“Directing Is Being a Professionally Passionate Person”: Celine Song on Past Lives
A lived-in, swooning memory piece on the intersection of roads taken and missed, Celine Song’s Past Lives is as confident as filmmaking debuts come. “I needed to invent the way that this movie should be made. I wanted it to be the first movie of its kind to be made,” Song tells me recently during an interview at the Madison Square Park—one of the locations of her film—over a picnic of petits fours and sparkling lemonade. “I think that every filmmaker pursues this when they approach a new project,” she continues. “I needed this to be something that stands on its own and speaks its own language.”
A unique language it does fluently speak, with faint echoes of Richard Linklater’s Before movies, James Ivory’s Remains of the Day and even Wong Kar-wai’s In the Mood for Love, while being entirely its own distinctive artwork. And that’s no surprise. Just a few minutes talking to Song, a renowned NYC playwright who wants to focus solely on making movies from now on, and you are fully aware that you’re in the presence of a filmmaker who knows the story she’s telling exactly and intimately. In lesser hands, her Past Lives would have played like the story of a basic love triangle. But in crafting the journeys of Nora (Greta Lee), her Korean childhood sweetheart Hae Sung (Teo Yoo) and Nora’s American husband Arthur (John Magaro) taken by surprise by Hae Sung’s sudden emergence, Song taps into something so much deeper, excavating the mysterious parts of ourselves from the past and pondering their mystical place in the present.
Here is our wide-ranging conversation on Past Lives’ themes and visual language, as well as marriage, masculinity and the notion of in-yun—a type of meant-to-be, or kismet, that Song introduces through her gorgeous, time-and-continents-spanning tale. The film receives a limited release today, June 2, before expanding wide June 23 via A24.
Filmmaker: Past Lives feels like a very lived-in memory piece. Where did it come from? Was there a personal memory that inspired it?
Song: It is adapted from some events of my life, or some images from my life. So it does come from a really personal place and certain memories. The thing that really started the project is this moment that I found myself in a bar in East Village, sitting between my childhood sweetheart and my white American husband. They didn’t really speak each other’s language, but also they were two guys who had no reason to know each other. I was sitting there translating between these two guys who were trying to get to know each other. And I realized the only reason why they were doing that is because of me. I felt like I was a portal or a bridge to these two people and all I had to do was exist as I am. There was something really special that was passing through us.
I was also looking around the bar and seeing the way that people were looking at us because we were a really weird trio. We were three people speaking two different languages. It’s unclear who I’m a couple with and if there’s even a couple in the trio. I could see that the people in the bar were curious. And I think I made eye contact with somebody who was looking at us. I remember feeling like, “Oh, you really want to know who we are to each other? And what if I actually made the effort to tell you?” Because I think the movie is about that sort of ineffable relationship or connection that we sometimes have with someone that doesn’t have a label.
Filmmaker: Do you often wonder what people see when they look at you? Or was that the first time you were acutely aware that somebody was curious about what was happening?
Song: I do think about that. I do think about what people think is going on because everybody fits into every space in the world, right? And then sometimes I’m with someone, and it might be a guy friend who I’m working with, and people might just make assumptions too. “Are you guys a couple?” There’s always an amazing thing where we walk into certain groups of people or make assumptions about their connection.
Filmmaker: I love that you made that curiosity your framing device. I brought this up, because as an immigrant here, I spent many years in a state of alienation, feeling looked at (even when that might not have been true) and wondering what others perceived, whether I fit in. It’s an intangible headspace.
Song: I think it’s so complex. And the answer’s not going to be easy or simple. The answer’s going to take a whole movie to tell. I think about the opening scene as an implication or a welcoming of the audience into the mystery of who these three people are to each other. And it’s not a whodunit, it’s not a crime mystery. But it is a mystery that affects us ordinary people all the time. And part of it is because sometimes you don’t have words for it, right?
So you introduce [the audience] to the mystery, and then we go back 24 years and then we live the 24 years with these characters. And then when we come back to that scene, the audience is going to have a completely new understanding of the trio. And I don’t think everybody in the audience is going to have the same answer either. The mystery becomes something that everybody lives in together.
Filmmaker: You’re a renowned playwright whose work has premiered at the American Repertory Theater. What made this story more suitable to cinema in your mind?
Song: To me, it’s a movie about two people in three moments in their life. So there is aging involved; aging is a really important part of the story. And the movie spans two continents and many decades. So a part of it is because of the way that time and space has to be represented. I thought they would be best represented through visual storytelling.
Filmmaker: This is one of the most assured filmmaking debuts I’ve ever had the pleasure of seeing in Sundance. I am wondering what it took for you to build your visual language so confidently.
