“Make This Conversation in a Small Room with White Walls Work”: DP Anna Franquesa Solano on The Farewell
Acquired by A24, Lulu Wang’s sophomore feature The Farewell is one of the breakout films of this year’s Sundance. Adapting a story from her own family (previously told as an episode of NPR’s This American Life), The Farewell takes off when Billi (Awkwafina), a Chinese immigrant who’s lived in America since she was a child, returns home when her grandmother Nai Nai (Shuzhen Zhou) gets a fatal lung cancer diagnosis. That’s the unlikely starting point for what’s been described as one of the festival’s funniest film, in a story that gets stranger and stranger as it goes along. Via email, Wang’s DP Anna Franquesa Solano described her approach to showing a more realistic view of modern China, drawing inspiration from her characters’ real-life house, and overcoming the challenges of a tight schedule in an unfamiliar setting.
Filmmaker: How and why did you wind up being the cinematographer of your film? What were the factors and attributes that led to your being hired for this job?
Solano: I guess that is a question for the director. I believe by looking at my work she felt we had a similar sensibility. We had a very close collaboration, so I’m just glad things worked out in the end.
Filmmaker: What were your artistic goals on this film, and how did you realize them? How did you want your cinematography to enhance the film’s storytelling and treatment of its characters?
Solano: The film revolves around family unity; that led us to take an objective approach to the visual language. It called for a wide aspect ratio that could include as many family members as possible in the frame, even though we still had to feel that the protagonist (Billi) is the one who takes us through this journey. It was a delicate balance.
On the other hand, all characters are hiding an important piece of information from the head of the family. We meant to create a mise-en-scene which felt staged, to emphasize the idea that these characters are just performing a version of themselves. The characters are often framed in deliberate, static compositions so it feels like they’re trapped. We also used these composed group shots to allow family dynamics to play out simultaneously with a sense of organized chaos, since they each have their own way of seeing and doing things.
Filmmaker: Were there any specific influences on your cinematography, whether they be other films, or visual art, of photography, or something else?
Solano: We referenced movies such as Force Majeure and Still Walking, among others. However, my main source of inspiration came from spending time with Lulu’s family at their home in Changchun, during pre-production. This is a movie based on Lulu’s personal family story, and we often found ourselves sitting around Nai Nai’s (Grandma’s) round table surrounded by relatives. Spending time with the real people who the characters and situations were based on, in the actual apartment where they’ve lived for decades, gave me a lot of inspiration to draw from.
Filmmaker: What were the biggest challenges posed by production to those goals?
Solano: Going out of my comfort zone was a challenge. We shot roughly 90% of the movie in China, which meant working with a new crew, in a foreign language, and within a production system that’s different from what I’m used to. It was also physically challenging to shoot in small spaces with a large ensemble cast and in such a limited time. That required very specific blocking. During prep only Lulu, her assistant Yan and I were around, so as we were shot listing I came up with a system where Lulu and Yan would play the roles of every family member. Then, I would cut and paste them together to create a collage with multiple Lulus and Yans. They would form a funny and sometimes creepy family.
Filmmaker: What camera did you shoot on? Why did you choose the camera that you did? What lenses did you use?
Solano: In our first conversations we considered using anamorphic lenses, in order to achieve a wide aspect ratio and be able to include as many family members as possible in the frame. We did some tests in Beijing, and even though we did like the look we realized it wasn’t our best choice, at least not with the options we had available. We went with spherical because we wanted to have the freedom to fill the frame as much as we wanted without having distracting distortions or a limited depth of field that would restrict the blocking. Another key factor was the physical limitation of apartments in China, which are often very small. In the end, our decision to use Master Primes and Alexa Mini was as much about fulfilling our visual language as it was making it work practically on set.
Filmmaker: Describe your approach to lighting.
Solano: I was looking for a subtle and naturalistic lighting approach, trying to stay true to the reality of China. Most of the apartments in China have very flat, fluorescent fixtures that tend not to be particularly pleasant. We wanted to stay true to that flatness without making it feel gritty, and still make it feel inviting and cinematic. We didn’t want it to have the high-end modern China style, but also wanted to go away from the cool, gritty Hong Kong mood. Instead, our focus was on making it feel more common and authentic—a more plain and naturalistic version of modern China that we’re not so used to seeing in movies.
The fluorescents are meant to contrast with the lighting treatment in New York, where we used tungsten practicals with a more dimmed and warm tone.
In China, we shot on real locations, so low ceilings and small spaces were definitely a challenge. At the wedding banquet, it was only possible thanks to a very close collaboration with production designer Yong Ok-Lee. We worked closely together to hide the units in the low ceilings. Since we had a very short amount of time to shoot such a long sequence, we had to be efficient and plan around not being able to do many lighting resets.
Filmmaker: What was the most difficult scene to realize and why? And how did you do it?
Solano: One of the most difficult scenes to realize was actually one of the simplest set ups. It’s an intimate conversation between the two main characters, Billi and Nai Nai, in a bedroom. We storyboarded it a couple times and even though that led to some good story changes, we always got stuck on how to make this conversation in a small room with white walls work. This was the scene we were least prepared for; when we got on set and just started shooting close-ups, it felt wrong. Lulu saw my sense of unease, and it was incredible how she had the confidence to stop everything we were doing, even though we were running behind schedule. She was determined to throw what we had shot so far and start over. We locked ourselves in the room until we figured it out.
Filmmaker: Finally, describe the finishing of the film. How much of your look was “baked in” versus realized in the DI?
Solano: Even though we didn’t use any LUTs for monitoring on set, we had a clear idea from the beginning that we were going for a pastel color palette with slightly low contrast, making it more vibrant for the wedding sequence where it gradually becomes more colorful and dense. We were lucky to have Alex Bickel (Color Collective) color the film and he helped us to finalize the look. He was very excited about the fluorescent lighting concept that we used for most of the interiors in China and took it one step further by adding an undertone into the highlights that accentuates the cool white fluorescent look on their faces, while still maintaining a warm, pleasant skin tone.
Film Title: The Farewell
Camera: Alexa Mini
Lenses: Zeiss Master Prime
Color Grading: Alex Bickel, Color Collective