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John August: Hello and welcome. My name is John August.
Craig Mazin: My name is Craig Mazin.
John: And this is Episode 426 of Scriptnotes, a podcast about screenwriting and things that are interesting to screenwriters.
Today on the podcast we’re going to be talking about not explaining things, autobiographical writing, and putting together indie features. To do so we’re excited to welcome Lulu Wang, a writer-director whose movie The Farewell is simply one of the best films of the year. Welcome Lulu.
Lulu Wang: Thank you.
Craig: Hey Lulu.
Lulu: Hey Craig.
John: Lulu, your film is a 99% on Rotten Tomatoes.
Craig: Oh, that’s not good. That’s not good.
John: That 1% – are you going to hunt down that person and shake them and ask what do you have against Nai Nai?
Lulu: [laughs] No, it was actually a relief when we got to 99. It was just sort of like, you know, it’s like when you get the brand new shirt and you’re like, well, OK, or the brand new car, and now that you’ve got the scratch on it it’s almost like you can breathe better. I don’t know.
Craig: I think that 99% is sort of – it’s better than 100% because it’s the beauty mark. It’s that tiny little flaw that makes you realize it’s real. Because if it’s 100% then you think, well, maybe they bribed people or something.
Lulu: Yeah. And everyone is holding their breath, too. That’s the thing. Everyone is like when is it going to – and I was just tired of holding my breath.
Craig: Well it’s usually, what’s his name, Armond – who is the guy?
John: Armond White?
Craig: Yeah. It’s usually Armond White that ends up coming in out of nowhere and ruining things.
Lulu: That’s what I’ve heard.
Craig: So I think 99 is better.
John: 99 is great. And what’s even better is when people actually enjoy your movie. And so I saw your movie opening weekend and a good thing about Twitter is I just said on Twitter like I really loved The Farewell and Lulu Wang you made a great movie, not knowing you at all, and you could write back and we can talk on Twitter, and now you’re here on the show.
Lulu Wang: I love Twitter for that reason. Sometimes I want to get off of it, but then when things like that happen. Because you know the show also – I mean, the movie kind of got set up because of Twitter.
John: Tell me.
Lulu: Chris Weitz messaged me.
Lulu: I was at the gym the day that the story aired on This American Life and when I got out of the gym I had a DM from Chris Weitz. And actually not a DM. I think he publicly tweeted at me and was like, “I’m trying to reach you, but in case you don’t get the email from my agent, the email from me, or the DM that I just sent you, I’m publicly doing it here.”
John: That’s great. That’s amazing. So that is a good thing that Twitter has made in the world is The Farewell. So, it has brought down many good institutions, but it has made one good movie.
Craig: We’re all so conflicted about Twitter aren’t we? Because I have made some really good friends through Twitter. Some interesting things have happened. And then there are those days where you just realize that it’s slowly gnawing away at the foundations of everything that is good and decent.
John: Yeah. And then there’s Facebook which is just a joy and delight. [laughs]
Craig: I’m off of Facebook. I don’t live there anymore.
John: All right. We are going to talk about all of these things, but before we do that we have some follow up. We’ve been talking a ton about assistants obviously on the show. And Lulu my impression, for some reason I thought you were a New Yorker, so I was going to ask all these questions about like well what is it like to be an assistant in New York, because we’ve been so LA focused. But you’re actually an LA person. How long have you been in Los Angeles?
Lulu: Since 2007 I would say.
John: Great. And did you have any classic assistant experience? Were you answering phones for anybody? Did you do any of that work?
Lulu: I was an onset assistant for two different production and those were my first jobs in Hollywood in LA. I didn’t know anybody and I got my first job because I called the production office from the back of the Hollywood Reporter back then when they were like the listings for productions were in the Hollywood Reporter. And I just blind called and said, “Hey, I speak Chinese. You don’t happen,” it was Rush Hour 3, “you don’t happen to need someone who speaks Mandarin?” They were like oh my god we do, where did you come from, this is amazing. And I started two weeks later working for this actress.
Craig: You know what I like is that they’re making a movie with somebody that spoke Chinese and it never occurred to them to go find somebody that spoke Chinese.
Lulu: Well I think they were trying. They were like this actress is coming. She’s going to need an assistant who speaks Chinese. And they just didn’t even know where to go to find that person.
Lulu: So I just called out of the blue.
John: What I love about this story is it just shows such pluck and sort of like I’m going to flip open the back of this thing, I’m going to start calling numbers, and recognize what I have to offer that they may need. So very smart.
So you’re assisting on that and then another production, too. And was your goal always to become a filmmaker? Coming out of undergrad what was your vision for your life in Los Angeles?
Lulu: Yeah. I wanted to make films. I didn’t go to film school but I took like the Film 101 class and decided I wanted to be a director, but that I wanted to write scripts. And just moved to LA by myself to the dismay of my parents. And said how am I going to do this. And so that’s how I got that first job. And then I went on another production to work for a producer. And was trying to I guess learn how to do this in Hollywood by working on Hollywood sets and kind of being in the vicinity of people who were doing it. And what was exciting about the second film that I was an assistant on was that David Gordon Green was the director and I knew his films. This was a big studio film, but he had come from indie. And so I was excited to just learn from somebody who was self-made and started out by making these micro-budget films.
John: So your experience as an assistant, did you actually pick up those things you needed to pick up?
Lulu: Absolutely not. No. And that’s what I quickly realized is that you spend so many hours on set. You know, and I’m not very good at hierarchy because I don’t know anything about sets. I don’t know that video village is for these kinds of people, and those kinds of people shouldn’t go near them. Like I didn’t know all those rules. I don’t really know how to make coffee. I was hired as like a business assistant on Pineapple Express and then ended up doing a lot of dog-sitting and making sandwiches and trying not to burn the toast, until I eventually got fired. [laughs]
Craig: Was it the toast that did that?
