Computer-scientist-turned-filmmaker Alice Wu was positioned to become a big, romantic comedy Hollywood director. Then, she completely disappeared.

Now, she’s waging a great comeback.

Alice Wu started her life as a computer scientist for Microsoft who never went to film school. Her first film Saving Face exploded on the indie scene. As a gay Taiwanese-American filmmaker, Alice Wu was told her career could be huge. All she had to do? Change her films to white, heteroromantic comedies.

But Wu didn’t want to make those films. So she didn’t. Now, after over 10 years of radio silence, Wu is back. Her film The Half of It won the 2020 Tribeca Film Festival and is now streaming on Netflix.

No Film School caught up with Wu to talk about making her last film, her comeback story, and why nobody ever knows they have the chops to make it until they do.

No Film School: Your first film Saving Face launched your career as a filmmaker. What inspired you to make it?

Alice Wu: I didn’t go into anything thinking, “I want to make a movie.” I was a computer scientist. I got my degrees in computer science. I spent my twenties designing software, and I took a night class at the end of my twenties at the University of Washington extensions program. I’m gay and I came out during a time when it was far less acceptable. It was very hard for my mom to accept. And I think I wrote that very personally for myself and then for my mom to sort of work out.

My mom was going through something in her life where I think she had, I was sort of realizing that she had been assuming that her life was just to be a beautiful daughter. She had come to a place where it seemed like was physically living on, but it was as if emotionally it was over.

And I really didn’t want that for her. I wanted her to feel like that love was possible. It wasn’t the sort of thing I was emotionally mature enough to understand, looking back. I realize that’s why I wrote the movie. I think our mind can sometimes circumvent what we really feel in order to make sense of something in a way that we think will be palatable to an audience. We might not even be aware of it, but sometimes we’ll skew the story unconsciously or reduce things in a way that we think is more acceptable.

But your emotions are your emotions. Let’s say you’re depressed and you’re like, “Well, I don’t want to write about being depressed. So I’m going to write about giants in Swaziland.” Well, you’ll end up writing about giants in Swaziland who are depressed. It’s inevitable that sooner or later your fiction is going to start to live.

NFS: So Saving Face was a bit of an exploration of what you were experiencing in real life, using the format without necessarily the intent of making this film?

Wu: I didn’t think I had the chops to make it. Most people feel like they don’t have the chops either, and I tell people this story because I want them to feel a sense of possibility. The fact that you don’t think you can do it actually apparently has no bearing on anything because I certainly did not think I could.

NFS: One of the fascinating things about your career, and I don’t know how much you want to talk about it, is that you had a crazy launch and then you stepped away for a while. Now you’re back. What happened to step away and what brought you back?

Wu: No, I’m happy to. In the past, I’ve turned to No Film School, and I feel like it’s important for people to understand that there are so many different ways to arrive where you want to go. Especially when it comes to something like film. If you want to be a brain surgeon, there are only a few paths. Filmmaking is actually one of those things where there are so many ways.

Alice Wu directing her young cast on the set of ‘The Half of It.’Credit: Netflix

Wu: My first film didn’t come out until I was 34 years old. I didn’t start thinking about becoming a filmmaker till my late twenties. And then in 2005 [Saving Face] came out. I had a flurry of activity. At the time, my agents had the conventional wisdom which was probably right for the time: if I wanted a career, the next thing is to figure out how to make me like the Ang Lee of white romantic comedies. To be a “big” romantic comedy director basically meant “straight, white” romantic comedy director. And there were some good scripts, but it just wasn’t what I wanted to do.

I did work for hire, I wrote some things for studios. I started to think about TV, I pitched a series that then shockingly all four networks wanted to buy and we were going to go ABC. And then two things happened. One was the writers’ strike hit. But the second thing is just as the strike was ending, my mom got sick. And so I dropped everything and moved to San Francisco, which is where I live now. At the time I hadn’t fully processed that I might be leaving the industry. I just it was obviously the most important thing to do. So I went there for an indeterminate period of time that just kept getting longer and longer.

And eventually just before I got to the year mark, I remembered one of my agents being like, “Are you coming back? What is happening?” Finally, I was like, “No, I’m not actually. I’m going to stay here.” And at the time I said to her like, “Oh, I’ll just take like a small break.” And she was like, “Oh, okay.” But in my head, I was thinking I’m leaving. I won’t be going back. Because I was 39 at the time. In my mind, I thought, that’s fine. Twenties is about computer science and paying off loans and saving a nest egg. My thirties, I did this wild thing where I tried to make a film and that happened and hooray, that’s over.

‘The Half of It’Credit: Netflix

Wu: And I thought that now that I’m about to hit in my forties, it’s the time for me to take care of my family. And I was…


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