Alice Wu’s film The Half of It was set to debut at the Tribeca Film Festival. It had a prime spot on opening weekend and it was good to go for a theatrical release but then COVID-19 happened. Like all festivals, it was canceled, but Wu just rolled with the punches.
“I’m bummed that my friends and family aren’t going to see it in the theater because honestly, this film just really works in the theater… the way we shot it, the sound design — everything,” Wu told Deadline. “Maybe I’m in denial, but I actually wasn’t as bummed as one might have thought.”
The Half of It, which debuts on Netflix today just in time for Asian Pacific American Heritage Month, marks Wu’s return to filmmaking since her first feature Saving Face. Released in 2004, the film starred Joan Chen, Michelle Krusiec and Lynn Chen and told a queer love story, focusing on a relationship between a mother and her closeted daughter. It was a personal film for Wu that was as a love letter to her mother. She bowed out of the filmmaking game to take care of her mother who was sick at the time and didn’t necessarily feel a wild urge to return. Fast-forward over 15 years later, The Half of It popped into her head.
The story follows introverted, straight-A-student Ellie (Leah Lewis) who is hired by doofy jock with a heart gold Paul (Daniel Diemer) to help win the heart of the school’s most popular girl Aster (Alexxis Lemire). The thing is, Ellie has feelings for her as well. The result is a different kind of story that isn’t cut from the same cloth of the traditional rom-com. That said, Wu said that Netflix is the perfect platform for her to tell a progressive LGBTQ-centric story in order to reach audiences that wouldn’t necessarily be the target audience.
“Everyone was like, ‘Look, the thing is, if you go with your other options, it might be better for you as a filmmaker in terms of cachet. If you go with Netflix, more people will see the film’,” she said. “The head of that Netflix division took me out to dinner and was like, ‘Why did you write the film?’ I suddenly realized, “Oh, those people are not going to go to the theater to watch this movie but in the privacy of their own home… they might press play.'”
Wu said they did test screenings in a small conservative suburb outside Phoenix and was surprised at the results. “People marked the film as ‘excellent’ and they said they’re politically conservative,” she said. “This is, by the way, a super white audience. There are MAGA hats. There’s an Outback Steakhouse a block away that says, ‘We love your guns, just please don’t bring them into the restaurant.’ It’s like that place.”
When the test screening audience was asked if they would recommend the movie to a friend Wu said some of them said, “No, because I’m okay with this, but my friends wouldn’t be.”
“That told me that there are a lot of closeted people who are actually starting to change their mind, they’re just not willing to say it yet,” said Wu. “If I want to reach these people, Netflix is kind of the best game in town at this moment.”
Wu talked to us about her journey to making The Half of It, its unique love triangle and why she decided to return to filmmaking after a decade-plus hiatus.
DEADLINE: How do you think The Half of It speaks to the current landscape of Hollywood?
At the time I was writing [The Half of It], I assumed it would be like Saving Face, where it’ll take me another five years. At that point, Hollywood had not discovered diversity in that way — they were on the cusp of it, but that hadn’t happened yet.
When I wrote it, Trump had been elected. It’s not that I didn’t know that sexism, racism, homophobia, and transphobia existed. Of course, it exists. In fact, I, even as an old Asian dyke, still have some of those attitudes and I’m working on them. I try but I think as Americans, we all do. I bought into this idea, and maybe it’s because of the Obama years, that as a country, we were getting better. We were all working on it and somehow we were getting better in terms of our views. We were getting more sophisticated in terms of our views around different prejudices. I think after Trump got elected, I realized that this idea I had of my country was wrong. It’s like there’s actually a whole group of people in the country who adamantly do not feel that that needs to be worked on. I think I just assumed we were all progressing.
DEADLINE: With its LGTBQ character and themes explored, some people think this is a continuation of the narrative you started with Saving Face.
WU: I don’t know why people think it’s a follow-up, because it’s totally not a follow-up. It’s a totally different movie. I definitely did not think it’s time for me to come back. Who thought that Saving Face was going to get made 15 years ago? I never went into it thinking, I want to become a filmmaker. I wrote that as a love letter to my mom. There was something going on in my mom’s life where I really wanted her to know that her life wasn’t over yet. I thought, this movie probably won’t get made but I’m going to do my best to get it made. Similarly, with The Half of It, I wasn’t really thinking it’s time for me to come back, because who the hell am I? It’s not like I’m Steven Soderbergh. (laughs)
For me, I don’t think the world owes me a film. I’m very project-focused. If I love something, I will kill myself to get it made. I don’t think the world needs me to make another movie. There’s plenty of great content out there. For me, it arises out of a place where I write because I happen to love storytelling.
