A few hours before her film Saving Face was to open the 2005 Florida Film Festival, director Alice Wu sat at a table in Maitland's Enzian Theater. By her side was her star, Joan Chen, who had joined Wu for the movie's press tour. Wu wore a pristine leather jacket; Chen, a bejeweled black tank top and jeans.
"Every door shut in my face," Wu said, recalling her five-year drive to get the film in the can. "Everyone was like, 'You're never going to get this made.'" Chen, who in addition to acting has directed two films of her own, looked on sympathetically.
"I was never going to Hollywood with this," Wu continued. In Saving Face, a Chinese-American surgeon (Michelle Krusiec) begins a clandestine courtship with a spunky ballerina at the same time she's being forced to cohabitate with her 48-year-old mother (Chen), who has become pregnant out of wedlock. The timing for such stories, Wu admitted, can never be said to be ideal. And though her script plays on "universal and timeless" emotions, selling its potential appeal to strangers was another matter entirely. She is, she said, terrible at making pitches.
"My pitches are my scripts," Wu stated.
"Some people can pitch but they can't write," Chen consoled.
At least Wu had other resources to draw upon. A veteran of San Francisco's dot-com boom, she had built up enough savings designing and building software to pay herself $35,000 per year for the half-decade she had allotted for the creation of her first feature. She remembered her mind-set at the time: "'I know this is a financially terrible idea, but I have to do it now."
What had she learned as a first-time filmmaker? That one should have "a high threshold of frustration. It's good if you have `had` a frustrating childhood." Then there's the matter of learning to appreciate the process as much as the end result: "Maybe at the end of five years, I wouldn't have made the film, but it still would have been for me an incredible journey," she said.
Talk turned to the dramatic friction in Wu's film, in which Chen's shamed character retains enough old-world attitude to prevent her from embracing her daughter's queer orientation. Wu said the scenario was easy to envision.
"I could see people being like, 'Well, I don't understand why my daughter is gay. Why can't she just suck it up like the rest of us? I'm not happy in my marriage and look, I've stuck it out.'"
"That's exactly what happened to Alice and her mother," Chen ventured.
"OK, now I can't talk about that," Wu cut her off.
The subject shifted to Chen's own upbringing. "I love my mother like no one else," she testified. "My mother was a virgin when she married my father, and they have been together all my life. And they are the best parents." The tenderest moments in her portrayal, she said, were attempts to channel her mother's persona.
And the less tender?
"Less tender came from me," she laughed.