CHAMPAIGN — It might come as a surprise for many at Ebertfest to discover that Patrick Wang, who wrote, directs and stars in "In the Family," graduated with a degree in economics from MIT.
He worked for a decade or so as an economist in think tanks and at the Fed before he made the movie, his first, coming to Roger Ebert's Film Festival on Thursday.
So you might think Wang, who will appear on stage after the screening along with co-lead actor Trevor St. John, is into technology, to some degree, at least.
He said he is — but in a different way than most people would imagine.
"All my filmmaking and the things I've written about are a very old technology about social interaction and the human heart," he said last week.
Indeed, his directorial debut, which won best feature awards at the San Diego Asian, San Francisco International Asian American and Spokane International film festivals, is all about human hearts and interactions in an atypical Tennessee family caught up in a child-custody case. The story is told in a slow-reveal, naturalistic style.
Some viewers might find it slow-going, but Mr. Ebert wrote that he was "completely absorbed" from beginning to end.
"What a courageous first feature this is, a film that sidesteps shopworn stereotypes and tells a quiet, firm, deeply humanist story about doing the right thing," Mr. Ebert, who died last week, wrote of the 2011 release.
Wang, 36, approached making the movie — shot on a $500,000 budget in 18 days in upstate New York — with the idea he wanted to be at peace if it turns out to be the only movie he makes. (He's since written three screenplays.)
He believes its leisurely pace ends up being the "secret ingredient" of its success with critics and audiences.
"It's not a movie that gives you what you want," he said. "Having watched the movie a lot of times with a lot of different people, I have no regrets" over its nearly 3-hour length.
"It didn't go exactly where you wanted, but that's useful," he continued. "It wakes you up a little more; it makes you more alert. There's always something happening."
And, he said, the 169-minute running time is not out of line with movies these days. And its length comes off as stylistically different.
"There's nothing that prevents anyone from accessing the style," Wang said. "We screened for a lot of teenagers at schools, and I'm proud of how they responded and how much they see in the movie. There's nothing in their DNA that prevents them from sitting and watching this movie and feeling an emotional intelligence as they watch."
Indeed, the emotional intelligence is so deep and intimate viewers might wonder whether his movie is autobiographical. It's all fiction, he said.
"My guide was just the emotional shape of the film, whatever helped me get close to that feeling of in the moment and the experience of living it," he said.
"It's quiet, but it's surprising. I think it's surprising in some of its rhythms. It's surprising how we move from comic to dramatic moments and back again. There were definitely surprises along the way, but it definitely felt like what it would be like to move through these times with these people."
The lead character is Joey Willams, the lover of Cody, played by St. John. The actor was Todd Manning/Victor Lord Jr. on the ABC daytime drama "One Life to Live" and has starred in prime-time shows and other films.
Wang, who has a background in theater and founded a theater company in Boston, somewhat reluctantly took up the role of Joey Williams at the behest of one of the producers of the movie.
Some critics have assumed Wang is like Joey -- a kind, gentle and loving contractor with a Southern accent.
Wang, who grew up in Houston and now lives in New York, said he is not like his character but hopes to be. "I think I've become more like him," the writer-director-actor said.
"Playing him and watching the movie, I think there are elements of a lot of people I admire in him, including my dad (who died before the film was released) and others who have this elegant way of living. I guess they're everywhere."
"In the Family" has not yet been picked up for theatrical distribution.
"We've had a rough time with distributors," Wang said. "Thanks to people like Roger and other champions, we still have a life; we still find a screen here and there to go up on and people to screen it for."
Particulars for the 15th annual Ebertfest
CHAMPAIGN — Passes to all 12 movies and two shorts are sold out for the 15th annual Roger Ebert's Film Festival, taking place April 17-21 at the Virginia Theatre and the University of Illinois.
The Virginia has a waiting list in case a pass holder cannot attend. In the event additional passes become available, those on the list will be contacted.
Individual tickets to the Ebertfest movies went on sale April 1 at the Virginia. To purchase by phone, call 356-9063 and go to http://www.thevirginia.org. Prices are $14 for each screening, with students and senior citizens paying $12 each.
As of Tuesday, tickets were sold out for "Days of Heaven," "Bernie," "Escape from Tomorrow," Julia," "Blancanieves," "Kumare," "Escape from Tomorrow" and "The Spectacular Now."
If you want to see an Ebertfest film that is sold out, go to the Virginia box office 30 minutes before screening time and wait in the rush ticket line. Shortly before the film begins, empty seats are sold on a first-come first-served basis.
Details about the 15th annual Roger Ebert's Film Festival
7 p.m.: "Days of Heaven" with cinematographer Haskell Wexler, and the short "I Remember," with writer-director Grace Wang, director of photography June Kim and actor Lily Huang.
1 p.m.: "Vincent: The Life and Death of Vincent van Gogh," with director Paul Cox, and short "To Music," with co-directors Sophie Kohn and Feike Santbergen.
4 p.m.: "In The Family," with writer-director-actor Patrick Wang and actor Trevor St. John. The screening is sponsored by the Champaign County Anti-Stigma Alliance.
9 p.m.: "Bernie," with director Richard Linklater and actor Jack Black.
1 p.m.: "Oslo, August 31st," with director Joachim Trier.
4 p.m.: "The Ballad of Narayama," with film scholar David Bordwell.
8:30 p.m.: "Julia," with actress Tilda Swinton, a repeat Ebertfest attendee.
11 a.m.: "Blancanieves," a silent film with director Pablo Berger, who is based in Madrid, Spain. This screening is sponsored by Steak 'n Shake.
2 p.m.: "Kumare," with director Vikram Gandhi and producer Stephen Feder, a University of Illinois alumnus.
5 p.m.: "Escape from Tomorrow," with director Randy Moore, editor Soojin Chung and actor Roy Abramsohn.
9 p.m.: "The Spectacular Now," with director James Ponsoldt and actress Shailene Woodley.
Noon: "Not Yet Begun to Fight," with co-director and producer Sabrina Ross Lee, co-director Shasta Grenier and subjects Elliott Miller and Erik Goodge. Sponsor: Champaign County Anti-Stigma Alliance.
Also, panel discussions about film and the film industry, featuring some of the directors, actors, critics and other festival guests, will take place in the Pine Lounge of the Illini Union, 1401 W. Green St., U, and are free and open to the public. The schedule:
9 to 10:15 a.m.: "Sustaining a Career in Film," moderated by festival director Nate Kohn.
10:30 to 11:45 a.m.: "Reality or Illusion: A False Dichotomy?", moderated by Eric Pierson, a film and TV teacher and scholar.
9 to 10:15 a.m.: "Creative Independence in the Digital Age — How Real is It?", with Nate Kohn moderating.
10:30 to 11:45 a.m.: "Challenging Stigma Through the Arts," moderated by Deborah Townsend, a psychologist in Champaign.
9 to 10:30 a.m.: "The Art of the Video Essay: How to Speak Through Movies," moderated by Omer Mozaffar, a teacher at Chicago colleges and universities and one of Ebert's "Far Flung Correspondents."