'The Farewell' Director Lulu Wang on the Long Journey to Make Her Very Personal Film [Interview]

One of the most talked about and critically acclaimed films at this year’s Sundance Film Festival (and frequent Audience Award winner at several film festivals since January) is writer/director Lulu Wang’s sophomore feature The Farewell, with Awkwafina in her first starring role.

Based on an incident in her own family (the movie opens with the title care “Based on an actual lie”), The Farewell concerns a Chinese family who discovers that the matriarch, Nai Nai (Zhao Shuzhen), has terminal cancer and on a few months left to live. In keeping with a Chinese tradition, her family opts not to tell her of the seriousness of her illness, and instead arranges to have most of the extended family members come visit her to say their goodbyes under the guise of a rushed wedding. Awkwafina plays Billi, who moved to America with her parents (Diana Lin and Tzi Ma) when she was very young and thinks keeping the truth from Nai Nai is a mistake, so everyone suggests she not come to visit, lest she spill the beans on the big secret. But she does make the trip, and the film follows Billi’s journey back to the land of her birth, where she can toe the family line or bring her modern, Western sensibilities to the situation.

It’s a remarkable, sometimes very funny, always highly emotional work that is sure to make a great number best-of-the-year lists in 2019 thanks to exceptional performances by both seasoned actors and Wang’s own family members. /Film spoke with Wang recently in Chicago (where The Farewell played to a sold-out crowd at the Chicago Critics Film Festival) to discuss the real-life inspiration behind her film and the importance of using first-time actors in such an emotionally volatile film. The Farewell has a limited release on Friday, July 12, and expands nationwide throughout July.

We played a film at this festival last year called Searching, and I noticed the filmmakers thanked you in the credits. What’s the connection?

Lulu: That’s so funny, I just saw Aneesh [Chaganty, director/co-writer] the other day. I’ve been really good friends with Aneesh and Sev [Ohanian, co-writer/producer) for a long time, and I went to a couple of the early screenings when they were looking for notes and feedback, and I gave them a lot of feedback.

The thing I couldn’t stop thinking about watching The Farewell was that since it’s apparently a common practice to lie to someone about their health, was it possible your grandmother might have figured out that this wedding was a pretense? In real life, was there ever a concern that might happen?

Lulu: On my part, yes. I thought that this was going to go very badly. But if I asked my great aunt, who plays herself in the movie actually, “At any point, did you think someone would give it up, or that I would show up and somehow give up this news and she would find out?” She’s like “No, I had no worries about that. Everyone agreed.” And I was like “What about me? Because I’m the Westerner and thought this whole thing was wrong?” “I wasn’t worried about it. Your mother might have been worried about it. I let your mother worry about you, so I didn’t worry about it.” In a way, there’s so much respect in a family, that she didn’t think anybody would turn against it.

And now that the whole world is going to know this story, are you a little bit more worried? Or does your grandmother live a fairly isolated life?

Lulu: She’s fairly isolated. I’m a little nervous about it. I’m in contact with Little Nai Nai [her aunt, Hong Lu, who plays herself in the film] all the time. I let her know ahead of time “Things are going to come out. We’re going to screen in China soon, so there might be news about this.” I  just let her decide how best to deal with it. It’s a moving train that no one can get off of at this point, and my grandmother is getting older and not doing well. To some degree, even if she already knew or found out, she would not ever confront me about it; she would lie to protect me.

How did this story make it to NPR’s This American Life? Because it was after that aired that things really took off toward getting a film made.

Lulu: I knew I wanted to make it as a film from the very beginning and started writing it and pitching it around town. At that point, everyone was skeptical I could get it made. I had a few meetings with Chinese producers for the Chinese market, but they wanted to make it broad, and it wouldn’t have been the film I wanted to make, so I set it aside. I thought that if I couldn’t make it the way I wanted to make it, I didn’t want to make it at all, and I went on to make other projects. Then I met a producer from This American Life, who saw this short film of mine—not related to this story—and he said, “I love your voice. Do you have other stories I want to tell?” And I said, “Well, actually, there’s this movie I’ve been wanting to make and I don’t think anybody wants to make it, but I wrote it as a short story. Do you want to take a look?” So I sent it over, and they immediately wanted to do it. 

It was just such a wonderful experience. When I sat down with Ira Glass and the whole team, they were like “Tell us more. How did that make you feel? Go into more detail.” It was coming from such an investigative, curious place of questioning, and we made the story in a month or two, between writing and recording it. And once it aired, within 48 hours, I was getting calls from producers wanting to make it into a film.

Ira sometimes gets involving in film production. Was there any discussion of him coming on board in that respect for this?

Lulu: He knew that I was a filmmaker, so I retained the film rights for it. And I don’t think he loves doing that, although I shouldn’t speak for him. But it is something of a side job for him. It’s hard to make a movie, and it takes you away from everything because you have to be on set, and it takes so much longer. In the time it takes us to tell one story, he tells hundreds of stories. For a moment, when I did the radio story, I got really emotional and said “I think I picked the wrong medium; I don’t think I should be a filmmaker,” because I’d had such a pure experience working on This American Life, and I had never had that experience working on films and thought I would never be able to. Why am I ever in the film business? 

It takes so much money to make the story, and it’s so much about the marketplace; it’s too much risk, but you have to take the risk to tell these stories that people aren’t used to from different cultures. And if people just want to do the same thing over and over again, and they want to cast in a way that they’ve seen in the past, then I don’t think I’m in the right business. But in radio, they would tell three or four amazing stories in one week. So I thought about leaving, but then the producers started calling to make this film, and I got to interview producers for the first time. Before I was knocking on doors wondering who was going to listen to me, and now all of these people wanted to make the movie, and I got to say “How do you envision it?” Ultimately, I got to pick the people who wanted to defend my vision.

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