On Story

S10 E2 | FULL EPISODE

A Conversation with Lulu Wang

This week on On Story, Lulu Wang, writer/director of The Farewell, discusses writing and directing the autobiographical story of her family’s decision to lie to her grandmother about her terminal illness and instead plan a wedding to say their final goodbyes.

AIRED: April 18, 2020 | 0:26:48
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TRANSCRIPT

[lounge music]

♪ ♪

♪ ♪

- The best response you can have to a payoff in a thriller

is someone goes, "Oh, right, I forgot, of course..."

[multiple voices chattering]

[Narrator] On Story offers a look inside

the creative process from today's leading

writers, creators, and filmmakers.

All of our content is recorded live

at Austin Film Festival and at our year-round events.

To view previous episodes, visit OnStory.tv.

[Narrator] On Story is brought to you in part

by the Alice Kleberg Reynolds Foundation,

a Texas family providing innovative funding since 1979.

[waves]

[kids screaming]

[wind]

[witch cackling]

[sirens wail]

[gunshots]

[dripping]

[suspenseful music]

[telegraph beeping, typing]

[piano gliss]

From Austin Film Festival, this is On Story.

A look inside the creative process from today's

leading writers, creators, and filmmakers.

This week's On Story, Lulu Wang,

writer, director of The Farewell.

- I always knew that it was a story that took place

over the course of these few days.

It's literally about the farewell,

about the goodbye itself.

And every time I go back to China,

for the last like 20 years, you're-you're--

you feel almost the same kind of sadness,

the same kind of farewell because you don't know,

as people are getting older,

you don't know if you're gonna see them again.

[paper crumples]

[typing]

[typewriter ding]

[Narrator] In this episode, Lulu Wang,

writer, director of The Farewell,

discusses writing and directing the autobiographical story

of her family's decision to lie to her grandmother

about her terminal illness, and instead plan a wedding

to say their final goodbyes.

[typewriter ding]

- Something's going on.

Just tell me what's going on.

- Your nana's dying.

She has stage four lung cancer.

The doctor says she has three months,

could be faster, you never know.

- So can you talk about the experience first of

when you realized that was a story you needed to tell

this way as a film and how you started to approach

the content in a way that you experimented

with the kind of material you were gonna share with us

and the kind of material you decided was too personal.

- Yeah, I think that for me,

when this happened in my real life,

I got the call from my mom

and my grandma's sick and all that.

I was in the middle of post production on my

first feature which was a screwball romantic comedy.

And I was frustrated, and sad, and angry,

and I thought, well, this is so like my family

and this is why I love screwball comedies,

because my family is absurd

and this is a screwball set up.

So that was my first intuition was like,

it's a screwball set up, but then going through it,

it felt like much more.

'Cause I'd always wanted to tell a story about my family,

but I just didn't want the logline of it

to be like immigrant family from China story.

That's the story, right?

I felt like I needed a vehicle

and particularly one that would show off the humor

of the culture and of the family.

And so, yeah, I guess it was really about the juxtaposition

of the humor and the joy with the pathos

that made me wanna tell it and then ultimately,

you know, yeah, like figuring out is my responsibility

first and foremost to the film, which is to tell the truth,

or is it to my family, which is to protect them?

And sometimes I couldn't do both.

And so that was always the struggle of like,

who do I ask permission from and when do I just do it

regardless of how they might feel

and what are the things to include in the film?

And figuring that out meant I had to figure out

what the story was ultimately about.

And for me, it was about this family that was one family,

but spread out around the world because of immigration

and pursuing different dreams,

and now have different perspectives

and different world views,

and they also have different relationships

to the matriarch that they're losing.

And so the things that I knew I needed to explore

was how it actually helped to show why these characters

grieved and what they were grieving beyond

just that person.

- What were your feelings in the process of deciding

how to tell the story that made you feel like,

yeah, this could be a screwball comedy.

Even though there was no other love interest,

which there often is, you know?

- Well, I think I'm always drawn,

I don't wanna say always,

but for a lot of projects I'm drawn to the humor

and to the absurdity.

And so the comedy was the most obvious part first.

And if anything it was like the comedy came first,

the humor came first, and then I had to tone it back

'cause most people saw it because of the screwball setup.

The absurdity of the setup,

they saw it as like a broader comedy,

like a true screwball

or a true sort of farce kind of movie.

So it was like, how do I keep the humor,

the situational humor without leaning into it?

It's more of an awkward humor where you're not sure

if you're supposed to laugh,

which is also kind of how I felt during the entire event

in reality, where I was like,

is anybody else know this is funny?

[audience laughing]

Like when my uncle started crying and I was like,

but you guys don't know.

