There's a flurry of excitement in the room where I am about to speak with director Wei Ling Chang about her first feature, The Unlikely Girl, a few hours prior to its world premier at the Vancouver Film Festival. Chang's background in film and television production and years spent directing reality television provided a solid foundation for this surprisingly noir indie thriller, set in France. So too, did her French husband and the extended period she spent living in Paris. "I speak French," she says with mild hesitation, "but I wouldn't say that I am fluent."
A day after seeing the film, I am still perplexed by the film's curious prologue, which reads:
The sentence below is true. The sentence above is false.
"It's a version of theliar's paradox," smiles Chang, when I ask her about it. "No matter the genre - comedy, drama, horror - there has to be an element of mystery. It's what draws the audience in."
There is a knock on the door and actress Shane Lynch, who plays American exchange student Jamie in the film, quietly enters the room and sits down to join us.
"I read a book called Labyrinths of Reason," continues Chang, "which is a book about puzzles and paradoxes. There is a section about the liar's paradox, and so I married that [concept] with what I knew would by the film's set-up. That's how I came up with the script."
The Unlikely Girl begins with what seems like a casual, sexual encounter between two uninhibited French strangers, Cécile (Hande Kodje) and Matthieu (Raphaël Goldman), sharing a compartment on the same train. After the tryst, the pair agree to meet up a few weeks later. Upon Cécile's arrival at her parents' empty summer home, she reconnects with an old childhood friend, Luc (Pierre Boulanger). Her bliss is interrupted with the unexpected (if not entirely unwelcome) arrival of Jamie, the American exchange student who her parents forget to tell her about.
ScreenAnarchy: Did you always intend for the film to be set in France?
Wei Ling Chang: Yes. We started out with the house, actually. It's my husband's mom's. Free location!
I put my producer's hat on and thought, 'I really want to make low-budget indie film where something creepy happens. It has to be self-contained, with a few characters.' Originally, I had the idea of an American exchange student going to France that somehow turns into a slasher film - I'm a huge horror fan.
Yeah. I love horror and genre films.
This is a mysterious, dark film.Will it be in any genre festivals?
We tried for a few, and they loved it, but didn't feel it was genre 'enough.' But I love genre festivals - I went to Sitges with my horror short film, Aunt Tigress. I love being able to watch movie after movie after movie. I love sci-fi, I love thrillers, horror. My next project will be science fiction.
I think genre audiences are more open to films with female-driven themes and strong female characters than mainstream audiences are.
Wei Ling Chang: Females also really like genre. At Sitges, I thought the audience was really mixed [between the two].
Shane Lynch: Before I even auditioned, I became a little obsessed with the story, because it is such a mystery. It was like, 'I need to get this so I know what happens! I need to understand the full layers.'
It reminded me a lot of those genre films that I really liked. This is a movie I would watch. I loved the characters, the weirdness, and really knew that I wanted to be a part of this world. On the surface you think it's one thing, but really it's not.
After I watched it, I actually had to go back and watch the beginning again because the ending changed the context for me - in a good way. I haven't had to do that for a long time. Did you intend for that ambiguity?
Wei Ling Chang: Definitely, the opening scenes and the part of the film before Jamie shows up is meant to set the tone of the film: The tone, the mood, the music, a racy encounter on a train.
Of course with the ending, I want the audience to have their own interpretation. It's interesting to me to hear someone defend their interpretation of the film, I feel that it reveals more about their character than anything else. I enjoy those conversations. I want the audience to leave and have a lively debate about what really happened. I don't want to make films where you spoonfeed the audience. I want them to think for themselves.
Shane, you play a real square in this move. What did you draw upon to play her?
Shane: Myself. [Laughs.] I'd like to think I am a little hipper than Jamie. I do think that we share a little naiveté. I always assume the best of people, which maybe sometimes isn't the right thing to do. She wasn't a huge departure.
Also, the experience of being an American in France - I took French in high school but not enough to feel really comfortable there. You always will feel a little out of place as a foreigner. Drawing upon that helped shape Jamie's wide-eyed confusion, especially during the first half of the movie. The second half is more her perspective, then as the space between the two women closes, Jamie becomes a little wiser and a little more aware.
