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.

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