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My Wedding and Other Secrets

I love Roseanne Liang’s award-winning documentary Banana in a Nutshell and her short film Take 3, (which won awards at the Berlin and Valladolid film festivals). They're sharp and funny. And they inspired some great responses from Tze Ming Mok in her Yellow Peril blog, and in Lumiere; like Banana in a Nutshell, these responses appealed to my autoethnographic side, and made me think.

So I’m thrilled that Roseanne’s first feature will be released in New Zealand on 17 March. It’s a rom-com called My Wedding and Other Secrets and it’s based on true events – the events that were documented in Banana in a Nutshell. It stars Michelle Ang, Matt Whelan, Cheng Pei Pei and Kenneth Tsang.

Roseanne Liang at work

Roseanne is a New Zealand Chinese writer and director, in her early thirties. She has a Masters in Creative and Performing Arts from the University of Auckland, has won the SPADA New Filmmaker of the Year and WIFTNZ Woman to Watch awards, and is a Script to Screen Board member. She wrote My Wedding and Other Secrets with Angeline Loo, a classmate at Auckland.

I interviewed Roseanne and Angeline by email.

Q: Roseanne, what were the main differences between making a documentary or short film and a feature?

To me, documentary is about sorting through all the complexity of life and finding one or two threads to weave a story. Life is about lots of different things at once, but to make a documentary work, you need to focus things down a little.

The best short films are conceptual at heart. They take a unified theme or idea and tell it well. Of course there is story too, but a mistake I used to make with short film was trying to squash too much into too little time. Short film isn't 'mini-feature' - it's a form unto itself.

Feature film I'm still trying to get my head around. On the one hand it feels like there isn't enough time to say everything you want to say in 100 minutes or less. You need a tight economy of script and you can't waste a word. On the other hand, you need to build an awful lot into your story - an A story, a B story, turning points, phrases - to keep it interesting. Audiences are very sophisticated these days!

Q: What film writers and directors have influenced you, and how?

Gosh I find these kinds of questions really hard to answer! It's almost like asking someone what their favourite film is, or their desert island discs... it's just too hard to decide. If I narrow it down to romantic comedy, the whole weight of the genre has probably influenced me, good and bad films alike. When Harry Met Sally is a classic that I still enjoy - so I guess you could say Nora Ephron, though I haven't loved her scripts of late. I like a nice weird 'redemption through love' movie, like Punch Drunk Love, or Buffalo '66. The first half of Truly Madly Deeply is terribly romantic for me, and never fails to start a good cry. I'm not entirely sure how these films have influenced me specifically, but they stick in my mind and stand many many rewatchings. Figuring out exactly why has been really useful. Similarly, films I don't like have influenced me too. I've mentioned often (maybe too often) how much I don't like Love Actually. The glib, fantastical kind of love that can be solved with grand gestures - learning the drums in 2 weeks, hand-written placards, somehow gathering the foreign villagers to watch you declare your feelings - that is not the kind of love I'm interested in. Don't get me wrong - I like a happy ending, but love is more humble, complicated, messy than that. Love often doesn't have goodies and baddies. That's the kind of love I like.

Q: Who are your role models and why (need not be in film industry)?

Another tough question! OK, to be political, I respect all the women who have managed to excel with their filmmaking craft and still keep the balance of family and life, like Niki Caro and Jane Campion. I'm a fan of Tina Fey, for obvious reasons. Non-women-wise, at the moment I'm digging the work of Paul Thomas Anderson, Christopher Nolan, Jason Reitman. I was reading Aaron Sorkin's script for The Social Network the other day and I felt a little giddy at the fluidity and craft of it - it connected with me even though it was a bravura kind of script. I have been in love with radio series This American Life for a few years now, and subsequently have a 'dream dinner party' sort of crush on Ira Glass and all the producers on the show.

Q: I understand that John Barnett, from South Pacific Pictures, saw Banana in a Nutshell and asked you if you’d like to make it into a feature. What happened next? How did you become involved, Angeline? And what’s your background as a filmmaker?

