Annie Q. and Francesca Eastwood

The Cathartic Expansion of One’s Tribe: An Interview With Director Angie Wang of ‘Cardinal X’

"I was a kid that grew up longing for a sense of community, acceptance and belonging, and that's really the most beautiful thing that I've found through making this film."

“…[It’s] important for us … to be thoughtful, and show the kind of compassion that can hopefully inspire empathy, which I think is sorely lacking in this world right now.”

Writer-director Angie Wang turns the camera onto her past with the semi-autobiographical Cardinal X. When her aspiration of remaining at a prestigious university is threatened by a cut to her financial aid, Angie (Annie Q.) begins synthesising Ecstasy, quickly becoming one of the largest distributors of ‘X’ on the west coast in the mid-’80s.

Wang’s journey towards filmmaking emerges out of a belief: “The media has the power to shape hearts and minds.” Here is a filmmaker who understands cinema as reaching beyond concerns of self-expression, the entertainment or appreciation of the audience to connect with something bigger. “In film we can help to rip down the barrier a little and it’s again about focusing on the solidarity of the human experience, this thing that binds us all together” says Wang.

In conversation with PopMatters, Wang reflected on an intimate bond with cinema — the comforting presence of cinema as a spectator, to the cathartic experience of film as an artist. She also discussed the relationship of film to the conscious and unconscious mind within the human experience, as well as film defined by a “mosaic” expression through which she expanded her tribe.

How did you reach the decision to write and direct Cardinal X, and what are your feelings on the experience as it now makes its way into the world?

Well it’s the most gratifying and terrifying concept next to having a child [laughs]. It’s very similar to having a baby. I had a career in Silicon Valley and then I founded a non-profit. Honestly, I think I had an existentialist crisis because I had all this free time on my hands. I am a terrible PTA mom, so I founded the non-profit and it was very gratifying work. But I found that when I went out to try to talk to my well-healed neighbours about the reality of some of the kids I was working with, there was a real block that went up. They didn’t really have a lot of empathy because it’s very painful for them to go there. They’d write me a cheque which was great, but they didn’t really want to hear or to understand the plight of these kids.

I kept thinking how the media has the power to shape hearts and minds. I was a kid who was brought up on film and TV, and growing up there were some dark times. I found a lot of solace in the cinema and television — characters I could relate to. It was very comforting for me to transport myself to an alternate reality, and meet people that I wouldn’t get to meet in real life. So I thought, Okay, I’m going to write this script.

Our society is at a critical point because if we are unable to have empathy, to come together and to understand there’s a solidarity to the human experience, then we are just going to continue to spiral out of control. So I sat down to write a script about the kids and then my little voice said: “You know, if you don’t have the guts to tell your own story, then you really shouldn’t be telling other people’s stories.” I realised the way I got these kids to open up and grant them permission to talk about their own pasts was to just talk about mine. So I thought, Well there’s a certain salacious aspect to my story and hopefully that will sell.

I also think it was a really cathartic process. I sat down and wrote the script, sent it out for coverage and found a great producer in Rick Bosner to work with. At a certain point you look behind you and think: Wow, I’m pretty far along this process, and it becomes a runaway freight train as Rick puts it. Then you’re just committed: Alright, I’m fucking making this movie [laughs].

Director Angie Wang on set (photo courtesy of Prodigy PR)

Picking up on your point about the film representing a cathartic experience, C.G Jung contextualised dreams as a means for us to solve the problems we cannot solve in our waking state. If we consider the way in which a film can access our memories and influence the emotions we project onto a film, is this suggestive of a connection between cinema and dreams?

Well, I think a good film is born from dreams. There’s a certain aspect of ourselves that’s very dark, is underwater and that’s in keeping with what Jung talks about. There’s a whole stream of consciousness, a collective unconscious that some of us are more tapped into than others. But we all have the ability and so for me this is where my dream world lies.

Being able to tap into that and highlight the solidarity of the human experience, the whole consciousness that we share, but we don’t talk about and so are unaware of, to be able to project that on screen is hugely gratifying — it’s why I do it. So if film is a dream, maybe it’s a reality in some ways for me. To also have something that has lived in my head, both my subconscious and conscious presented onscreen is very gratifying. It’s like giving birth because it’s you, but it’s also the rest of humanity, and it’s filtered through your entire team’s sense of reality and identity. It becomes this beautiful mosaic of a lot of different people’s hearts and minds.

The auteur theory identifies the director as the author of a film, yet you describe a film has being a collaborative “mosaic”. How do you perceive the idea of authorship within film and how it relates to collaboration?

Oh, I think the collaborative process is probably the most gratifying aspect, it’s really beautiful. You share your heart with people that are bleeding for your vision, and it’s a reality that’s again filtered through their perception. So it becomes something different, something melded. I would say that it’s up to me to hold the vision and communicate that very cleanly, but then I’m not the type of director who is going to say to an actor: “I want you to squint your face up to the left now and make sure a tear squeezes out of the right eye.” I just want them to experience the emotions in a very authentic way, and to have the reality filter through them because then it’s a part of me, it’s a part of them and that’s the most beautiful process.

It’s the same when you work with costumes and production. A lot of it is they have to understand what your vision is and in some ways it’s their interpretation, which is one of the most beautiful aspects because you form your tribe, get a sense of family, and you are working for the purpose of putting something up on the screen.

Did the actors surprise you in their interpretation of the characters, revealing things that allowed you to see your younger self, the past and these characters in a different light?

