Director Alice Wu didn’t always think she’d become a filmmaker.
Her first film back in 2005, Saving Face, a romantic comedy about queer Asian American woman, was written as a “love letter” to her mother about Wu’s own coming out to the Chinese American community.
“When I made Saving Face, who the hell thought that movie would get made?” said Wu over the phone from her home in San Francisco. “I wasn’t thinking I wanted to be a filmmaker. I was like, ‘I’m going to try to get this made,’ but if it doesn’t get made, I’ll go back to being a computer scientist.”
Fortunately, the film became an indie hit at film festivals and has been praised for its themes and finally giving visibility to Asian Americans and the LGBTQ community. It was also one of the first to center around queer Asian American women.
Now, 15 years later, Wu is back with The Half of It, a coming-of-age Cyrano de Bergerac-esque story about a queer Asian American teenager who helps write a love letter for a goofy jock, but didn’t expect to also fall in love with the girl.
Wu didn’t initially plan to write a teen dramedy. She actually wanted to write about her friendship with her straight guy best friend that sadly ended due to his relationship with his girlfriend.
“It was always one of those heartbreaks that I never fully knew how to process because when you break up with a girlfriend or boyfriend, everybody immediately understands that, back then especially,” Wu shared. “That was not a thing that felt like we could figure out or put a name to, so I was always trying to maybe understand that for myself. So, I started to write.”
The story was initially about a 20-something best friends — a lesbian and a straight guy — trying to figure out love and friendship. As Wu began outlining the story, she realized it would be hard to translate that into a screenplay. She then decided to set the story up in high school.
“Only in high school are all your feelings so magnified like everything you feel,” said Wu. “This is the first time you have this feeling! So, then you think it’s like the most important — the only time you’ll have this feeling. Everything is so huge. You could cover a lot of emotional territory.”
That’s when The Half of It came to be.
Wu decided to create a Cyrano de Bergerac type of story where her lead character, Ellie Chu (Leah Lewis), a quiet straight-A student who makes money from ghost-writing homework for classmates, decides to help the dumb but sweet jock, Paul Munsky (Daniel Diemer), write a love letter to their classmate, Aster Flores (Alexxis Lemire). In the process, Ellie realizes that she also has a crush on Aster.
Wu makes it clear that The Half of It is not a teen romantic comedy, but really a coming-of-age story for all three characters — Ellie, Paul, and Aster.
Typically, in films, the love interest that people are fighting for don’t really get to have their own character arc. Wu wanted Aster to be more than just a pretty face for Ellie and Paul to vie for.
“I think it’s important that your love interest actually be worthy or otherwise, you don’t like your main character,” said Wu. “You start to be like ‘why are these two people chasing that person?’”
Wu really wanted the story to feel universal for everyone and not just a “queer love story.” Sure, there were elements of romance, but that wasn’t the point for Wu. The story wasn’t going to be about Ellie and Aster falling in love and Paul is at their wedding.
“[The point of the story is that] all three characters, through their connection with each other, each ends up learning something about themselves and getting a piece of themselves that allows them to become the person they should be,” Wu explained. “All three go their separate ways toward the beginning of their lives. We know that their lives are going to be better because of the fact they collided together.”
When asked if The Half of It gave her some sort of closure from her past friendship with her best friend, Wu said it really gave her empathy for everyone in that situation.
“At first what I thought was happening was ‘oh, I think [I know] what I want,’ but once I finished the film, I realized in hindsight, the point isn’t what could I have done to keep that friendship exactly as it was,” Wu explained. “The point is the fact I had that friendship. He helped me more than anyone accept myself as gay. I’ve become the person I am today because of those sorts of friendships in my life. The question isn’t that’s my best friend, how come I wasn’t able to keep him as my best friend forever and ever and ever. The point is to look back and be grateful for having that connection at that time and seeing because of that you learn something about yourself. It becomes part of who you are. So that is always in you. Now, when I see the movie, I realize oh that’s what that is viscerally. It doesn’t matter if Ellie and Paul aren’t hanging out everyday. You can get the sense that they will probably reconnect. Her dad is there. She’ll probably come back and whatnot. But, that’s no longer the point. The point is she finally acknowledges how important that friendship was to her.”
The Half of It premieres this Friday on Netflix.