I met Wei Ling Chang several years at the Tribeca Film Festival when she was doing a reading of one of her scripts-in-progress. Impressed, I watched her chilling horror short Aunt Tigress and recognized a budding talent. So I am delighted that she has released her first feature, The Unlikely Girl, a splendid, sexy little thriller that will have you cheerfully trying to put together the puzzle pieces long after you watched it. It’s now available on iTunes, to be seen at least twice. Often I don’t want to give away the endings of movies; in this case, I don’t even want to give away the middle. Not that I fully understood what is going on in the middle, or, as a matter of fact, the beginning or end. And it’s okay that I remain a little baffled. Anyway I interpret it, I like it. I’m not sure how to summarize the movie, so here is the Synopsis in the press notes: “After a racy encounter with a stranger on a train, Cécile (Hande Kodja) arrives at a family vacation house in the south of France to unwind, at a place she seemingly hasn’t visited in [at least seven years.] When she travels into town, she runs into an old childhood crush, Luc (Pierre Boulanger, of the upcoming God Help the Girl), who can’t believe that it’s really her after all these years. But as they begin to rekindle their intense longing for each other, they are surprised by the arrival of an American exchange student, Jamie (Shane Lynch, Kelly’s daughter), who interrupts their little piece of paradise. Initially, Jamie and Cécile clash over cultural differences and fight for the affections of Luc, but they bond instantly when Jamie learns a dark truth about Cécile’s childhood [and Jamie tells Cécile a story from her youth]. In fact, Cécile even encourages Jamie to take Luc for herself. Yet shortly after the revelation, Cécile’s brother Matthieu (Raphael Godman) unexpectedly shows up at the house in the middle of the night…Jamie and Luc learn that Cécile and Matthieu have vastly different stories about their childhood and it shatters Jamie’s perceived reality. Who is lying and who is telling the truth?” What the synopsis leaves out is that it’s unsure whether the young woman who enters this family home really is the long-missing Cécile. I spoke to the writer-director about her identity and other questions that arise when viewing The Unlikely Girl.
Danny Peary: When I first saw your trailer a couple of years ago, I thought your movie was about a bunch of hunky guys and promiscuous young women who party around swimming pools during the day and change lovers every night. I had no idea what it was you were making and was relieved that it turned out to be a quirky little thriller.
Wei Ling Chang: Originally it was going to be a horror film.
DP: I think it’s one of the few movies that ever started with a location. Because you had the use of a house in France through your French husband, you decided to write the script using the house. Was it going to be a slasher movie with a French girl and an American girl visiting the house?
WLC: Yeah, there was always going to be an American girl and a French girl. I don’t remember what the premise was going to be, but very soon it evolved into something completely different. I’d been thinking about the idea for a long time, and I was a big horror fan but I’d watched too many horror firms and by the time I started writing it I was kind of done with that genre for a little while. So I decided to do something completely different.
DP: Had you ever made a movie like this?
WLC: I did a horror short and a comedy short with kids, but nothing like this. I would say the closest was my first film, The Good Husband, which is kind of Hitchcockian noir. It didn’t have much of a story, it was much more a mood piece.
DP: I really like your 2007 short, Aunt Tigress. Oddly that’s another film about not letting someone into your house! It’s very creepy. I watched it again recently and was surprised that the lead actress, playing an irresponsible teenager who is babysitting her brother, is Emily Kinney, who since then has become familiar as one of the stars of The Walking Dead.
WLC: My husband said that Emily went from a role in my short where she gets eaten to a role on TV where she will probably get eaten. I’d never thought of it that way!
DP: I also like your lead in The Unlikely Girl, Hande Kodja. I think she has a lot of charisma, sex appeal, and screen presence, and she gives a gives a really assured performance. I assume she’s French.
WLC: Actually, she’s Belgian. I think it was very easy for her to play the sarcastic, chain-smoking, flighty, bitchy French girl. I remember that after auditioning her I actually wasn’t going to call her back because, as I told the casting director, Michael Laguens, I thought she was too tough. I said, “No, no, no, I don’t think she’s right for the role, I need Cécile to have a certain sense of vulnerability.” But the casting director explained to me that I had directed Hande to be tough and called her back anyway. I’m glad because once Hande was there again, I realized she was what I was looking for.