Lulu: No. It was a combination of things. You know, it was, yeah, it was my probably bad assisting skills. But my eagerness to learn and it’s very difficult to both respect hierarchy and try to be eager to learn. But my understanding was the reason I’m doing this kind of really poorly paid, no insurance kind of job is to learn. But then you get there it’s like you’re the assistant. We hired you to just be – to assist us.
Craig: Yeah. I mean, this is kind of one of the trickier things to navigate for assistants because the whole point as you say, we’re talking about a lot of people who are very well educated. They’re really smart. In other industries they would be already middle management, but in Hollywood there’s this system where you have to be an assistant in order to learn. On the other hand the people who are employing assistants actually need assistants. They need people to help them and handle things and so there is this push and pull where you – even as an employer I feel it where I feel, OK, I have a responsibility to help this person. But also I need them to help me.
Craig: And it can be tricky sometimes to navigate.
Lulu: Well and I’ll just say like I was trying to figure out – because there was a lot of time in which I had nothing to do. And I would say – I would try to make myself useful. And I would say, “You’re out of town. I can’t even assist you because you’re out of town. I’m going to go to the post-production facilities and talk to the editors and try to see if I can be helpful there.” But it was almost like, no, just stay in your lane. If you have nothing to do then just stand there. And I have a really hard time just standing there.
Craig: Not ideal.
John: But I suspect your frustration at just standing there is probably the reason why you were able to make two features including The Farewell. So that’s honestly—
Lulu: It’s true.
John: So if you didn’t learn on the assistant track, how did you learn what you needed to learn in order to become the writer-director that you are? Where did you get that experience and how did you get started?
Lulu: I’ve always been a learn as you do kind of person. So honestly I learned through my first feature film. And I didn’t expect that my first feature was going to be as big as it ended up being. My partner, you know, in making Posthumous was the producer. She’d never made a movie. I’d never made a movie. And she ended up financing it as well. And we just were very naïve. We were like we want to make a movie. How do we start? Well, we need a script. All right, great. Why don’t you write it? OK, I will. You know, and it started out I think where a lot of filmmakers do that, but then we ended up getting this amazing cast. And the way we got the cast was also like, well, you’re supposed to have a casting director. We can’t afford one. A friend said that he knew one. And so we said to Dan Hubbard in the UK, you know, our friend Darren says you would help us. We’ll give you $5,000 just to make the phone calls we need to be made. And like we’ll come up with the list of people and just send you these lists. And that’s how we ended up getting Jack Huston and Brit Marling.
Lulu: And like CAA I son the phone and we were like, I said to Bernadette, I was like, “Wait, I thought this was a $500,000 film? Are we still going to be able to do this if Brit says yes?” And she was like, well, we’ll figure it out. We’ll figure something out. We’re not going to say no to the cast, because also the cast helps you to get more money is what we had learned. So, yeah, that was a process. Every step of the way just kind of throwing ourselves into it. And then learning as we go. And even on set I think I really just learned, oh, this is how you work with the DP. Oh, this is what the production designer does. And figured it out.
John: So it was film school by just doing it? You’re like this is the thing we have to do today, so I need to learn how to do this thing.
Lulu: Yeah. And I feel very fortunate that I had that opportunity. Because not everyone does. And I’m incredibly grateful to Bernadette Burgi who was my partner on that film that we did this together because without having gone through that experience I wouldn’t have had the confidence to do The Farewell.
John: Now, the experience you described very much sounds like a startup. It sounds like a business startup. We’re going to make this product and were going to figure out how to do it and we will add people on as we go along. And it is, especially that first feature, is so just entrepreneurial. You’re grabbing stuff and putting it together and sort of seeing what works. And it’s great that you actually had a movie that you could show at the end of it. Sometimes they do fall apart.
But a thing I find a lot coming out of the Sundance Labs is there’s a whole program now called Your Second Feature because it’s so hard for people to move from that first feature which was just all pluck and scramble to then get that second feature happening. And there was a gap between those two for you. So how did you move from the first one to the second one?
Lulu: Well, I feel like the second one was almost like my first one. Because even when I did the deal to make my second feature, which was Chris Weitz, his company, and then Big Beach who financed it. I don’t know that they even saw my first feature before they said yes to my second. And it was a pluck and scramble situation as well because I went and I pitched it and said, well, I’ve made a movie now. It should be easier to pitch and get a film set up. It was not. Especially when your second film is even more “indie” than the first. Meaning it’s not a genre film. It’s American. It’s 80% in Mandarin. Like all the things that we know about The Farewell now that I was trying to pitch at the time, and even my agent at the time was like, “This is crazy. You shouldn’t be trying to make this film. You should make a bigger film after you’ve already done one feature.”
And so what I did is I went back to Film Independence Project involved and I made a short film for $9,000 as a way to learn how to do that. And then when The Farewell wasn’t getting picked up. I set it aside, was working on other things. But it was always in the back of my head. And as I was on the festival tour with my short film that’s when I met a producer for This American Life. And, you know, he said what other stories do you have, and I pulled The Farewell out and set it up as a story. And then it went from This American Life to then being set up as a film.
So in many ways I feel like that’s like a first film experience in a way. You’re just trying to get your story out there and trying to find partners.
John: It’s kind of an every movie experience—
John: Where you have an idea. Like this is a thing that wants to exist. And you’re just not sure what is the right venue, who is the right person who is going to recognize what’s great about this. So you already had a script, but it wasn’t until you did the This American Life piece that Chris Weitz could hear and then bug you on Twitter about that it became a real thing.
John: And what was great is you already had the script. You could show him saying this is what the plan is for the movie when he was sending you that first tweet.
Lulu: Yeah, I didn’t show him the old scripts though because the thing that I realized happened with the earlier scripts was that I had many written so many drafts to try to accommodate different notes that people were giving me of like, oh, if you just made it more like this then maybe I would finance it, or maybe that would be right for our company. So I had tried all of these different things that in the end it sort of felt like it wasn’t my voice anymore. And I had to kind of start clean so that I could remember what it is that inspired me to tell the story. And I feel like This American Life helped me to do that because you can’t make things up for that show you do go back to the essence of what you felt and what things, you know, felt like and what happened in real life.
