Filmmaker Lulu Wang Based 'The Farewell' On Her Family's Real-Life Lie When Wang's grandmother was diagnosed with terminal cancer, the family flew to China to see her, but decided not to tell her the prognosis. "I turned out to be a surprisingly good liar," Wang says.
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Filmmaker Lulu Wang Based 'The Farewell' On Her Family's Real-Life Lie

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Filmmaker Lulu Wang Based 'The Farewell' On Her Family's Real-Life Lie

Filmmaker Lulu Wang Based 'The Farewell' On Her Family's Real-Life Lie

Filmmaker Lulu Wang Based 'The Farewell' On Her Family's Real-Life Lie

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  • <iframe src="https://www.npr.org/player/embed/744805282/744932965" width="100%" height="290" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" title="NPR embedded audio player">
  • Transcript

When Wang's grandmother was diagnosed with terminal cancer, the family flew to China to see her, but decided not to tell her the prognosis. "I turned out to be a surprisingly good liar," Wang says.

TERRY GROSS, HOST:

This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross. The new movie "The Farewell" starts by telling you that the film is based on an actual lie. My guest, Lulu Wang, drew on her own experiences to write and direct the film. Wang emigrated with her parents from China to the U.S. when she was 6. In 2013, her grandmother in China was diagnosed with stage 4 lung cancer and given three months to live. Family members in China decided not to tell her to shield the grandmother from the anxiety of knowing the end was near. Her parents agreed to withhold the information, but it was a decision that Wang found very upsetting.

Here's how it plays out in the film. The parents tell Billi, the character based on Lulu Wang, that they're going to China to see her grandmother and celebrate the good news that Billi's cousin is getting married. Billi is confused by how somber her parents sound while talking about something that's supposed to be celebratory. So the parents confessed to her that the real reason for the trip is that her grandmother is dying.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "THE FAREWELL")

AWKWAFINA: (As Billi) I need to call her.

TZI MA: (As Haiyan) You can't do that.

AWKWAFINA: (As Billi) I need to go see her.

MA: (As Haiyan) You can't do that. She doesn't know. The family thinks it's better not to tell her, so you can't say anything.

AWKWAFINA: (As Billi) I don't understand. She doesn't have a lot of time left. She should know, right?

MA: (As Haiyan) There's nothing they can do. So everyone decided it's better not to tell her.

AWKWAFINA: (As Billi) Why is that better?

DIANA LIN: (As Jian) Chinese people have saying - when people get cancer, they die. It's not the cancer that kills them. It's the fear.

AWKWAFINA: (As Billi) OK. When were you guys going to tell me this? How could you let me find out like this?

LIN: (As Jian) How should I have told you - oh, your grandma's on the roof (ph)?

AWKWAFINA: (As Billi) What about the wedding?

MA: (As Haiyan) Wedding is an excuse, so everyone can go see her. We leave first thing in the morning.

AWKWAFINA: (As Billi) I need to go.

MA: (As Haiyan) Billi...

AWKWAFINA: (As Billi) I need to go.

LIN: (As Jian) Everyone thinks better if you don't. Look at you. You can hide your emotions. If you go, Nai Nai will find out right away.

GROSS: In real life, just as is in the film, Wang, her parents, uncle and cousin head to China to see her grandmother, knowing they may never see her again. But they keep up the pretext that it's a visit to celebrate the cousin's wedding. And, of course, things get more complicated than expected. While Wang was trying to get this film made, after getting rejected by producers in the U.S. and China, she told the story in the form of a personal essay on This American Life. That broadcast led producers who were interested in her story to reach out and help her make the film.

Lulu Wang, welcome to FRESH AIR. And congratulations on the film.

LULU WANG: Thank you.

GROSS: When your parents told you that you couldn't tell your grandmother that she had stage 4 cancer and probably only had three months to live, what was your reaction?

WANG: I was shocked. It was a very confusing time because I was still grappling with my grief. And then to be given this other information, it was almost hard to decipher, what was the stronger emotion - the grief or the frustration, anger around...

