Nominated for the Dramatic Grand Jury Prize at this year’s Sundance Film Festival and then winning Audience Favorite distinction at Sundance’s London fest, The Farewell paradoxically marked a major industry hello, signaling the high-profile arrival of director Lulu Wang.
She described her Sundance experience in Park City, Utah, as a “dream scenario,” with her parents seeing The Farewell for the first time in a theater with 1,200 people. Then came rave reviews, and a phone call Wang fielded the following night that a car was picking her up so she could be present at the bidding wars over her film.
“Everybody was coming to talk about acquiring the movie,” recalled Wang. “Six months earlier I would have had a hard time getting the chance to pitch them. Now they’re pitching to me. It was incredibly surreal.”
A24 bought the film for worldwide distribution, capping a wild ride that began with Wang seemingly having little or no chance of bringing her film to fruition. Deemed at the outset as not bankable, the premise for The Farewell was based on Wang’s family life. In 2013, she and relatives learned that her grandmother in China, affectionately referred to as Nai Nai, had stage 4 lung cancer and was given three months or so to live. That diagnosis was kept from Nai Nai, which is a conventional approach to such situations in China.
Wang’s family, who had relocated from China to Florida, reluctantly went along with the well-intentioned lie, flying back for a cousin’s wedding which was hastened as an excuse for everyone to reunite and see Nai Nai before her death.
Wang envisioned the story as delving into not only the subject of family and ethics but also cultural East/West divides, the parent/child relationship and other paradoxes of life spanning such touchpoints as grief, love, loss and identity. Wang wrote and pitched but to no avail. She wasn’t able to generate any substantive interest and at one point thought the film would never get made.
She persevered, though, and broke through thanks to the chance she got to tell the story in a This American Life public radio podcast titled “In Defense of Ignorance,” which sparked interest. Suddenly the premise became viable, supporters fell into place and a funny, dramatic, poignant film driven in part by a bravura performance from Awkwafina as Billi (a character based on Wang) became a hot property.
Sundance was the pivotal launching pad in many respects. Wang observed, “Sundance is still a place of discovery and filmmakers taking risks. A film that is 80 percent in Mandarin (with subtitles), shot in my grandmother’s home town for a fairly low budget with no big movie stars aside from Awkwafina was given a chance. For Sundance to put us into the festival as an American film in the dramatic competition was a really meaningful statement. We are seen as an American film which is what I wanted all along. We are seen as an American film as we expand our idea of what Americans look like.”
However, other key elements fell into place well prior to Sundance as Wang assembled an ensemble of artists for The Farewell, including cinematographer Anna Franquesa Solano, editors Matthew Friedman and Michael Taylor, and production designer Yong Ok Lee.
The latter proved instrumental on different fronts. For her 2015 short film Touch, Wang came together with production designer Lee who was the first person she brought on board for The Farewell. “She could do miracles with zero budget,” said Wang of Lee. But Lee’s importance wasn’t confined to the job she did on The Farewell. She also connected Wang with DP Solano.
Wang was having difficulty securing the right person to lens the film. Wang recalled the day before she was to leave for China, Lee randomly mentioned that she was having dinner at Tribeca with her friend Solano, who had recently returned from a movie shoot in China.
Wang then checked out Solano’s reel which consisted of mostly documentary work, the quality and approach of which deeply impressed Wang. “She was super empathetic about her camera and framing. I loved her composition,” remembered Wang.
Solano was reluctant to commit to The Farewell, having just returned from China. She had promised her boyfriend she’d be around awhile. Luckily the boyfriend didn’t hold her to that promise, reasoning that the feature film could be of help to her career.
Wang said that she, Solano and Lee wound up with “a strong connection” working together, which proved essential to The Farewell.
Wang already had a strong connection with editor Matthew Friedman who cut her first feature, Posthumous, but he wouldn’t be available immediately for The Farewell. She found Michael Taylor who came with her to China for the shoot.
The director explained, “We wanted an editor on set and Matt couldn’t be there since he was finishing another project. I wanted an editor on set because we were doing a lot of unconventional framing. I wanted to be able to watch and edit as we went along. Then we got back to New York and Matt became available. I wanted to have his eye again. Michael had become very attached to the material as I was. Matt provided a fresh eye. Matt comes from a studio comedy background and brought something different. He’s so specific and frugal about every shot. Every frame matters. He makes me defend every single frame, never lets me linger longer than is necessary. He helped to make the film tighter.”
Musical, multi-cultural roots
Wang is a classical pianist turned filmmaker. Born in Beijing, raised in Miami and educated in Boston, she is fluent in English, Mandarin Chinese and Spanish. At the 2014 Film Independent Spirit Awards she received the Chaz and Roger Ebert Directing Fellowship.
Her debut feature film, Posthumous starring Jack Huston and Brit Marling, was released by The Orchard. Wang was also a 2014 Film Independent Project Involve Directing Fellow and a 2017 Sundance Fellow invited to participate in the FilmTwo Initiative for second-time feature filmmakers.
Reflecting on the success of The Farewell, Wang said the experience of making the film helped her “to trust myself more, to trust my own intuition which is important because I’m telling stories in a world where characters like myself are not traditionally featured.”
Wang further observed that “collaboration means conversation--not just about story structure but often revolves around talking about culture and gender. Your collaborators don’t always share the same background as you whether it’s culture or gender. You see the world in different ways. It’s important for me in the process to decipher feedback--what are craft or story notes and what are culturally specific notes. If I get a note from a producer or collaborator that something did not make sense, I need to figure out if that’s because my writing is bad or if it’s a cultural thing that a person who comes from a different background can’t relate to.
“So much of my job as a writer, a director, a storyteller is to create empathy,” continued Wang. “You’re not always telling your story to people who come from the same background. So collaboration is important as you have conversations and get notes from people with different backgrounds and experiences. You need to have these conversations in a respectful way. It makes me look and clarify my own work to determine if it’s a writing issue, a cultural issue, a gender issue. I also often turned to friends who were outside my filmmaking circle, friends who came from the same cultural background as I to get their opinions as well.”
This collaborative process has yielded a theatrical feature film which, while deeply personal for her, has resonated with a broad-based audience who relate to the universality of family and relations.