The first scene of The Farewell introduces Awkwafina as Billi, weaving her way through the streets of New York while on the phone with her grandmother in China, Nai Nai. Their conversation is warm, if mundane, but it’s cleverly punctuated with little white lies: Billi says yes, Nai Nai, she’s wearing a hat for the cold (she’s not) and that her fellowship (that she didn’t get) will be starting soon. Nai Nai, meanwhile, unspools a few falsehoods of her own: she says she’s just at home when she’s actually at the hospital for a checkup. The back-and-forth makes for an elegant volley of disinformation; if love is kinetic, it’s best to keep things moving.
“It was really important to portray how close she is with her grandmother, even though they don’t see each other that often and live on opposite ends of the globe,” says the film’s director, Lulu Wang. We’re sitting in a sunny room in A24’s Manhattan offices, talking about the film, her second-ever feature, and all the tangles that come from releasing something this autobiographical out into the world. “It’s this unconditional love that Billi really only receives from her grandmother, because, I think, as an Asian-American and Asian immigrant, the love of our parents is not like what American kids talk about.”
The Farewell is based on actual events. Sort of. Nai Nai, the matriarch of the family, is at the hospital because she was diagnosed with Stage 4 cancer. The doctor tells her sister, Little Nai Nai, that she only has a few months to live, so the family makes the collective decision to not disclose the bad news to her, because the fear, as they understand it, is what will truly kill her. In response, the family hastily organizes a sham wedding for one of the cousins—a ruse of a family reunion—so that everyone can say their goodbyes to Nai Nai, who is none the wiser.
Wang originally told her story on This American Life in 2016, which led to her writing the script for The Farewell, and, eventually, to receiving rhapsodic reviews at Sundance and an acquisition from A24. Last month, GQ sat down with Wang to talk about the film, growing up as an immigrant in Miami, and more.
GQ: Did your family feel weird at all when they learned that you were making something this revealing?
Lulu Wang: I think they felt weird about what I was going to represent about each of them. It’s not like they’re very secretive, but my mom, especially, is a very private person. She was like, “Go make a movie, but I don’t want to be noticed and I don’t want to be in the spotlight.” I think she is superstitious and an anxious person, so when things are going really well, she can often be like “be careful!” instead of celebrating.
In what ways is she superstitious? Is she a ghost person who believes in spirits and all that?
She just believes when things are going too smoothly, you have to be careful, because energetically something will go wrong. She very much believes that if there’s something you want very badly, and you have no control over getting it—like if you want to meet a partner in your life—that you need to ask the universe. You need to put it out to the universe and ask. She’s not Christian. She’s not religious in any one particular way. But she will say you have to make yourself humble and say, “I need to ask for this thing because I have no control.”
Where did you find the encouragement to make that leap and make something like this?
I think it was because I had done a feature previously [2014’s Posthumous]. That gave me the confidence to know that, one, I know I can make a movie. I can put together a film project. I can direct actors. I can run a set. Two, I think it proved to my parents that I can also do [all those things] because it provided a proof of concept, right?
My mother is one of these people, she’s like, “I’m not an American parent”—they all believe their own kid is wonderful and everything. She’s like, “I’m a mother just like millions and millions of other mothers. What makes me think my kid is special?”
[Laughs] Oh, wow.
She’ll also contradict herself! She’ll say, not that you’re special exactly, but that you’re destined, or that “we came out here [to America], sacrificed for you, and so you need to make a good life.” When I made my first feature, it was really surprising for my parents to go, “You can make a film and were amazing! You put this together, and you have to keep going!” Having their support meant everything. It meant that I didn’t have to try to constantly prove myself, and I could actually take the leap of faith and take risks in my storytelling.
I also felt like after doing This American Life, it was just such a pure, organic experience of storytelling where I said, “This happened to me.” It was just purely about story and character. I recorded it here in New York at [their] office. I had a glass of whiskey in this secret bookshelf room. You pull this book down and you go in! I had a glass of whiskey and it was late at night, and it was just me and [producer] Neil Drumming. We sat down from an investigative perspective and were like, “Tell me more. Dig deeper,” as opposed to, “How do we make this more entertaining? How do we sell it? How do we market it?” I recorded and we did basically one take of the whole story.
One thing I really liked about the movie is that you didn’t attempt to over explain anything. There was a real confidence in what you were trying to do, and you didn’t try to cater to anyone about trying to explain subtle cultural differences or anything like that. How early on in the writing process did you decide “I’m not going to try to explain all this stuff. I’m just going to let it live and be its own thing”?
Pretty early. It’s not because I didn’t try. People kept giving notes about stuff. I think that’s one of the challenges when you’re a woman or a person of color in the industry. When you’re given so few opportunities, or you sense a lack of opportunity for yourself, in many ways when you finally are given an opportunity you can’t say no. You’re like, “I have to take it.”
