'Shadow in the Cloud' Filmmaker Roseanne Liang Sets the Record Straight on Her Film's Writing Credits
Roseanne Liang has dreamed about making an action film for as long as she can remember, and after putting herself in position to finally direct one in the form of Shadow in the Cloud, she immediately encountered a dark cloud of her own. In June 2019, just as Shadow had entered production, original screenwriter Max Landis was accused of sexual and emotional abuse by eight women. (Landis has not directly addressed the claims, reported in The Daily Beast.) Since secondhand allegations of sexual misconduct had followed Landis on social media since December 2017, Liang and her producing partners had already distanced themselves from the screenwriter. His original script had also undergone extensive rewrites by Liang herself, resulting in a co-writing credit.
Liang’s World War II-set action-thriller, which includes a bit of B-movie charm, follows Maude Garrett (Chloe Grace Moretz), a flight officer who's been tasked with transporting top-secret cargo aboard a B-17 Flying Fortress. The film eventually premiered at the Toronto International Film Festival and AFI Fest in the fall of 2020, and while it’s generally been met with positive reviews, a trend emerged as Liang’s contributions to her own film were minimized by those who opposed Landis. Even though Liang’s creative voice was present throughout the film — something her 2017 short film Do No Harm can attest to — certain critics threw the baby out with the bathwater, while insisting that Landis was the film’s predominant influence.
Heat Vision breakdown
“One of the first reviews to come out about this movie was from TIFF, and I remember the logline, ‘A piece of garbage movie by a loathsome creator,’" Liang tells The Hollywood Reporter. “And when I first read this review, I was like, ‘Whoa, you don’t know me. How am I loathsome?’ And then I realized that the guy was not talking about me; he was talking about Max. He’d somehow erased me and decided that a writer who wrote an early draft of this project was the creator of this project.”
Liang completely understands why some people are immediately dismissive of a film with Landis credited due to Writers Guild rules, but on behalf of her actual collaborators, all she’s asking for is proper attribution regarding her own movie.
“I sympathize and I can understand why someone wouldn’t want to watch the movie because Max’s name is triggering,” Liang admits. “I made this movie with Chloe [Grace Moretz]. I made this movie with Kelly [McCormick]. I made this movie with a number of other female producers and assistants on the directing team. I also made this movie with male producers and assistants on the directing team. If you decide not to watch the movie because of one person, you do you. That’s fine. But don’t tell me that we didn’t make this movie because we did.”
To illustrate the extent of her rewrites, Liang has revealed that Landis’ original script was rather abbreviated due to his tendency to use large-size font. The average feature-length screenplay is around 90-120 pages, but Landis’ original draft came in at less than 70 pages. (THR has reached out to Landis.)
“The original script I received, the writer of that script [Landis] sometimes uses large-point font. So by the time we removed some of his stylistic flourishes, which involved large writing, the script was something horrendous. It was under 70 pages long. It was a very short script,” Liang shares. “So that was an issue that we had in the beginning. Part of the rewrite process was making sure that we give people their money’s worth. That way, they don’t go into the cinema and think, ‘Ah, I just watched a 55-minute episode of The Twilight Zone.’ That was a huge fear that I and the producers had through development.”
In a recent conversation with THR, Liang also discusses the great lengths that Moretz went to in order to play a flight officer who’s trapped in a ball turret for a significant stretch of the film. She also discusses the film’s villain, a persistent gremlin, and the real-life inspiration behind it.
I believe you met Shadow in the Cloud producer Kelly McCormick (Atomic Blonde, Deadpool 2) via Do No Harm a few years ago. Did that relationship eventually lead to Shadow coming your way?
Yes and no in that Brian Kavanaugh-Jones was the committing producer. So he knows Kelly, and he is also involved with my management company, I believe. So Brian was the person who brought it to me, but then he got Kelly on it.
So it’s my understanding that to earn a co-writing credit on an original screenplay, a screenwriter has to rewrite at least 50 percent of the original screenplay. And since you’re credited as a co-writer on Shadow in the Cloud, it frustrates me when I see people try and attribute the voice of this movie to someone who you never worked with in any capacity. Plus, anyone who’s seen Do No Harm will instantly be able to recognize that Shadow is your voice. So what would you say to anyone who remains focused on the original screenwriter?
