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Sisters and Other Secrets

Circa 1978 - Me (aged 6) and Roseanne (aged 9 mths)
Roseanne, Mum, Me, Dad, Rhea.
Three sisters now. Renee, Rhea, Roseanne.
Roseanne with the cast.
Roseanne with the cast.
What’s it like to make a film with characters based on your own family? Renee Liang interviews her sister Roseanne about writing and directing My Wedding and Other Secrets.

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What’s it like to make a film with characters based on your own family?

Renee Liang interviews her sister Roseanne about writing and directing My Wedding and Other Secrets - with sisterly segues into food, embarrassing stories, and er - food.

* * *

So, my sister Roseanne and I have always been close.  Well at least after she grew up and became the kind of nerd-cool kid sister who always has kitschy toys on her desk and weird pop-art on the walls. 

She’s great to talk to, can keep a secret, and strangely enough, even though I’m the older one, I often ask her advice.  She’s also been a sounding board for ideas and pitches ever since I decided I wanted to write, although we do have our preferences (I love the slow burn of Chekhov plays; she has a weakness for vampire flicks).

Roseanne has just released her first feature film, My Wedding and Other Secrets.  It’s been six years of hard work, and seeing as it is a fiction-based-on-real-life portrayal of her own love story, and our family, we’ve all been a little excited – and nervous. 

The film charts the journey of Emily, a Kiwi-born Chinese (otherwise known as a banana) and her rocky road towards love with James, a good Kiwi bloke (well, nerd.)  Along the way Emily has to convince her parents to support her – and learn a few hard lessons about herself.

Roseanne and I chatted on the eve of the film premiere.

Renee: What are you eating at the moment?

Roseanne:  Nothing, strange for me. Just had some really nice Mango oolong tea from San Francisco – mmm.

Renee: Spose we better start. I'm going to ask a really typical journalistic, hard to answer question...has making this film changed your life?

Roseanne: I think the whole thing has changed me, from the documentary onwards.  I've grown a lot, I've discovered a lot about my parents and Stephen, and about becoming the kind of person I want to be. Also about the kind of person I want to be.

Renee: What kind of person do you want to be?  Emily in the film isn't exactly perfect...

Roseanne:  Well... yes…I think I was sort of that person, a little bit unaware of the things I was doing. I want to be a good, considerate, aware person, and I'm working towards that.

Renee:  Is it possible to be perfect?  I mean, we all want to be a perfect daughter, wife, sister...

Roseanne:  No, but I think the striving to be better is something in itself that is worth aspiring to.  It's like that classic line in 'As Good as it Gets'. Helen Hunt is having a shitty day and she challenges Jack Nicholson to say one nice thing in his life, just say something complimentary for once. And he thinks for a moment and says "You make me want to be a better person". And she is floored, because that really is the nicest thing for anybody to say to anybody else.

Renee:  Aww. I mean, that is you and Stephen.  You guys are so cute, even now, after what? 5 years of marriage and a child…

Roseanne:  …don't forget 8 years of a relationship before that!
 
Renee:
  I was just going to say that it's weird coz I know you and Stephen so well, so when I meet Matt I sometimes get overfamiliar before realising, and being embarrassed because I don't know him at all. It's just that he does such a good job of projecting Stephen - the voice and the shy look and everything.

Roseanne:  Yes, he and Michelle have done really well - they really understand the physicality of character and so on….Actually when Rachel Lang first saw the film she thought Matt had done something weird to his voice, because his character Brad in Go Girls has quite a deep voice.

Renee: I mean, we both know what actors can do, but it just gets into weird territory when it's someone I know that they're projecting, rather than a fully fictional character. I'm glad Kat didn't want to study me for her character, it makes it easier to distance myself from Susan.  How did you distance yourself enough to direct Michelle?

Roseanne:  I'm not sure I did. It sort of dawned on me how she was taking a lot of my mannerisms and incorporating them into her character.  About 1 week into the shoot, everyone was calling her Roseanne and me Michelle. The producers, the 1st AD, even the cinematographer who I've known since university... it just started happening which is weird, but also a sign that her characterisation is really working.

I think one time when we were rehearsing, she finishes the scene stomping off and I said:

Me: Um, why are you walking like that?
Michelle: Like what?
Me: You know, with your feet turned out like that.
Michelle: Um, I was just noticing the way you were standing and walking.
Me: Oh.

I have this deep-seated trauma with a girl at school calling me 'ducky', because I did and still do walk like that. I still try and walk parallel, but it sneaks in, dammit! Arrgh!

Renee:  Were people on set were careful with you?
I mean, it was your story, and some of them have known you long enough to have seen the real stuff as it happened…

Roseanne:  Yes, I feel like we had the best crew in the world. It really felt like that. They were kind, generous, talented people. We had our moments, but there weren't really any serious meltdowns, just spirited discussion. I don't think I ever felt put upon or disrespected... whether or not people knew this was my story, they were all wonderfully professional. 