So when people give notes and things like that to you, you really want to be accommodating. I did try a lot of them, but ultimately, I would go down a path and just go, “This doesn’t feel right. I actually don’t know what I’m writing. I’m writing somebody else’s idea. I’m not writing from a place that’s emotional.”
Do you have an example of those notes?
One note I got was that the mom was too mean throughout the movie.
[Laughs] I didn’t see that at all.
Exactly. To me, I’m like, “I don’t think she’s mean. I just think that’s who she is!” I think that if you’re raised in a different way, you might see that as being mean because somebody speaks in a very honest, clear way. To me, even the arguing isn’t being mean. It’s just them working their thing out.
That’s just communicating.
Exactly. [Laughs] They’re just talking, what are you talking about?
There was also this desire to have a resolution of some kind, and have a little bit of a hug. Then the producer was like, “Okay. Maybe not a hug. That’s cheesy. I get that. But maybe even just some kind of a nod that they understand each other?”
I was just like, “Tell you what, if you can make that happen in my real life, then I’ll put in my movie.” Then he laughed and was like, “touché, touché.”
For Asians it’s such an intergenerational thing too. You will have a conversation and there is no resolution. You’ve got to keep it moving.
There were a lot of notes about the food, too. They were like, “The movie feels very repetitive because there’s all these food scenes.” I was like, “Exactly!”
They were like, “No, no, no. The audience is going to get tired of watching that, and you should make them go do something else.” I was like, “Like what?” They were like, “Can they go take a walk through a park?” I was like, “Why would they do that?”
I saw food as a way to orient the family, to illustrate them as a singular organism around food. Everyone knows their role, and feeding someone is an act of love. Was that something you experienced in your household growing up?
Absolutely. I think that’s something I had to learn: That different people have different love languages, and that for my family, maybe they weren’t constantly like, “I love you, you’re the best, you rock!” But there was always a home-cooked meal on the table every night no matter what was going on.
If I’d been traveling, I come home, my mom makes noodles.
What kind of noodles does she make you?
It depends what’s in the fridge. If there’s chicken soup then she’ll make chicken noodle soup. But if there’s not, then it’ll just be a really simple egg and tomato with some scallions. Comfort noodles.
I think for the movie, what I was exploring with food was also that it’s a source of tension, because it is an expression of love. For Grandma, who thinks that everybody’s home for a celebration, her way to express love is to give you all of this food. Your way to express love is to eat it, and to eat a lot of it.
Even when you’re full.
Food is this physical manifestation of the conflict, of love, and wanting to accept that love, but you’re grieving, so you can’t accept that love. The constant pressure from that to eat, eat, eat is normally not a big deal, so it becomes a much bigger, dramatic set piece.
When you’re grieving, one of the things that you lose is your appetite. It’s not necessarily explicit in the movie, but one of the things Little Nai Nai told me about why they lie is that when a person finds out bad news, they stop eating. They stop sleeping. Yes, you could say they die of fear in this abstract way, but you can also say in a practical way, that if they stop eating and they stop exercising or leaving the house and then they stop sleeping, then the lack of sleep causes more depression. And so yes in a literal way, that news can kill them.
My Asian friends and I always joke about it. We’re just like, “The love of our Asian mother, it’s conditional.” You don’t understand that unless you have one. The grandma is different, right? In many ways, [Billi and Nai Nai’s] love exists in a time capsule separate from age, space, distance. It’s just always like, “Have you eaten? Are you wearing [something warm]?” You’re always a child. You humor each other, because you’re not going to tell them and make them worry. It becomes this ritual of like, “I will tell you what you want to hear.” It doesn’t matter.
So you grew up in Florida—
In Miami, which is not really Florida.
What was your social life like growing up there?
Honestly, it was very strange, because I moved when I was six and was still learning English. But Miami is as much Cuban as it is “American.” People were speaking Spanish as much as people were speaking English, and here I was trying to fit in.
As a kid, that’s all you want to do. You kind of just want to go, “I want to forget the fact that I’m an immigrant. I don’t want to be different.” As the Chinese girl, you don’t fit in with anybody. It wasn’t a large Chinese-American population, so I didn’t grow up having a community of Asian friends. Even when there were Asian people, we sort of existed on our own. There was no culture. There was no Asian-American culture the way that it is in San Francisco or L.A., where you can have a posse and you have a food culture. I didn’t have that. It was sort of like mainstream America or my parents, who were watching Chinese movies.
And you studied music too, right? What instrument did you play?
Piano. Like in the movie. I was classically trained since the age of four. I went to art conservatory high school, so for a long time, my piano teachers were like, “You should be a pianist! You have what it takes if you would just work a little harder.” I just didn’t really want to practice seven hours a day in a room by myself. They were just constantly disappointed in me, because they were like, “But you have a gift and if you don’t use it, you’re wasting it.” I was like, “Is it really a gift if it doesn’t make me happy?”
Practicing piano is such an isolating experience, too. You’re alone and solely focused on the mistakes.
Completely. You’re doing concerts. You’re constantly performing. For me, it was like, I love music. Now coming back to it, I love playing the piano and I’m glad that I know it because it’s a form of expression for me now. But at the time, it was not. It was about, “Here’s a piece of sheet music. This is how you’re supposed to play it. There’s a right way and there’s a wrong way, and by the way, don’t fuck up!” [Laughs.]
My mother always wanted to play an instrument. Her parents never gave her that. Then it got to a point where I’d been playing for 18 years, and to give it up would make me feel guilty. But my parents also knew that realistically, I wasn’t going to become a concert pianist. Whenever I would want to quit I would get this massive guilt trip over it. Like: “Everything we did to get you those lessons and we had no money! And we still took you to this church every single day so that you could play, and we spent a huge amount of our savings to buy you a piano. It was the first large purchase that we got, was this piano for you!”
On one hand, you’re really appreciative, but on the other hand you’re like, “I didn’t ask for that, and now you’re putting that on me, and I can’t pursue other things because I’m tied to this piano.” It’s like that scene in The Piano where even though she loves the piano, you cut it off because it’s a burden. I felt like, in some ways, when it’s a burden it makes you sink. It doesn’t make you fly.
Was going into writing a response to that in some ways for you?
No. My mother was a writer in Beijing. She was the editor of The Beijing Literary Gazette, which was like a New Yorker. She was a cultural editor and wrote criticism of literature and movies, so I always wrote. I grew up in a household that really encouraged reading and writing. My mother loves philosophy and is constantly reading philosophy and talking to me about different philosophers and different ways of life. You wouldn’t expect this Chinese-American housewife to just constantly quote Nietzsche, but she does.
How old were you when you got into film?
I was in college. It was my senior year of school.
That’s a pretty late start.
Yeah. For my parents, it wasn’t in their realm of reality for me to be a filmmaker, because who was doing it who was Asian-American?
They didn’t drop you off at Blockbuster on Friday afternoons or anything like that.
Right. We would just watch what was on TV. Or my parents love Sound of Music.
Sound of Music was so big in our house growing up too.
Yeah? I wonder why that is. Fiddler on the Roof was a big one, too. My mother loves that movie so much. But I didn’t grow up watching art house films. When I was in college I took a film elective, Film 101, and I shot on Super 8. That’s when I fell in love with filmmaking. I loved finding the rhythm of an edit, and how much an edit can change everything. I edited on an Elmo so I was physically getting film print and cutting and taping.
The physicality of that experience of seeing frame by frame, and working with my friends made me fall in love with it. Then after that I took World Cinema. I took Feminist Film Theory. Then I started to go, “Oh, my God. There’s so much here.”
When I was making [The Farewell] I was like, “Yeah. I don’t care about the genre, but really, I’m trying to explore the inner sense of dread that I had the entire time.” From the outside it may look like a happy go lucky Asian family eating a meal, but on the inside, it felt like I was in a horror film, because at any moment something bad could happen. So I was like, actually, why don’t I look at horror films as a reference?
I said to my DP: “These scenes where we’re really rooted in Billy’s perspective, let’s reference horror film techniques,” because horror film is all about being able to visualize the things that you can’t see. Creating atmosphere. Creating tone. Through using the camera and things like that, you can really feel the tension. There’s a monster in the room that you don’t see, but you know it’s there because it’s been set up. The lie is the monster.
So for you, it was the process first before any specific filmmakers as points of inspiration?
Yeah. I think that’s always been the case for me. I don’t like the sense of worship that we have in our culture, of putting people or art on a pedestal. For me, I’ve always fallen in love with the process before any kind of icon or representation of something. It’s also the way that I learn the best. It’s not reading about things in books and being told, “This is how chemistry works.” For me, it was always like, “Show me.” The physical experience of it makes me remember.
I work with a lot of writers, and sometimes I feel like the people who are most creative are the ones who didn’t go to J-school, or didn’t have a writer they worshipped. They aren’t trying to adhere to these older value systems, so they come at it from this original place.
It’s completely important to understand history and to study the craft and the art and what’s come before you. But at the same time, because I learned all of that later in life, I discovered it through process first. I was able to kind of go, “This is what I’m trying to do. Who else is doing that? Let me see. Oh. You? Okay. I’ll take a little bit of that, and I’ll take a little bit of this.”
In some ways, people who worship, it almost feels like, “Are you in love with a lifestyle? With an image? With an idea?” You’re in love with the idea of something. You love Tarantino. Well, what do you love about Tarantino? Yes, the films, but what else? It’s this idea of what he represents in the culture. Because we don’t have that kind of representation for people like us. When you don’t have a lot of archetypes and a lot of representation, you also don’t have a lot of rules. And so you don’t even have to break rules, because there are no rules.
This interview has been edited and condensed.
Source : Chris Gayomali Link