GROSS: Not being able to say anything.

WANG: Yes, exactly. Exactly. And so there was a part of me that just - you know, my instinct was just to go to her, to call her, to cry with her and to, you know, have this catharsis. But then I'm told I can't do any of that. And so I guess I just didn't know how to feel or what to do.

GROSS: Did you eventually feel there was any wisdom in not telling her?

WANG: Yes. I mean, the lie enabled me to spend time with her. And what I mean is the lie enabled me to make this movie, which enabled me to go back to her city and spend time with her, you know, and not always spend time with her. But she got to come to set. She got to meet my producers. She has recently met my partner. You know, it's been a blessing in so many ways. And yet it's still troubling because ethically, I still don't know that I necessarily agree with that concept.

GROSS: Wait. So she's still alive 'cause she came to your set. Does she know that she has what was officially diagnosed as terminal lung cancer? Because, I mean, the movie's about her and about the diagnosis and about you guys not telling her. So she must be in on it now, unless you lied to her about what the movie's about (laughter). Maybe you did.

WANG: We did, in fact, lie to her about what the movie's about. My grandmother came to the production start party. And she met all of the actors and clearly saw that they were playing, you know, members of our family. And Zhao Shuzhen, the actress who played my grandmother, actually wanted to meet her. And so she went over there to her house for breakfast. And they spent the morning together. And so, you know, eventually, my grandmother came to know that the film is about our family. But I told her that, you know, it was just this sort of immigration story about this family who left and are coming back for a reunion because of a wedding, which, you know, is only a lie by omission. It's a lie. But, you know, I think that it wasn't that difficult to keep up because even when she visited set, a lot of the scenes that she saw reflected that plot that I told her.

GROSS: Oh, the joyous celebration part (laughter), yeah - and that's if it's a family coming together. There's going to be a wedding. But, you know, does she read film reviews?

WANG: Not really.

GROSS: Not even of her granddaughter's film? Because that would give it all away.

WANG: It would. And I've asked my great aunt - it's hard for me to know because my grandmother doesn't really leave the house now. And I don't know how much she's on, you know - Baudu is like the Chinese Google, I guess. And I don't know how much she's actually searching because I don't know that she even knows the title of the film. I haven't told her that. And, well, I can't tell her that because the Chinese title is actually different than the English title. And the Chinese title is "Don't Tell Her."

GROSS: It kind of gives it away (laughter).

WANG: Yeah. You know, so we have not told her the title. And so my name in Chinese is different than my English name. So I'm not sure that she would think to go and search for it.

GROSS: I hate to put it this way, but this lie you were so reluctant to tell you've kind of compounded by making a movie all about the lie and lying to her about the movie (laughter).

WANG: I know. It's such...

GROSS: Forgive me for laughing.

(LAUGHTER)

WANG: No, I know. And it's - you know, I started making this movie because it was a way for me to explore all of these complicated feelings that I had and explore these questions that I had about, what was the ethical thing to do? And when I started making the film, I told my family about it. I said, you know, is it OK that I'm going to make this film? It might be out in the world. And I don't think any of us thought how big the film would get, you know, the reach that it would have. And in some ways, this is a very Chinese thing, at least for my family. It feels very specific to my parents, which is that they always want to underplay things because they don't want to jinx it. And so when I told them I was, you know, hired by this company - we were going to write the script - and they said, well, you've written scripts before that have not gone anywhere, so let's not get ahead of ourselves. You know, if they're paying you, just write the script. Pay your rent. You know, good for you.

And then it was the same thing when I, you know, started shooting the film. They said, well, you know, go shoot the film. Spend time with your grandmother. She'll be very happy to see you. We'll figure out a way to make sure she doesn't find out. But, you know, who knows where the film is going to ultimately end up. Let's just not worry about it. And then it was Sundance, the same thing - they said, well, it's an American festival. You know, it's still an indie film.

