New Zealand film-maker Roseanne Liang has just brought her direct, funny and empathetic directorial voice to a big-budget American action thriller. She talks to Michelle Langstone about cosmic partnerships, her love of fight sequences, and how she inadvertently found herself caught up in a #MeToo scandal.
Portraits by Edith Amituanai
I’ve never seen anyone light up the way Roseanne Liang lights up when she talks about film. The 42-year-old director takes on a glow like a lantern when she mentions the “woo woo” nature of cinema, and how, she says, “It is one of the clearest empathy links to other people that I have ever experienced in my life, and it happens on a mass scale. There’s nothing quite like watching something on a screen, and feeling like someone you’ve never met is speaking straight to your experience and your heart.” The way she expounds on the power of story in transforming human experience is something like a sermon, and Liang, petite and considered, appears to grow in size as she talks. You can’t help but feed off her enthusiasm, and find yourself grinning like a faith-healed lunatic.
In a little apartment in Auckland’s Herne Bay that Liang uses as a bolthole when she’s filming, the Saturday morning sun bathes us in a watery glow. In the other room there’s a bed that appears hastily made up, and the living room is mostly bare, except for a table, some chairs, and a bookcase filled with bits and bobs – a box of toys on one shelf, presumably for her kids when they stop by, a collection of Totoro figurines from the Miyazaki film My Neighbour Totoro. Liang perches on a chair with one foot tucked up under, her fingers wrapped around a mug of hot water. Her eyes are attentive, and she searches my face like she’s trying to guess my questions. The whiteboard on the wall behind her is empty.
Roseanne Liang is on a roll. Fresh off the back of directing the big-budget Hollywood film Shadow in the Cloud, she’s now shooting a new drama series called Creamerie, with her long-time collaborative partners Perlina Lau, JJ Fong and Ally Xue. They make up Flat 3 Productions, the creative force behind the hilariously frank web series Flat 3, which pushed their comedic talents to the fore. Liang refers to their partnership as “cosmic” – Fong and Xue approached her because they wanted to collaborate, because they were fed up at not seeing Asian faces on New Zealand screens, sick of auditioning for thin stereotypes. Liang had made a name for herself with My Wedding and Other Secrets, the semi-autobiographical film based on her documentary Banana In A Nutshell, about marrying outside her Chinese heritage, and was already pushing for more diverse representation on screen. Her film was number one at the NZ box office in 2011, and it heralded the arrival of Liang’s direct, funny and empathetic directorial voice.
Flat 3 was the first time New Zealanders really saw Asian women do comedy, and the show was a hit. For Liang, the daughter of immigrants from Hong Kong, it was the beginning of a partnership she cherishes. Creamerie marks a departure for the group, moving into 30-minute episodic drama for the first time. The premise is prescient – after a virus decimates the world’s male population, women are left to fend for themselves. Liang laughs when asked if it’s an answering call to The Handmaid’s Tale, Hulu’s relentlessly grim adaptation of the Margaret Atwood novel. “In 2018 we’d just finished watching season two of The Handmaid’s Tale, and like a lot of people, we felt betrayed. It’s so heavy, and with the #MeToo movement, and everything that’s happening around that, it just felt like there was no hope. So we literally were like: what if there was a funnier version of The Handmaid’s Tale? And that’s where it came from.” They riffed on the idea, and switched the power structure so that it lies with the women. In this version of Gilead, it’s three Asian women managing a farm who carry the story, and the surprise arrival of a man, played by Jay Ryan, throws the order out of balance.
Out in Manurewa, south Auckland, Creamerie is in its third shoot week, and Liang is in her natural habitat. Dressed in a casual pants and a sweater with a harried-looking cat on it that says “I’m a wreck”, she’s everywhere at once, darting from the apple box she sits on to peer at the monitor, to set, where she examines a lens and decides on a shot with director of photography Marty Smith. Then she’s back again, sitting neatly, leaning forward and gazing at the monitor like she’s memorising it. There’s a clarity and economy to the way she directs; the years of speech and drama her mother, like a “classic immigrant parent”, enrolled her in, show up in her voice, which cuts through the noise and bustle of set. She’s a deft spirit, and when she watches the takes, her facial expressions move like quicksilver: frowning, grinning, mouthing the dialogue.
