Usually, I prefer to write my own feelings about a film or those of the people involved, rather than both. They Live in the Grey was an exception: the film impressed me so much that I knew it would be a treat to interview the filmmakers. I contacted the publicist, who was eager for my initial thoughts, and the next thing I knew, not one but two interviews were arranged.
The Vang Brothers, Writers and Directors
Burlee Vang and Abel Vang wrote and directed They Live in the Grey together; their second film, after Bedeviled. I opened by asking them how they write about women so well…and I discovered straight away that their spoken answers may as well be shared output. “We have a close relationship with our mother,” said Burlee. “Our Mom is like the great matriarch of the family,” said Abel. “And we’re married too, so we also have really great relationships with our wives,” added Burlee. “And our firstborn are both daughters,” rounded off Abel.
Clearly, they are surrounded by female influencers…but I’m not sure writing in this way will be sustainable. My next question was about their shared creative process, so perhaps my impression of one filmmaker with two voices would be confirmed. I asked the brothers how they work together. “I think the best way to put this is that it’s kind of a ying-yang deal,” said Abel. “I don’t think I’d be doing this if I didn’t have Burlee, and I think the same could be said for him. I think having both of us involved in the entire creative process, you have a second pair of eyes to” […] “feedback right away,” continued Abel. “It’s faster, more efficient. And because there are two of us working together, that allows us to work with a larger team; our crew and cast.” Burlee: “it’s almost like if one of us generates an idea and the other says ‘hey, that’s pretty good,’ or the other person likes it, there’s a reassurance that you know, it’s not just me. Or the opposite could be said: one of us could come up with an idea and the other might say ‘you know what, there’s these things about it that could be problematic,’ and I hadn’t seen it from that angle.” Abel: “it helps that we come from very different backgrounds.” Burlee, nodding: “Yeah. I did my undergrad in molecular biology, I was a premed student, then went to film school to finish my studies.” Burlee: “I did creative writing, poetry, fiction.” Abel: “It really is ying-yang, for the whole nine yards.”
They Live in the Grey featured three couples with troubled relationships and I dared to hope that the story wasn’t written from experience. I almost regretted my flippant question when a serious answer came back, firstly from Burlee. “Claire [the central character, played by Michelle Krusiec] is inspired by our mother, so there’s a real story in this. We had a third brother.” Abel continued: “If he was alive now, he’d be a couple of years younger than me.” Burlee: “He passed away within a week of birth, and it was very hard for our mother to express that grief. In fact, the family didn’t talk about it; we were really young then, too. Over the years, the grief has been kind of swept under the rug until now finally in our thirties, we went to his graveside for the first time.” Abel: “For the first time, we saw our Mom weep and grieve and was able to let that burden go.” Burlee: “For us, They Live in the Grey is a cathartic endeavor. Telling the story provided some healing, in really going into the psyche of what our mother went through.” Abel: “So much of the costumes in the film that Claire wears are straight out of our Mom’s closet. Our Mom hoards everything, so we went back to the clothes she had in the eighties and nineties and took those out and gave them to our actress to wear as Claire.”
I asked how their Mom felt about that. “Oh she was OK,” said Abel. “Even for her, this project was very much a family effort. Our Mom decided she wanted to come on set one day and cook for the cast and crew. So our cast and crew got to eat Mama Vang’s food! And our Dad; if you recall the opening scene where Claire is hanging, our Dad—who has a background in construction—constructed the beams.” Burlee: “It was a real family effort, with a personal story behind it, so for us, it’s more than a movie.”
Moving from the story to the cast, then, I asked the pair whether they determined that they wanted an Asian American lead before casting the part of Claire, or whether Michelle simply auditioned well. “Oh we wanted an Asian American lead,” said Burlee firmly. “We didn’t have her audition,” said Abel. Burlee: “We asked her, with fingers crossed, if she would do it. We knew that she’s a fantastic actress, and we wanted her to take on this role, and we’re just grateful that she said ‘yes’.”
