The Package

As the bonkers genre thrill-ride Shadow in the Cloud blasts into the new year, writer and director Roseanne Liang unpacks her love of Terminator 2, Chloë Grace Moretz’s face, and a life lesson learned from Cheng Pei-Pei.

Giant empty spectacle is less interesting than one person in one spot, sometimes.” —⁠Roseanne Liang

Roseanne Liang’s TIFF Midnight Madness winner Shadow in the Cloud landed with a blast of fresh genre energy on VOD platforms on New Year’s Day. It’s A-class action in a B-grade body, cramming plenty into its taut 83 minutes, including: a top-secret package, a freakish gremlin, a hostile bunch of Air Force dudes, outrageous stunts, dogfights and a fake wartime PSA that feels remarkably real.

Throughout, the camera is focused mostly on one face—Chloë Grace Moretz’s, playing British flight officer Maude Garrett—as she tackles all of the above from a claustrophobic ball turret hanging under a B-17 Flying Fortress, on a classified mission over the Pacific Ocean during World War II.

While the film’s tonal swings are confusing to some, schlock enthusiasts and genre lovers on Letterboxd have embraced the film’s intentionally outlandish sensibility, which “makes excellent use of its genre mash to create an unpredictable, guilty pleasure,” says Mirza. Fajar writes that “it felt like the people involved in this project knew how ridiculous it is and gave a hundred and ten percent to make it work. Someday, it will become a cult classic.” Mawbey agrees: “It really goes off the rails in all the best ways during the final third, and the last couple of shots are just perfect.”

Chloë Grace Moretz and her top-secret package in Shadow in the Cloud.
Chloë Grace Moretz and her top-secret package in Shadow in the Cloud.

To most of the world, Liang is a so-called “emerging” director, when in fact, the mother-of-two, born in New Zealand to Chinese parents, has been at this game for the past two decades. She has helmed a documentary and a romantic drama, both based on her own marriage; a 2008 short called Take 3, which preceded Hollywood’s current conversation about representation and harassment; and Do No Harm, the splatter-tastic 2017 short in which her technical chops and fluid feel for action were on full display, and, as recorded in multiple Letterboxd reviews, established her as one to watch.

Do No Harm scored Liang valuable Hollywood representation, whereupon producer Brian Kavanaugh-Jones brought Shadow in the Cloud to her, thinking she might connect with the material. “It did connect with me on a level that is very personal,” Liang tells me. “As a woman of color, as a mother who juggles a lot.” She says Kavanaugh-Jones then went through the process of removing original writer Max Landis from the project. “He felt that Max was not a good fit for this project, or for how we like to run things. We like to be respectful and courteous and kind to each other…”

In several interviews, Liang has said she’s comfortable with film lovers choosing not to watch Shadow in the Cloud based on Landis’s early involvement. What she’s not comfortable with is her own contribution—and that of her cast and crew—being erased. While WGA rules have his name attached firmly to the project, the credit belies the reality: his thin script, reportedly stretched out to 70 pages by using a larger-than-usual font, was expanded and deepened by Liang and her collaborators.

Writer-director Roseanne Liang. — Photographer… Dean O’Gorman
Writer-director Roseanne Liang. Photographer… Dean O’Gorman

That team includes editor Tom Eagles, Oscar nominated for Jojo Rabbit, actor Nick Robinson (the titular Simon in Love, Simon) and Beulah Koale, a star of the Hawaii Five-Oh series. The opening newsreel was created by award-winning New Zealand animation studio Mukpuddy, after a small test audience got weirded out by the sight of a gremlin in a war film, despite well-documented WWI and WWII gremlin mythology. It’s an unnecessary but happy addition. The cartoon style was inspired by Private Snafu, a series of WWII educational cartoons scripted by none other than Dr. Seuss and directed by Looney Tunes legend Chuck Jones.

