‘The Farewell’ director hopes demand for diverse storytelling isn’t temporary

The Farewell stars Awkwafina as Billi, a young adult struggling with life’s goals when she learns that her grandmother is dying of cancer. The family travels back to their homeland of China under false pretenses of a family wedding so they can gather to say goodbye to Nai Nai (Shuzhen Zhao). 
Based on writer/director Lulu Wang’s own life, The Farewell is filled with heartfelt laughter and love accentuating the bonds of family. After a screening at Chicago Critics Film Festival, Wang answered questions with the audience and me to give further insight into this film that is sure to be a highlight of the summer. [Interview is edited for clarity and space.]
Pamela Powell (PP):  The film is your life, but first you told your story through the NPR show This American Life.  Tell us how it started here and then became the film.
Lulu Wang (LW):  When this was happening to me, I was actually in post-production of my first feature film which is a screwball comedy, and as it was happening, I was like well, this is why I love screwballs is because my life is a screwball.  This is so ridiculous yet so sad and I knew I wanted to make it into a movie, but a lot of the initial people that I pitched it to were like, we love that idea, but can you just like make it different. … I very quickly saw that it was deviating from the story that I wanted to tell so I put it aside for awhile and I was working on other projects.  I was doing film festivals with a short film I had made when a producer from This American Life approached me and he said, “I love your voice. What other stories do you have? I’d love to get you on the show.” So I pitched this story and it got on right away. … Of course, once the story aired on NPR, within 24 hours, producers were calling me, wanting to make it as a film.  And there were so many producers calling me that I actually got to make a decision and I got to choose who I wanted to make it. I got to interview them as opposed to pitching. I got to walk in and say, alright so you, like everyone else, wants to make it, but how do you want to do it? And I was able to pick the producers who saw my vision and wanted to advance my vision.
PP:  And the Sundance Institute helped you develop this?
LW: I did a lab at Sundance and it was really helpful.  We did a workshop and did a writing exercise that just allowed for me to go even deeper with the characters.
PP:  Do you think things are changing for women in the film industry?
LW:  It certainly feels like they’re changing for the demand for stories from people from diverse backgrounds.  I don’t know if it’s fast enough, but what I’ll say is that I hope that it’s not just a moment. That it’s not just a trend, as Crazy Rich Asians made a lot of money so now we’re just going to Asian stories the way that Twilight made a lot of money, [then] everyone wanted to make vampire movies.  I hope that that’s not the way people are seeing diversity and it just continues as a way to represent what this country actually is and the people who live in [it].

Jian Yongbo, Kmamura Aio, Chen Han, Tzi Ma, Awkwafina, Li Ziang, Tzi Ma, Lu Hong and Zhao Shuzhen in The Farewell.

PP:  Tell me about casting Awkwafina who has an incredible performance, and to be honest, a very unexpected one.
LW:  My producer brought her name up and they said there’s this woman named Awkwafina.  I don’t know if you know her. It was before Crazy Rich Asians and Oceans 8 so I knew her because my brother introduced me to her music and to have the girl who did “My Vag,” that’s who you want?  Are we like on the same page here? This is a drama, it’s funny, but it’s a drama!
I have to admit, I was skeptical because just based on her work, she didn’t have a lot of [experience] as a lead role or dramatic experience, but then we met and she shared with me that she was raised by her Chinese grandmother. Her mom died when she was four. Her mother was Korean and her father’s side was Chinese.  His mother raised her, and so it was such a personal story to her.
She sent a self tape of a couple scenes, and I was watching it recently, actually, and I remember the moment that made me realize that I had to cast her.  It was not when she was speaking the lines, it was in all the moments when she was on the camera waiting for the person to deliver the line and she was listening and she was silent.  She had so much emotion on her face when she was silent. And those were the moments that I knew she was the right one for the role.  
PP:  Shuzhen Zhao plays Nai Nai with absolute perfection.  Who is she?
LW:  She is a very famous soap opera actress in China and so she’s worked a lot in her lifetime and also gets paid a lot of money.  And she [said], this is my rate and we were like, “Whoa!” That’s not what we budgeted and I had to fight for her. When we first got to China, we started casting [and] we saw a bunch of people, most of which the ones that were good we couldn’t afford so we were casting directors at the park every day.
PP:  Just going to random parks?
LW:  Yes, every park around the city, they were just stopping old ladies!
PP:  No arrests were made and everything was ok, though, right?
LW: Everything was ok. (Laughs) But a lot of them were trepidatious and then other people were really hammy, but they’re not actors.  We did that for a few weeks before I finally put my foot down and found Zhoa and said this is the woman. We’ve got to make it work.
PP:  This story has connections with cultures around the world, not just Chinese.
LW: It started with This American Life. People did hear it all over the world and they were able to say yeah, my family’s Iranian and we did this to my grandma and I thought we were the only culture that did that. 
PP:  Music is a very important and very unusual score in this film.  Tell me about that.
LW: I knew I wanted a classical score and I didn’t want piano to be in it.  I said I wanted an all vocal score. It was really inspired by the Greek choir.  It basically is a group that sings as a unified voice as a collective and makes a commentary as a collective.
Audience Question:  Is your cousin still married?
LW:  My cousin is still married.  They’re good. (Pauses) I think they’re good.  (Another pause) I don’t know. (Laughter)
The Farewell opens in New York July 12 (and in select theaters July 19)
© Pamela Powell (7/9/19) FF2 Media

Photo credits: Nick West /A24 Films.  Big Beach Films, Depth of Field, Kindred Spirit 

Tags: Lulu Wang, The Farewell

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New York native film critic and film critic Pamela Powell now resides near Chicago, interviewing screenwriters and directors of big blockbusters and independent gems as an Associate for FF2 Media. With a graduate degree from Northwestern in Speech-Language Pathology, she has tailored her writing, observational, and evaluative skills to encompass all aspects of film. With a focus on women in film, Pamela also gravitates toward films that are eye-opening, educational, and entertaining with the hopes of making this world a better place. 
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