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‘Dìdi’ Director Sean Wang at SFFILM 2024 Opening Night

Like many coming-of-age directorial feature debuts, Dìdi (弟弟) is semiautobiographical, but Sean Wang’s personal background played as much of a role in literally making the movie as it did in inspiring its narrative.

The film, which was acquired by Focus after winning the U.S. Dramatic Audience Award at Sundance in January, is the opening night feature tonight at SFFILM, Wang’s hometown festival. Both fests played a role in the development of the movie, with Wang having picked up multiple grants and fellowship awards, including a 2022 SFFILM Rainin Grant, in his journey to the screen. His tenure at the Google Creative Lab before becoming a professional filmmaker also equipped him with a unique cinematic toolkit for telling a hyper-specific story about being an adolescent during social media’s adolescence.

And finally, Wang not only depicts a fictionalized version of his family unit in the movie, with Joan Chen playing protagonist Chris (Izaac Wang)’s mom, but he also cast one of his real-life grandmas, memorably featured in his Oscar-nominated documentary short Nǎi Nai & Wài Pó, as — who else? — Chris’ grandmother.

What role has SFFILM played in your journey?

SFFILM to me has always been the flagship festival in the Bay Area but also at large. They have such a global presence, and it means so much to me personally before they ever supported me as a filmmaker. I grew up in Fremont, Calif. I didn’t know any other filmmakers. My way in was not from what you would call independent film. It was from skate videos first, and then short films on the Internet. It wasn’t until later that I found out about SFFILM and films like Fruitvale Station and Medicine for Melancholy and realizing there was this collective of Bay Area filmmakers and films that have been supported by SFFILM that really shaped me.

Specific to Dìdi, the support they gave me financially through the Rainin grants really allowed me time to write. I can direct and edit at the same time and juggle multiple projects, but when I write, I really have to sort of take an L on other parts of my life, like making money. The Rainin Grants allowed me to be like, ok, the time I would normally dedicate to commercial work, I’m just going to take two months and see if there’s something here with the script.

And then the beautiful thing about Rainin was every month they pair you with a different industry mentor, so every single month I would share the script with someone who had objective eyes. They would engage with it incredibly critically and thoughtfully, I’d get amazing notes, I would go off and write, and then I’d send it to someone new the next month, and every single month I felt like I was pushing the ball forward, until the end of the Rainin grant cycle, I was like, I’m ready to make this movie. So SFFILM really made it feel real.

When you were setting out to tell your own semiautobiographical coming-of-age story, what were the aspects of that experience you really wanted to bring to life?

When I look back at my childhood and the things that me and my friends reminisce about, it is mostly during that time period. We describe it as the time when you’re the worst version of yourself, having the best time of your life. All of our crazy, insane, funny stories come from the middle school time. It wasn’t until my early 20s that I had enough distance and realized a lot of things that had shaped me in ways that I didn’t even realize, like in the movie when people say, “You’re the coolest Asian I know” or “You’re cute for an Asian.” When I was 13 I was like, that’s a compliment, and in my 20s I was like, that’s backhanded. But you don’t have that vocabulary when you’re 13. You only do when you’re looking back.

The seed of the idea was, what if you took a movie like Stand By Me but set it in Fremont and had it star kids who looked and talked and felt like the kids that I grew up with? What does that do to the story? Ultimately every exercise became making it more and more specific. And hopefully that hyper-specificity also is an opportunity. Because you look at the American canon of coming-of-age movies about the adolescent experience — in 2018 Eighth Grade and Mid90s came out, and Lady Bird came out the year before and all their posters are just the protagonist’s face, huge. The one about a 13-year-old Asian American boy that actually takes up space in the culture, that poster doesn’t exist. That’s an opportunity. If all those movies are using hyper-specificity to get to a different angle into this genre, we can do the same thing and provide one that’s entirely new.