The best example of that is with my lead [Annie Q]. I obviously had a very specific vision of who Angie was — she’s a younger version of myself in many ways, but she became someone else through Annie’s experience. She wrote me this very courageous, thoughtful and passionate e-mail, which you are not supposed to do in this industry and offered to fly herself out to read for me. She was the first one to read and I remember thinking: This girl is so young, she’s so tiny, weighs like eighty five pounds and I’m a behemoth next to her. She was so fragile and I didn’t know that I had really thought of myself as being that fragile, so I passed on her initially, although I kept in contact because I really liked her.

Later, sitting across the dinner table from my daughter who was 16 and my step-daughter who was 17 I had a realisation. I remember thinking how this character is closer to their age than the Hollywood college age, and my own perception of that was completely skewed because I was looking at myself. I never viewed myself as being that young and vulnerable, but I was — this 18-year-old, damaged reckless girl. It was a little overwhelming for me initially, but it led me to cast Annie, which was definitely the right choice.

Annie Q as Angie

The approach you take with Cardinal X is not attempt to simplify the human experience. While Angie is a character that could be seen by the audience as a questionable character, one of her friends tells her that she has a great heart. The film lacks an interest in defining people as good or bad, moral or immoral, and by taking such an approach it reminds us of how we habitually interpret through a black and white filter.

We are force fed all this bullshit by the media and I know that the US is a very adversarial society: you go to court, there are the Republicans versus the Democrats. It’s always Us versus Them, which to me is the absolute wrong attitude or perspective to have if you really want us to proceed forward and deepen our humanity. There’s definitely a tendency to want to oversimplify, to show something, maybe in the media that gets filtered down to the rest of society, which does not want to dig and to understand. It takes a lot more compassion and a lot more skill, a lot more experience than we give ourselves credit for, but we are all capable of it.

There’s a profound sense of satisfaction that comes with truly understanding someone or something. But it’s a hard thing to do, and not something that’s necessarily fostered. We’re not really taught how to be compassionate in this world, in our society in particular and if you just look at the trade rags, people like to jump on the bandwagon. I remember when Lindsay Lohan was spiralling out of control, people just loved to hate her. I kept thinking: She’s a young girl obviously in a lot of pain, let’s try to understand where this is coming from because we can probably learn something about ourselves as well.

So I do think it’s important for us as people putting our visions up on the screen to be thoughtful, and show the kind of compassion that can hopefully inspire empathy, which I think is sorely lacking in this world right now.

In this time of austerity, when the arts are facing growing cuts, is it important to recognise that they are a vital tool in nurturing empathy within society, by promoting a greater sense of solidarity? Can the arts realistically champion such an ideal?

I hope so. It’s the perfect format and at its best that’s what cinema does. There’s also unfortunately a lot of trash cinema, but I think people want to be entertained and at its best cinema is a valuable tool — as I said before, shaping hearts and minds, inspiring empathy and guiding someone to question their own perspective and perhaps broaden it. That’s why I love it.

I used to sell software and when I think about it now, it was so boring. I didn’t feel that I could be myself, I didn’t feel understood and I didn’t feel that I understood other people that well because there was such a barrier between us. In film we can help to rip down the barrier a little and it’s again about focusing on the solidarity of the human experience, this thing that binds us all together.

I was a total outlier growing up. I just wasn’t like other people, but what I have found in filmmaking is a tribe of other outliers that embrace rather than try to push that away. I love the film Moonlight. It was a beautiful film, a great example of humanising something, inspiring empathy and for me it was just a really beautiful experience.

When I interviewed Carol Morley, director of The Falling she explained: “You take it 90% of the way, and it is the audience that finishes it. So the audience by bringing themselves: their experiences, opinions and everything else to a film is what completes it.” And if the audience are the ones that complete it, does it follow that there is a transfer in ownership?

Absolutely! I am putting it out there — it’s not just me — to share it, to engage with the world and I think each pair of eyes that sees it becomes part of the experience. So it absolutely becomes their movie as well, and how it imprints on them and how they carry that experience forward is a ripple effect. I love that about film because it’s not just my baby anymore.

First of all it belongs to everyone who worked on it and I believe that very dearly. When you lay eyes on it, when you have an experience and engage with it, when you learn more about yourself and the rest of the world through it, then the film hopefully becomes yours also.

Filmmaker Christoph Behl remarked to me in an interview for FrightFest: “You are evolving, and after the film you are not the same person as you were before.” Do you perceive there to be a transformative aspect to the creative process?

It’s definitely transformative. People are always saying to me: “Oh, it must be a dream come true that you put this movie out there”, and it’s a dream come true, but probably not for the reasons that people think. I was a kid that grew up longing for a sense of community, acceptance and belonging, and that’s really the most beautiful thing that I’ve found through making this film. Every step of the journey I found more people to add to my tribe. I found more people that I could really connect and collaborate with who put their hearts into my project, which I am so grateful for. It changed me in that I have a family and I now have this very extended beautiful tribe of people who I love, and who I would never have met had it not been for this experience.

It’s a great way to just expand who you are, your perception of the world and for me it is my belief in the world. It definitely had a healing effect on me and changed me from someone that felt very isolated, to someone who feels included and is anxious to include other people.

Cardinal X screens at The Los Angeles Asian Pacific Film Festival on Sunday 30 April (LA Premiere) and on Wednesday 3 May, and will receive its New York Premiere at The New York City Independent Film Festival on Sunday, 7 May.