Photo courtesy of IMDb

Director Lulu Wang Discusses Success in Cinema and Fighting Ignorance Through Storytelling

On March 25th, Boston College English Professor and Director of the American Studies Department Christina Klein hosted Director Lulu Wang, MCAS '05, in a webinar to talk about her most recent film The Farewell. 

During her time at Boston College, Wang double majored in English and Music and intended to go to law school after graduating. However, after taking a creative writing class with Professor Thomas Kaplan-Maxfield and a couple film courses, she began considering film seriously as a profession. Wang said her parents pushed her towards law because of its security. For her, taking a photography class at BC was “a dirty little secret.” She recalls being able to feel the magic of filmmaking for the first time, “I just fell in love with it because it wasn’t something somebody told me I should do. It wasn’t something that was going to make me a lot of money. It was just pure play.” 

When Wang told her parents her plans for after graduation—which entailed turning down a full scholarship to law school and instead working at a coffee shop in Beacon Hill—they were, understandably, shocked. They asked, “How do you know how to make a movie? How are you going to find the financing? How are you going to learn? Do you need to go to film school?” Wang didn’t have answers for her parents. Instead, she wanted to see if she could just throw herself into the industry and learn by doing. So, that’s what she did. She packed her bags, moved to Los Angeles, and began writing, interning, reading screenwriting books—anything she could do to “break into the industry.”

While making the leap to enter a creative field might have been the riskiest part of Wang’s journey, it wasn’t necessarily the hardest. She emphasizes the difficulties of working in a field that doesn't always reward hard work, or even talent, but is most often just a result of good timing. “I remember when I first… moved to L.A. and people said it took seven years to become an overnight success. I remember thinking that was such a long time. I was like ‘that’s not going to be me.’” Ultimately, it took her ten years. During that time, she would watch friends and peers who worked in more stable jobs do all the things people are expected to do throughout their twenties and thirties, like buy houses and get married, and start saving for retirement. She admitted that pursuing something like filmmaking requires patience in “those moments when you’re facing the blank page and you see everybody moving forward in their career.” On one hand, a filmmaker has to accept that some of their work is just going to be to pay rent. On the other hand, if they want to make art, they can’t allow the pressure to be traditionally successful drive their work, either.

An interesting part of Wang’s philosophy on directing came when Professor Klein asked about her experience as a female director when directing has typically been considered a man’s job. Ironically, Wang found that the “manly” traits commonly associated with directing, like commanding a room or being domineering, are not necessarily helpful for her. Instead, it’s the traits that are typically attributed to women, but not always valued, to be useful in directing. “It’s all about emotional intelligence, it is all about communication.” She references her partner, Barry Jenkins, director of Moonlight; he’s “a very communicative and very tender person,” but it works because directing is not about “ruling with an iron fist. It is not, ‘you are going to do this whether or not you like it.’” Mostly, it’s not a question of gender at all. Instead, it’s about working with a team to find the right way to convey a story to an audience. 

Additionally, Wang finds it funny that she doesn’t really know how other people, regardless of gender, direct, “It is a weird thing about being a director… You don’t get to watch other people… Everyone has their own style and you’re kind of like, ‘Am I doing this well, am I good at this?’” She can’t think about the traits a director "must" have, she can only direct like herself, and trust herself in the process. Professor Klein summed it up by saying that it seems like what any director needs most is “confidence in your own vision.” 

Just as written literature has its own established conventions and tropes that authors can fall back on to communicate to their readers, filmmakers have their own language of visual storytelling. Wang has learned to see each story as having its own language, one that needs to be uncovered through the process of its creation. With The Farewell, Wang didn’t want to shoot a regular American comedy. Instead, she wanted the humor in the film to come from framing, visual juxtaposition, and blocking. 

Based on a situation in Wang’s real life, The Farewell tells the story of Billi, played by Awkwafina, and her family who go to China to say their goodbyes to her ill grandmother. However, her grandmother is unaware of her own sickness. The family struggles between wanting to keep their grandmother from knowing the truth about her illness and maintaining Chinese tradition, which dictates that she must not be told. Despite the absurdity of the circumstances, such a story pushes the boundary of humor and what kind of situations are befitting of comedy. Wang points out that life is never experienced as just one emotion, “in life, whether at a wedding or a funeral, you don’t know if you are in a drama or a comedy.” Therefore, she always wants her actors to feel as though they are in a drama, or at least reflecting the natural drama of life. Wang’s own directorial choices allow the audience to recognize the comedy of situations that the characters (and even the actors) might only find amusing in hindsight.

The main conflict of The Farewell has to do with a difference of ideologies between China and the United States. Billi, connected to both cultures, struggles with the idea of keeping her grandmother in the dark about her illness. Billi’s struggle to come to terms with this particular cultural difference is reflective of her more constant turmoil of trying to understand herself as both Chinese and American. Dissecting nuanced differences in culture is important to Wang, as she has gone through the experience of having to balance the two herself. Wang explains “I wanted to make the film for Asian Americans, for immigrant Americans, for anybody Asian or not who lives in a country that they are not originally from… This is a film for everybody in between.”  

Wang discussed a few challenges in filming The Farewell regarding her desire to represent a realistic Asian family dynamic constructed from her own experience. One example of this occurred during the development of the mother character. Producers were afraid the mother’s toughness reduced her into a stereotype “tiger mom.” But the character was based on Wang’s actual mother, and she insists that the specificities of the character were the most important. Wang wanted to hold onto this character because she didn’t want her to follow the conventions of the typical white American mother on TV or in movies. She said, “In this particular moment it was important for me to convey that there is a love language that is real, that may not be verbal. It may not involve a hug or the words ‘I love you.’” This relationship, one that she feels accurately represents herself and many Asian American families, was more important to portray than a relationship that defied all stereotypes.  

The opportunity to explore the reality of Asian American life is part of the reason why Wang is happy with the success of Asian American cinema. During the conception of The Farewell, Wang was told that there wasn’t really a market for Asian American cinema, under the assumption that “the Asian American story is not a universal story, it cannot be a universal story.” Now, countless films have proven that wrong. Additionally, The Farewell’s success indicated that the public is generally more willing to see something outside of the mainstream. Wang’s only fear is that Asian American cinema will prove to be a trend, but has hope that this desire from the public to see new stories will continue.

Wang hopes to use her power as a filmmaker to combat anti-Asian sentiment. She views storytelling as a pivotal way to counter fear and promote understanding. “We need storytelling to not be fear-based. You want it to be empathy-based and for it to be a way into worlds and lives and perspectives that we would not otherwise see.”