So every time I brought this issue up, they just kept punting the problem down the line. And so now we're at a point where, in a way, I don't feel responsible because I feel like I've given everybody ample preparation for this moment.

GROSS: Did you also think that, by the time the film was finished, your grandmother would probably no longer be alive?

WANG: Yes.

GROSS: Because of the prognosis?

WANG: Yeah. I think that's absolutely what everyone was thinking, that, you know, why get ahead of ourselves when we don't know what her health is going to be like? And, you know, let's not preemptively ruin her life by telling her something when we just don't know where she's going to be down the line. Maybe she'll never have to find out. And yeah.

So now here we are. We have Chinese distribution. So the movie's going to be released in China. And we've played at the Shanghai Film Festival. So there's - you know, I'm told because I don't read Chinese and I'm not on the Chinese websites, but I'm told that it's been written about.

GROSS: Let's take a short break here, and then we'll talk some more. If you're just joining us, my guest is Lulu Wang. She wrote and directed the new film "The Farewell." We'll be right back after we take a short break. This is FRESH AIR.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. And if you're just joining us, my guest is Lulu Wang. She wrote and directed the new film "The Farewell," which is based on a true story of, a few years ago, when she and her family visited her grandmother in China because they'd gotten the news that her grandmother was dying and had stage 4 lung cancer, but no one in the family told the grandmother that. They kept the diagnosis from her to enable her to enjoy the rest of her life without the fear of death.

So your grandmother fought in the Chinese Army when she was 14. What was - who was she fighting?

WANG: She was fighting on the side of the Communist Party against the Nationalists. And, you know, at the time, it was really just a way for her to escape an arranged marriage. Her family had arranged for her to be married, and she didn't want to do that. And the army was, you know, crossing through town, and they were recruiting, and so she just picked up a backpack and joined.

GROSS: So this was during the Chinese Revolution?

WANG: Yes.

GROSS: So your grandmother was 14, so she was basically a child soldier.

WANG: Yes, mmm hmm.

GROSS: And she got shot.

WANG: I don't think she actually got shot. You know, it's so funny because now I'm mixing fiction and nonfiction. I...

GROSS: Which apparently I'm doing as well.

(LAUGHTER)

WANG: Yeah, yeah. No, the bullet was something that, you know, I put in there for the sake of the movie. She does have a limp. I don't think it's from being shot. That's not to say she didn't get injured. But she really walked the distance from, you know, Miami to Boston - is the equivalent of the distance that she had walked...

GROSS: Wow.

WANG: ...You know, across China.

GROSS: Well, gosh. I mean, she went against her family's wishes, defied an arranged marriage and joined the army instead. That's a heck of a story.

WANG: Yeah. Yeah. I mean, that's what's so amazing about that generation. I'm sure you can, you know, go to China, go to the park and talk to any elderly person, and they would have an incredible story like that.

GROSS: So your mother was a writer for what I've read was the Chinese equivalent of The New Yorker, that she was a culture critic and editor at the Beijing Literary Gazette. And I always feel for people who move to another country where they don't speak the language when they move there, or they don't speak it that well yet, and they're a writer or speaker of some sort, and they're deprived of doing what they do to the degree that they do it in their native tongue because...

WANG: Yeah.

GROSS: You know, and so I'm wondering if you know what that was like for your mother, to be deprived of, you know, some of her greatest talent because she didn't have the language skills in English.

WANG: It was incredibly difficult. You know, I was very, very young seeing that. But, you know, to be - you know, first of all, she was part of the Cultural Revolution. And so during the Cultural Revolution, she was sent to a factory to work and didn't finish the fifth grade because that's when her education was interrupted to be sent to do manual labor for the country. And she really, you know, taught herself everything in order to become a writer.

