Watching Kate Tsang’s short films, it’s clear she has had a knack for locating empathy and beauty in the unconventional. Sherman and So You’ve Grown Attached both center on imaginary friends struggling with the impact of life after the child that dreamt them up has moved on. Both also showcase Tsang’s talent for mixed media filmmaking, gingerly combining live-action and animation. Much of her career since those shorts has focused on writing for episodic animation, including the beloved shows Steven Universe and Adventure Time. Now, Tsang is releasing her first feature, Marvelous and the Black Hole, which she wrote and directed.
Marvelous and the Black Hole centers on lonely and depressed teenager Sammy (Miya Cech). Sammy recently lost her mother. She struggles with her perception that both her father Angus (Leonardo Nam) and sister Patricia (Kannon) have moved on. When Angus pushes Sammy to enroll in community college classes for the summer, she acts out and ditches class. Unexpectedly though, Sammy bumps into Margot (Rhea Perlman), a magician who convinces the young girl to take a chance on some magic. Their unlikely bond inspires Sammy to slowly believe in the possibility of happiness again.
I had the chance to sit down with Tsang to talk about her childhood inspiration for the film, her unique approach to filmmaking, and what it was like to work with Perlman The following is our conversation, edited lightly for length and clarity.
Devin: I’m curious, where did the idea for Marvelous and the Black Hole come from? How did this one get legs?
Kate: This story is inspired by my relationship with my grandfather. My parents got divorced when I was young, and I just bounced back and forth between their homes in the Bay Area in Hong Kong when I was growing up. So it was an isolating experience that, you know, made me really angry, and depressed
When I was living with my mom, my grandpa came over to watch me because she was a single mom. He could tell I was, you know, going through it, but he didn’t judge me. He just saw me, validated me, and became the best friend I needed at that time. This film is definitely inspired by the relationship we had, and it also comes from a place of growing up. I really love coming-of-age fantasy films like Edward Scissorhands and ET. John Waters movies like Hairspray. But, I never saw anybody that looks like me in them. So this is my answer to that. This is the film I wish I had when I was growing up.
Devin: Branching from that a little, something that struck me while watching was that you seemed to be toying with tropes from something like The Karate Kid. Were you thinking about a movie like that when you were making Marvelous and the Black Hole?
Kate: Yes! That sort of intergenerational friendship thing was something I wanted to play with as well. When I was writing it and looking for film comps, I couldn’t find any that exactly fit. There weren’t any intergenerational female friendship films where the older person isn’t just the grandma. Where it doesn’t become a grandma granddaughter story. I wanted to make something about two people from different walks of life becoming friends.
Devin: That friendship, between Sammy and Margo, is so wonderful. What was it like working with Miya and Rhea? Sculpting their singular performances and their dynamic together?
Kate: In terms of working with the actors, no one compared to Miya in the casting process. She just blew us away with her audition. We just knew we had found our Sammy when she came in. It’s also hilarious because she’s nothing like Sammy. She’s a very bubbly, happy person. So, it’s a testament to how amazing of an actor she is. She just really understood the character so there wasn’t much I had to do.
With Rhea, it was a dream. When I was writing the script, I knew I wanted somebody with grit, toughness, and heart because that’s the kind of character who would actually be able to get through to an angry character like Sammy. Having grown up watching Cheers with my mom, every week, Rhea was definitely top of mind from the jump. You can imagine how stoked I was when she said she wanted to do it, and it was just a dream from there.
Devin: I can absolutely see what you mean about grit and heart. An integral part of how that dynamic unfolds is of course wrapped up in the magic Margo teaches Sammy, and how she uses it to bring this angry, lonely, girl back in from the cold. How did you settle on magic as the lynchpin?
Kate: I didn’t really know much about sleight-of-hand magic when I wrote the script, but I knew I liked it as a storytelling device. It’s a perfect device for transformation. With Sammy grieving the loss of her mother, imagining a life where she can move on and it’s fine, she sees it as an impossible task. Yet, by learning this sleight-of-hand magic from Margo, she sees these tiny miracles every day. It opens her up to wonder and possibility. I love magic as a way to bring awe and wonder, to open us all up to possibility.