Liang laughs often, and she laughs with her actors, who lean in to listen to her direction, and break away in peals of giggles when she describes something she wants. She’s shooting a scene with Perlina Lau, and the ease in the way they work together is evident. Eight years of collaboration means there are a lot of in-jokes and history, but more importantly, a direct route to achieving what they want from their work: “There is a shorthand. I can be pretty blunt with them, and they can be pretty blunt with me, and there’s a certain joy to be like – nah that’s shit! We don’t take that personally.” Liang calls cut on a take and declares she’s happy to move on. She demonstrates Lau’s acting back to her with remarkable accuracy, and they crack up.
Liang got the news that Creamerie had received NZ on Air funding while she was in the middle of shooting Shadow in the Cloud, in Auckland. She’d come on board the American action thriller off the back of the success she generated with her short film Do No Harm. The short premiered at Sundance Film Festival in 2017 and Liang blew everyone away with her pacy, slick action film about a surgeon protecting her patient from gangsters. She’d wanted to direct action films all her life, but funding them was difficult. Do No Harm announced her arrival in the way all directors must dream of – she landed US management, and was named by the Alice Initiative as one of “20 female film-makers to watch”. The reception to Liang was unanimously enthusiastic, and she attributes it not just to her film, but to being what she calls “a rare proposition” – not only a woman directing action, but a woman of colour, and a lover of genre films.
She was handed the script to Shadow in the Cloud, a wartime feature about a female pilot wrestling with a sinister presence on a plane. The film stars Chloë Grace Moretz, and allowed Liang to realise her dream of shooting a big-budget action flick, a film she says defies genre: “I think it’s an out-of-the-box movie. If there’s one thing that can be said for it, it’s that I don’t think anyone can predict what it is. It’s not a superhero movie, even though it’s got a superhero-type character in it, it’s not a period drama because it’s set in a world war. It’s something else altogether. I love it.”
Originally meant to film in Germany, the film ended up in New Zealand thanks to the government’s tax incentives. Shooting on her home turf helped ease a little of the pressure Liang felt in helming such a big project: “If it was in America or Germany, it would have been another level up. I would have been away from my family, getting to know a new culture. I love New Zealand crews because they’re no nonsense and there’s less egos, I think. There is that sense of “Don’t think you’re hot shit”. When she talks about getting to direct the big fight sequences in the film, she practically vibrates with joy. “It was so fun! It really is a dream and I want to get into more of it. I want to get into John Wick-style action – 60, 120 beats of action!” Liang was lucky enough to work on Shadow with part of the team that produced John Wick, which was, she says, “A pinch me moment.”
Tom Hern, one of the New Zealand producers attached to Shadow in the Cloud, says Liang’s point of view is what sets her apart: “She has a unique feel for action and combat sequences. She loves that stuff. The play, the fantasy, the ‘big movie’ of it all.” Liang has not lost the wide-eyed wonder of film-making. She talks about doing the rounds on film lots in Hollywood and being amazed by the films that were shot there. On the lot that produced one of her favourite films of all time, Star Wars: Return of the Jedi, there’s a mural from the film painted on one of the walls. Liang, breathing noisily, says that it was like visiting Mecca. As Hern puts it: “She gets a kick out of the magic of it all.”