But the film ultimately hangs on Chloë Grace Moretz, who overcame cabin fever to drive home an adrenaline rush of screen craft, in which the very limits of what’s humanly possible in mid-air are tested (in ways, it must be said, that wouldn’t be questioned if it were Tom Cruise in the role). Liang would often send directions to Moretz’s ball turret via text, while her cast members delivered live dialogue from an off-set shipping container rigged with microphones. “I just never got sick of Chloë’s face and I’ve watched her hundreds, if not thousands of times. You feel her, you are her, she just engages you in a way that a huge fighting scene might not, if it’s not designed well. Giant empty spectacle is less interesting than one person in one spot, sometimes.”

Ambitious and nerdy about film in equal measure, it’s clear there’s much more to come from Liang, and I’m interested in what her most valuable lesson has been so far. Turns out, it’s a great story involving Chinese veteran Cheng Pei-Pei (Come Drink With Me’s Golden Swallow, and Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon’s Jade Fox), whose film training includes a tradition of remaining on set throughout filming.

Roseanne Liang on the set of Shadow in the Cloud.
Roseanne Liang on the set of Shadow in the Cloud.

That meant that, during filming of Liang’s My Wedding and Other Secrets, Cheng would stay on set when she wasn’t required. “In New Zealand, trailers are a luxury,” Liang explains. “I said ‘Don’t you want to go to the trailer that we arranged for you?’ ‘No, I just want to sit and watch.’ ‘Why do you want to watch it, you’ve seen it hundreds of times!’ And she said ‘I learn something new every time’. To Pei-Pei, the secret of life is constant education and curiosity and learning. Movies are her work and her craft and her life, and she never gets bored. If I can be like her, that’s the life, right?”

Speaking of which, it’s time we put Liang through our Life in Film interrogation.

What’s the film that made you want to become a filmmaker?
Roseanne Liang: Terminator 2: Judgment Day is the movie that is at the top of the mountain that I’m climbing. To me it’s the perfect blend of spectacle, action design, smarts and heart. It poses the theory that if a robot can learn the value of humanity then maybe there’s hope for the ships that are us. That’s perennial, and possibly even more pertinent today. It holds a very special place in my heart, along with Aliens, Mad Max: Fury Road, Die Hard, La Femme Nikita and Léon: The Professional.

What’s your earliest memory of watching a film?
I have a cassette tape that my dad made for my grandma in 1981 (he’d send tapes back to his mother in Hong Kong). I was three years old and he had just taken us to see The Empire Strikes Back in the cinema. And he can’t talk to my grandma because I’m just going on and on about R2-D2. I will not shut up about R2-D2 and he’s like, “Yes, yes I’m trying to talk to your grandmother,” and I’m like, “But Dad! Dad! R2-D2!” So it’s actually an archive, but it’s become my memory.

What’s the most romantic film you’ve ever seen?
Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind. It’s not the sexiest, but it’s the most romantic. That last scene, those last words where she goes “But you’re gonna be like this forever and I’m gonna be like this forever…” and he just goes “okay”. That to me is one of the most romantic scenes I’ve ever seen. It is a perfect movie.

And the scariest?
If it’s a horror movie, the most scared I’ve been is The Ring. I was watching it on a VHS and I was lying on a beanbag on the floor and I was paralyzed with fear. I couldn’t move, because I felt that if I moved she’d see me! Also, American Psycho just came to me this year. I caught the twentieth anniversary of that movie, which is a terrifying film, and again, possibly more relevant now than when it was made. The scariest film that’s not a horror is Joker. It scared me how much I liked it. When I came out of the movie, I was like, “I’m scared because I kind of love it, but it’s horrible. It’s so irresponsible. I don’t wanna like this movie but goddamn, I feel it.” Like, I wanted to go on the streets and rage. In a way we’re all the Joker, we’re all the Batman. That duality, that yin and yang, is inside everyone of us. It’s universal.

What is the film that slays you every time, leaving you in a heap of tears?
This is a classic one, the opening sequence of Up. The first ten minutes of Up just destroy me every time. I also saw Soul a couple of days ago and I was with the whole family and I, just, if I wasn’t with the whole family I would have been ugly-sobbing. I had a real ache in my throat after the movie because I was trying to stop [myself] from sobbing.

