Lulu Wang on family dramedy The Farewell

Lulu Wang, indie rising star and director of The Farewell, talks about her personal journey behind the scenes of the film

Feature by Thomas Atkinson | 13 Sep 2019
  • The Farewell

Lulu Wang is having a hell of a year. At Sundance in Utah, she debuted her sophomore film, The Farewell, to rapturous acclaim. At Sundance London, the film won the Audience Award (quite right, too). And when The Farewell opened in the US, under the prestigious A24 distribution banner, it had one of the highest opening weekend theatre averages of all time – almost $90,000 per theatre.

Yet, for all the buzz surrounding this breakthrough talent, the film for which she has been anointed a bright new star in the indie world is remarkably low-key and deeply personal. A retelling of Wang’s own experiences, it stars Awkwafina as Billi, a Chinese-American whose family is coming together in China for a wedding. But it is actually a ruse. The matriarch of the family, Nai Nai, has terminal lung cancer and has not been informed of her diagnosis. The wedding is an excuse for the family to see her again without alerting her to her illness until it can’t be hidden anymore.

At Sundance London, The Skinny met up with Wang to get deeper into the making of the movie.

The Skinny: Just to begin, how much of the film is autobiographical?

Lulu Wang: I think the plot is where it’s the least loyal to the facts. Where I really stand true to what happened are the emotions, the dynamics between family members, and in the experience of it.

Are those family members all based on real people?

Yeah, they are.

Because there’s such a charming specificity to them all, was it challenging extracting those details from real life and putting them onscreen so that it works both as a film and is true to life?

It was definitely challenging because you can’t ever really capture somebody in their full experience. There’s just not enough time with that many characters, so I did have to distil them down to what was essential and what was important for the movie. For example, my father was a diplomat in the Soviet Union and speaks fluent Russian. Both he and the actor who played him [Tzi Ma] really wanted to put that in the movie. But there’s just no place for it. A movie is like a web and you have to figure out where the centre is. You try as much as you can to spread that web and go as wide as you can, but there are limitations. And that’s also what makes a film beautiful: you keep it focused. I’m not doing a biopic, you know?

Zhao Shuzhen is incredible, and according to IMDb, she has no previous screen credits. Where did you find her?

Well, IMDb, as far as I know, is a very Western thing. She’s actually very established in China. She’s a very well-known soap opera actress, and she’s been on television a lot. I had been casting actresses to play that role for a while. We were in parks scouting non-actors all over the city, trying to talk to strangers, until I saw some of Zhao’s work. Immediately I knew she was the one. There was just a universality to her warmth and the way that she looked that I knew would be iconic. I needed somebody who felt like an iconic grandmother.

I had to actually beg her. I called her and begged her to do the movie, because she gets so many offers and gets paid so much money that it’s difficult to afford her. So I almost cried into the phone and said, “I’ve been looking for months and you’re the one. You have to do this.” And she finally agreed. In real life, she’s so much sweeter than the character so I really had to direct her to let go of the sweetness. I was like, “You’re sweet enough,” but I wanted to bring out the bossiness of the matriarch that my grandmother is.

It seems like Nai Nai represents the last ties that Billi has to China. Is that a feeling you were trying to get at in the film?

Absolutely, because whenever she goes back to China, it’s always her grandmother who gets everyone together. She’s the lynchpin of the family. I very much wanted to explore my own feelings of what it’s like when you lose that matriarch. Will the family still stay together?

She’s so sweet but she also calls Billi “stupid child”, in a way that still felt affectionate, somehow.

I think that is a pretty essential element of her, the fact that she is this very strong-willed woman. The film is an exploration of all of these strong women, who are strong in their own ways and have conflicts with each other. But I think the fact that she’s so bossy was important to the story because it’s one of the last times Billi may see her be able to be bossy. As she gets ill, and she doesn’t know it yet, the last thing she would want to lose is her ability to be who she is, her identity as the boss. So I needed her to not be this passive grandma.

There are lots of scenes that feel as though you’ve strategically placed your cameras, then let the actors do their thing and found the sequences in the edit. Was that multi-camera or was it single-camera?

None of it was multi-camera. It was pretty much all single. In fact, everything was very carefully blocked. We didn’t have a lot of coverage for a lot of scenes, which we did as a one-er [a single take]. We figured out the blocking in the frame, we would rehearse and we would just do as many takes as it took – sometimes 11, 12, 13 takes – to get everything right. We wanted to have the mise-en-scene of the family and present the way that multiple things are happening in the scene. Everything is happening within the frame and the audience gets to choose what they focus on. If you focus on something in the foreground, you may get really sad, but if you focus on something in the background you might find it funny.

So the sequence with Billi’s family in the restaurant where there are three people in the frame at a time, those were all one-ers cut together?

Yes. With that scene, we knew we don’t have the time to cover everyone individually, so you have to do three. But we also wanted to have overlap. So, basically, we set the table, we had everybody sit, we put the camera down, and we’d run it. Then we’d say, “Shift, go again, shift, go again,” and just went around the table. And you also had to think food continuity, because you’re always seeing the rotating table, with the food in the foreground. So, it was the most difficult scene to edit.

Has Nai Nai seen the film?

She has not seen the film yet.

Is it all still a secret?


The Farewell is released 20 Sep by Entertainment Films