Roseanne Liang likes to talk. A lot.
“Stop me if I go on…” she says with a laugh. “I can get a bit carried away.”
It's a typical response from the 40-something-year-old director of the film Shadow in the Cloud. Screening in New Zealand cinemas now, it's an action/horror starring Chloë Grace Moretz, and the film that has put Roseanne on the map internationally.
Roseanne Liang talks a lot because she has a lot to say.
Familiar to New Zealand audiences as the co-creator/director/producer/writer of web series Flat3, her own life story inspired the 2011 film My Wedding and Other Secrets. As an actor, she has appeared in The Brokenwood Mysteries, the film The Dark Horse and of course, Shortland Street. People might not immediately recognise her face, but that is set to change.
Originally set to follow her two older sisters into medicine, Roseanne took a left turn into filmmaking and never looked back. She followed a near typical New Zealand filmmakers' journey: study, make a short film, then another couple. Attract the New Zealand Film Commission's attention and work towards a feature with their help.
Not all filmmakers get to make a feature film; even fewer get to do it with the powerful backing of two of Hollywood's biggest producers as Roseanne did with Shadow in the Cloud: Brian Kavanaugh-Jones (Sinister franchise, Midnight Special) and Kelly McCormack (Deadpool, Atomic Blonde). Both have a vast number of film credits to their name.
“I'm incredibly lucky with the people supporting me,” says Roseanne. “When I found out Kelly was going to produce Shadow in the Cloud, I could hardly believe it. She's amazing."
An outspoken advocate for women in the film industry and a busy producer/sometimes-actress, Kelly made herself available to Roseanne. "She was just so supportive and generous. I could call her anytime, bounce ideas off her, and she even came to Auckland to hang out with me for a bit.”
Roseanne pauses for a moment. "And she's been amazing dealing with the...coverage we got in the US."
Released on January 1 in the US, Shadow in the Cloud received mainly favourable reviews; however, most are overshadowed by reports that an alleged serial abuser of women wrote it.
Roseanne is blunt about this. "People can like it or not, that's fine. But it's my film, not Max Landis’."
Some context: Son of famed director John Landis (The Blues Brothers, American Werewolf in London), Max has been the subject of rumours around Hollywood for years. In 2013 he gave an interview where he proudly talked about his relationships: “The most fucked up thing was that I cheated on a girl who I also gave a crippling social anxiety, self-loathing, body dysmorphia, eating disorder”. Following that interview, Jezebel called him "obnoxious", "twisted", and "gross." It changed nothing.
Years later #MeToo hit Hollywood, and a tweet made the rounds suggesting that “a famous director's son should be scared”. While Max wasn't named online, comments made it clear that he was the subject. His behaviour seemed to be an ‘open secret’ in Hollywood – yet he was still making movies.
In 2019, a former girlfriend publicly said that he did "horrific, inhumane things" to her. Shortly after, eight women came forward with allegations of emotional, sexual and psychological abuse.
By that point, Shadow in the Cloud was underway. Producer Brian Kavanaugh-Jones had brought the script written by Max to Roseanne Liang. A self-confessed "action film junkie," she had been looking for an action film to direct. Roseanne liked the script. While she didn't know about Max's reputation then, producer Brian did.
He told Roseanne she would not be working with the scriptwriter; that he was not a nice guy and hard to collaborate with. “‘Either we get the script without him, or we don't do the project’.”
“I hate how everyone got this wrong," says Roseanne. "I never worked with Landis. He has nothing to do with our film. I re-drafted the script multiple times without any input from Max."
Due to the Writer's Guild of America rules, Max retained a co-writer credit. His script was less than a standard 70 pages long - the average feature-length screenplay is 90-120 pages long.
Roseanne sighs. "We won the People's Choice award at the Toronto Film Festival. People seemed to love the film! Then these reviews came out labelling it as a Max Landis film."
One of the first reviews out of Toronto said Shadow in the Cloud was "a piece of garbage, by a loathsome creator”.
At first, Roseanne was upset, then she got angry. “It's another way women get minimised in this industry. I'm the director, and a writer on this film, yet people get stuck on the Landis credit. It's so frustrating.”
#MeToo might call out abusive behaviour, but it hasn't ended the snubs and microaggressions that women in the industry face every day.
It’s that kind of behaviour that Roseanne was thinking of when she rewrote the film. While it fills the action/horror brief, it's also a powerful statement about women in the industry.
Chloë Grace Moretz is Maude Garrett, a 20-something-year-old member of the Women's Auxiliary Air Force (WAAF). Stationed in Auckland, Maude has clocked up over 200 hours in the air delivering supplies to Pacific Island allies. Unarmed and flying through known enemy zones, it was a dangerous and often overlooked job.
Climbing into a B-17 Flying Fortress bound for Samoa one wet night, Maude finds her orders to carry a strictly classified piece of cargo questioned by the all-male crew. Sitting in the gunner's belly turret under the plane, Maude is first attacked verbally by the men who don't believe who she is or why she is there, then by a strange creature determined to get inside the plane.
