'The Half Of It' Is Director Alice Wu's Ode To Platonic Soulmates [Interview]

Alice Wu thought she was done with Hollywood for good. After directing the lesbian romantic dramedy Saving Face to critical acclaim in 2004, which was partly inspired by her own coming-out experiences, Wu left the industry to take care of her mother.

"I was just really living my life and it was a very rich time getting to reconnect with my mom as an adult," Wu told /Film in a phone interview ahead of the premiere of Netflix's The Half of It, her first feature film in 16 years. But the idea that would become The Half of It, a charming teen romantic-comedy riff of Cyrano de Bergerac with an LGBTQ twist, was bouncing around her head for many of those years. "The idea for The Half of It was something that I thought of maybe eight or nine years ago, and it's just been hanging around my head, I kept not doing anything with it. I wasn't writing at all," Wu said.

But a few years ago, she had a "come to Jesus" moment, Wu said. "My mom's health has gotten better, I just gotten out of a relationship that I had been in a really long time, and I sort of realized, what am I doing with my life?" Wu described. "Like is my role in life just supposed to be trying to be someone's good daughter or someone's good girlfriend? Is there something I could be doing? And that's when I started writing again."

The ideas that Wu was wrestling with in her personal life would gel into the script for The Half of It, a coming-of-age story about Ellie Chu, a young Chinese-American teen coming to terms with her sexuality. The Cyrano parallels are there: Ellie is asked by dumb jock Paul Munsky to write a love letter to the popular girl in school, but she starts to fall in love with the girl and strike up an unusual friendship with Paul. But the romance wasn't part of the script that brought Wu back to Hollywood after a 16-year hiatus. It was the ideas that she was grappling with: whether romantic love is the ultimate endgame for all of us.

"Our society exalts romantic love, like a wedding is the happiest day of your life," Wu said. "But what about all the days that come after? Are they all just going to be less happy now, and then that's the rest of your life? In my experience, that's not really how life goes."

Wu spoke with /Film about how concepts of romantic love and soulmates are subverted in The Half Of It, and why her film isn't just a modern-day adaptation of Cyrano de Bergerac.

The Half of It made it on the Black List in 2018, 14 years after your first film Saving Face came out. Can you describe the process of writing The Half Of It and how it brought you back to directing?

I left thinking industry 10 years ago take care of my mom. So I thought I was no longer going to be a filmmaker. After saving face came out, I was working pretty steadily writing for hire. And I just sold a TV pitch to NBC when my mom had a serious health issue, and I dropped everything and moved to San Francisco. And as the month went by, I just thought, you know what, I can't go back into industry. I'm just going to live here. And I'm lucky enough to have a financial situation where I'm like, "Okay, if I've saved enough money that I could probably live off my investments as long as I manage them while I spend my time really focusing on my family helping sort some things out there." And I was just really living my life and it was a very rich time getting to reconnect with my mom as an adult. Because I hadn't lived in the same town with her since the '60s. So in all of that, I didn't do any writing.

But the idea for The Half of It was something that I thought of maybe eight or nine years ago, and it's just been hanging around my head, I kept not doing anything with it. I wasn't writing at all. And then finally, about a few years ago, out of the blue, I had this sort of come to Jesus talk with myself where my mom's health has gotten better, I just gotten out of a relationship that I had been in a really long time, and I sort of realized, what am I doing with my life? Like is my role in life just supposed to be trying to be someone's good daughter or someone's good girlfriend? Is there something I could be doing? And that's when I started writing again.

In that same month, a studio friend who always wanted to work together happened to email me out of the blue to ask if I pitch for a project of hers, because she was now at DreamWorks Animation. I pitched for that project, I got the gig, I had a very fun nine months writing for DreamWorks, which went well enough that they wanted me to write something else. I thought I had never written something that's for myself since Saving Face. So it was three years ago, when I finally was like, I'm buckling down, I'm going to write this thing.

I was writing for probably a good year, but there's like six months of time when I was doing no writing at all because I was so overwhelmed by well, to be totally honest, the [2016 election]. Instead of writing, I was googling endlessly about what Trump was doing and doing no writing whatsoever. And then six months later, those execs happened to call up again are like, "Are you done or do you want another contract?" And I had done no writing. And that's when I basically was like, "Okay, I should just take this gig, because I like to never miss an external deadline. But apparently, I miss my own internal deadlines all the time. So I kept dragging my heels and then a, friend of mine just said, "Look, I don't think you're ever going to be happy until you write that script. I think you just got to write it out of you and then move on." And I knew she was right. So basically, I'm turning down paying work. But apparently I'm putting my life on hold until I get the scripts written. So I need to recognize that I need to do it in like a finite period of time. So I wrote a check for $1,000 to the NRA. And I gave it to one of my best friends CJ, who's a firefighter in San Francisco and the only one of my friends who absolutely would send that check in just because she gave her word. And I gave myself five weeks to get the first draft. And I was like on August 8, this script must be written. It could be the worst draft ever but it must be a full draft. If it is not done, you're sending that check in. It was like the most stressful five weeks of my life! I literally could not live with myself if I had donated the NRA. So I got that script done on August 7. I put it aside for like a month and I went back to it and spent a good five months massaging and working it. And then that was second draft, which I sent to my writing group, and they're like, that's great. And then I sent it to a few people, you know, from the industry and they flipped it around, four or five months, I had three finance offers, and that was that was the draft they shot. So that's how I got it made.

