“I had to say no a lot,” Wang told Refinery29 during an interview at the A24 offices in New York, a month before the film’s July 12 limited release. And it’s a good thing she did. The emotional wounds explored in Lulu Wang’s poignant, bittersweet family tale aren’t the kind that can be solved with a leg of lamb, or a spritz of Windex, a la Big Fat Greek Wedding.
Based on director Wang’s own family story, which she first shared on This American Life in 2016, The Farewell is a highly specific tale with universal appeal. Awkafina stars as Billi, a Chinese-born, American-raised writer in her thirties, whose extremely close to her China-based grandmother Nai Nai (Shuzhen Zhou), whom she rarely sees. So when she finds out that her family is planning on concealing her grandmother’s terminal cancer diagnosis from her, in keeping with Chinese tradition, Billi is understandably distraught. Rather than make a fuss, the family has planned an elaborate wedding for Billi’s cousin Hao Hao (Han Chen), as a decoy reason to travel to Nai Nai’s hometown of Changchun. For Billi, the trip is one of self-discovery and grief, as she searches for her past in a country that’s constantly changing, and she — and her relatives — struggle to say goodbye to the beloved matriarch.
It’s an undeniably sad movie, but it’s also cathartic, and filled with celebration, joy, and hilariously dark humor. But more than anything, it tells a story that feels real, rather than some fantasy version of emotional turmoil.
Ahead, the director tells Refinery29 about the process of pitching such a personal story, casting Awkwafina in her first dramatic role, and why it’s important to take a chance on women.
Refinery29: You went through quite a process to pitch this movie. Tell me about it.
Lulu Wang:“In the beginning, I pitched some people where they were like, ‘Yeah, it's a funny concept, that it's a wedding but it's not a wedding, but, obviously, Billi needs to be the bride in order for this movie to make sense.’ They said, “Because she should bring home the white boyfriend that she doesn't get along with anymore, and they're ready to break up, and now she has to marry him for grandma,’ and hilarity ensues, right?
“I actually made a very intentional choice to not give Billi any kind of love interest. That's not a part of the story. It was weird to have these conversations with financiers who wanted that version of the movie. I'm like, But my entire movie is about the fact that she's not getting married, and her grandmother is dying and the guilt of that. Also, what's funny to me is that it's a wedding movie that's like where the bride and groom are forgotten about.
Right. It's not at all about the wedding.
“Everybody's performing this wedding. But I love that oftentimes grandma has to be like, ‘Let's not forget why we're all here.’ Then we're like, Oh yeah, the bride and groom. And they're just sitting there like, “We're just pawns in this scheme.”
“I had to say no a lot, and I think throughout the process I really discovered the power of saying no, because it means that you're creating space for the right partners and the right opportunities that come through the door, and that's what happened. [Production companies] Big Beach and Depth of Field were very supportive of my vision.”
The movie is based on your own family’s story. How did you balance how much of yourself to put in there versus how much to leave out?
“For Billi, the main character that's kind of based on me, I felt very much that it was important to show the all-encompassing unconditional love between her and her grandmother, that exists almost in a time capsule because she left [China] at such a young age. Her grandma always sees her as that 6-year-old girl, as opposed to her parents often being like, ‘Well, you don't do this right,’ and all of these expectations. Sometimes I joke that Asian parental love is very conditional. And then also her sense of loss for the future of what her grandma will miss out on. That was a really big part of it, to say, She'll never see that.”
What went into casting Awkwafina?
“In her audition tape, I remember screenshotting moments and sending it to my producer, and being like, ‘That's her. She's the one.’ It wasn't in the moments where she was even reading lines or acting, it was [when] Nora [Awkwafina’s real name] was silent, and she was reacting, she was listening, she was processing — you really saw that all of her emotions were on her face. Billi, throughout the movie, doesn't always speak her mind, and she's not able to talk about how she's feeling, so it was important that I had an actor who could convey everything that was going on through their eyes. Nora felt really authentic, and I knew that she would bring a lot of her own personal experiences to the character.”
How much of Billi is what Awkwafina brought to her?”
