Have you ever wanted to sit back back, grab a cup of coffee with your favorite filmmaker and pick their brain about the art/craft/business of visual storytelling—even if only virtually? Well, Film Independent Education’s ongoing Coffee Talks series has you covered, bringing indie film’s best writers, directors, producers, actors and more together online for engaging, freewheeling conversations delivered directly to the comfort of your own home.
On the May 7 edition of the weekly Coffee Talks series, acclaimed filmmakers Lulu Wang, writer and director of The Farewell and an alum of Film Independent’s Project Involve, and A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood‘s Marielle Heller got together from opposite coasts for a Zoom catch-up, available live for Film Independent Members.
Both women are Film Independent Spirit Award winners—Heller for Best First Feature for Diary of a Teenage Girl, Wang for Best Feature for The Farewell—and 2020 Bonnie Award nominees. Watch the full video of the pair’s Coffee Talk below, and keep reading for highlights.
The filmmakers began by talking about the writing process—more specifically how they are figuring out a new writing process during the ongoing COVID-19 crisis.
Heller candidly said, “Truthfully I feel really not productive. I’m a mom, and we’re trying to homeschool…” thus only getting a few hours a day to write. “But it’s good to have something to focus on. It feels really good to have something separate from this life [quarantine] to just kind of escape into,” she added.
Heller’s struggles of course echo what many (most?) people in the world are feeling right now. Said Wang, “I tell a lot of my friends not to feel guilty if they can’t write, if they’re not productive [during this time],” saying that staying quote-unquote “productive” in quarantine brings its own challenges, and is not always a priority where physical and mental health are concerned.
When asked about getting back into production, Wang said: “My TV series that I’m writing [Amazon’s The Expatriates] takes place in Hong Kong. Everyone is excited about it, because that part of the world will probably be ready before we are for production.” So Wang has been thinking deeply about what a post-COVID film production would look like—filming abroad with new restrictions to ensure the cast and crew are safe.
Having made all of her projects abroad, Wang said, “So much of my process in the prep period is incorporating things that I discover in the city into the script, to make it feel authentic and organic.” So incorporating discoveries by freely stumbling around a new city, as well as exploring (new) filming locations will need to be negotiated.
Heller chimed in, speaking to how lonesome—for her—the filmmaking process can be, with the exception of production. “Especially before you’re in official prep,” she said. “It feels like you’re writing and alone with your thoughts, and then all of a sudden you have 200 best friends who are there to make the movie with you.”
It’s this sense of collaboration, she notes, that is for her the best part of the filmmaking process. And for many, it’s what makes often such a lonesome undertaking worth it.
On a similar note, Wang said, “That’s why I’m grateful for the writing, too. It is lonely [but] it’s what gets me through the day; when I can finish an episode and think about the excitement of going into production one day, whenever that is.” And Heller agreed that the luxury of endless time at home is a good thing now, in some ways.
Fast friends since crossing paths one year at the Spirit Awards, the two women discussed the experience of running a writers’ room without having experienced a writers’ room before.
Heller, whose upcoming Five Woman shares a production company with The Farewell, said: “It’s the same thing I felt when I started directing, because I didn’t go to film school. It was like ‘Am I doing this right? Is this the way you’re supposed to do this?’ And everybody is like, ‘There’s no right way to do it.’”
Heller noted, “I have a very strong philosophy that you don’t need to suffer in order to make good art, and it’s also part of my whole thing where I want to do French hours.” she explained. “I believe in having a life outside of filmmaking.”
It was important for Heller to keep regular hours while running her own writers’ room. She said her hours were generally 9am to 4pm, with the expectation of getting through the day and maintaining a regular life—which was much appreciated by Heller’s colleagues.
Wang added that she neglected to follow the “official” pitching process when running her room. “I was like what do you mean pitch? You have an idea? Talk. Just talk!” she laughed, adding that it was probably ultimately helpful to not have experience with such a rigid hierarchy.
Heller agreed, “I [also] had no hierarchy. We didn’t have a Number Two in the room. Everyone was in the same position,” mentioning that it was helpful to treat the process as if you are working with a writing partner, which Heller was familiar with. “There’s so much more discussion before you lock into an idea,” compared to writing alone, she said.
As for directing, Heller’s goal was to direct her series in the fall, in New York City. “So much of how I’ve sort of approached filmmaking is that you set a goal and just go forward toward it… That’s how I got my first movie made. I declared at a certain point that we were filming even though we didn’t have all the money together and everything we needed.” As Heller emphasized, you set a goal and start chipping away, working towards it.
Wang’s goal at the moment is both humorous and genius. She said, “My goal right now is hoarding my own writing. Within this time I’m [telling myself] I’m going to try to hoard as many pieces of writing as possible. So then maybe I have a feature, and here’s two TV series, and here’s another idea!” So when this is all over, Wang will have some concrete work in the can and could focus on shooting.
Replied Heller, “I’m going to steal that as a philosophy… I think that is a good way to look at it.”
It’s difficult to find the time to write when you are in the throes of making movies or in the final stages of cutting your film. So for now, write at your leisure, without haste and without hustling. Go forward. Give it your best shot!
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