Thank you for saying that because it frustrates me, too. I would want to know a little bit more about why those people are intent on erasing my contribution to this movie and deciding that one person, who didn’t make the movie, did make the movie. And the reasons why people might want to talk about Max [Landis] are different. For instance, some people might want to talk about Max because they want to talk about sexual assault and rape, which I think they should talk about. If any person wants to boycott the movie because they are triggered ... then I support that, quite frankly. I sympathize and I can understand why someone wouldn’t want to watch the movie because Max’s name is triggering. One of the first reviews to come out about this movie was from TIFF, and I remember the logline, “A piece of garbage movie by a loathsome creator.” And when I first read this review, I was like, “Whoa, you don’t know me. How am I loathsome?” And then I realized that the guy was not talking about me; he was talking about Max. He’d somehow erased me and decided that a writer who wrote an early draft of this project was the creator of this project. And I’m not sure what his reasons for doing that might be, but ... it felt like another effort of patriarchy, quite frankly, to erase me from the making of this movie. But I guess I’d say to them, “I’m not forcing you to watch this movie.” All I can say in my defense is that I made this movie with a team of people who believed in it passionately. I made this movie with Chloe [Grace Moretz]. I made this movie with Kelly [McCormick]. I made this movie with a number of other female producers and assistants on the directing team. I also made this movie with male producers and assistants on the directing team. I made this movie with the New Zealand Film Commission. I made this movie with people of color and women. We made this movie and we worked really hard on it. This movie is the result of our efforts. If you decide not to watch the movie because of one person, you do you. That’s fine. But don’t tell me that we didn’t make this movie because we did.
It must've been quite challenging to endure all this while making and releasing your first American film.
Thank you for acknowledging that. I really do appreciate it. I mean, I could be more irritated, but I guess I’m still in grateful mode at this point. I’m just grateful that I got to make this movie. I’m grateful that this movie is able to come out in very trying circumstances around the world right now. I’m grateful to have worked with the people that I did work with, and no one can erase that.
Shifting gears, since it’s a very important prop in the film, how many leather radio bags did you try out before finding the right one?
(Laughs.) The art department and production design went through many iterations. We had three versions of the bag because of the very precious cargo. We had a bag that the actors would carry, and it could suffer bumps and bruises. There was a bag for close-up shots inside the bag. There was a slightly soft one, and then there was a very reinforced one. So, yeah, there were three bags, and I have one of them right here in my office, actually, to remember the project by. But yeah, we went through a lot.
For a considerable stretch of the film, Chloe’s character is alone in the ball turret where she communicates with the rest of the plane’s flight officers. Were the male actors present for that back-and-forth?
Yes, we had a very special process where they were working with her live. That was one of the first questions Chloe asked. She was like, “Are you going to record it and play it back? Or are we going to do what happens in other movies where an AD just reads out the lines?” (Laughs.) And I was like, “No, we have to have actors who are reciprocating a truthful response with you.” To do that was a technical challenge, and our sound operator had his work cut out for him. There were seven actors in a shipping container in the parking lot of the old office space that we had to work in because all the studios were being taken by Avatar and other movies shooting in Auckland at that time. So seven men were in a shipping container in the parking lot, and everything they said would come through Chloe’s headphones only. She could turn them on and off by taking her headphones on and off her head. And then I had a mic where I could communicate. I could communicate to the men alone or Chloe alone or all of them together. So that was quite a stressful process for our sound operator at that time, but it was valuable because Chloe’s reactions were truthful and authentic. The men also formed a camaraderie that she fell on the outside of, and I personally think that comes across in the performance.
Chloe is outstanding in a very challenging role. She had lots of pages to cover while by herself in the aforementioned confined space. Plus, the character dynamics were ever-shifting, and this is all before things got extremely physical. How would you direct her during one demanding stretch after another?