Craig: I’m kind of curious. Do you think that one of the reasons that you were finally able to get it made in accordance with your own voice is because the world around us has been changing and there’s more of an interest in stories that aren’t what we would call traditional American stories. And it’s not just about sort of chasing international money or anything like that. But just rather more of a sense that even American audiences are interested in stories that aren’t traditionally straight down the middle white people American stories?
Lulu: Maybe on a subconscious level. You know, as far as – because our film came out, or we started making it before Crazy Rich Asians came out and so I’m not necessarily sure because I had so many people tell me, oh, this is a great idea. It will be My Big Fat Chinese Wedding. So, they weren’t necessarily responding because they thought, wow, this is interesting and we can explore this new culture and ideas. It was just how do we do fit it into the right box.
Craig: Did the right thing for the wrong reason kind of deal, right?
Lulu: Like how do we do the ethnic box office hit? And then when I kept saying, no, this is actually an American film that’s very indie and it’s going to be darker than that. People were like very confused by it. And like my producers both at Big Beach and Depth of Field, it’s just because they heard the story on This American Life and like couldn’t get out of the car because they were crying so much. And so on some level it was almost like, well, we’re so moved by this human story. The language and the cast stuff, well, in a way that might be a challenge, but we’ll just do it for the right budget so that it makes sense.
John: Yeah. So looking at your movies, you have the Billi character played by Awkwafina who is going to a wedding and so therefore your assumptions about genre should be like, oh, it should be a romantic comedy. It should be about family and romantic comedy and all of that stuff. But that’s not the heart of your movie. The heart of the movie is Billi and Nai Nai and sort of the lie that’s being told to the family. Was that always the central idea and conflict in your vision for what this was going to be? That was always the heart of it?
Lulu: Yes. And, you know, it took a while before I realized that. And it took me writing different versions of the script because that was always the feedback. Well, if it’s a wedding movie where they go back to China why wouldn’t your main character be the bride? Like doesn’t that just up the stakes? Not in an anti-feminist thing, but just like if your main character is the person who is engaged in the fake wedding and has to keep up the sham, like isn’t that where the stakes are? But then every time I tried to write that version it’s like but then it becomes about her relationship and not about her relationship with her grandmother. Because, you know, so much of what you’re trying to set up on the page then becomes like her and her fiancé fighting or not fighting and trying to, you know.
And I’m like I’m not interested in that stuff. And what’s interesting to me emotionally is the fact that for me at the time that I’m 30 and I’m single. And I’m going back and my grandmother is like, “When are you going to get married because I want to see your wedding?” That was the heart. And me knowing that she’s going to die and she not knowing that. And in her mind anticipating being at my wedding. And having to live with that, right? That was the heartbreak. And you don’t get that if you have people kind of in a farcical comedy trying to like pull off a wedding even though they hate each other.
Craig: See, I wish that I could get this lesson across to all of the people that are paid to “help us.” Let’s say that you’re a producer or a studio executive and you look at material and you think, “There is this other way of telling a story that I think would be wonderful.” And you might even be right. Maybe there is a great way to tell that story. Maybe that alternate reality movie makes $900 million. Who knows?
But if the person writing it doesn’t feel it, it’s just not going to work, so why say it? I mean, really I wish I could just hug everybody close to me and say your job is to figure out what the writer really wants to do and help them do that, because that’s going to be good. And whatever you make them do is not.
John: Yeah. It feels like a dozen other writers could write that movie that you’re describing. The sort of romantic comedy or going back with the fiancé and all of that stuff. But you are the only person who could write that story of Billi and Nai Nai and what that feels like because it’s your actual real story.
So let’s talk about autobiography and sort of how that fits into this kind of storytelling. Because a lot of the details are true to what you experienced, but you also did change things. So how did you make the decisions about how much is this character really Lulu Wang and how much is this character someone else who is going through this story?
Lulu: Yeah, well, like I said in the beginning when I started writing drafts of the script I was changing a lot. And if I had not just made a romantic comedy I think that I would have been much more willing to compromise, or easily compromise without even realizing it just out of desperation to make a film. But then after doing – especially after doing This American Life and having that experience, the purity of storytelling, and then having people resonate with that I really leaned into keeping the factual experience as accurate as possible. Because to me it was more interesting to ask myself how to explore the drama. Because I felt a lot of drama. You know, and it feels weird to say instead of like trying to figure out how to put that on screen let’s make some stuff up that looks more dramatic from the outside but actually doesn’t resonate with me.
So, yeah, we changed – and we kept having this conversation during development which is like well a movie is not real life. We’re not making a documentary. Do what’s best for the movie. And so then it was like but I’m not trying to stick to facts because I’m married to factual accuracy. I’m trying to do it because I just don’t see the need to make something up. Like let’s figure out how to film it or how to write it in a way that this moment is actually more dramatic.
But then there were other times where I’m like am I just – is this my blind spot? Where I am married to factual accuracy and I just don’t realize it? So that was just difficult to decipher psychologically. But for the most part I kept the plot similar to real life just because I didn’t want the movie to be about the plot. But I took creative license a little bit with the timelines and obviously you have to streamline who the characters are. Like I can’t represent every aspect of every character. Like my father was a diplomat and it was always like are you going to put that in? That’s such a cool thing. He was a diplomat in Russia. He speaks Russian. And then every time I put it in it would be like where is this coming from.
John: It feels like Chekhov’s gun. Like literally if he speaks Russian then there has to be a reason why he speaks Russian. There has to be a payoff to it.
John: In the movie Parasite that she was an Olympic shotput gold medalist or silver medalist that is a detail but kind of becomes important later on in the film.
Lulu: Right. And so then ultimately I had to streamline it to be – because it’s a story at the heart of it about this family and their relationship to the matriarch and losing her, I could really only explore facts about these characters that related to that grief. You know, understanding when they left China. Understanding why they left. All of that.
