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Beyond ‘Crazy Rich Asians’: Angie Wang Makes a Movie

Category: Fashion & Style,Lifestyle

“Crystal meth? As if.”

Angie Wang was slouched in a black Naugahyde booth in the depths of a Hollywood bar called Three Clubs. It was the backup location for an interview, the first choice having been the suitably named Big Wangs, a zippy chicken-wing joint that turned out to be closed.

But the dark and semi-debauched Three Clubs was actually ideal: Ms. Wang, 52, wearing combat boots, a long tube dress and a big, floppy hat, was there to discuss her past life as a drug synthesizer and dealer.

“It seemed like a good idea at the time,” she said dryly, after specifying that her product in the 1980s was Ecstasy, which mostly trades as Molly these days.

“I was a crazy broke Asian — the unmodel model minority,” she continued, riffing off the hit movie “Crazy Rich Asians.” “Insane ideas pop into my head, and, for better or worse, I sometimes act on them.”

Consider what career she is pursuing now: Having tackled drug trafficking in her 20s, technology sales in her 30s and nonprofit work in her 40s, Ms. Wang has set her sights on the film business. So what if she had no writing, directing or producing experience — and is a middle-aged woman of color?

“I wasn’t getting enough racism, sexism and ageism in the real world so I came to Hollywood,” Ms. Wang said, and laughed so hard that the bar’s cinder block walls seemed to shake.

Rather astoundingly, she has succeeded.

Written, directed and financed by Ms. Wang, “MDMA” will arrive in limited theatrical release and on video-on-demand services starting on Sept. 14 (no relation to a forthcoming documentary, “MDMA: The Movie”). The largely autobiographical story begins in the 1980s, when a psychologically damaged young woman with working-class immigrant parents gets accepted to a prestigious college. After finding herself unable to pay tuition during her freshman year, she teaches herself to synthesize Ecstasy, formally called MDMA, using the chemistry labs.

Bad stuff happens, but there is also redemption. Ms. Wang hopes the film will inspire other people.

“I’m thrilled that a big movie like ‘Crazy Rich Asians’ finally made it to theaters,” Ms. Wang said. “Pretty Asians on the big screen who aren’t prostitutes! Yay! But it’s also important to tell stories that don’t involve model-minority clichés.”

She continued, “Getting stuffed into that model-minority box is so suffocating. It makes you feel less-than when you can’t live up. And in my case and many others, when you start to believe those feelings it becomes a self-fulfilling prophesy.”

Ms. Wang grew up in various low-income areas of New Jersey, including Newark. Her father, who worked in a restaurant, had emigrated from China; her mother had come to the United States from Taiwan. “They epitomized domestic violence, and my mother ultimately ran off and left me with my father,” Ms. Wang said. “She beat feet with my brother. I was 7, and he was 4.”

School was a struggle. But Ms. Wang scored high enough on college-entrance tests to enroll at Rutgers University. When money for tuition and housing got tight, she turned to Ecstasy, which was legal to possess at the time. The Drug Enforcement Administration banned MDMA in summer 1985, citing its escalating abuse on college campuses.

The ban did not stop Ms. Wang, however.

“It got to be a pretty good-sized operation,” she said, a bit reluctantly. She said she had two drug-dealing partners, something not reflected in the film.

Ms. Wang’s cousin, Samuel F. Huang, a urological oncologist, confirmed her story. “It’s true, but I have never talked to her about the specific details — the less I know the better,” Dr. Huang said by phone. “Angie really did get the worst end of everything. She did what she thought she had to do.” (His frank assessment of her film: “It was little slow in the beginning with a few amateurish moments, but it really pulls you in and ends strong.”)

After graduating from Rutgers, Ms. Wang found herself living in Silicon Valley, where she got a job selling software before moving into tech consulting. She had a baby, Jade, in 1998 with a hard-drinking boyfriend. They broke up when their daughter was 8 months old, she said. But Ms. Wang was also successful in technology sales — she was a natural marketer, go figure — and became financially secure for the first time in her life.

She also began dating Larry Braitman, an angel investor who had hit it big (very big) with an advertising-related start-up. It was during their 10-year romantic relationship, since ended, that she started a nonprofit focused on at-risk middle-school students and began writing a screenplay that would become “MDMA.” Mr. Braitman, who serves on the charity’s board, also helped finance the film, which cost roughly $1 million to produce.

“I’m a backer of slim chances of success by nature,” said Mr. Braitman, who described Ms. Wang as “intense, profane, articulate, fearless, somebody who is always searching for emotional truth.”

Making a movie is daunting, even if you know what you are doing. Ms. Wang didn’t have a clue. But she quickly discovered that it would take more than tenacity (and her foul mouth) to get doors to open in Hollywood. “My only real skill is whipping the hell out of people to get them to do stuff,” Ms. Wang said. “But these agents were like, ‘No way, no how.’”

Things started to fall into place after she convinced a respected indie producer, Cassian Elwes, to sign on as an executive producer. Ms. Wang said she “stalked” Mr. Elwes, whose credits include “Mudbound” and “Dallas Buyers Club,” after hearing him speak at a film conference. His name especially helped with casting.

“MDMA” stars Annie Q., known for the HBO drama “The Leftovers.” Other cast members include Francesca Eastwood, whose father is Clint Eastwood, and Pierson Fodé of “The Bold and the Beautiful.”

“Angie is probably the most persistent person I have ever met,” Mr. Elwes said, with a laugh. “But it really came down to the story. There are all kinds of great stories out there that don’t involve white dudes, and I wanted to support Angie in telling hers.”

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