Interview – ‘Past Lives’ director Celine Song

Nora and Hae Sung, two deeply connected childhood friends, are wrest apart after Nora’s family emigrates from South Korea. Two decades later, they are reunited in New York for one fateful week as they confront notions of destiny, love, and the choices that make a life, in this heartrending modern romance.

With Past Lives hitting Australian cinemas on August 31, after a successful and well-regarded festival run, I had the chance to chat with the film’s writer/director, Celine Song, about her feature film debut, finding the right way to communicate such complex emotions, and telling specific stories about her culture.

Nick: Hey Celine, how are you today?

Celine Song: It’s great. It’s going great! How are you?

Nick: I’m very well, thank you. How’s your time in Melbourne been so far?

Celine Song: So good! I’m actually in the car on the way to the airport now. Sad to be leaving already.

Nick: I’m glad your time here had been good! I want to start of by saying that Past Lives is an incredible film. I saw it at the Sydney Film Festival a couple of months ago, and the first thing I thought when I came out of the movie was that I, and I’m sure most people, find it so hard to put the feelings of love and longing into words. What was the process like for you in not just finding a way to process these emotions yourself, but also be able to portray them in a way that audiences will relate to so well?

Celine Song: How [Past Lives] had to really work was it had to be something that was going to be communicated easily to the audience. I think much of that is about clarity of language and clarity of emotions. It’s very much a journey that you’re starting from the beginning. That was the project for me. I don’t have VFX, or costumes, or you know, car chases to pull this particular movie through. The thing that will really rise or fall on is the actors faces and their performances, and the way they use language. I think that really was the whole project, that was the main thing I was focusing on.

Nick: I find it very interesting in how the story deals with themes like time and potential. Taking those themes and applying them to this project as a whole for you, at what point did you know this story was ready to be told to an audience?

Celine Song: Well, I was sitting in this bar in East Village in New York City. And I was sitting between my childhood sweetheart, who is now a dear friend, and my husband who I live with in New York City. I was translating between these two people, and at one point it felt like I was actually translating part of my own self, like between two different worlds. I felt like it had become a portal or a bridge or something like that. I just had a feeling that this particular moment in this bar made me feel like my otherwise ordinary life… felt suddenly very epic in scale, and very extraordinary in some ways. That made me feel like it was at least notable. Then I was wondering if it’s a story that is worth telling. And then over time, by sharing this story with some of my friends, I came to realise that it was a story worth telling. So, it was kind of a gradual thing, but it was always going to be the movie I wanted to make.

Nick: I mean, that scene you just described and how it’s played out in the movie is pivotal for the relationships, but it’s an amazing opening scene. I’m obsessed with opening scenes that really hook the audience and stay with me long after the movie is done. What were you hoping to get across to audience by showing moments from towards the end of the film, right at the beginning?

Celine Song: I think I really wanted that opening scene to feel like an invitation for the audience to come into the mystery of the film. And the mystery of the film is about who these people are to each other. It’s not, like, a murder mystery, but it’s a mystery of some kind. A mystery that haunts us in our lives. And the answer is not going to be very simple, and I really think that by posing that question, there is a part of it where it’s implicating the audience and letting the audience in while making sure the stakes are high.

Then of course, another part of that is the answer to who they are goes back to years before we are actually in that scene. The structure is the first thing, in particular, that I figured out, right? When I was working on the script, we kept coming back to the end of the film and making sure the audience has so many clues after going through the story with the characters for long enough and deeply enough that [the audience] will get to form their own answers to who the characters are to each other.

We also get to just drop into the conversation later on, and actually learn what the answer is. And the answer is a word that is more mysterious than the answer itself, which is the word “in-yun”. I think that is really the answer of who these two people are to each other. But the word “in-yun” itself is not something that is going to be the thing. It’s not a word that flattens a relationship, but a word that deepens and opens it up. So I guess in some ways, we’re answering the mystery with another mystery!

Nick: I love that concept, and I really love this story. And there’s a concept I heard from a director I interviewed last year that I feel resonates with this story –universality through specificity. The more specific you are with the characters and the culture, the more the story will resonate with audiences. Do you find that is the case with Past Lives?

 Celine Song: Yes! I believe that what’s actually been so amazing. By trying to depict these characters that are full, authentic character that are, like, alive in this film. I think that’s actually sometimes enough for the audience to feel the universality because I feel that the audience is showing up to connect with the characters they see on screen. So, I think so much of it has to do with the humanity of the characters, more than anything.

But, it’s also that in the modern world, I think everybody has some kind of story of moving through time and space. It’s easy now to travel and it’s easy to grow old. There is a way I think we can all contact to how time and space works through ourselves. I think it’s something that every person goes through.

I’ve found that the movie is so understood so universally precisely because it is something that every person kind of goes through, not just this particular person, even though the story is about this one particular woman!

Nick: Arthur [John Magaro] has a great speech in the film about how the reconnection of childhood sweethearts after 20 years makes for a great story. And it intrigued me because as someone who loves movies and fiction, I find that these stories help me facilitate and understand emotions or events in my life. How has fiction played a role in helping you understand the mysteries of life?

Celine Song: Well, I really believe in narrative theory. That we are, sort of, made up of the stories we tell about ourselves. And the story can be really simple. You can say that in the story of Nora [Greta Lee], she is Korean born. You can just use that word as a part of her story. But that doesn’t fully contain who she is, for example. I have to tell the story of Hae Sung [Teo Yoo] in her life if you want to understand that part of her story that is Korean, what makes that part of her narrative.

I really believe that this is something we do all the time. I think that we have done it forever – tell stories about ourselves and each other and really understanding time and space through those stories. It just feels really natural, in a way. I really wanted, more than anything, is for these character to be as intelligent and connected, and as emotionally deep as the people you might be able to meet in life.

I also think it would’ve been unbelievable if Arthur – who is also a writer – it would be wild if he did not talk about this story, as a story! It feels like a natural next step to talk about what’s been going on because he is somebody who tells stories for a living. So why would he not talk about this as a story? And of course, he knows all the tropes of what a story is. He’s talking about who the villain is of the story. Because in Past Lives, the villain really is the Pacific Ocean, and the 24 years that have passed. Space and time are really the villain of the story. So it was important to me that Arthur was not depicted as the “villain” of the story, and part of that is also him recognising his position, structurally, of a villain in their story, even though you’re going to be able to see that he’s not playing a villain. He’s in fact “in-yun” in their lives.

Thank you so much to Celine for this incredible interview and her time, and thank you to StudioCanal for organising our chat. Past Lives is in Australian cinemas August 31, and you can read my review here.

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Nick L'Barrow
Nick L'Barrow
Nick is a Brisbane-based film/TV reviewer. He gained his following starting with his 60 second video reviews of all the latest releases on Instagram (@nicksflicksfix), before launching a monthly podcast with Peter Gray called Monthly Movie Marathon. Nick contributes to Novastream with interviews and reviews for the latest blockbusters.

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