John: Well you figured out that Nai Nai was the central character. I mean, Billi is the one we’re following, but like everything had to be about Nai Nai and this moment. And so every detail that really couldn’t tie back into that just couldn’t make it into the movie. And in some ways it wouldn’t have made it into your final cut. Like you could have shot those scenes and they wouldn’t have made it back through and into it.
But in terms of stuff you did decide to change, like the reason I assumed you are a New York is because Awkwafina’s character in the movie is a New Yorker. So I just assumed that must be your real life experience. That kind of change. When did you decide to do that?
Lulu: From the beginning. I wanted Billi to be a New Yorker because I needed in a very short amount of time to establish her as the quintessential American. And I think around the world American means Manhattan, New York City, you know, the typical New Yorker. If you have her in LA and she’s in a car and she’s driving, you could be like where is she? She’s on the 405, she might as well be – she could be in another country for all you know, right? So there was something just having that iconic setting was important.
John: There’s a moment early on, we don’t see a lot of her in New York, but there’s a moment quite early on where she goes I guess downstairs to the laundromat which I guess they own the building?
John: And she has to talk to the kid who is translating for the parent, which is such a great specific moment. There’s no giant payoff to it, but it felt so authentic and so real and so precise to that moment. It made me sort of understand who Billi was and sort of the situation she found herself in so economically. And what I loved about that scene which is indicative of what I loved about the movie overall is you didn’t chose to explain a lot. There was no outside person who was new to all this who everything was being explained to in a way that a Hollywood movie classically would try to explain everything that was happening. Or that the laundromat owner didn’t speak English. You just showed the things and trusted that the audience would figure it out. Did that make you nervous at any point? Did you have the instinct to sort of explain more?
Lulu: Oh yeah. I’m so glad that scene works for you because it was the biggest headache because I had written it as a bodega and then, you know, location scouting we had this laundromat. But there was always this question of are audiences going to be confused that she’s paying her rent? You know, she’s going into a laundromat and maybe other cities like why would she be paying her rent? That’s a very New York thing. But that might not make sense. And so then I added a line in there where the laundromat owner’s daughter says, “We could double the rent right now if you just moved out,” as at least a way to like cement it. But we kept going back and forth of is it enough. Do we need to ADR? And also we shot it as a oner so we couldn’t cut. We just didn’t have any coverage.
And even in the script, I was looking at the script recently and I had written like laundromat, laundromat owner, but then in parenthesis it said, “Also the landlord of the building.” And you’re never supposed to write something in a script that you can’t actually show. And so I was really worried about that and I was like why did I do that? Because in my head I knew I would somehow make it obvious. But it was definitely nerve-wracking. Because then of course the producers are like how are people going to realize that she’s the landlord. And I’m like, well anyone who lives in New York. And they’re like but you might have audiences who didn’t live in New York.
John: What I liked about the movie is you weren’t always worried whether those people were getting a little bit confused. And a thing Craig and I talk a lot about is confusion versus mystery and where you find that balance. But in real life you don’t always understand everything that’s happening around you. You just sort of get the gist of it and that’s important. Especially as you get to the wedding in China and the days and routine of sort of how it all goes. And the wedding seems to go on forever, which is great, and I’m just sort of following it, which is the joy of it.
Craig, on Chernobyl there were many times where you did have to explain things, but there were also times where you were just showing stuff and we could figure out like, oh, it looks like they are cleaning something and that’s all you need to do. You don’t have to explain every little bit.
Craig: No, I mean, you have to play this weird game in your mind, and I guess I’m kind of curious Lulu how often you played this game yourself. And the game is what will a normal person pull from this? And it’s a strange thing because you know you can’t get everybody. It’s a bell curve. There are going to be people who look at something and go, oh, I totally missed that blah-blah, or oh no, I thought that that was his kid. That’s not his kid? People will make very strange things, but what you’re going for is that thick middle of the audience and you’re thinking what will they reasonably pull from this? And then the game is how much do I need to show them and how much can I get away with not showing them? Or if do need to explain something, how much?
And so you’re always engaging in audience by proxy games in your mind. And it’s guessing. You’re guessing, right? I mean, sometimes I think if there’s a weird hidden talent that is required in addition to understanding how to structure drama or where to put the camera, it’s this weird ESP of what will people think when I show them this.
Lulu: I completely agree. And the greater challenge on The Farewell is because it would be like, but Americans, because I’m working with American, non-Chinese American collaborators, so there were things that they didn’t get and that was so obvious to me that I took for granted. And then I might get a note and then it would be like, wait, but is this a note about my writing where it’s actually something is broken in the script? Or is it just about perspective and who is being centered? But if I’m the one being centered no one in my family would need this explained to them.
Lulu: And that would be weird for a Chinese audience. And, you know, we were doing it as a coproduction and wanting to release in China. And I was like but that’s when you start – when Chinese people roll their eyes at movies that get released in China. They call it “they’re just soy saucing it up.” You know, because they’re trying to entice the Chinese people but it doesn’t connect to them because they’re like we would never need that thing explained.
John: Absolutely. I mean, whenever you have characters in a scene saying like, “As we all know,” and they keep talking. But there must have been pressure at some point, or at least the idea at some point to like, well, couldn’t Billi bring an American friend or couldn’t there be some white westerner who shows up there who has to be explained things. Did you ever get pressure or the nudge to do that?
Lulu: Not with Big Beach or Depth of Field, because the very first conversation I was like here are the conversations I’ve already had and here are the conversations that I don’t want to repeat. So, that was not a thing. And, in fact, at some point Billi had an ex-boyfriend and there was like a phone call in there as a way to kind of feel her tie back to America. And then the producers were like, “She doesn’t need a boyfriend. This is 2019. Let’s just let her be single and not address it.”
