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Lulu Wang's 'The Farewell'

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Chinese-American filmmaker Lulu Wang talks about her film "The Farewell" that she says is based on an "actual lie." The Sundance hit draws on her own family and first came to life as an episode on "This American Life." She also reveals how a trip to Ikea led to her career in filmmaking.

Show transcript

Speaker 1: 00:01 [inaudible] what's wrong? Please tell me [inaudible] she doesn't know anything. Family thinks it's better not to tell him. Why is that better? Chinese people have signed on. People get cancer, they die. Believe it or not.

Speaker 2: 00:18 The farewell is a funny film. It's a warm, heartfelt human comedy about family and it's all based on an actual lie. If we're to believe the poster

Speaker 3: 00:41 [inaudible],

Speaker 2: 00:41 welcome to another edition of listener supported KPBS cinema junkie podcast. I'm Beth huck, Armando [inaudible]. We tell her, isn't that wrong to lie? It's a good lie. Most families in China would choose not to tell her Chinese born, but us raised Billy played by Aquafina questions. Her family's decision to not tell grandma that she's been given a mere few weeks to live. Reluctantly, Billy returns to China for an expedited wedding that provides the cover for the whole family. Coming to say goodbye to grandma with the farewell writer director Lulu Wall and creates a family portrait inspired by her own life and exploring how her Chinese and American cultures interact. Bon came to San Diego last month to host a screening of the film for Pacific Arts Movement. She stopped by the KPBS studios to talk with me about the film and I'll get to that interview right after this short break.

Speaker 4: 01:37 Lulu, your film is advertised on. The poster is based on a lie. So explain what that means. Well, I, it was my way, I guess to say this is based on a true story, but even the true story itself is about a lie that was told to my actual grandmother. And what was that lie? The lie was that we were all coming home to China for the wedding of my cousin, but in fact, the wedding was staged by my family as an excuse to see my grandmother and say goodbye to her because she had cancer and the doctor told her she had three months to live, but they decided not to tell her that she was ill. Uh, and so that's why the wedding was necessary. So she wouldn't be suspicious when everybody suddenly rushed home to see her. And I understand the roots for this film came from of this American life episode.

Speaker 4: 02:33 How did that come about? Well, I as a filmmaker, I initially wanted to make this as a film, always have wanted to make it as a film, but found it was really difficult to find the right partners who would support the vision of the film that I had. And there was a lot of, um, producers who liked the concept initially, but want it to make it a much broader film and it's not the film that I wanted to. So I set it aside because I thought if I can't tell the story the way I want to tell it, then I'd rather not do it at all. But I had the urge to tell the story. So I wrote it down as a short story and set it aside for one day, maybe I would publish it. And I met a producer from this American life and pitched him that story and it got picked up and me, you know, we, between writing it and recording it, it took about two months and as soon as it aired, within 48 hours, producers were calling me to make it into a film.

Speaker 4: 03:29 And what that did was it gave me the ability to pick the producer who would ultimately fight for my vision and my, um, version of the story. And what was it about the story that was most important to you in terms of what you wanted to convey? I wanted to convey that it's not a story where there's a right or wrong, it's not a story about plot, it's a story about what it feels like as a family. When you are separated by an ocean and you start to change based on the country where you move to, you start to have different value systems and then what it means when you go back to your home country and you see the differences between you and that family that you left and you still love them, but you see the world in very different ways. And so I didn't want to tell a story where it was all about the wedding and the banquet and uh, the broad comedy of that or even, you know, it's a very high concept story and a lot of hilarity ensues.

Speaker 4: 04:36 But it was very important to me to portray a specific type of humor and not a kind of humor where you're making fun of people are laughing at the family, but we're, you really are sympathetic to what they're going through. Well, I really liked the way because once they get to to China, the couple that's getting married almost become like background elements, like scenes are happening in front of them while they getting these wedding pictures taken and you get this nice layer of things going on you, you kind of find humor in the way the Chinese, you know, by the way, the photographs are being set up in these kind of ridiculous settings, sometimes a forest, but then a very realistic scene happening in front of that. Absolutely. I think that's the brand of humor I was going for because you know, weddings in some way or another are a type of performance right? That we put on for our families, for our friends, and especially in China. That's the case. And at the same time that that performance is going on of, you know, the grammar herself putting on this show of a wedding, uh, because she's so proud. The rest of the family has putting on a different kind of performance. They're performing a wedding for grandma in order to hide the truth that she's dying. And I think the juxtaposition of those two things is what made it both poignant and funny. At the same time,

Speaker 1: 06:01 [inaudible] have to go to China. What he makes an excuse or keeping one case and only cousin to be there. You can hide you emotions if you go, neither were found out there right away, but huh.

