In Celine Song’s Past Lives, two childhood friends reconnect after 24 years apart. Nora (Greta Lee) immigrated with her family from Korea to the Western world in grade school and has rarely spoken to Hae Sung (Teo Yoo) since. She has since moved to New York City and married but there is clearly some unspoken and unresolved business between the two.
This isn’t a story about cheating as the pair never do, but its one of longing and grieving the people and possibilities you could have been. This idea is something that Song is and was all too aware of when she was making this film. As she told me when we sat down together in a DC hotel a few weeks ago, she was taken a back by how much this story, inspired by her own, is relatable to others. Read further into my interview to find out how.
This story is partially based on your own as an immigrant who fell in love as a kid in Korea, and then again with a different person as an adult. You were inspired by a meeting between the three of you where you were translating between these two men. Through that experience, you came up with this idea about missed opportunities and the choices that we make that affect the one life that we have to live. Talk to me about developing this deeply personal story for your first feature.
When I was finding myself in that bar, sitting between my childhood sweetheart and my husband, I feel like there was a kind of contradiction or something that I could feel in myself. That felt like such an amazing tension. Then I was wondering if something so specific as that could be a story worth telling. Over time, it became pretty clear that, because I was sharing that story with some of my friends, they had stories of their own, even if they weren’t from the same or similar walks of life that I was in. I think that we all have this feeling sometimes of these two maybe contradicting or separate parts of ourselves that are somehow able to coexist. It’s sometimes hard to imagine reconciling them, but just by living, you just do it.
So I think that became kind of a thing where I was like, “Oh, it’s not just myself.” Everybody can have a version of that. It can be something as simple as a job too. I know people who used to be lawyers that are now chefs, and then they’re just like, “In my past life as a lawyer…” Or you can move from Houston to L.A. Or you can leave a relationship. You can be like, “I was married to a musician and now I’m dating this person.” I think there is a way that you can think of your past selves as a past life.
In the film’s opening scene, we see what we learn to be our three leads being talked about by unseen strangers at a bar. The voices speculate about who Greta Lee’s character is to both of these men, whether or not Joe Magaro’s character is hitting on this Asian couple, and whether this is a fetish situation. If I’m remembering correctly, Greta breaks the fourth wall and looks directly at the camera at the end of the scene. We never hear from these people again. What were you trying to do as a writer in that scene?
What I wanted first of all was for it to implicate the audience, so that the audience can feel like they’re being asked to also play this game. So I’m kind of welcoming them into playing this game. It’s meant to be a little bit confrontational. That’s what I always wanted the eye contact to be. I feel like there’s a confrontational element when you break the fourth wall. Part of this confrontation is to really welcome the audience into the mystery of this movie, which is who are these three people to each other? It’s not like a who done it, but it really is like, “Who are they to each other?” as a kind of an ineffable thing. So you’re introducing the mystery almost.
I think it’s also this thing where they’re being closely observed. What Nora is doing in that moment is being like, “If you want to observe me and these two guys, let’s really observe me.” This is why we go back to childhood, to really not just observe them superficially, but to observe them from even their origin story of this relationship. So I think that that really was the thought for it. And then of course, when we come back to that scene at the end of the movie, suddenly the audience is in on it. The audience now knows some version of the answer to the question, “Who are they to each other?” Now they’re gonna see the three people that they met a little over an hour ago completely differently.
Body language and touch are such integral visual parts of the film, that you insert individual shots of hands and various parts of their posture. Was that something you worked out with the actors beforehand or knew you were going to shoot and just kind of captured what was interesting to you on the day?
It needed to be such a big part of the movie. Because I think that the closeness and the distance is actually what the movie’s about. So much of the movie is about the space. So the space had to be determined really specifically. For example, there’s a question of like, are they touching when they are holding the same subway pole? We did shoot that, there’s a tiny bit of footage of them, but it then it felt too close. And then so you have to distance it a little bit, but if it’s too far, then it feels like they don’t like each other. So you’re just always finding that moment where it is both things. It has to be too close and too far.It seems like the hands are too close to each other, but also they’re a little too far because they’re not touching. So I think that is how you build longing in just the distance of the characters.
When they first see each other for the first time in 24 years at Madison Square Park, the distance between them has to be just the right distance. It can’t be too close and it also can’t be too far. It has to be something where it’s like, if you just reach over, you can hug them. That builds a longing for wanting to hug them.
