On May 21, The Chicago Maroon had the opportunity to sit down and talk with Lulu Wang, writer-director of the critically-acclaimed film The Farewell, which hit theaters on Friday, July 19. The interview was conducted jointly with DePaul University radio host John Cotter. We talked to Wang about how she found the film’s delicate balance between humor and drama, her personal experiences which inspired the story, the film’s themes of cultural understanding and acceptance of family, and how she felt about the great reception the film is getting.
Chicago Maroon: I really liked the movie, it was great. It’s getting a great reception. I think one of the reasons people are connecting to it is that it comes through in the script that this is a personal story for you. When did you realize that this experience you had with your grandmother was something you could build a story around that would connect with people?
Lulu Wang: When this thing with my grandmother was happening to me, I was in post-production on my first feature film, which is a screwball romantic comedy. I’ve always had an affinity for screwballs, and I realized why when this happened, because this is a real screwball setup in real life. I knew right away that it was something I wanted to explore because it had an intersection of grief and humor, and the conceit allowed me to explore the proximity of both things.
CM: You did find a really good balance of grief and comedy in the script. What was your process for finding that balance?
LW: My approach to it was that I never directed the actors like they were in a comedy, they never knew it was supposed to be funny. It kept their performances really grounded. I found the comedy more through the framing and composition, and what else was happening in the background of the scene, and sometimes even the music. For me humor is found is context and juxtaposition. When very different things are happening side-by-side that can create comedy because of how dramatic one thing is and how not dramatic the other thing is.
John Cotter: Jumping off of that…you seemed to approach the writing as a drama and the comedy comes from the situations themselves and their context. Are there any inspirations that you took from other directors that approach comedy in a very subtle way like that?
LW: Yeah, one of my favorite directors is Mike Leigh and, you know, he has a very wry, dark sense of humor. In Secrets and Lies, for example, there’s so much familiarity between the family. Something dramatic is happening in the foreground and something comical is happening in the background. He uses these wonderful frames and just lets the action fill the frame with no editing. He obviously does a lot of family dramas which have a lot of humor in them, so I definitely took a lot of inspiration from him. Ruben Östlund and Lukas Moodysson, too. A lot of these Scandinavian filmmakers also do family comedy that’s different from American broad comedy. I think Ruben Östlund actually calls his film Force Majeure a family-thriller, in the sense that he approaches it as a thriller in that the emotions shared between the people in the movie can be intense and explosive, so it almost feels like a thriller when you’re experiencing it.
CM: Were you ever afraid that audiences might react negatively to this film’s nuanced take on Chinese cultural norms that they might not be familiar with? Specifically, on the topic of not telling an elderly person about their own terminal diagnosis, I’m sure many audience members agree with Billi’s more hesitant take. To what extent do Billi’s views mirror your own at the time?
LW: I think the journey is a very American one for Billi and myself, because I’m American. I grew up in the States, and Billi is a representation of that. I knew that her outrage would be very relatable to a Western audience, but whether or not it would be relatable to a Chinese audience is a different story. Obviously, they’re more used to that practice. I felt that Billi was really our guide and entryway into the story because she’s navigating all of the same questions that an American audience would probably be having.
JC: You’ve brought up earlier that this is based on a segment you did for the podcast This American Life. How did you approach telling this story visually as opposed to just through audio?
LW: Well, I always wanted to make it as a film. When I was approached by This American Life to do the segment, what I loved about their approach was that it was very investigative, very curious. They just kept saying “How does that make you feel?” I think a lot of times when you’re developing things as a screenplay, there’s a tendency to dramatize it—here’s the midpoint, here’s the low point, here’s the climax. You have these expected dramatic markers of a screenplay. By doing a radio story, it allowed me to focus more on mood, tone, atmosphere, and character. I focused on really placing the character in the center of a moment and just really understanding how that felt. Translating it into film, I knew I had to find a way to visualize that. You can say in a story, “I felt really tense.” But what does that look like on screen when you don’t have a narrator telling you that? So that was really the challenge, trying to find an elevated approach to visualizing the tension.
CM: In visualizing that tension, obviously a lot of the work comes down to having great actors that can do that really well. How did you go about finding the right cast for the film?
LW: I think I was just looking for authenticity. I tried to cast people that related very much to the characters that they were playing. After I found that, I really didn’t have to do much. Zhao, who plays Nai Nai, is a grandma herself. Awkafina herself has a Chinese grandmother that she’s really close to. So, you put them in a scene together and they immediately transport to, “This is my grandmother” and “This is my granddaughter.” It wasn’t like I had to do much to get them to understand each other better. They didn’t always speak the same language, but that’s also part of the reality of the characters and my life. It wasn’t always about understanding each other in a literal way, it was more about doing it through the love that was expressed.
JC: So, I actually read an article this morning from the L.A. Times that said you are winning the Sundance Vanguard Award. What does it feel like to be part of the group of legendary directors who have won the same award at some point in their careers?
