In the small town of Squahamish, Washington, introverted high schooler Ellie Chu is approached by the not-so-bright school jock, Paul Munsky, to write a love letter for a girl he has a crush on. Little does Ellie expect to not only fall for his crush herself, but also develop a tight friendship with Paul.
That is the premise for The Half of It (which begins streaming on Netflix May 1) the latest film from writer and director Alice Wu and her first one since 2004’s Saving Face (which was screened at the San Francisco International Asian American Film Festival, now CAAMFest, in 2005). It’s an idea that has been on her mind for years after she left the film industry and relocated to San Francisco to take care of her mother.
“When an idea keeps circling in my head, it’s because there’s something deeply emotional that I’m trying to work out about the world,” she explained in a phone interview. “In that case, it was about really sort of trying to understand something about love, and particularly through the lens of the lesbian, straight guy friendship.”
Leah Lewis, who plays Ellie in the film, was intrigued in the project from the moment it was brought to her attention. The script was unlike anything she had ever read before, and knew she wanted to be a part of it.
“I immediately fell in love with the log line when it came to me just as any regular audition,” she said in a separate phone interview. “I dove into the script. I was bawling through the whole thing.”
Prior to getting cast, Lewis was unfamiliar with Wu and had never seen Saving Face. She had actually waited until after filming had wrapped for The Half of It before sitting down to watch the director’s debut work, so as to not draw comparisons to the two films.
“When I watched Saving Face, it just kind of had me fall in love with [Wu] even more,” Lewis said. “I feel that this film was very ahead of its time and incredible what [Wu] did and there’s a lot of similarities between the main character of The Half of It and the main character of Saving Face as well. I love how authentic [Wu] is with that.”
The Half of It was originally going to be similar to Saving Face in centering on characters in their 20s. However, when Wu ran into difficulties with the story, she then realized, “I should set this in high school, because in high school, every feeling is so resonant – everything, the first time you feel something. So therefore, you think it’s the only time you’re going to feel that thing, right? And then once I started thinking about that, the story kind of took on its own.”
Another major difference between her films is while Saving Face has a mostly Asian cast, only two Asian characters, Ellie and her father (played by Collin Chou), are in The Half of It. The rest of the cast was mostly white – a reality that threw Wu off at times.
“I felt like a fish out of water, and on top of that, I’m the director,” she elaborated. “So basically, all these people have to do what I say, which is also a little bit of a mind f—. So it was different that way. Luckily, you have so much to do as a director that there’s not a lot of time to reflect.”
On playing Ellie, Lewis worked with Wu ahead of filming to craft her character as the shy, introverted high schooler she comes across as in the final product. She would tap into her hobbies of reading and writing, alongside a character playlist Wu put together, to bring her into the proper headspace.
“Playing Ellie was a very, very beautiful new challenge for me,” she said. “I had never really played a role that was so quiet and patient and observant and internally rich. So for me as Leah, I feel like I grew in a lot of ways as an actress, tapping into this character.”
Despite the sacrifices of being away from her friends and family in San Francisco for long stretches of time while filming in New York, Wu feels it was all worth it as she looks back on the overall experience of making The Half of It. “I think what I love about directing is it uses every single part of me intellectually, physically, emotionally, and I really love the feeling of so many parts being engaged. I guess there’s a satisfaction in thinking you’ve pushed yourself to the edge of what you can do. And directing is the only job I’ve ever had where I feel like that’s true.”
The timing of the film’s release is not lost on either Wu or Lewis. The Half of It was scheduled to have its world premiere at the Tribeca Film Festival and be released in theaters via Netflix before the COVID-19 crisis changed all that. It was a sigh of relief for Wu when Tribeca announced its cancellation, for she was very hesitant about encouraging people to come out to the theater.
“There’s no world where I’m not aware of how lucky I am,” she explained. “If we can get out of this crisis with minimal numbers of people affected, honestly, that would make me so happy. There are moments that definitely my ego gets in the way, and I’m like, ‘Oh God, I hope it does really well,’ but not so much that I don’t understand that there’s a larger, more important thing happening in the world.”
Regarding the xenophobic attacks happening in the Asian American community as of late, Lewis remarked how, “There is no place in this world for any kind of negativity or xenophobia, but I hope for people to take away from this movie a sense of community and learning to be of service to others and be support right now. I hope that is what people focus on.”
Lewis also hopes that audiences will find something to relate to in the film. “I think there are so many grounded and realistic storylines that are going on in this film. I mean, it touches on romance, it touches on finding your own unique voice, it touches on finding friendship in the most unlikely of places, it touches on families re-connecting with each other, and finding love in difficult situations as well.”
Alice Wu will be a Spotlight Honoree at CAAMFest Online. Join CAAM Festival Director Masashi Niwano on at 7:00 PM Wednesday May 20 as he talks with Alice about her filmmaking career. The event is free thanks to our generous sponsors, but registration is required. Reserve your space at CAAMFest.com.