DP: How did you cast Shane Lynch?
WLC: I saw over a hundred girls in New York before jetting off to Paris. About a week or two before principal photography started, we still didn’t have our Jamie. Eve then sent me several more girls and one of them was Shane. I auditioned these girls via Skype. It came down to Shane and another girl. By then I had already cast Hande and the two male leads. I put all the cast photos together. When I looked at Shane side by side with Hande, I knew it had to be Shane.
DP: Talk about the early scenes in which Hande and Shane are on screen together. Cécile and Jamie bond later in the film, but they’re supposed to clash until then. They aren’t able to even converse. Directing the two, I think you had to say to the actresses, “I want you two to not get along.”
WLC: In the beginning, there’s obviously animosity between the two, more from Cécile than from Jamie. Jamie’s intention, as I directed Shane, is to win over Cécile. Because Jamie’s the third wheel, Cécile wants to have Luc to herself, so her intention is to make Jamie look ridiculous. But as the movie progresses, and the story progresses, the two girls become really good friends. And in real life Hande and Shane became really good friends, so it was easier for them to form a bond and have chemistry on screen.
DP: How did you discuss Jaime with Shane–as an innocent or as someone who is corrupted by Cécile or as someone who has never been as innocent as she seems?
WLC: Jamie’s definitely more on the innocent side than Cécile. But as the story progresses, her innocence gets stripped away piece by piece. In the first half of the movie, we are seeing Jaime through Cécile’s eyes. So she comes across as the stereotypical American girl who talks in hyperboles and thinks everything is awesome. The girl you see as Jamie is only from Cécile’s perspective. It’s not the real Jamie. When we later switch to Jamie’s POV, we get a truer sense of what Jaime is like—or we see how Jamie sees herself and it’s as true or reliable as Jamie’s perspective of herself can be. There is nothing objective in the film, it’s all subjective.
DP: Tell me about your title choice.
WLC: I made a list of titles and sent it to my sister, who works in marketing, and asked her to figure out which one worked the best. I actually don’t remember where I came up with The Unlikely Girl because it’s been quite a while since I first wrote the script and settled on the title. This is what I think I was trying to get across: we have two main females and when the movie starts, you think that The Unlikely Girl is referring to Cécile –but as Jamie becomes the protagonist you wonder if maybe she’s the unlikely girl and the term takes on an entirely different meaning.
DP: Your film reminds me of French films. Did you think of it as a French film?
WLC: I don’t know the definition of a French film. Yes, it was shot entirely in France and there was a French crew and French actors, but I’m American and I wrote it in English and I had the French dialogue translated to French. I think I’d just call it Hitchcockian.
DP: To me it had a kind of Claude Chabrol feel. The French-British thriller Swimming Pool, which your film recalls, wasn’t directed by Chabrol but was certainly influenced by him. But of course Chabrol’s idol was Alfred Hitchcock.
WLC: You’re not the first person who has mentioned Chabrol to me. I definitely think that’s a compliment. And I love Swimming Pool. Jonathan Demme came to our screening at the Woodstock Film Festival. He stayed for the Q&A and asked me a directorial question. Then he told me he loved my film and thought it was very Hitchockian, which made my day and is the highlight of my Unlikely Girl journey! At Cornell, I took a film analysis class on film noir and Silence of the Lambs was the only color film we saw. I loved it and I felt things came full circle when he came to my screening. I didn’t recognize him but my producer told me who he was later.
DP: I saw traces of Vertigo in your movie, and even a little of Psycho. The structure in both those films has one girl replacing another girl as the lead character in the second half of the film. Of course, in Vertigo, it turns out to be the same person. Psycho has Vera Miles’s character taking over when her sister, played by Janet Leigh, is killed. You allow Cécile, your lead character, to depart before things are resolved and Jaime, who had been a supporting player until then, assumes the lead role for the rest of the film. Structurally, that’s rare.
WLC: As I said before, it’s because of the change of POV. The first half of the film is Cécile’s point of view, then it becomes Jamie’s. I always wanted it that way, even when it was a going to be a horror movie. That was basically the premise I started with. I always had the idea of having the story continue and not use a flashback. I thought that if I did use a flashback, it would be a rewind and we’d go back to the beginning and then tell the same story from the other girl’s point of view. But I thought that would be kind of boring.
