“The Farewell” kicked off BAMcinemaFest on Wednesday, June 13th. Director Lulu Wang and star Awkwafina attended the red carpet and premiere.
“The Farewell” tells the story of Billi (Awkwafina), a 30-something struggling writer in New York, and her family when they find out the matriarch of the family, Nai Nai (Chinese pinyin for paternal grandmother) has terminal lung cancer. Billi’s great aunt elects not to tell Nai Nai about her condition to preserve her comfort and happiness in the face of the inevitable. The whole family returns to China to see Nai Nai one last time under the guise of a cousin’s fictitious wedding banquet.
We caught up with director Lulu Wang and star Awkwafina on the red carpet. Check out the interviews below!
The Knockturnal: Congratulations on the film! I know this is a personal story for you. How long have you wanted to do this film for? Why did you decide to do it now?
Lulu Wang: The story happened to me in 2013 and I started to process all of the events. That was kind of when I started to want to tell the story. I think I told it now because that’s when it came together. It wasn’t until I did “This American Life” that producers approached me wanting to make it into a film. And once that happened, we moved pretty quickly through the process. I think it’s a very very fortuitous coincidence that we’re coming at a time with so much more Asian American representation than we’ve seen in the past and coming after “Crazy Rich Asians,” which did so well, I think a lot of people assume that the film was greenlit because of the success of “Crazy Rich Asians” when in fact it wasn’t. We started making it before “Crazy Rich Asians” came out, but I think it paved the road for opening people’s minds to the universality that an Asian American film can have.
The Knockturnal: Tell me about your relationship with Awkwafina. How did you hear about her and meet her and cast her?
Lulu Wang: My producer brought up her name and I had only seen her through her music videos and a lot of her music and rapping work. We met up for coffee and she told me about how much she loved the script and how she was raised by her Chinese grandmother because her mother passed away when she was four. But she was wondering “Can I act? I don’t know. We’ll see.” So she sent in a self-tape and I watched the self-tape and fell in love and immediately knew that she was perfect for the role.
The Knockturnal: There’s this concept of “saving face” in Chinese culture. I’m really excited about this movie and the representation it brings to the screen. I’m wondering how you navigated the idea of trying to “save face” when you’re putting such a private story on the big screen.
Lulu Wang: One of the ways that I’m American is that I don’t subscribe to that so much. I have the need to talk about things and explore things. My parents more or less really support that. I think it was difficult for them to come around because I think they’re also struggling with the fact that they want to support my career and they want to support my ambitions but I think they were also nervous about how they were going to be portrayed. That’s why I kept them fairly looped in on the process. I wanted it to be our story and not purely my story even though it was told through my perspective.
The Knockturnal: As a filmmaker, what are some of your aspirations? Things on bucket list, film-wise?
Lulu Wang: I don’t know that I have a bucket list. I think I just want to continue to work in a way where the process feels right to me and to collaborate with really great people. I think for me it’s all about process and how do I tell stories in a really respectful way where I am never making assumptions and trying as much as I can to speak truthfully. I don’t like stories that are just black and white about making a judgment and I want to explore stories that help us look at the world in a different way and help audiences open their minds and find ways towards greater understanding.
The Knockturnal: What’s next for you after “The Farewell”?
Lulu Wang: I’m doing what I call a “very mundane sci-fi” so it’s a sci-fi premise that’s very near future, that’s like five minutes into the future, but it’s mundane in the sense that it’s still about everyday life and how we are still humans no matter what technology we have, and about the intersection of technology with human desires. What I enjoy is putting the everyday on screen, and finding a way to make small moments feel really epic. In real life, we are not – unless you’re like a doctor or something we’re not like saving lives every day and we’re not superheroes. Yet losing something as “small” – maybe in Hollywood it’s considered low-stakes – but to the person who’s experiencing that loss of a grandparent or even a pet – it can feel like the world is imploding. I want to ways to put those kinds of feelings on screen in a really epic way.
The Knockturnal: How did you find out about the film and how did you get involved?
Awkwafina: My manager sent it over. He knows about my background – my mom passed when I was four, I was raised by my grandma. He knew that and sent me the script, it was called Nai Nai at the time which means “grandma” in Chinese and I’d never seen anything like it. I’d never read anything like it, I’d never imagined that roles like that would exist and I thought that it was kismet that it landed and I really wanted to do it.
The Knockturnal: Tell me a little bit about the vibe on set and working with so many other Chinese actors, Hong Kong actors.
Awkwafina: It was amazing because film is a universal language, but people do it differently right? We had this banquet before we started shooting that was to bless the film and the camera. We had the camera on stage. It was incredible and I really did feel like I gained two more grandmas up there – Lulu’s grandma and Zhao Shuzhen.
The Knockturnal: Do you have any overall goals for your career as an actor and rapper?
Awkwafina: I want to share my platform with the next generation. I want to be a part of the movie that maybe hires two new Asian American actors, is maybe written by an Asian American, or maybe written by an Asian American. I just want there to be more and I want to encourage the generation after me that they can do this and that they’ll be heard.
The Knockturnal: I feel you’re blowing up right now which is exciting to me. I don’t know if it’s exciting to you.
The Knockturnal: How is that going? Any highs and lows?
Awkwafina: It’s been an incredible ride. I’ve done things this year that I never thought I would do. At the same time, the change is however much you want it to change. And for me, I still manage to stay pretty grounded only because I’m very self-conscious anyway. I’m like neurotic about everything so I mean, it’s as big as you make it.
The Knockturnal: Can we expect anything music wise in the near future?
Awkwafina: I’m always making music but a new project – I have to really know who I am at that point and I have to dedicate time and attention to it. So maybe, yeah!
The Knockturnal: And in your EP, “In Fina We Trust,” the intro and outro, was that based on real conversations?
Awkwafina: Yes! Always.