Earlier this year, I interviewed writer-director Lulu Wang about her new movie The Farewell. The film, which is based on a true story, follows a family of Chinese-Americans who learn that their beloved matriarch has a terminal illness. However, they believe that if she knows, she’ll only spend her last months in grief, so they choose to lie about the illness and visit her in China under the guise of attending a relative’s wedding.
I caught the movie at Sundance in January and really enjoyed it, so I leaped at the opportunity to talk to Wang when she brought the film to the Atlanta Film Festival in April. During our conversation, we talked about the feedback she received from friends and family, how she crafted the family dynamic, casting the picture, the most challenging scene to film, the editing process, and more.
Check out the full interview below. The Farewell opens tomorrow in limited release.
This film premiered at Sundance, which is where I saw it and thought it was great. Now you get to be the opener of the Atlanta Film Festival. Can you talk a little bit about what that journey has been like taking the film on the festival circuit?
LULU WANG: This is actually our first festival since Sundance. I’m really excited because it’s always hard to know how something plays outside of Sundance. I’m just excited for just for more people to see it. It’s been pretty surreal because I guess you hope for the best, but you never know how people are going to receive it.
Did you have any sense of how it was developing when you did friends and family screenings and what you got from those?
WANG: There was definitely … We did some early friends and family where the structure and pacing wasn’t quite there yet. As we were still working on the rhythm of the film, people gave notes and just said, just make sure that no matter what you do to, quote unquote, “fix the movie” that you don’t lose the magic. As I was continuing to cut the film, I kept trying to figure out, what is that magic? What are they responding to and how do I keep that while still at the same time making it a tighter movie?
At least for me, the magic seems to be the family dynamic and watching them all interact together. Was that something that you zoned in on or did you find another aspect that really leaped out at you?
WANG: I think it was definitely the family dynamics and as well as we let a lot of scenes just play out without any heavy editing or putting too much of a facade around it through, whether it was editing or music or anything like that. Keeping some of those awkward moments that are just long, really long, and allowing it to be slightly uncomfortable.
Can you talk a little bit about the casting of this film and finding the family here? The chemistry just feels really great and lived in, and I was just curious how you got to that.
WANG: I based it around my family, not so much in they have to look like that person but more in terms of their essence. We cast Awkwafina because I felt like she could bring a natural comedy to the film. She has a real sense of comedic timing and levity that it doesn’t need a lot. Just sprinkled throughout you get the comedy of it. But at the same time she brought the pathos. Everyone else, as we cast, I just wanted them to feel really real, like people that I knew, both in terms of language, whatever accent they might have. I think that just the authenticity of it, if I spent time with that person, if they felt like they are somebody that would be a member of my family or is like a member of the family of somebody that I know who’s Chinese American.