IN THE FIRST SCENE of Anywhere but Here, Susan Sarandon wears a beatific smile in a vintage car, mixed with brief shots of blue sky and miles of two-lane blacktop. Oh no, you think; it's that damn Thelma and Louise again....

But wait. This is Wayne Wang territory. Wang, who has carefully examined the clash and blend of various cultures, lifestyles, and deceptively simplistic relationships in intelligent, distinctive movies such as Smoke, Blue in the Face, The Joy Luck Club, and Chinese Box, is not about to waste time on Thelma and Louise: Eight Years Later.

What he does is lovingly tell the story of Adele (Susan Sarandon) and Ann (Natalie Portman), a mother-daughter pair who leave their cozy life in Wisconsin for Beverly Hills. Ann is reluctant to leave her friends and family, and hates her impulsive mother for dragging her away. Adele, impatient and terrified of the stagnancy in their tiny hometown, craves more glamour and adventure for herself and Ann, and strains for a sunny California existence that simply isn't there.

Wang manages to make what could be just another sugary chick flick into something interesting, honest, and significant. With a kind face, a charming laugh, and salt-and-pepper hair, Wang looks more like a favorite uncle than a film director, and speaks about his past cinematic accomplishments with gentle affection and pride. His films share the same ease, steady storytelling, and quiet roar of emotion Wang displays in everyday conversation.

What have you learned from shifting between something like Chan Is Missing [Wang's first U.S. release, made in 16mm black-and-white for under $30,000] to Anywhere but Here?

Well, you know, if you get more money -- which is great -- a lot of that money ends up going to places where it shouldn't be going; it's not used creatively. But that's the way it's done, because of unions, regulations, and whatnot. With independent films, you have freedom, but you're still compromising because you have no money.

How much control do you have on a big studio project?

Studio films become a little more complicated. There are the executives; there are the producers; there are the [test screenings] -- which determine certain decisions. But I don't think all of that is bad. I've learned to work with that process, and to use that. When I set out to make a big-budget studio film, I do feel responsible for the film to be a much more accessible, mainstream film. All of this helps me define how much control I can have, but still make the film I believe in -- which is a great challenge. It's an art to be able to do that. I have tremendous respect for really well-made, commercial mainstream movies that also have an integrity about them.

Which brings us to Anywhere but Here....

There's no big dramatic plot, and it's a very character-driven film. It would probably never have been made, except for the female executives [at 20th Century Fox].

Did you always want Susan Sarandon and Natalie Portman?

I had Natalie in mind when I read the script, but there were a lot of different ideas for who was going to be Adele: Meryl Streep, Sigourney Weaver, Sally Field. At one point, even the crazy idea of... oh shit, her name escapes my mind. She's the rock singer for Whore? Hole?

Courtney Love?! Whaaaat?

Right. Only because we wanted to go more extreme, more so-called white trash and irresponsible. But [ultimately] Susan Sarandon felt right; she has a crazy bravado side to her, and she's a really strong mother.

In Anywhere but Here, you totally get the mother-daughter thing.

I grew up with a lot of women in my life.

But with Joy Luck, and now this film, aren't you afraid you'll be considered "Women's Film Guy"?

Yes! Which is why, during Joy Luck, I had been developing Smoke with [New York novelist] Paul Auster, which is all male, all about men. I kind of veered off to that, because I knew I'd be slaughtered in the industry otherwise.

And you want to avoid being "Ethnic Film Guy" as well.

I think Asians have come a long way, at the executive level, and as far as directors go. There's Ang Lee [The Ice Storm, Sense and Sensibility], John Woo [Face/Off], and myself. In front of the camera, it's still just as difficult. I don't have a solution for it. Asian actors are really difficult to "sell" -- it's not just a race thing, it's a box office thing. Studios simply WON'T make movies with actors who are not huge stars. Oh -- unless you're Jackie Chan.

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