Kate Tsang‘s feature directorial debut, Marvelous and the Black Hole, follows Sammy (Miya Cech), a teenage delinquent struggling with grief and with no outlet to help her deal with all of the emotions that accompany that. When she befriends kid’s party magician Margot (Rhea Perlman), the appeal of learning the tricks to pull off sleight of hand magic gives her a way to channel her inner demons in a positive manner.
During an in-depth chat with Collider, co-stars Miya Cech and Rhea Perlman, along with writer/director Kate Tsang, talked about receiving a special grant to get the movie made, how the story pays homage to Tsang’s relationship with her grandfather, the challenges of learning and filming magic tricks, the unlikely friendship between Sammy and Margot, finishing the movie during the pandemic, and what it was like to watch themselves in the finished product.
Collider: First of all, congratulations on this movie! Kate, you were able to bring your vision for this film to life as a recipient of the AT&T Presents: Untold Stories grant. What was your reaction to being the one selected to receive funding?
KATE TSANG: Disbelief, at first, because the whole process of winning and pitching for the grant is a whirlwind, crazy process. So, disbelief and excitement that I’d finally get to make this thing that I’d been living with for so long and wanted to make. I’d written the script years ago and was looking for ways to get it made, and had applied to different labs and grants and was rejected, but then with the help and encouragement of friends, kept refining the work. I applied to this Tribeca Film Institute/AT&T Untold Stories grant, and it was the one opportunity that this film needed to actually get made.
This is your full-length feature film debut as a director, but was this the only script you had written to direct? Had you written other things that you’d attempted to get made before this?
TSANG: I’d written a couple of scripts before this one, but they all have the same theme of this young person – a young Asian American girl – on the cusp of change. It happened to be this script, where all of the elements fell into place and the ideas made sense. Realizing that the core relationship that I really wanted to talk about with my work right now was the one with my grandfather, who was a big influence on my life, and also really talking about the power of storytelling, was what was really exciting to me.
How did your relationship with your grandfather morph into Sammy and Margot?
TSANG: Growing up, my parents got divorced and I was bouncing back and forth between their homes, in Northern California and Hong Kong, for awhile. I was very isolated and very depressed, and when I was in Northern California, my grandfather came and looked after me and he saw that I was struggling. He reached out a hand and became the friend that I really needed, at that time. So, this script is honoring that relationship that really saved me and changed my life. And while I was thinking about the mechanics of how the story would work, the thought of slight of hand magic came to mind because magic is wonderful, in the sense that it makes the impossible possible. To Sammy, a grieving girl, getting over your mother’s death seems like an impossible task, but by doing magic with Margot every day, these little miracles, she’s able to open herself up again to wonder and possibility. And so, I did some research on magic, because I knew nothing about it, for the script and I ended up seeing a show at the Magic Castle and I fell in love with it and took a class. I met these wonderful female magicians, including Kayla Drescher, who became the magic consultant on this film, and they just welcomed me into this community. Margot’s community and how welcoming they are is very much influenced by my own experience of being welcomed into the magic community.
Rhea, when this came your way, were you intimidated by the whole magic aspect of it and having to play a magician?
RHEA PERLMAN: I was extremely intimidated. I assumed that it was all going to be somebody else’s hands, and then I was just gonna be doing the acting part of whatever happened in the tricks. But Kate insisted that I would be able to do it, if I just worked on it. I don’t really recommend starting to learn magic when you’re 70 because your fingers are not quite as agile as they are earlier, so learn now and don’t wait. Kayla came over and we had many, many sessions, going over the same tricks, over and over. Eventually, I was able to do them. I don’t think I ever did them anywhere near the way she did them. The ones I had to learn were simple tricks, really, like the one that Miya learns in the movie, where you take the card and make it disappear, and then it’s in your other hand. Those are very elementary tricks, but they’re all hard. I have such respect for magicians because they work at it incessantly, day in and day out, for their entire lives.
How cool is it to get to know some of those tricks and secrets now?
PERLMAN: I’ve started watching Penn & Teller more. I’ve always loved magic. I love going to magic shows, but it wasn’t something I did all the time. I was always suckered into whatever trick it was. I’m very gullible. So, learning what really happens in the tricks is enlightening, but I still wouldn’t understand how to do it. Even if I knew how they did it, I still couldn’t figure out how the hell they do it.
