Interview: ‘The Farewell’ Director and Stars Share the Joy of Bringing the Story to the Screen

The director and stars discuss the joys and fears of bringing this true story to life on the screen.

The Farewell” premiered at the Sundance Film Festival in January and quickly became one of the most talked-about films in Park City. Soon after the premiere, A24 bought the distribution rights to this beautiful, personal family story.

The film, based on an actual lie, tells the story of a family that is brought back together in their native China to say goodbye to their matriarch after she receives a terminal cancer diagnosis. The only trouble is, Nai Nai doesn’t know she is dying and, following Chinese custom, the family has no intention of telling her.

Awkwafina stars as Billi alongside well known Chinese actors Tzi Ma and Diana Lin with newcomer Shuzhen Zhao plays Billi’s grandmother.

The Farewell is based on the real-life experience of writer/director Lulu Wang. After trying for several years to turn this experience into a feature film, she had the opportunity to tell her family’s story on the NPR show, “This American Life.”

I recently had the chance to sit down with Awkwafina, Tzi Ma, Diana Lin and Lulu Wang to talk about their journey through this film, what it meant to each of them, and what they learned about themselves. First, Wang describes the feeling of taking her family’s story to Park City, Utah.

Here is a part of each of these conversations. You can find the full audio of our interviews below.

Karen Peterson/Awards Circuit: What was it like opening your film at Sundance?

Lulu Wang: Very surreal. Obviously a dream for any independent filmmaker to premiere their film at Sundance, but you know, my parents were there. They were seeing the film for the first time. My brother was there. So it was really intense. You know, just not knowing if it was going to resonate with people. In many ways, if people hated characters, they were really hating my family because I worked so hard to properly represent them. So I was just hoping that no one did.

KP: And I don’t think anyone hated it or hated them. It’s a wonderful, beautiful film. I remember when you were introducing it, you were telling the story about the journey to get it made and you were talking about being on “This American Life.” Could you recap that journey of finding a distributor and the process?

LW: In the beginning, I wanted to make the film but when I was first pitching the story, people…were asking is it an American film, is it a Chinese film? I didn’t know how to answer that. I would say it’s an American film, but I do want to cast it 100% Asian/Asian-American. And I want a lot of it to be in the Chinese language, which meant subtitles. So then people would say, “No, it’s not an American film then, it’s gotta be a foreign film.” But then Chinese investors would say, “Yeah, but if it’s a Chinese film we can’t see it through the perspective of Billi, because Chinese audiences are not necessarily going to connect with her perspective of the situation.”

It really took “This American Life” to say, “This is an interesting story. Let’s tell it, and let’s dig deeper.” And we interviewed my family members and my great aunt. For them, because they have a fast turn around and it doesn’t take millions of dollars to tell the story, they were really able to just tell the story for what it is. A human story, a family story. It also gave me the ability to choose my producer for the movie. Because many producers heard the radio story, they approached me after and wanted to make the film.

I said, “You know, I had such a pure storytelling experience doing ‘This American Life,’ which I’ve never had in Hollywood. I don’t want to make the film unless I can have that same kind of experience.” So, ultimately, it was Chris Weitz at Depth of Field and Big Beach who came on to produce and finance the movie.

KP: What did it mean for you to get to tell your story about your family the way you wanted to?

LW: It was just very eye-opening. I think it was a revelatory moment because I always assumed in many ways that I would just never do that. I hadn’t thought about all of the ways I’ve compromised my storytelling until I actually did it the right way. It’s almost like I didn’t know what was missing until I was given it. You’re given water and you go, “Oh my god, I was thirsty this whole time, I had no idea.”

And that’s what was so meaningful about doing “This American Life.” The purity of that experience of not thinking about the market first and thinking about the money and thinking about how we were going to sell it, but to come first from an exploratory, investigative place of curiosity, and to say, “God, I’ve never heard of that before. That’s wild that that happened.” And because they’re journalists they have to fact-check everything. They said, “Let’s look into this. Let’s talk to your family.” 

I never thought filmmaking in Hollywood could be that way either. Unless you were making a documentary, which I wasn’t. I think in having that experience and then in making the movie, fighting for all the specificity in the movie, and then having people who’ve seen the movie come up and tell me that they see their family in my family. They see their own grandmother even though they’re not Chinese-American. They see their grandma in my grandma. It’s just really wonderful because I’ve grown up my entire life watching families and people that don’t look like me, but I found a way to feel represented. I found a way to connect their story to my own life. To have the reverse of that, to have someone else say that by watching my film is pretty revolutionary.

Karen Peterson: What was it about this film that made it so special for you?

Diana Lin: Very special for me is I think the whole story is so genuine. It seems like a simple family drama, but it is genuine…So that’s why everyone sees and can relate…

Tzi Ma: Yeah, I think this film is unique in this respect, that there are some things about the film that are so simple and uncomplicated, whereas the other part of the film is so complicated. There’s so much family dynamics that goes on. The angst, how do we deal with one another, particularly in the face of crisis. And the outcome, the fact that what message are we sending? So really, in a lot of respects, this film encompasses kind of a vast array of concerns.

