Discovering a filmmaker like Linh Tran at the beginning of her career is unbelievably exciting. A friend of mine has already made a bootleg Girls on Top T-shirt with her name on it, and I want one to accompany my Sofia Coppola, Chloé Zhao, Charlotte Wells and Isabel Sandoval shirts. I’m still waiting on an Emma Seligman (“Shiva Baby”) shirt, who reminds me of Linh’s strong kick-off of her career with her feature debut, “Waiting for the Light to Change.”

The film is about two childhood friends, Kim and Amy, who’ve found themselves at a fork in the road in their friendship while on a getaway together with friends at a Michigan lake house. As a woman who just turned 40, I can reflect while watching this film on what it was like to be in your late twenties and start to feel distance between your childhood and school friends. We grow and evolve. Linh and I talked about this and some of the technical aspects of the film, along with some of the creative challenges of shooting a film during the pandemic. I love that this film is stripped down to one location, and it really brings you in close to these characters, along with their conflicting feelings regarding the friends they had grown up with. Needless to say, I got mega “The Big Chill” vibes with this film! You’ll see :). But definitely in the Linh Tran style.

The film is screening at Slamdance, premiering at Treasure Mountain Inn: Crescent Room, 7:45 PM on Sunday, January 22, 2023.

Linh Tran

How did you come to this project?

I went to DePaul for my MFA. When I just got there, they launched a program called “Indie Studio.” James Choi is the one who established this initiative. The program is composed of a class of students who will essentially be the crew on a feature film and the school would option the film. The students would pitch and whoever won the pitch would become the director and then you choose the crew from there. It was a micro-budget production with fifteen thousand dollars. They did the program for two years and it was just for undergrad students. When it came to my year, they started opening it up for grad students, so I applied.

I then got accepted into the program and the script we used was very different. It was very funny that the script that I chose was a coming of age film called “Our New Normal”. We got the script and it was going to be shot in the summer that COVID happened and literally, we had our “new normal” (laughing). It was really ironic, but that script was not COVID friendly. Making something like that when everything was closing made it difficult. All the schools were shutting down and we needed a school location. The school was one of the main locations of the movie. There were so many hiccups, it was just difficult. 

There was this sense of urgency to it, it was like, “is the money still going to be there if we keep pushing back our shooting dates?” I realized we just needed to adapt to the situation. In November of 2020, we decided to push the shooting date to March and find a new story for this project. It was a unique type of situation. We had to write and develop the film in basically 3 months. We started out pretty much from zero, like nothing. We were just going to roll with the punches. 

During our location scouting, one of our producers (Jake Rotger) suggested we check out his family’s lake house in Michigan, and we could go and write something there. We made it a road trip. Jewells (Santos), her roommate and I went to the lake house to write the script. Jake was already there with his step brother when we arrived. The five of us got into a groove like we eventually did in the film. Now that I think about it, our film mirrors a lot of the things that we did there on the initial scout.

After we decided on the lake house as a location, we were like, “OK, let’s write something.” Jewells, myself, and another co-writer (Delia Van Praag) put something together. My co-writers have a background in playwriting, and we were doing zooms together where we’d outline how different things were going to happen. When we were writing the script, we would improv the scenes. Most of these scenes have dialogue and we went through five drafts. We did not have time to do more than that. 

We would then invite different actors to table read after we wrote each draft and read the whole script and that is how we did the casting. We would have the actors read the entire script as an ensemble. It was interesting because I never had done it that way before. By the time we got to Michigan, I didn’t feel like the script was where it needed to be. We just didn’t have a lot of time. We were working non-stop on it. There wasn’t a moment where you could step back and give yourself distance from the material to actually adjust the content or see the big picture. When the actors were there, we had one week of rehearsals. A lot of the dialogue in the movie came from the rehearsals, and we did a lot of improv. 

Jin Park (Amy) and Joyce Ha (Kim) in “Waiting for the Light to Change”

Could you talk about how the three women came to be onscreen? I read in the press kit that each woman really stemmed from one aspect of yourself. What was the process like with your co-writers and bringing the actors into those roles? 

