'The Farewell': Writer/Director Lulu Wang On Committing To Her Vision, The Power Of Saying "No", And More [Interview]

Lulu Wang's The Farewell tells the story of Billi, a Chinese-American artist who discovers that her grandmother is dying of cancer. Her initial distress intensifies when she realizes that her family has no intention to tell grandma about the diagnosis, although they do schedule a mock wedding so the family can have one big get-together to say goodbye.

In today's day and age, movies like The Farewell are a miracle. When even movies based on hit franchises can't get any traction with critics or the box officeThe Farewell, which is continuing to expand in theaters this weekend, has found its place as one of the most emotionally powerful films of year. The film has achieved this success despite taking place mostly in a different language, having no explosions or action scenes, and with a cast devoid of household names (beyond Awkwafina, who is excellent here).

I had a chance to watch The Farewell at the Seattle International Film Festival last month and was fortunate enough to chat with Wang afterward. We talked about the style of the film, the challenges of the Chinese-American experience, and how the power of "no" got the film to where it is today.

Tell us about what inspired you to make The Farewell.

I was inspired by the fact that this happened to me in real life. My grandmother was sick and I was told that we could not tell her, and that my cousin was gonna have this wedding as an excuse for us to all go and see her. And I think that I was just so frustrated by the situation. I went back, I followed the family's plan, but I kept wanting to turn to somebody to say, "Isn't this crazy? This is ridiculous."

And nobody was there. It was me and my family and nobody was sort of my confidant to be like, "Yes, this is absolutely insane. And it's really sad, but it's also hilarious." And so I was feeling all of these feelings and writing them down was the only way that I could process them. Or I could just...I don't know, just kind of let it out of my system because I had no one to talk to while I was there. And when I came back, it was difficult to talk to anyone because nobody had been there.

The people who were there with me I couldn't talk to, and then when I'm back in the states, no one understands and they're just like, "Well, of course, that's crazy." I'm like, "Yeah, but I also kind of get it from their side." And then my friends would be like, "No, they're just crazy." And so I was kind of in between these two worlds and this was my way to just explore both sides of it.

One of the things that I really appreciated about this film and about films like it that have come out recently, like Crazy Rich Asians or Fresh Off The Boat, is we're starting to see pop culture distinguished between the Chinese experience and the Chinese American experience, and that's something that I felt the film navigated really well. Is that something that was on your mind while you were writing the film and if so, what was the way you approached it?

Yeah. I think that it was important for me to navigate the difference between the Chinese experience versus Chinese American because that's kind of the whole crux of the movie. Where essentially the Chinese Americans, especially Billi, who's more American than her parents are, and just see the world differently. I mean, she's essentially Americanized and I think people often see it like you are Chinese or you are American. But when you're an immigrant, you fall somewhere on a spectrum, and so you're constantly negotiating between different cultures, different value systems, and different languages. And so that was very much part of the texture of the film.

When you think about your own experience going back to China, is there something that stuck out to you as like, "Oh wow, this experience is something that I find very challenging or that I think about in a different way because I'm Chinese American"?

Yeah. I guess sometimes I wasn't even aware if I was looking at something differently because I'm Chinese American. Or how much of that is me as an individual as like Lulu and I'm seeing it that way? How much of it is that it's because I'm Chinese American? How much of it is just because I'm an artist and I've always been a little bit rebellious?

So sometimes even when I was going through this experience with my family, I didn't know if they were crazy or if I was being crazy or you know what I mean, because I didn't have context. And so I don't necessarily think of it from an identity perspective because I'm just within...the only experience I've ever had is my own, and so there's nothing to compare it to.

But I can definitely say that when I go back to China, I feel very foreign there. And that is something I've heard from many people who immigrate is that when they go back to their home countries, in a way, they think they're going to be embraced and completely feel like they've come home. This disconcerting thing is when you go back there and you feel more foreign than you ever have.

You're kind of like a person with no country because you don't fully belong in either culture.


I wanted to ask you about the cast of the movie and one way to talk about that is the use of language. I really liked how in The Farewell, people speak in Mandarin and English in ways that I found to be pretty plausible. I thought Awkwafina did an amazing job. She definitely speaks better Mandarin than me, but also it's pretty obvious that she is not a native Mandarin speaker. I'm curious: was that something that was part of your process for casting the movie, that you wanted somebody who wasn't necessarily super fluent in Chinese? Can you talk a little bit about that?

Yeah, I think originally I just was casting people whose language abilities were somewhat similar to the people in real life. And I speak Chinese pretty well, so I was sort of looking for someone who was fully bilingual and that was really difficult, actually. And when I met with Awkwafina and when she sent in an audition tape, I just knew that she was perfect for the movie, aside from language and all of that. And I actually thought that her lack of her Chinese ability would actually be limiting for the role. But then as we worked on it and as the movie came together, I realized that it actually helped a lot.

