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Still from the film "The Farewell" shoes a family of 8 gathered around a large table for a meal. They all look expectantly at the camera, some turning around in their chairs to stare.

Issue 001 Fall 2020 Interviews

The Sound of Secrets: an interview with Lulu Wang

by Heidi Saman

The Farewell (2019) film still courtesy of Lulu Wang.

“I love the ridiculous. Secrets and death tend to lend themselves to being dark yet funny,” says writer and director Lulu Wang. Her self-proclaimed love of absurd humor with a touch of pathos is evident in her latest film, The Farewell(2019). Similar to Posthumous (2014), her first feature, The Farewell focuses on trying to keep a secret.

In The Farewell, Nai Nai (Zhao Shuzhen), the grandmother, is diagnosed with stage 4 lung cancer. The prognosis is grim. She is given three months to live, as was Lulu’s grandmother, whose story is fictionalized in The Farewell. Nai Nai’s extended family decides to shield her and never tell her about the diagnosis. The film focuses on this secret, and the conflict Billi (Awkwafina, in a role based on Wang) has keeping Nai Nai in the dark about her diagnosis when visiting her in China.

When I chatted with Wang, she was sheltering in place at her home in Los Angeles. She was busy writing for the upcoming Amazon original series The Expatriates, based on Janice Y. K. Lee’s novel of the same name.

Portrait by Tatyana Fazlalizadeh. The drawing features a woman with flowing hair and rimmed glasses. She looks forward, unsmiling with lightly arched eyebrows.
Portrait by Tatyana Fazlalizadeh.

It’s important to constantly remind yourself what excited you about the story in the first place, and what’s the version of the story that stays most true to that essence.

Heidi Saman: As children of immigrants or immigrants ourselves, there’s often a big difference between how we process conflict versus how our parents do. There’s a lot my parents don’t talk about—perhaps, the epic process of emigrating makes every other problem small in comparison. Our generation likes to talk about our experiences and assign labels to them, exacerbating the gap between parents and children in many immigrant cultures. Have you found this to be true?

Lulu Wang: There are a lot of things that are unspoken—and I don’t just mean in terms of my movie The Farewell and that lie, but even in terms of mental health. I just listened to [a podcast] with a Chinese American immigrant talking about her experience of racism since COVID, and being verbally attacked. She said her mom would probably say: “Is it something you can fix? Why are you telling me any of this? To tell me how you feel?” If you don’t put energy towards it, then does it matter? I resonate with that because that’s how my mother is. Whereas [with] our generation, there is importance in holding space for experiences, whether you can fix them or not.

HS: My parents considered it a good thing to move on and not dwell on a bad experience. There is so much I don’t know about my mom as a result because she didn’t share her hardships. But our generation can talk about our bad experiences—I dare say, too much sometimes. I can almost find something healthy about our parents’ mentality of just plowing through tough experiences.

LW: I feel the same way—I fluctuate between one extreme versus the other.

People always ask, “Do you think your family is right in not telling [the secret]?” I don’t have an answer, because every situation is different. I’m interested in secrets, because they are integral to narrative, to storytelling. Not just intentional secrets, but the things we don’t tell each other, and what we don’t tell ourselves. How often do we go through life with major narrative information that we intentionally put into a cabinet in our minds and close the door because we’re not ready?

Still from the film "The Farewell" is an image taken from the inside of an MRI machine. A circle in the center of the frame shows an elderly woman in a blue medical gown, sitting and preparing to enter the machine. A hand can be seen holding on to her wrist as she looks, presumably at a medical professional, off screen.
The Farewell (2019) film still courtesy of Lulu Wang.

HS: You first shared the story of hiding your grandmother’s illness on This American Life, because it was hard to find funding for The Farewell. Is there anything you learned in creating an audio version of the story that informed the film version?

LW: When developing a film, it’s easy to lose sight of why you wanted to tell that story in the first place, particularly when you get a lot of no’s and people don’t want to make the film. You want to adapt. You want people to see your vision, to finance your film, and partner with you. You start to go, Maybe if I pitch it this way, or maybe if I shift it that way. Sometimes at the end, you think, This isn’t what I set out to do. It’s important to constantly remind yourself what excited you about the story in the first place, and what’s the version of the story that stays most true to that essence.

This American Life is fact-based, so I couldn’t make anything up. It simplified the story for me—this is what happened in my family, this is why I was so conflicted, this is the challenge I was facing, this is what I did, this is how my family responded. That’s how we built the story, from these very basic facts. This American Life proved simple worked. People responded because of the earnestness, the purity of the storytelling.

HS: It’s interesting what editing tells you about your story—it is where I’ve learned most about my writing and directing. Has that been the case for you?

LW: I learn quite a bit from editor Matt Freeman. He would make me defend frames—not scenes, not shots, frames. Matt likes to strip the movie down to its skeleton. So basically, no fat. He cuts this version of the movie that’s seventy or eighty minutes. It’s way too fast, there’s no emotion in it, but it communicates what it needs to communicate. Then we put the fat back in, very intentional about why a moment needs to be longer. That process makes me feel better about cutting things. The other way, you start with the fat, and it’s like pulling teeth. You don’t want to lose anything. It’s a lot less efficient.

Still from the film "The Farewell" shows a couple preparing for a photo in front of a large, pink heart. An older woman leans in to touch the cheek of the young woman and fix her hair.
The Farewell (2019) film still courtesy of Lulu Wang.

HS: Tell us about your writing process.

LW: I think about Matt’s voice. I try the skeleton version if I get stuck, and then I add stuff.
When I used to live alone, I would write at night until the wee hours of the morning. I often did that with The Farewell. I would procrastinate and procrastinate and procrastinate until I couldn’t anymore. Then I would lock myself in my apartment, social quarantine–style, really extreme. I do that less now that Barry [Jenkins] and I are living together. We both try not to work at night, so we take advantage of the mornings. It’s when I consistently get the most writing done.

HS: You played piano on The Farewell’s soundtrack. Did you hear music as you were writing? How and when does music come into your filmmaking?

LW: I always hear music early on. I listen to things while I’m writing. Sometimes I’ll write songs into the script. I was classically trained and [have] played piano since I was four, so music is a big part of my storytelling. Consciously, I choose certain playlists while I’m writing, and that influences my writing and whether or not I include a song. Subconsciously, I find every movie, every show, every story has its own rhythm. The Farewell’s final hard cut to Billi hugging her grandma, this vacuum where they are silent, then back to [the family] screaming, and then back to silence in the car. The rhythm was the soundscape of them yelling, because they can’t face the silence or the goodbye.

Watch Lulu Wang and Heidi Saman continue their conversation at the 2020 BlackStar Film Festival: