Screen Sisters: Renee Liang and Roseanne Liang in Conversation
Sisters Roseanne and Renee Liang talk medicine, Wonder Woman, and trolls.
Roseanne Liang is a filmmaker whose Sundance-screened short film, Do No Harm, is in competition at the NZ International Film Festival. Renee Liang is a playwright, librettist and lyricist who has co-written a short directed by Steven Chow, For The Light, also screening at the Festival.
Renee: So how do you feel having your work in the Festival?
Roseanne: Super chuffed and nervous?
Renee: What part are you nervous about?
Roseanne: Showing my work to people.
Renee: I mean, is there lots of freaky gore? Awkward stereotypes? It's a departure from your 'usual' isn't it?
Roseanne: Weeell... I mean, you know I've had this thing for action since I was a kid. This is the first time I've actually done it properly, with an experienced crew and stunt team and budget (thank you NZFC!) I'm super proud of the work, but I think there is always a nervousness showing your work to people, don't you think? Do you not get nervous?
Do you not get nervous?
Renee: I definitely get nervous. And I get annoyed when people think they have my 'style' labelled. Mostly, I worry about being exposed for not practising what I preach - for example, creating a stereotype because I haven't done enough research.
Roseanne: Right, yes. That's difficult ground as a storyteller. I'm kind of in two minds about it... we shouldn't feel too scared to make work, but yes, we should work hard to find the truth in the stories we're telling.
Renee: There's also that thing, you know - pushing the boundaries of character to make a point. Venturing into parody or grotesqueness. There's always a chance that will be taken the wrong way.
You asked [our sister] Rhea for advice about your surgeon character, right? What kinds of things did you ask her? I'm kinda miffed you didn't ask me about being a doctor too.
Roseanne: Oh! Sorry! I asked her because I was particularly interested in surgery. If it was a film about paediatricians I would have asked you for sure. The questions I asked were about the logistics of the operating theatre, things that could be used as weapons, relationships between the team, music, scrubbing up, the procedure, a procedure that would work for the action story I wanted to tell... really specific stuff. She also got me a face-to-face session with a Kiwi colleague of hers to take our actress through the operating theatres, scrubbing up, sterility, stitching...
I did a directing actors workshop with Miranda Harcourt and she was telling us about the importance of showing the actor their character's place of work - even though they haven't been through the years of training that real doctors like you have, it's really useful to just stand in the rooms that doctors stand in, see the place with their own eyes.
Renee: Wait... you asked a surgeon about what weapons they used? *makes mental note about future line of dialogue*
Roseanne: Aahh … about what COULD be a weapon. In the end we mostly used a scalpel. Classic. I've always found it really funny how Rhea operates standing on a box cos she's a shorty. The film would have been very different if I had made it about a short surgeon who can't leave her box, but it was something that fascinated me. And how she fainted off the box when she didn't realise she was pregnant!
Renee: And that story about how - as she got bigger as her pregnancy progressed - she had to stack more and more boxes until she was literally bending over with her head in the patient's abdomen.
I've always found it really funny how Rhea operates standing on a box cos she's a shorty. The film would have been very different if I had made it about a short surgeon who can't leave her box
Roseanne: It fascinates me, the practicality of things. The first time I saw celluloid being cut with a little gullotine and sticky tape, I just couldn't believe my eyes. I'd always edited on computers so seeing actual cutting blew my mind.
Renee: I find it so dramatic how surgeons’ gowns billow behind them as they walk, though I hate getting scrubbed for theatre cos I look like an idiot. I’m short so I have to kick the gown out as I walk so I don't stand on it. And I have to get someone to tape my glasses to my face because you can't push them up with your hands when you're sterile.
I've resisted writing plays with doctor characters. There’s only been the one, and she’s not the main character.
Roseanne: That’s interesting. There's that adage 'write what you know'. Don't you know doctors?
Renee: Yeah, but it's too obvious.
Roseanne: Too obvious? Shouldn't you be finding reasons TO write rather than reasons not to?
