This story about “Past Lives” writer-director Celine Song first appeared in the Race Begins issue of TheWrap magazine.
When the subject of “Past Lives” director Celine Song being a first-time filmmaker came up, her leading actress, Greta Lee, solemnly shook her head. “On the record, I am deeply suspicious,” she said with a grin. “I keep expecting her to unzip her body and for Scorsese or Linklater or somebody to climb out.”
Assuming that Lee is wrong and Song isn’t a veteran director hiding in a “Men in Black”-style body suit of a thirtysomething Korean-Canadian woman, “Past Lives” signals the arrival of a confident filmmaker whose previous experience was as a playwright. The gentle story of a pair of childhood sweethearts from South Korea (Lee and Teo Yoo) who reunite as adults in New York, the drama is a surprisingly assured study in economy, with Song orchestrating glances and eloquent silences into a lovely and evocative debut.
We spoke to Song about making her debut film, now available to stream on multiple platforms.
The film was inspired by you and your husband meeting a childhood boyfriend from Korea in New York City. Were you confident that kind of personal story would connect with a wider audience?
No, I wasn’t sure if it was going to connect. So I told the story to a few very close friends, just telling them the story of me sitting there in the bar (with her husband and a childhood friend she hadn’t seen for decades), and it inspired every single one of them to tell me a story. Maybe they’re not Korean, maybe they don’t have an immigration experience, maybe their walks of life are not the same as mine. But they still had moments where they were sitting between two people and feeling like, “I am split and I am whole.”
And then we would end up talking deeply about time and space and growing older and changing. We became better friends because I told them the story. So because of that, it really made me feel like maybe it is a story worth telling, even if it’s not an easy story to pitch.
When you were writing it, did you have a clear sense of how you would approach it as a director?
Some of the things, yeah. And then some of the things, no. Like, the Skype section was such a mystery to me. I was really scared of it. That’s a really difficult thing to do, depicting technology, and I had no clue how I was going to do it. But when it comes to the opening scene, or when they see each other for the first time, there were parts of it where it was already formed in my mind. And then of course, when I’m working with my DP and production designer and everyone, what I had in my mind will only improve.
Coming in as a first-time director, did you get any pushback when you did things like telling Teo Yoo and John Magaro that you didn’t want them to meet in real life until they meet on screen, or when you asked Teo and Greta not to touch until they touch on screen?
No, I really didn’t. They were able to trust me. I think part of being a director is that you’re the burning, bubbling center of gravity for how much everybody’s going to give and how much everybody’s going to believe in it. I believe that trust needs to be earned, and I think that it was really important for me to earn that trust. And once I earned that trust, they believed in me and they believed in it.
In casting, you must have looked for actors who are comfortable conveying a lot without saying much.
I think the ability to have meaningful silence has so much to do with if the actor knows what the silence is about. Just like, if the audience knows what the silence is about, they can sit in it forever. I really believe that.
At the end of the movie, there’s a long and intense conversation between Nora (Lee) and Hae Sung (Yoo), which takes place mostly in Korean and in front of Arthur (Magaro). But then there’s a long scene where Nora walks Hae Sung to his Uber and then goes back home. They could be saying a lot on that walk, but maybe there’s no longer the need.
There’s no longer the need. You have said every-thing that you need to say. People talk to me about that silence, the two-minute silence waiting for the Uber. But it’s only 45 seconds. I was at the monitor trying to decide when to cue the Uber, and that’s what felt right. And the reason why we have such high stakes in that silence is because they had said everything in the scene before.
I’ve found that people have a different relationship to the ending depending on where they are in their lives. Some people think it’s a sad ending, some people think it’s a happy one. I’ve heard, “Your movie made me want to go home and hug my partner and tell them I love them and I’m happy to grow old with them.” And I’ve also heard, “This movie made me think that I’m not in a very good relationship and that I should leave and fly to that other country and take a shot at that relationship I never pursued.”
I think there’s an inherent sadness in the ending because you’re never gonna be 12 again. You can never go home again. But that’s the inherent sadness of life.
It looks as if directing is a job that agrees with you.
Yeah. It was crazy. [Laughs] I’ve never felt that way about anything that I did. I just felt like this is the love of my life and there’s nothing more. I was on set thinking, yeah, this is where I belong. It felt like home.