LW: It’s such an honor, because all the directors who have won the Vanguard Award have been so influential and have given me the courage to find my own voice after I saw that they were paving their own path. This being my second feature film, I took a lot more risks because I started to understand what I needed to do as a filmmaker, so I fought for things that I wouldn’t necessarily have had the confidence to fight for if this was my first film. As a first-time director, other people might not have full confidence in you and then that translates to, “Well, it is my first film, so they probably know better.” Once I had done my first feature, I thought, “Now I can do my own movie.” It’s really meaningful to be rewarded for that. And not just for me, but to show other artists that it does pay off to fight for your own vision.
CM: In regards to fighting for a vision, there’s obviously recently been a wave of high-profile representations of diverse groups of people in film. How does it feel to be part of this new wave in filmmaking?
LW: It’s obviously a huge honor and a huge responsibility to represent a community. What I would want is that we get to a point where people aren’t looking at it as “You’re African-American. You’re Asian-American. You’re Hispanic-American.” Because, really, we’re all American and maybe what we need to look at is the fact that “American” already includes those identities. Being American, it means we’re all from somewhere else and we bring those perspectives to our American-ness. I think that attitude will create an even bigger wave of more filmmakers that come from different backgrounds as a way to properly represent what this country actually is and should be.
JC: One of the things that really struck me in the film is the very mutual understanding in the family that they would not tell Nai Nai about her illness, because it is their job to bear that burden for her. Do you think that idea of bearing a burden for your family is a cultural phenomenon, or is it innate to all families and that is why this story has been so impactful to so many people?
LW: It might be to a lot of families, it’s hard for me to speak for every other family. I think there is a cultural element because a lot of older cultures, not just Asian, value collectivism over individuality. Just the value of sharing responsibility for someone else’s life is very un-American. We sort of believe that everybody is in it for themselves and you have to find your own independence and freedom and truth. We have the phrase, “This is MY truth.” In a lot of other cultures, that would be a very selfish thing to say! [laughs] Like, why is it so important that you speak your own truth? How does that benefit the world? So, it’s complicated, because by making this movie I’m speaking the truth from my perspective, but I also wanted to respect the perspective of everyone else in the family.
CM: So, with these nuanced perspectives, what would you say you want people to take away from the movie?
LW: We’re living in such polarized times right now that even people that were born in America, with their entire family in the same city, will grow up to have views that are very different from the rest of their family. I’ve seen those differing viewpoints create divides in the closest of families. So, I hope people walk away from the movie with a sense of grace, thinking that you can love somebody and have a different opinion. It’s not your job to change their mind, and it’s not their job to change yours. There is value in having a fruitful discussion and really trying to understand where the other person is coming from, as well as in learning to just accept them for who they are. So yeah, grace and acceptance are the biggest takeaways I hope people have when they walk out of the theater.
JC: Talking a little more about the slow-motion tracking shot of the whole family walking together. For me, that was the perfect visual anecdotal moment for the family coming together. Did it feel surreal to shoot such an impactful and effective moment?
LW: I had that scene in mind since very early on, because I wanted to represent them coming together in a very visual way. One option to do that is have a scene where they all verbally agree and come together, which almost never happens in real life. So, I chose to make a very surreal moment that mirrors Billi’s feelings. When she joins the family, it’s an epic moment in her head that in real life would not be very dramatic. We need to create that drama within ourselves. Have you ever walked down the street listening to music and you’re just like “I’m in a music video! I’m awesome”?
JC: That’s every day for me. [laughs]
LW: [laughs] People around you might just be like “What’s going on?” or just not notice at all. So, that slow-motion scene was like an exaggerated music video moment for me.
CM: Another sequence that really resonated with me was the one of Billi in the car at the end of the movie. I was definitely crying. [laughs] When she says goodbye to Nai Nai, not sure if she’ll ever see her again, it feels very real.... How did you make the decision to end the movie on a somber note like that?
LW: Well, that’s ultimately what the movie is about, right? It’s a movie about how to say goodbye. Billi’s constant worrying about whether or not she’s doing things the right way is a way to delay the inevitable. As humans, we try to control things, organize them in neat boxes to make sense of them. But all of that is really just a way to distract ourselves from the things we can’t control. So, the question of how to say goodbye was the driving force of the narrative, so I knew that the climax was really getting to the moment where she has to do it. In many ways, they do it without doing it. Nai Nai is really bad at goodbyes, so she kind of just tells Billi, “Get in the fucking car.” Well, she doesn’t actually say “fucking,” but you know what I mean.
JC: Okay, I just have one more quick question. Any work coming up you’re excited about?
LW: Yeah, I won’t talk too much about it, but I’m really excited about a grounded sci-fi story I’m working on. I’m excited by that because, while I really like high-concepts like The Farewell, I’m excited to exercise something new by doing something I’ve never done before.