I noticed Aneesh Chaganty is thanked in the credits, and there are elements of the way you use the second screen in Dìdi that reminded me of Searching. Did you meet when you both worked at Google?

Aneesh is a dear friend. He’s been such a mentor without being like, “I’m your mentor.” We both grew up in the Bay Area, we both graduated from USC. I met him when he sold the pitch for Searching and left Google to go make it. I basically took his job when he left. That first year at Google, I felt like I was learning a filmmaking language that no one else really knew, which was the language of technology and how we take these screens and interfaces that we use every day and make them feel familiar and human and emotional and use them in a storytelling container. I thought, what do I do with all this knowledge in a way that is beneficial and new? Well, MySpace, AIM, all of that hasn’t really been depicted in a way that I felt was honest to how kids use the Internet. Which is, we didn’t want our Internet to feel like The Social Network. We didn’t want it to be, like, hacker music. We wanted you to hear the mouse movements and the breathing and what it feels like to actually sit in front of your computer. But that’s not cinematic when people think about using the Internet. They feel like they need to use bells and whistles to make it feel alive, and I’m like, I think I know the bells and whistles, and it’s putting [the camera] on the screen instead of the person, and using all the cursor movements and the backspaces to bring the drama. And so Aneesh and I talked a lot about that. He watched a rough cut of the movie and had a lot of great notes about the most specific screen stuff you could possibly think. He was like, “That scene’s great, but once you get the After Effects wiggle in…”

Your cast includes everyone from Joan Chen to your own wài pó (maternal grandmother), playing Chris’ nǎi nai (paternal grandmother). Tell me about getting both of them involved.

The short of it is I’m the luckiest director ever. Joan’s not just a screen legend, but she’s a Bay Area legend — she lives in San Francisco. We were like, if Joan would do this, that would be amazing because she’s awesome… and also her travel fees would be so affordable for us. We sent her the script and she read it and we met for coffee in San Francisco. She told me, “I would love to do the movie, but I want you to want me to do the movie.” I was like, what? You’re giving me the luxury of choice? Like, no director gets that. She’s said, “I’ll screentest for you, I just want you to make sure that you want me to do the movie.” We left the coffee and I texted her a minute later and was like, yep, let’s do the movie together.

With my grandma, I was always very excited about that possibility. We had already done the short together. While we were bringing Joan on, I was reading with my grandma and I kept saying to her, “You’re gonna star in our movie, right?” She was like, well, if you’re that confident in me, I’ll consider it. And then it got to that point where I just felt like this was right. The first day Joan and my grandma had a scene together, I was sweating bullets because if this movie doesn’t work, it can’t be because of my grandma. I didn’t want to embarrass her. We rehearsed the scene, and Joan put her hand on my shoulder. She was like, “You have nothing to worry about. She’s incredible.”

Joan gave the movie such a special gift. A lot of seasoned actors or actresses could be like, “What is this movie, with all these non-experienced actors and this first-time director who casted his grandma? I worked with Ang Lee!” On paper that sounds like a recipe for disaster, but she saw what we were trying to do. She really made the set a space for someone like Grandma, who’s never acted before, to try things and feel safe and see what happens. She would stay on set and do origami with my grandma and hang out with her daughter and everyone else on set. I look back on that whole experience and can’t believe we got someone like Joan to give us so much. It was so special.

What has been your grandmother’s reaction to all of this?

She’s like, “How did I stumble here? This is what it’s like having a director grandson, you just get put in these movies?” (Laughs.) But I think it’s very fun for her. Wài pó especially still having a little stamina, being in her early to mid-80s, has just enough youthfulness in her physicality to actually be able to do some of this stuff. These things that she’s doing have never even once crossed her mind as an option in life. That whole whirlwind of going to Sundance, getting nominated for an Oscar, being on the red carpet, for my grandmas it was like, “What the hell? You asked us to be in your little movies, we had no idea you were gonna be in theaters and be at these red carpets.” I was like, “I didn’t know either!”

Interview edited for length and clarity.


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