The week before production started on The Farewell—my sophomore feature about a young woman (Billi, played by Awkwafina) and her family’s attempts to keep their grandmother’s cancer diagnosis hidden from her during the final months of her life—I found myself at my grandfather’s cemetery in China for a tech scout with my crew.
My grandfather—“Ye Ye” in Chinese—passed away a few years after my parents and I immigrated to the States. I was six when we left China and that was the last time I saw him. Now I was going to be filming a scene from my movie at his gravesite.
As storm clouds rolled in and we discussed the possibility of rain during the shoot, I reflected on how meaningful this experience was and on the unique challenges of making such a personal film.
Defining What’s Personal
Popular advice for moviemakers is to write what you know and make your work personal. But does “personal” always mean autobiographical? And does autobiographical automatically make it personal? The key to making something personal is specificity. Specificity doesn’t have to mean autobiographical, but it does mean drawing from real life, real characters, real experiences.
Specificity is not easy, especially if you come from a multi-cultural background like mine. To give you some context, making The Farewell as personal as possible meant creating a co-production between the U.S. and China, scouring actors from around the world to cast an ensemble cast of 15 characters, writing the script and directing in two languages, shooting on two different continents with very different styles of production, and navigating cultural differences between our American team and our Chinese team. Still, it’s a worthwhile battle because stories become universal through their specificity.
Emotional Honesty is the Best Policy
In making a narrative memoir film, you aren’t beholden to facts as one might be with a documentary, but you want to tell a story that feels truthful to your experience and feelings. It’s not about factual accuracy, but about emotional honesty.
I know what you’re thinking: “That sounds like a nice idea, but what does the process of striving for emotional honesty look like, concretely? How do we decide what to put in the script and what to leave out? How do we choose our collaborators and guide an entire cast and crew towards that same emotional truth?” There’s a quote from Mark Twain that says, “The only difference between reality and fiction is that fiction needs to be credible.”
When I first wrote and narrated a version of this story for This American Life and began to navigate all of these decisions, I was torn between my loyalty to the film and my loyalty to my family—trying to be truthful, yet respectful at the same time. The reality is, those two things can’t always coexist. It’s an impossible choice, but a choice you must make nonetheless. During moviemaking many things are beyond your control, but the one thing you have some semblance of control over is your script. Your script is where you map out what your film is about, and what it’s not about, so that it serves as a blueprint for every stage of the process afterward, from prep to production.
As a writer choosing what to include about each of your characters, you need to consider what information audiences would need in order to understand why each of your characters would have the emotional reactions they have. The Farewell explores how Billi and different members of her family deal with grief and their personal relationships to grandma’s impending death. For the father and uncle, their grief is enveloped by a sense of guilt over emigrating from China and leaving their mother to grow old on her own. For Billi, it’s about the time she’s lost with “Nai Nai” and all the shared experiences they’ll never have. Remember: Every character is the lead of their own movie and when your film is built upon an ensemble cast, audiences must feel that the movie belongs to each and every one of them.
Still, it’s just as crucial as a writer-director to have a clear grasp on the dominant perspective of your story. Even though The Farewell is an ensemble film, Billi is our protagonist who guides us through the narrative, so I needed to create a multidimensional ensemble while simultaneously rooting the audience in Billi’s perspective. Some of this exploration of perspective was laid out on the page, but much of it was also dictated by casting, cinematography, editing, sound design, and music.
Billi is a fish out of water who doesn’t see things the same way her family does. While the rest of the cast spoke native Chinese, Awkwafina’s (aka Nora Lum) Chinese was very broken. This is one of the areas where I deviated from reality because my own Chinese is quite fluent. In casting Nora, I knew her Chinese was limited, but it didn’t detract from the story and in fact, ultimately helped to support the idea of her being a fully assimilated American who’s an outcast in her family.
With the rest of the cast, I found actors who had language abilities similar to those of my real family. That meant I would be making an American film in 75 percent Mandarin Chinese with English subtitles. I did this not just to remain stubbornly tied to real life facts, but because communication—or the lack of communication—is a major theme in any film about an immigrant family. In addition to the one truth everyone is not allowed to communicate, there are other gaps in communication due to language, culture, and distance. There’s a scene in the film where these language disparities actually play a vital role in how the family’s lie is maintained: Billi asks an English-speaking doctor some very revealing questions right in front of her grandmother, knowing she won’t understand.
I also wanted to create an accurate portrayal of the different accents non-native speakers might have. Accents represent a character’s level of assimilation or distance from that culture. We’ve all seen films where language abilities and accents are cheated and this can be incredibly distracting for people who understand those languages. This is just one example of how being authentic actually makes the film more accessible for a wider global audience.
