This time last year, Lulu Wang’s $3 million film, The Farewell, was prepared to make its debut at the Sundance Film Festival. Earlier this month, Awkwafina, who plays the film’s first generation Chinese-American protagonist, Billi, went home with a Golden Globe for Best Actress in a Musical/Comedy. From festival favorite to specialty box office hit to awards contender, Wang’s second feature will go down as one of the small movie success stories of 2019. An earnest tragicomedy about a family’s efforts to keep their matriarch in the dark about her terminal cancer diagnosis, the film centers Awkwafina’s Billi as she grapples with her family’s decision and struggles to make sense of her own identity in a place she once called home turned unfamiliar. Set primarily in Changchun, a northeastern city in China, and featuring a cast of all Chinese and Chinese-American actors, The Farewell understands the complex, often bitter language of love spoken by families otherwise disconnected by distance, culture, and time.
We spoke to the director in reflection on her breakout year, her self-realization as a filmmaker, cinematic influences, and the tensions within her family that come to bear in the script.
NOTEBOOK: It’s coming up on a year since The Farewell’s premiere. What’s it been like for you going from the Sundance reception up to this point, being a part of a larger national awards conversation?
LULU WANG: It’s definitely bigger than I ever imagined. We’re a three million dollar film that’s set in China, subtitled, and 75% in Mandarin. There’s Awkwafina, who’s become a big star but that wasn’t the case when we cast her, which was before she had done Crazy Rich Asians or Ocean’s 8. The way we made the film was scrappy. There was a lot of risk involved.
It’s surreal and exhausting to be where we are now, because it takes a lot of work to promote a smaller film like ours. It’s like a grassroots approach where I’d go from city to city doing screenings and Q&A’s. Every step of the way we’ve been saying, “oh it’s almost over, we only have to do this until the film is released.” But then the film was released and we continued to be part of the conversation. It’s a wonderful problem to have. But compared to other films that come out in the fall that have much shorter [publicity tour] periods, well we’ve been doing this since January .
NOTEBOOK: Right, and oftentimes the names that are a part of these conversations are Hollywood staples.
WANG: We’re in category and conversation with Scorsese and Sam Mendes. It’s wild, but it’s sort of about perspective.
NOTEBOOK: We know a lot about those filmmakers, they’ve been part of the “conversation” for decades. So I’m wondering what your personal journey was like. Were you always interested in making films?
WANG: Growing up, film was not something that was in my wheelhouse. I never thought about filmmaking the way I thought about becoming a journalist or a musician. I was a classically trained pianist so I understood there were jobs for musicians as performers or composers but for whatever reason I never really thought about film because it felt so far away, and because I hadn’t seen anyone that looked like me work as a filmmaker. So I didn’t discover it until college, where I fell in love with the process. I happened to take a Film 101 class where we were given Super 8 cameras, and I was also taking a photography class at the time. I had written throughout my entire life and I always wanted to be a writer, but at the same time I was still doing music, and graduated with a music major. My mother called me a dilettante because I was doing so many things but couldn’t commit to one, until I did.
I felt that writing and music were very solitary mediums, so when I took that film class I got to write, but then I also got to work with my friends. Seeing the individual frames and having that visceral feeling of having the story in your hands and being able to put music and sound to it, you know, that’s what made me fall in love with film. Also the collaborative process, of being able to work with other people, shooting and editing the film. Every step of the process is a retelling or redefinition of the story, and you rewrite the story with each step. So all these layers—the performances, the editing—can change the story and take it in a completely different direction. That’s exciting.
NOTEBOOK: Hearing about your mom’s early criticism reminds me of my family experience. Coming from an immigrant family—and I hear this a lot from other immigrant artists and writers—the idea of pursuing a career in the arts is risky. Was there tension along these lines in your family?
WANG: Definitely. I mentioned before my mom would call me a dilettante. But I told her, “well now I’m choosing film.” It was incredibly scary for my parents because I got into law school and turned down law school to become a filmmaker. They were afraid it was an impulsive decision because it was something I discovered so late as a senior in college. And I didn’t really have any prospects ahead of me. Basically I was turning down law school to work at a coffee shop while I figured things out. Coming from an immigrant family, I do think that fear is a major factor on why it’s harder psychologically for us to be in this industry, because I often felt responsible for the fear I was causing my family with my life choices.