Miya, what was it like for you to learn how to do some of these magic tricks?
MIYA CECH: It’s very challenging and you appreciate magicians more. It’s really hard and they make it look so effortless. One thing that Kayla tried to tried to get me to do was make it look effortless, but it was a little more than effortless. For my character, because she’s not supposed to be perfect in the magic respect, it was difficult, honestly. I’m a perfectionist when it comes to certain skills, and that was one thing that I was so focused on perfecting, but then I was like, “Wait, I’m not supposed to be good at this.” It was reverse difficulty, I guess.
Kate, what’s it like to shoot and actually have to get the magic on film, the way you want to show it?
TSANG: Kayla and I worked really closely together. We shot videos of Kayla doing it first, so that we knew exactly what kind of shots we wanted to do, the day of. A lot of it was having to get to the set that day, rehearsing it a bunch, just getting it into the bones and into muscle memory, and taking it piece by piece. With film versus live, we have the option to use cuts to help us along. There’s a little bit of vfx, but it’s mainly all them.
Miya, what was it like to shoot the final performance?
CECH: Off set, it was definitely a work in progress. It was very much a challenge because we had to figure out how certain things would work and how they would look. We did it so that we were first the movements first, and then we went through the script with the lines for the pacing of it. But first it was really getting down those movements and the grand sweeps of the hand, and making it all look somewhat graceful or more effortless than it was, at the beginning of the movie. That really fun for me because not only did I get to do magic on set and get to get to work with a bunch of wonderful people, but I also got to work with a bunny. I grew up with a bunny when I was really little and it was so nice and so cute. It was really comforting and gave me that sense of nostalgia because I remembered having a bunny. But the magic sequence itself was a lot of people working together and a lot of people communicating, and really getting those things all put together into that oner scene. Everyone did such a good job. I watched the film the other day and I was like, “Oh, my gosh.” I didn’t really know how the whole scene was gonna play out. You can’t imagine it because Kate’s writing is so different. You can’t imagine what it’s gonna look like, in a good way. It’s unexpected and it’s very much of a fantasy sequence, which I think is really lovely because, in the beginning of the film, you don’t really see Sammy have a lot of those fantasy moments. You see her with more of an angsty, angry attitude towards people. But that last scene and that last performance really was wonderful because you got to see how much she changed throughout the film. That was really incredible.
Rhea, I loved everything about Margot, from her wardrobe, to her attitude, to her skills, to how open she was with this girl who just totally barrels into her life. What did you love most about Margot and what was it like to read a character like that on the page?
PERLMAN: It was really exciting to get [the script] and it being so completely different from a girl from Brooklyn, originally. I felt like I really had to figure out who she was when she was young and I did a lot of research. Margot is Hungarian by birth, and I happened to know someone who ha migrated here from Hungary, after the communists invaded that country in the ‘50s and had a very difficult time. He was very open about it, telling me how scary it was and how close to death he was, all the time, and the scars from it. I felt that all of that was really important because, although Margot is completely confident in her life as it is and loves what she’s doing, there’s a lot of angst in her, as there is in Miya’s character. I felt like I had to figure out who she was. That was really important. It was so much fun to be able to do that, to get somebody who was just not in my experiences at all, you know, totally out of it.
I really love this totally unlikely friendship between Sammy and Margot. It’s very unexpected and I don’t think we’ve seen a friendship like that before. Miya and Rhea, how did you guys find that dynamic between your characters and with each other?
PERLMAN: I love working and being with young people. I feel like I always learn something from them, even my own kids when they were young. Now they’re adults, but I still learn things from them because they’re a lot younger than me. I couldn’t have gotten on this Zoom without them, for instance. But we did a lot of work together before the movie started. We did a lot of hanging out. We practiced and did magic stuff together. We had fun at my house. It was before the pandemic, so we could be together in a house. I like working with kids. I did Matilda, and the main character in that was a young girl, who I became very close with after that. It’s something natural to me, so I guess that comes across in the character too.