For me, that this film allows the audience to go, “I know this family. I know what they go through. This is something I’ve experienced myself. So I can feel what they feel.” That, I think, is probably what will be the film’s mass appeal to the audience. We did not make this film specifically for any audience. We made this film because we want to tell this story. And it’s a very personal story. So the fact that the feedback we’ve been getting is that everyone feels that they can relate to the story is the pot of gold at the end of the rainbow for me.

KP: You talk about the family dynamics, which is something that really struck me as I was watching. For both of you, what was it like working with the other actors so that you could have that natural bond?

TM: I think for us, we were very fortunate that we had full access to the actual family. They were there with us throughout the shoot. We were there before the shoot on our prep, we were able to spend very intimate and quality time together and separately with the people we’re portraying. That made our job in such a deep way that I think other actors would be envious of our positions that we had that much access.

DL: It is so important for an actor to create one great character, if you don’t have the chance to meet the writer, you would have to dig in. We have the writer right next to us. We got all the family right next to us and we want to dig out the relationships. We want to know the character you play, we want to know her life story more because everything is there. So all this is really the best you can do to create a great character.

TM: And I thought Lulu did a great job casting. I don’t know how she knew that we had chemistry. And I think chemistry, you can’t really force that on anybody. You either have it or you don’t. So we were very fortunate that I feel the mom and dad, in terms of the characters, is that we see their love for one another. And I hope to god that we’ve been able to capture that because I think we have really good chemistry and I really appreciate the fact that I have the opportunity to work with Diana.

DL: Awww!

TM: Truly. 

DL: I was so lucky to work with you with how good you are.

TM: You see? It’s a love fest.

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When it came time to sit down with Awkwafina, we had a surprise when Jazz Tangcay from Awards Daily joined us.

Karen Peterson/Awards Circuit: You’ve been around for a little while, but last year was really your breakthrough year, really, in these big comedies. And now you do this movie that’s a drama. What made you want to do something completely different?

Awkwafina: I think the rule for me is that when I get scripts sometimes they may not be right. It’s not a matter of, “Oh, they suck!” It’s a matter of is it right? And the scripts that speak to me in the way that “The Farewell” did, I don’t care what genre it is, I’m up for it. How specific it was and how personally I related to it, that was for sure. But I had no idea what the response would be. I didn’t wake up one day and say, “I should do drama,” and then a script came. I still have my insecurities there, obviously, but yeah. It was just a really good script. I loved it.

Jazz Tangcay/Awards Daily: You went back to China to shoot for this. What was that like? Talk about striking so close to the heart.

A: Yeah, it really was that. I think as an Asian-American, every time I went back to China or went back to Asia, there’s always kind of an inner journey that takes place where a lot of questions from your childhood come up. Like, I’ve been told my whole life to go back to China, now I’m in China and what now? But to be there filming this kind of story in Lulu’s home town, with the thought of my grandma in the back of my mind, it meant so much. And it was incredible to work with an international crew and a cast because we’re doing the same thing but differently. And so I think it was really cool to see the different ways that people do that.

KP: I was talking to Tzi and Diana earlier and they were talking about the international crew and how you have a DP from Spain–

A: Yeah, who was amazing!

KP: What was it like working with such a diverse cast and crew?

A: It was incredible. For me, it was I think the third international movie in a row because I went from “Crazy Rich Asians,” “Paradise Hills,” “The Farewell.” So I hadn’t worked in America for a couple movies. And I treasure those experiences so much.

In China, we had a blessing ceremony which I’d never had before where, you know when you go to a dim sum and there’s a stage and you never know what the use of that is? It was in one of those types and it was everyone from set, from transpo to DP, everyone was there. The camera, the literal movie camera was on the stage and it was covered. The ceremonial pig and then they say a blessing for a safe shoot. And then they take the camera off. I thought it was such a beautiful thing to have that camaraderie before you started. There was also a very emphasized sense of reverence and respect which is very important in Chinese culture. To work on a set like that, it was once in a lifetime.

JT: And shooting between the two languages, you’re not just doing English, you’re doing Chinese too. What was that like to go between the two?

A: I did not grow up in a Chinese speaking household, so I had to learn as I went. It was a major source of insecurity. I was like, “They’re going to hate the way I speak Chinese.” But if I’m speaking in another language I want to be able to know what I’m saying. I don’t want someone to come to me and then I just repeat what I heard. I want to be able to understand it. I think that after awhile my command of it became a little easier, like I could go to McDonald’s a little easier. I could find my way there a little easier. But yeah, it was really cool to be there speaking my mother tongue, if you will.

KP: You’re basically playing a version of your director. What was your relationship like with Lulu, not only as the director of the film, but also playing her?

A: Me and Lulu are very similar. We both had spent time in China, we’re both very close with our grandparents. And we both chose this industry to, maybe not the dismay of our parents but something like that. I think when it came to the character of Billi, Lulu was not precious about her. She didn’t say, “This is me and this is what I do.” It wasn’t like that. And any input I had, maybe I would instinctually do this, Lulu was always open to that. I think what Billi became at the end of the day was this vessel for really anyone in her situation. She’s very neutral of a character. You don’t know much about her personal life, her love life. You just know that she loves her grandma so much. That’s all you know about Billi. I think it’s maybe a better way to do that because I don’t know if I could imitate Lulu to that extent.

You can hear the full content of these interviews here:

“The Farewell” is distributed by A24. It is currently in limited release and will expand to cities nationwide this Friday.

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