Indie Go Go: Patrick Wang brings his exquisite indie films to the UK

Rarely has the phrase 'independent spirit' been more applicable than in the case of Patrick Wang. Ahead of his three brilliant features – including the epic two-parter A Bread Factory – touring the UK, we speak to Wang about his singular approach

Feature by Philip Concannon | 08 Feb 2022
  • A Bread Factory: Part 1

There are many obstacles standing in the way of a first-time filmmaker, but the biggest challenge is often simply getting people to watch your film. After directing his self-funded debut feature In the Family in eighteen days in 2011, Patrick Wang embarked confidently on the next step of the filmmaker’s journey and began submitting it to festivals. The rejections started flowing in almost immediately and they kept on coming, with the film being turned down by around 30 festivals before it finally premiered at the Hawaii International Film Festival.

When you see something made with as much intelligence, wit and empathy as In the Family, such a widespread dismissal from the industry feels both inexplicable and depressing, but the troubled birth of his first film left Wang with a philosophical perspective on his place in the filmmaking world. “It’s a reminder that in our industry – and it is an industry – the term ‘independent’ is used all the time, and I think in a way that erases what that word really means,” he told me from his home in New York. “If you have an independent vision for something it won't align with many things, at least not easily and neatly, in a way that will make it easily accepted, and that's just by definition.”

By any definition, Patrick Wang is a true independent artist. After struggling to make headway on the festival circuit, the director hired out the Quad cinema in New York and took his film on tour, in effect becoming his own distributor, a practice he continued with his subsequent features The Grief of Others and A Bread Factory. The films themselves also exhibit that independent spirit in how singular they feel.

In the Family and The Grief of Others deal directly with families in turmoil and characters coping with an overwhelming sense of loss, but that simple description doesn’t prepare you for how much warmth there is in these films, how real the characters feel, or how Wang gives us profoundly moving scenes without ever straying into sentimentality. Nothing in these films feels easy or obvious. Every laugh and tear is earned.

“I don't write because I know what's going to happen,” Wang tells us. “I write because I want to learn something and experience something new myself, to be surprised by something. So if it's an obvious sentimental scene that doesn't hold anything for me, then it doesn't end up holding anything for the audience. I’m really captivated by the scenes where I learn something, where I'm surprised and moved by something, and it's really that simple. I'm the barometer. If it does something for me, I don't think too hard about it. I want to share it because I think I've learned to think about this person in a very different way here. If other people have the same experience, that's great.”

Wang’s avoidance of the obvious is most evident in his magnum opus, A Bread Factory. Unfolding in two sensationally entertaining parts, A Bread Factory details the fight to save a small-town community arts centre that is threatened by crippling funding cuts when a corporate-backed arts space opens nearby. This is the central narrative, but what distinguishes A Bread Factory – and places it among the most exciting American cinema of the past decade – is how expansive and varied Wang’s vision is. He gives us a huge ensemble of richly-drawn characters, theatrical monologues, musical interludes, metatextual gags, and scenes of raw emotion immediately followed by unexpected and hilarious comic set-pieces. Wang admits that the film was even more ambitious at one stage.

“I think I was even playing a bit with some sci-fi genres or some other ideas at the beginning, there was a supernatural element where Greta [the art centre’s co-director, played by Elisabeth Henry] had certain powers, and it was just too much. You have to have really absurd ideas before the coherent ones start asserting themselves. But the thing I particularly liked about the story that emerged and the way it’s told is that usually if you think about a comedy, it operates in a certain type of form, and different types of comedy don't usually mix. Sometimes I'll use something you'd see on TV, sometimes it's something you'd see more in an art film, and I like this idea of high and low, anything that the scene is calling for. These changes of tones or surprises or jolts give you a different kind of rhythm as you move across them too.”

How do you follow A Bread Factory? Wang isn’t sure yet, and he is currently focused on translating poetry and a project curating the photographs of Russell Lee rather than developing a new film. But he is always engaged in the task of sharing his small but extraordinary body of work with audiences, and even in a world where big screen opportunities for independent cinema are at a premium, Wang still tries to present his work in that space as much as he can.

“I know the theatre and there’s the idea that theatre changes every night, it's dependent on the audience and the place,” he says. “But I was shocked to realise that movie theatres are still theatres and it still changes every night. The audience is different and the reactions are different, and the crowd tells you so much about itself as you watch it with them, so I just personally grew addicted to that process and learned to love it. You have to reinvent it a little each time, mostly from looking at whatever is possible around you, but every so often some window comes through – like now for the UK – where there's a chance for a few more people to see it, and it's great. You take it and you just try to keep those opportunities alive and help them as much as you can.”

Glasgow Film Theatre's Patrick Wang retrospective screens 19 Feb-1 Mar, tickets here
A Bread Factory: Part 1, Sat 19 Feb, 6pm; A Bread Factory: Part 2, Sun 20 Feb, 5.10pm; In the Family, Sun 27 Feb, 5.45pm; The Grief of Others, Tue 1 Mar, 5.45pm

A Bread Factory (parts 1 and 2) also screens at Dundee Contemporary Arts, Sun 20 Feb, 3.30pm & 6.15pm, tickets here

Additional screenings taking place at venues across the UK,