This is the biggest moment of breakout director Lulu Wang’s career, and it is all based on a lie.
She couldn’t be more upfront about it. The first thing audiences see when Wang’s Sundance darling The Farewell begins is a title card that reads “based on an actual lie.” When we meet in the Manhattan offices of A24, the film distributor that won rights to The Farewell’s release after a fierce Park City bidding war, Wang says she is still telling the lie. And she’s as conflicted about it now as she was when this all started.
“When I went through it all, even my parents didn’t want to listen to how I was feeling,” Wang says, curled up in an armchair and backlit by the soft glow of a lamp. It’s a cozy, confessional tableau made all the more appropriate by her next comment: “In a way, the movie was like therapy.”
Based on her family’s own experiences, The Farewell (which opens this weekend) is the 33-year-old director’s second feature, and one Hollywood nearly didn’t let her make.
When her grandmother, who is lovingly nicknamed “Nai Nai,” was 80, she received a terminal cancer diagnosis. As is sometimes common in China, Wang’s family didn’t tell Nai Nai the truth about her condition, believing it better that she live out the end of her life without fear of death. Instead, they let her think she just had a cold. As a ruse for Wang and her extended family of expatriates—Wang moved to the U.S. from Beijing at age 6—to visit with Nai Nai one last time, they pretend to throw a wedding for her cousin; another lie.
In the film, rising star Awkwafina (Ocean’s 8, Crazy Rich Asians), plays the stand-in for Wang, a headstrong aspiring artist named Billi who is tormented by the family’s decision to lie to her Nai Nai. When she makes the pilgrimage to China, she is confronted with a host of emotions, from the looming loss, to whether what they’re doing is ethical, to the power of tradition and what home, family, and identity really mean to a girl living a half a world away from her birthplace.
“The more I talk about it, the more I realize that, even after making the movie, I don’t have an answer of what’s right and what’s wrong,” she says, referring to the lie. “When I went through the experience I felt very much like I needed to figure out what was right and what was wrong. I think that this has made me realize that the process of figuring it out is the point.”
She fought for the right to that process. Wang knew that the story would make a great film, but Hollywood gatekeepers were too myopic to see it.
Financiers were baffled by the pitch, assaulting Wang with questions about who the film would be for: a Chinese audience? An American audience? Wouldn’t it make more sense to turn it into a romantic comedy? If there’s going to be a wedding, why isn’t the film’s star the bride?
Wang wanted to make a film about the emotional turmoil she felt going through this with her grandmother, with whom she is very close. The suits she met with, she says, wanted her to make My Big Fat Chinese Wedding.
Wang desperately wanted to make her movie, but she couldn’t bring herself to do it on those terms. As far as she was concerned, The Farewell was an American story. She is American.
The impossible tornado of feelings when it comes to loss in a family and the question of who carries the emotional burden of illness and death resonate in nearly every culture. Just because the family in the film is Chinese-American and a portion of the dialogue is in Mandarin doesn’t make it any less relatable. In fact, if the reaction to the film is any barometer, it only makes it more so.
“I have a theory which is that specificity is the way to get to universality and that the broader you make something, the more watered down you make something, the less emotional it is and therefore the less universal it is,” she says.
Besides, “I grew up mostly watching films with people that don’t look like me. And so if I can find a way to relate to those stories and see myself in characters that don’t look like me, then I think that anybody can.”
The crucial turning point in The Farewell’s journey to the screen came when Wang spoke about her family’s story on an episode of This American Life in 2016. She had a profound reaction to the experience of sharing the story, of being a storyteller. As the podcast episode gained traction, it found its way to producers and brothers Chris Weitz (About a Boy) and Paul Weitz (A Single Man), who partnered with Big Beach Films to make the movie—and make it the way Wang intended.
That’s how Wang ended up in Changchun, China, shooting The Farewell in the neighborhood where her grandmother lived. As she was making this film about the lie her family was telling her Nai Nai, she was spending more time with her grandmother than she ever had in her adult life. So intertwined were the production and her family life that Wang found herself running to her Nai Nai’s apartment for bathroom breaks, or to stock up on snacks for the crew.
“I think that’s kind of why I say that I don’t really have any answers,” Wang says. “Because this lie, this thing that I thought was so wrong and I was so opposed to is the reason that I got to spend three months in China with my grandma, which I haven’t done, spent that kind of time with her, since before I was 6.”
A standout scene in the movie takes place in a cemetery. The family is leaving gifts and offerings for Nai Nai’s late husband, Billi’s grandfather, but everyone has different ideas of the proper way to conduct rituals. The scene was shot at Wang’s own grandfather’s tombstone. The last time Wang saw her grandfather was before her family left China. She was in America when he died.
Adding to her family’s involvement, Wang cast her real-life great aunt, Lu Hong, whom she refers to as “Little Nai Nai,” as Billi’s aunt in the film. It was Hong who suggested keeping her sister’s diagnosis a secret. For Wang, having her aunt on set was also a reminder, on hectic days of an international production, of the actual stakes and emotion of the story she was telling.
