alice wu, leah lewis

INTERVIEW: Director Alice Wu on The Half of It and Reimagining the Coming of Age Movie

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As we start assembling our “best of” lists this year, one film sure to make the list is Alice Wu’s The Half of It. The Netflix film follows Ellie Chu (Leah Lewis, in a breakout role) a shy teen who lives with her widower father in the rural, conservative fictional town of Squahamish, Washington, where life revolves around church and the football season. Ellie is living a quiet life of low expectations when goofy football player Paul (Daniel Diemer) hires her to rewrite his love letter to popular girl Aster (Alexxis Lemire).

But if you’re expecting a take on the classic Cyrano story, you’ll be pleasantly surprised to find a tender, thoughtful comedy about coming out, growing up, and the intimacy of true friendship. It’s hardly a surprise given that The Half of It is written and directed by Alice Wu, the woman behind Saving Face, easily one of the best queer romantic comedies ever. In a pop culture landscape where queer Asian women characters few and far between, Wu’s contributions have been essential.

We sat down (via Zoom) to talk to Alice Wu about The Half of It, friendships between queer women and straight men, and more.

The Mary Sue: What I love about Saving Face and The Half of It is that you have such strong, fully realized characters in your work. They feel so authentic and lived-in. Does that process start for you in the writing, with detailed character biographies, or do you find it in rehearsal with your actors?

ALICE WU: Thank you. First, I never had the budget where I could actually have a lot of rehearsal with actors [laughs], like if I had that option … like I always get like, I think I get two rehearsals before we shoot. But I very much—which is plenty because I am an improvisor, like I love longform improv. But when it comes to my work, I don’t do any improv on set, like I really … I write the script and then I do have—I don’t necessarily write detailed biographies as in like I formally write a bio, but as I’m writing the script I’m constantly rewriting monologues from the characters’ point of view to be separate things about them, right? And then when I do write the script, I only put in certain details, I don’t put a lot of that in there, because then the next thing that happens is your actor gets it.

And what I like to do is – I guess what I will do is have discussions with my actors, so less—you know, in this case with The Half of It I had a lot of discussions with Leah [Lewis] who plays Ellie and with, you know, Alexxis [Lemire] who plays Aster, and with Daniel [Diemer] who plays Paul, where I like to do sort of a Socratic thing where I first want to hear what they think, what they’re drawing from it. But also before that, a lot of my conversations with them, and they’re telling me about their lives, I’m just listening very carefully to see where are the emotional similarities I can draw upon later and go, “Remember when you told me that thing with your friend? This is like that moment.”

TMS: So pulling the emotions from their lived experience into the film?

AW: A lot of that is when you’re building a character together, right? And so I do know, like, I know where this character was born, I have a sense like down to what I think they ate for breakfast, right? But what I don’t do is say to the actor, “This is what your character ate for breakfast.” What I do do is I sort of will ask them, “Okay, talk to me as if you’re the character,” and I start asking them questions. And when they hit on something that I’m like, ‘That feels right,’ I’ll be like, “Yes, let’s keep going there.”

And I think very smart actors start to pick up, so that that way they can kind of make it their own without it being this sort of weird free-for-all, if that makes any sense. I think that’s part of the thing where you don’t want your actor to feel like they have to just make everything up, because actually in my head I do know very specifically what this character is, but I also know that in communicating it, it doesn’t help someone to tell them all these things. It helps them to discover it themselves and then make it their own.

TMS: The Half of It gives us something we don’t see a lot of: whenever we see queer/straight friendships it’s always a queer man and a straight woman as the default, but we never get the reverse, i.e. queer woman and straight man, like Paul and Ellie’s friendship. Why do you think that is?

ALICE WU: I’m not sure. I mean, I could guess, because for years it was something I wanted to write about. My first thought has something to do with the fact that it hasn’t been until more recently in film history that you have that many openly queer stories anyway, so there’s that. And then when you think about who becomes filmmakers, historically it has been more men than women. So given that a lot of times you’ll find the stories that seem less, you know, what might be said to be less in the mainstream, often end up having to be these sort of films that go to Sundance or like writer/director films.

the half of it

(Leah Lewis, Director Alice Wu, Daniel Diemer – Photo Credit: Netflix / KC Bailey)

Most of those are from men, they’re probably less likely to write from a lesbian point of view, right? Like most people probably, especially for your first films, you kinda draw very much from deeply your own experience, so my guess is some of it is that. And I don’t know for sure, but certainly it’s something that I have definitely found myself, like suddenly being in my twenties like “Wow, I actually have a number of really close guy friends because we can talk about…you know straight guy friends, because I can actually talk about dating women with like no sexual tension between us, which is great!” Like we can literally like, “What does this mean?” you know, and I always thought that was sort of a fascinating area to explore, but particularly—and I think it’s less of an issue now, but when I was coming out, you know, in the ‘90s, it felt harder, I think, for people to…like it felt harder when those guys would get a girlfriend, it sometimes seemed harder for the girlfriend to understand what our friendship was.

TMS: When you were pitching the movie, did you feel pressure to give it a traditional RomCom ending?

AW: So this is what’s kind of funny, with neither of my movies did I ever pitch them, I just wrote them on my own when no one really knew who I was, so there was never a—I’ve never developed a script that I wrote myself. Like, I’ve worked for hire, but the two times I wrote something for myself to direct, which would be Saving Face and The Half of It, I really had the luxury of just like no one knew who I was, because, again, I left the industry so then when I wrote The Half of It, it’s like, I don’t live in LA, so I was just sort of writing for myself again, and so I already had the script.

So for me it’s a much simpler situation of going, “Well, this is the script I’m making. If you’re interested, great. And if you’re not, totally cool.” And I think with Saving Face, however, a lot of people loved the script, but definitely were like – because, you know back in the early 2000s, who thought that film would get made? Today, with The Half of It, luckily that happened pretty quickly and no one said anything huge like, “Please make her white” or “Please make it straight.” Well obviously I’m not really sure how you would make The Half of It straight without changing the essential premise of this movie.

So I think I didn’t get that at all, and it was very interesting I think. I think people were far more willing, which surprised me, because at the moment I went out with the script, Crazy Rich Asians hadn’t come out yet, so I didn’t—like it wasn’t like Hollywood had discovered diversity in this big way yet. So I thought it was going to be a much harder sell and it would take a few years, but it happened really quickly and I was able, like I got interest from several areas and it was really—I mean, I have a small budget, which helps and so it wasn’t, you know, and I think also I did have my previous movie, so anyone who had seen that would realize I was not going to be likely to compromise on certain points. So that also made it easy.

The Half of It is currently streaming on Netflix.

(featured image: Netflix /KC Bailey)

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Chelsea Steiner
Chelsea was born and raised in New Orleans, which explains her affinity for cheesy grits and Britney Spears. An pop culture journalist since 2012, her work has appeared on Autostraddle, AfterEllen, and more. Her beats include queer popular culture, film, television, republican clownery, and the unwavering belief that 'The Long Kiss Goodnight' is the greatest movie ever made. She currently resides in sunny Los Angeles, with her husband, 2 sons, and one poorly behaved rescue dog. She is a former roller derby girl and a black belt in Judo, so she is not to be trifled with. She loves the word “Jewess” and wishes more people used it to describe her.