18 Jul 19
Lulu Wang’s “The Farewell” is the most exciting hit movie of the summer, but its success wasn’t preordained. A24 acquired the movie out of Sundance, following raves for the complex look at an Asian American experience through the lens of a woman grappling with dueling cultural identities. When it opened in limited release July 12, it beat out “Avengers: Endgame” for the year’s biggest per-theater average. And it almost didn’t happen. For Wang, the fragmented experience facing her movie’s central character mirrored the filmmaker’s multi-year experience attempting to make “The Farewell,” and it only came together once she had all but given up on it.
There were many disheartening encounters with American financiers as she pitched the premise: a young woman’s family visits her ailing Chinese grandmother while keeping the matriarch in the dark about her illness. Many suggested that Wang introduce a prominent white character into the narrative, and punch up the nuanced drama to turn it into a broad comedy. But Wang felt her story didn’t need the token white character; it already had Billie, the young protagonist, whose experience in a large immigrant family was specific to the Asian American experience.
However, the biggest disappointment was yet to come. Fed up with the disconnect, Wang met with a Chinese financier. “I thought, if I wanted authentically in Chinese, maybe it is a foreign-language movie, and not an American movie,” she said in a recent interview at the Bowery Hotel in New York. “Maybe I’m delusional in even thinking that I’m American, and that this is an American story.” The new meeting went nowhere fast. “This Chinese producer was like, ‘You need a white guy in your movie,’” Wang said. “They’re so influenced by Hollywood.”
So she tried another route, crafting an episode of “This American Life” around her family’s experience staging a faux wedding for her cousin in China, as an excuse for her relatives to see their ailing nai nai (Mandarin for grandmother) one last time. The episode caught the attention of producer Chris Weitz, who helped secure financing for the movie in the form that Wang envisioned it — 70 percent in Mandarin, with a tone that hewed closer to what Wang experienced herself.
“The Farewell,” which won raves for Awkwafina’s dramatic turn and Wang’s direction, scored a $6 million distribution deal with A24 at the festival. It opened in limited release exactly a year after production began in China; Wang’s next project, an ambitious sci-fi story, is in advanced pre-production, and murmurs of an awards campaign for “The Farewell” are well underway.
The movie’s success exists on a continuum with last year’s commercial smash “Crazy Rich Asians,” providing the latest evidence of a robust underserved market for Asian American storytellers. However, the challenges Wang faced provide a microcosm of just how difficult it is to get these movies made. “In making ‘The Farewell,’ I learned the power of saying ‘no,’” Wang said. “I said no to a lot of opportunities to make the film because we didn’t share the same vision.”
A Boston College grad who learned filmmaking through work-for-hire gigs after graduation, Wang made her feature-length debut with 2014’s “Posthumous,” an endearing romcom starring Jack Huston and Brit Marling that satirized the high-art world. The movie garnered solid reactions in its festival screenings, but it suggested a career path she didn’t want. “I had the chance to make [“The Farewell”] as a much broader comedy, and I’d just done that,” she said. “I wanted to break out of that box.”
She found her first answer in “Touch,” a 12-minute short produced with a fellowship from Film Independent. While “Posthumous” proved she could put a movie together, “Touch” clarifies her creative vision. Wang’s story revolves around the experiences of a middle-aged Chinese immigrant who finds himself accused of sexual abuse after an innocent exchange with a minor. Blending English and Mandarin in a complex snapshot of intergenerational family dynamics and covert racism, “Touch” provided Wang with a new storytelling ethos. “It was of a way of going back to my roots, with a limited budget and more complicated tone,” she said.
The short caught the attention of journalist and filmmaker Neil Drumming, a producer at “This American Life.” He initially expressed interest in developing an episode of the series, but Wang suggested her experiences with her grandmother’s illness would be a better approach. “I thought if I can’t make the film the way I want to make it, I’m not going to make it at all,” she said. She wrote up a short-story version and sent it to Drumming, and developed the episode from there.
The half-hour “What You Don’t Know” aired in April 2016. Within the first 24 hours, Weitz reached out from every possible direction. “He tweeted at me, we DM’ed, I got an email from him, and his agent,” Wang said. The pair had lunch and Wang recounted her challenges financing “The Farewell.” “He said he could protect me against a studio or financing partner who might bring their own ideas to the table and potentially dilute the project,” she said. Weitz brought the project to Big Beach, the production company best known for “Little Miss Sunshine.” By then, Wang had certain demands.
“I said I wouldn’t compromise on the way it was cast,” she said. “And I was not going to compromise on the language. It was going to be primarily Mandarin. It will not make any sense for grandma and the family to speak English.”
Big Beach producer Dani Melia recalled hearing Wang’s horror stories from other meetings. “Honestly, the initial feedback she got is indicative of Hollywood, since people envisioned it as this broader studio film,” Melia said. “When we listened to the podcast, it was indicative of her strong storytelling sensibilities and these rich characters she knew so well. There was never a question in my mind about making this authentic or not.” Big Beach signed on within a week, joining Weitz’s Depth of Field.