I really want to know more about the ghosts in They Live in the Grey, and I asked the brothers whether audiences will get their backstories in DVD extras perhaps. “The ghosts have very little screen time,” said Abel, “and we wanted them to have a real lived-in life…” “Prior to their deaths,” clarified Burlee, “that’s why they’re hanging around. So with every ghost, you get a glimpse of their life and wonder ‘who were they?’ right before the moment they left their bodies.” Abel: “We actually had a good amount of time with each of the actors who came in to play the spirits, because we wanted to give them a good, beefy background about who they were and where they were coming from, even if the screen time was short. So we’re glad that even though they’re small moments that we see, it feels very full.” Burlee: “We didn’t want Hollywood spirits. They had to be real, living, breathing people who were stuck.” So the brothers know the entire history of these ghosts? Burlee: “In some ways, yes. Eventually, we might share them” There’s a customer here if they ever do.
The film score complemented the mood of the narrative beautifully; I asked Burlee and Abel how they went about selecting David Williams for that work. “We worked with him on our previous film,” said Burlee, “so this one was very different. The first one was more of a ‘teen horror’ and for this one, we said we wanted an ‘elevated horror’ film; but you know, we approached this film as a drama. We told David ‘we want you to give us something that you would make for a drama’ because when writing this one, we looked to Manchester By the Sea in some weird way.” Abel clarified: “That was because of how they both go between the present and the past, and at times you might not understand which it is. Throughout the journey, you get to piece together the brokenness of the people you’re watching.” Burlee: “David was able to come up with a little piece for each character, and it would surface again and again, helping them to shine in their moments. He’s fantastic.”
Having been so impressed by They Live in the Grey, I was very keen to find out what the Vang Brothers are working on next. They both laughed with a little uncertainty. Abel: “We signed to do a project with a major studio that we can’t speak about yet. Then we have another one that’s under an NDA, so we can’t speak about that either.” Burlee: “We are working on feature ideas, and if They Live in the Grey is successful, if there are fans, we do intend to continue telling Claire’s story.” Abel: “There’s a lot more to tell.” Burlee: “She’s barely at the start.” So this film could potentially be a back story to a whole career for her? Both: “Yes, that’s the hope.”
I really hope it will be a success and think it could have been great on the big screen, alongside films like Candyman. As it turns out, it’s due to be released on Shudder, so I asked the brothers how they feel about that. Both: “We’re so excited.” Abel: “I think Shudder has had so much growth and seeing the caliber of films and shows that are coming out, and the fact that viewing patterns have completely changed. I mean if this was ten years ago, yes, I’d want it on the silver screen; but instead, now I want it on everybody’s cellphone. I want everyone to watch it on Roku.” Burlee: “We still frequent theatres, but unless it’s a big, giant blockbuster. For quieter films, when you sit and watch the movie…” Abel: “It’s just playing to empty seats, which is sad.” Burlee: “So releasing via a platform like Shudder, for us, felt like the right choice. And they’re wonderful, they’re taking care of this film very well; we’re happy to be part of it.”
Michelle Krusiec, Lead Actress
Michelle played Claire Lang, child protection officer and (less officially) clairvoyant by nature. Her role was central and her performance crucial to The Live in the Grey, a sad and powerful film, as I described it in my review; so I opened my interview with her by asking how it felt to carry such a heavy story. “Oh Alix, I was excited because as a person of color, specifically Asian,” Michelle said, “it’s not often I’m asked to carry a film. So for me, it was an honor and the Vangs told me how they really championed keeping that character Asian American, that it had often been put to the test by financiers; and so for them to really stick to their vision for the part, I felt I had an obligation to really deliver the performance.” From my perspective as a film lover, it certainly worked.
As well as acting and other film work, Michelle has also volunteered with trauma survivors. There was a great deal of trauma in her character’s experience, and so I asked whether she had brought any outside experience into her role. “That’s an interesting question. I should say that I am trained and certified as a volunteer to work with trauma survivors; I’ve not done so recently, but support them when I can. I don’t know if I consciously brought that to Claire because I’m not sure she’s aware of what’s happening to her; she’s very much inside it. She would have to be kind of outside of it to recognize she’s going through trauma, and I think if you asked her, she would be very much emotionally shut down to her own experience, even though she’s dying to have some place to put that experience.” It’s interesting that Michelle is able to observe this about the character she plays, and Claire is indeed a fascinating contrast with one of the other female parts, that of Audrey (played by Ellen Wroe): she knows all about what she’s going through but doesn’t say anything about it.