That’s a great question. There are three women: Amy, Kim and Lin. I’m here by myself and I don’t have family around me. I’m from Vietnam. Growing up Asian in an Asian family, it was very democratic, but at the same time, very oppressed in expressing yourself or your feelings and what you actually want. In my early twenties, like twenty or twenty-one, I was like Amy. I wanted a lot of things, but I didn’t want to get it for myself. I didn’t feel I was good enough to get it for myself. There was a lot of resentment. Eventually I made a lot of friends who opened me up.

Kim is kind of like me now. How I function now is so different, and the person I’ve grown into. Parts of her character are taken from the traits of my best friend in college. She’s very straightforward, and she sometimes asks questions that she knows would make me uncomfortable. I appreciate that because that is what we ultimately want to do as filmmakers, raising questions for people and busting their bubble a little bit.

With Lin, I feel like she has a very empathetic quality and she’s an artist. She looks at everything with such innocence and non-judgmental eyes. And that’s how I want to be in my professional life as a filmmaker or a creator. 

Can you talk about the cinematography and the visual aspects of the film?

Absolutely. The first thing I did was observe the location. I felt the house was very white as a palette, and then there was some blue here and there. I’d ask myself, ‘What would go well with this?’ I’m a big fan of Eric Rohmer. His color palette in his films feels a little muted, but very vibrant at the same time. There’s something that is very harmonic, and there’s something that is very comfy about it. I always tell people that I don’t want to make movies with sharp edges, I want it to feel comforting. I feel the subject matter of my films is very heavy and usually sad. I love to package is in a way that is more fun and less scary or daunting to watch. I want to challenge the audience a little bit, but I don’t want them to watch these incredibly sad movies. That is also what I wanted to do with the cinematography and the color. My DP (David Foy) is awesome, and we worked really well and challenged each other a lot in terms of the limitations that we had. Without a lot of money, how do we cover the scenes in a way that is effective and gives the audience the time and the space that they need to think or reflect? I feel like what we are striving for is a meditation on this subject matter. We are creating an atmosphere for people to experience it, not to follow just a story. 

“Waiting for the Light to Change”

This film and your short “Video Funeral” touch on grief. Can you talk about the intention of having grief also as a part of this film?

Different kinds of losses have always been a part of my films. I made a film titled “Dinner”, and it’s about the loss of innocence experienced by a child. “Video Funeral” is about losing a family member and not being able to be there. Through “Waiting for the Light to Change”, I actually touch a little bit on the loss of a family member with the character Jay (Sam Straley), but I think that the biggest loss the main characters experiences is the loss of trust or relationships. When you’re growing up and you’re in your early twenties, you made most of your friends from high school and college. I feel like before we actually grow up, we always count on these relationships and think that these friends are always going to be your friends. But then you realize that people change. There is this part in the movie where they ask each other whether would they be friends now if they had just met. I think that asking this question is very relatable. Everyone has the experience of drifting away from friends. It’s very dramatic, but at the same time, it’s not dramatic. It doesn’t look dramatic, but in your head, it’s always so painful. That’s something I thought of while watching it again.

When I was writing the movie, I didn’t really think about themes. I just had characters and stories. But then themes naturally came out in the film from these interactions between the actors onscreen and behind the scenes. All of my actors were put together in an Airbnb and they became very close after the first week, especially the two women (Jin Park and Joyce Ha) who played the leads. You’re in this caring environment for a month and then you leave, like you’re going back to LA or Chicago. Something is going to be missed, like you’re not going to have it tomorrow like you have it today. That kind of sentiment.

What do you hope people see in your film?

I don’t really have an agenda most of the time. It’s hard because I’d love for people to be free in what they will feel. Some reflection from the audience when they watch the movie would be a great thing, like I hope that would happen. Also, a reminder to be kind to yourself. There is so much of this torment that is happening within ourselves inside our heads in your twenties. I wish it wasn’t that way, but I guess it’s part of growing up.

Cinema Femme Sundance and Slamdance coverage is sponsored by Noisefloor Sound Solutions and the Siskel Film Center.

Leave a Reply

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.