Think of the most devasting experience in your life. Remember how incredibly personal it feels and how you think that this experience is unique only to you. Now realize that when sharing your experience, you will always find people who will understand it, even if they’ve never gone through anything like that before in their entire lives. That is the power of Lulu Wang’s The Farewell.
All it takes is a little empathy, a skilled storyteller, and a group of talented people to bring the story to life. Wang has all of this and more in her autobiographical film. Lulu Wang talks with us about the difficulty of belonging to two different cultures, casting Awkwafina, returning to China for the filming of The Farewell, and more.
The Farewell is deeply moving, but it is also extremely personal since it is based on your real life and family. Were you ever scared that it wouldn’t resonate with audiences?
Lulu Wang: Yeah, of course. I think that’s always the risk you take when you make something so specific to your own experience. It’s so specific and based on your own feelings that you don’t know if anyone else is going to understand. I think that’s also what makes the film work. It proved to me that specificity can be universal. In fact, stories are universal because of their specificity, not in spite of them.
Did making the film provide any catharsis or reassurance that not telling your grandmother about her terminal illness was the right choice?
LW: I wouldn’t say the movie added any reassurance about the decision that was made. It was only cathartic for me because going through the experience at the time, I was the sole Westerner in my family there. I’ve often felt isolated and alone in my point of view with the rest of my family on the other side. My parents were the closest thing in perspective because they lived in America, so they would try to talk me through it but it wasn’t the same, as say, having America colleagues. So when I started making the movie, I brought all of my American colleagues back to China, and it was cathartic for me because everyone from my team saw it from my point of view and they supported it. That allowed me to feel like I wasn’t crazy because going through the experience I did feel that way. That’s kind of what art is for, to explore these experiences and questions and feelings, with the added validation that you’re not crazy for feeling this way.
How did it feel going back to China when making the film?
LW: It was really beautiful because I got to revisit my other side. As an immigrant, there’s always two sides of you; there’s the side of you that was the child with the family in China, and then there’s the adult side of you with your life in America. I never liked those divisions because I’ve always felt that there is only one me, no matter which world I was in. It was so beautiful to bridge those two worlds together and even bridge together the different people in my life and put them all in one place to create something that’s in my voice. My parents came and my family in China would often visit set and we even had a party before the production to celebrate the start of production. My family was there and my colleagues were there, and we all see things from a different perspective but everybody was there for the same reason, and that was incredibly beautiful.
Did living in America change the way you experienced things when you went back?
LW: Absolutely. I never really lived in China as a person because I was 6 years old when I left, so I don’t know how I would see things if I had grown up there, but I’m sure living in America has changed it. I’ve talked to many other young Chinese people who see both sides because they’ve had international influence, where they’ve either lived or gone to school abroad, or have lived in Beijing or Shanghai where there’s more of an international community with more Western influence. They understand the family more and they understand the culture in a deeper way, so they can see how doing something like this isn’t crazy or have even seen it done in other families.
Coming from a family of immigrants, I love that the film touched on the idea that our Western mentality makes us sort of selfish when it comes to our families. I hadn’t thought about this until I saw the film, but it does make sense that telling her the truth is a bit selfish because it would have relieved our guilt rather than help the grandmother in any way.
LW: I think there’s so much emphasis in American culture about our truth and catharsis. Those are the values that we seek, and at any expense, I’m going to express my truth. I kind of hate the phrase “my truth” because it is selfish. It doesn’t end up being about communicating or trying to create a greater understanding with somebody else. It just ends up being very individual-oriented.
Before this film, I had only known Awkwafina as a rapper and comedian, but never in a dramatic role. After seeing this film, I can’t imagine any other person in the role. How did you know that she would be perfect for it?