Yes, John came to one of the first screenings of the documentary at the Auckland International Film Festival, and at the end of the Q&A, he strode up, shook my hand and said “Do you want to make this into a feature film?” I tried to remain nonchalant and said “YES! I mean… sure.” South Pacific Pictures has made a number of successful films so from there the script development process was very clear-cut. I knew that I needed someone to help me get perspective on turning the true story into a compelling story fit for a feature film, and the obvious choice was Angeline. We were good friends, I knew we could work together well, and she had all the knowledge of the cultural background of the story. The small things, the details, like – Chinese families keep slippers for guests by the door, or, Chinese always have a whole steamed fish on special occasions. These are things you could research for years, but still not really know through and through.

Angeline Loo
When Roseanne approached me about writing with her I had no hesitation at all. In truth, I jumped at the chance. I was part of Roseanne’s unfolding real-life story as a friend and onlooker, sometimes wide-eyed with disbelief at her chutzpah, occasionally horrified at her willful optimism and always admiring of her gutsiness. Around the same time I had been brought in by Robin Scholes to co-write some early (now non-existent) drafts of the film that became Brendon Donovan’s The Hopes and Dreams of Gazza Snell so I knew the co-writing process could be challenging yet fun.

Roseanne and I did our Masters in Creative and Performing Arts together and since then I’ve been working behind the camera while struggling to find the time to keep writing and working on my own projects. I was also lucky enough to be part of the writers collective that worked on the TV3 comedy show A Thousand Apologies as well as direct some of the sketches.

Q: How did you manage the co-writing? How helpful was it that the story arc was already established? What were the major challenges? Did your involvement end with the script, Angeline? The cast & crew list doesn’t list you, but were you there on set and if so what was that like for you?

We found our own groove with the co-writing – we would talk about the structure and events together, then split the film down the middle and work on each half. Then we would swap the halves and edit/rewrite/polish. We also had the wonderful luck of Rachel Lang as our script supervisor, so that was great when we reached an impasse, or just needed some good hard honesty!

Even though the documentary existed, I actually felt that sometimes the true events were more of a hindrance than a help. We knew what had happened in real life, but when you’re living life you don’t have a sense of themes or arcs or why we even do some of the things we do. We spent a while figuring out exactly what the story we wanted to tell was, what or who was at the heart of the story. Making that into a compelling, meaningful and satisfying film was difficult sometimes, especially when I couldn’t get past the parameters of my own life or experiences.

Roseanne and I were used to reading each other’s work and giving feedback so there was already that complete honesty in our writing relationship. I have friends who sit there and nut out every word together when co-writing. There were a few times we did this but generally we achieved more writing alone with frequent communication. Perhaps because we all too often end up talking about food. And subsequently eating food.

Roseanne is absolutely right when she says the truth could be more of a hindrance than a help. To me the real story was an invaluable touchstone that gave the film its emotional heart. However, in terms of structure we had to look at the film as a separate and finite visual story. So sometimes I might point out that just because something actually happened didn’t mean it was right for the script, or that a completely fictional scene could actually capture the spirit of that moment.

The film is a fictionalized version of Roseanne’s story but even then, how often do you have to take the bones of your life, lay them out on cue cards and then rearrange them in order to hit certain beats? Real life is more complicated than film so it was a big challenge for us to nail down what Emily wanted and what she needed. Often this isn’t some neat little thing you can identify in your life but you can’t have that confusion in a film.

My involvement in My Wedding and Other Secrets didn’t end with the script. I suspect I’m on the Crew List but probably not in the department you were expecting. I’m a Set Decorator in the Art Department and I had been steeling myself to be very jealous of whoever got to decorate the film. One day Roseanne called me to ask if I’d heard of a Production Designer named Gary Mackay who’d been very highly recommended to her. At that moment he was sitting on the opposite side of the Art Dept to me. And that was that really.

It was an incredible experience to be around during the shoot. When I’d write a scene I’d always imagine it (and sometimes have palpitations as a result of my knowledge of the realities of bringing to life). But the combined talents of so many incredible key creatives and technicians exceeded my expectations. There would be moments (invariably I’d be up a ladder or carrying a couch) when Roseanne would bring it all together and I’d get misty-eyed and emotional.