He kept saying to me, "Don't cry," and look at him now.

[crowd clapping]

- Secondarily, I think the other tonal realization I had

was that I wanted to capture the tension in dread.

And the challenge of that is, again,

that we're watching a lot of people not doing something,

not saying something, or not acting up on something.

How do you visualize that?

And I started to realize that

that's what horror films do, right?

We're constantly--

with horror films, you create the setup

and then the camera helps to create the dread.

Like, you know that there's a monster somewhere.

As long as you know that it's there

and it could attack at any moment,

then everybody can keep doing what they're doing.

You know, but we feel the monster in the room

and whether it's with music, or camera push, or whatever,

so then I decided, okay, that's what the lie is.

The lie is the monster that can rear its head at any moment.

And so with every scene,

let's try to find ways to make that felt.

- Should've called first!

[typewriter ding]

- Can you talk about the process of when you decided,

oh yeah, I'm gonna do this for This American Life,

and then how you started to work through your actual story?

Were you're already writing the script then,

or did it help you actually finish the process?

How did that work?

- Yeah, it definitely helped a lot

and it actually allowed me to take a different approach

to the script because,

and this is a writer's thing,

but I think it's also just an identity thing,

which is that when you're a marginalized voice

to some degree,

I think that I'd gotten used to compromising.

It was almost like on some level I knew I would,

I thought I would always have to compromise

so that that became the norm.

So when people started giving me notes

on how to change the script in order for them

to even be interested in making the film

and green lighting the film, my first instinct wasn't,

oh, I'm not gonna change anything.

I'll just keep fighting

until someone wants to make my movie.

That doesn't happen for a film that is like 85% in Mandarin

and subtitled but is an American film.

[audience laughing]

And so you're just like, this is already an impossible feat.

So that's when I did This American Life because I was,

which was a coincidence.

I was on a festival tour with a short film

and Neil Drumming, who was a new producer at the time

at This American Life said, "I really like your voice.

"I'm trying to find stories from underrepresented voices

"that haven't been given a voice on This American Life

"quite as much.

"What other stories do you have

that maybe Hollywood's not letting you tell?"

'Cause he knew that I was primarily a filmmaker.

I said, "Well, it's funny you should ask.

I've been working on the story about my grandmother,"

and pitched it and like immediately everyone was like,

"That's crazy, that happens?

"Is that normal?

What did you guys do?"

And what was so wonderful is,

because there are journalists there that immediately

it was like curiosity and investigation and going,

that's wild, so then what?

And it's not in their wheelhouse to go,

well, how do we change the story to make it more exciting?

It was more like, this concept is crazy,

let's investigate.

And no one had done that before.

Can you imagine a Hollywood producer being like,

that's so fascinating, and then how did you feel?

[audience laughing]

And how do you think we can visualize that emotion

on the screen?

Whereas with This American Life ,

it has to be based on factual accuracy.

So you're trying to find the drama

within what actually happened

and trying to find the best way to represent that

as opposed to just immediately jumping to like,

okay, she's gotta bring home a boyfriend

who can't use chopsticks, and everyone laughs at him.

That'll be funny.

I'm like, well, that was not the drama.

The drama was the fact that I actually didn't have a partner

at the time and my grandma's dying.

And she's like, "When am I gonna see you get married?"

And that's much more internal and it's harder to represent,

but that is the tension of the film for me.

- Question, do you know about my grandma's condition?

How bad is she?

And you can tell me the truth.

[Doctor] The cancer is quite advanced.

[Billi] Shouldn't we tell her?

- There were a couple of really distinct scenes

where they're at that table that's moving round,

which actually was,

it was a really interesting scene.

It was one of my favorite scenes in the movie,

for so many things, for the information that you get in it

and for the distraction that it becomes

with that round table.

- Yeah, I think just going from script to screen,

the biggest thing was working with my DP

and in a way almost writing with the camera,

we talked about having a strong visual concept

for every scene, that was part of the storytelling.

It wasn't just a visual gimmick,

and it wasn't necessarily even flashy,

but that there was a concept

where you could go, rotating table.

Like, that's our concept.

And especially because we had so many dinner scenes,

that was the challenge of how do you make

each round table distinctive.

And so the first one, for example,

it was all about isolation.

That very first dinner when they get there at night.

And so the idea was that we are using longer lenses

that you saw over the shoulders.

And so all the other characters were obscured,

there's only one character on screen at a time

except for the bride and groom.

We always presented them as like a dual for comedy purposes.

And yeah, and then so the idea was like isolation

of each person on this screen.

