'The Farewell' Director Lulu Wang On The Long Journey To Make Her Very Personal Film [Interview]

One of the most talked about and critically acclaimed films at this year's Sundance Film Festival (and frequent Audience Award winner at several film festivals since January) is writer/director Lulu Wang's sophomore feature The Farewell, with Awkwafina in her first starring role.

Based on an incident in her own family (the movie opens with the title care "Based on an actual lie"), The Farewell concerns a Chinese family who discovers that the matriarch, Nai Nai (Zhao Shuzhen), has terminal cancer and on a few months left to live. In keeping with a Chinese tradition, her family opts not to tell her of the seriousness of her illness, and instead arranges to have most of the extended family members come visit her to say their goodbyes under the guise of a rushed wedding. Awkwafina plays Billi, who moved to America with her parents (Diana Lin and Tzi Ma) when she was very young and thinks keeping the truth from Nai Nai is a mistake, so everyone suggests she not come to visit, lest she spill the beans on the big secret. But she does make the trip, and the film follows Billi's journey back to the land of her birth, where she can toe the family line or bring her modern, Western sensibilities to the situation.

It's a remarkable, sometimes very funny, always highly emotional work that is sure to make a great number best-of-the-year lists in 2019 thanks to exceptional performances by both seasoned actors and Wang's own family members. /Film spoke with Wang recently in Chicago (where The Farewell played to a sold-out crowd at the Chicago Critics Film Festival) to discuss the real-life inspiration behind her film and the importance of using first-time actors in such an emotionally volatile film. The Farewell has a limited release on Friday, July 12, and expands nationwide throughout July.

We played a film at this festival last year called Searching, and I noticed the filmmakers thanked you in the credits. What's the connection?

Lulu: That's so funny, I just saw Aneesh [Chaganty, director/co-writer] the other day. I've been really good friends with Aneesh and Sev [Ohanian, co-writer/producer) for a long time, and I went to a couple of the early screenings when they were looking for notes and feedback, and I gave them a lot of feedback.

The thing I couldn't stop thinking about watching The Farewell was that since it's apparently a common practice to lie to someone about their health, was it possible your grandmother might have figured out that this wedding was a pretense? In real life, was there ever a concern that might happen?

Lulu: On my part, yes. I thought that this was going to go very badly. But if I asked my great aunt, who plays herself in the movie actually, "At any point, did you think someone would give it up, or that I would show up and somehow give up this news and she would find out?" She's like "No, I had no worries about that. Everyone agreed." And I was like "What about me? Because I'm the Westerner and thought this whole thing was wrong?" "I wasn't worried about it. Your mother might have been worried about it. I let your mother worry about you, so I didn't worry about it." In a way, there's so much respect in a family, that she didn't think anybody would turn against it.

And now that the whole world is going to know this story, are you a little bit more worried? Or does your grandmother live a fairly isolated life?

Lulu: She's fairly isolated. I'm a little nervous about it. I'm in contact with Little Nai Nai [her aunt, Hong Lu, who plays herself in the film] all the time. I let her know ahead of time "Things are going to come out. We're going to screen in China soon, so there might be news about this." I  just let her decide how best to deal with it. It's a moving train that no one can get off of at this point, and my grandmother is getting older and not doing well. To some degree, even if she already knew or found out, she would not ever confront me about it; she would lie to protect me.

How did this story make it to NPR's This American Life? Because it was after that aired that things really took off toward getting a film made.

Lulu: I knew I wanted to make it as a film from the very beginning and started writing it and pitching it around town. At that point, everyone was skeptical I could get it made. I had a few meetings with Chinese producers for the Chinese market, but they wanted to make it broad, and it wouldn't have been the film I wanted to make, so I set it aside. I thought that if I couldn't make it the way I wanted to make it, I didn't want to make it at all, and I went on to make other projects. Then I met a producer from This American Life, who saw this short film of mine—not related to this story—and he said, "I love your voice. Do you have other stories I want to tell?" And I said, "Well, actually, there's this movie I've been wanting to make and I don't think anybody wants to make it, but I wrote it as a short story. Do you want to take a look?" So I sent it over, and they immediately wanted to do it. 

It was just such a wonderful experience. When I sat down with Ira Glass and the whole team, they were like "Tell us more. How did that make you feel? Go into more detail." It was coming from such an investigative, curious place of questioning, and we made the story in a month or two, between writing and recording it. And once it aired, within 48 hours, I was getting calls from producers wanting to make it into a film.

Ira sometimes gets involving in film production. Was there any discussion of him coming on board in that respect for this?

Lulu: He knew that I was a filmmaker, so I retained the film rights for it. And I don't think he loves doing that, although I shouldn't speak for him. But it is something of a side job for him. It's hard to make a movie, and it takes you away from everything because you have to be on set, and it takes so much longer. In the time it takes us to tell one story, he tells hundreds of stories. For a moment, when I did the radio story, I got really emotional and said "I think I picked the wrong medium; I don't think I should be a filmmaker," because I'd had such a pure experience working on This American Life, and I had never had that experience working on films and thought I would never be able to. Why am I ever in the film business? 

