CULVER CITY, Calif. — The sex scene needed something. A headpiece, they call it in comedy. A funny bit at the start to bridge the emotional gap between the scene that leads up to it — in this case, the sudden death of a beloved character — and the very different scene that follows it: a mutual deflowering in the back seat of a car. A sex scene as American as the pie sex scene in “American Pie.”
Marcus and Sasha are childhood besties who met cute as 10-year-olds a few scenes earlier, and now they’re about to go off to college — she is, anyway — and so it’s time for them to bone cute. But how to get there?
“Always Be My Maybe,” the movie in question, stars the stand-up comic Ali Wong and the “Fresh Off the Boat” lead Randall Park, old friends in real life who also wrote the film together and then brought in his sitcom’s creator, Nahnatchka Khan, to direct. Those facts alone — a pair of Asian-American stars, an Iranian-American female director — make it something of a unicorn in Hollywood, even in the era of “Crazy Rich Asians” and “To All the Boys I’ve Loved Before,” and to top things off it’s a romantic comedy for grown-ups. Asian-American men rarely get to be the hero in mainstream Hollywood movies, Asian-American women rarely pick the Asian guy at the end, and Asian couples rarely exist onscreen at all, let alone have sex, let alone funny sex.
The movie, which will open in theaters on Wednesday before its Friday premiere on Netflix, is set mostly in present-day San Francisco. But the car sex scene was meant to occur circa 2000 — Khan and Park are both 45; Wong is 37 — and they wanted something period-specific to kick it off. But what? It was Wong’s husband who solved it. He suggested a thing she often does at home: “full-on committing to songs I don’t know the words to.” Then he nominated a particular favorite of hers, D’Angelo’s “Untitled (How Does It Feel),” which remains, nearly two decades later, the closest humankind has ever come to capturing the sound of what sex feels like. No one really knows what D’Angelo is saying in those verses, just that it’s straight fire for lovemaking.
“It’s a sexy-ass song,” Wong declared.
“And a sexy-ass video,” Park added. The infamous video: D’Angelo topless, possibly bottomless too, shimmying in front of the camera as though he were being directed by drool.
Wong remembers it. Specifically, she said, her eyes aglow, she remembers a portion of his midsection that she referred to as his “gutters,” which overflowed in her lustful imagination with — let’s just stop it right there.
She’d only just sat down for lunch alongside Park at a crowded restaurant in Culver City, and things had gotten so dirty so fast it was like a blast of heat from a coal oven. Park absorbed it in stride and laughed, settling into the same dynamic they’ve always had, and have onscreen in “Always Be My Maybe.” She says something staggeringly profane, and he blush-laughs. Fortunately the table was in a courtyard, so the sound just floated up through a carrotwood tree.
“Always Be My Maybe” came into this world on the butterfly wings of social media, not unlike the way someone in Cleveland tweeted at Weezer urging the musicians to do a cover of “Africa” by Toto, and so they did. The movie began with an offhand remark that Wong made in a 2016 New Yorker article about how she and Park had always wanted to do their version of “When Harry Met Sally” but had never gotten around to it.
By this point, their careers were rising fast. “Fresh Off the Boat” had been renewed by ABC for a second season, and Wong’s first Netflix special, “Baby Cobra,” which she filmed while eight months pregnant, with a belly so swollen she looked structurally unsound, had become a smash hit, turning her from a gigging stand-up comic to a breakout star. Fans saw the magazine quote and demanded that the movie get made, pronto, and because this is how Hollywood works now, Wong and Park were suddenly swamped with offers for a script that did not exist.
They sold it to Netflix anyway. When they finally got down to it, they hewed loosely to the structure of “When Harry Met Sally” — a friendship that blooms into love over time, lots of parental involvement, lots of meals. The final version, though, wound up owing nearly as much to another of their favorites, “Boomerang,” the barrier-breaking 1992 comedy about hot black advertising professionals starring Eddie Murphy, Robin Givens and a young Halle Berry as the plain one.
“It was a movie about black people in this elite business world, but it wasn’t harped on. It was just the reality of their lives,” Park said. “And I think that spoke to us.”
For Wong in particular, “Boomerang” was a brightly colored vision of sophisticated adulthood filled with women she’d never seen onscreen before — not just women of color, but also women who took control, who were ambitious and funny, who had enthusiastic sex lives and whose taste in men, with all due respect to “When Harry Met Sally,” ran a little more mouthwatering than Billy Crystal.
The women “were so strong and weird and eccentric but confident and, like, hot and sexy,” she remembered. “There’s so many different ways women are funny in that movie that you’d never seen before and haven’t seen since then.”
That’s what Wong and Park wanted to do. A “Boomerang” for them. A “When Harry Met Sally” for them. For them, as in specifically for them to star in and get paid for, but also as in for people who look like them. A movie where two Asian-American nerds get naked in a car to D’Angelo. The back-seat part was also ripped from real life. Park’s life, in this case.
“I’m trying to think,” he began, staring at his salad. “Should I talk about this?” His body language said no, but Wong’s eyes said yes. It felt like something that happens often in their friendship. “The actual story,” he said gingerly, “came from … elements … of an experience” — he paused and sort of swallowed — “that I had.” Wong looked delighted. “I mean, it wasn’t as clunky as our movie,” Park quickly added. “I was way smoother. Way smoother.”