Song: I watch a lot of movies. I’m a cinephile, so I know the basics of cinematic language. A movie that I made everybody watch was [Louis Malle’s] My Dinner With Andre. It’s only this one dinner where they’re having this conversation. But just with language, the characters are able to go jump off a cliff. And you just slip into it. There’s nothing wild happening visually. But sometimes with just the actor deciding to say something, you can open up the whole table. So for example, when Hae Sung says in Past Lives, “I didn’t think that liking your husband would hurt this much,” it opens up a whole conversation. In the script, I wrote it as, “A whole ocean opens up.”
But in pursuing this movie, one of the ways that I dealt with the fact that it’s my debut film was approaching it not thinking about [making an] homage to another film, but [wanting] it to have its own language and point of view. So it was honestly more about reflecting on my time as a playwright than anything. Part of being an artist is knowing your own strengths and weaknesses — knowing what you know and what you don’t know. The years that I spent being a playwright taught me story and character, the basics of empathy that we’re asking the audience to show up with; and how to do a piece of dialogue, put together a scene and block something. [These are] all fundamental parts of what theater is.
So I knew that that was going to be the guiding hand for what I’m directing. I knew that that’s something I had an answer to every time. So it was also the foundational block to how my filmmaking happened. Every visual decision, or every decision involving props, costumes, how to work with the actors…they were all driven by the thing that I did know. And the [other] things that I don’t know, those are things that I can learn every day. And also, not only are they learnable, you also have collaborators who have done this many, many times. When the collaborators are welcomed into something, they’re able to thrive creatively as well. And then you just keep eliminating [ideas] until you have a language of your own.
Filmmaker: I am really glad you mentioned this—leaning into things that you do know, and learning the things that you do not know. And that’s a good reminder to aspiring first-time filmmakers, reluctant to get started due to the things they feel they do not know.
Song: I was sort of walking in with this script and being like, “OK, I’ve got direct this movie.” And I think a part of that is being comfortable with not knowing, which is one of the ways that you can overcome some insecurities. And then there are certain things that you need to believe in: that you know about your movie better than anybody else on earth. And hopefully that is true. You have to believe that you’re the only person who can make this movie in this way; that you are inevitable.
For example, in the opening scene, when they’re breaking the fourth wall, I knew that that was going to work because I knew that the audience was going to make eye contact with Nora. And I knew who Nora was. I found that directing is being a professionally passionate person. You’re professionally the person who’s mad about making this movie. So if you have that fire, it is easy to let go of the posturing.
Filmmaker: I love your visual choices throughout Past Lives, in step with the film’s themes. You’re playing with reflections, observing characters from afar, thoughtful compositions. How did you collaborate with your DP, Shabier Kirchner?
Song: He is so unbelievably talented. We had such a romantic collaboration, because so much of it was about us having a really deep connection when it came to what we believed in about movies. It felt like in-yun. And it’s not even because of some strange way that we met. What I first fell in love with in his work [across Bull, Small Axe and Skate Kitchen] is the sense of openness. A humanness in the way that he was approaching his images, even though I could sense that there was an amazing discipline in it. That was the kind of DP that I wanted to work with: a free-spirited person [with] the work ethic.
We were talking for thousands of hours about the movie and cinema generally. So when it came to the reflections and things like that, every decision that he and I were making were about character and story. The themes of the movie are time, space and portals opening to new possibilities, but also, some portals closing. So we knew that it was fundamentally in the bones of the story for us to do reflections, mirrors and windows and other things like that. Because those are some of the ways that the language around different worlds or lives can really come through.
[And in time], not just my DP, but everybody, all the department heads and the crew knew what felt like the movie and what didn’t. We had more pretty images in the footage than ever made it onto the screen. Because they [didn’t] belong.
Filmmaker: What were some of the challenges you had to navigate? Shooting in the unpredictable New York City must have been one.
Song: My joke is there were two divas on my set—not my actors, because my actors were angels. One was New York City and the other was my 35 millimeter film camera. Those are the divas that we are working with mainly. The most difficult part is the weather. I’m sure every filmmaker tells you this. I think it’s the things that are outside of your control. Beyond weather, I feel like sometimes a firetruck is standing and lighting my actor’s face and we have 30 minutes to finish the shot. We can’t control when the sun sets, you know?
Filmmaker: On that note, let’s talk about your angelic cast.
Song: Casting is one of those things that requires so much integrity and a clear-eye. So you may like or dislike a person from other things that you’ve seen, but that cannot be a part of the way you approach casting.
For [this cast], first of all, they had to be great actors. It’s a ton of language, a lot of scene work, and specifically, I wanted them to be able to work through a scene in one take. So they needed to just be skilled. But the thing that really made the three of them perfect is what I would call soul match. Where the soul of the actors had to be mirrors to or have some kind of connection to the souls of the characters. So for Greta, I was so taken by her burning ambition and strength, and then at times, just total vulnerability. I was so excited that in one moment she’ll feel like a full-grown woman (she’s a mother of two), and then in the next second, she’ll look like a kid.