I think we had a wonderful set atmosphere and it's down to the people. Maybe I've applied that selective memory thing where you forget the pain and only remember the good stuff. Maybe you should have interviewed me when we were shooting!

Renee: It's like having a baby maybe.

Roseanne:  Hahah, yeah.

Renee:  Women forget the pain about 20 seconds after it’s out.  I've seen it hundreds of times... mostly it's the dads that are traumatised.

Roseanne:  I could probably remember specific points of pain, but overall it's pretty insignificant to the big golden whole. I think a lot of people have told me that one of the most difficult things about being a director is knowing what you want, and communicating what you want. You can't ever been seen to falter, or be wishy washy. I've been working on that over the years.

Renee:  But at the same time, people say that you're open to suggestions.  I guess that's different to faltering...

Do you think having your story "out there" will affect the way people see you? For example, is there a sense that they feel they know you already?

Roseanne:  Yes, I think so. I found this with the doco especially - because you put so much of your personal story out there, people feel like they are given license to ask you further personal questions. It's an interesting push and pull though - in telling my story so intimately, in some way I invite that personal scrutiny.

Renee: Do you feel that people want to hear all that emotional dirt? In some ways, audiences are vultures…

Roseanne:  Hmm… well I guess all good stories come from conflict. That's life, really, you get good and bad, and a good 'happy ending' story only comes from a journey through adversity.

Renee: Ha. Spoken like a nerdy writer. Do you think you've made nerds a little bit cooler with this movie?

Roseanne:  What do you mean? Nerds are cool.:)
Geek Chic was around way before this film, with directors like Wes Anderson and films like Napoleon Dynamite. This is a slightly different kind of nerdy, but I don't think it's particularly ground breaking. I find it interesting when reviewers call the film oddball, because to me there have been a slew of successful films which have taken it farther than me. I don't find 'oddball' a bad thing, I hasten to add - it's a good thing for me. It's just that I think I could have been even more boldly oddball!

Renee: To boldly odd where no odd has gone before...

Roseanne:  Yeah, like Miranda July. She is genius oddball. Her new film has a voiceover by a cat... and by all accounts, it works! She is inspiring.

Renee: What do you reckon Mummy and Daddy make of all this on-screen portrayal then?

Roseanne:  I think they are pleased with the casting choice, and that goes a long way. Kenneth and Pei Pei gave very nuanced, three-dimensional performances.

Renee: I mean, I don't think they even know the meaning of nerd.  To them it's just the way we were brought up...so they probably don't even get the D+D jokes

Roseanne:  Oh, you mean of the whole thing?  Well they probably didn't get 'wootini', but they got the drama and the family dynamics. I'm not even going to ask what they thought of the sex scene. As my friend Marc said: "awkwaaaard!"

Renee:  Yeah... it's one thing to mention sex in front of parents... another to project your discovery of sex on a cinema screen and invite them, their friends and everyone else in NZ to watch....

Roseanne: Gaah! shhhh! Well, it's essentially a comedic scene, very removed from me, but still…

Renee: I mean, how do you go about writing a sex scene?

Roseanne: Well, sexy sex scenes are really hard to do these days - they were a staple of films in the 80s and 90s, all close-up limbs, sax music, satin sheets.

Renee: (satin sheets! who really has satin sheets these days? Aren’t they hard to wash?)

Roseanne:  A comedy really doesn't have a place for a sexy sex scene. So I guess I went the other way. A sex scene that isn't sexy, but has an element of sweetness to it. I think there's something cool about two people discovering something together, even if it is a bit awkward.

(Well exactly, no one has satin sheets today.  They look nice, but actually Egyptian cotton is more the go these days.)

Actually I went really awkward, huh. Well, it was fun to shoot!

Renee: Or technical... awkward technical...I mean I'm the medic, but even I don't go that anatomically technical.

Roseanne:  <long pause>.

Renee: Too much information? Ahem. Well anyway…
What was the hardest scene in the film to write?

Roseanne:  Hmm...I guess the one that stands out in my mind is the final one between mother and daughter. It was difficult emotionally to write, but also some of our first drafts were too wordy. It was so hard, because in a way I was pouring out everything I wanted and needed to say to our mum in real life, but that cathartic sort of splurge isn't elegant or cinematic. With Ange's help was pared it back and pared it back, and even now that scene is really hard to watch. I know it was one of the scenes that Michelle and Pei Pei worked really hard on.

Renee: What was the chemistry like on set between the family members? I know that watching Michelle, Celeste and Kat now, they sometimes seem like sisters...

Roseanne: Yes, I was really blessed with their relationships. I had rehearsals a week before we shot, with Pei Pei and Kenneth who already have a great relationship with history, and we were sitting around the table rehearsing one of the more difficult dinner scenes, and I remember Kenneth was really very vocal about his ideas for the scene and I would be sort of arguing with him, then Michelle would add her opinion, and the Celeste and Kat would jump in, and talk between each other - it was just like the real thing! Pei Pei was always the calming influence, she would think in silence, then say something so considered and simple that everyone would listen.

