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.
At the Chicago screening, one audience member said this was one of the best films she’d ever seen about the bicultural experience. Was that an important part of this film for you?
I don’t necessarily think I came into it trying to represent biculturalism. From my perspective, where I stand, that’s just who I am. It’s part of my point of view. It’s just organic to me. In a way, biculturalism is my culture. So I don’t necessarily even think about how I’m presenting it to someone coming in from another side of it. I just wrote from my own experience, and my own struggles to balance the two sides of my own identity. The side of me that’s in America and working as a director, and the side of me that is from China, with my grandparents and my family.
In many ways, everyone has that, right? We all have different aspects of ourselves, and who we are to different people in our lives, at different stages of our lives. This particular experience just happened to be the intersection of so many different aspects of my life.
But you did think a lot about how it was going to play for different audiences. You’ve discussed that in interviews — how you knew it would be a different story for American audiences and for Chinese viewers.
Yeah, but only as far as the fact that I wanted it to play for an American audience, because my perspective is American. There was conversation about how we wanted it to play for Chinese audiences as well, but I don’t live in China. So I didn’t want to assume things. And I knew that’s what I would have to do for a Chinese audience. Whereas targeting an American audience meant I could just make it for myself, as an American. I knew Billi, who is based on me, was going to be shocked by this lie. It’s something she would never think to do. It’s illegal in America, right?
And that’s the entryway — her outrage toward what the family was doing was the way we’re entering the story. So I don’t know if that resonates with a Chinese audience, because they might watch it and go, “Why is this dramatic? What’s wrong with her? Why is she outraged? This is what we do all the time.” Right? So now I’m learning, because I will ask Chinese audiences, “Are you shocked? Do you understand where Billi’s coming from?”
What have your Chinese audiences been answering, about how it plays for them?
Mostly I’ve been talking to younger people, and for them, it really resonates, because most of them have some sort of international experience. Whether they’re traveling abroad for even a semester, or they move away from home to go to school, or even the fact that they might leave their community to move to a bigger city, like Beijing or Shanghai or Hong Kong, which has a more international population. And they’ll make friends with a lot of Westerners, and there is a much more Western influence on the culture, and the points of view, so they see more of the divide between where they’re coming from and their families. It’s not just a cultural gap, it’s also generational. Younger people are becoming more and more globalized, and more similar-minded, which can be wonderful and dangerous at the same time.
Younger audiences also tend to be more empathetic about other cultures, more sensitive about being seen as laughing at other people’s beliefs. Are you finding they’re concerned about laughing at this film? It’s very funny in places, like the cemetery scene, but I can see people feeling like laughing would be mocking someone else’s religion.
I made a short film that was a drama that dealt with a very complicated issue, and there were moments that were really funny. People were afraid to laugh. They were like, “Oh, we heard laughter! I’m so sorry! Is that okay?” I don’t think there’s ever an inappropriate time to laugh! I’m a curious person. So if someone laughs, I want to know why. There have been moments where I laughed at my own family’s culture, though it’s hard to separate out whether something funny is cultural, or just my grandma specifically. The exaggerated nature of ritual can be funny, but I don’t think I’m laughing at a culture, or having the audience laugh at a culture. I’m having them laugh at humans as a whole, how we’re all so ridiculous, because we’re all so tied to our identities, and we take it all so seriously. At the end of the day, everyone has a perspective, and they feel so strongly about it. But does it really matter? It’s all just rituals we do for ourselves.
At the Chicago screening Q&A, you talked about how you cast Awkwafina based not on her audition or line-reading, but on what she was doing during pauses when she wasn’t acting. What about that struck you?
Billi spends so much of the movie not talking. Her action as a protagonist is inaction. Most protagonists are asked to act to get to their goal, and the challenge for Billi is that she wants to act, and she can’t. That’s her challenge: How do you not act? How do you not speak? And how do you not get to your goal? How do you accept that maybe there is no goal?
That’s such an American perspective, that a protagonist has a goal, and you spend the entirety of the movie watching them get to their goal. And that’s what I was playing against. And yet at the same time, I had to make sure there was enough tension to move the story forward. And so seeing her audition, seeing the emotions on her face when she was just listening, she was responding by not speaking. It was really important that we could get a lot of the nuances of what she was feeling just by her eyes and her face.
The film to some degree centers on the conversation with her mother in the hotel room, where she’s sitting on the floor and weeping. How did you work with her on that sequence?
You know, we didn’t talk much about that specific sequence. She knew from reading the script that it was a really emotional scene for her, and she was really nervous about not being able to cry. She actually said that to me very early, when we first cast her, “You know, I have to be honest, I don’t know if I can cry. I’ve tried to cry in movies before, and I haven’t been able to pull out fake tears.” And I was like, “Don’t worry about it. If you can’t cry, don’t cry. No one’s asking you to cry, I’m just asking you to be in the moment of that scene, and feel the emotions of the character.”
