Orla Smith interviews The Farewell director Lulu Wang about making cinema of her own life and framing a family.
Lulu Wang’s crowdpleaser The Farewell — a small, personal, heartfelt dramedy — took Sundance by storm in January. It’s a warm, empathetic film that’s generous with its characters and deals with the themes of grief and family so wisely.
The film is based on a bizarre and emotional experience from Wang’s own life. In 2013, Wang (who was living in New York at the time) found out that her beloved grandmother had received a terminal diagnosis, andWang’s family decided not to tell her grandmother that she was dying. Instead, they staged a fake wedding as an excuse to get all of the extended family back together in China, so that they could say goodbye.
Wang brought a video camera with her on her trip to China, which she described as “as a way to hide behind the camera and my work.” She would use the remove of being a filmmaker to stop her from crying. That footage helped form the first iteration of The Farewell, a story which then went on to become an episode of the podcast “This American Life.” The popularity of that episode gave Wang the platform to get her story greenlit as a feature film.
The feature stars Awkwafina as Billie, a fictionalised version of Wang. Awkwafina recently broke out with her outlandish comedic turns in Ocean’s Eight and Crazy Rich Asians. The Farewell is a massive change of pace for her: a naturalistic role in which she’s allowed to exhibit pathos and humour. Billie is funny and sarcastic, but that’s only one aspect of a multi-faceted character who’s struggling to deal with her grief and her anger and confusion over her family’s choice to keep her grandmother in the dark. Awkwafina proves that that’s well within her range, delivering an outstanding performance.
At the Sundance London Film Festival, I talked to Wang about turn her own life into cinema, directing actors, and framing a family.
Seventh Row: What was the genesis of the project?
Lulu Wang: This story happened to me in my real life in 2013. As a filmmaker, I’m always looking for stories that could potentially be my next film. The amount of tears, both from sadness and from laughter, is what made me realise I had to explore the story.
Seventh Row: When this was happening to you, how early on were you thinking about it in cinematic terms?
Lulu Wang: I wasn’t necessarily thinking cinematically yet, but as a filmmaker, and as a writer especially, writing is sort of my therapy. Whenever I’m not sure how to deal with something, or I don’t have anyone around to talk to, I write. So even during the process of [this story happening to me] I was writing.
I also had a video camera with me as a way to hide behind the camera and my work. Often, things would be happening in the room, and I would be filming it because it allowed me to be an objective observer rather than a participant. It was my way of not crying and not losing my shit.
Seventh Row: The film explores this central ethical dilemma about whether the family should tell the grandmother about her diagnosis. The characters have strong perspectives on this, but the film doesn’t necessarily take a side. What was your approach to presenting that dilemma?
Lulu Wang: It was important for me that I was coming from an American perspective, which is mine and Billie’s perspective. She doesn’t agree, doesn’t understand why they’re doing this. Ultimately, I wanted to make sure that the film wasn’t making a judgement call on what was right and what was wrong.
We’re living in such polarised times where people immediately want to attack someone who has a different point of view. Especially now, people within the same family, who were born in the same place and have lived in the same country, often end up having different points of view. The film is really about how to love someone and disagree with them in a respectful way and how to deal with disagreements in a way that is graceful. Because I love my family so much, it was important to me that I wasn’t making a movie as a way to prove something to them or to show them in a negative light.
Seventh Row: One of the great strengths of the film is the way that you direct ensemble scenes. You have all these family scenes where there are so many characters, and the relationships between them all are so clear.
Lulu Wang: With one of the later family dinner scenes, we didn’t really have any singles because it was more about the family as a unit and the different dynamics between all of them. There’s an earlier dinner scene where everyone is isolated in the frame and that. We chose very specifically what the intent of each of those family scenes was, whether it was to present them in isolation or to present them as a unit.
From the writing to the directing, I always thought about making sure that every character had some kind of small, emotional moment, because it just allows you to see the tip of the iceberg of the entire psyche, entire personality, entire life, and the choices that they make. Everybody has such different perspectives, but I don’t think anyone has bad intent, and that’s what I wanted to show. From where they were standing, they were making the best choices possible.
Seventh Row: Your use of framing is very striking. How did you devise the aesthetic of the film?
Lulu Wang: For this film, I didn’t want it to look like what you would expect it to look like, as an Asian family comedic movie about a grandma. It’s so easy to not put an emphasis on aesthetics and instead say that it’s all about the acting. For me, it was important to say that you can have both. You can have great performances, and it can still have an elevated aesthetic.
My DP [Anna Franquesa Solano] and I talk a lot about creating an elevated style and aesthetic that still puts content before the form and actually helps support the content. For example, we use a wider aspect ratio, which is normally used for landscapes outdoors, because we wanted to capture the landscape of faces, the landscape of a family. It allowed us to portray the entire family in one frame, as a single, as a unit. It was also more practical because we often just didn’t have the time to shoot coverage on every single person.
I think that that way of approaching it also made the actors really stay on their toes with performances because they knew we weren’t always going in for a close up, and so they were always in the moment, even in a wide shot. Everyone knew exactly who their character was, where they were emotionally, what they had to do. I would have individual conversations with the actors, but once I put them all together, it was sort of effortless.
Seventh Row: The film is so rich with detail. How did you think about the sound design?
Lulu Wang: So much of the film is about juxtaposition — the juxtaposition of a really full frame with Billie’s isolation in that really large frame. You fill the frame with family that’s spilling over the edge of the frame, but when you take them out and put Billie in, she feels really alone.
Similarly, with sound, I wanted to have moments of silence where you really feel the negative space, and then juxtapose that with sound, whether that’s the sound of the whole family or the sound of the wedding and all of the activity. Sometimes, we would fill that space with score ,and it would be an emotional, sad score, but it would be really loud, and we’d come in hard because that’s the level of pathos that people often feel. You might just be at dinner, but then you come home to the hotel, and you’re just suddenly reminded of how loud your grief is.
Seventh Row: The film is about this large family unit, and it does feel like there’s a lot of history there. Was there any rehearsal beforehand to develop that?
Lulu Wang: Not really. One of my big inspirations is Mike Leigh, and he works with actors for a long time before the shoot. They rehearse and then he just starts rolling the camera. I wanted that, but unfortunately, I didn’t get that.
I had one blocking session, and I said, “For this session, I just want us all to be together, around a roundtable, have the entire cast.” Because we didn’t have thirteen people when we were storyboarding or shot listing, we didn’t know if they were all going to fit in the frame. Often, our shot list didn’t work. Once you got everybody in the room, you realised, “Oh my gosh, this room is so small! There’s so many people; we can’t even fit everyone in the frame.”
In our blocking session like that, I told them to ignore us and just to eat as a family. And I also told Zhao, who plays Nai Nai, and my real little Nai Nai, my great aunt, who plays herself, to spend a lot of time together. I told them to just go to the park and do what you would normally do with your sister.
Seventh Row: So if you had the time and money, you would do a Mike Leigh style rehearsal?
Lulu Wang: Oh absolutely. I would love to spend a bunch of time living together, eating together, and working out the shots with my DP.