Renee: It's kind of like writing a play about being Asian. I mean, I write lots of plays about being Asian -
Roseanne: We've both done work about being Asian. We can't deny we're Asian, nor do we want to. But at the same time, I don't wanna be that filmmaker who makes everything about being Asian. But...
Renee: - that's because those are the things that get funding. Whereas medical plays don’t get funding.
Roseanne: So plays about Asians get funding, but plays about being a doctor don't? Why do you think that is?
Renee: Simple. Diversity ticks the boxes.
Roseanne: Ughh... that makes me really uncomfortable.
Renee: Doctors have been done. I mean, Shorty Street. I didn't mean that they've been done well or anything.
Roseanne: But no one has done doctors like you would do doctors.
Renee: It's just that all the stereotypes have been well explored. Whereas... there are so many things still to write about being an Asian New Zealander, or a migrant.
I think if I wrote anything true about doctors, it would just get treated as if it were entertainment. People get that odd glint in their eye, you know? They always want to hear the gory or emotional bits. Whereas most of my day-to-day work isn't the stuff on TV. It's more real than that. It's about people. All the little bits that make them tick. And trying to figure them out. It's much better suited to a novel than TV.
Roseanne: I don't know. I think I would feel sad if you had a story about a doctor that didn't get told because you didn't think it ticked boxes. No one has a take like you would have. I think this goes back to the whole thing of "Nothing is new. All the stories have already been told". If we believed that, we would've given up by now. And it's totally fine that you don't wanna get into the gory or emotional. Your take would be uniquely yours, and really fresh because of that. Maybe you're right… you find the form that best suits what story you want to tell.
I think I would feel sad if you had a story about a doctor that didn't get told because you didn't think it ticked boxes.
Renee: Yeah. Actually, I was being provocative about just doing this to tick the boxes. I am passionate about the stories I have to tell, in fact ALL the stories (I am planning in my head a trilogy of doctor plays). But it is true that it takes some energy to push things into being, and since I started making theatre, I've recognised an appetite from both audiences and presenters for stories about identity. New Zealand identity and Asian identity.
I was going to ask you where you get your energy from because making a multi-million dollar feature takes a helluva lot of energy. I don't think I could deal with all the pressures like you do. From funders, from producers - all the people who only support you if they can make your story theirs as well.
For me, the stories I tell start as really private. That's why the idea of writing as entertainment is an anathema to me. I like to make people smile, but I guess my main reason is to communicate my ideas. Maybe get them on my side or standing in my shoes. With theatre, poetry, novels even, the financial stakes are much much lower. So you're a bit more your own master really.
Roseanne: Yeah. Film is a form of mass media. When I make work, I really want people to see it. For me I think I get energised by connection. Human connection. You're born alone and you die alone, and for me, a lot of the stuff in between these two bookmarks is about trying to find connection.
Cinema, for me, is transcendent when I see myself in the work on the screen. It's magical when that connection happens between me, the audience member, and the strangers who made the story on screen. Sometimes people make a face when I say Terminator 2 is one of my favourite films of all time. They think cynically about it - it was a money spinner, a celebrity vehicle, an excuse for violence. For me, I don't see it that way. Yes, the film gets my fists clenched and my stomach knotted, but it also engages my heart.
Terminator 2 is about what a mother will do to protect her child. It is about a deep question of humanity, and what happens when a robot is more 'human' than most humans. Are we the monsters? "I know now why you cry... but it is something I can never do" is one of the most amazing one-liners in the history of blockbuster cinema. OK... some people don't see that. But I do. And I feel a connection. That's my energy. That's where the drive comes from. I think great films create a connection, a common idea that can bind us together as people. I saw on Facebook you didn't love Wonder Woman... and maybe we shouldn't get into this, but I loved it. Because that central idea: "It's not about what you deserve. It's about what you believe in... and I believe in love" is so relevant to now, and so needed now. I get it's not everyone's cup of tea. But it's my cup of tea. And that's what drives me.
