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Hit Movie The Farewell Almost Never Happened; How Lulu Wang Got Her Story onto the Big Screen

The Farewell, a new indie film starring Awkwafina, shot past the one million dollar mark in the box office in its second weekend. Fox Business reports the film from director Lulu Wang has grossed $1.67 million since being released on July 13. The film is rated 100% fresh on Rotten Tomatoes, and has received the Sundance Institute’s prestigious Vanguard Award. But the film many are talking about this summer almost didn’t happen; Wang nearly gave up all hope of making it when potential producers turned her down because they couldn’t place her story as “American” or “Chinese.”

The film is based on a true story, or “an actual lie” as the movie trailer calls it, involving Wang’s real-life grandma.

Wang began pitching her story to potential producers, hoping to make a tender but comical movie about the lengths that family go to protect one another. But time and again, she was asked the question: “Is this an American film or a Chinese film?”

“Which is kind of like asking me, ‘Are you American or are you Chinese?'” Wang told Vox in an interview. Wang would respond that she’s American, because she grew up here, speaks English, and has an American perspective.

The American financiers weren’t buying it though. “It’s not an American film,” they told her, “It won’t work for the American market.”

So then she tried pitching to Chinese financiers, but was still met with resistance. “This Chinese producer was like, ‘You need a White guy in your movie,’” Wang said in an interview with IndieWire, “They’re so influenced by Hollywood.”

Wang gave up on making the film. “I thought if I can’t make the film the way I want to make it, I’m not going to make it at all,” she told IndieWire. But she thought maybe she could tell the story some other way, so she wrote the details down as a short story.

Wang had already made a feature-length film called Posthumous in 2014, and a 12-minute short called Touch. Neil Drumming, a producer for the radio show This American Life, saw Touch at a film festival, and approached her for more story ideas.

“He was like, ‘You’re a woman of color in Hollywood. What stories do you want to tell that no one’s letting you tell?’” Wang recounted to The Washington Post.

It took a month and a half to write and record the radio episode. “We interviewed my family, and it was such a pure experience—I got to really dig into how I felt.” What You Don’t Know aired on This American Life on April 22, 2016. Within 48 hours, producers called to say that they did want to make her story into a film, including production companies Depth of Field, and Big Beach.

“I said I wouldn’t compromise on the way it was cast,” Wang said, “and I was not going to compromise on the language. It was going to be primarily Mandarin. It will not make any sense for grandma and the family to speak English.”

Depth of Field and Big Beach signed on within a week. Big Beach producer Dani Melia recalled to IndieWire, “When we listened to the podcast, it was indicative of her strong storytelling sensibilities and these rich characters she knew so well. There was never a question in my mind about making this authentic or not.”

With financing secured, Wang’s next challenge was to choose the acting talent. Wang said she needed to find somebody that “really felt American” to play Billi, the stand-in for Wang in the movie. It was then that Awkwafina, before her breakout roles in Crazy Rich Asians and Ocean’s 8, submitted an audition tape.

“When I was first kind of placed before her, she was quizzical because she only knew me from ‘My Vag,’” Awkwafina told IndieWire, referring to her viral music video.

Wang was sold on her audition. “All of the emotion was on her face and her eyes,” Wang said. “I needed an actress who could carry the scenes even without speaking.”

Acting alongside Awkwafina was Wang’s great-aunt, who played herself in the film, and whom Wang calls Little Nai Nai. “At first, she was like…’you want me in [the movie]? I have a fat face. I’m just, like, a normal person with a normal face…. I’m going to ruin your movie, because I’m not a movie star,’” Wang recounted to Vox.

“So to be able to show her that she is a movie star, and that the family story is worthwhile, it’s really meaningful in terms of what they think of themselves and the value of our unique stories.”

The Farewell is now playing in select theaters. The film launches nationwide on August 2nd.

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