DP: There are a couple of scenes where I thought I may be watching a flashback, as when Luc drives off in a car and Cécile is upset and chases after him.
WLC: No, that’s actually in her imagination. She made that whole scene up in her head.
DP: As opposed to her remembering something. I guess it wouldn’t make sense as a flashback since Cécile, if she is Cécile, hasn’t been home since she was thirteen. That scene couldn’t have happened because she hadn’t been with Luc when they were adults.
WLC: It’s her fantasy. When she plays the piano in the house, it’s the same thing.
DP: She imagines she’s a star and people are applauding her. I’ve read that you’re interested in time travel. The Unlikely Girl has to do with time–past and present overlap.
WLC: Yeah, and also reality and fantasy.
DP: Early on, it seems that the entire movie is going to be going back and forth between fantasy and reality, and there will be Cécile’s voiceover. But you drop her narration and it seems that you drop what could be construed as “fantasy”—unless the whole film is a fantasy–and the movie changes in midstream. That is kind of daring, and I can see a film professor saying, “You can’t do that.” Were you thinking that?
WLC: No, I didn’t think it was that daring. I just thought it would be interesting to tell the story from two points of view. For me, the POV switch happens around the night scene in which Jamie witnesses Cécile making out with Luc.
DP: In making this film, did you have to explain the whole film to all your actors? Or did you say to them that it wasn’t important that you all shared the same point of view of what happens? Or by the end, did everybody know your interpretation of the story?
WLC: That’s interesting, because the only person who needed to know the truth was the actress who plays “Cécile.” She needs to know who she really is. All the actors discussed what they thought actually happens, but the only people who knew the truth were Hande and I. Obviously Shane has no idea, and neither does Pierre, who plays Luc, or Rafael, who plays Matthieu. They’re all like, we discussed this, what we think actually happens, but the only person who knows the truth is Hande and me.
DP: But in regard to how she played her, why did Hande have to know if she is Cécile?
WLC: For me, there’s a definite answer, a definite truth. For me it was clear as night and day. The first hint I had that people had their own interpretations was during auditions in France, when one of the actresses who was trying out came up to me and asked, “So, is she really Cécile or not?” I was really shocked. So I asked her what she thought and she told me who Cécile is and gave me her explanation. I found that really fascinating. I was bombarded on Facebook with people asking if Hande’s character is Cécile, so I started a discussion board. You wouldn’t believe the kind of interpretations people are coming up with on it. Some people have even suggested that Jamie IS Cécile.
DP: I’m probably not the only person who feels that the characters slip in and out of each other. To me, the two women are the same person, in a way. At very least they melt into each other and where there once were two, eventually only one is needed.
WLC: Most filmmakers make their first film autobiographical, right? Plotwise, there’s nothing autobiographical about The Unlikely Girl, but there are definitely pieces of me in each character. In that sense, they’re the same person.
DP: And in that story, Jamie becomes a strong person, too, as strong as Cécile. She becomes her protector, the one who knocks the dangerous guy over the head. Cécile had seen Luc as her protector but actually it’s this girl. Jamie’s a stronger person.
WLC: That’s how she perceives herself. She’s a truth-seeker.
DP: I suppose Jamie can’t be Cécile because they would have had the same mother, Matthieu’s mother. We know the real Cécile’s mother is Mrs. Deveroux, and Mrs. Deveroux’s hostile reaction to Jamie indicates Mrs. Deveroux regards her not as a runaway daughter but as a stranger who is staying in the house in Valencia. Hande’s character rides the train in the opening sequence, before she identifies herself as Cécile, and she speaks to her mother on the phone–is it Mrs. Deveroux she is talking to? And if “Cécile”—as Hande’s character calls herself after she arrives in Valencia–sticks around till the end, would Mrs. Deveroux recognize her as her missing daughter or call her an imposter? You don’t have to tell me! But I’m wondering, if she’s not Cécile, has she done this identify-theft before? Does this jobless girl meet people on trains and learn enough of their stories to take it from there? Because in her voiceover, she states that men are very predictable. She expects Matthieu to invite her to the swimming pool at his house, and he does. She ends up with his house keys while he’s off to Paris. So does she repeatedly meet bad men on trains and go to their houses, reveal their crimes, and impact on their lives? Has she done this at other times?