We found our process during the shoot because we shot in New Zealand and she came in from the States. So we had an intensive two weeks. It was a little bit of a rehearsal process, but it was more a process of finding how we worked together. I mean, Chloe is the most experienced person in the room. She’s worked since she was 5 years old, and this is my first genre film. So, in a way, she knew how she worked and we found our special way of fitting together. She was in what was essentially a metal eyeball on a stick, and we made [the ball turret] hydraulically movable. When she moved the joystick, the ball turret would actually move. And since she was off the ground, physically, I could only talk to her, again, through her headphones or via text. Sometimes, I would just text her phone. (Laughs.) Directing by texts was something that was new to me, but I guess it worked along with her headphones when we were in the process of takes. She would need frequent breaks because she’s actually claustrophobic. This is a true phobia that she has, so it was a very physical thing she had to overcome, and it also comes across on screen. I think it adds to the dangerousness of the situation. If you look closely, you can see her hand shaking. You can see the cold sweat that’s forming, which is kind of perfect for the situation. So she would need frequent breaks, and we were in constant communication in making sure that she had what needed. She admitted that she would get cabin fever. She felt like she was in a loop sometimes, and that she didn’t know which way was up. But we managed that in a safe and thoughtful way, while also capturing it on camera for purposes of the movie.
The story begins in New Zealand, so I’m going to go out on a limb and assume you incorporated your homeland into your rewrites. You also shot in Auckland, which led to several New Zealanders joining your cast. Did you have ties to any of these actors already? Had you wanted to work with some of them for a while? [Writer's note: The original script begins in Hawaii.]
Yes, Beulah Koale is a Samoan actor who I’ve seen in a number of New Zealand projects, but he’s also making a mark for himself in the States with Hawaii Five-O and several movies that are coming out. So it was really delightful to be able to work with Beulah. Callan Mulvey, I didn’t actually realize he was a New Zealander, but I’d seen him in Marvel movies before. So I was delighted when I realized that he had a New Zealand passport. I’d actually been to acting class with Benedict Wall. I went to acting class early in my career to become an actor’s director. That was something that I always strived to be, and I find working with actors to be one of the most difficult and also rewarding parts of directing. So we knew each other from acting class. Joe Witkowski was a real find. He was fresh out of New Zealand drama school, and he just blew us away in the audition room. I asked him to lean into the most “locker room,” toxic parts of himself and improvise during his audition. The producers were also in the room at that time, and the performance he gave in the audition room was just staggering. And then Byron Coll is one of our most celebrated actors. He’s in theater, but he was in advertisements as well. So I was certainly very excited to work with all of them. We also had the support of the New Zealand Film Commission, which is the public funding body, and they have been very supportive of me throughout my career.
I loved a particular head shake that Chloe gives as her character doggedly pursues a fight. Since you’ve been dreaming about directing action for a long time, were you pretty hands-on in terms of the action design and choreography?
(Laughs.) I’m not sure if I can take credit for that little head shake, but it’s a wonderful moment. I think that just comes down to Chloe being a badass. She knows how to throw a punch. I wouldn’t want to be on the receiving end of a punch from her because she punches hard. But I loved working with our stunt coordinator, Tim Wong, because we’re both action design nerds. We’d obsessively watch sequences from Mad Max: Fury Road to figure out why certain sequences stay in our memory. I think we were obsessed at that time by the bathroom sequence in Mission: Impossible - Fallout, and we would just watch that over and over again. Great action design forwards story and character in one way or another, and it’s something that I’ve always wanted to get better at. Even though I love classic action like Jackie Chan, I think every beat needs to be interrogated from a strong point of view, and we did that with that particular sequence that you were talking about. I also loved the synergy between myself, Chloe, the stunt coordinator and our visual effects supervisor because we’d thought a lot about the creature. And the creature is really strong, obviously. It can rip up metal with its hands. I’m going to spoil a little bit, but what’s interesting about that moment when she goes toward the fight is that the creature realizes that it’s met its match. It doesn’t feel strong at that point anymore. It doesn’t feel strong enough to stand its ground, and that was a wonderful character and story moment as well.
I didn’t realize that this particular era viewed gremlins in the same way that future generations regard aliens. Did you get the opening cartoon made for the movie, or was it licensed from somewhere else?