And then the next morning it was different,

it was all wide shots, 'cause you really saw them as a unit.

And also the night before it's an introduction

of all of the characters.

And then with the rotating table it was this idea of like,

again, the collective unit

but sort of the circular nature of this conversation.

And to me, that's the conversation

that I have every time I go home almost.

And no one ever really wins.

And it's the questions that immigrants,

and then the people who don't immigrate ask themselves

'cause they're not sure if they made the right choice

by leaving or staying, and they're trying to weigh

and trying to figure out what's better

and defend their own choices.

- What's that mean?

- They say you're a stock investment

and you're gonna make us a lot of money.

- But I can't expect that from you, right?

You are the losing stock.

- Obviously the film is a comedic film,

but some of my favorite moments in the film

are the drama moments.

And in particular the very beginning

where she's sitting with her dad

on the bed

where you just see their backs,

and this conversation,

it just feels like her posture

and the whole thing was something

that you could imagine yourself in that moment.

- A lot of my inspiration is,

especially for this film,

is European and Ana, the DP,

has a European cinematic background.

And so that was the thing.

We knew it was a comedy,

but to keep it from being a broad comedy,

to keep it grounded, to keep the emotions really real,

we kept saying and we,

and sometimes people would make fun of us

'cause we'd be like, "We wanna make cinema."

Like, I know that that's not a cool thing sometimes,

especially on a low budget film,

'cause people can kind of roll their eyes and be like,

oh, that's so pretentious.

But we just both really love visual storytelling,

and I didn't go to film school

and it's something that I'm constantly pushing myself

to do more of because I come from a writing background,

but you can do so much visually that sometimes

takes the place of like 10 pages of dialogue.

And it's so often like the things you don't,

and again, it's like the things you don't say in the film.

It's also the things that you don't see sometimes

just seeing their backs.

That's such a lonely image

and you can project the feelings

'cause you don't actually see their faces

and you see them in the dark.

[typewriter ding]

- How did you approach Billi

and your grandmother in particular

who's obviously this iconic person to you

on the page recognizing that somebody else

was gonna bring something to that picture as well?

- I think that pretty early on I had to separate myself

from the character knowing that I was developing

not an autobiography but a character that would best serve

the story and what part of myself

am I sort of leaning into--

not necessarily even personality,

but more just like situational,

what's like the characteristic of this character

meets the circumstances that causes the conflict.

That's what they say, right?

It's all about like a particular character

in a particular moment, that's what is driving the drama.

And so what is it about this character?

And it was important that she, because she's American,

that is the heart of the drama.

If she wasn't an American, if she was Chinese,

there would be no story.

So it was important that she felt American.

What does that mean?

What does it mean to feel American?

Well, she's gotta feel really open, really outspoken,

at any moment she might just speak her mind

'cause she's a millennial, and she's transparent,

and she believes in honesty, and truth, and freedom, yay.

You know,

independent, strong female,

and then putting her in this situation

where suddenly she doesn't have a voice

and she doesn't know where to find what to do, right?

Because the challenge now for her is actually to not speak

and to not act.

And so that's what also influenced my casting decision

of like how do I find a person who feels the most American?

And like somebody who in this family

is gonna feel like a black sheep.

- Stop playing around, always hot.

- Don't be mad, Mom.

- Where'd you get the money to buy ticket?

Credit card, right?

- Mom, I'm fine.

Look at my face, look at my face,

look at my face, look.

- Take to table.

[smack]

[typewriter ding]

- I think it would be helpful for people to

hear a little bit, if they don't know already

about your background,

which is an unconventional way into filmmaking.

- Yeah, I am classically trained as a pianist

since like I was four,

it was sort of put on me, you know, Asian family.

[audience laughing]

So yeah, I definitely think like, well, first of all,

just like my music in a practical way taught me

discipline having to practice piano every single day.

And then I think, yeah,

I have a natural sense of rhythm from that.

When I think about editing,

when I think about dialogue,

that's one of the reasons I love screwball comedies

it's like His Girl Friday .

Like there's a rhythm to the banter that I love

and the way that the rhythm, and the way that dialogue

lands on a person and then you have to stay on them

for it to land and then you go

and there's just like an energy.

So I definitely think that in an unconscious way,

I think about rhythm like through editing,

because I'm editing too as I'm writing,

I'm picturing the movie in my head.

I start to listen to music when I'm writing

so that I can get a feel of the flow and the rhythm.

And I guess also just like the power of silence

'cause in music, especially classical music,

there's like rests

and then like Beethoven, right?

There's like a moment of rest and then dun-dun,

pause, dun-dun, you know?

And so playing with those kinds of pauses and rests

in The Farewell , we'd do that too.