She, you know, read everything on her own, and she had to smuggle books back then. And it was a very difficult journey for her, with a fifth-grade education, to become the editor of this very culturally lauded, you know, publication. And also, back then, it was mostly men. So then for her to leave all of that at the age of 35, 36, to come to a country where she was seen as uneducated, seen as an outsider, and she had to take on an entry-level job. She was treated with a lot of disrespect and, you know, came home just humiliated. It was hard. You know, and I grew up watching that. And my father had to do the same thing. He was a diplomat in the Soviet Union. He'd been studying Russian since he was a kid because he was part of the foreign ministry and was one of the youngest Chinese diplomats to be sent to the Soviet Union. I think he was 16 when he first went to Moscow and spent, you know, eight years there and speaks, you know, fluent Russian, later spoke fluent English. But going to America, he delivered pizzas, you know? And he would tell us stories about delivering pizzas to strip clubs 'cause that's you know sometimes the late night shift. That's what you do. So it's a - you know, I don't think it's a unique story for an immigrant family. But it was hard.

GROSS: Why did they come to America?

WANG: Oh, gosh, a lot of reasons - opportunity, you know, thinking there's a better future - but I think, honestly, first and foremost, government. You know, and I can't talk too much about it because...

GROSS: I understand. Yeah.

WANG: ...My family doesn't want me to.

GROSS: You have family there. Yeah.

WANG: Yeah. But I think mainly for political reasons.

GROSS: What's it like for you to hear the president's rhetoric about immigrants, knowing what your family went through to come here and what they gave up to come here and how skilled and how smart they were when they came here? And they ended up - you know, like your father at first was delivering pizzas to strip clubs. And your mother was treated disrespectfully at the work that she was doing, as if she was, you know, not smart at all, when she was, in fact, you know, a former editor at a important magazine in China.

WANG: It's completely infuriating. You know, and it's hard because I'm - I try not to make it too political, you know, when I talk about my film. But, you know - but when I see what's happening, it's hard to avoid the subject, as well - right? - you know, because I think that the core of being American is what my family went through. You know, and to become an American - like, they earned the right to be American more than anyone who, you know, feels that they're entitled to being American just because they were here for a few generations and, you know, because of the color of their skin.

I don't know. Who does get to claim Americanness? You know, my brother was born in this country. And is he seen as American? So, I mean, it brings up a lot of interesting questions. And we talk about it in my family, as well, because there's all of this discussion about, well, there's the legal way to do it. And there's the illegal way to do it. And you have to make that distinction. But I just think that the way that we're treating immigration is completely different now than it was when we came to this country in 1989.

GROSS: You became a citizen, right?

WANG: Oh, yeah, at a very young age when - you know, because I was under 18 when my parents became citizens, I became a citizen.

GROSS: So what part of your life disappeared when you came to the U.S.? Because you were 6, I think, when you came here?

WANG: Yeah. I was 6 when I came here. And I remember my first day of school, you know, that I was in this classroom. And the - you know, they have the morning announcements in school. And so the TV was on. And then somebody started speaking, and everybody stood up and put their hand to their chests. And the teacher ran over to me because she saw that I was confused and just picked up my hand and put it to my chest. And I have a very distinct memory of that moment because I didn't understand what it was and what we were saying or any of that.

And in China, you know, there's also similar kinds of morning announcements, morning exercises and morning chants. And I was - I knew those for a little bit 'cause I didn't go to first grade, but I went to kindergarten. And so, you know, I think - but I think more than anything, I just - I lost a sense of belonging, a sense of wholeness. And you know from then on, after moving to the States it's been trying to trying to rediscover that feeling, trying to find that wholeness again.

GROSS: My guest is Lulu Wang. She wrote and directed the new film "The Farewell." We'll talk more after a break. And rock critic Ken Tucker will review the first new album in 10 years by Buddy and Julie Miller. I'm Terry Gross, and this is FRESH AIR.

(SOUNDBITE OF CHICK COREA AND GARY BURTON'S "CHILDREN'S SONG")

GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross. Let's get back to my interview with Lulu Wang. She wrote and directed the new film "The Farewell," which is based on her experience after her Chinese grandmother was diagnosed with stage 4 lung cancer and given three months to live. Wang and her parents emigrated from China to the U.S. when she was 6. After the diagnosis, her parents told her they were going to China to see Wang's grandmother, but no one in the family was going to tell the grandmother the diagnosis to spare her the pain of thinking about what lay ahead.