That was also very similar to what it was like to meet Teo. When he smiles, he looks like a boy, but [other times], he can have a coldness to him, he feels like a closed door. For an actor, he has a very scientific way with his language. So it’s all about discovering those things in them.
Filmmaker: I love the moment in the film when Nora refers to him as “very masculine in a Korean way.” And we see John Magaro’s concerned face.
Song: John had a really difficult [task] because when you see him first, you’re not meant to root for him. And then of course, you learn to love him and you realize that you do love him over the course of the film, especially in the bedroom scene. When it came to [his] character of Arthur, he needed to be believable as a writer. And I mean that not just as a job, but I mean as somebody who has a kind of self-awareness or emotional intelligence. And John has spades of that, he has so much of that kind of depth. And the other part was, I needed him to be somebody who we don’t hate when we cut to him in the speakeasy. There are so many very talented actors who could have played that role, but then you would’ve cut to them and [the audience] would’ve been like, “Fuck you.” But John really felt like he could inspire the care from the audience.
Filmmaker: I give a lot of credit to Magaro, of course. But equally to you. There is definitely something to think about when it comes to on-screen masculinity and what happens when women storytellers observe and write men specifically. It’s a different shade of masculinity we don’t often see.
Song: [I was thinking of this] very actively. What I can write at the end of the day is something that I personally respond to. And I think that there is a really funny thing where the masculinity that we are interested in is being cared for, right? Being cared for, being listened to, being respected and being [with] somebody who’s just there for you. We are so moved by that kind of masculinity, but I think there is an attack on that kind of masculinity. [It’s seen] as weakness. And I’m like, no. I think about the absolute strength of somebody who is feeling concerned, worried, insecure, anxious and jealous but who’s able to put that aside because he knows that his wife really needs this. She’s going through something that he knows he cannot fulfill for her. And he wants her to have everything that she needs. So it’s such care.
I think that when we, as straight women, are with straight men, the thing that we ask for in a relationship is so much less about external strength, but more about internal strength. “Yes, of course I feel jealous and worried and anxious and everything, but I’m actually going to put that aside because I love you too much to let that overrun the experience you’re having.” The strength of that is so hot.
And so to me, both of these men are sex symbols. I really believe that. Maybe they’re not a sex symbol on a magazine, but they are sex symbols for our everyday lives.
Filmmaker: I felt that so much when Arthur mentions that Nora dreams in Korean, knowing that there is a part of her he can’t reach. Perhaps that spoke to me specifically because after all these years in the US, more than two decades, I am told by my English husband that I sometimes dream in Turkish.
Song: I [thought of], “What is at the heart of the thing that Arthur is offering Nora?” What makes this a good marriage? What’s the kind of thing that needs to be communicated here for this to be a good marriage? And it is a good marriage. It’s a very rare thing, a good marriage on screen. He is offering an acceptance there. We started this conversation talking about mysteries, right? No matter whom you’re with and how you’re connected to someone, there’s always going to be a mystery that’s a part of your relationship with someone: to even you and your husband or me and my husband. Because we’re not actually one. It’s you are an other.
Even though Arthur knows her so very well, [he still says], “There’s a part of you that I don’t know, there’s a place where I can’t go.” And instead of saying, “Well, why won’t you fix that?,” he’s saying that, “That’s why I’ve been trying to learn Korean, so that maybe I can learn a little bit more about the mystery, so I can maybe solve it in my own terms.” That’s the kind of love that he’s able to offer her. Only when you love someone, are you willing to learn a new language. Arthur’s Korean in the movie is very bad. John really wanted to see if he could get better at Korean. And I was like, “No, you should be that bad. It’s perfect for the character.” Because he’s trying. I love that moment when Arthur is like, “Hey, nice to meet you, I’m Arthur,” in Korean, and then Hae Sung says in English, “Hey, nice to meet you, I’m Hae Sung.”
Filmmaker: Do you personally hold the concept of in-yun close? Is that something that you think about often; something along the lines of meant-to-be or maybe even kismet?
Song: I think that a certain relationship tells you that it is in-yun, right? I don’t go like, “Well, these are in-yun, these are not.” It’s not really like that. I think there’s just some connections that you have where you’re like, “I think this is in-yun.” It’s just a special feeling that you get when you meet someone and some of them maybe become your lifelong partners or your lifelong friends. How wild that this person who was once a stranger becomes your family? And that must mean that there was a ton of in-yun that was involved. When you meet that person, there’s just a moment where I think it becomes so clear. So it’s less that I walk around believing it, but more that sometimes in-yun just shows up.