My Wedding and Other Secrets: Michelle Ang, Matt Whelan
Q: I think you may be the youngest woman ever to make a feature in New Zealand, Roseanne. How did you get so far so fast? From the outside, it seems as though it’s been super-easy. But have there been some hiccups along the way? In one interview, you said “Do you know what I want to be in the future? I don’t want to be an asshole. I’ve got this idea that you don’t have to be an asshole and be successful in this industry.” Have you met some assholes in your film world travels? And if so, what kinds of assholes? How do you deal with them?

I don’t think I am [the youngest woman] sorry… Vanessa Alexander, who taught me at Auckland University, made Majik and Rose when she was 28?

It’s really interesting hearing that but I don’t feel I’ve gotten far fast at all! When I first started studying I found out that Orson Welles was 25 when he made Citizen Kane – 25 came and went for me without me being anywhere near capable or ready!

I feel like it’s been a hard slog getting here. My mum was concerned for me from day one, working long and crazy hours, getting paid peanuts for the smell of a dream. She still isn’t sure this whole film lark is a good idea! I also get bouts of self-doubt, there’s always someone more talented, more creative, who is just better than you. I’ve heard this self-doubt is pretty common, you just need to learn to look confident!

Of course there have been hiccups – I’ve been turned down for funding many times, I’ve faced hard criticism, abuse, I’ve made mistakes, I’ve made bad decisions. I like to think I learn from all this. It’s interesting you mention that comment about assholes. I don’t think I said that because of assholes I’d encountered, I think I said it because I’ve had to re-evaluate the importance of ambition over being the person I want to be. This is a tough, passionate industry, and there’s the idea that to get ahead you have to step on a few people. Obviously I don’t want to do that, but then again I think all assholes mean well in the beginning. I think I have to be really careful about my priorities and my conduct. And then there’s a fine line between being an asshole and just being honest. Of course I want to be successful, but I need to learn and decide a few things about myself first. Knowing that will help me out if I do indeed run into any real assholes in the future.

Q: Roseanne, your Script to Screen bio says: “In her spare time, Roseanne enjoys baking and transferring all her old VHS tapes to DVD, but this doesn’t make her any less of a feminist.” What does feminism, and ‘being a feminist’ mean to you both? And how does it affect your work?

Feminism isn’t a completely defined thing for me – it shifts and changes depending on the context. I’m not a bra-burner and I’m not someone who thinks that to be equal to men you need to beat them at their own game. I am a fan of equity though, and to quote Jane Campion “women gave birth to the whole world”, so why aren’t their stories being told as often, why aren’t our points of view being given equal footing? I really don’t understand the benefit to any society or industry that suppresses the female voice, overtly or otherwise. I find anti-feminism is endemic in a lot of people’s opinions, including women – for instance I hear all the time that the reason there are way more male comedians than women is because women aren’t funny. I can’t help but prickle at that.

What she said! It completely blows my mind that people use the difference in sexes as a basis for unfairness. Sometimes I feel like I live in a bubble world where all my friends and workmates are awesome and believe in equality and then…pop! I’ll bump up against reality. And because of this I feel a responsibility to create complex, vibrant female voices but then again shouldn’t any good writer or director? There are a lot of films that suffer from a lack of these.

Q: What’s important for each of you about being a New Zealand Chinese who writes and directs movies?

I’m learning a lot about who I am, and I guess what’s important is figuring that out. I’m proud of my Chinese heritage and I’m learning new things about it all time. I am also proud of my New Zealand heritage, which is also shifting and redefining itself. I’m just happy to be able to tell stories from my point of view, especially a story that seems to have some universality in this changing world. Immigration and diasporic cultures have thrown up issues of identity and family and love the world over. I’m lucky enough to be able to show something from where I’m standing.

There is always a tension when cultures come into contact with each other and being a Chinese New Zealander informs my life in so many ways. It isn’t always a conscious thing although I admire stories that deal with cultural issues openly and bravely. Sometimes I find myself attracted to an idea and on the surface it may not seem to have anything to do with my background. But often there is something that I can connect to because of where I come from, whether it’s a familial relationship or a clash of strongly held beliefs.