“I grew up mostly watching films with people that don’t look like me. And so if I can find a way to relate to those stories, then I think that anybody can.”
— Lulu Wang
Wang laughs remembering Little Nai Nai’s self-deprecating reaction upon learning that the film was going to play at Sundance. She asked, “Are you sure my face didn’t ruin your movie?”
Fast-forward six months to The Farewell’s premiere this week in New York City, and Little Nai Nai is on stage at the after-party, sunglasses on and microphone in hand, addressing the crowd and soaking up the attention. In a clever bit of planning, the party was staged as a full, albeit fake, Chinese wedding at a dim sum restaurant and venue in Chinatown. A traditional lion dancer met the premiere’s audience at a Lower East Side movie theater and led them all down East Broadway to the after-party.
As she and Little Nai Nai cut the “wedding cake” together, Wang, dressed smartly in a plaid suit, joked to the crowd, “My parents always wanted me to have a Chinese wedding banquet…” Beaming next to Wang as she spoke, Little Nai Nai was the belle of the ball at the premiere. But she nearly didn’t make it to the party.
When Little Nai Nai arrived in New York last Friday night, the hotel wouldn’t take her Chinese credit card nor a card number over the phone. Wang was in Montreal at an event with her boyfriend, Moonlight director Barry Jenkins, and everyone she contacted was more than an hour away. As a Hail Mary, Jenkins tweeted out for help and, within minutes, a total stranger who happened to be near the hotel walked over and put down his own credit card until Wang could swap it out. A few days later, Little Nai Nai walked the red carpet for her first feature film.
The drama of it all is a far cry from when Wang first showed Little Nai Nai the script. She had also showed it to her father, wanting them to read it to make sure she was being respectful to the family and their traditions.
They both agreed that the screenplay was authentic to what had happened. But neither understood why the story was interesting, or why anyone would care about it. To her father, it was a mundane chapter in his family’s life. Turning it into a movie would be akin to putting which type of cereal he ate for breakfast on the front page of the newspaper.
“That’s his perception, and I think it’s similar to Little Nai Nai,” Wang says. “They have a sense of what Hollywood is and what’s deserving of the big screen. So in many ways it’s been really satisfying for me to show them that their stories and their faces are worthy of the big screen.”
When The Farewell premiered at the Sundance Film Festival in January, the reaction was rapturous.
The audience at the premiere screening burst into tears several times during the showing. They were still sniffling and drying their eyes when a bidding war over the film started. Wang eventually went with A24, the distribution company behind Lady Bird, Eighth Grade, and Jenkins’ own Moonlight, but not before a crisis of conscience: A streaming service reportedly offered more than double the amount A24 was putting up for the rights to the film.
Wang followed her gut instinct and stayed with A24, which she trusted to do right by her very personal film’s release. But as exciting as all the money talk in Park City, and sometimes as stressful, was the human impact. It floored her. She couldn’t walk down Main Street without being stopped by people desperate to tell her how moved they were by the film, usually with tears in their eyes, which would make Wang cry as well.
As she’s taken The Farewell on the road since, screening it at film festivals around the country and participating in countless post-screening talkbacks, the scale of the emotional reaction—not to mention people’s outreach—has been overwhelming.
“It’s hard to respond to because I think, as humans, we’re not meant to travel this much and not meant to connect with so much all at once,” she says. “It’s really intense, and you can only sustain heightened emotion for so long. Sundance happens and you’re really excited. And then the film starts rolling out and you’re really excited. And then more things happen and people are like, ‘It’s exciting isn’t it?’ And at one point you’re just like, I can’t handle more excitement! I need to go take a nap. I need to go back into my cave so that I can write my next script.”
“Specificity is the way to get to universality and the broader you make something, the less emotional it is and therefore the less universal it is.”
It’s unclear when the nap might happen, but the trip back to the writing cave is just around the corner. It was announced earlier this week that Wang’s next project will be the science-fiction movie Children of the World, adapted from Alexander Weinstein’s short story collection.
Before we say goodbye, we get on the topic of Awkwafina, whose rising star happened to coincide near-perfectly with the Sundance premiere of The Farewell.
The actress and rapper, whose real name is Nora Lum, had just finished filming her raucous turn in Crazy Rich Asians when she was cast as Billi. Coming after the one-two comedic punch of that film and Ocean’s 8, Lum has earned due praise for her unexpected dramatic turn in The Farewell. Producers were thrilled about what Lum’s surging profile meant for the movie, but Wang was excited for different reasons.
“I hate being pigeonholed,” she says. “I’ve talked to Nora about this as well, about the way that we get pigeonholed. So I was just excited for people who might doubt her or underestimate her to see this.”
She smiles. “You know, as small Asian women, I think so often we get underestimated. I like this idea of, ‘I’ll show you.’”