Although she now had the resources, Wang wasn’t interested in chasing name actors; the industry didn’t give her many options for actors who spoke Mandarin and still fit the part. “I needed somebody that really felt American,” Wang said. “The majority of them are not really well known, so I was excited to find somebody else and discover new talent.” Then Awkwafina, the rapper-turned-comedic actor who was about to steal the show in “Crazy Rich Asians” and “Ocean’s 8,” related so much to the story as a reflection of her own Chinese family that she pursued Wang and sent her an audition tape.
Awkwafina knew she brought some baggage to the project. “When I was first kind of placed before her, she was quizzical because she only knew me from ‘My Vag,’” she said, referring to one of her more infamous tracks. “I felt like when Lulu hired me, it was out of a sea of girls that she was seeing. I went in knowing that, even if my Chinese sucked and my drama sucks, Lulu saw something there.”
Wang said she was sold on the tape. “All of the emotion was on her face and her eyes,” she said. “I needed an actress who could carry the scenes even without speaking.”
And so began the unique alchemy of “The Farewell,” a movie that teeters on the edge of a cringe-comedy even as it mines for deeper moments. As she wrestles with her family’s traditionalist approach to sheltering nai nai from the reality of her condition, Billie’s journey became a template for exploring the unspoken frustrations of a first-generation American tethered to old-world family values. “It was really cool just to be directed by someone who is kind of like you,” Awkwafina said, “an Asian American kid, growing up and chasing this dream, and going against the grain.”
Wang said she never related to the Asian arthouse auteurs her parents watched while she was growing up. “I didn’t see myself in Jia Jhangke or Wong Kar-Wai films,” she said. “Those are Asian filmmakers, and I very much am an American filmmaker.” She cited “Secretary,” “The Piano,” and Woody Allen movies as her first exposure to the kind of filmmaking that she wanted to make, but also led to more existential questions. “It’s something I’ve had to navigate my whole life — am I American or Chinese?” she said. “I think I was lost quite a while in terms of what my voice is.”
Though the movie’s understated narrative approach may remind some viewers of Japanese master Yasujiro Ozu, Wang said she viewed British auteur Mike Leigh’s working-class dramas as a major reference point, and also looked to horror movies as a means of exploring Billie’s encroaching dread over her grandmother’s terminal condition. “People hear ‘Chinese family comedy’ and they immediately form expectations around it,” Wang said. “People were always asking what the film’s genre was. But, like, what genre is your life?”
Melia watched as Wang navigated the cross-cultural production. “I didn’t even hear Lulu speak Chinese through our entire development process,” Melia said. “So it was really interesting during the table read watching the actors speaking Chinese. But that’s what America is — this woman moved to the U.S. at six, grew up in Boston, and they speak Mandarin at home.”
“The Farewell” neared completion just as Sundance’s new director of programming, Kim Yutani, settled into her new gig. Melia brought the project to Yutani, who started her programming career years ago working for the Los Angeles Asian Pacific Film Archive. Yutani made the call to slot “The Farewell” in the festival’s U.S. Dramatic Competition. “We didn’t have any conversations about that at all,” Yutani said. “It was a U.S. Dramatic Competition film from the start. As an Asian American, it was really important for me to see a film like this succeed and connect.”
By the time “The Farewell” landed in Park City, “Crazy Rich Asians” was the decade’s the highest-grossing romantic comedy, kickstarting conversations about the market for Asian American storytelling. A24 landed the movie after a fierce bidding war that also included a strong bid from Netflix. However, Wang expressed some trepidation about the long-term prospects that the success of her movie and “Crazy Rich Asians” represent.
“It’s great when people can see something as specific as the Asian American experience can also be universal and see box office success, and I hope ‘The Farewell’ is a part of that momentum,” she said. “ At the same time … with the success of ‘Twilight,’ everybody wanted to make vampire movies, and then they were making a lot of bad vampire movies, and it was like, well, guess nobody wants to see vampire movies. Next!”
She laughed. “It’s important to see it not as a trend or the cool thing of the moment, but to be open to stories that are representative of the diaspora in America, that are actually reflective of what this country looks like,” she said. “That isn’t just diversity for the sake of diversity.” That said, she’s not interested in positioning herself as a flag bearer for the cause. “All I can do is make what I believe in,” she said. “The rest is out of my control.”
Her phone rang. She was preparing to dart off to supervise new subtitles for the movie. The next night, “The Farewell” would make a big splash as the opening selection at BAMcinemaFest. At the same time, she was deep into preparation for her sci-fi followup, “Children of the New World,” an adaptation of a short story by Alexander Weinstein that Big Beach would produce. This time, Wang said, she secured final cut.
In the meantime, her agents at UTA were sifting through a plethora of new offers. “I’m definitely seeing a wider array of projects — and luckily, they’re not all Asian family dramedies,” she said. But, she added, “there are definitely a few of those.”
“The Farewell” is now playing in New York and Los Angeles. It expands to several cities on Friday.
Additional reporting by Kate Erbland.