Speaker 4: 06:14 Saga.

Speaker 2: 06:18 That silence hints at the difficulty Billy has in sticking to the lie the family is telling. I'll be right back after this short break to find out just how much filmmaker Lulu Wong put herself in. The character of Billy played by Aquafina.

Speaker 4: 06:36 The character that Aquafina plays is kind of an alter ego for you, I suppose you could say that. Yeah. And so were you born in China and then grew up mostly in the United States? I was, yeah. And one of the things that I thought was really effective was when Aquafina's character confronts her uncle, I believe about keeping the secret. Like shouldn't we tell her we, it's our duty to let her know what's happening. And he points out kind of the cultural differences. And can you talk a little bit about those kinds of cultural differences that you wanted to highlight? Yeah, I think there's a fundamental difference between eastern and Western culture. And I'm sure you can make a similar comparison with other cult many cultures that are non American on Western, where I think that in America we very much value the individual freedom truth, which all surround the values of foreign individual.

Speaker 4: 07:32 But in China, I won't speak for everybody else, but in China it's very much about the collective. It's about family, it's about society. And there's this notion of the things that we do to carry someone's burden for them, that it isn't up to them to decide how do I deal with this? And I must know so I can choose how to do it. Um, but there's uh, yeah, just a collective vision and that's what's so beautiful. But it also comes with its own challenges and pressures. Well, I liked the way he pointed out that if you tell her the truth, you kind of remove the burden from you and you put it on her and the, if you keep it the secret, then all of the family is the one that's kind of sharing this burden of her illness. Exactly. And here, you know, there's an expression like this is my truth and we love to say that in this country.

Speaker 4: 08:22 Right? Like the, you know, please hear my truth. And there they would just say, why is that so important? Your truth. What about the truth that's for the greater good. And I saw you speak at the screening from Pacific Arts last night and you talked about the changes you made from going from the story and this American life, which was the true story of what happened and then kind of adapting it to film and that you had a little more flexibility with the truth and the co the kind of the contrast between truth and, and um, and being true to the story as opposed to true to the facts. Right. Well, there's this, um, I think it's Mark Twain who said that the difference between fact and fiction is that fiction has to be credible. And I love that because it's so true. When I did this American life, I didn't have to worry about making the audience believe that what the story I was conveying was true.

Speaker 4: 09:18 But when you have actors and sets and you know, design and cameras, how do you convince people that what they're watching is true and that they can lose themselves in the story? Because the minute they start to question things is when you lose your audience. And so sometimes, yeah, it just means stretching things. We're changing things or you know, having an actor play the role in a way that may not be exactly true to the person, but it's true for the movie and works better for the movie. And also this American life apparently made you cheap. Very much to the truth. Yes. That too. You also talked about the fact that you shot this film partially near where your grandmother lives and that, did she ever suspect that what you were filming was about her in any way? Yes, absolutely. I think she started to understand that there was um, a character based on her and my parents told her and I asked them to please let her know because the actress wanted to go have breakfast with her.

Speaker 4: 10:30 And so it was going to be difficult to hide that there was this character that was based in her, but she didn't know and we certainly didn't tell her that it was all about her, that it was centered on her. Um, we just said it's a story about the family coming back and we're union. And so of course grandma's going to be a part of that. And so far you don't think she knows that it's about a lie that she didn't, the family's been telling me that. Yeah, I don't think so. But you know, it's hard for me to say and talk about the role Sundance played in getting this film made. Well, I was part of the film to pro initiative at Sundance. It's part of their labs. And I had gotten the script to a place where we were greenlit and we were getting ready to go to China to make it.