My Wedding and Other Secrets: Kenneth Tsang, Cheng Pei Pei
Q. Do you have a primary audience in mind? You have some distinguished Chinese actors in the cast. Is that because you’ve made My Wedding and Other Secrets for a Chinese audience outside New Zealand as well as for New Zealanders?
Yes, of course I would love a Chinese audience to connect to the film! I cast the distinguished Chinese actors in the film primarily because I wanted authenticity in the performance, and what director isn’t completely delighted when some of the best actors in the world agree to look at your script, let alone come to New Zealand to be in the film?

Q. If you place My Wedding and Other Secrets in a global context, where do you think it fits?

I would like to think that this film is a universal one that can speak to all new and changing communities about the negotiations of culture, identity, family and love. I want to believe that this film could work in any country that has immigrant populations, which I think covers most of the world?

We’re all so mobile now and most of the world’s major cities are a mad, crazy mix of cultures so I truly believe this film has international appeal. But society is also changing quickly even within generations now – families everywhere are grappling with changing values, everyone can relate to that.

Q: What does ‘chick flick’ mean to you two? Is My Wedding and Other Secrets a chick flick?

‘Chick flick’ to me means a film that has women as its primary audience, but it also has pejorative connotations as a film that is frothy and superficial and boring to men because of the emphasis on shopping and clothes. I don’t think my film is that. Yes the costume designer did a great job, but there is also drama and depth. I would love women to respond to the film, but the same goes for men because identity and family and love are things that affect men as well. I think to suggest otherwise is to dismiss all men as shallow. The majority I’ve met aren’t.

‘Chick flicks’ get a bad rep but to me, they are films that celebrate things that it’s traditionally not cool for men to be into. So yes, fashion and frivolity but also romance, friendship and an exploration of feelings. There are some dire examples in the genre but the best of them are warm, witty and resound within you as emotionally real. And yes, I know lots of men who love a good ‘chick flick”.

Roseanne again
Q: Some women filmmakers delay having children until they’ve made their first feature. I understand you have a one-year old Roseanne. Can you talk a little bit about filmmaking and motherhood for you? And is this something you’d like to talk about too, Angeline?
I felt really supported and lucky being able to make my film and raise a young baby at the same time. The filmmaking time was really intense and took a lot of hours, but it was also finite, so all I needed to do was make sure I was supported during those crazy weeks of production. I had the help of my husband, my family, and also wonderful childcare people, including someone sourced through production. I talked to female directors who had done it before and got solid, practical advice, as well as pointers about how my emotions might go haywire during the process! I made sure I got to see baby every day, even if it was only for 30 minutes. I tried to make sure that work was work, and time with him was time with him. It was really hard, absolutely, but I felt so supported throughout the whole process, like there was a big crowd of people who were there for me. I’m so humbled, and I think back on that production time with immense gratitude and fondness.

Having children and being in the film industry isn’t an easy undertaking from what I’ve seen and the experiences of friends. I’m working on writing more in an effort to facilitate the process! There are very few women with young children working full time in Art Department and I truly think you would need to be a director to have the support to balance it as wonderfully as Roseanne did. Of course there are other women in crew who seem to do very well but I’m not sure I could handle motherhood and a twelve plus hour work day in the long term.

Q. What’s the future for each of you, short and long term?

Short term, I’m concentrating on the release and helping out in any way I can with that. Long term, I’m thinking about the next feature film – I hope I get to make another. And another. Fingers crossed.

Writing (and I do believe I’ve invented the hobby of procrastiwriting) in between bouts of set decorating. To me it’s a dream combination – stuck in my head trying to nail a story vs out and about creating visual tales.

Q: Roseanne, What are the three most significant things you learned from the whole process that you’ll take with you to the next project?

That this is what I'm happy doing, and that it is good and right.
That humility and an eagerness to learn is not a sign of weakness.
That conviction in my own opinion is not the same as a lack of humility.

Q. What else would you like to talk about?

I’m all talked/typed out! ☺

Me too!

And I loved reading Roseanne being interviewed by her sister Renee.