In Lulu Wang’s The Farewell, Billi (Awkwafina) travels back from Brooklyn to China to see her Nai Nai and “say goodbye.” Nai Nai has been diagnosed with cancer and the family all return under the guise of a family wedding. The family has decided that Nai Nai can’t know she’s dying and take it on themselves to bear the burden of the “lie.” It is “not the cancer that kills, it’s the fear.”
Wang assembles the perfect cast to tell the story as Billi grapples with the idea of wanting to tell the truth and understanding tradition. For The Farewell, Wang reunites with frequent collaborator Matt Friedman to edit the film. I caught up with Friedman as The Farewell returns to cinemas this weekend with full Chinese subtitles. Friedman talks about how he fell in love with film, working under the tutelage of with Emma Hickox, and working with Lulu Wang.
Was there a moment when you were a kid or as a young man that made you think, “How do they do that? I want to do that.”
As a little kid, my parents got me a Super 8 camera. I loved playing with that. I’d make little movies. My genre seemed to be taking little cars and blowing them up with Coleman White fuel and I’d be making movies with that.
I was interested in film at an early age and knew I wanted to do something with that. I wasn’t sure exactly what.
I went to film school at Northwestern and enjoyed a lot of aspects of it. I enjoyed editing there, but it wasn’t really on my radar as something I could make a full career out of.
Once I graduated and it came time to figure out what the hell to do with the rest of my life, I still didn’t really know. I lived in East Tennessee, so I found a bunch of films that were shooting in Atlanta. I picked out the ones that didn’t have any stars in them because I figured they would need the most help possible.
This was back in 93 back when Letterman was first doing the top ten list. I sent a top ten list for reasons why the movie should hire me. It was all comedic stuff, one said “good at math.” The other was, “Never been the cause of a major diplomatic incident.” I faxed these, again because it was 1993. I got a call back about ten minutes after I sent it. The production supervisor said, “Anybody who can make us all stop working and laugh has to be down here working with us. We have no money. It’ll be an unpaid internship and you can choose the art department or editorial.” I can’t draw for shit so given that I liked editing in college and it was a relaxing zen experience when I was editing my own stuff, I went down there and took the editing internship.
That editing internship was with an editor named Emma Hickox, and she’s the daughter of Anne Coates who cut Lawrence of Arabia. I just had the blind good fortune to stumble into working for this incredible nurturing woman who came from an incredible filmmaking family. We got along great, and I have very large attention to detail, and that makes for a great assistant editor. Emma said I should move to LA and if I did she’d hire me on her next movie. And she did. I worked with her for four or five films as an assistant.
Film school was great, but it’s impossible to recreate a feature film making experience in film school. It’s just too expensive, so my film school was with Emma Hickox. She taught me how the process worked, how to work with directors, and this was back in the day when they were cutting on film. She cut on an upright moviola which required that assistants constantly be in the room with the director and the editor while they were cutting. I had the great fortune of being really one of the last wave of assistants to have that experience. It was just something that spoke to me, and I love the process.
You worked with Emma for four movies, and with Lulu, this is your third film. What is your relationship like with her now?