Tell me your favorite coming-of-age film, the film that first gave you ‘teenage feelings’?
Pump Up the Volume. Christian Slater! Off the back of Pump Up the Volume, I fancied myself as a prophet and wrote a theater piece called Lemmings. Obviously the main character was a person who could see through the façade, and everyone else was following norms. “No one understands me, I’m a prophet!” So clearly I have this shitty, Joker-style megalomaniac inside of me. It was the worst play, and I don’t know why my teachers agreed for us to do a staging of it!

Christian Slater and Samantha Mathis in Pump Up the Volume (1990).
Christian Slater and Samantha Mathis in Pump Up the Volume (1990).

Is there a film that you and your family love to rewatch?
We’ve tried to impose our taste on our children, but they’re too young. We showed them The Princess Bride—they didn’t get it. We literally showed our babies Star Wars in their cribs. That’s how obsessive Star Wars fans we were.

Name a director and/or writer that you deeply admire for their use of the artform.
I have a slightly weird answer for this. Can I just give love to Every Frame a Painting by Tony Zhou and Taylor Ramos? They are my film school. I was thinking of my love of Edgar Wright, but then I thought of their video essay on Edgar Wright and how to film comedy, and his essay on Jackie Chan and the rhythm of action and then their essay on the Coen Brothers and Shot Reverse Shot. I must have watched that 30 times ahead of the TV show that I’m making now. I started out in editorial and Tony Zhou is an editor and he talks about when to make the cut: it’s an instinct, it’s a feeling, it’s a rhythm. I realized the one thing in common that I could mention about all the films I’ve loved is Every Frame a Painting. It’s their love of movies that comes bubbling out of every single essay that they made that I just wanna shout out at this part of my career.

Were there any crucial films that you turned to in your development for Shadow in the Cloud?
Indiana Jones was something that Chloë brought up—she likes the spiffiness and the humor of Indiana Jones. Sarah Connor was our touchstone for the female character. For one-person-in-one-space type stories, I watched Locke quite a lot, to figure out how they shaped tension and story and [kept] us on the edge of our seats when it’s only one person in one space. In terms of superheroes, I came back to Aliens. Not Alien. Aliens. You know, there are two types of people in this world—people who prefer Alien over Aliens, and people who prefer Aliens over Alien. But actually I think I vacillate for different reasons.

Can there be a third type of person, who thinks they’re both great, but Alien³, just, no?
Maybe that’s the best group to be in. We don’t need to fight about this, we can love both of them! I was having an argument with James Wan’s company about this, because there’s a rift inside the company of people who prefer Alien over Aliens.

Okay, program a triple feature with your film as one of the three.
I don’t know. Ask Ant Timpson!

I’ll ask Ant Timpson.
[We did, and he replied: “Well, one has to be the Twilight Zone episode with William Shatner: Nightmare at 20,000 Feet. And then either Life (2017) or Altitude (2010).”]

Thank you Ant! I used to go to his all-nighters as a university student. He is the king of programming things.

Jake Gyllenhaal in Life (2017).
Jake Gyllenhaal in Life (2017).

It’s strange that we never met at one of his events! Ant would make me dress up in strange outfits and do weird skits between films. (For those who don’t know, Timpson ran the Incredibly Strange Film Festival for many years—now part of the New Zealand International Film Festival—and still runs an annual 24-Hour Movie Marathon.) So what’s a film from those events that sticks in your head as the perfect genre experience with a crowd?
It was a movie about a man protecting a woman who was the girlfriend of a mafia boss: A Bittersweet Life. Not only does it have one of the sexiest Korean actors, sorry, not to objectify, but also I actually screenshot a lot of that film for pitch documents. And, do you remember a crazy Japanese movie where someone’s sitting on the floor with a clear umbrella and a woman is lactating milk? Visitor Q by Takashi Miike. I remember just how fucking crazy that was.

Finally, what was the best film you saw in 2020?
I haven’t seen Nomadland yet, so keep in mind that I haven’t seen all the films this year. I have three: The Invisible Man, which I thought was just amazing. I thought [writer-director] Leigh Whannell did such a great job. The Half of It by Alice Wu, a quiet movie that I simply just adored. And then the last movie I saw at the cinema was Promising Young Woman. The hype is real.

Shadow in the Cloud’ is available in select theaters and on video on demand now.

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