Speaker 4: 11:16 And what the film to lab allowed me to do was workshop the script one last time and really, um, investigate all of my choices and make sure I was going as deep as possible into character. And that was super beneficial. And they just continued to be a source of support throughout the process, whether it was, um, during production. And I had a question about how to communicate something on set between the producers and the rest of the team, or if it was during post production. And I want it to them to watch a cut of the film an earlier cut and give their feedback. Um, so it was just a really great guide to getting the finished finished film to the finish point. And I noticed that your previous feature posthumous, you had Brit Marling in it and she's a, an actress and filmmaker and writer that I really admire.

Speaker 4: 12:12 Did you learn anything from her or get any kind of, um, advice or pointers? Uh, well we, you know, we were both working together on that film. Uh, she was mainly an actor. I was writing and directing, but because of her background as a writer as well, it was very collaborative in how we approached the character. And it's the way I like to work organically. I love to involve the actor, I like to work with smart actors because I want to get their input to say, does this feel like something that you would say, does this feel true to you? And so through that experience, I think because it was my first film, I think I just got used to working with actors that way. And when I got to set on the farewell, I would often ask the actors, this is how you would say it, how would you change it?

Speaker 4: 12:58 And they were so shocked because not every director asks of that. And especially not in China, they very much stick to what's on the page. And um, and but you know, obviously once we started talking about it, they were like, well, I guess I would say it more colloquially like this. It gave it a much more authentic point of view. I had a chance to interview Brit Marling and one of the things she said that I, I really appreciated was, you know, she doesn't look for characters that are role models, but she looks for stories where the women are the catalysts for the, the film. So they can be flawed. But she wants to see the female character being the one that kind of drives the plot in some way, which I thought was a better way to look at how to get more female roles.

Speaker 4: 13:38 Absolutely. Yeah. Women, I think being telling stories from a woman's point of view, um, showing the multiple sides, you know, where she isn't a stock character that fits a sh this is the wife and this is a girlfriend, but showing like all of the different layers of complex emotion. That's what I wanted to do with Billy and what Nora Aquafina's real name. Um, what Nora and I talked about a lot where I said, you're not portraying me, you're not trying to mimic my behaviors. You are this character who is in this situation and on this journey and how would you approach it? You know? And I think the challenge for her is yes, I totally agree. We need a roles for women that are about agency and their, um, you know, driving the story and they're the catalyst. But part of the challenge for this story is the fact that, uh, Billy, the character, her action is to be inactive.

Speaker 4: 14:36 And that is the challenge for her is to actually not be a catalyst and to actually not do anything. Right. And so how do you make somebody the center of the story and driving the story forward when every scene is them fighting to not do something. And how did you get, because she does a really great job of kind of internalizing so much and there's a lot of scenes where she has no dialogue. We're just looking at her as she observes a scene taking place. So how do you direct someone like that? Well, I think Nora just brought so much of her own life experience to the role that there wasn't much directing to do. And I think that she understood the nature of the character, which is when you're caught between worlds, there are often things that you cannot say you cannot do, you know?

Speaker 4: 15:33 Um, you wouldn't even know how to start. And there are things that are untranslatable. And so that was why I cast her because she sent it in an audition tape and it was in the moments of silence that I saw how much she encaptured Billy the character. It was not in the moments where she was saying her lines and playing the role. It was when the person that was reading with her off camera would be reading the lines and she was listening and she was processing. And I just felt her presence in such a deep way that I took a screenshot of it and I said this is her. I sent it to my producers cause there's just so much emotion and complexity in all of the different things that are going through her head. And then the thing that comes out that she finally says is, okay, yeah I'll eat or pass the potatoes or whatever it might be.

Speaker 4: 16:26 You know, and it's not what she's actually feeling. And it's not just facial expressions. She also had, it's kind of her whole body into the performance in terms of just kind of like she feels, it looks like she's weighted down almost by something. Exactly. And I initially wanted to correct her posture all the time. My DP and I both were like, it's not, it doesn't look good. You know, it's not attractive. She's just hunched over and she has this um, Gremlin kind of look. And after the first couple of days I stopped correcting her. Cause I real, first of all, every time I would correct her, she would just go back into it. But then I realized that that was part of the character that she was crafting it. Cause in New York, she's not like that. She's confident she's moving through the city because she's in her own element.