LW: She wasn’t the most obvious choice in the beginning because, similarly, I had never seen her in a dramatic role. This was even before Crazy Rich Asians and Oceans 8. I only knew of her from her music videos, so I say to my producers, “Uh, the girl who did ‘My Vag’? That’s who you want to play me? I’m confused, how do you see me exactly?” She sent in this tape and I watched her inhabit the role so well. It wasn’t even about what she said or the way she delivered the lines, but the moments when she was waiting and listening as the person off-camera was delivering the lines. You could tell she was so present and really embodied the character in every aspect because she feels quintessentially American and somewhat out of place with the rest of her family. That was a tough thing to do because if you hire an actor that feels like they can easily belong in either culture, you lose this sort of fish-out-of-water element that the character really needs. She was able to capture all of this and you could tell that the story was also so personal to her.
Whether we acknowledge it or not, America is starved for diverse stories from different cultures, especially from women of color. Do you think you would have been able to make this film five years ago?
LW: I don’t think I would have been able to make this film five years ago because regardless of the climate, I wouldn’t have been able to as a filmmaker. I don’t think I was mature enough yet, and I definitely wouldn’t have been able to do it as my first feature film because I wouldn’t have had the confidence to fight for all the things I needed to fight for. Both in terms of the authenticity of story and casting, but also in terms of creativity and the way I wanted to shoot it. Climate-wise, we did start working on this film before Crazy Rich Asians, so it’s not like my producers saw it and were like, “Let’s make an Asian movie!” Although, I do feel like that sort of thing does happen. When Twilight did well, suddenly everyone wanted to do vampire movies. Now with the success of Crazy Rich Asians, everyone’s like, “Asians are cool!” I hope that’s not really the case because that’s not the right way to look at it. We’re not this trend. Instead, it should be about finding filmmakers and voices from diverse backgrounds so that they can put stories out that actually represent what this country is and the real people that live in it.
What are some of the things you had to fight for?
LW: When I first wrote the script, there were a lot of eating scenes in the movie. That’s the reality of it, but one of the notes I kept getting was that there was a lot of food in the film and that it was very repetitive. I didn’t see a problem with it because it felt accurate, but they wanted me to cut some of that out. I said no. In fact, the food and the amount of eating is a source of tension throughout the movie because one of the first things you lose when you’re upset is your appetite. Yet, the thing that makes your grandmother the happiest is that you eat. I knew the intersection of those two things would be a great source of drama, so I fought for that. I also fought for the desire to make the mom a little bit more understanding by the end of the film. You don’t get the happy ending that you want because that’s not how life works. You only get a happy ending if you come to terms with things. You don’t get a happy ending by changing the other person, especially if they’re a parent from a different culture and a different generation.
Creatively, I fought for not shooting it in a traditional way. Despite our limited schedule, I didn’t want to just cover things and figure it out while in editing. My director of photography and I did a lot of planning about the sort of wide shots and oners we wanted. It was really important to the overall language of the film to do it that way, especially so that you could see all of the family in one frame to show that they are a collective unit and one voice. I just stood my ground and said, “This is the way we are doing it,” and I don’t know that as a first-time director I would have had the confidence to do that.
Considering the grim topic of the film, it’s hard to imagine that it is still a comedy without becoming a dark comedy. It’s sprinkled organically throughout the film. Was it hard to find the humor in this situation or was it something that just came out of necessity?
LW: I think that the lens through which I see everything is humor. Early on when developing the story, I always knew what the tone was going to be. Going into it, I knew that every scene was filled with both grief and humor. It was all about switching between the two. Sometimes you’re just enjoying the time you’re spending with your family and you almost forget, but then some little reminder about losing that person comes and it sideswipes you like you’ve been hit by a car. You suddenly remember and all of a sudden, you’re out of that moment. The opposite is also true. You might be in the middle of a breakdown, and then suddenly all of this ridiculous stuff is happening all around you, and you feel the urge to laugh. I think it was all pretty representative of my actual experience.
If you had a terminal illness, would you want to know?
LW: I have no idea. It’s a very interesting question because now I see the value in it. Luckily, it’s not a question I really have to think about because living in America, you don’t have a choice. That’s also an interesting question to ask because our legal system has decided for us and you often think that the legal system decides things based on a universal value, but when you look at it you see it’s not actually a universal value. They think that they’re protecting you as an individual, but after seeing this film, you’ll then wonder if it was really the best thing. Living in America, we really don’t have a choice, unfortunately.