Barney Cheng was 23 when he watched “The Wedding Banquet.” Ang Lee’s comedic and dramatic film about a closeted gay Taiwanese man living in New York City who marries a mainland Chinese woman to satisfy his parents and then has to endure a wedding banquet hosted by them.
“That was revolutionary, it was about a gay man coming out,” said Cheng, who was born in Taiwan and now lives in West Hollywood. But today, Cheng notes, with same-sex marriage legal across the United States and prime time television featuring shows such as “Modern Family” with gay characters, coming out isn’t such a challenge for LGBT people. The challenge, more often, is the coming out of their families, their willingness to acknowledge to the world that they have a gay son or daughter.
That is the essential subject of “Baby Steps,” a film written directed by Cheng that will be screened on Sunday as part of Outfest 2015. In the film, Danny, a Taiwanese-American man played by Cheng, and his boyfriend Tate, decide to have a baby, but the process becomes complicated when Danny’s well-intentioned but meddlesome mother gets involved, a move that requires her to accept who her son really is.
“People say that when you come out of the closet, your parents go right in,” Cheng said. Before “Baby Steps,” which has garnered enormous publicity in Taipei, none of Cheng’s relatives except for his mother knew that he was gay, and it wasn’t something he talked about with her. Now his mother has joined him for television interviews in Taipei, accepting her son for who he is, and showing pride in him, in front of major audiences.
“I live in West Hollywood where the crosswalks are painted in rainbow colors to celebrate diversity; being gay is as commonplace as Starbucks,” Cheng said. “I would have come out to them,” he said of his family and friends in Taipei, “but out of respect for my mother I would always remain silent at family gatherings. I would secretly glance over to see my mother’s reactions. She would always look uneasy and defeated as if something was missing or unfulfilled in her life. Her looks always made me feel like a big disappointment.”
“That is the most tormenting feeling in the world for a son. We never talked about it. The silence worked for years. Things are different now, however, and the silence doesn’t work anymore.”
“Baby Steps” was produced by Oscar-winning producer Li-Kong Hsu (“Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon,” “The Wedding Banquet,” “Eat Drink Man Woman”) and Stephen Israel (“Swimming With Sharks,” “G.B.F.,” “I Do”). Getting it there was no easy process. Cheng recalled that the script went through 30 rewrites, but the biggest problems he encountered were finding an actor to play Danny’s mother and getting funding for the project.
Ah-Le Gua, who played Mrs. Gao in “The Wedding Banquet,” was the mother Cheng had in mind. But given that that film had been produced in 1993, he imagined she was already in her 80s and too old for the role. Other actors he considered for the role didn’t seem right. Then Cheng saw Gua (also known as Kuei Ya-lei ) in “Joyful,” and realized that Ang Lee had aged her for “The Wedding Banquet” role. He met with Gua in Los Angeles and she agreed to work with him.
Cheng was able to raise some money for production of the film in the United States and received a grant from the Taiwan Ministry of Culture. But getting additional funding in Taiwan was hard. “I remember being told by one of the Taiwanese investors that homosexuality is immoral, and that they would never fund this project,” Cheng recalled.
At one point, after having spent more than two years on the project and with the money he needed not in sight, Cheng considered giving up. He called Ah-Le Gua, also known as Grace, to apologize. “She picked up the phone and called her long-time collaborator, Oscar-winning Producer Li-Kong Hsu,” Cheng said. Hsu met with Cheng and heard his personal story as well as what Cheng envisioned for the film. He was on.
The film’s cast includes Michael Adam Hamilton, who plays Tate, Danny’s husband in the film. Other actors and their roles are Love Fang (Mickey), Lauryn Nicole Hamilton (East L.A. Surrogate), Siang-Lin Lee (Cindy), Patrick Lee (Gary), Nadège August (Tekisha), Jay Lin (Dr. Sukuvanich), Elten Ting (Dr. Lin), Tzi Ma (Mr. Lin) and Man-Chiao Wang (Auntie Chang). And then there are the children: Justine Ruedas (Julie), Joshua Ryder Hamilton (Little Blonde Boy), Molly Ricca (2-year-old Victoria) and Louis Chang-Johnson (Little Boy).
Tickets, $15, have been sold out for the screening, which takes place at 11 a.m. on Sunday at the Directors Guild of America Theatre 1 at 7920 Sunset Blvd. in Los Angeles. But typically at Outfest events, there are some tickets available for those without them due to “no shows.”