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Roseanne Liang (Photo: Devon Wycoff, additional design: Tina Tiller)
Roseanne Liang (Photo: Devon Wycoff, additional design: Tina Tiller)

Pop CultureMarch 3, 2024

‘Spectacle, heart and smarts’: How Roseanne Liang become Hollywood hot property

Roseanne Liang (Photo: Devon Wycoff, additional design: Tina Tiller)
Roseanne Liang (Photo: Devon Wycoff, additional design: Tina Tiller)

Tom Augustine sits down with Roseanne Liang to chart her journey from a nervous film student to working on Netflix’s Avatar: The Last Airbender reboot – and what comes next. 

Last Thursday, when the Netflix live-adaptation of Avatar: The Last Airbender finally debuted, director Roseanne Liang was still hard at work. Well, sort of. On this most auspicious of days she was talking to me in Ponsonby Central, reflecting on the culmination of two and a half years work bringing the beloved Nickelodeon title to the world of streaming. A bundle of nerves before the inevitable influx of fan reactions, she suggested we visit her favourite quiet spot, which is how I ended up sharing a banana nutella crepe in a corner with one of New Zealand’s most ascendant filmmakers.

Liang tells me her excitement is mixed with some apprehension, especially considering the property”s varied history. Most notably, a reviled M Night Shyamalan live-action adaptation from 2010 is considered by some to be the worst movie ever made. “There’s a sense of ‘Oh no, are people going to like it’? But so far fans have been really appreciative,” Liang says with no small amount of relief. “I feel like I’ve been a part of something kinda epic. And meaningful. I do feel proud.”

Over a decade ago, Roseanne Liang was already a beacon of hope for budding filmmakers like me. As students at the University of Auckland in the early 2010s, a lecturer solemnly intoned to us that it was very unlikely any of us would ever get to make an actual feature film. But, we’d tell ourselves reassuringly, there’s still Roseanne Liang. Liang had been in the cohort a few years ahead of us, and made a student film called Banana in a Nutshell that was a festival darling and a major career kickstarter. Her first feature, autobiographical romcom My Wedding and Other Secrets, was making big money across the country – she was the gold standard of ex-student success. 

But, as Liang reveals, she too was plagued by doubt and uncertainty during her film school years, and was a far cry from the poised and boisterous filmmaker on the verge of the type of major international success reached only by Jackson, Waititi, Campion, and a handful of others. The sudden influx of acclaim and opportunities that Banana in a Nutshell triggered was beyond a dream for the self-confessed “moody, tortured twentysomething” Liang, who’d made a fateful choice to defer medical school for a year to explore her passion. “I did a science and arts degree, and during Film Studies my world really opened to film criticism. Looking under the hood of movies made me realise I’ve been wanting to do this my whole life.”

Before opting for the biographical route with her breakout student film, Liang had been working on writing a vampire movie. But fate had other plans – namely the very real drama Liang had been wrestling with in her personal life, which would would eventually form the inspiration for both Nutshell and My Wedding. At the time, Liang had met and fallen for her now husband Stephen Harris. When the prospect of an engagement to a Pākehā man arose, Liang’s traditional Hong Kong Chinese parents, first generation immigrants, strongly disapproved and threatened Liang with disownment. 

Both films wrestle with heady topics of generational divide, the immigrant experience, familial and spousal love, and what it is to be a “banana in a nutshell”, or “yellow on the outside, white on the inside” in the words of the film itself. It is a lot to grapple with for a young woman, even more so to adapt it yourself into a film, talking directly about very personal and private issues. “It was instinctive. It felt like the right thing to do,” she says. “In my university years I was feeling lots of things and loved film. It just felt like the most natural thing to pick up a camera and use it as a diary.”

But what of that aforementioned vampire film? The fateful choice to set aside genre was spurred by Liang’s mentor, lecturer and filmmaker Shuchi Kothari. “Roseanne was part of the first batch of students I ever taught in New Zealand. She was extremely hard-working. There was talent, of course, but also rigour and discipline,” explains Kothari, “I was telling her that she should write genre if that’s what you love, but there’s something incredible happening in your life right now – it’s the stuff of the movies. You should write about that.” 

It paid off, and now many of the works of Liang’s early career – not just My Wedding and Banana in a Nutshell, but iconic webseries Flat 3 and short film Take 3, are staples of the New Zealand film education syllabus. “It’s crazy that they study [them] at schools,” Liang says, shaking her head, “It’s pretty weird that this thing I made so long ago is being used to teach. But I understand and support the spirit, which is that anyone can pick up a camera and speak the truth.”

Liang’s eventual return to her first love, the action genre, kicked into gear with the making of 2017’s Do No Harm, a short film that stunned the Sundance Festival with its tactility, brutality and spades of pure adrenaline. “It was a conscious choice to pursue genre that came from my experience with My Wedding,” Liang explains, “There’s a lot of people in Aotearoa who make their first feature, then they don”t make any more. And one of my objectives is to be a serial director.” 

Roseanne Liang on the set of Avatar: The Last Airbender. Image: Supplied

The stark realities of the modern Hollywood landscape were laid bare when she took her first feature overseas, and into meetings with international sales agents in the United Kingdom. “I asked where they were going to release it theatrically. And they said they weren’t going to release it anywhere. And they said no one goes to see rom-coms at the cinema anymore, particularly not ones without any stars.” 

