On Demand: Lulu Wang Tells Judd Apatow How She Went from Fired to ‘The Farewell’
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Late in her Filmmaker Keynote on Day Two of the 2020 Film Independent Forum, Lulu Wang recalled that just seven years prior she’d been on the opposite side of the dais, watching from the audience as Ava DuVernay delivered her rousing version of the speech in 2013. At the time, Wang was in attendance that year as part of Project Involve—a fruitful hitch that would result in the production of her short Touch, which through a circuitous set of falling dominoes would eventually lead to her acclaimed 2019 sophomore feature, The Farewell.
Wang’s interrogator for the hour-long April 1 conversation was none other than Judd Apatow, the egregiously successful producer, writer and director behind, well, pretty much everything—from cult favorite Freaks and Geeks to Knocked Up, Trainwreck, Girls and the Pete Davidson vehicle The King of Staten Island, one of 2020’s biggest post-lockdown SVOD releases.
As with NEON Distribution President Elissa Federoff’s Executive Keynote the day before, Wang and Apatow’s virtual chat included a lengthy interactive Q&A. The Forum continues through August 7 with more great speakers, panels and special events dropping each day, both live and On Demand—learn more here.
Imprisoned in an adjacent Zoom window, Apatow began, as all conversations in 2020 do, with some light COVID-19 table setting, asking, “What’s your typical day look like now?” Wang laughed. “Coffee! Coffee! Coffee!” she said, noting that, as a born writer inescapably drawn toward procrastination, she’s been finding ways to fill her days with superficial tasks such as “planting in the yard” and “dyeing everything in the house”—clothes, furniture, you name it.
Apatow sympathized. “It’s a weird time to write,” he said. “Because the world we that we try to write about, at least temporarily, doesn’t exist.” Lulu concurred, saying that in recent months she’s been struggling to execute pre-pandemic creative commitments in ways that still feel relevant.
Instead, she says, she’s been watching a lot of episodes of Netflix’s Indian Matchmaker—while Apatow confesses a shameful predilection for TLC’s 90-Day Fiancé. But even within such trashy diversions, the two filmmakers still find elemental themes of cultural disconnect relating back to their own work—specifically The Farewell and the Apatow-produced The Big Sick.
“People are addicted to seeing how other people live and what their cultures are like,” said Apatow. “People have a much bigger hunger to see those stories than the studios want to acknowledge. There’s always been a systemic racism in how they pick projects,” he added.
Wang and Apatow first crossed paths, sort of, during the filming of the Apatow-produced 2008 comedy Pineapple Express—when he fired her. Well, not Apatow himself. But someone in-between the super-producer and Wang, then a young set assistant, in the production personnel food chain who objected to Wang’s eager, constant presence at video village (Wang makes sure to stress that Pineapple director David Gordon Green was always super-cool and supportive.)
“I didn’t really understand studio hierarchies,” Wang laughed. “I’ve never done well with hierarchies—a lot of lines were crossed.” After promising to identify and purge the fiend responsible for Wang’s sacking, he observed that getting fired was likely the best thing to ever happen to her. Wang concurred, saying that film sets aren’t necessarily the best places to be for would-be auteurs.
“If you’re learning, great,” she said. “But the minute you stop learning, there are a lot of ways you can make a living and still write. Set life is really hard.” Apatow recalled a lecture given to his cinema class by legendary Hollywood screenwriter-slash-lunatic John Milius, wherein the Apocalypse Now co-author supposedly said, “Quit! Quit film school now! Go out and live life!”
Meanwhile, according to Wang, David Gordon Green’s advice to her was: “If you want to be a filmmaker, don’t work on a film set. Because if you do this for 10 years, you’re not going to have a story to tell.”
Eventually, Wang and Apatow found their way to a discussion of notes, final cut and collaboration. The goal for filmmakers, they said, is to understand “the note behind the note” when responding to feedback. Meaning, a producer or exec may latch onto a superficial or wrongheaded aspect of your project to try to redirect, but even when silly-sounding, such criticisms are likely motivated by legitimate issues with your story construction and/or execution.
Conversely, receiving notes can help filmmakers better understand why certain aspects of their story are so important. For example, urged to reduce the number of food scenes in The Farewell, Wang realized that the importance of depicting so many onscreen meals was because cooking was cancer-stricken Nai Nai’s primary means of communicating love, while Billie’s lack of appetite communicated her grief and, increasingly, her guilt.
In closing, Wang likened her journey through the film world to practicing yoga, learning to “control what you can control and let go of the things you can’t.” She said, of her now-permanent installation at video village, sitting in the directors’ chair: “There’s nothing else I’d rather be doing.”
The 2020 Film Independent Forum was supported by Premier Sponsor SAGindie, and University Partner Loyola Marymount University School of Film and Television.
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(NOTE: a version of this blog originally ran in August)