Culture

Fox interviews Alice Wu, writer and director of The Half of It

by Alaina Fox

News Editor

Alaina Fox: I’d like to dive right in and talk to you a little bit about your process.

Alice Wu: Okay.

F: The story about you giving that NRA check to a friend as an incentive to finish a draft has gained a lot of popularity. I was wondering, do you have any other interesting ways of motivating yourself throughout the writing process?

W: Oh, probably not as interesting as that. It’s such a great question. Mostly, to be honest – I don’t know if this answers your question – but I know that for me, in terms of deadlines, I just actually need a deadline that feels a little scary to me. But aside from that, I listen to music pretty much constantly while I’m writing, and I find that that helps get me into that sort of flow state. And I also have to move around a lot. So a lot of times my best thinking is done walking around, which is a little bit tough right now in the pandemic, because I’m hardly leaving the house. But before this happened? I mean, I used to bike 20 miles every morning. And I go on these very long walks in the middle of the day, and I just think. It’s a time when I think my body is moving. I think ideas are a little bit more fluid in a way.

F: For sure. So, has quarantining or shelter in place had much of an impact on your creativity lately?

W: Well, to be honest, I’m not writing at all. In the last few years, I’ve been hyper focused on getting The Half of It made. So obviously, it’s doing no writing, then I was making the movie. And then, we were kind of on a reduced schedule. And then, basically a year ago, like the end of this January, go back a year is when we just started casting. And then suddenly, we were shooting at the end of April. And then suddenly, we’re in post. Then we just finished the last post at the beginning of this year, in terms of the final. And that’s a pretty aggressive schedule. And so I have an event and then as soon as that happens, now we’re promoting the film. So the actual real time to write hasn’t really materialized. 

Yeah, of course. So, about The Half of It. The opening sequence was, of course, really unique and really impactful to a lot of viewers. I was wondering, where did the inspiration come from to use that myth and to use illustrations rather than actors in that segment?

Yeah, it’s a great question. When I was first writing the story, and I was thinking about it, I realized at a certain point that you have this main character, Ellie, who is writing everyone else’s papers, but she’s also quoting a lot of famous people, especially from the Western canon, very well known Western canon, folks that are the kind of people that we learn in high school. These are the kind of people that are taught in high school, and she’s quoting what they have to say about love. And it isn’t until the end of the film… her journey is to become someone who finally figures out her own words and ways to describe love, however inelegantly that is. And I think, thinking about that, and then thinking about huh, you know, this really is kind of a subversion of what the classic romantic comedy is. 

A classic romantic comedy basically poses a question: Are you going to be able to get the girl?Are you going to get the guy? That’s the classic question. And by midway through, it becomes something, I like to think, kind of bigger than that. Whether you get the girl or the guy is actually not the most important question. It’s actually about you finding out something about yourself that allows you to become the person you need to be, which is a subversion of the thing that we’ve all learned, or I know it’s growing up for me, and certainly the vast majority of romantic comedies. 

But then you go back even further, right? And you think about Ovid’s Metamorphoses, or you think about all these early Greek myths, and all the various things that we’re learning. They all tend to have this notion of finding someone to be with, and one of the origins of that is Plato’s Symposium, which is this notion of human beings…somehow we were torn apart. And now we have to look for our other half, this notion of soulmates. And I think that’s something that has been very prevalent, certainly in the way I thought about love growing up. 

And in the case of The Half of It, that’s the whole thing that starts from the origin of that sort of myth. And this whole notion of, ah, if you could only find the other half that completes you, your life will be complete. And so on. And then I think animating that, instead of, say, doing a montage sequence of a bunch of people in the world. To me, I felt like animating that classic mythology sort of roots it in this idea of these other stories we grew up with, right? And then we go from there, the very first shot of high school we have is kind of hyper-real. It’s like there’s these two acts, like the two people there that kiss and break apart. There’s something a tiny bit hyper-real about that. And that’s intentional. Where it’s like, there we go, oh, bam, we’re in the reality of high school. And then from there, the next shot finally is on our heroine. And that’s when things just feel real. And I think that’s a visceral journey that you go on. It’s subtle. Hopefully, [even] if you’re not thinking [about it], that [journey] is there [when you watch] the movie, but I think it prepares you [to get] from here’s the stories we grew up with, to here’s what’s really happening, and then we’re off with her and on her journey.

Absolutely. I love that. Another thing I wanted to ask about is, a really significant theme throughout the movie is this idea of bold strokes. What were some bold strokes you took in either writing or directing The Half of It?

Oh, great question. All right. Well, let’s see. I mean, first, the first one that comes to mind is, there certainly was, you know, generally with casting, there’s usually a fair amount of understandable market pressure to cast very well known people. Because at the point you’re marketing your film, for whatever reasons … people tend to go to the theater or click on something [when] they hear Hugh Jackman is in this or Brad Pitt is in this or it’s someone that they know. And I was very specific about I really want three fresh faces because it’s very important to me that these kids feel like they’re actual kids who exist. I think the movie has a lot more power when you’re on their journey and you’re not thinking, ‘Oh, look, it’s so-and-so from the CW film or from Riverdale who’s now here.’ You’re kind of on the journey. You kind of lose yourself. 