Ask Liang about her influences, and it’s a roll call of the best of the action genre – Terminator 2, Die Hard, John Wick, Mad Max: Fury Road. She’s studied those films over and over, and borrowed from the styles of fighting for her own work, where she collaborates with New Zealand stunt coordinator Tim Wong. When she describes what she loves about action sequences, her body speeds up and her hands start to work in ways that resemble fight postures. She loves fight sequences for what they reveal: “You see character in the physical choices, in the way they fight. It gives you more insight into the story. It’s always what I’m driving for.” She gives me an in-depth breakdown of the Israeli defence force fighting system Krav Maga, and her body melts into an expression of submission, and then attack, as she describes the principles of its method. She takes fighting seriously, and is clearly fascinated by the psychology and motivation of violence.
A big-budget feature is a far cry from shooting a web series or a short film, but Liang was up for the challenge. She’s hungry for it, and you see it in the way she describes the craft of the director, the choice of lenses and frames to tell a story, the film-makers she studies and obsesses over. She’s a film nerd in the greatest sense. Tom Hern is effusive in his praise for Liang: “Roseanne is deceptively driven and focused. She may appear happy-go-lucky, but she really, really cares about the material, and doing her best by it. These are the people I want to work with … people who will fight for it, hurt for it if needed. She’s definitely one of those.”
Liang found herself in the middle of the #MeToo moment when she became the director of Shadow in the Cloud. Allegations about the behaviour of the film’s writer, Max Landis, were doing the rounds. Liang took hold of the script and rewrote it, while the production and its lead actress publicly distanced themselves from Landis. Shortly after shooting completed, the Daily Beast published an exposé, and eight women came forward with serious charges, including rape and psychological abuse. It’s something Liang has been grappling with, a baptism of fire for the Hollywood rookie. There have already been pieces circulating online about boycotting films associated with Landis, and Liang chooses her words carefully: “I want to support women and I want to believe women. And if you want to boycott Shadow in the Cloud because of your feelings about Max Landis and #MeToo, I support you.” She takes a beat, the frown lifts from her forehead, and she says: “All I can say is from my point of view, it stands for what I believe in. I believe in the power of women, and the strength of women, and I think the movie does speak to this incredible well of strength that women have.”
Shadow in the Cloud is yet to announce a release date, due to the uncertainty of cinema audiences during the Covid-19 pandemic. New Zealander Tom Eagles, Oscar-nominated editor of Taika Waititi’s JoJo Rabbit, and an old university acquaintance of Liang’s, has edited it. Liang hopes people will go out to see it, and says action and genre films, like the Marvel movies, are still the biggest drawcards for audiences globally. Those are the kinds of film she wants to make, and if she could choose anything, she’d adapt Haruki Murakami’s epic, genre-bending novel 1Q84. She loves the ass-kicking female lead in the story, and the fantastical elements, like the portal to another dimension on the motorway.
I ask her if she’s taken stock of her career, and she smiles broadly. “I think the day I was coming home from LA – and this is so cheesy – but I had the soundtrack to LaLa Land in my ears, and I know people don’t love LaLa Land, but in terms of a musical it’s about that ambition, right? I think I stood in the middle of the LAX terminal listening to LaLa Land and just felt like doing a Mary Tyler Moore spin while I looked at the ceiling. You know – I’ve made it, I’ve actually made it!” The grin fades, and she deadpans, “And then the reality sets in.”
It’s a lot of pressure for a director on the rise. Liang doesn’t want to blow her chances, and she knows her future will be influenced by the success or failure of Shadow in the Cloud: “I’m appreciative and incredibly grateful that it’s happened. It’s not the end of it though – I’ve still got to walk the line and find my way.” With development for a feature-length version of Do No Harm well under way, Liang has her sights set on the big league.
Cinema isn’t all about whiz-bang stunts and effects, though. “To me it speaks to something deeper and more sacred than that,” says Liang. She sits up straighter in her chair, and presses her hands to her chest like she’s trying to hold her heart down: “This is where it gets woo woo for me – because we’re born alone and we die alone – and the time between those inexorable book marks is spent trying to understand each other, and trying to find connection.” Woo woo or otherwise – she’s gained a new believer. Take me to church.