Your story was told first as a "This American Life" piece because you tried to shop your movie idea - the same story, basically, but a fictionalized version - you tried to shop that to American producers and Chinese producers, and you kept getting turned down in both countries. Tell us some of the reasons why you were given - in both countries - about why this movie wouldn't work.

WANG: Well, I think in both countries, people felt like the stakes weren't high enough. You know, an 80-year-old Chinese grandmother - what are the stakes? Whether you tell her or you don't tell her, she's 80, you know? And she has cancer. And so I think people just felt like it needed to be broader in both countries. And they were asking me on both sides, you know, well, is it for an American audience or is it for a Chinese audience? And I think American producers, studios that I initially pitched to felt like if it was an American film, it had to look like an American film, you know, and we couldn't have subtitles. And so they wanted to change the casting. They wanted to change the language and possibly even the location. They also didn't understand why Billi wasn't the bride because that would give her more stakes, you know, if she was the one who had to be forced to marry somebody that she maybe didn't like. And the Chinese producers said that if the film was going to be a Chinese film marketed to a Chinese audience, then the main character could not be Billi because she was too westernized in her perspective...

GROSS: She's the character based on you.

WANG: Yes, Billi is the character based on me, who is an American going back to China, back to her home country and at odds with her family's decision to tell this lie.

GROSS: You told your story as a personal essay. You told it as a fictionalized version in a film. What's the difference between telling - I mean, there are many differences. But tell us some of the most interesting differences for you in making this into a "This American Life"-length personal essay versus a feature film.

WANG: Well, you know, the most interesting thing about telling it as a "This American Life" story is that because the show is considered journalism, everything was rooted in facts. And so we did fact-checks, and we did a lot of interviews. And I took a very investigative approach to it, which I didn't necessarily think about doing when I first started writing the script because everybody that I talked to just kept wanting to fictionalize it more and more to make it more quote-unquote "interesting" as opposed to saying, let's ask some questions and figure out what is actually interesting about this reality. And so that really set the tone for me, doing "This American Life," of how I wanted to tell this story from a very internal, emotional place and, you know, with a lot of - from a very subjective point of view - right? - but at the same time, giving voice to other people who were involved; that they could have their perspective as well. And we could just have a very frank discussion about it.

Translating that to the screen is interesting because you have to figure out when are the moments that you want to be subjective with Billi's perspective and when are the moments where we're a little bit more objective, where we might see scenes that Billi doesn't see. And so that was one of the first questions I had to ask in telling the story because if we completely stayed with Billi's perspective, then, you know, it would be a lot more difficult to set up the story 'cause everything would be exposition. We wouldn't necessarily see grandma in the hospital with Little Nai Nai, her younger sister, who, you know, first tells her the lie.

It was also challenging to figure out how to make all of it visual, you know, without it just being explained. You know, what are we watching? What are we seeing? And also, what is the tone? - because I had all of these producers telling me they wanted it to be a broader comedy. And I knew that I wanted it to be humorous, but I didn't want it to be a joke. I didn't want the family to be a joke. I didn't want what they were doing to be a joke. You know, it's absurd only through the eyes of Billi because she doesn't understand. So to her, it's a sort of absurd situation, but she goes on this journey to kind of understand that it's actually not absurd, that it's actually very grounded in these eastern philosophies and rooted in this idea that mind and body are connected and also comes to have a little bit more understanding of the collective as a unit and the value of that.

GROSS: The movie was shot in China and many of the actors in the film are Chinese, living in China, including the actress who plays the grandmother. It must be really hard to cast in another country where you're not that familiar with the actors. You know, like, you don't watch the Chinese TV shows. You don't know who the TV stars are. Not all Chinese movies come to the U.S. There's a lot of, like, movie actors who you don't know either. It must've been difficult for you to find the actress who plays the grandmother, who's really terrific in the film.