Renee: That sounds like fun... more or less like our family dinners... except that usually it's Daddy who's the considered one. And Rhea's the one everyone listens to.

Roseanne: Quite possibly. We found our own family dynamic. Which is pretty cool from my perspective as a director.  It was tough too though, to try and find out what my job as a director was. I was again aware of the fact that I had to make a decision on things, but also listen to all the input, and overcome my inbuilt Chinese deferral to elders. To be decisive was something that was expected of me.

Renee: I remember you getting us all together before the shoot started to play board games. Me, you, Matt, Celeste, Michelle and Kat, with Kenneth watching. And we gave up on the game after a few rounds because we were too busy talking.... or possibly arguing.....

Roseanne: Yes that's right! Matt had just received the pinyin for his Chinese speech, and Kenneth says, "Read it to me". Matt does so, and Kenneth pauses for a long moment. "If you say it like that.... no one will understand you." And we all jumped in and said “No, but this is the first time Matt has read it! He will work really hard...”

Renee: And Kenneth had this cheeky, pleased, almost paternal smile on his face.  I think he was kind of fascinated.

Roseanne: It was fun and frenetic, never a pause in conversation, and there seemed to be 3 conversations going on at once. The board game didn't stand a chance.

Renee: How are you going to top this experience in your next movie?

Roseanne:  Well I guess I'm looking to make a different film next, and also there's a lot I've learned from this one that I think I could improve on. I'm getting back to my roots - kung fu action, ghosts, fantasy :) We'll see how it goes.

Renee: Oh man...that's so weird. Maybe it's genetic.. my next play has ghosts, fantasy and kung fu action...

Roseanne:  Gah!

Renee: Yeah, but it’s theatre.

Roseanne: Well, maybe all at once might be too much for me!

Renee: So the big question is… how far along are you in your next project? Gestating?

Roseanne: Well, I'm thinking it should be plural projects. Yes, I'm in brewing stage for feature projects, but I'm also looking forward to playing a little with short-form projects like possibly radio documentary and vignette-type exercises to hone my craft. If they're any good I might pop them on the internet for free - if not, I'll learn from them and sit on them.

Renee: I noticed you had your ‘regulars’ doing cameos in the movie - Marc and Jochen. And Ange is your frequent collaborator.  Will you be working with them?  What happens to those friendship groups after film school?

Roseanne: I hope to work with them again, definitely! They are some of the people whose opinion I care about the most, not just regarding my work, but about the film world and culture and humanity in general. I've been really lucky in that this friendship group has stuck after film school - we have each become more busy, but I really value getting together and just shooting the shit, or pigging out at delicious eateries. The shared love of eating and talking is definitely a good cement.

Renee: Do you and Stephen still argue about cereal as suitability for breakfast food?

Roseanne: Well... I feel ashamed, but I have to confess I've been eating cereal once in a while... ack.

Renee: Marriage compromise…

Roseanne: I'd pine for congee or noodles or rice, but so often would be too busy or lazy to make it, and then end up late morning feeling really run down without food. In the end I had to give in.  If there was a nice congee or noodles, there would be no contest though. Cereal is still the poor cousin. I know there are many who would disagree with me - doesn't Rhea have congee in the morning? And Mummy snacks on cereal at night! - but I dream of congee.

I want congee now. Thanks. I mean, doesn't Rhea have cereal in the morning... gah. Must find congee.

Renee: There's good congee at that Asian food hall in Newmarket.

Roseanne: I don't have time to go to Newmarket today... is there anywhere around here? Lim Chour?

Renee: And afterwards you can buy the fresh sashimi at the fish shop next door...

Roseanne: <drool>.

Renee: Lim Chour is ok for buns. And hot and sour soup.
How about Mt Albert shops? you can get congee there. At the smallest dingiest one.

Roseanne: I want that congee in that outdoor stall in Hong Kong. With the cheung fun and the sticky rice dumplings at the fried bread. Mmmm.
Not sure if they're open yet.. maybe...

Renee: You can get tofu jelly in the chinese super now. Mark likes it.

Roseanne: Tofu jelly? Is it sweet?

Renee: And he loves soy milk... but we think it makes you fart.

Roseanne: Huh! I'm not sure about that. Just run out of the room and giggle sweetly.

Renee: You can't run out of the rooms if you're living with them....

Roseanne: Sure you can.

Renee: Not just the noise and volume, but also the... smell.

Roseanne: This is so Chinese, talking about farts.

Renee: So like our family..gaah...

*****

My Wedding and Other Secrets opened in New Zealand cinemas March 17.

  • Renee Liang is a regular contributor for The Big Idea, including her TalkWrite blog and Cultural Storyteller series.

Written by

Renee Liang

23 Mar 2011

Renee is a writer who is exploring many ways of telling stories, including plays, short stories, poetry (which she also performs), and cross-genre collaborations with composers, musicians, sculptors and filmmakers.