WLC: Hande and I actually discussed this, because if she is not Cécile, then we could have sequels and multiple stories about this woman who goes around impersonating Cécile and others.
DP: So her having done this many times is actually a valid possibility! I’d like to think of Cécile coming into different houses, revealing crimes, and partly mending the whole situation.
WLC: I’m curious about what you think happens.
DP: I don’t think it’s possible to put it all together. But since Jamie opens up about her friend being abducted in front of her when they were kids, there has to be some healing process going on with her and I believe Cécile helps heal her. She corrupts Jamie but that’s good overall because she evolves from robot to human. Why would Cécile leave Jamie alone to deal with Matthieu? I think it’s only because she believes Jamie can now take over for her. By then, she had completely confidence in Jamie, who is much stronger and out of her shell. This is a strange turnaround for Cécile, who didn’t like Jamie when they first met because she was conservative and virginal. You have a line in your script that says people change. I know you don’t want this to be a rite-of-passage movie, but when Cécile leaves she kisses the girl from Iowa on the lips and is not rejected. I’m sure that early in the movie this conservative girl would have pulled away in shock and nausea. She wouldn’t have been able to handle that. Now she accepts the kiss.
WLC: That’s a good point.
DP: Don’t you think that by the end Jamie would say, “Cécile helped me and I miss her.”
WLC: I think for Jamie, in the end, it’s the birth of a new character. We discussed how if we meet Jamie again ten or fifteen years later, it would be interesting to see who she’s become.
DP: When Cécile kisses her goodbye, she says, “It’s been fun.” She’s telling the truth but nothing we’ve seen seems to have been fun. In fact, she is almost killed. So I think that’s an important line in regard to her identity and her motives.
WLC: It’s definitely an important line.
DP: If it was fun for her then it’s only because she got a kick doing her hobby, which is fixing people and bad situations. So will she do it again?
WLC: I think that’s a hard question to answer, because if I answer that, I might reveal too much.
DP: Okay, good enough. But do you think it has been fun for her?
WLC: I think so, yeah.
DP: What gives her fun–fixing things or stirring up things?
WLC: It’s stirring up things, the drama of things. I don’t think she’s the kind of girl who likes to watch life pass by, she likes to be involved. She likes to stir up emotions. Just look at what she does on the train with the stranger–she likes to play with people.
DP: There’s a lot of selfishness that comes across in the beginning. By the end it seems like that part of her almost disappears. She’s still her own person and untamable, but she does help Jamie evolve and she rights a wrong, maybe. My guess is that Hande is protective of her character and speaks highly of her. I think Jamie would defend her as well.
WLC: I’m glad that you can see the good in Cécile, because a lot of people don’t see that.
DP: There is another important line that Cécile delivers in voiceover when she blanks out on Jamie’s annoying chatter: “The world I see is a simulated reality.” Is that line a clue, that we’re not seeing a real world, but a movie world?
WLC: That line is more referencing her perception of things. It’s more about her character and what she sees and how she sort of joins fantasy and reality at different points in the movie. I would say everything she says is important and a clue.
DP: We don’t have to take any of it as being real anyway, right?
WLC: That’s true.
DP: Cécile tells Jamie “If you believe it, then it’s the truth.” Throughout the film, we have truth and then we’re not sure if it’s true, and then we think, “Hey, it must be false–but maybe it’s true.” Contradictory reactions. It goes back to the words you open the film with: “The sentence below is true. The sentence above is false.” Is that a theme that goes through the whole movie? You obviously know what’s going on more than we do.
WLC: I would say one of the premises of the whole film is paradox. Those two lines are a version of the “Liar’s Paradox,” and I would say it’s a running theme throughout the film. It’s similar to Cécile saying, “Would you believe it if it isn’t true? If you believe it enough, it becomes the truth.” It’s not easy to convince yourself that something false is true, but if you say it enough times to someone else you’ll believe it, too.
DP: There is another important line, I believe, that comes when Hande’s character receives a call at the house and it’s Cécile’s brother Matthieu. Actually just one word is important: Cécile. Maybe she’s imagining the call but I think not, and he calls her Cécile.
WLC: He is surprised that she’s still there, that she’s at home.
