in conversation with writer and director lulu wang

It was only last summer when theaters nationwide were hit with a phenomena #AsianTwitter had famously dubbed as #AsianAugust. With that, came the new era of Asian American cinema with the release of films such as Crazy Rich Asians, Searching and To All The Boys I’ve Loved Before.

This summer, another film to add to the list is writer and director Lulu Wang‘s second feature and Sundance darling that is The Farewell;  based on a true story and, as its tagline says, based on an actual lie, the film tackles the difficult decision of concealing the grandmother’s impending passing from herself. What happens during this time? How does this family – based on Wang’s own – cope? You’ll have to see the movie this summer to find out.

asienne recently sat down with Lulu Wang to chat about: identity, beginnings, inspirations, her creative vision, The Farewell and what she’s got coming up next.

Lulu Wang [photo courtesy: Antje Taiga]

A: When did you first know you wanted to go into directing?

LW: Senior year of college. I didn’t go to film school. I was studying creative writing and music and I took a film elective, Film 101 my senior year. I was pretty close to graduating and just for fun, I decided to take this film class and I fell in love with it. I just knew that it was what I wanted to do because it brought together the two things that I have been doing my whole life which is music and writing.

But it was also a collaborative medium –filmmaking, you know? You get to work with your friends and it’s not as isolating the way that writing and piano practice can be. That’s why I decided to make films and it was sort of instant. When I knew, I just knew.

As a kid, I was an immigrant. I was just trying to assimilate and fit in.

To view the extended version 
of this interview: click here.

A: In Asian households – as the mom in the movie says – having a kid pursue the creative field is almost like a stock investment. Did your mom really say that? How did your parents feel and what did they think about you going into the film industry?

LW: (laughs) Yeah, I think my mom actually said that line at some point. That’s probably where I got it from.

A: Really? (laughs)

LW: I think my parents were very supportive but also very scared. They would fluctuate between the two things. They would constantly ask “Are you sure this is what you want to do?

They didn’t know how to help me which I think was really hard for them and frustrating. They also didn’t see a path forward and they didn’t know how I was ever going to get to wherever I was trying to go because there also weren’t any examples of careers to which I can say “I want to be like that person and have that career and that person looks like me and came from where I came from.

The closest person was Ang Lee and I just remembered after I made my first feature, I was still trying to figure out if I was going to make it in the industry, or if I could make another movie–I was having a hard time and my mom just said to me:  “Well, Ang Lee didn’t make his first movie until his mid-thirties and you made your first feature in your 20s, so you’re already ahead of him. And if he can do it, you can do it too.

It was just so meaningful because I realized now that if there wasn’t Ang Lee, they would have no light in this industry at all because it was so foreign to them.

That’s what representation means–when you have somebody that looks like you, it’s a light for the families and for people to say ‘Oh, that person did it, maybe there’s a chance for me too’.

To view the extended version 
of this interview: click here.

A: Let’s talk about your background real quick because it’s pretty interesting: you were born in Beijing, and raised in Miami and Boston. My question is where do you identify being more from and how does that affect your storytelling?

I guess what’s strange is that I don’t really identify with anything. You know?

LW: I don’t really identify with being from Miami because my boyfriend’s from Miami and he always says, “You don’t seem like you’re from Miami…you don’t say ‘bro” and I tell him, “Is that what Miami is?” (laughs) As a kid, I was an immigrant. I was just trying to assimilate and fit in. There’s a huge Cuban population [there] and I don’t have that background. So, Miami, I don’t fit in. China–I don’t really fit in either.

I really wanted to go to school in the East Coast so, I went to school in Boston thinking that I would fit in there; but now that I’ve moved into California, I don’t really think I fit in here either.

A: Even though there’s more Asians here compared to Miami, right? (laughs)

LW: For sure! When I went to Boston, I loved the academic nature of the city–how everybody’s an academia and was in school and studying. That part of me connected a lot with Boston, but I moved to California and got connected in Asian and Asian American communities. I met other Asian American artists and I have never had that before and so that really made me feel a sense of belonging.

But I’ve also come to think that maybe, if you belong nowhere, you belong everywhere.”

I didn’t grow up in an Asian American community, so I assimilated with non-Asian people. Then, I moved to Boston which is predominantly white and assimilated there as well. Now, I’ve moved to California and assimilated with the film community.