So it was great. But yeah, early on it was sort of like the most obvious way to address a fish out of water if she’s Chinese-American, which Chinese people don’t really even see it that way. They’re just like she’s Chinese. They’re not like, oh, she’s an outsider because she’s actually grown up in America. They’re like she’s Chinese. So if you’re going to have a foreigner in a China story it’s got to be the boyfriend. And like didn’t see that she would be the foreigner, you know. So, I actually got that from a Chinese investor.
John: To go back and clarify, so a Chinese audience sees Billi’s character as an American or as Chinese?
Lulu: As Chinese. Yeah. And so to them it’s like a fish out of water story for a Chinese person in China, and that’s also the frustration of a real Chinese person’s experience or Chinese-American, or any Chinese who lives and has grown up in the west, is when you go back they assume that you should just blend in and you should fit in. And when you don’t they’re like, “Are you Korean?”
John: Well that can segue to the question I wanted most, or the sequel that I want you to make most desperately. So the premise of the movie is that this wedding occurs on a very accelerated timeline so that Nai Nai can be there and so everyone can gather together to celebrate Nai Nai, even though she doesn’t know that she’s dying. And the bride in this case is Japanese, right? And I want another story in your mind of the bride and the groom and sort of like what they think is actually happening and if they are ready to be married. Because they do not seem like the happiest couple as we see them in the course of the story.
So as you’re thinking through this and even as you’re talking with the actors, what are you telling them about their relationship? Because that whole rushed marriage, I don’t have high hopes for it. But tell us what you’re thinking?
Lulu: No, I actually directed to them to be fine. They’re young and they’re naïve, but I directed it to them to actually be in love. But I think like what a western idea of what two people in love looks like is different maybe than in eastern. And so it’s a quieter, less showy kind of desire for companionship or whatever. But, yeah, but I did want to play with like do they look like deer in headlights because of the marriage that they’re about to go into, or is it just because they’re basically pushed into the center of the family for this wedding, but they know it’s not about them. It’s actually about Nai Nai.
So it’s like she has no leverage to demand what she wants for her own wedding, because it’s not about her.
John: Yeah. It’s fascinating. Which is also a message that you have in the movie overall. That it’s not about what Billi wants. It’s about what the family wants.
Lulu: Yeah. And there were versions where we dug a little bit more into the bride and groom and gave them voice and perspective. And there were even scenes that we shot where there was a conversation. But it just ultimately felt untrue. Because the reality is I never had those conversations with my cousin. We don’t speak the same language. And it’s very awkward and difficult to have those conversations. Of course, I can call now and try to do it with a translator and try to get the feelings out, but I feel like even if I did that it would just be not the response I’m looking for. It would not be very dramatic. So it felt funnier to keep them silent, because that was my experience.
John: Cool. We have a question that came in that I think is actually a great one to bring up with you. Jordan wrote in to ask about reactive protagonists. So in Episode 423, “John advises that we should examine if the action of the story happens because of the things that protagonists do, or that the story happens to them.” And that they should be “driving the action to some meaningful degree. You can say that Billi is – I mean, is she driving the story to some degree? So talk to us about like is she reacting to the situation or is she driving the situation? Tell me what you think about that.
Lulu: I think she’s reacting. And I’m curious what you guys think because I’ve always heard, you know, and this was one of the challenges in the script was that your main character has to have agency and has to be driving the story and has to be doing things. And every time I tried to write that version, the things she was doing felt very not true to my experience. And also the thing that she is supposed to be doing is to not do and to not talk. But then how do you represent that on screen? And then does that get monotonous just watching somebody not do anything? [laughs]
Craig: You know, sometimes we think one person is the protagonist and they’re not. They’re the main character but they’re not the protagonist. I mean, how do you define her change for you as the filmmaker through the story?
Lulu: Her change is acceptance and a sense of grace and respect, and yeah, acceptance of her family and respecting their choices. Not a very dramatic journey.
Craig: But, no, that is. And it’s also there is a kind of action you can take that is not as obvious as other actions, right? So she doesn’t have to old boy her way through a hallway of people with a hammer, right? OK, so that’s not what she’s doing. But when you design a – I mean, dramas are torture chambers and you designed a torture chamber for her of a kind. And her reaction to things is active actually. I mean, we don’t say like well the hero is reacting because someone has put a bomb in the building and they have to stop the bomb. That is a reaction, right? But the question is what are they going to do? How does she move forward as people put these obstacles in her way? And what does she do differently as she goes through?
It’s subtle. But I think it’s there.
Lulu: Yeah. And then the thing that I thought about in the – especially in the second half of the movie once we realize, OK, this isn’t about her actually spilling the beans – is the action for her is figuring out how to say goodbye. And so that’s what drove me. Yeah, and I know, again, it’s not like a hammering your way through the hallway kind of thing, but there is a driving force of trying to figure out like her trying to decide well do I stay, do I actually go, can I help? And that powerlessness is tied with her trying to figure out how to say goodbye.
Craig: It’s a choice. Her action ultimately is a choice.
John: Yeah. And I do want to circle back to this idea of reactive protagonists because she is. I mean, by any standards of western movies she is not sort of driving scenes or driving the central story to the degree that we’re sort of used to. And I think that’s good. I think it’s one of the reasons why I loved the movie so much is it’s much more difficult to keep us engaged in a story where that hero is not actually driving the action. And you succeeded brilliantly in doing that. And so I want to sort of point out that it – my blanket advice of sort of like the protagonist needs to be driving the action is because that’s generally how good stories work and how the good experience of watching things on screen happens. But when you can find another way to sort of create a really gripping, beautiful movie without doing it, awesome. It’s a harder thing you chose to do and more authentic to your experience.
Craig: But there is a kind of a movie where – how would I describe it? It’s sort of – let’s call it a kind of survival sort of film. So in this case when Jordan is asking his question he specifically refers to Jurassic Park. And he says that most people would consider Sam Neil’s character to be the protagonist of this film, and yet Jordan says, “It seems to me that the story is mostly happening to him, especially for the first half of the movie.” And I would agree.