Devin: If you’ll allow an overmanaged transition, one of the magic tricks you pull in Marvelous and the Black Hole is an intricate mix of animation and live-action. You have a deep background in animation, from Steven Universe to Adventure Time, so it’s no surprise you would bring the medium in here. I’m just curious, what was your approach to deciding where the animation should come in, and where it should stay unmixed live-action?
Kate: I grew up loving, animation and live-action films. I studied Miyazaki and “Looney Tunes” growing up along with all my you know, coming-of-age fantasy films. I especially loved Who Framed Roger Rabbit, so it’s always been one of my dreams to be able to fuse media the way it does. So, here, the animation felt most important for Sammy. She’s such a prickly character who pushes everyone away, but I wanted to make sure the audience could relate to her. To find some sort of way into her inner mind. My editor, Cyndi Trissel, actually had the idea for Sammy’s journal. Then, in post, I started drawing out little animated things on some frames to help us understand her character better and more quickly.
Devin: Sticking with the mixed media animation, one specific sequence I want to ask about is the first time we see Sammy envision the bedtime story. I adored it. The weaving of the classic film look with the animation was just heartstoppingly beautiful. How did you build that sequence?
Kate: Thanks for saying that! That specific sequence is inspired by wuxia films, which are these fantasy martial arts films that I grew up watching in Hong Kong. Like, after midnight, the public channels would start playing these old movies, and because I couldn’t sleep, I would just stay up watching these every night. They’re like, really goofy but beautiful, and they have animation added in over live-action. I feel like that’s definitely like, been seared into my being and I wanted to find an opportunity to showcase that kind of thing.
Devin: Well, it works incredibly well.
Kate: Yay! I’m so glad to hear that.
Devin: Taking a step back to some broader thinking about Marvelous and the Black Hole, this film marks your first feature effort after shorts and episodic animation. What was that transition like? Was it a huge challenge? Exciting? A little of everything?
Kate: I would say I was more than ready when the time came. I’ve been wanting to make a feature for so long, and I’d written the script before I got on to Steven Universe. But, making an indie film takes forever. You’re just trying to get all the materials ready while working on other stuff. So while I was prepping for Adventure Time, I ended up being able to be a part of a grant contest at Tribeca Film Festival. They pick like five finalist filmmakers to pitch their film. The winner gets a million dollars to make their feature. My producer Carolyn Moa and I pitched, won, and then we had a year to make it, which we did in between Steven and Adventure Time writing.
Devin: It must have been a wild balancing act to keep all of those projects in the air! Do you have any favorite or standout memories from production?
Kate: Oh my gosh, there’s so many! The thing about making a really fun movie like this, especially with magic, is that when you walk on set there’s always something new. Maybe there’s like this really awesome prop there, or today you’re gonna get to do magic. Or you’re gonna get to shoot a sequence on the moon. There are just so many just wonderful moments like that. Can’t really pick just one.
Devin: So very fair, and I can’t blame you a bit! I like to ask it just in case there’s something juicy. Of course now it’s going out into the world for more folks to see. What do you hope audiences can walk away from Marvelous and the Black Hole thinking about?
Kate: I hope that this film brings some joy to the audience. I want them to walk away feeling a little better than they did when they sat down. Since the movie is also about finding connections in unlikely places, I want anyone feeling alone to know that maybe, or really probably, there’s a connection waiting out there for you.
Marvelous and the Black Hole will be in select theaters beginning April 22, 2022
Devin McGrath-Conwell holds a B.A. in Film / English from Middlebury College and is currently pursuing an MFA in Screenwriting from Emerson College. His obsessions include all things horror, David Lynch, the darkest of satires, and Billy Joel. Devin’s writing has also appeared on Portland Film Review, CBS News, Horror Homeroom, and Cinema Scholars.