A: Was it totally a fish-out-of-water experience coming in to the Asian American community in California? What was that like for you?

LW: Yeah, for sure! When I moved to California – to see so many – to see an actual Asian American culture, I didn’t know that that was even a culture. I just thought we’re all Asian Americans because we’re immigrants or our families are immigrants. But to actually see that there’s inside jokes and there’s food – there’s a shared sense of identity in America, was really surprising to me…it was definitely a culture shock.

To view the extended version 
of this interview: click here.

A: Going back to the film – congratulations on the Vanguard from Sundance, by the way.

LW: Thank you!

A: You’re getting the Oscar buzz as well. Have you heard about that?

LW: I have here and there but I also try not to think about it because it’s a little too intimidating.

A: After the first film, did you think that your next film was going to garner this much attention?

LW: I did not. I was just hoping that people would connect to it because you know, to make a film in a foreign language with subtitles but as an American film…

A: That’s huge!

LW: Yeah! I just hoped people would not avoid it because of subtitles. So, no, I had no idea the degree that it’s connected to people and its spread.

A: Now, did you think you would be making something so personal after your first film?

LW: did know that. That’s why I actually said ‘No‘ to a lot of the producers before I met with Big Beach Films and Depth of Field; because I think when I was making my first feature, I didn’t have the confidence – and I didn’t know what kind of stories I wanted to tell, necessarily. I have always loved romantic comedies and screwball comedies. [So, back then] my producer and I decided we wanted to make a screwball romantic comedy and that’s what we set out to do. After that experience, I knew I wanted to be more selfish.

I can’t speak for other people – but for myself, as a woman and as an artist and as an Asian woman especially, one of the things I have a hard time with is the idea of being selfish as an artist.

Because we’re raised as part of a collective, as part of the family – if the choices that you’re making are hurting the family, it feels bad. It feels selfish.

So, I had to turn down a lot of offers to make this movie because they didn’t share the same vision. They weren’t going to help defend my vision and it wasn’t until I did This American Life and met with Big Beach Films and Depth of Field and they said, ‘We’re here to support your vision of this movie‘ and I knew that that was the right moment and the right partners to make this film with.

Awkwafina plays the film’s lead role, Billi [film still courtesy: A24]

A: Did you ever think at one point that being authentic would be an asset rather than a liability, or is this just a completely different experience for you right now?

LW: I think it’s really a wonderful realization. It’s not something that I went into knowing for sure. I just knew that if I didn’t make something a hundred percent as much in my own voice as I possibly could – that if the film failed and I didn’t get to keep making films – that I would always regret it.

But I said to myself – if the movie doesn’t do well, and I don’t go on to have career, I won’t have any regrets because I’d have 100 percent of myself in it and I took all of the risks and that’s how I looked at it: I am going to go all in or go home.

It’s just wonderful to see that a film could be universal because of its specificity and not in spite of it .

Because so often, people just want a film to hit all quadrants right? They want it to be marketable to everybody. They want to make the film broad. And my instinct is that, I can’t do that because I can’t speak for everybody. I can only speak for myself and this particular experience. And you hope that it connects to whoever it connects to.

So, I thought to not explain things that I didn’t want to explain. For example – I didn’t want to explain why the mother wasn’t lovey-dovey to the daughter. They don’t hug. That’s not the way they do things.

To view the extended version 
of this interview: click here.

Awkwafina with the cast of The Farewell [film still courtesy: A24]

I just wanted to show the world the dynamics that I knew to be true and I didn’t know if people would connect with that. But it’s great that they do.

A: At this point, do you still wish your grandma knew? Now that this movie is out there and people are reacting to it, how do you feel?

LW: I feel both things: I feel that it would be wonderful to share the movie with her. But I’m also trusting my family and respecting their decision. I’ve really stepped away from making any kind of a decision. I just leave it up to my family to decide if and when they would ever want to tell her.

A: Lastly, I was wondering if you have a dream project you’d like to share. Anything you’d like to collaborate, write, or produce?

LW: I’m working on a project right now that I would love Steven Yeun for. He is amazing. I saw him in Burning and The Walking Dead and everything else. I just think he’s incredible. But I would say that my dream project is always my next project. Right?

The Farewell will be out in theaters nationwide July 12.

*Interview was conducted in La Jolla, California by Anna Ruth Ramos.

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