And what’s super funny is we had cast Leah Lewis and then after the fact, she got cast on Nancy Drew. But she was so great that I was like, it doesn’t matter. We’re still moving forward. But that was one thing that I do feel like pays off. But yes, does it make it a little bit harder, too? It means that we have to be more of a word of mouth sleeper hit where people are going to discover these actors. Yeah, it makes that a little bit harder. But the exciting thing is, I mean, I love them so much. I think they’re just wonderful people and wonderful actors. But it’s also incredibly exciting to watch them. I firmly believe all three of those kids are going to be stars, and to think that someday I’ll be like, ‘Oh, I got to be part of their early journey.’ It’s really exciting. So that would definitely be one bold stroke. 

Another is sort of tone. I’ve always known that I wasn’t making a teen movie. I was making a movie with teenagers in it. Something I would just always say is look, I love teen movies. Teen movies are super fun. But sometimes they feel a little bit, like, super clever and they feel a little unreal. And I really wanted people to relate to these characters just as people. I’ve had a bunch of people say to me, ‘how did you write these teens, they sound just like teens,’ and I’m like, I didn’t really do anything in particular. Teenagers are just people; literally, they’re just people who go to high school. And so I just wrote them as people who happened to also be going to high school. And the fact that people of all ages relate to that, it makes me happy that that’s true. But that actually was… not controversial, but I’m pretty sure [people did not fully understand] what I meant until the movie got made. And then they were like, ‘Oh.’ So tonally, I very much like the way I compose shots or the textures used. I really want to feel like a – I don’t know what the right word for this is. But I didn’t want to have this bright poppy field. I wanted it to actually have a more mature feel to it.

Right. The authenticity of it is really there.

Yeah.

Somewhat on that topic, it feels like every single aspect of every single shot is so planned out. Are there any originally unintended details that you felt added meaning to the story, even if you didn’t originally anticipate or expect them?

Yeah. Oh, gosh, I love this question. Let’s see. I mean, that’s inevitable on a small budget shoot like ours, where we were shooting very fast. I’m a hyper-preparer, where I really plan out my shot list and everything. But the reason I do that isn’t because I think we’re just going to execute that without question. It’s because invariably every single day, something goes wrong, you lose a location, all sorts of things happen. And I think why it’s important to prepare is that you know what’s important to you. Because let’s say you plan five shots for a sequence, right? And then by the time you get to that scene, you have time for one shot or two shots. Very quickly, I have to think about what is the most important thing and then I re-compose the scene, right? And so that happened multiple times. 

Every day something would have to shift. It could be anything. The night before we were due to shoot, we were going to be shooting all of the football scenes and the girls bathroom on one day, which was a lot because it basically was two football games. And the night before, we lost our location. So we suddenly had to change it. It was totally everything. And the next day it started hailing, which would have been fine in terms of the way it looks, but we had to keep moving on off the field because it’d be dangerous. So we got so little time to shoot the football sequences. So all the things I planned were out the window. So there’s a lot of reconfiguring. But I was thinking that night, the girls bathroom scene, that was supposed to be four shots, and the whole thing is done in one shot because we lost the bathroom we had. We had a totally different bathroom with a totally different layout. None of the shots that were planned would have worked. We end up doing two shots, one just an establishing shot, which we never use, but the other was that one, and I think it’s a lot stronger. And that one shot where the focus just pulls between the two of them, it creates a kind of intimacy that you don’t usually see. So that’s a minor thing, but that’s one of those things that I don’t know that you could have planned because it would be a risky shot to plan. But in the moment of ‘we have to do something,’ I’m so relieved that one worked. 

I feel like if you’d asked me this right after shooting there would be so many more things coming to mind. But the next thing that comes to mind didn’t change the way the shots were planned, but was just such a happy accident. Ping pong is actually a very complicated scene to shoot. The ball is bouncing, which is a sound person’s disaster, right? So you kind of need to make sure that a lot of times your takes end up having to be like it’s that take for both of them. Because otherwise it’s very hard to deal with the balls. But one of the very lucky things is that Daniel, who plays Paul, actually used to teach ping pong. And so those long rallies that they had, Leah’s just randomly hitting the ball everywhere. But Paul was, Daniel was able to, if you watch, he’s very able to very gently hit the ball so that it was easy for Leah to hit the ball back. And that actually takes a lot of skill. So it was like a thank God because I was planning for ‘Okay, this is going to take forever, this is going to be hard. This is what we need to do. That’s what we need to do.’ And so that actually, I think, was a happy accident. 