I sympathized with the understanding Michelle was able to give her character and asked whether it had been draining to play Claire; and whether she had to let it all go at the end of a day. Interestingly, she took a couple of perspectives I hadn’t considered. “I think the challenge of that piece was about how much you can watch someone go through grief,” Michelle said. “I really let the Vangs direct that, because I can’t self-direct how much is ‘enough’ in that moment; so my fear was that maybe it was too much. Watching someone go through that kind of loss is such a painful experience, so I tried to give them the depth of it and allowed them to shape it in terms of the performance.” Of course, Claire didn’t just have her own trauma to deal with, but that of the ghosts she encountered too.
“Indeed,” said Michelle. “And the film definitely allowed me to exorcise feelings of my own. I mentioned to someone else recently there’s so much grief and rage which I was able to really experience; and because I’m API, so much of it is part of that character’s journey. The API part of it is not really spoken of in the film, which I think is right; but in terms of what she’s going through as a woman of color, she’s not able to express it, but at the same time her grief is so massive that she wouldn’t know how to express it to anyone. For me, I was given permission to feel a lot of things that I don’t normally get to feel in daily life, so yes, that movie allowed me to release and get it out of my system.” Sounds somewhat cathartic, which I hadn’t expected.
“I think so, yes,” agreed Michelle; “though I think if someone asked me to play a grieving mother, which oftentimes I am asked to, I think to myself I think I’ve touched those notes now. But I do think the loss of a child is pretty devastating, it’s not one you want to always keep working with.”
Talking of children, though, I referred Michelle to the wonderful Madelyn Grace who played young Sophie and asked what she had been like to work with. “Oh she’s great,” said Michelle. “You know with kids on set, you really have so much respect for the fact that they can deal with that kind of chaos and they are expected to be creative, even if they’re new to it. Madelyn was such a pro and I’m always sensitive to kids when they’re on set because they bring a level of innocence and imagination, and you want to preserve that so that when you’re working with them, it all feels connected.”
Michelle has performed in a range of genres throughout her career and I asked whether she has a favorite. “Oh I love sci-fi,” she answered instantly, with a happy smile. “Sci-fi is one of my favorite genres and I don’t get to do it often. I’m hoping there might be more soon!”
Referring back to Michelle’s earlier comments about how unusual it is to lead a film as a person of color, I asked her whether she felt the Asian experience was part of her role in playing Claire, or if Claire was simply a social worker who just happened to be from Asian descent. “I cannot ever deny my Asian identity,” Michelle answered thoughtfully. “I’m not one of those people who only wants to be recognized as just an actor, rather than an actor of color. I’m in a space right now where part of my experience is that I’ve been challenged for most of my life, and what creates my life around perseverance and resilience has been those factors that have shaped that. So when I step into a role, I bring all of that into the experience. The script didn’t touch on that in any specific way, which I think is great, because you have it in the casting; and I think if you were going to take that away from me, you’d be robbing your audience of a more personalized casting. This part of my identity is always there in my role, whether it’s spoken or unspoken: you’re always going to get my set of experiences under these circumstances.”
It’s about time for a lighter question then, perhaps: I asked Michelle whether she believes in ghosts. “I’m superstitious,” she answered tentatively. “I don’t want to open the door, and definitely think the universe has and can have paranormal experiences. I haven’t been privy to too many, but some things have happened. I definitely think that our reality is in our perceived minds and when you have something of my experience (I’m highly imaginative, which is probably why I’m an actor), then if there was a doorway there and I decided to open it, I’m sure I’d discover many things. So I’ll keep that doorway nice and closed. I do think the world is extraordinary and many things happen; sometimes there is no meaning for certain things to happen. Those could be called paranormal or ghosts, so there is energy in the universe that isn’t in our reality.”
The Vang brothers had hinted there might be more stories on the way for Claire later, but I asked Michelle if there is anything she is working on now that she is able to share. “I have a film coming out called Float; that’s in a different genre, just a good old romantic comedy-drama. And I’ve been moving into writing and directing. I have a short film I’ve just completed, actually also about trauma. I’ve been keeping channels open in different ways, as an actor and now as a writer/director.”
They Live in the Grey is available as a Shudder Original starting on February 17th. In the meantime, let this clip give you a taster: