to get a pink elephant into the next one.
[Laughs] Okay! I will!
Listen to the conversation in audio form on The B-Side below.