CECH: We did a lot of just spending time together. Something really great about Rhea is that she set that tone and really welcomed me. I was really nervous, at the beginning, to actually work with Rhea because she’s been an iconic actress for such a long time. There was that feeling of, “Oh, my God, I’m in the presence of greatness.” But when we first met, she welcomed me with open arms and there was an immediate connection. It was like getting a warm hug. That immediate connection set the tone while we were filming, or even outside of filming, in having that family relationship. That was something that was really special.
Kate, what was it like for you to create this relationship and then see it brought to life in the way that it was? Did it look anything like you imagined?
TSANG: Yeah. The first time Miya and Rhea met, we went to a magic show together and it was really fun to see them get introduced to this world, at the same time, and watch them learn magic together and also grow closer that way. Miya would point out something that was helpful to Rhea, and vice versa. It mirrored the relationship in the film, but they were getting closer with these magic lessons. Rhea and Miya are such wonderful, warm people that it was a gift to me to be able to set up a camera and it was just there between them.
Miya, what was it like to also explore this family dynamic and make sure you got that as authentic as possible, with the father-daughter relationship and the sister relationship?
CECH: Kate and I sat down during pre-production, before we started filming, and I asked her, “What do you want me to portray through this character?” I knew that it was her story and it was based off her personal experience, so I wanted to make sure I was bringing that feeling through the screen. With the father-daughter relationship, we worked it out. Leo [Nam] and I didn’t have a lot of time together during pre-production. The first scene we shot was the scene with the highest energy you see between Angus and Sammy. They were having a screaming match and it was interesting. We just dove right into it. We didn’t really talk about it because we didn’t have time. We were like, “How are we gonna do this?” But then, we just did it and it went really well, actually. You find that rhythm, as an actor. You play off each other’s energy and through that, you find a rhythm and flow in a scene. We were so lucky to have such an amazing cast and crew, who had the same kind of flow. Kate was wonderful. To figure out who Sammy was and why she was the way she was, in the beginning of the film and the end of the film, she made me a playlist of songs that were Sammy songs. There were angsty hurt and angry songs, and then it slowly transitioned into lighter songs and more emotional songs. It was really helpful to me because it explained Sammy’s journey and how she felt through music. That was something that was really helpful. Exploring that family dynamic through Sammy and also just on set was really awesome. I love Leo. He’s so great. I love Paulina [Lule]. I love Kannon. They’re all really great. We had a really great time together on set, but when we had to be angry at each other, we were able to be that way. That’s something that’s really special.
When you have a playlist like that for a character, do you then have to retire the playlist and never listen to it again when you’re done, or do you keep listening to it to keep the character with you?
CECH: I listened to it non-stop, during pre-production and even into production. Sometimes when I had a scene to prepare for, I would play a song that I thought would help. I’ve never actually stopped listening to it. Sometimes when I wanna feel nostalgic or have those memories again, I play it and remember all of the fantastic things that we did and that it’s coming out soon, and I’m super excited. It gives me that feeling of familiarity again.
What was it like for you, as a teenager, to be leading this film? Do you personally feel pressure or a certain level of responsibility, in doing something like that?
CECH: As an actor, every kid learns to mature fast. I personally have worked with a lot of adults, and adults more than children, actually. I love working with kids and I love working with adults, but you learn how to be mature. You learn hot to become a kidult. You still have those fun kid aspects of you, but you also know how to be mature when you’re on set and you know how to be professional. Every kid, in general, goes through that time where they realize they have to mature a little more, and that was really wonderful with Sammy because every kid goes through that. This film made it seem normal to go through that. It showed that it was okay to feel those feelings of hurt and loss and grief. Maybe don’t go about it like Sammy did, but the relationship between Sammy and Margot is what I took away from that. There’s gonna be someone who’s gonna be able to have your back, and gonna be able to understand where you’re coming from and how you feel and help you explore that and cope with that. That was a really special thing that I thought was the takeaway. You’re gonna be okay. It might not feel like it now, but you’re gonna be okay and it’s gonna get better. That was one of those things I thought was wonderful about the story.
Rhea, you’ve been in the business for a while and you’ve played some great characters in your career. What is it that you look for in a script now? What gets you excited and still wanting to continue to do this?