Growing up Asian-American, with the effects rippling into adulthood, isn’t the subject of “Always Be My Maybe,” but it’s not exactly incidental either. What elevates the film from a well-executed if conventional rom-com to something more resonant is the breadth of Asian-American experiences it documents, starting with the people who made it.
Khan is the daughter of Iranian immigrants, born in Las Vegas, raised in Hawaii. Park, who is Korean-American, grew up in middle-class West Los Angeles. His father ran a Fotomat, and his mother is a painter. Wong, meanwhile, is half-Vietnamese, half-Chinese and went to private school in the affluent Pacific Heights neighborhood of San Francisco. In the film, she plays a celebrity chef whose immigrant Vietnamese parents run a convenience store.
Wong’s real-life father was born and raised in San Francisco, and he does not speak with an accent, nor does Park’s onscreen father, a tiny but radical detail — a gray-haired Asian-American who speaks unaccented English — that almost imperceptibly calls out decades of Hollywood depictions. “Not that an accent is bad,” Wong said, “but it’s like, of course. To me, his dad is one of my favorite parts of our movie. He’s cool, he’s a friend, he’s grounded. It feels real.”
In “Always Be My Maybe,” the predictable onscreen Asian-American parent-child dynamics — East vs. West, tradition vs. assimilation, pride vs. shame — are inverted. The parents are fine. They’re happy, well-adjusted, American. It’s the kids who are a mess.
Park’s character, Marcus, is another kind of movie unicorn: the stay-at-home stoner. Not like Harold or Kumar — a grown Asian-American man who wakes and bakes, plays in a band and has no intention of rethinking his priorities. This person exists, of course. Wong dated him for like two years. “I loved his integrity,” she said — the sheer purity of his drive to do nothing. “He was a really good guy. He was just stuck.”
Park was that guy for a while. Marcus, he said, is based “to a degree” on himself and his wilderness years. And yet, no matter how plentiful guys like Marcus are in real life, they simply don’t exist in movies, and they certainly don’t get to bed the girl, ever. The movie’s conventionality is part of why it feels like such a breakthrough. It’s genre on the surface, subversive in the details — the way the kids kick off their shoes before they scamper into the house, the boxes of Pocky, the mean waitresses at dingy-delicious Chinese restaurants.
“It was very important to get those details right,” Khan said, “especially in the beginning with the childhood stuff. Those things matter. It’s like, ‘Someone is seeing me!’”
Wong’s Sasha is a latchkey kid who falls in love with cooking because she grows up having to do so much of it herself. She learns how to make kimchi jjigae from Marcus’s Korean mother. One day after school, we see a family sitcom playing on the TV in the background. It’s an episode of “Clarissa Explains It All,” a favorite of Khan’s from her own adolescence that she chose for the scene because the TV family is white. The TV families in that era were almost always white. “And there was something about seeing a white family on TV and then seeing this little Asian girl watching this,” Khan said, trailing off. “I mean, that’s definitely on purpose.”
Park loved those shows. “I felt like a part of those families when I watched them,” he said. “But that has an effect on you over time.”
Each of them recalls being a kid and searching the margins of the frame for Asian faces. Bit players became heroes just for making it on camera. Like the one Asian fly girl on the 1990s sketch comedy show “In Living Color,” an icon for every blossoming Asian-American hip-hop head and D’Angelo fan. “Carrie Ann Inaba, yes!” Park said instantly.
Park’s high school friends were mostly white, and the pop culture he consumed was mostly white, too. Wong, on the other hand, spent afternoons at the local performing arts center and watched Wong Kar-wai movies. Even as a teenager, she was acutely aware of what was missing from Hollywood.
“See, I didn’t have that growing up,” Park said. “So I think there was a lot brewing inside of me and questions I really didn’t confront until college. How deprived I was growing up. How eye-opening that was. But also how angry it got me, because the world wasn’t seeing it. So I went through that whole college period of angst.”
He formed a band. He slammed some poetry. He started an improv group for Asian-Americans, the Stage Ninjas. Wong joined a few years later.
There were no “Crazy Rich Asians” onscreen in those days, no roles for Park to play, no roles for funny Asian-American women like Wong because, hang on, was there even such a thing? In this regard, “Crazy Rich Asians” was a commercial breakthrough for Hollywood. But it wasn’t much use on the sociocultural front — the majority of the movie is set outside the United States — and if anything, it reinforced some ugly stereotypes. Too many dragon ladies and vacuous shoppers. It was also a fantasy — a movie about no one any of us actually knows, set in a world where none of us actually live.
“Always Be My Maybe,” meanwhile, is about people we all know. “We weren’t trying to make a statement or whatever,” Wong said. “If people want to put it in that context, that’s up to them. But it’s a very different movie.”
They were just trying to make a movie they wish they could have seen in their teens and 20s. The first time Park suggested they write the movie together, Wong thought it was for him to star in with another actress. “Like Anne Hathaway or something,” she said. No, he replied, he meant her.
“I remember looking in the mirror and looking at my face, and I was really surprised,” Wong said. “And then I was really excited.”