Because I think one of the challenges I face is that I feel like a fish out of water, but in many ways I don't look like it and I don't sound like it. And even to Chinese people, sometimes they just start talking to me and they think that I'm from there because I don't have an accent and I am pretty fluent. Until we start to get to like pop culture and talk about sophisticated things, and I'm just like, "Who is that? I don't know what you're talking about." They're just like, "What's wrong? Are you dumb?" They just totally don't get it.

Whereas with Awkwafina, I think that it's pretty apparent that she's a foreigner. And I think one of the challenges with a full Asian movie when you have a fish out of water story is it's easy to present a fish out of water when that person is blonde in an Asian country, but when they look Asian, how do you do that? And so I think that what Awkwafina brought, including her more limited Chinese, actually really helped to tell that story.

Did you ever see the movie Burning with Steven Yeun?

Yes, I love that movie so much.

It reminded me of that, because Steven Yeun's character in that movie is also not super fluent in Korean and that gives him this kind of outsider-y character. And I felt the same thing with Awkwafina in this movie as well, which I thought definitely fit the story you're trying to tell.At any point in the process, did you ever consider having more characters speak English or making the movie more – because obviously it's less "commercial" if most of the movie takes place in a different language. Did you ever consider taking a different approach with how you did the language? 

No, I mean that was one of the things I never wanted to compromise on was the different languages and the different accents just because so much of the movie is about communication or the lack of communication. And that's not just about the lie, the secret, it's also the things that we can't say because we're far away from each other or just because there is a generational gap and it's just too hard to explain sometimes, right?

And so it's easier to say, "Oh, it's no one. It's just a friend," or whatever. And so all of these little "lies" out of convenience, out of love and just out of misunderstanding, I think that's so much a part of the experience of being an immigrant and, yeah, and for this particular family.

So if anything, I actually wanted more Chinese initially because my parents and I speak a lot more Chinese with just a bunch of English thrown in there. But to sort of make it clear, Billi and her parents versus the rest of the family, just separate those groups, we had them all speak English. And I think it also does help a Western audience to tie themselves more to Billi, to the American family members. And so that was a compromise I was really okay with because it serves the story.

I was wondering, you're talking about the rest of the Billi's family: I read that you cast a member of your own family in the film. Your great aunt was Nai Nai's little sister, right?


So can you talk a little bit about casting her and was there any insight that she brought to the role and to the film that you wouldn't have gotten otherwise if you had cast a different actor?

Yeah, definitely. I mean it's real for her, so the emotions are very, very real. She's the one who decided to lie. And so she has the most amount of pathos around what it really took in terms of stakes and the stakes that were involved in telling this lie and sort of the thought process that she had to go through because it wasn't an easy decision. And what I loved about her, aside from the fact that this actually happened to her and aside from the fact that she's authentic, is just I think that she, as a person, I've always noticed this, has a real ability to balance the pathos well as comedy.

She's a really light and bubbly and fun person. And she's always got a smile on her face and that kind of makes you go, "What else is behind there?" And it's not that it's all a lie because she really is a very joyful, funny person, but sometimes people who are funny can often use that as a tool as well to hide whatever that they want to hide and, whatever they don't want to say. And so I just thought that she was perfect because even in the funny moments you really feel for her.

You mentioned that she was the one that made the decision. Looking back on it, how does she feel about it? And then kind of curious in general, you based this movie on things that happened to your real family. Have they seen the film? What has their reaction been to it?

Yeah, well, my family, not all of them have seen it. My parents saw it at Sundance. Little Nai Nai has not seen it. And let's see who else...my Aunt Gugu, she saw it and, yeah, I mean everyone sort of understands it's a very western perspective. It's very much from my point of view, and I think that if they made the movie, any one of them, it would be a completely different movie and different perspective.

Yeah, I mean I think that the rationale is kind of what's explored in the movie where she knows her sister and knows what the psychological trauma would do to her if she knew. So no, I don't think she has any regrets.

Do you want to talk briefly just about the style of the film? I felt like a lot of the movie used wide and medium shots. You have a lot of actors in one single shot, you let interactions play out, and I'm curious about how you approached shooting the movie and what was important for you to capture?

Yeah. Well, I think with a cast of, what like 13, 15 sometimes, some of it was practical. Basically we had the time to either do a lot of different takes of one shot or we could go into coverage and just shoot everybody, and we couldn't do both. We couldn't do the oner and then also go get coverage just for safety. And so it was a risky decision to say, "Well, we're just gonna do these wide shots and use blocking to move the scene and have us follow the different characters within the scene as opposed to cutting."