Oh, and here’s something kind of quite funny. When I wrote the script, I never use emojis. And it’s actually kind of a joke amongst my friends. I don’t understand emojis. And so I wrote the script without thinking about the fact that I wrote about a pineapple, owl, caterpillar with glasses. And it wasn’t until we shot the scene, like they’ve said the line, so it’s not like we can change it. We get to post. Turns out there’s no caterpillar with glasses emoji. I had not realized that. A friend of mine was like, ‘you just wrote that? You just assumed there would be?’ And I’m like, ‘have you seen what’s in the emoji library?’ Why wouldn’t there be one? It feels like everything else is in there. And so then we ended up working with an emoji designer and designing an emoji which I secretly want to get into the emoji library. I thought that would be super funny.

For sure. Where did those three specific emojis come from? What was the meaning behind those?

I will go to my grave without saying. 

I’d like to talk about a couple more details. Why did you choose the book Remains of the Day?

Oh, honestly, when I wrote this I just put in everything I love. I actually have a Smith Corona typewriter. I love Remains of the Day. But certainly, if you look at the things that are chosen, all the movies, all the classic movies, besides being movies I love, all feature triangles in them. All of them have some form of triangle, usually romantic. Now, Remains of the Day has a lot. It really is about a narrator who’s just lying to themselves about what’s going on, and it features letters. But it’s a lot about repressed longing. And so there’s something kind of delicious to me about two young women reading this book that is not a current book. And I think in that moment, it makes Ellie go, ‘Oh, this person that I’ve been a little bit fascinated by also reads this.’ 

At the time when I wrote the script, Kazuo Ishiguro hadn’t won the Pulitzer yet. So what’s kind of funny is by the time we shot the film, the book actually had just received a little bit of a renaissance. But at the time I wrote it, it really was just because it felt totally right and [was] just enough of a detail that if you had a crush on someone, and out of nowhere you found out they were reading this book that you loved that is from a long time ago that no one else seems to be reading. There’s something about that that feels, it feels like maybe we’re destined for each other.

Absolutely. One more question. This is so tiny, but I just have to know. I know you’ve spoken about the importance of colors and color schemes, whether that’s to juxtapose high school and her home life or to emphasize elements of the plot or character. One scene where the color palette really stood out to me was right outside The Turning Point where we get that moment where Ellie and Aster are just looking at each other and we have the road dividing them. There’s a lot of red and blue. We’ve got Aster wearing the red dress and blue jacket and the blue buildings behind her. And we’ve got Ellie who’s wearing a blue shirt and blue jeans, but her bike basket is red and the buildings behind her are red. Can you speak a little bit to the significance of those colors and why you placed them specifically where you did?

I’ll be honest, while I was very intentional about color in a lot of places, something like that we had to do because we didn’t have the kind of budget. All of our productions went into, for example, the train station, all of the stuff in there was all very, very intentional. Paul’s bedroom, all the set decorations of all the interiors for the most part. But something like that, that exterior, we pretty much had to use the street as it was, covering up signs. But because it was supposed to be the end of the summer heading into the fall, I did want it like Ellie for the most part, like it was an unusual color for her to wear. So it was more thinking about, ‘Okay, what would be something that signifies some time has passed,’ and she also just seems a little bit looser. In terms of Aster, that just happens to be the costume. Like we see her earlier, that’s actually basically her maitre d or her hostess uniform for the restaurant. We’d already seen her in that red dress, so she just needs to be back in that. But yeah, that was not a planned, intentional red and blue thing. I think it has more to do with what felt real to that season and what might feel like growth. 

But certainly Aster even having a jacket on, there’s just something more at the start of that saying it feels like she’s a little bit more closed off to Ellie, and Ellie is a little more open, right? And then the dividing line. That’s very intentional. That’s about composition. And throughout the film, if you watch, there’s a lot of twinning. There’s a lot of reflections and there’s a lot of twinning. There’s twinning between Ellie and her dad. I asked the set decorator to give me two La-Z-Boys. They’re not the same, but we’re going to frame the shot. They’re wearing eyeglasses that are very similar. They were synchronizing the way they’re eating their chicken pie. The feeling at the beginning of the film is that if Ellie doesn’t do anything, she’s turning into her dad. She’s going to be stuck here. She’s going to be the station manager of Squahamish for the rest of her life. And so there’s something kind of sad and wistful about that. So that definitely happened. 

And there’s a lot of halves in the film, like you’ll see moments where Ellie only has something half on. And then there are a lot of triangles. Literally, I’d write this pocket dialogue in the background. Deacon Flores is talking about how the triangles are missing from the band room, or Aster sitting in a class and the trigonometry teachers talking about triangles in the background. These are all little things that are subtly woven in.

Thank you so much for speaking with me today. On behalf of El Gato News, Los Gatos High School’s paper, it has been such a pleasure to talk to you today.

Categories: Culture, Web Exclusive

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