Speaker 4: 17:13 But then in China she's weighed down by um, the pressures of the family, the society, the culture and everybody sort of analyzing her and watching her and telling her what to do and what not to do. So I think it really fit well and brought a great sense of comedy to her silhouette. And it's also the family points out. Like the reason they don't want her to come is like, you can't hide anything. You know, your faith, your body, everything shows that you know, you're feeling something and that's not what we want grandma to see. Exactly. Exactly. That's a very American thing, to just be expressive and Cathartic. And, um, and so I think that's also why she closes in on herself is because if you can't be yourself, then you just kind of hole up and try to do not do anything. So you shot in the u s and in China.

Speaker 4: 18:08 What are the challenges of kind of having a crew that needs to work in two different cultures and it's not just two different cultures in terms of the, you know, general society, but also two different cultures of how you make movies also. So what was that like? It was definitely challenging because I'm not as familiar with China and the culture anymore as told by the story. Uh, but I understand it a little bit better than my producers who have never been to China. Right. And so we tried to navigate not only, you know, two different cultures, but navigating to different languages. I would sometimes be directing a Aquafina and tie ma in English, but then I have to switch over to Chinese for the rest of the cast. And sometimes I would get confused and start speaking Chinese to my American actors and vice versa.

Speaker 4: 19:00 And I was always trying to also bridge a cultural differences by explaining to the producers, oh, I understand why the crew is acting this way, because in this culture, this is how they see hierarchy on a film set or different roles on a film set. And so, uh, for example, my production designer was really tough on her crew and she was something that time is very demanding. And the American producers weren't used to that because they were like, you can't, you can't say those things. You know? And I was like, well, she can, it's, it's Asia, that's how people communicate. And that's also a sign of love. Like my mother talks to me that way and it makes me want to be better. And if you talk to her, you know, the crew and the art department, they were crying not because they got yelled at or anything like that, but it's because they know that they're expected to be better and they're disappointed in themselves.

Speaker 4: 19:57 And so they just work so hard. And that was also really wonderful to see. And you know, it was just such a family to unite these two aspects of my life and the two different worlds. And uh, ultimately I think everybody learned a lot. I noticed that you have one short film touch that also deals with kind of um, cultural differences and kind of exploring that. But your, your future film posthumous wasn't really about being Chinese or Asian American. So are you looking to make films where you can move kind of back and forth between things that are very personal and also do kind of broader stories. And so you don't get typecast as a director? Uh, I don't think it's about typecasting for me it's that, uh, my ethnicity, my, my ethnicity, my race, my identity is one part of my voice as a filmmaker.

Speaker 4: 20:55 And there are many, many other parts of my identity that play a role in the type of stories that I want to tell. I'm a daughter, you know, I'm sister. Um, I have relationships, I have friendships. And so while it's important for me to make sure that I'm always representing, um, the different types of people that are in my life and that are in America on screen, it's also, you know, I want to just tell all different kinds of stories that are not always about my racial identity, because I do think that can be very limiting. And we don't say that to men, right? That you only tell male stories or you can only tell stories about being white. And so I think that's, I hope that's, um, a way to like expand. Um, and, and not so much for an audience, but just as a way for me to tell the stories that are most personal to me.

Speaker 4: 21:55 You mentioned how Sundance helped you with this particular film. Did you also go to film school? I didn't go to film school, no. So, uh, that was one of the reasons why posthumous was so important for me because in a way, that was my film school. Somebody gave me the opportunity to make a feature film when I had no experience with even shorts before that. So how did that happen? Uh, well, I was interning for a producer and there was this other woman who was also interning for this producer. And we met, she needed to go to Ikea one day. I happened to love Ikea. I will drive to Ikea any day to eat those Swedish meatballs. So I've, you know, offered to drive her to Ikea. And on the way there, she told me about how she left a big marketing job in, um, Switzerland and wanted to produce movies in America.