Making a bilingual film often means having to write a bilingual script. The challenge of this was that while I speak Chinese, I don’t actually read or write it. When I first wrote the script, I heard much of the dialogue in Chinese, but translated it to English in my head so I could put the words on the page. [Dialogue that would be spoken in Mandarin Chinese was bracketed like this.] In order to engage with the Chinese cast and other potential partners, we had the entire script translated by a professional translator. That means we always had an English version of the script as well as a Chinese version. As I continued to make changes to my English draft, our office used special software to track the changes for the translators so we could stay up to date.
The problem for me, in not reading Chinese, is that I had no idea what was written in the Chinese script. Translations can often be very stilted and lack the colloquialism that makes dialogue sound authentic, so I turned to my parents for help. I didn’t necessarily want them to be so involved in the process early on, but I also knew that they’d be invaluable in making sure the dialogue was representative of how my family spoke.
As the script continued to change all the way through production, the translations were also an ongoing process. Even after we got onto set, I’d occasionally hear a line of Chinese dialogue that didn’t sound quite right and with the help of the Chinese actors, we were able to make the dialogue in all languages sound natural and authentic.
Casting Family Style
One of the questions I get the most is, “How do you cast actors to play yourself or your own family members?” With an ensemble, it’s as much about the balance and chemistry of the group as it is about the strength of the actors as individuals. Putting together a cast of this size is very much like a puzzle— seeing how one face works against another to create either symmetry or contrast.
The first actor we cast was Nora because she’s the lynchpin, the outsider, but the yin to the family’s yang. She needed to feel quintessentially American, while still having a believable connection to China and her grandmother. She needed to be able to express all of this with her face, since Billi isn’t able to speak her mind for much of the movie.
When I saw Nora’s audition tape, I was astonished by how much she embodied all of these things so effortlessly. Her audition showed me that I wasn’t casting “Awkwafina,” but Nora Lum—a woman who was raised by her own Chinese grandmother and who had also studied abroad in Beijing like I did.
When I first started talking to Nora about the role of Billi, I made it clear to her that I wasn’t looking for someone to play me. Billi is not me. She is a character who goes on a journey similar to mine and has the experiences and emotions I had, but she doesn’t need to behave like me or talk like me. Instead of trying to channel myself into my protagonist, I asked my lead to simply bring her own experiences of love, loss, and joy to the character. I took a similar approach in casting the ensemble, not necessarily trying to find visual replications, but looking for a particular essence of each character that was important for the story.
With my father, for example, it was capturing his humor and diplomacy—someone who moved fluidly between the two cultures and just wanted to keep the peace. His dilemma is the one closest to Billi’s—caught between his American values and his loyalty to his Chinese family.
My mother is the intellectual, clinging to rationality as her lifeboat in a dark sea of complex dynamics and emotions. With the grandmother, Nai Nai, I looked for someone who’s as strong as she is warm—an iconic matriarch. It’s all about faces. So much of what you look for in an actor—character, experience, humor, emotion—can be found in a face.
Putting Your Story Into Perspective
In taking The Farewell from the page to the big screen, every decision helps shape perspective—the lens through which an audience experiences the story. My cinematographer Anna Franquesa Solano and I chose a wide aspect ratio (2:39:1) that’s often used for nature landscapes as a way to portray the “landscape” of a family. The wider perspective allowed us to capture the various faces of the family in one frame, underscoring their significance as a unit. When Billi is alone in that same wide frame, we really feel the absence of her family and her isolation.
This framing supports the film’s theme of individualism versus collectivism. The most difficult scenes to shoot were the ones filled with up to 15 characters in small spaces and we had a very limited shooting schedule. Doing traditional coverage on 15 characters is not only uninteresting, but also time-consuming. We used blocking and composition to create long takes, saving singles and close-ups for very specific moments.
Creating the visual language of your film involves a series of choices that marry creativity with practicality, so it’s important to see challenges as opportunities. Think outside the box in terms of coming up with references. I used horror films as a visual reference to help root the audience in Billi’s perspective. This might seem unconventional for a comedic family drama, but Billi’s point of view is filled with fear and anxiety. Horror films are all about creating atmosphere and dread for the things we don’t see, but feel and anticipate. The monster in The Farewell is the lie Billi and her family tell, and it keeps everyone on edge.
Real life is not dictated externally by genre, so the same situation can either be funny, sad, or terrifying depending on perspective. The most personal films are the ones that channel empathy and allow us to feel and experience along with the characters. In that sense, a film can be made personal regardless if it’s autobiographical, fiction or even science-fiction. MM