Writer-director Alice Wu has the kind of success story that breeds How to Make a Movie books: While snoring through a tech job in Seattle, she used her downtime to work on fiction. Then she used a creative-writing class to turn her novel into a film script. When her teacher liked it, “I gave myself five years to make the movie.” She quit her high-paying gig, moved to New York, picked up film editing, fended off other directors, and made Saving Face herself—with a few months to spare before her five-year deadline.
You gave yourself five years to do this—but why did you move to New York?
I loved Seattle, but it was almost too peaceful. I thought I’d move to New York because it seems like the only place where all my fears are justified. Here, I don’t feel paranoid. I feel normal. And the movie’s kind of a love letter to New York, I guess. I like that I get to show parts of the city you don’t often see in movies.
Yes. Especially after 9/11, there’s been a kind of jaded quality to films about New York. Mine makes it seem very romantic—and maybe I see it in a romantic way, partly because I’m an outsider.
Maybe I’m jaded, but when I saw the plot description [a Chinese-American daughter comes out as a lesbian at the same time as her mother is shunned by the Chinese community for having an affair], I never imagined your film would be so funny.
I know: A woman gets disowned at 48? Not so funny. There’s pain and more pain. But people do weird things and life is funny. The characters don’t think it’s funny—but their situations are just so impossible.
Did studios attempt to buy the script without you directing?
Yeah, everyone wanted it to be My Big Fat Greek Wedding. They wanted to cast Reese Witherspoon or someone as the daughter. That might have worked. I mean, strip away the cultural castings of anyone, and I think we really want the same things. But the specific details keep things emotionally authentic.
Romantic comedies and mother-daughter dramas are dangerous turf—how did you steer clear of clichés?
I think it’s partly the luxury of anonymity. I never thought about what an audience might think. I just knew I wanted to write about a daughter who’s trying to be this exemplary, perfect Chinese daughter—but with a mother who messes up rather spectacularly.
Is it autobiographical?
Everyone assumes I’m exactly the main character, and I’m not. But I did write this for my mom, because I wanted her to know it’s not too late to fall in love for the first time. I want her to leave the theater feeling that sense of hope.