Writer and director Lulu Wang found a fascinating family story for her second film — her own family. The Farewell follows a Chinese family's decision not to tell their beloved matriarch that she's been diagnosed with terminal lung cancer. Their complicity in the secret reveals truths about their relationships to one another.
Comedian Awkwafina plays main character, Billi, who resists their decision to shield her grandmother from the truth. If this story sounds familiar, Wang told it herself in an episode of This American Life. She stopped by On Second Thought to talk about the new film which kicked off the Atlanta Film Festival.
The Atlanta Film Festival runs through April 14.
On when Lulu found out her family was hiding her grandmother’s cancer
It was in 2013. I was actually in post-production on my first feature when this happened and my first film was a screwball romantic comedy. Then this happened in my real life, and I thought that this was a real screwball set up. I was really sad but it was also just really ridiculous.
On how Lulu decided to make her experience a This American Life episode
As I was going through it, I started to have this notion of a need to share this with people, even if it was just with friends because some of the situations I was in felt so insane. I didn't know how to make it as a film because I wanted to keep the casting authentic [and] do part of it in Chinese language. And yet, I wanted to make it as an American film [and] an American story. It wasn't until I did the story with This American Life that I was finally able to find the right producers.
On the Asian and American cultural divide on the awareness of death
I'm not sure how much of it is so deeply ingrained, [but] there's obviously all of these philosophical reasons to back why [my family] made this decision. But I've come to learn that so many people do it [and it’s] just an unspoken, obvious truth to the culture. It wasn’t until I started questioning why they were doing it that [my family] had to even reflect on why do we do this. They dug really deep and different people in the family told me different things, [which] all made sense from their point of view. But it is definitely interesting the assumptions that we carry over through history, culture, rituals and traditions. Sometimes we think about them, and sometimes we don't.
On whether she changed real-life details for the film
Making the film is such a different beast than doing a fact based story. In some ways it's even more challenging, because when people know [the story] is journalism [and] fact based it's easy for them to believe that this is true, and immediately they're engaged. But, with a movie, people just think of Hollywood and actors and this facade. So even if you are depicting things that are real, there's a level of skepticism that audiences bring, [which] contributes to their sense of disbelief that this is really happening. We open the film with a line that says that it's based on an actual lie, but people get to the end and still forget that this is a real story. So, it was definitely challenging to figure out [which] moments and pieces I wanted to stay true to in a factual way, and how I could depict the truth even better by not sticking to facts.
On the dynamic between Billi and NaiNai
I put a lot of consideration into that because I think that it's important for people to know that two people can have this kind of a bond, even if they're not seeing each other all the time [and] even if they're of two different generations. I think the banter between the [granddaughter Billi and grandmother NaiNai] was really important to me; keeping the authenticity of that dialogue and captur[ing] this relationship that isn't always perfect, or what you think a grandma who just bakes you cookies [should be].
On who NaiNai’s character is
She's open [and direct] with everyone; that's the kind of she's a person that she is. There's a lot of humor in that because you realize she's not just somebody’s grandmother [or] somebody's mother, but she is a woman. At one time [she] was a young woman, [who] had loves of her own and dreams of her own and disappointments of her own. So I wanted to make sure that was captured.
On how actresses Awkafina and Zhao recreated that bond on screen
Awkwafina was raised by her Chinese grandmother and Zhao has grandchildren of her own, so it was so easy [for them] to bring that level of love and project it onto [another] person who is somebody else's granddaughter and somebody else's grandmother. In many ways, Billi [Awkwafina’s character] is everybody's granddaughter and Zhao is everybody's grandmother. When I was casting that's what I was looking for: both the specificity of somebody who could play my grandmother who has very specific traits, but also someone who felt universal to everybody and their grandmother.
On why she chose Awkafina for this dramatic role despite her comedic background
She sent in a self tape. She said, “I really want to do this role, and I know that my resume doesn't say that I'm the most obvious person,” but when she sent in that self tape I knew immediately that she was the one. There was just no facade there; she just felt like the character [Billi].
On the cultural displacement first-generation immigrants experience
I think many people who are immigrants, regardless of what age they came over to the U.S., [have] a sense that they're missing something. But then you go back and you also realize [that you] don't fit in here anymore. So that's what [Billi] learns quickly: that even though the love the bond is there, she starts to see how different she is. If you're blonde and blue eyed in an Asian country it's quite obvious you're a fish out of water. But what does it feel like when you actually look like everyone and everyone expects you to be like them, but you're not?
On the burden of familial expectations
The main reason [Billi’s] parents immigrated [to America] was to give her a better life. [She’s] at a stage of life [where] you’re questioning whether or not you’re successful, and you're doing all the things that you should be doing but you [still] feel that you're somehow a disappointment. She's bringing all of that baggage back to China where she wants her grandma to be proud of her, and to feel that the sacrifice of her leaving and them not spending their lives together was worthwhile. The truth is, she doesn't know that that's true.
On the “right” way to grieve
I think that culture and gender all apply to how you grieve, or how you feel you're expected to grieve versus your own personality. There [could be] an expectation that you have to grieve in a very public way but you tend to be very private, or certain cultures expect stoicism whereas other cultures expect the opposite. I think that trying to balance the expectation from your family of how you should be grieving, when also you're not supposed to be grieving because this is a secret, and then wanting to grieve and not being allowed to grieve are what [create] the underlying tension for Billi. I think that's what makes it comic and tragic, often in the same scene.
On how Lulu struck the balance between comedy and tragedy
I never direct my actors towards the comedy. I always feel that what's most important is that my actors ground the scene [and] the performances, so I direct them towards what's real. I love to create a situation where the situational comedy shows you the absurdity, while at the same time you're still maintaining empathy for the character that's in the scene.
On why Lulu made this her second project after her debut “screwball” romantic comedy
This story is also a screwball of sorts. I wanted to see if I could capture what I love about screwballs, but in a way that was also authentic to life and not necessarily boxed in by a specific genre. [I] just [wanted] to see how there are screwball situations everywhere in our lives, and [how we should] be able to balance the joy and the pathos because I think that in life joy and grief are so closely knit.
On how Lulu’s family responded
I think they're just really proud that I made it, and that people are responding to it. I remember when I was working on the film and at one point I had my dad read it and he's like, “Yeah this is what happened, but why would anyone give you money to make this?” It was so moving because to him it's just everyday, and he's a common person [who] doesn't feel like he's worthy of the big screen. My great aunt, who plays herself in the movie, felt the same way when I wanted to cast her. I wanted to show her that she is worthy of a big screen and she is a movie star in her own right. That's really exciting; that something as simple as one family story can resonate [with everyone], because this family is all of our families and their grief is all of our grief.
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