And then, as we were rehearsing, she started getting in the scene, and she immediately started crying. And I was like, “Okay, okay, stop stop stop!” I was trying to save it for filming, but she couldn’t stop crying. She was so emotional in the rehearsals that I was worried we were going to exhaust the emotion. So I actually had to stop rehearsals and just start shooting. I think it’s because — she grew up in the States, so it’s not like she left people, but there’s the emotion of losing your family one by one as we get older, and the rifts you feel. Her grandma lives in New York with her, and she was raised by her grandmother, but she’ll never fully connect to her grandma’s life from China. There’s a side of her grandmother that she’ll never get to know, and I think this was just personal.
You based this film on your own life, you shot it in your old neighborhood, you have one of your family members in the cast, and while you were shooting, you were taking your crew to meet your grandma and use her bathroom. Where in all of this was the line between reality and fiction? How did you decide which parts of your story you wanted to take to a fictional place?
Ultimately, it was just what was best for the story. Of course there’s so much more about my family that I could have put into the movie. My father’s a diplomat. He speaks Russian. Tzi Ma, who plays him, kept saying, “Your father’s an extraordinary man, I feel like you’re not properly representing him. We should put in the fact that he spent 10 years in Russia,” and all this stuff. It just didn’t really contribute to the overall story. And the other line was seeing the movie as a piece of art, not a documentary. It wasn’t about portraying the characters exactly as they are, but about representing them.
You’ve discussed how difficult it’s been keeping the story of this film secret from your grandmother. And she’s been asking what it’s about, and asking to see it. Have you come up with a solution for that yet?
No, and we’re screening in China soon. So I’m sure there’s going to be press around that. It’s definitely still an ongoing family conversation.
It’s hard enough to keep a secret with a small group of people, but you were taking your crew to meet her. How did you keep that secret among so many people who were coming into contact with her?
They knew she didn’t know, and we weren’t planning on telling her. Even if it’s hard for them in some ways, nobody’s walking up to her like, “So, you got cancer, right?” Even in American society, there are so many things we don’t talk about, because you don’t want to make other people feel bad or uncomfortable. You just try to talk about happier things, and make their day a little easier. So that part of it wasn’t that challenging.
For me, it was all internal. I didn’t know if my grandma would come to set at any moment. The production team had made T-shirts that said Nai Nai, because at the time, we didn’t have a movie title, and Nai Nai is Chinese for grandma. So they were handing out T-shirts on the first day, and we were shooting down the street from her house, and she was coming to the set. So I was like, “What are you guys doing? We can’t have T-shirts that say ‘Grandma,’ she’s gonna ask, ‘Why is everyone wearing ‘Grandma’ on their shirts?’” Little things like that felt like a screwball setup.
You’ve said it was really important to you to portray Billi in a modern way, and to portray China in a modern way. What did that mean to you? Why was that important?
Because we often see movies that deal with China or Asian culture from an outdated perspective, as if China is still about foot-binding and things like that. It was important just to present the authenticity of my experience of how similar things are becoming in the world, and yet how different they are below the surface.
On a surface level, you might go to a city in China and see all the same stores you see here. Across the street from my grandma’s neighborhood where we shot the movie, there’s a giant mall with Zara, Chanel, H&M, Sephora, any store you could possibly imagine. And yet two blocks away is this neighborhood where the cultural beliefs are so different. I wanted to show people just how different we all are, and the ways we’re similar, too. And how do we respect each other? How do we grow up in the same family, and have very different points of view? And you love each other? Instead of being so polarized and trying to be right, maybe there is no right or wrong, it isn’t so black and white. So how do we respect and ask questions about where the other person is coming from, and have a sense of grace?
I know you’ve been asked this before, but it’s clearly something that sticks with everybody who sees the movie. Can you explain the drinking game at the wedding?
Yeah! So most people call it the chicken dance, but it’s not chickens, you’re meant to be birds. Everyone’s in a circle, and everyone gets a number. So if I’m number one and you’re number two, I would say, “One bird fly, one bird fly,” while flapping my wings, “one bird flies ’til two bird flies.” In Chinese, that chant actually rhymes. And then because I called your number, you would pick that up, “Two bird fly, two bird fly,” and so forth. And the way you mess people up is, I could say “two bird,” but I’m looking over the table at number five, so they might think I’m talking to them if they don’t remember their number, or if you don’t hear it. It’s just a fun game.
Of course it gets harder and harder the more you drink. We played it in my family. So I always thought it was such a weird feeling to be playing this game where you’re having so much fun, and grandma’s laughing, but then you’re constantly reminded that this could be the last time. So it was just this constant in and out of the moment, where you can’t fully be present in the joy you’re experiencing, because you know you’re going to lose it.
How did you shoot that sequence? Did you just have a rotating camera in the middle of the table?
Yeah, it was one of our bigger set pieces. We had such a tight production, and had no time to do anything, but I said, “No matter what, we can’t lose the drinking game.” We built a table around the camera, cutting a hole in the center of the table, with a mechanism we built to allow it to spin. So the DP and I got under the table, hiding under the tablecloth. I was directing from under the table. It was a really fun time. We thought it would be really challenging, and we’d never get it, so we did a lot of preparation for it.