WANG: Yeah. We did work with a local casting director who would send us some things, but the other thing we underestimated was the rates that, you know, people would charge because over there, they're working all the time. And if they're very, very good and they've been working for many years, their rates are very high. And - because in America, we don't know who they are, so we go, well, what is the value of this actor to this film? Are they worth, you know, more than even an American star? And so that was a really tricky thing to navigate because with Zhao, Teacher Zhao - we - as a sign of respect, you call the actors or anyone you work with who's older than you teacher. And so Teacher Zhao, she has been working all her life in soap operas, television - she gets paid a lot of money. And so I had to call her and just say, you know, we don't have the budget for that. And - but I can't imagine casting anyone else. And I had to, you know, just plead with her personally.

GROSS: And she agreed.

WANG: And she agreed. She said, well, I have grandchildren. You're - you know, you're the age of my grandson. How can I say no?

GROSS: Oh, (laughter) that's interesting. It wasn't like, yeah, I can really use an audience in America. It was like, oh, you're like my grandchild.

WANG: Yeah, it was incredibly personal for her. I said, you know, this is - you're playing my grandmother, basically. And I can't imagine anyone else doing it. I've been searching high and low, and you just have to do it. And I'm begging you. And yeah.

GROSS: Well, she did a - she's great in the film.

WANG: Yeah.

GROSS: Let's take a short break, and then we'll talk some more. If you're just joining us, my guest is Lulu Wang. She wrote and directed the new film "The Farewell." We'll be right back. This is FRESH AIR.

(SOUNDBITE OF PAQUITO D'RIVERA QUINTET'S "CONTRADANZA")

GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. And if you're just joining us, my guest is Lulu Wang. She wrote and directed the new film "The Farewell." It's based on her experience when her parents told her that her grandmother, who lives in China, was diagnosed with terminal lung cancer with three months left to live. But no one was telling her grandmother that. They wanted to spare her the news. So the family went to China under the pretext of celebrating her cousin's wedding. And the whole time they were there, they never divulged the secret that the grandmother had stage 4 terminal cancer.

When you were starting out as a filmmaker, you started your own company, and the company that you had created videos for legal firms, for mediation and court cases. And I think that's just, like, fascinating. Like, I didn't even know such a thing existed. But tell us about the videos you had to make for these court cases and mediation cases.

WANG: Yeah. I was basically going to people's homes - you know, people who had been severely injured, people who, oftentimes, their injuries weren't visible to the eye, you know, which meant a lot of brain damage cases. I would go into people's homes and just interview the - you know, the client and sometimes their family to better understand the extent of their injuries.

So we - it was called a day in a life video, and so you also would - I would include footage from before the injury occurred and - to see, you know, what they were capable of, what their dreams and aspirations were. And sometimes it would be as mundane as just shooting this person trying to make breakfast, you know, because if this client walks into a courtroom and gets on a stand, you wouldn't necessarily be able to determine what the extent of their injuries are by just hearing them talk. You might think, well, maybe they're not the brightest person, but, you know, they seem fine to me. But you would - if I, you know, was with them, watching them make breakfast, they would take the eggs out and then go back to the refrigerator and go grab eggs and forget where they put the eggs. You know, there's all of these little nuances of how the - of how brain injury affects a person's day-to-day life that I had to show.

So there was that. I did some class action cases as well. One was about a bunch of couples who had had their eggs stolen at a fertility clinic. And you know, so I went around the country and was interviewing all of these couples who found out, you know, 18 years later that when they had gone to this fertility clinic, the doctors actually took their eggs and embryos and implanted them in other women to increase their success rates, to increase the - their numbers. And so they actually had kids that were genetically theirs but given birth by other women. And so I did a collection of videos that was put together to - you know, to better understand how this affected these families personally.

GROSS: I have to say this sounds like fascinating work. Did you find it fascinating?

