By Noma Faingold
For the longest time, Richard Wong was content being an in-demand cinematographer. He even made a deal with his wife, Irene Chan, that he would only be away from their Richmond District home six months out of the year.
Wong’s roots run deep in the Richmond. A native San Franciscan, he attended Alamo Elementary School, Presidio Middle School and George Washington High School. He found his passion in film.
“I was really happy being a DP (director of photography). It’s probably the best job in the movies,” said Wong, 43. “It’s got that interesting balance between being creative without all the politics that the director has to deal with. I can focus on photography and I love photography. The director has to be the umbrella over everything, including being responsible for the money.”
He has directed before, namely the indie cult hit, “Colma: The Musical” (2006) and a less successful project, the 2012 romantic comedy, “Yes, We’re Open.”
“I never thought I would direct again,” says Wong.
Then he had a memorable experience as the DP on the 2017 television drama “To the Bone,” directed by Marti Noxon and starring Lily Collins as a young anorexic woman.
“It was one of the few times where, on the last day, it was truly emotional,” Wong said. “I watched Marti work. She reminded me how good directing can be. It planted a seed in my head that maybe I should give it another shot.”
The problem was, Wong admits, no one thought of him as a director anymore. He did not have a directing agent. He no longer had a manager. “I also didn’t put it out there,” he said.
So how did he come to direct “Come As You Are,” the offbeat comedy/drama being released in San Francisco and other select cities on Feb. 14 after being an audience and jury favorite on the festival circuit?
Whenever Wong is in Los Angeles, he has dinner with his close friend, director Ryan Sage. Naturally, they talk about current projects and prospects. Sage said he turned down “Come As You Are,” a remake of a 2011 Belgian film, “Hasta La Vista,” about a trio of disabled men who embark on a road trip to a brothel catering to men with special needs. The provocative material originates from a 2007 BBC documentary, “For One Night Only,” about Asta Philpot, an American quadriplegic since birth who made such a journey. Sage could not do the film because he was not available.
Wong did not say much during the meal. But “it kept circulating in my head,” he recalls. At around 11 p.m., he called Sage.
“About that movie, it sounds like it would be up my alley,” Wong said to him.
His friend responded, “Of course. Actually, it’s a perfect fit!”
Sage immediately sent Wong the script and set up a meeting with Grant Rosenmeyer, lead producer and actor. Rosenmeyer, 28, a former child actor, had been following the project for years. Even when big stars were attached, he was obsessed with playing Scotty, the abrasive yet humorous quadriplegic based on Philpot. When the rights lapsed, Rosenmeyer managed to secure them for a six-month window. Rosenmeyer had no money – just a strong will and a skill for persuasion.
Rosenmeyer screened “Colma: the Musical” and met with Wong the next day for four hours. The two actually knew each other from when Rosenmeyer was 11. He was starring in the 2003-4 TV series “Oliver Beene.” Wong, in his early 20s, was on the crew. Rosenmeyer remembered Wong as a “techie introvert.”
Wong loved the “Come As You Are” script. Rosenmeyer loved “Colma.”
“Come As You Are” then came together quickly. Chicago Media Angels put up the $1 million budget. Rosenmeyer was cast as Scotty, of course. Hayden Szeto played Matt and Ravi Patel played Mo. Gabourey Sidibe signed on as the take-no-crap nurse/driver Sam, and Janeane Garafolo came on as Liz, Scotty’s overprotective mother.
The 20-day summer shoot was all in Chicago, even though the road trip was supposed to depict going to Montreal. Wong was not only the director, but also the DP and the editor.
“I made a conscious decision to do all three because I thought it would be the most efficient,” Wong said.
It was the right decision, according to Rosenmeyer.
“Working with Richard was fantastic. As a director, nobody had any concerns. As actors, we felt safe. We also knew the film was going to look good. His experience and instincts were so good.
“Having Richard as a partner was unquantifiable,” adds Rosenmeyer. “From the outset, we were in lockstep. I trusted him in executing his vision. It was the right way to make the movie.”
One scene both Rosenmeyer and Wong are really proud of takes place in a hotel ballroom, when the worried parents catch up to their adult sons. It is a complex, emotionally intense scene, with more than one conversation going on at once. Using two cameras, Wong decided to step back and let the actors improvise for seven lengthy takes.
“We broke it down in a very actor-friendly way and it shows in their performances,” Wong said. “It was very real, which I love. It was the rawest scene in the whole movie.”
For Wong and Rosenmeyer, it was important that the characters were not portrayed as victims.
“Other movies are asking for sympathy and we’re asking for empathy,” says Rosenmeyer, who did not care if Scotty was likable.
“Authentic is what I care about. Scotty is terribly lonely and operates out of fear,” he says. “He’s the most vital character I’ve had the privilege to play.”
“Come As You Are” has changed Wong’s life. Even though getting the film distributed was a challenge, studio heads really liked it. As a result, Wong has his next project lined up, a big budget film with a major studio. He is not yet able to announce it.
“This movie absolutely got me another movie. This movie got me in the door at every single studio in Hollywood,” says Wong.
Wong loves his San Francisco life, taking care of his 8-year-old daughter, Avery, having lunch with friends and living six blocks away from his parents.
“I have a leisurely life here in San Francisco. It’s the best but it’s going to change now that I’m not just a DP,” he says. “But my intention was to create a new window for my career with this film and I’ve been successful.”
“Come As You Are” opens in select cities on Feb. 14, including the Roxie Theatre in San Francisco. It will also be available on-demand.
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