But it’s a movie about survival. And survival movies don’t necessarily have to be movies where zombies come or dinosaurs come. Sometimes survival is I’m stuck with my family in another country and what am I going to do. And in those movies the point is how do we respond to something that is beyond our ability to control. So zombie movies are always reactive in that regard. They’re always responsive because the movies are coming. Now what do you do? How do you react? The dinosaurs are coming. Grandma is dying. There is a flood. It could be a lot of different things.
But the purpose of the stories is how is a normal person supposed to react? How can they make it through this? And I think that that is active disguised as reactive is how I would put it.
Lulu: It’s so interesting that you say survival movie and talk about all these genre films, because I actually approached The Farewell as a genre film. And I was talking to a friend of mine who is a director and does horror because she really helped me. And we had this conversation during my development process where, you know, people want to know my comps and I was trying to reference other family dramas and I felt limited by the toolbox of the family drama genre, or family comedy, because I was actually trying to – and I couldn’t phrase it this way. I didn’t say this is a survival story, but I kept say like, well, you know, it’s all about the tension of this lie. It’s not about something happening. It’s about the fact that everyone knows it’s there but they can’t talk about it.
And so she was like, oh yeah, like monster movies. And I was like oh my gosh that’s so great because that’s the thing. In genre movies the monster can always be there. Once you set up that the monster is there you almost don’t have to show the monster for the majority of the movie, right? So much of it is about anticipation and dread. And so then when I was working with my DP it was the same thing where it was like how do we shoot this film where what we see externally the family is eating and laughing, but how do we use the camera and music and all of that to make it feel like there is this monster in the room, which is the lie.
Craig: There you go. Survival.
Lulu: Yeah. Exactly.
Lulu: We intentionally did that in every scene of saying like what are we doing here so that we feel the presence of the monster.
John: That’s awesome. I would not have guessed that Jurassic Park and The Farewell would be so closely related, and yet thanks to a listener question we get the truth out here.
Craig: Got to see it through the Matrix, man. You got to see through this.
John: It’s all related. Chris McQuarrie, a frequent guest on the show, had a Twitter thread this last week where he was talking though his advice basically on getting started. And Jake wrote in to say, “The primary thesis of his thread was that simply submitting scripts to studios is as effective as making money as playing the lottery. Instead McQuarrie says we should do things like make small films. Do work we normally wouldn’t in order to network. And generally make our own luck. I dig this idea but wonder what the borders are.”
So, Lulu, you are an example of someone who felt like you kind of were making your own luck quite a lot here. And so to what degree do you agree with Chris that making short films or doing other stuff is the way to sort of get noticed and to get stuff out there? Because it seems like you ended up making this short film as a sort of proof of your abilities, but it was the This American Life that really sort of got this project started. So how do you react to this Chris McQuarrie idea?
Lulu: I think, you know, it’s hard because so often it is luck. Like when you look back you’re like oh my gosh thank god the right person, the right place, and all of that. But the other thing that like after my first film because I got so lucky to find a partner who financed the whole film and I felt incredibly privileged, it was also a place of insecurity. Of like, oh, well I only made my first feature because I got lucky. And doesn’t mean that it’s going to happen again. And it didn’t go very wide and so no one is throwing opportunities at me.
And so I felt really insecure. And then after The Farewell I was like, wait, it wasn’t just luck. It‘s because I created these opportunities. It’s always to some degree luck, but it’s what they say. It’s opportunity meets – wait, what’s the saying? You know the saying.
Craig: Preparation. I believe.
Lulu: Preparation. Yes.
Craig: It’s serendipity favors the prepared. I mean, the fact is that luck may be responsible in part for somebody starting, but it is not sufficient to keep them going. And similarly bad luck is not sufficient enough to keep somebody brilliantly talented down. I think you could say it’s lucky that Chris Weitz heard you on This American Life, but how did you get on that show to begin with? Not everyone gets on This American Life. That’s a pretty high bar to clear.
So it’s not all as much luck as we think. I tend to agree with Chris – and I hate the lottery metaphor. So Chris McQuarrie is one of my best friends and we have to fight constantly. So first of all I have to point out that when he does this stuff on Twitter he calls it McQ &A, which I think is the dumbest thing in the world. So, McQuarrie, please stop doing that. It’s so stupid.
But anyway, I mean honestly, McQ &A? Ugh. But, he is one of the smartest people I know, which I hate. And I think he’s right to an extent here. It’s not so much that it’s a lottery, it’s really more like – so you are a musician, correct, Lulu? You are a pianist?
Craig: So when you think about how many people get to rise to the level of a world renowned classical pianist, it’s really, really small. And it’s not because it’s a lottery, it’s because there’s an almost professional sports/athletic kind of narrowing of the field to the best of the best of the best of the best. And so it’s not random. I mean, the lottery implies randomness. It’s not random. If you write a brilliant script and you send it to a studio it’s going to get noticed. It will. One way or another. It’s impossible for some genius script to not get noticed. The problem is that it’s hard for people to notice genius. And sometimes scripts don’t appear to be as brilliant as the movies that would come from them will be, especially for somebody like you who is also a filmmaker.
Where I agree with him is prove it. If you can prove it by making a short, or even shooting one scene, or something that is real that people can look at, then your odds of shortening the time for your brilliance to be noticed and your worthiness to be acknowledged, your odds go up.
Lulu: Yeah. And I also think there’s something to be said, not about like external, you know, validation or giving you opportunities, but for me I feel most empowered as a storyteller when I’m actually storytelling. When I’m actually creating. And so after I made my first film, Posthumous, because it was a feature a lot of people felt like I shouldn’t go back to this program and make a tiny budget short film. But all I knew is it was an opportunity for me to make something. And I haven’t made that many things. And so any opportunity to just make something is great because I’ll learn from that.