What about you? I mean, anyone who pursues the creative arts is crazy. Just, crazy. Long hours, emotionally and mentally draining, and little or no financial return, for the most of us. What keeps you going through the long tough nights?
Renee: Well, I feel that's how I'll make my mark. When I'm gone, one of the things I'll leave behind are my stories. Maybe they'll be forgotten, but maybe someone will have read them before they’re lost and it might have changed something for them. Maybe they'll look at someone and see them differently.
Back to Wonder Woman though… one of the things I disliked about it was how we're all so over the moon about having a film that stars a woman (well, co-stars). I mean, it's 2017!! Shouldn't we have dealt with that in... 1893?
Roseanne: But why are you looking for reasons NOT to like it? The fact that it stars a woman isn't all it is. Why are you reducing it to that? The story is about the power of love over the evil in human hearts! OK agree to disagree! But I feel like I must defend it!
Renee: Okay. You’ve forced me. The writing was… kinda crap.
Roseanne: I simply don't agree. We don't agree. Move on. Move on. Seriously. Stop.
Renee: Nothing moved me about the character. I didn't learn anything except that skinny white women who are goddesses need to fall in love with a good-looking white mortal before they realise their true purpose.
Roseanne: I saw more than that. But you saw that, which is your right.
Renee: Spiderman on the other hand was pretty good. Good writing I mean. Just to show I don't hate all superhero films.
Roseanne: Argh, please don't talk about good writing! It was well written! Argh!
I'm arghing a lot. We can't go there. I'm sorry. I mean, we're sisters, but we're super different. We have super different taste. And that's cool, right.
We're sisters, but we're super different. We have super different taste. And that's cool, right.
Renee: Well, Wonder Woman was better than Batman.
Roseanne: Which Batman? Don't say Nolan Batman, okay, because, like, then we can't be sisters.
Renee: Nolan Batman.
Roseanne: Okay, now you're trolling me.
Renee: Christian Bale is a piece of wood.
Roseanne: Look... OK. NO.
Renee: …with a nice jaw. I'll give you that. I like men with nice jawlines. But three hours of that jaw is quite long.
Roseanne: I'm not even looking at his jaw! I'm looking at what message Batman examines! Are we inherently good, or evil?
Renee: Nolan's Jokers were quite interesting.
Roseanne: Batman believes humans are good. Joker believes humans are bad. Who wins? It's a battle for the soul of humanity! How can you see this as bad writing? ARGGHHHHH
Renee: So is your work about good and evil and the soul of humanity?
Roseanne: Well... I have to say it's something that's troubled me about the world for a while now, and it's more relevant now than ever. Remember when we got trolled, and I ended up mistrusting every unknown man after that? Well, he was more an anonymous abuser than a troll. Trolling is about getting a rise. This guy was just really angry and taking it out on us.
Renee: It took us a while to twig, this guy was going into the public library and creating a new email address (one was 'GenghisKhan' I remember ) specially to email us with sexually violent insults. You had made a film about your boyfriend - who happened to be white - and for some reason this really set him off - the whole, 'You're an Asian girl, so you belong to the Asian guys' shtick. We'd block him and then he'd create a new email address and send another insult. He clearly put a lot of energy into it.
I think he did it for sport, and because that was the only way he knew to increase his own self esteem. Remember how we caught him doing it to other Asian girls after we worked out who he was and shamed him out of doing it to us.
And the crazy thing? This guy was a fellow New Zealand Chinese, an academic, and a dad. So I still don’t get it.
I think he did it for sport, and because that was the only way he knew to increase his own self esteem.
Roseanne: After him, because I knew he was an Asian man, I mistrusted every Asian man I crossed paths with. Like, literally. On the street, I'd pass an Asian man, and I'd think… is that him? Is that him? And I thought... maybe humans are just inherently shit. They're bad people who would do bad things. What is evil? Causing pain to others for personal gain or pleasure. I wondered whether people were inherently evil, and maybe religion was a good idea because "God will punish you and you won't go to heaven" is a good way to trick evil humans into being nice to each other.