The story of The Half of It bears similarities to the Cyrano de Bergerac play, which recently had a Netflix teen rom-com modern-day adaptation with Sierra Burgess. Were you wary of comparisons that would be made between The Half of It and Sierra Burgess?

Not really, because the two movies are so different. Cyrano is a pretty classic story [and] there have been a number of Cyrano stories through the years. Maybe because I was already heading into pre-production, I watched and was like, "Oh, that's cute, but it's a very different movie than mine." But I also don't think mine is just a classic Cyrano tale. What I'm trying to do is subvert a lot of different kinds of classic films, like there's a Pygmalion aspect. I start talking about Plato's Symposium and this whole idea of looking for your other half. But I wouldn't even really say it's a romantic comedy, I think it teases you as if it's going to start as a romantic comedy.

Partway through it starts to subvert the genre, and ends up not really being about who is going to get the girl. It's really about this whole idea of going to look for the perfect other half. It's sort of the realization at certain points, that it's not about finding your perfect path. It's actually that moment, when you realize you're reaching and you're gonna fail, but your connections with people along the way —and in this case, it took three people who otherwise wouldn't interact — kind of collide together. And the three of them, each of them end up sort of affecting each other, and through their connection with each other, each ends up getting a piece of themselves that allows them to move forward and become the person they're meant to be. And that's not how Cyrano went. I mean, there's a lot of literary attributions in it, but it's kind of subverting the genre than doing a modern retelling.

Yeah, the Cyrano play itself has been not well regarded in recent years, just because it is kind of a retrograde story. But The Half of It has quite a progressive message and turns the story into something that's a little less mean.

Yeah, it is interesting, right? Because I think why I was curious about using the Cyrano device here is that I think there's something.... In Cyrano, there's someone who thinks that they are quote unquote ugly and ends up taking someone that they think is beautiful, but dumb, and helps them win the girl, right? But there's something even more poignant about... [how] most of us in society — we don't have a gigantic huge nose like Cyrano in that overdone way. There's something very interesting to me about taking someone who feels like they can't say anything about themselves, because they're maybe contending with their own burgeoning sexuality and their sexual identity. And they can't even name that for themselves that they're gay or they're not gay, but there's something about needing to keep that secret that she has a crush on this girl and then getting to use the more classic romantic lead of this like handsome jock to reach this girl. It just seemed like a great way to talk about a lot of different kinds of social issues without it being a message movie.

Your first movie Saving Face was inspired by your own coming-out experiences. Did you personal experiences make it into The Half of It as well?

I mean it's similar. Saving Face also is not factual. Nothing about Saving Face happened to me — I didn't come from Flushing, my mom didn't get pregnant. And similarly, nothing in The Half of It happened to me. There are little things, like I did get called "Chugga Chugga Chu" when I was growing up. So that part is real. And certainly they're just the textures of what it's like to represent immigrant kids. So authenticity is just my attempt to make the characters live as real as possible. But the plot is totally fictionalized.

Everything is inspired from [something in my life]. Like Saving Face is about me trying to say to my mom that I didn't want her to think her life was over. She was 48 at the time, I wanted her to feel like she could still fall in love that there was more for her. And similarly with The Half of It, I was trying to explore for myself this idea of love. We all think we want to reach for romantic love and now we'll be complete. But as I've gotten older, I've really realized there's so many more ways to love than I ever knew. Romantic love is not the most exalted love, which...the stories make it seem like. Our society exalts romantic love, like a wedding is the happiest day of your life. But what about all the days that come after? Are they all just going to be less happy now, and then that's the rest of your life? In my experience, that's not really how life goes. It's like, yes, romantic love. Wonderful. The pursuit of any sort of love can be wonderful. But there's also deep friendships. And for me, like I would say that some of those have been just as, if not more, formative. And, in particular, I kind of want to write about love through a lesbian-straight guy best friendship. What happens if you meet someone and they feel like a soulmate, but there's no desire to have sex, but there's still this deep intimacy? So I think I want to break from that lens and then once I set it in high school, then the whole different component came out.