And so that was one of the best decisions because I actually got advice to not do it but like that film being at this film festival in New York at the SVA theater was how Neil Drumming found me because he is a filmmaker and he had made Big Words. And he just happened on a Wednesday night to get dragged by his friend who is an actor to this tiny random short film festival. And was about to start a job in January for This American Life. Now, is it lucky that Neil happened to be there that particular day? But also if I didn’t chose to make the short film and was like, “I’m too good for this, I’ve already done a feature, I’m just going to focus on doing another feature,” like none of that would have happened.
Craig: Chance favors the prepared. One day someone is going to knock on your door and say, “I would like to buy something.” And if you have it, you sell it. And if you don’t, you don’t.
Craig: I think the metric we should be thinking about is how much time is going to happen between the thing that I’ve made that is worthy and people recognizing that it is worthy. And if there’s anything really great about Chris’s advice here it’s that turning it into something that is more than just words on a page will shorten that time.
Lulu: Yeah, absolutely. And it’s like even I think back on finding my first job on Rush Hour it was because looking at what was available and then thinking about what are my assets and how do those things intersect.
Craig: Right. And this has been another chapter of McQ & A. I mean, come on. What would be the John August version of that? I don’t know.
John: Yeah, I don’t know. I need to work on my branding there. Allie asks a question which is probably a simpler question but also a fundamental question. “How do you find friends in Los Angeles?”
Craig: Oh, I need to know this.
John: “I’ve been working as a screenwriter and producer in Europe and the third season of the show I’ve written is currently airing and opened the door for some great meetings in LA. That means traveling a bit back and forth. But I really hate it in LA. I don’t hate LA overall. I just have no friends. People I meet are producers, executives, and Uber drivers. I never get invited to social events while I’m in LA, so kind of get why. How do I start to find friends?”
Now, Lulu, you moved out here probably straight after college, so you had a much more classical situation here. What advice can we offer to Ally about ways to find friends now that she’s spending more time in Los Angeles?
Lulu: I’m kind of a terrible person to ask that, because I had no friends for a very long time. And also like I lived on the west side, which was a terrible decision, because most people live on the east side. So, you know, honestly I actually didn’t have a lot of friends for a long time. Not like close friends. And I felt very isolated and I hated LA too for that reason. And it drove me to just write more. It’s terrible.
Craig: There you go. Friends just get in the way of work. Here’s the problem, Ally, you don’t live here. So you’re not going to have friends here because friends are people that hang out with each other. Do you know what I mean? You seem to be asking for like rental friends when you show up, but that’s not how friendship works. So if you live here I guarantee you you will find friends because you will be working with people. Most people will know people and you’ll meet them and somebody will click. And then once you have one or two then they have friends and so on and so forth. But the point is you’re around and you are available for reciprocal friendship.
If you are just coming here to have meetings then I don’t see where the opportunity is for, you know, you have to be able to offer something in return. So, maybe stay here a little bit longer? But also if you’re not then keep your friends in Europe and just know that when you’re out here in Los Angeles it’s all business.
Lulu: Yeah. And I think it’s all about expectations because it has to happen organically, too. It’s like dating. You might meet somebody but you create the circumstances in which you might meet people and have interesting conversations. And then you become friends. It’s sort of like if you go out being like I need friends now and I need five of them, like that’s very difficult.
So I think for me during that time I just didn’t put too much weight on it. And I would go out to places that I would enjoy being at by myself. Like the bar of a restaurant. Or an outdoor concert. Or whatever. Like a wine tasting somewhere. And then just talk to strangers. But I’m somebody who loves to talk to strangers. And it’s not lifelong friendship, but I find that to be very interesting, too.
John: Yeah. What you’re bringing up is that you need to find people who are sort of similarly placed to you. So that you’re going to have a similar experience. So, I moved to Paris for a year, and so while I was living in Paris for a year my fantasy was like, oh, we’re going to make all these great French friends. And then I realized like, oh, everybody who actually lives in Paris, they don’t want to make friends with me if I’m only going to be there for a year. Everyone knows I’m just there for a year and then I’m going to go away. And so I needed to – the people we made friends with were other parents at my daughter’s school because they were also just there temporarily and we were all sort of in the same boat.
And so we became friends because it was handy. Because we needed to hang out with other folks who were sort of in our same situation. We had something in common which was that we’re here for a short time and we have kids about the same age. And Ally your situation is if you’re just dropping in occasionally maybe pick the place where you’re going to stay in Los Angeles so it has more of those transitory people that you can cross paths with again. The same way that you bumped up with Mari Heller at the film festival in Berlin.
Lulu: It was not even a film festival.
John: Just Berlin in general.
Lulu: Just randomly. Yeah.
John: Make the kind of friends who you can just bump into at places because it sounds like you’re going to be traveling a lot. And don’t get so worried about like oh I have to have this big cadre of LA friends because that’s not realistic given how little you’re going to be here.
Craig: Yeah. Also what’s wrong with just being alone? It’s wonderful. It’s amazing. Ally, get yourself a PlayStation. Pop in a game. And just watch the hours go by. It’s amazing.
John: It’s so good. All right, it’s time for our One Cool Things.
John: My One Cool Thing is an article by Jennifer Keishin Armstrong for BuzzFeed. She’s writing about a lot of old sitcoms don’t hold up, but the Mary Tyler Moore Show does. And it’s a really great look back at the Mary Tyler Moore Show and how surprisingly contemporary it is. So I remember growing up with that show in reruns and loving it, but the things that Mary is dealing with in terms of it being both a home comedy and a workplace comedy and sort of what she’s trying to do, you could air that show now and it would still make a lot of sense.
And so it would tackle social issues, but it was also incredibly funny. So, the Mary Tyler Moore Show, especially if you haven’t seen the Mary Tyler Moore Show, I think it’s worth dipping back in and seeing that, because it was so foundational to sort of like how our comedies work these days, but also just really, really good. So, check out this article and check out the Mary Tyler Moore Show.