Featuring a couple of action sequences you have to see to believe, Shadow in the Cloud is as much a battle against misogyny and toxic masculinity as it is gremlins. And that is exactly what writer-director Roseanne wanted.
From the beginning, the way the male crew interact with Maude is shocking. Sexual innuendo, objectifying her body, dismissing her abilities and calling her a liar… the gaslighting is extreme.
It's an uncomfortable watch as we focus on Maude in her tiny gun turret. A belly or ball turret resembles a small, round fish bowl attached to the plane's underside. It's designed to rotate so the gunner can track and fire at the enemy during a dog fight. It's a small space, big enough for only a seat and controls. There's not even enough room to stow a bag.
Listening to the men discuss her via the radio they arrogantly thought she couldn't use, Roseanne has the camera study Maude's face. The stoic look of 'nothing she hasn't heard before' makes the scene all the more impactful.
This is not a group of men behaving poorly and shocking a young woman. This is a group of men acting like they always do, and a woman having to put up with it like she has many times before.
It's clear that some of the comments make Maude want to reply, but she stays silent. It's a textbook example of managing those abusing her. Maude knows that answering back could have dire consequences for her safety. Staying quiet is safer.
Roseanne is proud to have written the scene, even though it's the disgusting comments about women that make many people believe that Max Landis wrote it.
"We all know [some] men talk like that about women, and it's important to me that I show that. There's no denying that these things can get said when they think we [women] are not listening."
Filming the scene was hard for everyone. "The guys were sitting in a shed outside, delivering their lines isolated from everyone else. I asked them to go to a very dark, ugly place within themselves and they did it. Some of the lines came from the guys, channelling that wolf pack mentality. I'm proud of what they did."
It's not just sexism in Shadow in the Cloud. Scattered throughout the script are racist comments about the New Zealand co-pilot of the plane, played by Beulah Koale. "Gorilla" and "Golliwog" stand out.
"Back then, white men ruled all, and they were incredibly smug about it. This story is supposed to feature Americans working with their New Zealand counterparts, their allies; but there's no respect."
Respect and strength are perhaps the most vital themes in the film, with Maude proving her worth repeatedly during a dogfight with the Japanese. When her package's content is revealed, the airwoman shows another more vulnerable side, tempering a steely determination. Back on solid ground, the men are left with their jaws hanging open when Maude shows them what she will do for [SPOILER]. Women really can do anything.
Explaining why Chloë Grace Moretz was cast, Roseanne says she originally envisioned an actor in her 30s for the role, but when she had the chance to cast Chloë, she jumped at it.
“We talked over Zoom, and we just vibed on the character. Chloë is so talented and so experienced. Her physical prowess is astounding. Maybe because she did Kick-Ass as a kid? Action is in her bones. She's utterly professional and worked hard on the role ahead of shooting. She spent time talking to people with the same background as Maude, researched flying belly gunners, and learned how to [SPOILER] for that final scene. She looks so natural doing it.
“Chloë is actually claustrophobic, so spending 10 hours a day in that little perspex ball was tough. But we made sure she had an easy exit should she need it, and she worked hard at not letting the confined space bother her.”
Chloë spends most of the 85 minute movie in the ball turret, which provides an increasingly claustrophobic feeling of unease as the stakes rise. Filming in such a small space that doesn't allow much movement from the actor, required a lot of forethought.
“I was really impressed by Locke, the Tom Hardy film where he spends the whole movie driving down an English motorway in the dark. All you see is Hardy, his phone and occasionally the passenger seat or dashboard. It was intimate and high stakes. I wanted to create that same feeling of unease building with Shadow in the Cloud.”
Utilising New Zealand's own Park Road Post and Weta Digital for effects, the film gives a realistic feel of flying at 35,500 feet. Within the turret, the view provides a terrifying glimpse of what handling those guns during WW2 must have been like.
One shot, of a gremlin leaping onto the outside of the turret, brings to mind Nightmare on Elm Street and Freddy Krueger's blade glove thrusting up out of the bubble bath between the dozing teen's legs.
Asking Roseanne about the film's influences, it swiftly becomes apparent that when she says she has always liked action films, she really means it. “I am such an action nerd. I find good action production fascinating. It's a real art form.”
Roseanne was lucky enough to have a mentorship in Hong Kong learning about action production set up by the New Zealand Film Commission.
Along with Gareth Evans' The Raid, Roseanne rattles off a list of films that 87Eleven, the action production company, have worked on: the Matrix trilogy, the John Wick films, The Expendables series plus Tron, The Mechanic, Jurassic World and Atomic Blonde (another Roseanne favourite). The excitement in her voice as she speaks is infectious.
"Do you remember the bathroom fight scene from Mission: Impossible - Fallout? That has to be one of the best fight scenes of all time. And Mad Max: Fury Road. Every sequence, every shot tells you something about the characters and their motivation. And there's so much action! Action films can be incredible; there's no reason for them to have boring plots or worse, boring action sequences."
Did she always know that her Hollywood debut feature would be an action film?