So you hadn't envisioned it to be a teen high school movie from the beginning?

No, initially I was thinking it would be a story of people in their 20s. But as I was trying to write that, I realized like that, that topic just became kind of unwieldy. And I decided at a certain point, I should set this in high school. Because in high school, because every feeling is like the first time you have, it feels like it's gonna be the last time. So everything is heightened. You can cover a lot of emotional territory very quickly.

One of the things I noticed about the The Half of It is how faith plays a major part of this movie. It's set in a small Christian town, and the protagonist has her own relationship with faith in that she's an atheist. Whereas Paul is a very adamant Christian. Why did you make that element of religion a central part of The Half of It, which is sort of an unusual element to be seen in a teen rom-com?

Yeah, it could be marketed as a teen rom-com but the reality is the movie's really not a teen movie. It's really just a movie of teenagers in it. But the reality is, I think we all regresse to becoming teenagers when it comes to love. So the themes are actually quite mature themes, right? Like they're all about love, they're all about issues I think you deal with whether you're 16 or you're 60. I think it's recurring. And I think the religion aspect is because it's something I think about a lot. I guess we don't see it reflected that often, yet, it's actually a pretty big part of a lot of people lives. I think it's actually very common in a lot of people's lives. And but especially if I'm setting it in a small rural town, that is something that's very common. Often small towns are often clustered around the specific denomination of a church.

And for me, whether or not God exists is something I think a lot about. I don't know for sure if God exists, but I prefer the person I am when I choose to believe there's an order to the universe. And because I spent so much time thinking about it, and that's actually what got me back into writing again, I didn't write at all for seven years. But yeah, that's what actually got me back to writing. While I didn't grow up from organized religion, my mom goes to a Chinese church and I really see how that's given her a measure of peace. And while I don't have an organized religion myself, from the time I was young, I have prayed. And I think a lot of that just comes from like my mom's health, going in and out a lot of hospitals. I probably did that as a way to, maybe hedge my bets, in case there's like a larger presence out there. I wanted to sort of maybe appeal to it about what was on my mind and what matters. But I so often find that people, for even the most atheist friends of mine, sometimes they're going through something so difficult, and I have no way of comforting them and no way of making anything better. And so sometimes I'll just tell them, I hope you don't mind, but I'm just going put you and this situation in my prayers. And not once has someone not felt comforted by that. I'm incredible atheist, and it makes me one want to believe but there's just a larger thing out there, that we're all connected. I don't know if it's God or gods, or if it's just an energy in the universe, but I choose to read there is and I think that's where a lot of storytelling comes out of.

So I think it just organically bled into these kids and the dialogue that was coming out when I was writing for them, because it's stuff I think about.

What's interesting for me is that the other major element of this film is the concept of soulmates, platonic or not, and the idea that people spend their lives searching for their other half. And the idea of soulmates is something that feels very predestined, in a way that you could argue religion is. So how do those ideas of religion and destiny and soulmates intertwine in your film?

That's kind of a huge question. I think it might be a little too big for me to answer in a succinct way. Like I can say that this idea of soulmates...I personally believe that we have many soulmates that we can meet, but there's not one perfect soulmate. I think we think that we need to find one cosmic soulmate and that's caused a great deal of suffering. When we should look at it more as: there are people that you think could be the last person on Earth who would have anything to offer you. For Ellie, Paul Munsky is the last person on Earth that could possibly affect change in her life. But he ends up actually affecting the most change in her life. And I think she does for him too. And these are two total odd bedfellows. And I really love that as — maybe my own personal life philosophy. I think we're all far more similar than we are different.

And in terms of religion, I think that maybe it's the same thing with stories where we're told [things are supposed to be a certain way]. Plato's Symposium is an ancient Greek story about how we were torn apart and have to find our perfect half throughout history. We've been told this is the way love should work, right? But maybe in a moment in time, we could also find our own. And I think maybe there's something in this film about organized religion that is a little bit oppressive, certainly for Aster, and she talks about that. But that doesn't mean that she doesn't have faith. I think Aster has faith, but she's starting to find a sort of faith for herself and have faith in herself that allows her to keep her relationship with God, and move ahead in her life that doesn't have to be so structured around quote, unquote, religion as a capital R. And I think that movie in a way is like, we're all searching for Love and Romance with a couple, capital L or R. But sometimes in the end, it's connections we all have to each other. That might surprise us by the end, nobody gets what they thought they wanted at the beginning, but everybody actually does get what they need to be the person they need to become. And like that's not typical, that's not like preordained, the typical romantic comedy story.

This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.


The Half Of It premieres on Netflix today.