Lulu Wang: ‘I thought The Farewell would be my last-ever film’
The Chinese-American director on wowing Sundance, turning down ‘streaming service’ money, and how Crazy Rich Asians proved you don’t need a white American lead actor
Lulu Wang, director of The Farewell: ‘I made something that is unapologetically me – both Chinese and American.’ Photograph: Joyce Kim/New York Times
There are few more heartwarming stories at the cinema this year than that of Lulu Wang’s The Farewell.
The film itself meets the description without accumulating any of the gloopy sentimentality those words often portend. Awkwafina, the breakout star of last year’s Crazy Rich Asians, plays a young Chinese-American woman visiting her beloved grandmother in the home country. The older woman has been diagnosed with cancer, but the family, to the immigrant’s dismay, elect to conceal that information from the patient.
The picture wowed Sundance last winter and has just accumulated the year’s highest per-screen averages on its US release. It saved Wang’s nascent career and – we’ll get to this in a moment – struck a blow for old-school modes of exhibition.
“It is overwhelming. It’s surreal,” Wang tells me. “I made this very personal film about my family and I felt it might be my last-ever film. That’s why it is what it is. I just didn’t think there would be a place for me in this industry. I made something that is unapologetically me – both Chinese and American, not specifically for any one market. Producers told me nobody would come and see that sort of film. So it is shocking that it worked.”
I’m surprised Wang felt this was already her last chance. Born in Beijing and raised in Florida from the age of six, Wang made her feature debut in 2014 with a clever film set in the art world called Posthumous. The picture was not an enormous financial success, but the reviews were strong, and more than one trade paper marked her down as somebody to watch. Can her career have already run into the mud? That doesn’t seem just.
“There is not much government funding here,” Wang says. “So there’s not much scope to make films for a smaller market. And the more films you make that don’t break out the harder it gets. They say there’s a sophomore slump: the second film is harder than the first. You’ve already made something and it maybe didn’t do that well.”
She checks herself and makes bit of a conversational swivel.
“It wasn’t really about timing, actually,” she says. “I just felt that nobody was going to let me make a film in my voice. American producers said: ‘Your film is too Chinese.’ Chinese producers said: ‘Your film is too American.’ At the same time, with my first feature, people were saying: ‘We don’t hear your voice.’”
I had read in earlier interviews that the situation was even more frustrating than that sequence of contradictory complaints suggests. Wang was adamant that she wanted The Farewell to tell a version of her own story, but she kept being told that she needed a white American in the central role (this was before Crazy Rich Asians hit big at the US box office). You would wearily expect that from American financiers, but Wang was hearing the same from some potential Chinese investors.
“Yes, that is right,” she says. “They have tropes in the same way we have tropes. Some of the tropes come from Hollywood. A lot of Chinese television casts foreigners who live in Beijing. I have Caucasian friends who weren’t actors, who end up playing the foreigner who doesn’t understand the culture. They are often this goofball foreigner who oddly speaks perfect Chinese. That’s enormously funny to Chinese audiences.”
Welcome to the entertainment industry.
Wang’s determination to stay true to her own experience ended up paying dividends. There was, however, a long, meandering journey towards that happy destination. Wang first told the story publicly – which concerns her own grandmother – on an episode of the popular podcast This American Life. As in the film, the family staged a wedding so they can see their frail “Nai Nai” one last time. Chris Weitz, multi-hyphenate Hollywood insider, heard the show and helped her get the film made in the form she desired: largely in Mandarin with a largely Chinese cast.
“I did it for This American Life because I had been pitching the film and couldn’t get anyone interested,” she says with a shrug. “That was very freeing. It allowed me to explore the story in a form that was not limited by screenplay structure. You don’t have producers saying, ‘This has to change. That has to change.’ Being able to do a 20-minute fact-based bit of journalism was a great way to tell the story and work on the concept.”
The Farewell will have particular appeal to Irish audiences. Everybody in the country knows somebody who left for England, America, Australia or wherever. We have similarly complex relations with the descendents of Irish emigrants. The diaspora sometimes disappoints the folks back home. Those in the old sod are sometimes a bit snitty about the foreign variations on Irish culture. Is it the same in the Chinese communities?
You go to the countryside and they are building skyscrapers. They're not putting up pagodas with koi ponds
“It’s hard for me to generalise,” she says. “But I do notice that immigrants in America hold on to older traditions and customs of the home countries. For example, Chinatowns around the world have these symbols: pagodas, awnings that represent China. In China they are tearing the older architecture down because they want to modernise.”
Yeah, that sounds a bit familiar.
“You go to the countryside and they are building skyscrapers,” Wang says. “They are not putting up pagodas with koi ponds. That comes from the loss that immigrants feel. People living in those home countries don’t need to hold on to those traditions because they already live there.”
No film was more buzzed-about at Sundance than The Farewell. That festival is famous (occasionally notorious) for the bidding wars that breakout in the aftermath of screenings. For all the difficulties in independent cinema, Sundance still stages scenes akin to the first hour of the New Year’s sale at a major department store. Wang ended up striking a deal with entertainment company A24, successful awards players, for somewhere between $6 million and $7 million, but she later explained that she turned down more than twice that from a major “streaming service” (at least two suspects come to mind). Her decision has already won her heroine status among those eager to protect the theatrical experience. A24 cares about cinema. Unidentified “streaming service” probably doesn’t.
“Yes, that is right,” she says. “It was a challenging decision. It’s one thing as a young person to say: ‘I believe in the arts. It’s not all about capitalism.’ It’s another to have a lawyer phone up and say you’ll get a seven-figure cheque if you accept this deal.”
So what difference does a proper theatrical release make?
“The money would have been a flashy headline,” she says. “But it might not start a lasting conversation in which people wrote think pieces reflecting on their own experiences and the Asian diaspora got opportunities to explore their stories. I have never met so many Asian people with Australian accents.”
My photographer on the film is Irish and one of the things I love about him is that he’s so cynical about Hollywood
The strategy has worked. It’s unlikely you’d be reading this article now if The Farewell had emerged only on “streaming service”. It has also helped Wang on to the long road towards Oscars season. If the film doesn’t get at least five nominations I’ll eat my own foot.
“It is so funny that you ask,” she says. “My photographer on the film is Irish – his name is Nick West – and one of the things I love about him is that he’s so cynical about Hollywood. I always hear his voice when I think about awards ceremonies and all of this hoopla.”
But it must matter a bit. Six months of speculation are about to begin.
“What’s that about for me? I have come to an answer: it’s to do with exposure,” she says. “I have already had emails saying: ‘My parents were terrified of me becoming a film-maker before they saw you. Now they are much more supportive.’”
The Farewell is released on September 20th