On one hand it's a little bit challenging to play someone who is stupider than you are, but it's also kind of fun. I didn't want her to be a cartoon, but I did have fun with her tone of voice, etc. Shane, this is your first major role in a feature.
This is your first major role in a feature though you have appeared on TV. Did you wait for the right role or did you pounce the first chance you had?
Shane: On one hand, as an actor, you want what you can get. But on the other, you hope it's something that you are really into. The movie for me reminded me a lot of movies I love, like Swimming Pool or My Summer of Love, which is one of my favorite movies of all time. This felt really familiar. I love movies with really strong female characters, where the girls are maybe a little... sinister. And shooting in France was awesome.
How did you like France?
Shane: I love France. I've never had the typical, negative 'American' experience. I love French food, I love French history. In fact, my college thesis was on the French revolution. I was a history major. Sometimes we'd drive buy old ruins and I'd be like, 'We have to stop!' I am a total history nerd.
How does a history major transition into acting?
Shane: Both my parents are in the film industry, so it's kind of the family business. There's a good and a bad side to that.
On the good side, I look at that 'world' a little differently than someone who moves to Hollywood with big dreams. I've seen ups and downs. My dad's a writer, my mom's an actress [Kelly Lynch], so I've seen the good and the bad.
I've always loved history, though. I took theatre classes in college and after I graduated I sat my parents down and said, 'I know you've just spent a lot of money putting me through higher education, but I think I want to try this.' And they were both surprisingly OK with that.
You can bring a certain richness and a texture from your life to your acting that a lot of people may not have.
Shane: I have a lot of friends who are successful, who started out as child actors. They may have bigger resumes and have a lot more to show for that, but I have a lot of experiences they don't have. I think it made me better at what I do.
I kept thinking the film was going to go in a direction it never went. It never went into Wild Things territory.
Shane:[Laughs] I've heard that before.
Have you? I'm glad that it didn't. It was refreshing. Wei Ling, what inspired this creepy, strange story?
Wei Ling: Gosh, I don't know. I like twists, and things with mystery. Coming from that, my approach has always been to make a noirish film.
I really appreciated the dynamic between these two women. They are competitive, but it never became vicious. Ultimately, this is a positive female relationship. It could have gone a different route. Was that something important to you?
Wei-Ling: I never wanted them to get into a cat fight, because that would be so clichéd. Yes, I think it's true that I did intentionally put in that 'bonding.' Having watched the movie, you could also argue that the bond that they have is not as real as they think.
Shane: The four main characters each are seen in both good and bad lights. We were just talking about this at lunch, actually. There should be a short film sequel, ten years later, that Jamie and Cécile see each other on the train and say nothing. Like it never happened.
But I agree with Wei Ling, that there's a respect between these women and at the end, they see each other as formidable opponents. And Jamie comes out of it much stronger.
Wei Ling: For me, that final scene is the birth of a new character. Some people have called this a 'coming of age' film, which I never intended. Even as adults we change, through different stages of our lives. Even if at our centre we're the same person, a lot of aspects change. For me, by the end of the film, she's [Jamie] definitely a new character.
I've been thinking a lot about the notion of symmetry, which plays a big part in the film. We learn Jamie's (an architecture student) love of 'perfect symmetry,' and then you have these two female characters and then the two male ones...
Wei Ling: Personally, I had an obsession with symmetry. There is a little bit of me there.
Shane: Really? I actually didn't know that. This is really interesting!
Wei Ling: When I was in my late teens and early twenties I was very obsessed with symmetry and perfection. I was a real pain in the ass! I was a perfectionist before...
You're not anymore?
Wei Ling: I'm not as anal as before. I've relaxed. Most people say a director's first film is somewhat autobiographical, and while I wouldn't say there is nothing in the plot that reflects that, there are certain elements in each character that are pieces of me. That obsession with symmetry was a piece of me.
That is interesting. How do you feel about things in pairs? For example, If I'm going put something on my wall, I want two of them.
Wei Ling: I don't need that anymore. I think it's good to mix things up.
Shane: It's because you were in France. It frees you up. [Laughs]
But these two women, these character, are total foils for each other. They are very similar but also very different. Each depends on the other. The Unlikely Girl is currently playing at the Woodstock Film Festival in Woodstock, NY.