It takes so much money to make the story, and it's so much about the marketplace; it's too much risk, but you have to take the risk to tell these stories that people aren't used to from different cultures. And if people just want to do the same thing over and over again, and they want to cast in a way that they've seen in the past, then I don't think I'm in the right business. But in radio, they would tell three or four amazing stories in one week. So I thought about leaving, but then the producers started calling to make this film, and I got to interview producers for the first time. Before I was knocking on doors wondering who was going to listen to me, and now all of these people wanted to make the movie, and I got to say "How do you envision it?" Ultimately, I got to pick the people who wanted to defend my vision.

The Farewell streaming deal

I want to talk about the cast of your family. In some cases, you actually did cast family members, but in the cases where you decided to go with actors—one playing you, in particular—did you feel and extra pressure to find exactly the right person?

Lulu: Yeah. In some ways, every character we write, especially the protagonist, is some version of ourselves, as a writer/director, even if they aren't the same gender. It wasn't literally autobiographical, so for this, the main pressure was finding someone I felt wasn't necessarily me, but represented the things that were important. For example, language. They had to speak some Chinese. It was also very important they felt very American, that their essence felt very American, which is a hard things because in life, you start to learn someone is American when you spend time with them—you see their home, the way they move through the world, the way they speak to people and their body language. How do you capture that quickly and visually in a film? 

It was definitely not the most obvious choice going with Awkwafina at the very beginning, when her name was brought up. It was before Crazy Rich Asians and Ocean's Eight, so I was like "I know her music videos. Isn't she the girl that did 'My Vag'?" I asked my producer "How do you see me?" [laughs] The character has a very different persona than Awkwafina, and this is a drama, so I didn't know if she was Awkwafina or Nora Lum [her given name], and so I met her for coffee, and she started telling me about being raised by her Chinese grandmother. I wasn't until I saw her self-tape that I realized she was great. It was in the silences, when she's not speaking, that you can see there's so much going on underneath—the way that she listens and processes—and that's a really difficult thing for an actor to do, even trained actors. They're on when they're delivering lines, but when they're not, they still have to be acting.

Have you been back since the events in this film to see your grandmother?

Lulu: Yes. I brought my boyfriend back for the first time in March, after Sundance and all the craziness. He'd never been, so we went back together and did a tour, visited both my grandmas—my maternal grandma and the Chinese side. It was so funny, I was like "What did you think of the experience?" and he said, "It's just like the movie!"

The actress who plays your grandmother, I suspect there might have been more pressure on you to find just he right person than there was finding Awkwafina. What was right about this particular actress?

Lulu: Yeah, I wanted to cast somebody who had an inherent lovability and charm about them, because my grandma as a person is not a typical, sweet grandma. I mean, she's so sweet because she's my grandma and I love her, but she's very bossy—a typical matriarch. She directs everybody and everything, and tells everyone what to do. She's very much in control. So, it needed to be a character where you could love them and that her being bossy made you smile. We started casting and had a pool of famous actors that we couldn't afford or they were all working, so we started casting by going to parks and looking for non-actors, but that proved to be very difficult. 

But when I saw Zhao—I call her Teacher Zhao, as a sign of respect; in China, you call people you work with who are older "Teacher"—I just knew immediately that she was the one. She had the look and warmth about her. I had to beg her to do the role, because she was very expensive—I called her personally and begged her to do it. She'd never done an international production before, so when she got on set, her nature is very sweet; she's not like my grandmother. And she's played so many grandmothers in her career, she was just like "I'm playing another grandma," and I had to push her to be less sweet and more domineering, and she was not used to that at all, because she's very mild-mannered in real life. But once she got the hang of it, she didn't want to leave the character. She was like "This feels good to be like this. It's not who I am." It felt good to her to be commanding.

Moving forward, do you have more of these personal stories to tell? Clearly you have a gift for telling them. Do you want to see if you can make more films like this?

Lulu: Yeah, and I still think I'm figuring out "What is me?" as I shift through different types of stories. I'm doing a sci-fi film next, but it's very grounded, and what I love about that project is that it allows me to exercise a new muscle of doing something in the sci-fi world. But it's similar the The Farewell in that, it's a bigger conceit but the core of it is about people and family, and it asks these complicated questions where there's not really a good answer necessarily. But I use it for me as therapy, exploring all of these different questions that I have.

I love the way that the film is two films that looks different—the New York stuff looks like it was shot differently than the Chinese portion. Did you set out the emphasize different things and shoot them differently?

Lulu: Definitely. Once we get to China, we have static frames that are wider and still; in New York, we wanted to go against that and play with a moving camera and be closer on the characters, and capture more of the frenetic energy and color and lighting of New York City.

Thank you so much and best of luck with this.

Lulu: It was great, thank you.