Renee: But actually in Flat3 you have a very sympathetic portrayal of Asian men. I'd go so far as to say you lead the field in portrayal of New Zealand Asian men on screen as real people with real feelings and with jobs that aren't 'doctor' or 'drug dealer'.
Roseanne: The internet abuser happened 10 years ago, but Flat3 I started 5 years ago. So by then I realised it was just this guy. But there are a LOT of assholes like him out there who are filled with vitriol and hate and get their jollies by abusing and tormenting women anonymously. Like, a LOT.
Renee: So you're fighting them with screen time.
Roseanne: I mean, I started thinking about him. How he came to be this hateful person. Why he felt compelled to do such a thing. And I guess there was kind of a silver lining. He talked about the "plight of Asian men". Which I started looking into, and I kind of 'get it' now. There's a human story behind him. And I started asking my Asian male friends about dating, and how they felt about their place in society, and I learnt.
Renee: I guess one of the other reasons I do this is to have a voice. I get to put my story out there on a stage, in a book, on a screen. I get to have a louder voice than other people who aren't brave enough to get out there, but I risk being shamed or singled out. Because he did single us out because we were visible.
Roseanne: I'm gonna ask a mean question. "So, why do you think you out of all people should have 'a voice'. What's so important about you?"
Renee: Nothing. But I can write. So I damn well am gonna.
Roseanne: Haha awesome.
Renee: If people want to write, I'm happy to show them how.
Roseanne: You're more generous than me!!
Renee: Thus my sidestep into teaching/mentoring/dramaturging/anthologising. Which like most of my arts career has been accidental. I still claim that at least 4 of my plays were written accidentally. And one of them accidentally resulted in a real baby as well... but TMI.
Roseanne: I don't believe in accidents! What we do, isn't done easily, or flippantly.
Renee: Isn't there a certain romance to serendipity?
Roseanne: We cry and rage for our work - I know that sounds wank, but we do. And anyone who does this, does.
Renee: For me, there are far too many ideas, issues. I don’t see it as a fight between good and evil. There are so many shades of grey. And those shades fascinate me.
I'll never cover everything I want to say in my lifetime so for me what comes out is often impulse. I see the right person and approach them with an idea I've had on incubation.
Roseanne: I believe in synchronicity. I started transcendental meditation a few years ago and I feel there is like a current or confluence of energies that brings things into being. I'm not being woo woo. OK I'm being woo woo. But I do believe there is a right time, and a right place.
Renee: I've never tried meditation... or yoga.
Roseanne: You once told me you didn't have time to?
Renee: I reckon I'd get bored too easily. It's not really a good fit.
I am really anal about keeping my thinking environment clean.
I've never owned a TV. Sometimes I even turn off and unplug TVs if I find them in my vicinity. I also don’t have a working radio in my car. And I once bought an ipod but used it like 5 times.
Roseanne: I agree. I like silence. I like mental space.
You always say you've never owned a TV, but you watch like, good TV, right? Like Netflix?
Renee: I like some things on the internet. Probably slim pickings locally.
Roseanne: Don't think we should go there. Change of topic. Tell me about your movie!
Renee: It's my third collaboration with Steven. We both know he's an awesome human being and a total film nerd. And because I'm not a film nerd, Steven has to set me a viewing list each time we collaborate so I get on the same page.
What we have in common is a love of the tangential, the little nuances of human nature that are betrayed in small details: like being caught by the sight of rain on a windshield, which brings back the smell and feel of the last time you were caught in a storm with, say, someone you love.
I love how he comes at these tiny details visually. While I come at them with words, and between us we hopefully corner that feeling and communicate it to the viewer. It's something I can't do in another genre, so I love that I get to play at it in film with a creative partner who understands the medium.
Roseanne: Sounds very poetic!
Renee: I'm functioning more as a poet in these collaborations than as a screenwriter.