It wasn’t just about my own fear, but sort of this relationship where every time I felt fearful I’d tell my parents, and it would trigger their fears, and then trigger me again. So they weren’t really a source of comfort. The fear would just turn into a massive fight and it had me wondering if any of this was worth it. It’s especially the case because it’s a world they're unfamiliar with. They’ve met writers, musicians, journalists, but they’ve never met a film director. To them it seems very elitist and an exclusive industry that’s not part of the real world. My dad would always joke and ask me, “are you Hollywood now?” What does that mean? It was a joke but for him it was also difficult, because he imagined there to be a separation between real people and Hollywood, meaning there was no way I could ever break the glass ceiling, especially in America.
NOTEBOOK: Historically Hollywood has been pretty dismal about diversifying the types of people whose stories it decides to tell, as well as the types of storytellers. But things don’t look as bleak as they used to. There was a 25-year gap between Joy Luck Club and Crazy Rich Asians, but whereas Joy Luck Club was like a one-hit wonder, the success of something like Crazy Rich Asians and The Farewell seem to mark an actual change. What do you make of this more welcoming environment and what do you find are the reasons for it?
WANG: I see this movement right now in a different way than the 90s, because I think that this generation has a new perspective of what American cinema looks like. It’s not just about African American cinema or Asian American cinema because we can only do that for so long. That’s what keeps us down. There can’t just be the one Asian American film that’s elevated as the example of why Hollywood’s not racist. It’s not about the one movie or separate movies. It’s not about creating the hyphenate for everyone except white people.
NOTEBOOK: For me, one of the most resonant aspects of the film was this sense of fractured identity that Billi experiences, of being Chinese but not fully belonging in China. Could you speak to that in terms of your own experiences and fleshing out Billi’s character?
WANG: I thought about that a lot, because there’s not much time we spend with Billi in America. I wanted to approach this a little differently in the sense that I didn’t want to tell the story of an Asian person who felt they didn’t belong in America. She feels like she does belong, maybe it’s other people who have judgments about her American-ness, that look at her and make assumptions. But America is home for her. That’s part of the reason I cast Awkwafina, because she’s a New Yorker through and through. Her sense of humor, her way of being is American. So it was important for me, through the camerawork, that she feels very fluid in New York when she’s walking through the streets. She’s talking on the phone in Chinese but she’s also cracking jokes on the street with the canvassar in English. And none of this is strange for her. She’s very much in her element because she’s juggled both all her life. It’s when she goes to China that she is actually out of place. But that also doesn’t make sense. When we think about Asian-American stories, there’s always a bit of an identity crisis, a separation. That’s one of the reasons I chose to include the birthday party scene in Brooklyn. She’s not fully there because she’s thinking about her grandmother. At the same time, if it weren’t for her grandmother, she wouldn’t be at this birthday party with all these different people.
NOTEBOOK: I noticed some parallels with other Chinese and Taiwanese films along these lines, the family reunions and conflicts, but also the centrality of the lie in something like Ang Lee’s The Wedding Party. But also I find that what the artist ultimately turns to for inspiration is usually unexpected, so I’m wondering what cinematic references you had in mind throughout?
WANG: I didn’t think to look to Asian cinema or even Asian American cinema as a reference point because so much is inherently familiar to me. I know those movies all so well that I didn’t want to replicate that. My experience was also very different than someone like Ang [Lee] and his story. He came to America when he was in his 20s, so he’s much more connected to Chinese and Taiwanese culture, whereas someone like me or Billi, millenials who came here at a young age—it’s a completely different world. The way we look at our Asian identity and our Asian American identity is very different. At the same time, I know those movies so well and they’re part of my DNA when I create.
What was important for me was actually finding the tone of the movie and figuring out how to balance the comedy that I wanted with the drama of the situation. A lot of my references were British or Scandivanian, because I really resonate with that kind of dark sense of humor, and I knew the comedy was not going to be bright, but dry, which is also something that I wanted reflected in the way we shot the film. So Force Majeure was probably the largest reference in terms of looking at a story about a small family with a drama that, I think, feels proportional. Everything is motivated by this small, emotional tension. And that’s it, that’s the entire driving force. It’s small in terms of plot, but it’s huge in terms of how characters respond to it. And so the question was how do you sustain that? How do you take on tension and sustain an entire movie with it? So once I started looking at the film that way, as not actually about plot and things happening, the process changed. It’s not even about, you know, the secret being revealed and having a catharsis over that revelation, which is a more traditional way of looking at secrets and lies—waiting for the moment that it's revealed. Instead, it’s about the lie being a monster, so I referenced a lot of horror films for that dimension. You know, looking at how horror films create tension and dread. It’s kind of like all these recent films about a monster that will appear if you make any noise.
NOTEBOOK: A Quiet Place?
WANG: Yeah, and the means of survival is about not allowing for that monster to appear, trying to avoid its appearance by being as sneaky and quiet as possible.