Wang’s story — about a family who decides to keep the news of their beloved grandmother’s cancer diagnosis from her so that she can enjoy her last days, and the struggles of one of her grandchildren (Awkwafina) with accepting that choice — is incredibly moving and powerful, and is sure to captivate audiences all over the country.
Vanyaland spoke to Wang at a conference room in the Kimpton Nine Zero Hotel, the night after ‘The Farewell’ closed out this year’s Independent Film Festival Boston about her approach to humor, the difficulties in adapting such a sensitive subject matter, and the differences between the Chinese and American approaches to film production. The film was released this past Friday, and plays in various theaters across the Boston area this week and beyond.
Nick Johnston: When adapting such a personal story such as this one, how did you choose what details to share with an audience and what to omit?
Lulu Wang: You know, I kept coming back to [the question] “What is this movie really about?” Obviously, members of my family wanted every important thing in their lives to be represented in the film, and that’s just not possible. I mean, my father was a diplomat in the Soviet Union — doesn’t really fit in the movie anywhere, you know? My mother was a very talented writer who was the editor of the Beijing literary gazette. Doesn’t really fit in the movie. But I wanted to also hint at these things, that they have different backgrounds and maybe that contributes to their differences.
Ultimately, the story’s about Billie and her relationship with her grandmother and so it was challenging to figure out the right amount [of detail] to put in so that these were three-dimensional people, but at the same time, keeping the movie to 90 minutes and focusing the movie through Billie’s perspective at all times in order to track the tension of the main theme of the movie, which is “Do we tell her or do we not, and if we don’t tell her, is that wrong, and how do you say goodbye to somebody that you love, who doesn’t know that they’re saying goodbye, necessarily.”
Did you learn anything about your own experiences in the past in the process of making this movie that you wouldn’t have otherwise expected?
Yeah, absolutely. Throughout making the film, I kept asking questions because I wanted to make sure I wasn’t co-opting the story in order to dramatize it. And so, I was constantly asking my parents and my great-aunt as well, who was the first person who actually came up with the lie in real life and she also played herself in the movie. I learned a lot about the fact that many cultures do this, beyond the Chinese. I wanted to figure out what Billie’s journey was, which oftentimes meant figuring out what my journey was through all of this.
And I think what I learned — because when it happened, you know, life isn’t like the movies and you go “Alright, I’ve a lesson and now I am a better person” — you’re just constantly grappling every day with things and you don’t recognize where you’re growing or what you have learned, and so through exploring on the page, writing the script, I realized that the film isn’t really about which way is right and which way is wrong. It’s really about respect and learning to respect different cultures and different perspectives, and learning how to disagree with somebody. I think we’re living in such a polarized society where when somebody doesn’t agree with somebody they just tear them apart and it’s gotta be my way or the highway and I think it’s just human nature to want to have answers and to put things into boxes. But that’s just not the way life works.
And so, it really allowed me to explore a story where I don’t know how to feel about it at the end. I don’t have the answers but I’m able to explore multiple points of views and accept them with grace, whether or not I agree with them.
You do this great job packing dramatic scenes with background humor — for instance, you’ll have a very serious conversation happening between Billie and Nai Nai in the foreground, and you’ll have a number of sight gags occurring between other family members in the back. How did you go about crafting this particular tone?
I think I knew the tone I wanted to capture, and it’s generally my tone in life. I think I kind of have a dark sense of humor — like even in the darkest moments, my eye tends to go to the thing that’s ridiculous or funny. For instance, if we were in a break-up right now or some really dramatic scene, my eyes would shift to the fact that, in the room [we’re currently in], there are these ridiculous animals. [Wang points to a number of highly stylized animal portraits on the walls of the conference room]. It’s all about perspective. Two people can look at the same scene in the same moment and find the comedy in it or not. It depends on what you’re looking at.
Mike Leigh is a huge influence for me because he does scenes where you can see the multiple layers that are happening where you have the A-story happening in the foreground, and then you have some character in the background doing something ridiculous. And that’s not to say that it has to be something so ridiculous that it is over-the-top and distracting, but when it’s real, that juxtaposition brings the pathos and the humor that can happen in conjunction with each other.
Did you have to separate yourself from your own personal experiences in order to get things done as a filmmaker?