DP: That in theory confirms she is indeed Cécile. Her brother knows that is who she is. But wouldn’t he have recognized her as his sister earlier on the train? We saw no indication of that. He does show her family pictures, and that’s how she could have figured out the real story or concocted a different story. I think she’s very intuitive, so she should be able to figure out that Matthieu isn’t a good guy in the train. I don’t know.
WLC: I don’t think your interpretation is convoluted, but some people have really convoluted ways to explain why what they think is the case, and I always tell everyone that the simplest answer is usually the right one. But everyone thinks differently.
DP: I’m at a loss on this one, but I kind of like not knowing. That’s sort of what you’re trying to do, I think, open up a lot of possibilities.
WLC: That’s definitely something I wanted to do. I created the story so I have all the answers in my head and definitely put in clues throughout the film so viewers can put the pieces together and figure it out. I thought the question people were going to ask was: “Did Matthieu have incestuous relations with his sister?” I am surprised they instead ask about Cécile’s identity. It has been fascinating to hear people express doubts about it. At the Vancouver Film Festival, I asked the audience if they thought the girl really was Cécile, and I would say exactly half the people in the audience thought she was Cécile and half thought she wasn’t. I liked opening up the debate. I don’t like tying things up with a bow, and I want people to talk about the film afterwards.
DP: It sounds like you weren’t trying to confuse people, but to get them to figure it out from whatever clues you inserted. We know there are clues scattered about but we don’t know how to interpret them.
WLC: I thought there would be some uncertainty but that people would gravitate toward an answer about who she is. I thought some people might know on the first screening. On the second watch, I thought everyone should be able to figure out who she is.
DP: Your film begins on an odd train, where you don’t see anybody else. It could be that you were setting up an alternative world, but it could be empty because of your low budget.
WLC: Haha. No, we shot it and there were actually only one or two people on board; it was bizarre. We lucked out.
DP: What about the expense of Cécile’s clothes? Particularly in the early scenes, she wore different clothes in almost every scene, maybe for thematic reasons.
WLC: Cécile’s wardrobe is basically mine. I had a chart of all the clothes that she would be wearing because we didn’t have a wardrobe person. We had an assistant on set who was basically helping me, and we went shopping for the actors’ clothes, including both actress’s wardrobes. I basically mapped out who would be wearing what outfit and what color in each scene.
DP: Is the color important of what she was wearing?
WLC: Yeah, especially the scene where you see Matthieu, Cécile, and Jamie together, the interrogation scene. I wanted it to be bright and colorful in a dark setting.
DP: Well, Cécile wears kind of bright clothes all the way through, I believe. The scene in which she appears at the pool—Jamie and Luc are already there—and looks haggard, as if she had a hangover is the first time I noticed she’s finally wearing the same outfit she wore in another scene. I thought it was kind of interesting how she was changing her clothes so many times, kind of like a female in a fantasy changes her clothes scene by scene.
DP: The wardrobe was determined only partly by budget, but really great thing about your movie is it’s so efficient. It’s really impressive that whatever low budget you had, you pulled it off.
WLC: Thank you, it was a lot of hard work, the hardest thing I ever had to do. We were in a foreign country with my first film, my producer didn’t speak any French, we had all these obstacles. And the budget that we were shooting on was equivalent to the budget that French filmmakers shoot their short films on. I remember being in Paris during production and going to a Paris cinema reception. Even then, we were still trying to find local people to help us out, but when I told anyone our budget, they basically laughed at us. But we made it happen, and I remember going to the film commission’s office there and trying to get them to help us find a location. After that, after we finished the film, and they were really proud that we actually got it done. We were proud, too.
DP: Tell me what else you’re working on.
WLC: I have two sci-fi projects, one a time-travel thriller, that I’m developing with a producer named Amy Mitchell, who’s based in Louisiana. I’m also working on another Hitchcockian thriller set in high school, called Bad Education.
DP: Meanwhile, how can people see The Unlikely Girl?
WLC: After it got good reaction at the Woodstock and Vancouver Film Festivals, we put it on iTunes, worldwide, in seven different languages–Spanish, French, Portuguese, Finnish, Norwegian, Dutch, Danish. The url is https://itunes.apple.com/us/movie/the-unlikely-girl/id866421381?uo=4&at=11lJXr&ct=TUGPB. It has been a long but interesting journey.