PERLMAN: You know, it’s good writing. If you can read the script from beginning to end, without going, “I’m up to page 30? I better get some coffee.” If it’s written well, it’s an interesting script. If the character appeals to me at all, I’m there. I’ve been in the business a long time, but it’s not like I get 20 scripts, every day. I’m a woman, an aging woman, in the business. I don’t know if you know how it is in every business, pretty much. I felt like this particular script with this particular, well-defined, beautiful character and the surrounding characters, and especially Miya’s, was a gift. It was not the usual fare.
Do you find it harder and harder to find that? Are you surprised that you still find it as often as you do?
PERLMAN: I think it’s harder and harder. It’s always been hard to find. Writing a great script is hard to do, period. So, when one lands in your lap, that’s amazing. And then, the other ones are like, “What can I make out of this?” If someone has offered me a job and I want the job, or I need the job, or I’d like to work with these people, sometimes it’s like, “Well, this doesn’t feel exactly right, but maybe I can make it work for me.” Now, when I look around at what’s out there, especially as we’re all watching TV now, which is movies and TV, the writing is so elevated compared to the way it was when it was just sitcoms and procedural shows. So, I may have found it hard to get the right scripts, but the right scripts are out there.
Kate, you had to write the movie and get the funding lined up in order to make this, but then you actually had to edit and put the movie together. How did you find that whole process?
TSANG: Part of the winning this incredible grant is that we only had a year to shoot and complete and debut this film at Tribeca, so we had a really, really small amount of time to actually edit this. We only had about two months. To the editors’ credit, they made really bold choices that made the film flow as well as it does. Also, Cyndi [Trissel], the editor, had a great suggestion of playing up the journal aspect a little bit more, with my animations, as a way to get into Sammy’s mind a little clearer. So, there were a lot of fun discoveries that were made in the editing process. We were gunning to finish this film for the Tribeca premiere when everything shut down because of the pandemic, so we actually couldn’t really finish the film for awhile and had to wait for things to open up again. That gave us a lot of time to look at the film, finesse it, and take our time with it. Getting into Sundance is an incredible silver lining for what happened.
Did you have anybody that you screened the film for, along the way, to see if things were working? Do you have friends or family that you go to, to make sure that the movie is making sense?
TSANG: Yeah, I have a very close-knit community of filmmaker friends that I’ve made either from school or festivals or work, and they have been there as the eyes and to give advice at every stage, from writing to watching cuts. We did two small audience screenings to make adjustments. We couldn’t have that many because of the timeline. They are one of the biggest resources that I have, as a filmmaker. I couldn’t do what I do without them.
Miya and Rhea, as actors, what was it like to see this movie put together? Are you actors who like to watch what you do? Do you prefer to wait until the final products done, or do you hate watching yourself?
PERLMAN: I usually hate watching myself, and only will watch myself in any particular thing once, just so I know what it is. But actually, I was amazingly and so happily surprised when Kate sent me a link to this film a few weeks ago because I loved it. I didn’t hate myself, so that’s a really good thing because usually I hate myself in a movie. I thought that she did a fantastic job with the editing and with the whole mood of the script. I thought all of the actors looked good in it and seemed good in it. I watched it by myself on a link, and I was just so happily surprised. That never happens.
CECH: I get the same feeling. My dad is very supportive of me. My parents are very supportive, but my dad pushes me to watch myself and I’m like, “No, thank you. I’m good. I don’t want to. I was there. I know what happens.” But with Marvelous, I was also happily surprised. I watched the scene in the movie that’s the most emotional scene, where you see Sammy let all of her emotion out, and instead of it being anger, it’s more sadness and loss and grief, and you see that being let go. Honestly, it surprisingly made me cry, which never happens because a lot of the time, as an actor, you know what you did, you know what the scene was, and you know how you acted in it. I was like, “Why am I crying? I did this already.” That’s how I knew it was an excellent film. It made me feel all the same emotions that I had felt when I was filming it, and my family was feeling those emotions as well. I was crying, but my mom was also crying. I knew that this was gonna be a great film and it was gonna be fantastic.
Kate, you’ve previously talked about never seeing protagonists that looked or sounded like you in the films that you loved growing up. What does that feel like to be able to be in a position where you can give that to somebody now?
TSANG: Incredible. I’m still that person who wants that thing, so I feel happy that I can really say that I have something for me too.
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