Lulu Wang’s new film, “The Farewell,” begins with five delicious words on-screen: “Based On an Actual Lie.”
Wang wrote the film, a hit at the Sundance Film Festival earlier this year, about a real-life deception in her own family: After Wang’s grandmother, back in Changchun, China, was diagnosed with a terminal illness in 2013, the relatives banded together to keep the news from her, believing she would die happier without knowing. When Wang, who was born in Beijing but grew up in the U.S., went to China to visit, she was expected to continue the deception. (How did all of this work out in real life? You’ll have to watch the movie, which opens on Thursday, July 18, at SIFF Cinema Egyptian and Friday, July 19, at multiple theaters in the Seattle area.)
Wang, in Seattle last month for her film’s closing-night screening at the Seattle International Film Festival, said that she knew right away “that this would be something that would be really interesting to explore on film.” She pitched the idea of making a lightly fictionalized movie about her family’s story, but producers were unreceptive to her vision, which involved shooting it in her family’s hometown and mostly in Mandarin Chinese.
“They wanted it all in English, or as a very broad comedy,” she said. “I thought, if I can’t make it the way I want to make it, I don’t want to make it at all.”
And that, she thought, was the end of it — until an NPR producer approached Wang after seeing her previous film, “Posthumous,” wondering if she had any stories that she wanted to tell in radio format. Indeed she did — and told the story of her grandmother, then called “What You Don’t Know,” on “This American Life” in April of 2016.
“Within 48 hours of it being on the air,” said Wang, smiling, “a bunch of producers called up wanting to make it.” This time, she was able to set the terms, and “The Farewell” was born.
The film’s story centers on Billi, a struggling artist living in New York who maintains a close, affectionate relationship with the grandmother she calls Nai Nai, and who travels back to China for a family wedding at which everyone is determined to express only happiness. “The script was developed from the idea of looking at the different ways that different family members grieve,” said Wang, who said Billi was only semi-autobiographical. Eventually, she said, “I just saw the story as a story, and the characters as characters who serve the story, not just myself and my family.”
Casting the right Billi was essential, and Wang said she didn’t write with a particular performer in mind. When Awkwafina (born Nora Lum, and recently seen in “Crazy Rich Asians” and “Ocean’s 8“) was suggested, Wang wasn’t sure the fit was right; at the time, Awkwafina was mostly known as a YouTube comedian/celebrity.
“I said to my producers, that’s the girl who made ‘My Vag’ — this is not that kind of movie,” Wang said. But, convinced to take a meeting, “I found that Nora’s mother passed away when she was 4, so she was raised by her Nai Nai, her father’s mother, who is Chinese. She had a really personal connection to the story.”
Watching an audition tape that Awkwafina sent in, Wang saw Billi there. “It was in those moments where you see her on camera and whoever’s reading lines with her is playing a character and reading lines, and Nora’s just quiet and silent, and you see her responding and all of the emotion was on her face, especially when she was saying nothing. And I knew that would be the heart and soul of the movie.”
Shooting the film in Changchun brought its own complications — not the least of which was what to tell Wang’s real-life Nai Nai. Her grandmother, said Wang, knew about the “This American Life” story (though not exactly what it was about), and was excited that her filmmaker granddaughter was making a movie in China.
“I’m not sure how suspicious she was,” said Wang, who cast her own great-aunt to play herself — Nai Nai’s sister — in the film. “She knew it was a film about our family and everyone had an actor playing them, but she didn’t keep asking questions.”
“The Farewell” premiered at Sundance in January and was instantly beloved by audiences and the subject of a heated bidding war among distributors. (Wang ended up with independent distributor A24 for a reported $6 million-$7 million, passing up what she discreetly described as a much higher offer from a streaming company.) Its filmmaker was surprised at the warmth of the reception. “I was just hoping people wouldn’t hate it! I thought, oh that would break my heart, because it’s a tribute to my grandmother.”
But she’s been thrilled at how this film, in its quiet way, seems to speak to everyone; though it’s a specifically Asian and specifically female story, its warm message is for us all. Wang said she finds it “wonderful” that such a range of audience members, including “25-year-old Caucasian men,” have told her that the film feels personal to them.
“I think deep down, I knew that the film could be universal if it was about the things that are important to me, which is family and culture,” Wang said. “It doesn’t matter which culture, it doesn’t matter which family, it doesn’t matter what that grandma looks like.”
“I grew up in this country watching media that didn’t represent me, and yet I found myself in those characters that didn’t look like me or my family. If I can do that, and all people of color and women can see the hero in us in the hero on the screen, then it can work the other way around.”
“The Farewell” opens Thursday, July 18, at SIFF Cinema Egyptian and Friday, July 19, at multiple theaters. Rated PG for thematic material, brief language and some smoking.