Welcome to Commentary Commentary, where we sit and listen to filmmakers talk about their work, then share the most interesting parts. In this edition, Rob Hunter listens to a commentary for a film that isn’t available on disc... what kind of sorcery is this?!
There’s no denying that commentary tracks from a film’s talent pool are an increasingly uncommon extra on new release movies, but they’re still out there if you keep your eyes open. Case in point? Netflix’s short-lived Watching With podcast brings filmmakers on to record commentaries for their streaming films — I say short-lived as the last entry was from May of 2020 — and as I’ve only just discovered it exists we’re going to cover one now.
The Half of It is one of 2020’s best films — don’t just take my word for it, though, check out our top 20 movies from last year — and as it’s a Netflix Film there will most likely be no physical release. Happily, writer/director Alice Wu sat down with the podcast to record a commentary anyway. Keep reading to see what I heard on the commentary for The Half of It.
The Half of It (2020)
Commentator: Alice Wu (director, writer), Marya Gates (moderator)
1. The opening animation, in addition to being beautifully crafted, is filled with references to the film itself including the letter, the hot springs scene, and more.
2. Wu intentionally keeps Ellie’s (Leah Lewis) face hidden through the opening montage as we instead get glimpses of her and her life. It makes a brief mystery out of her identity which is in essence the journey that Ellie herself is on — who is she becomes who am I? The film’s end pays this off with an extended shot focused on Ellie’s face as we realize that we’ve come to know her, and more importantly, she now knows herself..
3. The Half of It ends — spoiler incoming but honestly you shouldn’t be reading this if you’re planning to watch the film! — with all three of the main characters on their own, sans romantic partner. Wu prefers this over endings that leave viewers thinking “oh they got married, hooray.”
4. Wu acknowledges that this film could have been shaped towards a more general audience as a more traditional crowd-pleaser — ie a romantic comedy that ends in a happy couple — but she notes that Trump had just been elected while she was writing the script, and that gave her pause. What was initially set in a big, diverse city instead shifted to a small, rural, conservative town.
5. The film isn’t targeted against close-minded whites as Wu adds that she grew up in a conservative Chinese family filled with its own variations of racism, sexism, and homophobia, “and I think my parents are great people.” The idea that these kinds of people are one thing, bad, isn’t one that Wu subscribes to.
6. The Half of It is set in eastern Washington state, but it was filmed in Upstate New York.
7. There are several film references here, and Wu chose them in part for the similar character dynamics in each. “They all have triangles in them. Casablanca has a triangle, Philadelphia Story has a triangle.”
8. Wings of Desire doesn’t have a triangle, but Wu sees a connection between an angel invisible to the person he loves and unable to communicate that love, to a closeted person feeling similarly unable to express their emotion.
9. Wu’s creative touchstones are authenticity and timelessness.
10. The knitted scarves worn by the blonde clique were meant to be garish, but people seemed to actually like them.
11. Wu was told she couldn’t mention Venmo, so she invented Hushmo instead. Only after they had shot the film did she learn that she actually could have used Venmo. Paypal couldn’t be reached for comment.
12. She wants Collin Chao to know that several of her friends find him extremely attractive.
13. It was suggested that they cut the “mudding” scene featuring the teens having a blast trying to drive pickup trucks out of mud puddles, but Wu insisted saying “it will tell you everything about this town.”
14. All of Wu’s suggestions for a messenger app name were rejected by the legal department, all except Ghost Messenger, which she’s not the biggest fan of.
15. The teens saying “Chugga chugga chu chu” to Ellie is based on Wu’s own experience. “I did grow up with kids calling me ‘chugga chugga wu wu’ when I biked to school.”
16. Lewis doesn’t actually speak Mandarin, but Wu recorded the eight lines for her so she could practice memorizing the .
17. The conversation between Ellie and Paul (Daniel Diemer) in the car moves from edited beats to a long single shot. Wu trained as an editor and appreciated rhythm and pacing, and here “we feel the power of their connection more” as we stay with the immediacy of their performances.
18. This is for viewers with Atmos sound systems only, but Wu and her sound design team added subtle creaks and moans in the scenes set at Ellie’s apartment above the train crossing. It’s meant to give the impression of an old building settling against the wind outside.
19. Wu is *not* a fan of emojis.
20. She offers some good advice to hopeful writers regarding connecting scenes through emotion. Ellie’s guilt over the situation with Paul — she’s helping him woo Aster (Alexxis Lemire) while actually being in love with her herself — is what moves her to finally try his taco sausage. It’s simple and silly, but there’s truth in the transition.
21. The search for a film featuring a man running after a woman as her train leaves the station was more difficult than they expected, and it led them to an Indian movie called Ek Villain (2014).
22. Ellie’s song is written by Joe Pernice from the Scud Mountain Boys.
23. Wu told Lewis to think of that engineer booth as her safety zone. In there she’s safe, and outside she’s in danger. You can see her clinging to it in the scene where Aster is there with her.
24. The photo of Ellie’s mom is actually of Joan Chen, who starred in Wu’s earlier feature Saving Face (2004).
25. Wu drops a rare commentary f-bomb — seriously, they’re not easy to find as studios often bleep them out — while confirming that Paul’s comment about Ellie’s sexuality being a sin isn’t said in anger or judgement but in sadness for his friend. He’s been raised to believe this nonsense, and now he’s devastated thinking that his friend will suffer.
26. Marya reads the slap as meaning that Aster is more angry with Paul than with Ellie, but Wu says it’s actually meant to imply the opposite. Aster is looking at Ellie while slapping Paul as Ellie is the one she’s most upset with. “I maybe have failed on that,” says the filmmaker thinking she was unable to get that across, but hopefully she knows that some of us caught that just fine.
27. They had to create the caterpillar in glasses emoji as there wasn’t one anywhere. Can you believe it?
28. The script for The Half of It originally had the woman on the train ask Ellie if Paul was her boyfriend, to which she would reply “no, he’s my friend.” Wu wanted to cut it, secretly, and eventually did as she decided instead to focus on the train’s other passengers, all of whom are looking out the window for something. Returning to Ellie’s face we see that she’s found something, the knowledge that she’s going to be okay.
29. No shade towards Marya, but it’s funny to me that they stay and talk through the end credits when Netflix moves fast as hell to knock you out of them and onto the next thing.
30. The end credits on The Half of It include a thank you to Mrs. Jeanne Geselschap who was Wu’s high school English teacher. She’s the inspiration for Becky Ann Baker’s character.
Best in Context-Free Commentary
“It’s sort of my favorite kind of ending for a film.”
“I love John Denver.”
“I’m so blessed to have the actors I did.”
“It’s always nice to promote another woman artist.”
“Hepburn vs Hepburn, one of the great debates.”
“There are different ways in this town to be othered.”
“This is my Wong Kar-wai moment.”
“I don’t have anything against oboes.”
“I always watch credits on movies I love.”
Wu has clearly given a lot of thought into what she wanted to say with The Half of It, and it all comes through beautifully. Her comments here offer a mix of explanation, insight, and anecdotes about the film’s shoot, and they make for an interesting listen for fans. As someone who loves this movie, has watched it four times now, and who shifts back and forth between wanting a sequel in two years time, her comments work to remind me that it really isn’t necessary. The three main characters here, four if you count Ellie’s dad, are on a journey, and by the time the film ends it’s clear they’re each in a far better place than they were at the start. We know they’re going to be okay.
Read more Commentary Commentary from the archives.