One of the first decisions writer/director Lulu Wang and her cinematographer Anna Franquesa Solano had to make on the “The Farewell” is what aspect ratio they would use to compose shots of the film’s family ensemble, which is often gathered in the same room. When Wang was on IndieWire’s Filmmaker Toolkit podcast, she explained her initial instinct was to go with a narrower, taller frame that tended to be the choice for family drama films and that would also highlight the uniquely tall ceilings in her China locations.
“But then we came across this idea of shooting the family as you’d shoot a landscape because that’s really what it was, a landscape of a family,” said Wang. “[The way] to portray the family as a unit and still be close to their faces was to go wider.”
The premise of “The Farewell” is a family pretending to gather for a wedding, when in reality they are coming together to say goodbye to their beloved Nai Nai (Zhao Shuzhen). The catch being the family has decided not to tell her she’s dying of cancer.
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“This family is performing for the sake of Nai Nai, they’re performing a wedding, they’re performing joy, so we wanted the the frame to set a stage for them to do their performing on,” said Wang. “You don’t really want to cut because you want to see the fumble, you want to see the natural shifts from laughing to losing that smile and being caught in their performance.”
The humor in Wang’s film comes from watching how those scenarios unfold. “I see the audience as me, or some third person, who is in the back corner in the room going, ‘This is ridiculous, this is funny,'” said Wang. “You see it in context. This isn’t funny because somebody falls down. It’s not slapstick; it’s not in the dialogue.”
That ability to allow that type of humor, and the film’s subtle, sophisticated rhythm shifts to develop in long takes show incredible filmmaking chops. “People are commenting now on how it is so confident,” said Wang. “But at the time I think we were confident because we had to be — we had no time to make this movie.”
The low budget indie had 24 days to shoot in China and another two days in New York City. Many of the scenes shot in China involved 13 to 14 family members in the same space.
“To cover 13 people in the wide and the medium and the close-up, that would take a lot of time. So we couldn’t do the safe version,” said Wang. “We had to have one version of the film, the cinematic version, the ambitious version. We could either do that, or we could do coverage. There was no way we could do coverage as a safety net. We had no safety net. So we came up with the cinematic language and we just went with it.”
The Filmmaker Toolkit podcast is available on Apple Podcasts, Spotify, Overcast, Stitcher, SoundCloud, and Google Play Music. The music used in this podcast is from the “Marina Abramovic: The Artist Is Present” score, courtesy of composer Nathan Halpern.