Lulu Wang, Writer/Director
Lulu Wang is a writer and director who has come out with two feature-length films, Posthumous and The Farewell in the last 5 years. Posthumous is a film about an artist who is frustrated by his lack of success and fakes his death to gather acclaim. The Farewell is a film based on the true story of Wang’s family’s decision to hide a cancer diagnosis from their Nai Nai (grandmother) so that she can enjoy her remaining time alive. The Farewell is this summer’s Indie success story with critical acclaim from The New York Times, The Rolling Stones, Variety and countless others. I talked to the 37 year old LA-based Wang about her hometown of Miami, playing the piano and her mother’s love of acupuncture.
Growing up in Miami
“I moved to the US when I was 6. I was learning Spanish while I was learning English. I was in ESL. I spent most of my childhood finding a way to fit in. My father was getting his Ph.D. and he came on a student visa and my mother and I came and joined him but I think we all knew we were coming to stay. We lived in an apartment complex that had a lot of Chinese-Americans because it was in a really good school district, in an area we could not afford. Actually, most of those families could not afford it, but this was an apartment complex that was a lot cheaper. All the Chinese-Americans moved there so their kids could go to this predominantly white wealthy school.
I remember feeling out of place at my school. I didn't have a lot of friends. I was friends with a couple of people from the school but then I would come home and be friends with the kids in the neighborhood—there was always this disparity between the two worlds. Those are the Chinese friends I'll hang out with when I'm home but I'm not going to hang out with them in school.
I was always embarrassed to take friends home and have them see that we ate different foods. All I wanted was to eat turkey sandwiches and bring Lunchables to school like the other kids. I hated that my parents were so involved in every aspect of my life and controlling. I hated that they forced me to play the piano which felt like a very Asian thing and they would force me to practice every single day. I started at age 4. By the time I had practiced for 5-10 years I had put so much money and energy into it so I just kept doing it. It's a thing you have to come to terms with it on your own. Well, I've already come this far so I might as well learn to love it and it's the only skill I have that truly sets me apart from everyone else. My mom would say ‘Sure if you don't want to play, you can just quit, just throw all the money and energy, throw it all into the trash, we don't care. Go ahead and pick up the piano throw it out right now, I don't care. Throw my heart out at the same time why don't you?’
Now I'm really grateful for it because it gave me a sense of discipline which you need for writing and to take on any kind of film project. It takes so many years and so much discipline and focus to stay with a film project for that long.
I always wanted one of those big Pleasantville type houses in the brand new complexes in Miami. They had a pool and a tennis court. All these houses were identical. Can't we just be normal and have one of those houses? I remember wanting that really badly. Then in 1992, Hurricane Andrew came and all these houses completely tumbled. They weren't made well.
Becoming Interested in Film
I just didn't care that much about school. I would put more effort into faking the good grades than getting good grades. There was some kind of pleasure in being a rebel. I always thought about what I could get away with.
I got into film my senior year at Boston College. I was a Music and Literature major with an International Studies minor which equates to I don't know what the hell I'm going to do. I had some electives left so I decided to take a photography class and Film 101. We learned to shoot a bunch of short films on Super 8 and we learned to edit on the Elmo—hand cutting and hand taping. I loved developing my own film in a photography class. I loved working with friends. I loved the collaborative nature of the film, just knowing that it's a series of photographs that creates a second of film. You can physically see that when you are editing by hand and then you get to put music to it. It seemed like a great marriage of my interests and skills without being solitary. Then I wanted to take an advanced class which was only for Film majors. My teacher at the time told me I couldn't be in the class and I just registered and would show up every day and I said I'm not leaving and he finally gave in. I was the one non-film major in Advanced Filmmaking. In that class, the films I made won some awards so I thought maybe I could do this. All my life my parents had said: ‘You're pretty good at everything you touch artistically. You have a knack for it but you are a dilettante. You will do a million things average but when are you going to master something. These are all side dishes. What is your main course, your bread, and butter? You can't be a dilettante your entire life.’
When I discovered filmmaking I thought this is it, this is my bread and butter.
Senior year, I took the LSATS. I got into law school, got a full scholarship and turned it down. My family was horrified. ‘You are a dilettante and you have this new thing and you want to drop out of law school and work in a coffee shop so you can make films? You can't even afford rent.’
Making Films in LA
In 2007, I moved to LA to find a way to write. I worked as an assistant to a few people. I was just a terrible assistant. I'm not very good at doing what I’m told to do. It doesn't compute in my brain. My natural inclination is always to figure out how to learn and how to cross boundaries. I get a kick out of breaking rules that don't make sense. That's an arbitrary rule that's made by who and for what reason? That doesn't suit me. You need to be that way as a director. If you are going to get that shot, break the glass ceiling, get into doors that don't allow you in—you have to find other ways to get in. You have to be willing to make that cold call. People might say you're not supposed to call that person because they are unreachable. You have to ignore them and do it anyway.
It wasn't until Ang Lee won the Oscar for Brokeback Mountain that my parents could see a path for me. My mother thought—here's somebody that looks like us. Here's a guy from Taiwan that could make it in Hollywood to win an American prize and he told his story about how his wife supported him all these years. They said: ‘He had his wife to take care of him and you have nobody, so that's our job to support you and help you.’
I made my first feature film Posthumous in 2014.
I never thought I could make this film (The Farewell), I'm glad it wasn't my first feature film. I don't think the world was ready for it in 2012. I don't think I had the cinematic experience or language to make the film I wanted to make. I was able to take more creative risks with this film because I had already made a feature film and knew that I was able to make a good film. I was able to learn from all of those mistakes and take a lot more risks as a director this time. It takes so much out of you to make a film and then when you compromise it just takes that much more. If I have to compromise my vision, then why am I spending 4-5 years to make a movie?
Acupuncture & Chinese Medicine
My mother's really into acupuncture. She will do acupuncture on me. She has needles at home and pellets to stick on your ear. She's really into all the different points. She's constantly rubbing our ears on me and my brother and now on my boyfriend. She keeps pinching us until it hurts. She rubs all the points. She's not happy until she finds the place that hurts, and when it hurts, she keeps digging her nails into it and tells us: ‘It's good for you.’ She'll smack our legs after dinner because that's where the digestive tract is and then ask my boyfriend: ‘Are you farting? Are you farting?’ She'll say: ‘After dinner if you hit here, you'll fart or burp.’ My boyfriend likes it because it gives him a sense of fitting in. My family will watch TV and everybody will fart in front of everyone. There are no qualms about it. I didn't really know that was not the norm in other families. In my family—there will be the loudest fart––and everyone will say ‘ewwwwww’ and my mom will say ‘What? It's natural?’
My Comfort Food
When I go home, there's a ritual of having noodle soup. Depending on what my mom has in the fridge, she has a duck broth that she makes a noodle soup with. That's my favorite thing. I know no matter what time—my mom will make a soup. Every Chinese family has frozen wontons in their freezer all the time, right? It's comforting and no matter what time I get off the airplane, my mom will make the soup.”
Lulu Recommends: Books