WANG: Oh, yeah. I found it very fascinating. It was very difficult, too, you know, because you meet somebody for, you know, 10 minutes, and then you're in their home and you're asking them to open up their lives to you. And I - you know, I was usually there by myself, maybe with one other person who was helping me set up the camera and maybe a light or something.

But you know, there's a lot of stories, and it - I think it also helped me to really stay grounded because no matter what fictional story I was working on, I was still doing this at the same time. And you just realize that a person's life can change instantly - you know, in a split second - and everything is completely different. So yeah, I met some really tremendous people doing it.

GROSS: Another thing that strikes me as very interesting about this is that the things that people were - probably tried to hide from others - your most vulnerable aspects; your inability to do certain things, like remember where you put the eggs; the things you try to cover up for - those are the things you had to document. You had to come in and just watch people be at their most vulnerable so you could show it - you know, so that the lawyer could show it, you know, in court or, you know, during mediation.

What did you learn about storytelling and about not shying away from vulnerability - you know, not being afraid of revealing vulnerability by doing this work? - 'cause showing vulnerability is such an important part of fiction and nonfiction storytelling.

WANG: Yeah. And what's interesting is that in real life, you know, when you're interviewing - like you said - a real person who's been through these things, they tend to not want to reveal their feelings. You know, they start apologizing the minute that they start crying. And even though, you know, for lawyers, of course, that's what they want. They want all of the vulnerability. And that was something that was hard for me to come to terms with was the monetary, the financial aspect of it all and, you know, how much is each tear worth, in a way. And so I had to kind of separate myself from all of that and not think about, you know, the business side of it.

But when you're directing actors, they're trying to get to the emotions, you know, they want to tap into that. And in real life, people want to avoid it. And in some ways, that avoidance makes the emotional breakthrough that much more emotional. And, you know - and I think it's just - it's time and space. It's giving - it's - I just would really take my time talking to people. And one of the reasons why I built this business was because I had done an early case in Boston with some young boys whose father was severely injured. And they, you know, are from south Boston, very - you know, taught to be very tough - right? - that, you know, boys don't cry.

And so when the lawyer would go talk to them, he would get nothing out of them and was very worried about how he was going to build a case if the kids weren't going to admit to how much their father's injury has affected them. And so, you know, I went in and I talked to them for quite a while. It was three of them. And they just - they broke down. They broke into tears and just said, you know, I have friends who play baseball with their father, and I can't do that.

So, you know, that's - that was the moment when I realized, like, OK. Maybe this is something that I can do to support myself. And also just - it's very interesting. There's a lot of stories.

GROSS: Your film "The Farewell" ends with it saying on screen, a Lulu Wang film. What did it take to be able to put that on the film?

WANG: That's a good question. I actually struggled with it, you know, because I don't really believe - they call it a vanity title. I don't really believe in that. I - you know, I believe that films are - it's not that I believe - you know, films are made by a lot of people - a team of people. And so when they asked me if I wanted to have this title on there, I really had to think about it, you know? And I thought, well, you know, what is the value of that for me? What is the value of it within the industry?

And one of the arguments that was made to me was that I should do it because it sets a precedent so that as I go on to make other films, as I go on to make bigger films, that people will see me as an auteur. And I thought about what it means as a female director to have that perception and to, in a very practical way, to be treated that way - right? - where you might get final cut.

And so that was really the reason that I took it, you know. And I think every film is going to be different whether I end up taking it or not. But also because this film is about my family I thought, well, you know, this film more than any other film I can claim as mine.

GROSS: Lulu Wang, it's been great to talk with you. Thank you so much.

WANG: Thank you. Thank you so much for having me.

GROSS: Lulu Wang wrote and directed the new film "The Farewell." After we take a short break, Ken Tucker will review the new folk-rock-country-blues album by Buddy and Julie Miller. This is FRESH AIR.

(SOUNDBITE OF STEFON HARRIS & BLACKOUT'S "UNTIL")

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