Roseanne Liang: My story, as told to Elisabeth Easther

Roseanne Liang first came to prominence with her film Banana in a Nutshell, followed by the romcom My Wedding and Other Secrets. After making five series of Flat3 and Friday Night Bites, Liang found international acclaim with the action-short Do No Harm. Liang most recently made headlines with the critical success of her feature film Shadow in the Clouds which will be released in New Zealand in 2021.

“I don’t have a great memory so I’m lucky that certain events have been captured by the movies I’ve made and by my dad, who’s a chronic archivist. Dad’s always been an early adopter of technology, from Super 8 to video, recording things when we were little, to send pictures, videos and audio tapes back to his folks in Hong Kong. In a way, those things have become my memories.

“There’s this idea in our family that nothing but your best is acceptable, although we also got a lot of joy out of achieving. At high school I was very good at getting As and sitting exams but I was also addicted to external validation. I lived for good grades. When I was 14, I would flagellate myself for missing a question in an exam and I’d write in my diary: ‘I’m not going to get in the 90s for this exam. I hate myself.’ It’s so cringey to read that now.

“Both my sisters are doctors, and I applied for medical school. When my sisters asked why I was doing it, I said it was probably because they were doing it. They replied that that wasn’t a good enough reason to become a doctor and suggested I get a deferment. I studied Philosophy, English, Film and TV instead and I also did papers in computer science as a safety net, and to keep my parents happy. I enjoyed mathematics, but I allowed myself to get my first Bs and eventually Cs in computer science, and it didn’t affect me because I had fallen under the thrall of the seductive screen arts. I no longer needed the external gratification of good grades. That was so liberating.

“My Wedding And Other Secrets was my first narrative feature film. Following its release, I thought one feature film would lead to another but it didn’t. I was even told pretty brutally by our UK sales agent that people didn’t go to the movies for romantic comedies any more, especially those without stars in them. That was a bitter pill to swallow because that’s what my film was. I raged against that for a short while, then I accepted that they weren’t wrong. I get rejected like everyone else. That’s part of the job. But, over the years I’ve come to a Zen place because every setback I’ve experienced has paved the way for an unknown or unexpected positive.

“My last project, Shadow in the Cloud, is about a female pilot in World War II who boards a plane with a mysterious and extremely classified package that she’s been ordered to deliver. During the mission, she encounters a combination of misogyny and other mysterious forces that will reveal themselves over the course of the flight. Much of the movie is set in the ball turret of a B17 bomber, a metal and glass ball on the underside of the plane, which can rotate 360 degrees and tilt up and down and the entire film takes place continuously in the air, during a sunrise.

“It’s a deceptively technical movie. We had these scientific-looking VFX [visual effects] sheets covered in numbers. We’d be squinting at charts that were mind-numbingly boring but also, somehow, joyful. The film was this tangle of technicalities and challenges that we could only surmount with amazing and passionate people who encouraged fastidiousness and nerdiness in me. One thing I love about film and television, it’s a form of storytelling that can only be done with a team. When you find the right team, it’s pure joy.

“The agent thing happened quite quickly. When Do No Harm got into Sundance, my producer showed it to people at WME. At the time, I didn’t know WME was one of largest agents in the US. We stopped by LA to meet them, and I signed on the first day of Sundance. After that I didn’t have time to see a single movie at the festival because every breakfast, lunch and dinner was filled with meetings.

“It was magical, because you feel like everyone loves you. You’re the hot kid. The star. I spent Sundance in a delighted haze with people gushing: ‘Where have you come from?’ ‘We’ve been looking for someone like you forever.’ ‘You’re a woman of colour, you love action, we want to work with you!’ I was taking meetings in all the big studios, walking past sound stages where my favourite movies had been made.

“After a couple months of ego stroking, I had a meeting with a hot up-and-coming writer. I told him about how loved and wanted I felt. He said, “Yeah, about that. Just to let you know, that’s going to stop. You’re in the stage they call the Water Bottle Tour. They give you a water bottle, blow smoke up your ass, then in a few months the meetings will dry up and you’ll be back to the slog.”

“At the time I thought he was a bit of a Debbie Downer, but he was right. The phone stopped ringing and I went back to the slog. Over time, I’ve come to appreciate the slog. I might complain about it when I’m on set, and say I want to be home – then when I’m home I’ll want to be on set. But the fact is, I love the challenges because the journey really is the reward. Everything else is icing.

“After learning a bit more about how the industry works, I realised I had two or three years to make another thing, and if that next thing didn’t make a splash, then it’d be that much harder to do the next thing. So I’m now doing a lot of reading. Scripts are sent to me at a rate of maybe one a week, and this is where rejection comes back in. A few of these projects I’ve been like, ‘Oh my god, I’m in love, I have to make this.’ Then I get told, ‘Sorry that’s not the vision we’re looking for.’ Or there’s another person they’re keen on. It’s just a different type of audition process. None of it is personal, but it is rejection.

“We’ve been talking about race and gender on screen for decades. I was part of a collective that made a sketch show about Asians in New Zealand back in 2008 [A Thousand Apologies] and none of those sketches have aged, which is really sad. If anything they’ve become more relevant. Just talking about diversity hasn’t worked. At the same time, I don’t want to be a Kiwi Asian female filmmaker, I just want to be a filmmaker. I aspire to be able to stand shoulder to shoulder with the action directors I look up to who, aside from Kathryn Bigelow, all happen to be white men.

“Advocacy and activism in the arts is such complicated eggshell ground when really, all I want to do is make good action movies. Sometimes, selfishly, I just want to focus on my own work. Am I going to be a person who tries to change flawed systems, or am I just going to get on with my work? It’s irresponsible not to fight for the former, and it’s not mutually exclusive from the latter. I think I’m learning how to fight the good fight on multiple fronts.”

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