Interview: 'MDMA' director Angie Wang on her harrowing autobiographical feature
For most college students, freshman year is about discovering oneself, developing skills and meeting new people. For Angie Wang in the mid-1980s, that path just happened to also involve using her college’s science lab to manufacture the party drug ‘X,’ soon becoming one of the west coast’s largest distributors. That may sound like something out of “Breaking Bad,” but the story behind this week’s ‘MDMA’ is all too true. What’s more, the film is arriving straight from the source with Wang writing and directing a story that offers personal insight into her experience coming of age as an Asian American in San Francisco.
“My friends like to say this is ‘Breaking Bad’ meets ‘Girls,'” Wang laughs, “But I would say that, as we watched Walter White lose his humanity — his character arc was sort of spiraling downwards — I think this girl is striving for the light. She’s still trying to better herself. The character trajectory is very different.”
Although “MDMA” marks Wang’s first feature, her love of movies began at a very young age.
“My father really did used to wait tables until the wee hours,” she recalls, “but Tuesdays he had off, so that was our movie night. Half of the time, he would pass out in the movie theater, but I would be transported for 120 minutes. I went to a lot of inappropriate movies as a youngster and I loved them… I think was eight or nine [when I saw “The Exorcist”] and it scared the s–t out of me. I forgot that I was in New Jersey. There was real magic in it for me.”
Despite her love of cinema, directing movies didn’t become a goal for Wang until more recently.
“It just didn’t seem like something that was in the realm of possibility for me,” she says. “I always loved movies. I love TV. I love storytelling. It wasn’t until much later in life that I decided, ‘I think I’m going to try this filmmaking s–t.’ Of course, my friends were all like, ‘You are bat s–t crazy. You can’t even shoot anything on your iPhone!'”
Determined nevertheless, Wang looked back at a life now several decades in the rearview mirror.
“It’s certainly super different to view events through the lens of a middle aged woman who has had a child and a career than it was to experience them 30 plus years ago,” she says. “This was sort of my opportunity to reach back and grab my 18 year old self and slap her across the face. But also to take her aside and say, ‘It’s going to be okay.’ I think that the kinder we are to ourselves, the better for the world.”
Having built up in her head for some time, Wang’s script for “MDMA” came together in just ten days. Although various producers were interested in developing the feature, Wang was determined not to let anyone try and transform the narrative.
“They were all like, ‘This is a good story, but we’d like to make her a white girl,'” says Wang. “I said, ‘Over my dead yellow ass. That’s not happening.’ So I decided to just do it myself.”
“Annie Q was this incredible, powerful actress with so much passion and depth,” says Wang. “She reached out to me directly, which I have since heard you’re not supposed to do in this town. But she crafted a wonderful letter about how she really resonated with the script and how she related to the demons that drove this character. She offered to fly herself out to read for me. She was the very first actress who I read and she was fantastic. We wound up hanging out that night. I was so blown away by her willingness to not only fly herself out, but to go to these depths.”
Despite Q’s talent and enthusiasm, however, Wang had some initial reservations about casting her in the lead.
“I kept thinking that she was too tiny and cute to play the role,” Wang explains. “I thought of myself as an asshole and a badass. When I saw this lovely, beautiful, tiny little thing, I just didn’t think she was right for the role. But I realized that that was my harsh internal critic. I realized when I was having dinner and sitting across from my teenage stepdaughter, she was young. 18 is a very tender age. She was kind of a baby in a lot of ways. This character is really her peer, rather than some concocted Hollywood vision.”
The internal critic Wang mentions is one that has haunted her throughout her life, both in reality and in the film’s fictionalization.
“[It’s] always saying, ‘You’re stupid!’ or ‘You’re dumb!’ or ‘You’re ugly!’ or ‘You’re never going to amount to anything,'” she says. “There’s a lot of, ‘Why did you think you could do this?’ But it’s all demon chatter. You have to fall back on your better angels to shout that back down. I think that, as individuals, we have to do that. It’s an insidious voice and the louder it gets, the meaner I get back and to the people around me. It’s just bad energy all the way around.”
Wang also had to walk the tightrope that is telling her story faithfully without glorifying the actual events.
“It’s a little salacious,” she admits. “We’ve gotten some criticism. I don’t [it glorifies anything] because it doesn’t exactly wind up well for [Angie]. For a minute, it’s sort of glamorous and fun, but I think the general tone is about the solidarity of the human experience and about love and connection rather than glorifying the partying and stuff like that. Some people have even said, ‘You should have been more detailed in chronicling how to make the stuff!’ I’m like, ‘I’m not making a tutorial on how to manufacture Ecstasy!'”
After “MDMA” hits theaters, Wang already has plans for her next project, an original script she wrote called “Blood Blooded” that sets its sights on the increasingly uneasy relationship between police officers and minority citizens.
“I got tired of flipping open my computer and seeing that another kid of color has been shot dead and we don’t give a f–k,” says Wang. “It has become background chatter. That cannot be. We cannot let our humanity devolve to that point. So I said, ‘I would like to take a look at it through a very compassionate lens, both through the eyes of a cop who shoots a kid and through the kid’s eyes’.”
Regardless of where her new creative path takes her, Wang is committed to having a social message at the root of every story she tells.
“It’s the only reason I do it,” she says. “Honestly, it’s the only reason. Otherwise, I wouldn’t put myself through the phases, because it’s like getting kicked in the teeth all the time. I think it’s important and it’s our highest calling as artists. To be able to shift perspective, deepen empathy and help to foster humanity. Now, more than ever, I think it’s a really important time to do that.”
‘MDMA’ opens in select theaters and via On Demand this Friday, September 14.
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