There's like long moments of silence

and then you're like, bam, hit with music.

[dramatic classical music] -[yelling in Mandarin]

[Dad] Hey, Billi, it's the wrong way.

We have to go around.

[dramatic classical music]

[Billi] Which way are we going?

[men speaking in Mandarin]

Dad, do you know where we're going?

[Dad] This way.

[typewriter ding]

- What did your family think afterwards?

Like, is there a range of emotions from people?

- Oh gosh, well, this is a hard question.

Well, my grandma's still doesn't know.

She hasn't seen the film,

it's coming out in China in a couple of weeks.

So I'm dealing with that right now.

[audience laughing]

My family still doesn't want her to know.

My mom said, "Yeah, I know I told you to keep the secret

"and not go against the family, but that was when the secret

"was within a very small circle.

"Now the world knows and it feels a little bit wrong

"to be lying to her when the entire world knows

and she still doesn't know."

But then-then my uncle and great aunt,

they're were just like, "Nope, she's outlived her prognosis,

we're not gonna ruin that now and jinx it."

So we're still not allowed to tell her

and the movie's gonna be released.

Um, so there's that.

[audience laughing]

And then my grandma's like, every time we talk,

she's like, "Your movie's doing well, when can I see it?

What is it called so I can look it up?"

In Chinese, it's not called The Farewell ,

it's called, Don't Tell Her .

[audience laughing]

So I can't...

I'm like...

"I only know the English title,

"my Chinese isn't good enough,

"I don't know how it translates.

Ask your sister."

And then in terms of vulnerability,

it's really tough.

Like writing the script and then,

my parents didn't see it until it was at Sundance

because I wanted them to experience it in a room

with people laughing and responding so they,

which is a different perspective

than if they were just judging it on their own

on a computer at home.

And so that worked, like they were really proud.

But of course my mom felt like she was too mean

in the movie.

And she's like, "I'm nothing like that."

And then she told my boyfriend that, my boyfriend was like,

"No, you're not like that.

"She's dramatizing.

Don't take it personally, it's filmmaking."

And then my brother's like, "What are you talking about?

"She's exactly like that.

"Mom, you're exactly like that."

[audience laughing]

And then my boyfriend, the whole time,

the whole Sundance was like,

"I think your mom's really upset,

I think you should talk to her."

I was like, "You don't know my mom well enough.

"Like, yeah, she's upset, but just let her be upset."

So you're like trying to handle a lot of people's feelings.

Yeah, it's really hard.

And then also even during production

we were shooting in my grandma's neighborhood

and then she kept insisting

we should shoot in her apartment.

And then she was like, "I'll move out, put me in a hotel."

And then the producer started looking for hotel

and I was like, "It's not good enough.

"The woman has cancer, we can't."

And then we're like, "Is this reasonable to move my grandma?"

And then my grandma was sick during the production

and then she kept saying, "I'm so,"

I mean, she didn't know that she had what she has,

but she had to go to the hospital 'cause she

had infection and she was like,

"I promise you I'm not gonna die and ruin your movie."

Like, "I'm gonna be fine."

And she's on these tubes, I'm like,

"Oh my God, what if something happens?"

So it's just been like a lot of up and down.

And for my producers too,

because I don't think they've ever had to like

shoot a movie in China and literally collaborate

with my entire family.

[audience laughing]

While lying to my grandma because we had to shoot,

we shot in my grandfather's grave and like to scout,

like the cemetery scene,

that's actually at my grandfather's grave

'cause we couldn't get permission to shoot anywhere,

and also is visually what we've thought

was the most interesting.

But they had to call my aunt to figure out what grave number

and how do we get there and navigate.

Or I'd be like, "Oh, there's this one restaurant

"that I used to go to with my uncle.

"Can you call him and ask him where it is

and figure it out so that we can go scout it?"

So it was...

chaotic.

[Narrator] You've been watching A Conversation with Lulu Wang

on On Story.

On Story is part of a growing number of programs

in Austin Film Festivals On Story project,

including the On Story PBS series,

now streaming online,

the On Story radio program,

the On Story podcast,

and the On Story book series,

available where books are sold.

To find out more about On Story and Austin Film Festival,

visit onstory.tv or austinfilmfestival.com.

♪ ♪

♪ ♪

♪ ♪

[projector clicking]

[typing]

[typewriter ding]

[projector dies]

[piano gliss]

[Narrator] In this episode, Lulu Wang,

writer, director of The Farewell,

discusses writing and directing the autobiographical story

of her family's decision to lie to her grandmother

about her terminal illness, and instead plan a wedding

to say their final goodbyes.

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