Yeah, exactly. For example, when I was directing Awkwafina, we talked about, from the very beginning, that she was not playing me. Billie is not “me” in a literal way, she’s a woman who is going through these experiences. She’s a woman who is Chinese-American, she’s a woman who immigrated with her family to America, and hasn’t been back very often. But that’s not me. Those are just my experiences. And so, being able to do that allowed me to work better as a director so I’m not trying to constantly get her to mimic my behaviors or hand gestures or forcing her to like the same kind of food that I like or any of that. It was more about putting Awkwafina in the shoes of this character and just really being present moment-to-moment through this experience.
You do such a great job with the family as a whole, and you’re able to give each individual member a sense of personality and who they are — everybody gets a “moment.” How did you manage such a large ensemble?
It really helped that I knew everybody so well, and I also talked a lot with my DP in our blocking notes that we were talking about earlier that the family unit is one of the main characters of the movie. There’s Billie, there’s grandma, there’s mom, there’s dad, but then there’s the family as a unit, as a single character. And so, you made sure that everyone had their moment, but I also made sure that, when we were shooting [everyone was in frame].
We picked a wider aspect ratio that’s usually used for landscapes as a way to portray the landscape of a family, so that you can capture all of the faces in this wider screen, and they filled the frame. And oftentimes they spill out of the frame, so that it gives you this sense of the life that happens, you know, in the screen and off of it. And then the juxtaposition of it is that you put Billie in that wider screen and you feel the isolation of who she is without the family. That was really important because it let you see the family as individuals, but also as a unit, and how well they function as a unit.
You shot most of the film in China, and obviously the film industry is very different over there than with what we have in the US. What was good about working overseas, and what was a challenge?
Well, I’ll start with the benefits. What was amazing about was that people there are so hardworking and it’s a hierarchal structure, and there’s a lot of respect for the director and the director’s vision. So, people would just do anything for me, and there aren’t all these rules about who can hold the camera and who can hold the lens, and I understand the need for all of those rules in America but it was so liberating that there were all hands on deck. Anybody would do anything and everything at every moment, from cleaning the windows because there’s a smudge, to chopping down a tree if there was one sticking out in a shot and so it very much felt like a family. You know, when we were all in the apartment, for example, we were all crowded into that small space, we were eating [together], and people were sleeping on the floor. There was a guy [in the crew], and we nicknamed him “Watermelon” because he would bring watermelon with him all the time to set and he’d hand it out. And it’d be hot and we’d all be eating watermelon! So it was really beautiful.
I think some of the challenges are when you’re not used to a system in which everybody just moves so quickly and does things so fast. Sometimes I’d be talking to my DP and be like “Yeah, I really like that shot, but I don’t really know about that tree. It’s kind of in the way.” And I’d turn back around and somebody would be chopping down the tree! And I’d be like, “Wait! Wait!” and they’d say “You didn’t like the tree, so we’re taking it down.” And, [next thing you’d know], it’d be gone, and we’d be rolling. It was so funny. There was a stop sign we didn’t like, and they were like, “Alright, we’re just going to take it down,” and they just climbed on each other’s shoulders and unscrewed the sign while we shot the scene and then screwed it back on. It really spoils you, because you come back to America, and here, you know, as a director, I can’t talk to the extras because of union rules — I have to give the direction to my first AD, who then talks to the extras — and there are all of these extra layers that eat up so much time, and in a way it can often feel like it’s taking away the humanity, of just being able to say “hey, can you move to the right?” to [a person right in front of you].
And so that can be really challenging when you’ve been spoiled by the Chinese system. I mean, there was a moment where, these two guys — one guy was holding on to the other’s leg — and we’re on the seventh floor and the guy was hanging outside the window cleaning the outside of it. My American producers are freaking out, saying “That’s a huge liability if you fall!” And the guy was just like “Ah, it’s fine, I do it all of the time.” If anything, you’d have to make sure that you held people back. And there’d be other places where we’d be like “Please don’t clean the windows,” because you have to kind of anticipate what they’re going to do. They want to be so helpful sometimes, that you’d have to tell people “Hey, don’t clean the windows. We want them dirty, that’s the look that we’re going for.” [laughs]
This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.