It really is a very difficult relationship to describe to someone who hasn’t actually been in it. It’s a friendship, but it’s also a collaboration in terms of storytelling. It’s sitting with the same person for upwards of eight to ten hours a day. It’s also intimate in that both the editor and director are dealing with the successes of filmmaking, but they’re also dealing with the failures. It’s one of the reasons when directors find the relationships that work, they have the same editor over and over and over again. I think what best encapsulates the way Lulu and I work together was, the first film that I went to work for her on was a recut. She had shot Posthumous and she had edited it for ten or twelve weeks. She just knew that it wasn’t getting the response that she wanted. She had tried everything that she could think of, but she was at a block. They brought me on. I flew to Berlin where they were cutting. I sat down and went through the entire movie and just took out all the air. By air, I mean the frames that are not directly supporting the story. That could be pauses and dialogue. It could be tangents or moving characters around the space which take up time but don’t support the story. I went through and pulled that stuff out. I’d do a reel, and Lulu would come in and watch it with me. We got to this one scene where one of the characters was talking to the other, they take a step forward and deliver another line. I had just jumped him across space under a cutaway to another character. I didn’t want to take the time to move him from one place to another. When we got to that point, Lulu said, “I see you jumped him across under the reaction shot, maybe we can put back a little bit of that.” So, we put it back and moved on. The next time we were working through the reel, we got to that same point, and I said, “Let me tighten it up a bit.” She watched me do the tightening and said, “Maybe split the difference.” I stopped and said to her that maybe there wasn’t something about it that I’m not understanding because I kept wanting to trim the scene, and she wanted to tighten it. Lulu explained to me that the character had done something that he was trying to explain to the other character but he was deeply embarrassed by it, and that’s what was going on in his mind, and that’s where the hesitation was coming from. I said, “Oh, well, the reason I wasn’t getting that was because two scenes ago there was the dialogue that was meant to set that up. Let’s go back and fix that.” So, we went back and fixed that. That’s my process of working with any director. It’s to discuss the motivations of the characters and make sure that I understand at every given moment exactly what is going through a character’s mind. These are discussions that the director has had with the actors. If I’m cutting with a slightly different agenda, that’s going to lead to the performance not feeling genuine.
On the subject of emotion, you’re cutting The Farewell in two languages. You’re dealing with English and Mandarin. With English, we emote at the end. With Mandarin, they emote at the beginning. How did you translate that in your editing?
You’re one of the few who get to notice that. We definitely paid a tremendous amount of attention to that. I’ve cut films in Spanish, but I don’t speak Spanish. It’s easier because the emotional content of the line comes roughly in the same structure. It was definitely treading a line of trying to satisfy both audiences with the cut.
In addition to having someone translate the line for me which was most often Lulu. I’d have her translate it literally word for word, so we could understand where the emotional content was falling. I wanted to make sure that if I was cutting it for an English speaking audience that the cut was not going to alienate a Chinese speaking audience by putting the heart of the line off-camera. It was a dance. We paid a lot of attention to that.
We talked in great detail about the translations of the lines and what was exactly the translation. You might have noticed this but some of the translations were not 100% accurate to the words. However, we strove to make them 100% accurate to the intent of the character in the story. It was a whole extra level of complexity that very few people will pick up on.
Then you have Lulu and the long shots where she pauses and lets you sit on the emotion. What’s that like working with that lingering shot?
Some of that was present in the first feature that I did the recut on. Not nearly to the extent that it was on The Farewell. One of the things I noticed in the first feature was that when everything is cut with all this extra air in it, those moments do not resonate. What you do is train the audience, that you are going to be showing them empty frames, frames that have no meaning. When you get to these long moments that are supposed to have meaning, people don’t get it. You can feel yourself zoning out.
In The Farewell, there was a lot of discussion about how long those moments were because this is definitely not conventional. We paid a large attention to the rest of the movie, so we could protect those longer moments. If so much attention wasn’t paid to cutting the rest of the movie quickly in terms of pace, then those moments would have had to be longer because we were so diligent elsewhere in the movie they didn’t need to be as long in order to feel so long.
I come from a broad studio comedy background, and that was where I learned to be brutal in terms of taking air out. Even sometimes, we talked about moments. I’d say, “Are you sure you want to leave things that long?” And she’d say, “Trust me on this one.” We would and of course, it worked. That’s also part of the way I view my job. Certainly, there are different ways it could be cut. My job is to help the director realize the best and most compelling version of their vision of the movie. So, it makes it easy to deal with instances where you as an editor might do something differently if you were the director, but you’re not the director so you help them realize things. It doesn’t mean I don’t challenge her and play devil’s advocate and once I understand where her intention is, I’ll suggest things she may not have thought of. That goes back to the collaborative process. When you find that relationship, someone who can challenge you in a constructive way as a director, you keep it.