I thought that I’m just going to keep working on this thing and if someone eventually sees merit and I love it enough then I’m going to try my best to get it out there. To answer what made me come back, it was more like what made me stop not writing. I moved to take care of my mom, completely stopped writing, didn’t write at all for seven years. I was doing improv, I did long-form improv and I taught improv. That was sort of my creative life.
DEADLINE: What was it that made you want to jump back into the filmmaking game?
WU: I left the industry and I moved on. I thought I’d never make film again. I was being very financially responsible, I bought a rental property — I just wanted to make sure my family was taken care of. And then a few years ago, my mom’s health had gotten better. The second is a personal thing had happened in my life, where I had this come-to-Jesus moment.
I was walking down the street and literally had this moment where I was like, I don’t know if there’s a God, but I think what I finally have come to is that I want to believe there’s a larger order to the universe. I prefer the person I am when I do. If there’s a larger universe, then I can’t imagine the universe thinks that my greatest role in life is to be someone’s good daughter or someone’s good girlfriend. I was lucky that I am living in this country and that I could apply myself to something else — and that’s weirdly when I started writing again. I couldn’t stop writing. This is why I do think maybe there is some sort of order to the universe. In that first month, once I started, out of nowhere, a studio executive friend who’d always wanted to work asked me, “Are you still writing? Because I have a project that I keep thinking you would be right for.” And I was like, “That seems so weird. I literally started writing last month.” She’s like, “I’m at Dreamworks right now. Will you pitch my boss?” I pitched her boss, and I got that gig, and it was a super fun gig, and that kind of got my mojo back.
DEADLINE: Was it enough mojo to light a fire underneath you to write The Half of It?
WU: They told me “We have three other projects. What do you want to work on?” I was like, “I kind of want to work on my own thing. I’ve never written something for myself to direct except Saving Face.” I had ideas bop around my head the previous seven or eight years. I’d never sat down to write it… then I finally just sat down.
Basically, six months after that, they called me up again and were like, “Hey, are you done with your spec? We have another project.” I had done zero writing in that six months. I had sat at my desk and maybe written a sentence and then deleted that sentence. I Googled about Trump and then watched otter videos. It was like a big epic waste of time. (laughs) And so, six months later when they contacted me, I was like, I am terrible at doing my own projects on my own deadline. I only respond to external deadlines.
At that point I was like, I’m putting my life on hold to do this, so I need to write this thing. I need to give myself a strict deadline and enforce it. So what I did was I wrote a check for $1000 to the NRA. I told all my friends, “Look, I’m giving myself five weeks to write this first draft. It could be the crappiest first draft but on August 8th, if this first draft is not fully written, you are sending that check in.” It was literally the most stressful five weeks. Every day, people were texting me, “You’d better not become a supporter of the NRA!” That’s how I got the first draft written.
DEADLINE: Why set the movie in a small, conservative town?
WU: I remembered thinking, “do I think all those people are bad?” I fundamentally like to believe that most people are born good, and given the resources, they can do the right thing. But if I’m very honest, I grew up in a very conservative Chinese family, and we were totally racist, sexist and homophobic growing up. My parents have come a long, long way. Do I think my parents are bad people? No, I actually think they’re wonderful people. So there’s a way that I can sort of see how people can have attitudes and still be good people.
That’s actually very typified by the character Paul. I thought, “I want to set this in a small rural town because I think that’s my best chance to understand something about my country and find empathy for different characters.” Secondly, my deep hope would be that this would be the kind of movie that someone from a town like that could watch makes them think about that one family. In towns that are majority white, there’s always one immigrant family, or there’s always one POC family. So maybe this movie will make people think about that, or that one kid who’s a bit different, whether they’re coming out as queer, or whether it’s coming out as something else.
DEADLINE: How did you want to fold in Ellie’s cultural identity into the narrative and balance that out with her LGBTQ identity?
WU: I think it’s such a nuanced question, because people tend to assume, “Well you’re Asian, you figured it out.” Being queer and Asian is so ingrained in me but I don’t wake up in the morning and think, “Another day to face homophobia.” You know in the story, it’s not like she’s “dealing with homophobia.” It’s a part of life that there’s internalized homophobia that fuels part of why she’s afraid to talk about that. I try and write the people as people. So for me, while things are fictionalized, like in Saving Face for example — none of those things are actually true, but emotionally, they’re very true. Then all the details of everyone are all details that are either pulled from life or things that feel specific and real to me. Here, it’s partly my parents. My parents are obsessed with my not becoming too Americanized but we would watch classic movies. I wasn’t allowed to watch TV. I was only allowed to watch Chinese soap operas or classic movies. That’s it. Classic movies was their way of learning English and so I pulled that. There is no detail in there which does not come from something I love. I think the details come from having lived a life as an Asian immigrant.