“Quite a lot. I told Nora that she wasn't playing me in the movie. Billi is a character that I created that goes through the experience I went through, and has the emotions that I had, but it wasn't about mimicking my behavior, or the way I talk, because it's not a biopic about me. The sense of foreignness when she goes back to China — She studied abroad there, in Beijing, like I did during college — [that] was very familiar to her, to feel like a fish out of water in a country where you're supposed to be connected because it's where your family comes from.
“In every scene, I told her, ‘If you ever feel lost, all you need to do is think about your grandmother and think about losing her. You're eating, and you're thinking your grandma's going to die. You're sitting there, you're thinking, My grandmother's going to die.'” You see that through the film, that even when she's being a little bit funny, or when she's with her parents, at every moment she's just imbued with a sense of loss.”
Billi’s search for a sense of identity is a big part of this movie, especially as she’s searching for her past in a place that’s constantly changing. Where you filming in locations that had special meaning to you?
“I wanted to do what was best for the movie, because we're not making a documentary, [but] it was really funny — we looked at like a dozen banquet halls, and ended up shooting in the banquet hall where my cousin got married. We looked at multiple cemeteries and ended up shooting in my grandfather's cemetery, and ultimately just shot at my grandfather's grave, because we didn't need permission. It has his name and photo. I left China at 6, he died after I had left, and I never went back to see him. So, that was really meaningful.”
One scene I really loved showed Billi overhearing a conversation between her grandmother and her friends from back in her army days. We know our grandparents at one specific time in their life, but that moment alludes to this whole other life that Billi knows nothing about.
“I was also learning a lot of that stuff as I was writing the script and talking to my family. That was sort of a reminder that your grandmother's not just your grandmother. At one point she was a young woman, and she was in love. What are the choices that she's made, and what are regrets that she has? It gives her this agency and identity, where it makes you think even more, would they want to know [about their disease]? Are there things that they want to do before they are gone? Because they are a full-blown person and not just a big relationship to the family.”
You had a lot of women in below-the-line jobs. Was that an intentional choice, or a happy accident?
“A little bit of both. It's important to hire the people that you connect with emotionally. And I wanted to make sure I had a pool of people that was inclusive, where the pool that I was selecting from had a balanced number of women and women of color to men and people who are not of color. Often, when you get lists from the agencies, it's based on experience, and who are the people that had all this experience? It’s not balanced. So I did have to look beyond the agency list.
When I found [Director of Photography] Anna [Franquesa Solano], it was actually through my production designer. She had no agent at the time, and she was not in union, so the producers were like, “We can't have a non-union DP when we're shooting in New York.’ I was like, I don't care what it takes. This is who I want, and we fought for her. Now she's repped by one of the biggest agents. That, to me, was sort of representative of why it's important to make sure that you are looking analytically at the pool of people that you're being provided, making sure that there is proper inclusion in those pools.”
When I talk to women directors, it's usually an issue that’s very much on their mind. I’m not saying men don’t care, but they do tend to pick from the same pool over and over again.
“They’re picking based on credits. To me, it was like, how do I pick a DP; how do I pick an editor? How do I pick creative people? It's not about credits, it's about, do I feel something when I see their work? What about a camera makes you feel something? What about lighting makes you feel something?”
Have you been surprised by the kind of tidal wave of reactions to the movie?
Oh my gosh, yes. I made this — I don't want to say small, because what does that mean? — I made this very specific story about my family, and I even tried to not over explain things. There were times when non-Chinese people would be like, ‘Well, do you think people are going to get this?’ I'd be like, ‘I don't know. But sometimes I don't understand it.’ Right? When I go back to China, there's a lot of things I don't understand, but it doesn't get in the way of understanding the more important things. So, for example, there’s a character I call Goo-Goo where they were like, ‘Well, is it clear what her relationship is to the family?’ I'm like, “I don't know. I go back to China all the time where I don't know. I'm not totally clear about the relationship.”
“I didn't know if people would understand my perspective. I didn't know if people would understand or relate to the family dynamics. I was just hoping that people wouldn't hate it, because it's such a tribute to my family and my grandmother.”