In The Farewell, director Lulu Wang puts her real-life experiences on the big screen. When her family decided to not tell her grandmother that she had stage 4 lung cancer and instead plan a wedding to bring the family together, Wang struggled with that decision and the cultural differences between the American life she had been living and the Chinese way of life that connected her to her grandmother.
Wang first documented this tale on NPR’s This American Life in 2016. Now, Wang has recounted the story in a more emotional way on the big screen, in theaters this Friday. I sat down with the director to talk about her directorial influences for the film, the brillance of actor Tzi Ma, the difficulty of finding an actor to play “you”, and the lessons she’s learned along the way.
This is your second feature. Your first feature was Posthumous. What lessons did you learn from your first feature that you applied to your second feature, The Farewell?
Before I made my first feature, it was very much this, “I don’t know how to make a film, but I’m just going to keep pushing forward because that’s all I know how to do.” Then after I made Posthumous, I was like, “Oh, I do know how to make a film. I know how to put it together. I know how to control tone. I know how to work with actors,” but it became more of a question of, “How do I dig deeper? How do I break conventions, you know, as opposed to following a convention and doing it well? How do I try to do something challenging and different and maybe doesn’t follow expectations?” So, I think it gave me the freedom to do that, you know, having gone after my first feature. I had so many doubts with myself as a director and whether or not the film would actually get made that, after we made it, it freed me to take a lot more risks.
You definitely took a lot of risks and what you’re talking about with tone was definitely evident in The Farewell. This film is based on your real-life and an actual lie that happened. I listened to the This American Life segment that you did a couple of years ago that followed this time in your life. I was surprised how similar the film and the podcast were in terms of beats. Some of the dialogue is similar, the cadence of the voices is similar at times. Obviously, the film has so much more emotion in it. Can you talk a little bit about, um, the differences obviously between making a podcast that’s twenty-seven minutes long to making a full-length feature about the same event?
Yeah. I think for me, This American Life was so pure, right? The experience of making it, the process was really pure and then the product was really pure. It really captured the tone of the experience, the melancholy, but also the joy. And I thought about, “How do I transition and make sure I keep the things that I love about it and just put that on to the screen.” But then also it’s a visual medium, so I can’t just fill it with people talking. I can’t just have jokes, I can’t tell jokes and there’s no narrator in the film to sort of give you that context of what lens to look through and what you’re feeling. And so I had to find a way to make everything visual. So that was the biggest challenge. Probably the deepest work that I had to do was with my cinematographer, Anna Franquesa-Solano and my production designer, Yong Ok Lee, and even my costume designer, Athena Wong and we all talked a lot about what each of these choices meant to the character and to the story. I think that was like the extent of it was in a way, just the translation into a different medium.
To go back to the podcast a little bit, you feature your actual family in the podcast. Actor Tzi Ma seemed to get your dad so right, with the mannerisms and the energy, he really captured something from a five-minute cameo in a podcast. I mean Awkwafina’s perfect as Billy, who is supposed to be you. Could you talk a little bit about the casting process with Tzi Ma, Awkwafina and the rest of the wonderful cast?
Yeah. I guess I knew that I would never find people that were going to be exactly the real people because we’re not making a documentary. So it came down to really like, you know, what’s the essence that I’m looking for each character? Trying to figure that out about myself was the hardest because I’m just sort of like, “What am I? ”
(Laughs) Who is…
“Who is that?” about me. Like, you know, that’s such a weird, meta thing and you never can do it. And it’s even weirder to ask your friends because then they’re just like, “Well, you’re like… this, Well, let’s not talk. I don’t want it.” And so with all the other actors, it was a lot easier. My dad is a diplomat, he’s very fluid in both cultures. He speaks very good English because he’s a translator and he’s so comfortable and fluid, that he tells jokes in English. We never get to see that. We never get to see an Asian father that isn’t like playing, a very Asian with a capital A father. Right? Where he’s just a father, he’s just a dad who tells dad jokes, you know, and that is my dad. And so I knew that Tzi Ma would be perfect. He was easy because I had seen him in everything. He reminds me of like the Asian Bill Murray. You know when he’s sad, he’s funny?
He just has a great face and he’s familiar to the audience already in the way that a dad would be. He feels very comfortable. The mom we cast, Diana Lin from Australia. Again we really wanted somebody who wasn’t playing an Asian mom putting on an accent. She just felt really smart and witty. That was important because the mom can be pretty tough. It was important that it was somebody who understood the sarcasm and the irony and you could tell that they were smart and they weren’t just being mean. With everyone in the cast, it was sort of like that, like “What’s the factor I’m looking for? What’s the charm of the character?” Every single character I think has something really special and charming about them. Even, you know, even if they all come from a different point of views or they have very small roles.
For Awkwafina it was a little more challenging. I didn’t know she was the right one until I actually saw her audition tape. She sent in a self-taped audition and it wasn’t that I saw myself in her, it was that when I saw her on camera, I thought, “That’s Billy.” It was the first moment where I wasn’t like trying to intellectualize it and go, “Is she similar to me? Does she looked like me?” It was more just like, “Oh, that’s Billy.” She captures what it feels like to be a foreigner in your home country, feeling like an outsider there. She captures the pain, the loss, and she does all of that without saying a word, just on her face. So for me, Billy was a vessel, for all Asian Americans, for women, for the entire audience regardless of who they are, to be introduced to this family and go on this journey.
You just called Tzi Ma the “Asian Bill Murray.” You also talked about how you worked very closely with your production designer, your costume designer, and your DP. I noticed while watching this film the symmetry created in the frame and that you mastered the group reaction shot so well. It had almost like a Wes Anderson quality to it. And He works very closely with his team as did you and obviously you mentioned that the Bill Murray thing. Can you talk about your influences a little bit and how you apply them to such an original story?
Thank you. Yeah. I mean I grew up watching Wes Anderson. One of the first art-house directors that I came to absolutely love. But you know, for this film I also was looking towards, a lot of like European cinema. So in a weird way, maybe the influence of Wes Anderson seeped in? But there’s also like Mike Leigh was a really big inspiration. I love British humor. To me, like that dry, wry kind of humor is very much the sense of humor of my family. And so Mike Lee was a big inspiration, Ruben Östlund, who did Force Majeure, was a huge influence. He often used the same kind of like wide frames, letting things play out. You know, he called Force Majeure, a family comedy-thriller…
You know? And I was just like, “I get that! I get that!” You know, cause what the person is going through, from the outside, it seems that it’s not a big deal. It’s not like zombies and apocalypse, but to them internally, it’s like massive. Everything is falling apart. And that’s very much how I felt when I was going through the experience was that I felt emotions to epic proportions. And so I wanted to like capture the exaggerated epicness of it that made it funny.
Thank you so much for sitting down with me. I really appreciate it.
The Farewell – IN THEATRES NOW