Our scripts aren't laid out like standard screen scripts. Steven shoots and edits before I do the writing. So I get to respond to his thought processes, and we talk a lot and make notes, watch other films, and I get to really respond to his vision. For this film, we rewrote and redited and re-recorded the narration a few times, so in some ways it was more like making a piece of theatre. I was there while he found the delicate balance between images and words. It was also my job as co-writer to ensure that Steven’s voice comes through since this is very much his personal film. It's very satisfying. The technique results in a specific style, experimental, and akin to the visual arts projects he does.
Roseanne: That sounds lovely, like you've found your own special way of working together.
Renee: Yes. And often it's quite slow-burn. Steven started shooting the footage for For The Light about 8 years ago. It includes footage from the day before the first Christchurch earthquake, when he happened to be walking around the city where he was born, plus a number of road trips he did. We sometimes don't see each other for a year or so, then meet up for coffee, and he shows me the footage and we talk about his ideas. Like me, he's interested in the ideas around identity, and how this can be lost, found, earned or destroyed.
Roseanne: Wow. A real journey.
Renee: There's this lovely line from a writer about how you rake the same piece of earth over and over in your artistic life.
Roseanne: Oh yeah, I relate to that. Lots of the filmmakers I admire do the same thing.
Renee: For me, film is another medium to be harnessed when the story calls for it. Like a set of painting tools, each brush has a different purpose. It takes a while to learn to use each one. You've decided to master just one or two tools, while I (having a short attention span) am trying out as many as possible.
Do you think the way we were brought up has influenced our approach? I mean, I'm the eldest so I have that bullish nature. While you're the youngest and your name means 'happy'.
Do you think the way we were brought up has influenced our approach? I mean, I'm the eldest so I have that bullish nature. While you're the youngest and your name means 'happy'.
Roseanne: I would say yes and no? Yes because our parents taught us tenacity and to set goals and go for them. No because I think that while we're good friends, we are very different people. We have different tastes and instincts and that's a good thing. Maybe that's why I don't feel competitive or threatened by your success.
Renee: I feel the same! It's great to have a sibling in the arts because you're someone I can have a rant to, and you'll get it but never spread it.
But I agree on the differences... it is so funny when people think we are the same person. Which happens often.
Roseanne: SO often! And when it happens, people are mortified, maybe because they think we think they're of the 'Asians look the same' ilk! I have no problem being mistaken for you, you're awesome! And I have to admit our actual voices can sometimes sound the same. And that photo when we had the same haircut was pretty similar.
Renee: Just wait til they figure out there's actually THREE of us. Do you reckon Mummy and Daddy are proud of us by now? They looked pretty happy at your movie premiere. And my opera opening.
Roseanne: I reckon they’ve been secretly proud for a while now. Even since school.
Renee: But then they go back to the old, "But when will you get a real job?”
Roseanne: They don't want us to get up ourselves.
Roseanne: Very Kiwi, right? The worst thing would be for us to be up ourselves.
The real job thing is a euphemism for "Why do you bust your gut for no money?" I think it comes from a worry rather than thinking that our work is lapsap.
Renee: I reckon our parents are more Kiwi than they realise. They taught us to value personal qualities over money. And they're some of the least materialistic people I know (except for Daddy liking nice cars).
Roseanne: Maybe that's why they took a shine to New Zealand. Well. Dad at least.
Renee: So as a final question... do you consider yourself a Kiwi filmmaker?
Roseanne: Yes I do. Do you?
Renee: Yes. Though it's just one label, like female, Chinese-Kiwi, Asian, or mother.
Roseanne: You're right. And those labels are all a part of us, no doubt.
Renee: I'm happy to use labels to clarify for myself why I write what I write, but I'd discard them as soon as I felt they were hemming me in.
Roseanne: All part of the multifaceted snowflakes we are.
Renee: I'm just me. I have stories. I get to tell them because I work hard and I’m willing to try.
Roseanne: I mean, talk about privilege. We get to work on what we love. I hope never to take that for granted.
Roseanne’s short, Do No Harm, screens as part of the New Zealand’s Best 2017 short film competition.
Renee’s short, For the Light, screens ahead of Marjorie Prime