What Kate Tsang’s ‘Marvelous and the Black Hole’ Can Teach Us About Magic, Connection and Coming of Age

The Feminist Lens series offers an inside look into the world of film-making and media production through conversations between women in the film, television and digital media industry and Aviva Dove-Viebahn, a Ms. scholar and professor who writes about gender and race in popular culture.

When Marvelous and the Black Hole premiered at the 2021 Sundance Film Festival (see my review here), I was instantly charmed by its clever, unique story and excellent performances—from both relative newcomer Miya Cech and the always unforgettable Rhea Perlman.

At the time, the film hadn’t yet found distribution, and so I had no way to recommend it to others. But that’s finally changed! Marvelous is coming to theaters on April 22, so this is the perfect opportunity to revisit the film and speak with writer and director Kate Tsang about her wonderful debut feature.

Aviva Dove-Viebahn: Tell me about your journey to making Marvelous and the Black Hole, as your first feature? I know you were originally financed by the Tribeca Film Festival Untold Stories Program, and you premiered at Sundance, but I’d love to have you fill in some of the details.

Kate Tsang: The journey to making the film is kind of an unconventional one. I had written the script about this teenage delinquent who befriends a kid’s party magician who helps her handle her dysfunctional family and inner demons with help of sight of hand magic. I wrote it not knowing how we would ever get it made because of the market.

It didn’t really seem like there were films like this out there, but I knew it was something I really wanted to make. So, we applied to this grant called Untold Stories, which is sort of like a ‘Shark Tank’ style pitching contest held by Tribeca Film Festival and AT&T. The winner of this pitching contest gets a million dollars to make their film and the time span of a year to make and complete it.

My producer and I pitched, and we were the lucky recipients. We shot the film in 2019, really gunning to make this deadline for Tribeca 2020, when the world changed. And we didn’t know what was going to happen with our film. We couldn’t even finish it at the time in post[-production]. So, we just bided our time until it was safe to go into studio again and finish the film.

We were so lucky to get into Sundance and then be able to screen again at Tribeca the year later. It’s been a journey to finally get it into theaters, and we’re so excited to be working with FilmRise to get it out.

[My grandfather is] probably the reason why I’m a storyteller because he would tell me stories to comfort me, things that ultimately would give me hope. That sort of thing is what I really, really want to do with my own films.

Kate Tsang

Dove-Viebahn: What was it that drove you to write this particular story?

Tsang: It’s born from a place where, growing up, my parents got divorced. I was bouncing back and forth between their homes in the Bay Area and Hong Kong, and it was a really isolating experience. I felt angry and alone, but my grandfather came over to watch me because my mom was a single mom. He could tell I was going through it, but he didn’t judge me. He just validated me and became the best friend I needed at that time.

He changed the course of my life. He’s probably the reason why I’m a storyteller because he would tell me stories to comfort me, things that ultimately would give me hope. That sort of thing is what I really, really want to do with my own films. The relationship between Sammy [Miya Cech] and Margot [Rhea Perlman] is based on my relationship with my grandfather.

I grew up watching fantasy coming-of-age films like ‘Edward Scissorhands‘ and ‘E.T.,’ and I never saw anybody that looked like me in them. I loved these films. They made me feel less alone. They gave me hope. This film is my answer to that. This is the film I wish I had when I was growing up. And I’m so glad it exists now for myself as an adult.

Still from Marvelous and the Black Hole. (Courtesy of Nanu Segal)

Dove-Viebahn: I think it’s interesting that you refer to these fantasy coming-of-age films that you liked because one thing I found really compelling about your film is how it merges fantasy and reality. It’s about magic, but it also has these fantasy sequences where Sammy imagines things that might happen to people when she’s struggling or frustrated.

I feel like the film also exists in a world that straddles a boundary between serious and playful. Sammy is dealing with grief and other intense issues, but there’s also a kind of playfulness to the film. Could you say a bit more about why this emphasis on magic? Margot is a magician, but then Sammy latches onto that and decides it’s something she wants to learn.

Tsang: I latched onto magic because it’s a tool of transformation and magic to me means possibility. To a girl who’s grieving this really big loss in her life, the possibilities seem shut, like there’s no way to go forward. But by doing magic with Margot and practicing tiny miracles every day, it opens her up to the sense of possibility and wonder. That’s also what I love about films so much—they’re windows to possibility.

Clip from Marvelous and the Black Hole

Dove-Viebahn: You said you were in some ways basing Sammy and Margot’s relationship on your relationship with your grandfather, but, in the film, they’re a teenage girl and middle-aged woman who are unrelated. That makes it a kind of precarious friendship, which the film addresses toward the end and, I think, handles well. Why did you shift the basis of the relationship away from a familial one?

Tsang: It’s about connection, and I wanted that connection to not just be within the family sphere. I wanted it to be about two strangers connecting over a meaningful touchpoint. It’s also influenced by when I started writing the script. I knew nothing about sight of hand magic, so I started taking some classes. In the class, the TA was a female magician who said, “Hey, you seem kind of into this. Why don’t you keep going?” She encouraged me and mentored me and then introduced me to a bunch of her magician friends. It really became this community that I needed at the time, because I had just moved to LA; I didn’t really know that many people. Through this kind gesture of seeing somebody new who has an interest and bringing them in—it changed the course of my life and improved the script. I wanted to bring that element into it as well.

Dove-Viebahn: I heard that you had a predominantly female crew. Was that a deliberate choice on your part or did it happen organically?

Tsang: It was definitely a conscious choice between my producer and I. We had a mandate for ourselves. We wanted at least 50% female or gender nonconforming individuals on our crew. And we wanted to have as many Asian American crew members as we could find. With this grant, somebody took a chance on us, and so it’s up to us to pay that forward and take a chance on others who might not have the most established resumes yet, but clearly are so talented and just need that chance.

Dove-Viebahn: Did you have to secure financing outside of the grant?

Tsang: No. The grant was the sole financing.

Margot (Rhea Perlman) and Sammy (Miya Cech) from Marvelous and the Black Hole. (Courtesy of Nanu Segal)

Dove-Viebahn: That’s amazing. I’m sure you know that people are still having a lot of trouble getting projects financed. You even referenced that yourself, that you weren’t sure how this story would get made.

Tsang: It’s incredible that this grant exists. And, to circle back, we gave other people chances, but people also took a chance on us. We have a really established female DP, Nanu Segal, who took a chance on a first-time feature director and was incredible to work with. And there’s also Yong Ok Lee, who is our production designer; she’s designed for Minari and The Farewell. She really brought the incredible look to our film. So, there were people who took chances on us, and the film wouldn’t have been able to get made without them.

Dove-Viebahn: And it’s a beautifully crafted film. I’m looking forward to being able to see it again now that it’s being released. What are you hoping audiences take away from Marvelous?  

Tsang: I hope this film makes the audience feel a little bit better than when they first sat down, gives them a little bit of hope during these uncertain times.

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Aviva Dove-Viebahn is an assistant professor of film and media studies at Arizona State University and a contributing editor for Ms.' Scholar Writing Program.