A struggling artist, Billie, receives heartbreaking news from her parents that her grandmother has lung cancer and only has a few months to live. To make matters even more dizzying, no one in the family is telling her grandmother about her diagnosis, and under the guise of a cousin’s wedding, the whole family is getting together in China to say goodbye. As Billie makes most of these – what are sure to be – final memories with her grandmother, she struggles with the decision of keeping the beloved matriarch in the dark.
The Farewell is the latest work from writer and director Lulu Wang and starring Awkwafina in her first dramatic lead role. Having made its world premiere at the Sundance Film Festival earlier this year, the film has since been creating a lot of buzz ahead of its impending release from A24.
In an interview over a dim sum lunch at Yank Sing restaurant in San Francisco, Wang goes in depth on several aspects of what it took to make this film that is, as its tagline says, “based on an actual lie.” The Farewell will be released in LA and New York on Friday July 12th and in San Francisco on Friday July 19th.
I know that the idea for this film came from something that actually happened in your life. Why did you decide to have this very real lie be the basis for your second feature film?
I’ve always been really interested in screwball comedies, or just screwballs in general; screwball setups. I wouldn’t say that this film is necessarily a comedy, but to me, the lie felt like a screwball setup, but it was a screwball setup that allowed me to channel both grief and humor. I was very interested in how grief actually manifests itself in so many different ways; in ways that are both joyful and really, really sad. The proximity of the humor with the grief is what I wanted to explore.
Knowing that you are also the screenwriter, how did you approach taking this experience from your life and writing it as its own fictional story?
It definitely has its own challenges to tell such a personal story. I should say that it’s a very autobiographical story, because I believe that films can be very personal without being autobiographical. This film happens to be autobiographical, but I had to treat it as its own story. I had to not look at it as a memoir, because with a film, it’s such a collaborative experience.
The actors that you work with are going to bring themselves to those roles. You can’t avoid it. I had to really figure out what the story was about and distill the characters that way. The film is about grief and the different ways these family members grieve. I really had to choose what characteristics and information we need to know about these characters that’s necessary for the story, as opposed to saying, “Oh my God, I love my dad, and these are all the things about my dad I need to put in the movie,” because you just can’t do that in 90 minutes.
Same for even writing about myself – I had to separate myself from the character of Billie, because it isn’t about her being me. It’s about a woman who immigrated from China with her parents and is going back to see her grandma. She’s very close with her grandma. Anybody could have that particular experience and [Awkwafina] brought herself to that particular journey, experience, and character in a way that wasn’t about imitating me.
How was it filming on location in China?
It was really moving because we shot in a lot of places that I’ve known since I was a kid. We shot in my grandmother’s neighborhood, we shot at my grandfather’s actual gravesite, we shot in the banquet hall where my actual cousin got married. I made those decisions not because I was trying to stick to the facts of what actually happened in real life, but because it was the most cinematic. I actually gave my team the freedom to do whatever was best for the movie, to tell the story. And same with the actors. I said, “I’m not here to ask you to imitate anybody. What does the story mean to you? What does this character mean to you and what is your interpretation of this?” So just by coincidence, we ended up at a lot of the same locations.
I read that your grandmother actually visited the set as you were filming. What was that like for you and how did that work without her not finding out what the story is?
We told her that it was about our family and that it was about them coming back to China for a reunion, for a wedding, so she knew that much. She just didn’t know about the lie.
I think it was very meaningful for her to see me do what I do for a living and all of these years, I’ve been struggling to do this thing and I’m sure she’s been really scared for me and proud, but also nervous for me. For her to actually see me do it is pretty powerful.
Most audiences will come into this film, knowing Awkwafina for her more comedic roles in Ocean’s 8 and Crazy Rich Asians. What was about her that you thought, “This is the person who’s going to playing Billie”?
She had such a personal connection to the story because of her own relationship with her Chinese grandmother. She sent in an audition tape and I could just see all of her emotions on her face – even in the moments when she was silent, when she wasn’t acting or performing a line. She was just waiting for the other person to finish talking – the person off-camera who’s reading lines with her – and you could feel all of the emotions on her face. I think that personal connection of how much she loves her own grandmother and is afraid to lose her brought so much weight to her performance.
How is it for you to be releasing this film in the time of an elevation of Asian Americans working in front of and behind the camera?
It’s really powerful, because I feel like for the first time, I feel that there’s a real community here. I think historically, there’s hasn’t been a huge Asian American community in entertainment or otherwise. I shouldn’t say that there isn’t a community, but that we didn’t have as much power. We didn’t have the scale and the size and sort of cohesive message, and so it’s been really wonderful to be part of this community. Even though we made the film before Crazy Rich Asians”– we started shooting the film before “Crazy Rich Asians” came out – the film wasn’t greenlit because of Crazy Rich Asians, but it makes me feel like a part of a tie that is inevitable. It’s just a really wonderful wave to be part of.
The Farewell is a notably much more dramatic film compared to previous Asian American films that have come out within the past year. How is it to be putting out a film that’s a drama, when most of the predecessors have been rom-coms?
I think it’s just a sign that ethnicity or race is not a genre. Being Asian American is no different from having a story about a white family or any other family, and I think that it shows that as a community, we can tell all kinds of stories of in all different genres.
Is there anything specific – like a message or something – that you hope for audiences to take away from watching “The Farewell”?
I think a lot of people will come into the film thinking that they know what’s right and what’s wrong and how they would deal with the situation in their own family if their own parent or grandparent was ill. I just hope that they allow themselves to go on a journey and that by the end, they may not have a different perspective, they may not have the answers, they may have a lot of questions. I think that’s okay because to me, I made the film so that people can go on the same journey that I went through, which is one where you’re navigating between multiple sides and that there’s no right or wrong. It’s a constant negotiation of just it being different and it’s okay to not always have the answers. It isn’t about being right or proving yourself to be right. It’s about how to have greater understanding and compassion for people who have different perspectives.
This interview was edited for length and clarity.
Catch The Farewell LA and New York on Friday July 12th and in San Francisco on Friday July 19th.