Everything Will Change: An Interview with Wai Ka-Fai

Prolific screenwriter and director Wai Ka-Fai is nothing less than the Ben Hecht of Hong Kong cinema. Like the venerable scribe of Hollywood classics Scarface, His Girl Friday, and Notorious, Wai is capable of moving quickly and effortlessly between radically different genres—from gritty crime sagas to featherweight comedies. Co-founder, along with director Johnnie To, of famed production studio Milkyway, Kai has variously written, produced, directed and co-directed some of the most exciting Hong Kong movies of the past decade, including Fulltime Killer, My Left Eye Sees Ghosts, and Mad Detective. His latest, Written By, represents yet another genre experiment: a family drama overrun with ghosts. When a car accident leaves a wife and two children without the family patriarch, daughter Molly (Mia Yan) assuages their grief by penning a novel in which their father (Lau Ching-Wan) survives. Within that novel, her father writes yet another book in which he perishes in the accident but the rest of the family survives. It’s a bravura, if at times goofy display of narrative legerdemain that’s invoked deserved comparisons to Charlie Kaufman. I sat down with Wai the day after Written By had its world premiere in New York. The film is now playing in Hong Kong.

In the past you’ve mostly confined yourself to recognizable genres. Written By seems like something else altogether. It’s true. It’s very hard to categorize. The first half of the movie, when the daughter is writing the book to comfort the family, there is certainly a lighter feel, it verges on comedy. But then the picture veers into different territory. It takes on a much more pessimistic, negative tone that compromises that earlier feeling. The heroine’s feelings about the death of her family—first her father, then later her mother and brother, are very complex, and I wanted the overall feeling of the film to reflect that complexity. Tonal shifts, you could say.

What inspired you to write about such unusually weighty material? Several things. One is that I’m getting older. I think about these things more often. I also had a friend who suffered from a very long depression. That influenced me as well. In preparation for the film I read a lot of books about life and death.

So many characters in the film find solace through writing. I’m guessing this is something you’ve learned from experience? Definitely. This is precisely my own feeling about writing. Storytelling is always a vehicle for working out my own thoughts, and this one is especially personal to me. The writing alone took a year and a half…and I still didn’t have a completed script when I started.

It’s certainly the most structurally complex of your films. Was it an unusually difficult process? I went back and forth changing things the whole time. There were many different versions. At one point it was all told from the perspective of the father rather than Melody. I debated a lot over who should live or die.

I’ve read that this kind of constant revision often carries through onto the set. It’s true. Sometimes I’ll rethink something every day if I have to. The important thing is letting the picture talk to me during shooting. What does it want to become?

It’s a daring strategy. Have you ever written yourself into a corner, or had to go back for significant re-shoots? Luckily, no. I screen things as I go. I prefer not to waste anything, so if something doesn’t work, I don’t think of it as a mistake, but rather as idea generation. What can I do with this? How can I fit this in? I see story structure as a series of possibilities or events, and I enjoy looking at the many different ways they can stack up. There’s always another idea.

Are your cast and crew sympathetic to such an unconventional method? I feel it doesn’t come up very often because I’ve been doing things this way for so long that people know what to expect. Many enjoy it because it’s maybe different from what they’re used to. Lau Ching Wan likes to joke that he doesn’t even read the script because he knows that everything will change.

Looking at your career, you’ve gone back and forth between making art-ier films like Written By, and more accessible, crowd-pleasing works like My Left Eye Sees Ghosts. Is this self-conscious? Do you enjoy one more than the other? Each is satisfying, but you’re right in that I like to go back and forth. My next film is a comedy—very different from Written By.

You’ve done so many pix with Johnnie To since co-founding Milkway. Is there a process whereby the two of you decide to do a project independently or together? We drink and dine together very often, and that’s how projects come up. For example, we were having dinner when we had the idea for Mad Detective, so of course that was a cooperative project. It’s not much more complicated than that. We both have films that we want to do, and sometimes it’s just a matter of scheduling.

You make it sound uncommonly simple. What happens, for example, after that Mad Detective dinner? For me, I think my scripts develop through a repetition of something. I might fixate on a certain kind of wine, or if there’s a particular song that puts me in the appropriate mood I’ll listen to it over and over again while I’m working.

Are there films you draw on for inspiration as well? Sometimes. Early on in my career I was very much influenced by the films made from Neil Simon’s work. I loved The Goodbye Girl, The Odd Couple, and The Sunshine Boys.

How about contemporary filmmakers? The Danish filmmaker who did Dogville.

Lars Von Trier? Yes. That’s the one.

It’s funny you should mention him. I’ve always thought that the plot of his film The Element of Crime was rather similar to that of Mad Detective. Uh-oh. I swear I’ve never seen it!

(Note: This interview was conducted in Cantonese with the kind assistance of a translator. Special thanks to Ophelia.)

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