I try and write as something that feels like the textures of life. And it just happens that we naturally are imbued with the tendency to discriminate difference. We grew up different prejudices, and those will come out. I guess I write more from an internal place. It just comes out that way, I guess. I’m not thinking, how will I make this Asian? It just is.
DEADLINE: The Half of It has a different kind of love triangle. Was this pulled from a certain moment in your life?
WU: I write from an emotional place. For this, I came out to myself when I was in my teens. I was terrified. My mom was like, “We never want to see you again.” I didn’t hear from them for a few years. This was in the late ’80s, early ’90s. It was not a time to feel safe while being gay. I was becoming best friends with someone else in my computer science program who was the last person I would ever expect to be friends with — this straight white guy from the heartland.
I remembered being like, “Wow, this person just gets me.” We just had this bond that felt strong enough. Even when I was going to move to Seattle, he was considering moving with me. At the same time, it was very confusing when I think about it now — but now it’s not confusing. Back then, there were no models for relationships like that. There were hardly any models for queer people, period. Everyone just assumed, if I’m friends with a guy, we would be dating. In a weird way, it’s not not romantic. It was a kind of friendship and not sexual. I was trying to figure out how there are clearly more nuances to love than I understood.
I love romantic comedies and I totally grew up on them…but there was some way that that particular kind of love does not fit in a romantic comedy. It was always in the back of my head. For me, there was always a little bit of a heartbreak, because this kind of friendship isn’t defined in a way that could maybe feel safe to society. It was a little bit doomed to failure. It was doomed to not be taken as seriously.
DEADLINE: How did you want to unpack that love triangle to make it translate to a film?
WU: I think all of that was something I wanted to deal with. Mainly it stems from my own heartbreak over it. I was like, this might be a TV show. I just don’t think I can in 100 minutes. It could get an ending that could either be satisfying and not at all believable or a believable ending that was a bummer. Neither thing felt appealing to me.
Then I thought I should just set this thing in high school because in high school, every feeling is the first time you’ve had that feeling. Therefore, you think it’s the last time you’ll have that feeling. With that, it made me think, you can cover a lot of emotional territory in an authentic way quickly. Also, the vast majority of us have gone to high school and remember. I don’t know what it was like for you, but high school was a profoundly lonely experience for me. Now that I’m older, I have since discovered, it’s pretty much a profoundly lonely experience for everybody.
DEADLINE: High school is definitely an interesting and formative time in our lives — some people have more fun than others.
WU: You think you’re lonely and you think everybody else is having a grand old time or that things seem easy. It isn’t until you’re much older that you realize that isn’t the case. I don’t have any friends who are like, “I loved high school.” There might be some people out there. In a lot of ways, I don’t think I really made a teen movie. I think I’ve made a movie with teenagers. I think we still have that teenager in us.
DEADLINE: The unexpected relationship between Ellie and Paul is definitely a type of friendship — you can even say romance — not explored often.
WU: I think for me, this movie is about that one person who’s the last person on Earth who you think is going to affect change in you in any way and that person ends up changing your life. If we told Ellie at the beginning of the movie, “This guy Paul is going to have any effect on you,” she’d be like, “Okay. This dumb jock? No way.”
In the casting of Paul, I said, “Look, I need a guy that’s not a pretty boy.” Daniel Diemer is very handsome, when you first see him you’re like, “Who is this guy?” As it continues, the character Paul is the most emotionally intelligent character in the movie. I wanted you to start to fall in love with him — and that tracks with Ellie falling in love with him as a friend. Our understanding of love is often boyfriend and girlfriend — but that’s not what’s happening.
DEADLINE: Their relationship pretty much eclipses that of the romantic intentions between Ellie and Aster.
WU: The relationship between Ellie and Aster is absolutely important, but the whole thing is, it’s not really. You think it’s about who’s going to get the girl, but it turns out to be something else that matters. These three, because of their collision, each of them ends up walking away with a piece of themselves. They each have now learned something about themselves that allows them to take the next step in becoming who they need to be. Most of all, Paul and Ellie, because they spent all their time together, have done that for each other. And you’re exactly right, that is the primary relationship. I wanted it to be visceral and almost confusing but at the same time, I think it’s real. It’s not confusing that they’ve grown to care about each other.