Craig: Fantastic. Well I have an article also. Do you guys – so this article has got the best title ever. It’s in Esquire. And the headline is God Warrior Remains a Beloved Meme, but Marguerite Perrin Isn’t Afraid of Dark-Sided Stuff Anymore. So do you guys remember way, way back, 14 years ago in November of 2005 a woman named Marguerite Perrin later to be known as God Warrior was on the show Trading Spouses? Does this ring a bell to either of you?
John: I have no idea what this is.
Craig: OK. So, I don’t watch Trading Spouses. I don’t know anything about it other than that it was a reality show where people would swap, like I’ll give you my husband, you give me your husband, and then they’re going to learn how life is different. You know, so they would do stuff–
John: But it was a fairly wholesome reality show? So it’s like an ABC kind of show, right?
Craig: It was – I don’t know what channel it was on.
John: It wasn’t like a sexy-sexy show?
Craig: No, no, no. It was more like, oh, you’re a truck driver and you’re a doctor. Let’s switch places and see how the other half lives. That kind of thing. No, no sex involved. And in this particular case this woman, Marguerite Perrin, who was a devout Christian from rural Louisiana, was swapped with a Boston hypnotherapist married to an astrologer. So they sent her up to Boston and when Marguerite came home she lost her ever-loving S. And freaked out in this kind of incredible hyper-Christian way. And said, “They’re tampering with the dark side.” And she pronounced Dark Dork. And said this is tainted. “I am a God Warrior. And I don’t want anyone tainted doing anything…” She lost her mind.
It’s a great clip. It will live forever on YouTube of course. And here’s why I love this article. So we had a sense of who this woman was and now 14 years later who is she? She’s still her, but also not her. She has become kind of an icon in the gay community. She was recently spotted at the New York City Pride. And when – her daughter died in a car accident. Weirdly I guess the LGBT community kind of adopted her weirdly because of the meme status and because they just kind of loved her. And when her daughter died she got all these lovely notes and flowers and things from people in the gay community and sort of reciprocated and kind of grew up.
And became cool. But also still, look, she’s still like religious and everything, but it’s like watching a study and somebody going from the kind of most narrow-minded point of view to somebody that’s actually kind of opened up in this brilliant way. And I thought, huh, it took a while, but Trading Spouses actually worked. So check out this article. It’s kind of heart-warming in its own way. God Warrior Remains a Beloved Meme, but Marguerite Perrin Isn’t Afraid of Dark-Sided Stuff Anymore by Justin Kirkland at Esquire.
John: Fantastic. Lulu, do you have a One Cool Thing for us?
Lulu: Well I’m reading this book called Three Women, Lisa Taddeo. And I really love it. It’s based on research over the course of I think a decade on three women and it’s all about female desire. And it’s like why I went into film was – actually very little known fact is the movie Secretary and Piano are two movies that I saw in feminist film theory class and was always just interested in the exploration of female desire. And the expectations that society has versus the reality of it. And so this book is a really great deep dive into that.
John: Fantastic. Lulu, you are busy doing a bunch of publicity for The Farewell, but you’re also working on other stuff. Some of which I know you can’t talk about. But in general we talk about how challenging it is to make your second feature, what is it like making your third big project? How has that experience been?
Lulu: You know, I have not really started yet, but it’s been intimidating to start because I like to be challenged and I want to do something that I haven’t done before, but then that’s also scary to do something I haven’t done before. And to do something that’s not based on my life and isn’t autobiographical. And making it feel as real to me as possible. So, I think that’s been the biggest thing. And I get submitted scripts all the time that are Chinese family dramas and I’m like but I just did that. The interesting thing is once you’re known for something people want you to kind of do that thing over and over. And it’s sort of like what’s at the heart of it, but the heart of my storytelling isn’t like just Chinese family drama. It’s something else. And for me it’s figuring out what is that something else and how do I translate it into my other work. And what are the things that are important to me?
Craig: Jewish family drama. That’s my advice to you.
Lulu: I mean, same things. Really, the same things.
Craig: It kind of is. It kind of is.
John: Whatever you end up doing next will you please come back on Scriptnotes and talk to us more?
Lulu: I would love that.
John: Oh, Lulu, you’re a delight. Scriptnotes is produced by Megana Rao. It is edited by Matthew Chilelli. Outro this week is by James Launch and Jim Bond and features Chris McQuarrie.
Craig: McQ &A. [laughs]
John: If you have an outro you can send us a link to email@example.com. That’s also the place where you can send longer questions. For short questions on Twitter, Craig is @clmazin. I am @johnaugust. Lulu Wang, you are?
John: That’s a great Twitter handle. You can find the show notes for this episode and all episodes at johnaugust.com. That’s also where you’ll find transcripts. We try to get them up about four days after the episode airs. We have super exciting news coming very soon about the premium feed and what’s happening with that. But for now you find all the back episodes at store.johnaugust.com.
Craig: You know, I got to say it’s not super exciting. But what is exciting, I mean, I don’t think it is. But we actually do have really super exciting news about an upcoming live show. I’m not saying what it is.
John: Oh, that’s right. There is a live show news coming up.
Craig: Oh, it’s big.
John: So traditionally we do a holiday show in December. We are not breaking with tradition. And I think you’re going to want to get tickets for that one when it becomes available. But they are not available quite yet.
John: Nope. Lulu Wang, thank you very much for being on Scriptnotes.
Lulu: Thank you so much for having me.
John: Great. Thanks.
Craig: Thanks Lulu.
John: Thanks. Bye.
- The Farewell
- Chris McQuarrie Twitter Thread
- A Lot Of Old Sitcoms Don’t Hold Up. “The Mary Tyler Moore Show” Does. by Jennifer Keishin Armstrong
- God Warrior Remains a Beloved Meme, But Marguerite Perrin Isn’t Afraid of Dark-Sided Stuff Anymore by Justin Klein
- Three Women by Lisa Taddeo
- Lulu Wang on Twitter
- John August on Twitter
- Craig Mazin on Twitter
- John on Instagram
- Outro by James Llonch & Jim Bond (send us yours!)
Email us at firstname.lastname@example.org
You can download the episode here.