Filmmaker Alice Wu admits that she is someone who needs deadlines. “I guess I respond to external pressure,” she says with a laugh when discussing how she was trying to write her second film, “The Half of It.” Prone to procrastination, she went to extreme measures. “I wrote a check for a thousand dollars to the NRA and gave it to one of my best friends,” she reveals. “I gave myself five weeks and said if I don’t have a first draft, you are sending that check in. It was the most stressful five weeks of my life.”
But it worked; within that time frame she had her first draft for “The Half of It,” which eventually morphed into one of the year’s biggest surprises; a charming and poignant coming-of-age story that hits Netflix May 1 with every chance of being a word-of-mouth sensation. The story focuses on Asian-American teenager Ellie (Leah Lewis), who agrees to help the goofy but sweet Paul (Daniel Diemer) woo the prettiest girl in school, Aster (Alexxis Lemire.) The twist in the Cyrano-esque setup is that Ellie also has a crush on Astrid, something she can’t admit to anyone. Set in a small (fictional) town, the story makes Ellie feel even more like an outsider, as she lives alone with her father, still grieving over the loss of his wife.
For fans of Wu’s first film, the 2004 rom-com “Saving Face,” which focused on a closeted Chinese-American surgeon and her unexpectedly pregnant mother, “The Half of It” has been a long time coming. After the success of that indie, Wu didn’t step behind a camera for another 15 years. To this day, she’s stunned “Saving Face” even got made; she had been living in Washington state, working at Microsoft when she wrote her first film, which she submitted in a contest that brought her to the attention of producers. After she made it, she wasn’t sure what to do next. “When the stars aligned and it got made, I had no further plan,” she notes. “So when people asked me what was next, I was a deer in headlights.”
She spent some time developing other stories and had just sold a TV pitch about her experiences as a woman in the tech world when the 2009 writer’s strike hit and things ground to a halt. When that was finally resolved, Wu was ready to get back to work; then her mother got sick. She didn’t hesitate. “I dropped everything and moved back to San Francisco,” she says. “I was 39 at the time and I felt my 20s were about being a computer scientist and my 30s were about getting this movie made. I figured my 40s will be about taking care of my family.”
She didn’t write for seven years, and figured she’d left the industry. But about three years ago, Wu says she had an epiphany. “My mom’s health had stabilized and I had this moment where I was thinking about the idea of God or a higher power of sorts,” she reveals. “And I thought: if there is a larger universe I can’t imagine it thinks my primary role in life is to be somebody’s good daughter or good girlfriend. You want to be those things, but with all the resources I have, surely there’s some way else I could be applying myself.” Wu says the writing “poured out of me.” That same month, she got a message from a studio executive she knew, wondering if she was working on anything. “It was the weirdest thing,” Wu says.
She took some writing for hire jobs and then began to revisit an idea she’d had a few years earlier; a twist on “Cyrano de Bergerac” set in high school. But unlike other versions of the Edmund Rostand classic, such as Steve Martin’s “Roxanne” or the more recent teen comedy “Sierra Burgess Is a Loser,” there’s a much more complex reason the lead can’t reveal their feelings — in those stories, it’s primarily about the character not being considered attractive enough for the object of their affection. “But women date men who are considered not traditionally attractive all the time and vice-versa,” Wu notes. “In this case, the main character is closeted even to herself. It gives it a very clear reason why she’s terrified to tell anyone about her crush.”
When she finished the script, Wu sent it around to a few people she still knew in the industry, and the response was shockingly swift. Within four months, several people had expressed interest, including Netflix, which didn’t yet have the cachet it would soon see thanks to films like “Roma” or “Marriage Story.” Still, Wu knew that Netflix would get eyeballs on her film. “I tend to take these commercial hooks and take characters who are almost never the main characters, but more a side character or even an extra and show the specificity and textures of people you don’t usually see. And then we can identify with them,” she says. “So if I can get a 60-year-old, straight, conservative white guy to start identifying with a 17-year-old closeted Asian immigrant nerd or her depressed dad who’s lost the love of his life, I’ve won. Any time you can increase the human capacity for empathy, it’s a victory.”
Netflix ended up being “an amazing creative partner,” trusting Wu’s vision, which included casting actors who weren’t already names. “I really wanted fresh faces and wanted people to believe they exist, not that they’re not watching some kid they’ve already seen in three teen movies,” Wu says of the casting process, in which she estimates she saw 500-600 people for each of the three main roles. “I’m sure I drive casting directors crazy because I’m so super specific.”
Her trio of leads are all big discoveries, beginning with Lewis who Wu says is very different from the introverted Ellie. “She’s beautiful, she’s funny she can sing. She’s so interesting to watch,” raves Wu. “Ellie is a character who hates attention because any attention is bad. So I was basically asking Leah to strip away all the things that she’s built through her life that are really wonderful. And she was more than up for it.”
For the roles of Paul and Astrid, Wu needed actors who could defy easy stereotypes. “Paul is a tough role, he can’t just be a charismatic pretty boy,” she says. “Paul is actually the most emotionally intelligent character in the movie, he’s the one who’s going to change Ellie. And Daniel has an inherent goodness that you see come through.”
Astrid could also be easily dismissed as the pretty girl, but Lemire brings so much more to the role, making it easy to believe the melancholy behind her beauty (and that she would be a Wim Wenders fan.) “Alexxis is so good, I worry people will take her for granted,” Wu admits. “There’s a way she delivers her lines in such a nuanced way, there is so much quiet intelligence behind it. She’s such an intuitive actor; some days I’d be like, what’s the least amount I can say to her for an adjustment so she can go with her instincts?”
Most importantly, Wu says, “All three of my actors were a dream to work with” — which made stepping back behind the camera even more of a joy for the sophomore director. “I love directing,” Wu enthuses. “I love being on a set so much. I’ve never found anything else that uses so many parts of me – intellectually, physically, emotionally. And I love it.”
Odds are it won’t be another 15 years before she does it again; this time, she says she was prepared for the next steps. “I have projects that have been percolating in my head the last 10 years, some more fleshed out than others,” Wu says. Right now, it’s about getting the word out about “The Half Of It.” And while her characters are young, Wu believes everyone can relate to the material. “It’s a movie with teenagers in it, but I feel you could be in your 70s and relate to it,” she notes. “Besides, I feel we all regress to teens when dealing with romance.”