We got it made, but it was informed by a lot of the history. The style of it was informed by a series of 1940s cartoons called Private Snafu. And I actually didn’t know that SNAFU was an acronym for “Situation Normal: All Fucked Up,” which is interesting because you don’t think of World War people swearing. (Laughs.) But then you realize the etymology of the word snafu, and you realize that fuck was said then as much as it is now. So the Private Snafu cartoons were actually written by Dr. Seuss [Theodor Geisel] and directed by Chuck Jones for the soldiers of that time on how to be a good private. So we were inspired by that, and then we researched the gremlin lore of that time. We found accounts by actual pilots who swore that they were real and that they’d seen them. Sometimes, they were benevolent; sometimes they were mischievous. They had red eyes. They looked like bats. An Air Force pilot did a drawing of a gremlin that he swore he saw. This was something that was not part of the mainstream consciousness, which we found out during very challenging feedback screenings. (Laughs.) So that is why we made the cartoon. We found a local New Zealand animation studio, who I’d been friends with from other projects, and amazingly, the animators all knew about Private Snafu and were delighted to make something as an homage.
There’s absolutely no fat in your movie. How long was your assembly cut?
(Laughs.) Yeah, I think we always knew it was going to be a pretty contained movie, but it got even shorter through the cutting, which was very nerve-racking. I’m just going to go back to the script here. The original script I received, the writer of that script sometimes uses large-point font. So by the time we removed some of his stylistic flourishes, which involved large writing, the script was something horrendous. It was under 70 pages long.
Under 70 pages? [Writer’s note: The average feature-length screenplay is 90-120 pages.]
Yes, it was under 70 pages once we’d put everything into a normal-point size. It was a very short script. (Laughs.) So that was an issue that we had in the beginning. And I’m not a fan of filler. I get irritated when I’m watching a TV show that has 15 episodes that are an hour long, and I can tell when writers are filling it out. So I’m not a fan of that, and I’m not a fan of filler, generally. So this was already a very tight script, and part of the rewrite process was making sure that we give people their money’s worth. That way, they don’t go into the cinema and think, “Ah, I just watched a 55-minute episode of The Twilight Zone.” That was a huge fear that I and the producers had through development. Yeah, that’s all I have to say about that, quite frankly. (Laughs.)
Did you do a lot of research into hysterical strength and what humans are capable of when facing life-and-death situations?
Yes, I think this has been an interest of mine for a while now. You hear those stories of people doing superhuman feats in the protection of things that are dear to them. And when we were doing logic derivations of this script, that was often something that would come into our conversations. There’s a preternatural strength that can be unlocked, and there are examples of that.
As far as the photography, there are some bold camera angles and movements, such as that upside-down sequence. I also loved the shot where Chloe is in the water and something is burning behind her. Did you do lots of previs including storyboarding?
This was the first project where I had a dedicated storyboard artist. His name is Dylan Coburn, who is also a New Zealander, and I absolutely adored the process. He came in with a lot of ideas, and he’d say, “What about this? What about this?” The producers and I were worried that the contained part of the movie would be boring, and the way that we would make it interesting was through the camera choices. So our storyboard artist was able to find different ways to visualize it, along with [cinematographer] Kit Fraser. Kit is amazing, not only in that he’s a master of light and shadow, but he also does his own 3D modeling. He taught himself 3D modeling on software. So I had both of these resources. I had a storyboard artist, who did 2D storyboards, and I had Kit Fraser, who was able to do 3D visualizations and show me how light affected his model. And then we also had a VFX element. The upside-down sequence was fully previsualized with WETA Digital. So that was a modern tool that I’ve never had on a project before, but I just adored having these resources because it was a great communication tool. And the stunt shot that you’re talking about where we’re in the water, we didn’t previs it so much as we talked about it a lot with WETA Digital. We discussed where VFX would begin and where real life would end because water sim still remains one of the most difficult parts of VFX today. They haven’t really been able to perfect water yet. But obviously, I love a technical challenge and the technical part was certainly something that was a source of a lot of discussion. So storyboarding and previs were just incredible tools to plan our day, while leaving us open for serendipity on the day.
Lastly, I mentioned it at the start, but is there still hope for a Do No Harm feature?
Yeah! 100 percent. I’m not a large slate person. When I was making Shadow in the Cloud, I was also working on a TV series in New Zealand. So I just wasn’t able to focus on the development of Do No Harm. But, yeah, fingers crossed it’ll turn into a feature one day. Into a real boy. (Laughs.) Yeah, fingers crossed.
Shadow in the Cloud is now available in select theaters and on VOD/Digital.
by Graeme McMillan
by Graeme McMillan
by Mia Galuppo
by Rick Porter