Filmmaker Lulu Wang says she knew years ago that she wanted to turn a specific personal experience of hers into a film: when her grandmother was diagnosed with terminal cancer, the family decided it was better not to tell her, out of a cultural belief that fear of death is more dangerous to ailing people than their actual symptoms. The problem was that when Wang talked to producers, they wanted to rewrite her personal story to be more pat and predictable. “‘We love that idea, but can you make it different?’… I very quickly saw that it was deviating from the story I wanted to tell,” Wang told an audience at the Chicago Film Critics Festival earlier this year.

And then she met a producer for This American Life who took an interest in her story, and developed it for a segment on a 2016 episode of the popular radio show. Within 24 hours, she says, producers were calling to court her, on her terms. “There were so many producers calling that I actually got to choose who I wanted to make it. I got to interview them. As opposed to walking into a room and pitching, I got to say, ‘All right, so you, like everyone else, wants to make this film. But how do you want to do it?’ And I was able to pick the producers who wanted to protect my vision.”

The resulting film, The Farewell, was one of the biggest breakout hits of the 2019 Sundance Film festival, and A24 quickly picked it up for distribution. It’s been one of the most highly anticipated indie films of 2019: in its opening weekend, its per-theater box-office average beat out Avengers: Endgame.

Viral rap/comedy/film star Awkwafina stars as Billi, a young Chinese-American woman living in New York. When she learns her Nai Nai (grandmother) is dying of cancer, she joins the family in traveling to China, using a cousin’s hastily arranged marriage to a recent girlfriend as an excuse for a family gathering. The film is shockingly funny and lively, given the themes of death and goodbyes. But it’s also observant and insightful about the immigrant experience, the cultural gap between generations, and the clash between family traditions and individual experience. With The Farewell slowly rolling out in release around the country, The Verge talked to Wang about how she told her story, how she kept her grandmother’s diagnosis secret even while bringing crew members into her house, and how to play the singing, flapping drinking game that provides one of the film’s most memorable moments.

This interview has been edited for clarity and concision.

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