Patrick Wang's In the Family is a Tennessee-set story about Joey (played by Wang), a man who loses legal custody of his six-year-old son Chip after his parther Cody (the biological father) dies in a car accident. With a synopsis like that, Trevor St. John, as Cody, is technically -- and expectedly -- killed off early in the movie.
However, St. John (and Wang) keep the character of Cody very much alive through vivid flashbacks -- of Cody and Joey meeting for the first time, of Cody dealing with an unexpected tragedy, of Cody gradually seeing Joey in a new light while listening to a Chip Taylor record -- and we not only given a very full portrait of how their relationship has evolved over the last several years, but we also feel Cody's presence (and absence) strongly throughout the entire film.
Trevor St. John previously starred on ABC's One Life to Live. He talks to APA about his role in In the Family.
Asia Pacific Arts: What first attracted you to the In the Family script?
Trevor St. John: I was really struck by the story. What's wonderful about it is that there are a lot of elements that are socially topical and the subject of a lot of political, moral, and ethical debate -- two-dad families, the subject of raising a child in that environment, dealing with racism, and how all of that is manifested in the South -- but Patrick doesn't make it about that. It's really just a touching story about a father and son -- and their struggle to be together. There's a simplicity behind it.
Nowadays, you just get movies where this is what it's about. [For example,] the treatise on gay marriage. Patrick just makes it about the story, and he uses these things to create conflict and complexity. He makes it about people, fatherhood, and what's like to be in a relationship -- irrespective of the framework.
Also, he's a good dialogue writer. He understands human nature as all great writers do.
APA: How did you see the character of Cody?
TSJ: I thought his life was very chaotic. What I wanted to do was create a character that is unpredictable -- who can be a lovely father, but then be really horrifying. Who can be stupid and then smart and then weak and then strong. That's how I like to approach everything. You can't define things in one way.
APA: In APA's interview with Patrick Wang, he credits you with creating spaces within certain difficult scenes -- for example, the 10-min shot when Cody is drunk -- and guiding the pace of these moments to create something that became very poignant. What was your acting approach for these scenes?
TSJ: My approach was just that the scenes should take whatever time they needed. And in that particular moment, Cody was wrapped up in himself and his circumstances. So I just allowed things to happen as they did. It took a long time to get to where we were going, and that was one of the great things about the writing: the characters go a lot of different places in that scene. And if you get there naturally, sometimes it goes quickly, and sometimes it goes slowly.
Acting's really the worst when it looks like an actor is picking up his or her cues. People just don't do that [in life]. There was no hurry in that scene. Neither character knew what they wanted or what they were looking for, so it needed time to evolve.
But I think it's all Patrick. Patrick knew he had the right actors, he allowed people to have their own rhythm and gave them the space to have a non-performance. Picking up cues is all about performance, and if you do away with even the idea of performance, things can go slow, fast, or anywhere in between.
Most of that stuff about picking up the cues is the fear that the writing isn't good enough, that the situation isn't good enough. The directors ask the actors to pick up their cues, so the audience doesn't get bored of the film.
Patrick believed in his material, and when you believe in your material, you can let it breathe and be what it is.
APA: What was your first impression of Patrick, as the first-time filmmaker who was guiding this ambitious project?
TSJ: I saw him as a thoughtful guy. Not in his head necessarily, but deliberate. He was interested in other people and their thoughts. He's a sweet guy, intelligent, obviously very creative, and a real artist. I liked him as a person, cause he didn't take himself too seriously, which is important. Yet, at the same time, he doesn't lack for confidence. He and I are a lot alike: we both think we're right all the time. [laughs]
APA: Did this translate into his directing style?
TSJ: Oh yea, I didn't see any difference. That's what's great about him. Off the set or on the set, there was no difference. He didn't seem like he was under a lot of stress. He might have been, but he didn't show it. He was cool and calm and deliberate and listened. Very considerate.
APA: What did you think of the film when you saw it for the first time?
TSJ: I recall being pleased. All the acting was really great. I was really pleased with what I did. I was so impressed by his choices of how to shoot things. He gave the audience such a great deal of respect. He lets the audience choose where they want to put their attention. He's got the camera locked off in a wide shot and lets the actors play within it.
That's something old school you don't see much anymore, because nobody trusts the audience. No one thinks the audience is savvy enough to handle a camera that is not moving. That they can watch things unfold before them and not get bored. People compare [Patrick] to Cassavetes. And Mike Leigh. Kubrick used to do that a lot too. It's not very popular anymore.
APA: There was six months after the film's completion when nobody wanted it. Did you guys have discussions during that period?
TSJ: The big thing was the running time. That's what everyone had a problem with. They liked the movie, but everyone was scared of the running time. People weren't even watching the screeners because they saw the running time. Patrick knew that he was taking a huge risk keeping it this long, and that it'd be a big turn-off for festivals -- unless you're a superstar director and then they'll take your film even if it's 5 hours. But they're not going to do that for Patrick, because he's a first-timer. So we talked about the running time in the edit. He discovered that it was very hard to get a movie that long into the festivals.
There is a reality of the business in relation to the running time, but I expressed to him how I much respected the fact that he was going to stick to his piece of art. He's drawn this painting, if you will, and this is it. Who's to say a movie's supposed to be longer than this or shorter than that? He's saying to the world, this is my art. Like it or not. Take it or leave it. So you gotta really respect that.
Now that it's getting great reviews, people who had decided not to watch it are now going, "Oops." The movie has far surpassed my expectations. I chose to do this film for the practice, a little something more to add to my reel. [laughs] When you do any movie -- especially a ultra-low-budget film -- you don't expect it to ever see the light of day. You can't go into any film expecting anyone to ever see it. So for something like this to be garnering this amount of praise and to be having a national release, it's really unbelievable.
I knew that it deserved it, but there are all sorts of things that deserve to be seen by multitudes that don't get seen. I was blown away by the whole thing, because I had low expectations. [laughs]
In the Family is playing in Los Angeles, Irvine, Knoxville, and Charlotte until Thursday, May 10. It will continue playing in more cities across the US and Canada. Go to In the Family's official website or Facebook page for more information.
Trevor St. John will soon begin shooting a remake of Tarzan in Germany. He will be playing the main role of the villain. For more information on Trevor St. John, go to his official website.
APA's In the Family Trajectory
APA interview with Patrick Wang