"Yes. Always. Never a doubt in my mind." She laughs. "In fact, I wish we could have had more action in Shadow in the Cloud! It just didn't work with the story. Or our timeframe. Safety is the most important thing, and to stage big stunts or sequences you need time, experienced professionals, and money for digital work."
Anyone who's heard Gareth Evan's commentary on the action design process for his Raid films will know just how much computer trickery happens to ensure the sequences look flawless, and most importantly, to keep all performers safe. It can be painstakingly slow work. Roseanne's favourite action piece in the bathroom in Mission: Impossible - Fallout? It took four weeks to film that set-piece alone, and that's after months of preparation.
Talking about her mentorship in Hong Kong, it's evident that Roseanne is a success story for the New Zealand Film Commission's development pathways.
"First you do a low budget short – I did a couple that went nowhere. Then you do a higher budget short film – I did one that did well overseas. Then I made My Wedding. After that, I created and made stuff for online and TV, did another short - Do No Harm that picked me up a lot of notice overseas. The next thing I was making Shadow in the Cloud with a feature-length version of Do No Harm next in line. I know I'm lucky, but I have also worked hard over the last 18 years."
Are the current pathways prescribed by the Film Commission the way to go?
"They're a way to go. I am so grateful to the Film Commission for all of their support, and I don't haven't had any negative experiences with them, but I know people who have. They didn't feel trusted by the Commission to make the film they wanted to make.
“I also know some talented people applying for support and getting turned away because they haven't followed the prescribed steps.
“The Film Commission is not wrong with how they set out the pathways; it's just that there are other ways of doing it, and there should be funding for those too.
“Sweden does it well with a four-quadrant system that lets them fund a film in three out of four quadrants of their application matrix. One will be an arthouse or niche film, one will be a critical and commercial hit, and one will be more commercially focused – bums on seats, never mind the critics. It's all about the quality and diversity of film. Sweden now has gender parity in its film industry – 50 percent of Swedish movies are directed, written, or produced by women. We don't come close."
Equity in film is a topic close to Roseanne’s heart. The youngest of three girls born to immigrants from Hong Kong, she is one of the founders of the Pan Asian Screen Collective - an industry group dedicated to advocating for more paid work for Pan-Asian film creatives, ensuring that their experiences and stories can add value to not just their communities, but New Zealand at large.
"We need to be the ones defining Asianess and Asian stories, pushing back against stereotypes of what Asian is in New Zealand. Already we've seen funding for specifically Pan-Asian projects, similar to funding set aside for Māori and Pasifika projects. It's something the Film Commission and New Zealand On Air are very aware of and want to do more of, but they need more money."
Lack of money has never stopped Roseanne. Web series Flat3 began because Roseanne and three of her best friends, Chinese-Kiwi actors JJ Fong, Perlina Lau and Ally Xue, were tired of being portrayed as "the shy one, the dragon lady, or the prostitute”.
Series one was made with $1000, all that the girls could pool together. Series two was made with $10,000 raised through crowdfunding, and series three was funded to the tune of $100,000 from New Zealand On Air.
The regular collaborators recently wrapped filming on their latest work together, dystopian comedy series Creamerie “set in a post-apocalyptic future where a viral plague has wiped out 99 percent of men, and Earth has become a planet run by and for women”.
When I asked about the differences between directing for television and directing for film, Roseanne is adamant. "There isn't one. Budget is different – so that might mean you have to consider limiting sets, and some technical skills are different, but I direct the exact same way."
For now, Roseanne is enjoying Shadow in the Cloud and when we spoke, was looking forward to a cast and crew screening where she watched it with an audience for the first time.
I also get the feeling she's chomping at the bit for her next film. Any plans to move to LA? Buy a house near Taika?
“Absolutely not. I'll have to work over there, sure; but I always want to live in New Zealand. It's where my family is; it's where I'm from. Why would I want to leave?”
Five films that have influenced Roseanne:
Alien. “Aliens is a better film, but Alien is all about Sigourney Weaver, and I think there’s a bit of that in Shadow in the Cloud.”
Atomic Blonde. “The action production is amazing, and Charlize Theron is so cool in it.”
Mad Max: Fury Road. “That desert scene? It’s perfect.”
The Raid. “Gareth Evans directs action like no one else.”
Indiana Jones & The Temple of Doom. “That rough and ready, brawler type of action is what I wanted to get from Chloe, and I think it worked.”
Roseanne on style:
“When I’m working, I must have back pockets in my pants to hold my shot list and script; I also must have comfortable footwear. I have to be able to get down on the floor and stretch in my trousers. It’s all about the weather and conditions I’m working in. I don’t pay attention to how I look… I wish I could look out together, but I don’t.”
“If I had a red carpet premiere, I would want to wear a sharp suit by a New Zealand designer because we have so much talent here, and I don’t really do dresses.”
“I find fashion quite intimidating, so I do the Kiwi thing and wear lots of black, but I like to add a playful shirt or something to it. I think that matches my personality.”
“My favourite thing from shooting Shadow in the Cloud is a pink hat my friend knitted for me. My cat went crazy on it because it had a pompom, so it looks a bit funny with a half eaten chewed pom pom on top, but I love it.”
Photography by Guy Coombes.