Lulu Wang’s The Farewell is the beautiful drama inspired by “an actual lie.” The story is Wang’s own, her grandmother or Nai Nai as she is affectionately called, has six months to live after being diagnosed with terminal cancer, the family has to return to China to see her and say their farewells. Except, Nai Nai can’t know the truth and the family comes together under the guise of a family wedding.
Wang told the story in 2016 on the “This American Life” podcast, and producer Chris Weitz heard the story. He wanted to tell it because it was a universal story and felt it belonged on the big screen. He was unaware that Wang was a filmmaker, and not just a radio voice.
Weitz and his production partner, Andrew Miano, along with Paul Weitz have produced films such as Tom Ford’s A Single Man, Being Flynn and Grandma. They find films, Weitz says, “That we would want to see.”
The company partnered with Big Beach on Wang’s The Farewell which has turned out to be a huge success earning critical acclaim and box office success – the film earned the highest per-theater-average when it opened back in July. The Farewell is now garnering Awards chatter, where it lands remains to be seen. I caught up with the film’s producers, Andrew Miano and Chris Weitz.
Let’s start with how you got involved with The Farewell.
Chris: I was driving around in my car with my family. I heard Lulu’s piece on ‘This American Life’ so it was pretty early on, and I tracked her down through Twitter and the internet. I just felt it was a beautiful story and one that could make a terrific movie. I felt it was both very specific and universal, and something that would be great on the screen.
What I didn’t know was that Lulu was a filmmaker, for all I knew she worked in radio, so it was really good news.
Lulu came out and we had lunch where we discussed what kind of story it would be. Crucially, we wanted it to be as much of Lulu’s story as it could be. We didn’t want to extract a white boyfriend or white narrative into it. It was cool with her, and we proceeded. I think about the same time; Big Beach was also interested and we joined forces.
How quickly after that meeting did it move along?
Chris: I think pretty quickly. Usually, these things are torture because you spend years dragging it up the fields, but because Big Beach was so keen on it we were able to put it together fairly quickly.
This is where Andrew comes in, because, in order to do this, the film would have to be largely in Mandarin, and mostly shot in China. It wasn’t your everyday kind of film in terms of how it would get made. It required a lot of faith on a lot of people.
Andrew: Two years ago right now, Daniele Melia from Big Beach, Lulu and I went to China to scout and to meet with potential Chinese partners.
In the speed, it ran on 2016 on NPR, by late 2017, we were in China scouting and late 2018 we are shooting. Now, it’s almost the end of 2019, so it moved very quickly.
You talk about the appeal of the film and how fast it got made, but what’s it like seeing stories that the film made more per average than End Game?
Chris: It’s totally delightful to have that. It was amazing. These things rarely go so well. There are so many things that can go wrong when you’re making a film. The people financing it can fall through, the people making it can drop the ball, it can be done and people don’t like it. If they like it, it can come out and still no one watches it. So, all of these things had to happen in order for us to get to that place.
It really was the support of word of mouth and the support of critics. There was a real groundswell that started at Sundance. The enthusiasm is so surprising and a testament to the work of art, that you don’t have to market test it. You don’t always have to imagine what kind of audience will see it. It’s a good enough story.
The other thing that’s so great is the casting of the film. You have Awkwafina who is brilliant as Billi and just delivers this great performance, and also Zhao Shuzhen is great.
Andrew: We were down to the wire for the casting. We did not cast Zhao until very close to production because it was really difficult to find the right person. She did audition, and she was cast a few weeks before shooting, and I think she is incredible. Casting is always a bit of alchemy and a little bit of luck, and the chemistry fell into place.
Casting Lulu’s real aunt to play herself in the movie was a similar thing. It was down to the wire, and she was hesitant to play it. Lulu had to convince her why she would be wonderful, but it wasn’t easy to get her to play herself, but it all worked out exceptionally well.
As a company, what draws you to projects and what makes you say yes to them?
Chris: As a company, we don’t set out to make blockbusters. We don’t set out to make projects that will make money for the company and not be really good. When my brother, Andrew and I started this company, we wanted to make good popular culture. Every once in a while we find something with the potential heartache of it not going well and the hard work of getting it done. There’s no template for that; it’s just whether a film seizes our imagination and whether we can be of use in helping an artist get their work to the screen. We’ve been lucky to be associated with movies that did well, and that means we can give a little pixie dust to some things once in a while. We try to be responsible and not bring out dumb films. [laughs]. This was not an obvious proposition from the beginning, but it was so worth it to get it made.
Andrew: It’s stories that appeal to us that we would want to make the effort to go to the theater to see and films that we want to make. We will make a commercial film, and The Farewell has turned out to be a commercial proposition, but for us, it starts with the idea.