And it just took a lot of takes to do that, but I think the idea behind it is with these wider frames, it's very theatrical. And the characters are performing, right? In many ways like you know the actors are performing to play the characters, but the characters are also performing within the movie for Grandma. They're performing a wedding, they're performing their emotions. And so the theatricality of these frames where we're able to kind of see them like in a theater play is really great.

And also having so many characters, putting them all in one frame, it really emphasizes the family as a unit, all of them in one frame together. And then when you take them away and you just have Awkwafina in that frame, you really feel her isolation, you really feel what's missing within that frame. And so I think, both for the juxtaposition of using this wide frame of having the singular versus the unit, which works also for the comedy where you see the juxtaposition of different things that are going on. Somebody's having a really serious conversation in the foreground and then you have something really ridiculous happening in the background, and that's the comedy as opposed to the characters themselves telling jokes.

It's interesting to hear you talk about the trade-off between lots of takes or getting the different kind of shots.

Yeah, because I think that's not something you learn and I didn't go to film school, but I've been told you don't learn a lot of that in film school. And when you're put under pressure on a set, I can see how you can go, "You know what, forget it. Let's just go in for coverage." Especially when you're on the 11th take of a wide shot and somehow it's not working –

And when you say going for coverage, you mean like get different angles, right?

Yeah, just cut it and then we'll figure it out in the edit. Because the way we shot it where, "Okay this is it, this is the scene," and we're blocking the camera with the actors. It's all a choreography. It's like a dance and everything has to work to in order for the scene to work. And if you don't get it, you have no other option.

And so when you've done all of these tapes and you're over schedule, it's so easy to fall under pressure and go, "You know what, let's just go in for coverage." But with 15 people, you go, "Okay, now we're going to start coverage." That's not practical to go in for coverage.

Exactly. So you basically had to commit to your vision for what this would look like?

Exactly. And then also my DP, Anna, and I, once we committed to it and worked it out for a couple of scenes, you sort of establish the language of the movie and if you break that language it feels weird.

Right. You can't just start going into coverage or a ton of closeup shots later in the film.

And handheld. And you know like, "Forget it, like we're just going to handheld and shoot it." No, it'll completely feel like a different movie. And so we committed to this like static frame, locked off camera and just kinda pummeled through.

I think it totally works.

Thank you.

One last question for you. I think in today's day and age, it's really difficult to get a film like this made and distributed. It is a film for adults. It is low-to-medium budget, I would assume, and a lot of it takes place in a different language. And so I'm curious, what were some of the insights you gained from getting this film financed and distributed? If there's people out there who are reading this and if they have their own projects of similar scale and similar heart that they want other people to see, they want to share with the world as well, what would you say to those people?

Well, I've gotten a lot of emails recently from my producers and my editor and different people and everyone just...even people who worked on the project, when they email me are like, "This movie is a miracle." And because it all happened so fast and you never know if it's going to work out. And so often with these movies you make it and you put your heart into it and blood, sweat and tears, and then in the end, you're lucky if it ends up on a streaming platform, you know?

And so everyone, kind of looking back on it to, one, the process; two, what this film is on paper to have it made, to have it at Sundance, to have it do as well as it did at Sundance, to have it bought, to have it distributed, all of that. People kind of look at it now and just kind of are like, "Wow, it's a miracle." And I think I feel that way too because when you're in the process you just go, go, go.

But I think to answer your question of what I've learned is the power of no. Because there are many times in which it wasn't just about finding the right partners, which I was very lucky to have done, but it was –

When you say the right partners, you're referring to producing partners or...

Well, just everyone. The team, the actors, the partners. But I think that all of that started to happen and started to click because I said, "No," to many other things that weren't clicking. And so, before I did This American Life, I had had producers who wanted to make the film and they wanted to make it in a different way, make it broader, and I was offered money to make it. And I just said, "You know what, if it doesn't feel right, if it's not what I want to do, I'd rather not make it than make it in the way that I don't believe in."

What were some of those pitches? Make it as a romantic comedy or something?

Yeah. Like, "Oh yes, this is great. It'll be the My Big Fat Chinese Wedding." And I was like, "That's great, but that's not this movie." And they said, "It's great, but it doesn't make any sense that your main character is not the bride." That's what so many producers said was that the stakes would be higher if she was the one getting married. And I said, "But that's not the humor." Right? And I tried to explore that and I was like, "No, that's not the movie I want to make." The whole point is that the wedding is the backdrop. When you think it's a wedding movie and the bride and groom are kind of forgotten about in many scenes, and that's what's so funny.

And so I think, yeah, just like being able to say no to those opportunities and be willing to sit on it until the right things come along. Because then once the right things came along, like the right producers came along, the right financier came along, then everything clicked into place. Because we all saw the movie the same way and so the conversations were creative. We never were combative about any of the decisions and everyone just sort of worked towards the same goal.


The Farewell is in select theaters now.This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.