It left Liang reeling, but it also provided clarity. “As brutal as it was, I appreciate it now. They were honest with me. They did me an honour by being straight up. They didn’t blow smoke up my ass.” The transition to her most beloved genre was a natural fit, guided by Liang’s three rules for a great action film: “spectacle, heart and smarts.” She sees her favourite film, Terminator 2: Judgement Day, as the prime example. “Character and relationships. That’s the trick. So many action movies – and I’ve read so many action scripts at this point – it’s all punch and no heart.”

But nothing, not even her experience making the daft and deeply enjoyable monster flick Shadow in the Cloud, could have prepared her for the experience of the Netflix machine on The Last Airbender. It was Liang’s first time working with an existing property, and her first time on a project as a director who wasn’t also steering the whole ship. “It was just kind of unreal… the only point of reference I had for anything like it was Creamerie. And The Last Airbender’s catering budget would dwarf Creamerie’s entire production budget.”

Perlina Lau, JJ Fong and Ally Xue in season two of Creamerie. (Photo: TVNZ+)

Liang ultimately saw the experience as an “incredible education”. “I’m there as part of a team. Not a cog in a machine, but one of a team. And I have my superiors. It makes you feel part of something bigger than yourself.” Taking the leap of faith on the series, whose Covid delayed shoot in the dead of Vancouver winter meant long periods away from her husband and two children, came down to the quality of the original text. “I feel like it’s this generation’s Star Wars. The way I feel about Star Wars is the way the fans feel about this and when I watched all three seasons I was a convert,” she says of The Last Airbender. “ It’s so perennial but also it’s about now. Timeless and timely.” 

Timeliness is another reason that Liang has become such an icon in the New Zealand film scene. The short-lived webseries boom of the early 2010s provided the perfect moment for Flat 3, just as the post-MeToo, mid-pandemic world aligned with the concerns of Creamerie. Actress Perlina Lau (who stars in Creamerie and Flat 3, as well as spinoff series Friday Night Bites) says the initial collaboration between Liang and Lau (alongside co-stars JJ Fong and Ally Xue) was also a matter of timing. “Initially we just wanted to get Roseanne’s thoughts on the series. We met at Ponsonby Food Court and discussed the concept and we never imagined she’d have time to be involved.” Turns out she didn’t just have time, but she wanted to direct and edit it. 

Lau points out that Liang’s success is not just significant as a New Zealander, but also as an Asian woman. “The more work you have out there from diverse points of view is only a benefit. For us it was always about being part of it, adding our bit to the fabric,” she says. “We made Flat 3 and Creamerie because we looked at the landscape and thought there wasn’t much space out there for three female leads, much less three Asian women.” She adds that Liang’s success, while meteoric, is also the result of a truly disciplined work ethic. “We’ve all seen the years of work behind the scenes to reach this point. The years of writing stuff and going for funding and all that. 

“Now that it’s happening for her, it’s so rewarding.”

Liang at the Netflix premiere of Avatar: The Last Airbender

Liang has always been passionate about representation in New Zealand for pan-Asian creators. She was one of the co-founders of the Pan-Asian Screen Collective, alongside Kothari and others, which has been responsible for putting a higher quota of pan-Asian creators on the map. “When we got together our goal was very clear,” says Kothari, “We felt like there were enough Asians in this industry who felt underrepresented, who wanted to have opportunities and some sort of community.” Liang is quick to champion the work of the PASC, but adds that the battle is far from won. “I don’t want to be the only one doing this. It doesn’t help me if only one of us is doing this.” 

It’s been over a decade since she made My Wedding and Other Secrets, the very first New Zealand film made by an Asian-New Zealander, in 2011. “I think the only one since then has been Gaysorn Thavat’s The Justice of Bunny King,” says Liang. “That’s too long and too few.” She believes that maintaining a sense of urgency when it comes to changing the industry is the key. “It’s not that it isn’t working, but that it isn’t going fast enough. And now with budget cuts and more on the horizon, we really have to stay the course. What’s the point of planting the seeds and not watering them?”

Liang’s other aims for the rest of this sure-to-be busy year? “I just want to do the things that feel fulfilling to me, and balance that with family and life. I need to live life and make cool shit.” That she’ll be doing that alongside Angelina Jolie and Halle Berry while directing Maude vs Maude isn’t a bad addition either. Though Liang can’t talk much about the project, she does provide tantalising references to La Femme Nikita, Mission: Impossible – Fallout, and Skyfall, as well as the bringing together of “two titans” in Michael Mann’s Heat. 

Liang on set on Avatar: The Last Airbender. Image: Supplied

“Neither actress has done a movie with another woman as an action equal before. It’ll be muscular and thrilling, but it’ll have heart too. Spectacle, heart, smarts.” And what has she made of her conversations with the actresses? “They”re just really smart women with great taste. They care about action and story and character as much as the nerds do. They’re very well watched and read. They’re action nerds themselves. They”re icons, but they want to do something new with the genre.”

If there is a secret to Liang’s success, she would be just as eager to know it as anyone else. “I still can’t tell what’s going to be popular or capture people’s imagination,” she says. “I can’t sit here and say ‘I’m gonna make you a hit, I’m gonna light Sundance on fire again”. Typical of a one-time film student, she is still plagued by those nagging questions of self doubt “Why am I doing this? Why am I busting my ass, why am I spending time away from my family? What is it for?” 

Luckily, she also has the answers. “It’s gotta be for something excellent, something so good that you can’t help but do it,” she says.

“And I will work myself into the ground for it to be excellent.”

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