Speaker 4: 22:44 And by the time we were coming back, at the end of the day, we decided to partner and start a company. And we started out making a couple short, um, like music videos and commercials spots. And then a year later just decided, let's just go for it. Let's go make this movie. And so she produced it and financed it. I wrote a directed, neither one of us had made a film and neither one of us knew anyone in the industry really. So it was just a very sort of naive venture. And I think our naivete helped us a lot. So who would've thought a Q would lead to? A, I, you know what I'm saying? Yes to things I think in life. And how do you feel enough, the film is finished. What do you feel most proud of or most what's most rewarding about this? I think what's rewarding is to see how many people are resonating with the story, both from a story perspective, right.

Speaker 4: 23:39 It, you know, reminds them of their own grandmother no matter what culture they're from, their own grandparent, their own family. And I think it's also rewarding to see it from a representation perspective that so many young filmmakers, so many Asian women come up to me in tears because they've never seen themselves represented on screen or behind camera. And, and, and I think if I can inspire them and their families to let them do what I do, that's really meaningful because I didn't have a lot of those examples when I was growing up. And so for my parents, they were terrified when I said I wanted to go into film. They wanted to support me, but because they didn't see many examples, um, it, they just had a lot of fear about whether or not I could actually do it. And we had one example, which was ang Lee.

Speaker 4: 24:34 And I remember my mother saying when I was, um, you know, having a really hard time, she said, well, and Lee didn't make his first feature until he was in his mid thirties and you already made your first future in your 20s. And I really think that if he can do it, you can do it too. And so for her, that was the one bit of light in an industry that was completely foreign to her. And so I think if I can be that source of light for, you know, these filmmakers and their families to say, if I can do it, they can do it too. And since you didn't go to film school, do you look to any films or filmmakers as, uh, something that inspires you or influence you or that you felt you got an education by watching those films or exploring those filmmakers?

Speaker 4: 25:21 Always. And I'm still learning. You know, I took a world cinema class, uh, as an elective in college and I saw a lot of Asian films and African films and Iranian films. Uh, that was really inspirational just to see different types of films and perspectives from around the world. And even now, I am still constantly looking for new filmmakers and trying to watch, um, bodies of work by a single Altura filmmakers. And for the farewell, I was really looking at one of my favorite filmmakers, which is Mike Lee for the way that he explores family dynamics and the way that he brings humor into even the most dramatic circumstances. Um, I also looked at Scandinavian filmmakers like Ruben Osland and, uh, Lucas Moody Sin. And so, yeah, I draw inspiration from everywhere, including from films that I don't watch because they terrify me like horror films and thrillers. I'm, you know, I get really scared, uh, very easily.

Speaker 4: 26:25 So I tend not to want to watch this film, but I did watch a few because the farewell in a way, there's a monster in the room. And so I wanted to figure out how horror films brought that tone and atmosphere. When something's in the room, you can't see it and you can't talk about or you don't talk about it and yet you feel it. And so I looked at that for like camera movements and things like that. Are you're talking about that it's kind of a, it reminds me of the Baba Duke for what you have something. Exactly. Yeah. Peer that won't go away. Do you have another project plan? I do. I'm working on a very grounded Saifai project. Um, so that's exciting because I get to explore a new genre and hopefully also, um, defy the genre because for me it's not really about the genre and the technology, but it's about, um, you know, humans and relationships and what it means to be human. So we'll see. All right, well that sounds great. Thank you very much for taking some time to talk to me. Thank you very much.

Speaker 3: 27:45 [inaudible]

Speaker 2: 27:45 that was writer, director, Lulu Wong for film. The farewell played earlier this year at Sundance and now opens in theaters. Cinema Junkie comes out every other Friday and it's available wherever you find your favorite podcast. If you enjoy what you hear, please leave a review on iTunes or recommend it to a friend. Your word of mouth is the best way to get the show to new listeners coming up on future episodes of cinema junky. We'll be interviews with filmmaker Ari Astor, who's mid summer just opened and with director Gavin Hood, who's official secrets opens later this summer until our next film fixed on Beth AHCA. Mondo, your residence cinema

Speaker 3: 28:29 [inaudible].

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