Teo Yoo, John Magaro, and Greta Lee have all talked about different methods you used in rehearsal and prep in order to get the reactions you wanted on Camera. John and Teo were purposefully hidden from one another in Zoom meetings. Greta and Teo weren’t allowed within a certain number of feet of one another, let alone touch until we see that on camera. Talk to me about coming up with that strategy. I’m sure that that’s something that lots of directors do, but I just felt that it was so purposeful for a first-time director.
I feel like the thing that I do know is what people are like and actors are people who sort of like need the support. Because what they do is so difficult. I was thinking “How do I set them up for success in terms of the work that they have to do?” So I think it really is about setting that up and making sure that is actually possible, more than anything. I think that was at the end of the day what was at the heart of those decisions. I feel like I kind of knew that it was gonna be helpful and if it didn’t feel like it was gonna be that helpful, we weren’t gonna do it.
I feel like if the movie is about longing through time and space and this life to the next, then there has to be longing. The longing is going to go away if it’s consummated. We also gotta think about the kind of marriage that Nora is in. Nora is not in a bad marriage. Arthur is not some asshole that she can just be awful to. She’s married to him and she’s really committed to him. The two of them have something special together, which is like, they’re in love. They’re a married couple that’s in love and they’re partners. I don’t think that Nora would do that to him. So I think that to me it really is driven by character, first of all, that like, she would never do that.
Greta would say that she never wanted to kiss because I think she understood that. She also has a relationship that she was building with John for Nora and Arthur. I think that honestly, the person who was one who asked me about it was Teo. I think it’s because Teo didn’t know the relationship that Nora was building with Arthur in the movie because I separated them. He didn’t know how deep that relationship was because he was building his own chemistry with Nora. Of course, he was frustrated. Thankfully Greta and I, and of course John, we all knew what it needed to be. At the end of the day, think it was clear to them that there should not be a kiss.
Also it was never scripted. It was never gonna be okay. That’s not the movie. The movie is not about cheating. The movie is about possibilities that die in our lives. Maybe in a couple more hundreds of lives from now, Nora and Hae Sung are gonna be fully together. But it’s certainly not in this one because she’s in a great marriage with somebody else.
I love how Teo’s own like experience as an actor is completely the same as in the film. I love that. You have such empathy for your characters. John’S Arthur could have easily been painted as the out of touch, angry, and jealous white husband in the way of the love between these to childhood lovers. Talk to about not taking the easy way out with your characters because I think that’s something that we see throughout the film.
I have to just think about these characters as fully fledged people who have their own autonomous way to live. That’s the only way that you can really depict any character. I don’t believe that there is a villain in real life. Of course, there’s some villains in my perspective. But it doesn’t mean that they’re villains to themselves. I think that that really is at the heart of what this relationship is, but it’s also a movie about three people that are mature and they take care of each other. I
t is about three people that are being really sweet, trying to be really decent to each other. Even when it’s really hard for them because I don’t think that it is easy for all of us to be good to each other. I think every time it’s heroic. So I think that because it is about the heroism of three ordinary people who are trying to be there for an extraordinary thing. That really was at the heart of why I didn’t want any of the characters to have any kind of lacking when it comes to the depths of their character or the intelligence behind their character. I wanted all three of them to have emotional intelligence because I think that in real life, I think everybody has a great deal of emotional intelligence.
The final shot Past Lives, when everyone is sending Teo’s character on his way back home, was filmed as a one-shot. You’ve described this as the hill the film dies on. Talk to me a bit about why.
Nora’s walk home, the walk to the Uber and then the walk home, that whole sequence needed to be kind of a purely emotional experience. It allows room for Nora to have an emotional response and have an emotional outpouring. And that gives room for the audience too. The audience needs a moment too, because who they’re grieving together. They’re grieving the little girl, the little Nora together. I just thought that the little girl needed a moment to be grieved and grieve properly. Because it’s not just the little Na Young, the little Nora. I think we all have that somebody. We just all have that part of us that we have to grieve. So it really was about giving the audience the room to let go and breathe.
One thing I noticed when preparing for this interview, of course by doing that you watch more interviews, was how passionate your cast is about this project, which is so rare to see in junkets. They seem so protective of the material and of you. Can you pinpoint what you did as a director in order to get that response?
I think that a part of it is, I really did think of my relationship with the actors as very much a relationship. It’s more than a friendship. You just have to be so connected to them and you have to build a really unique relationship with all three of them because that’s what where the collaboration is. They’re collaborating with each other, but they’re also collaborating with me. It’s a creative relationship that is very deep and it has to be intimate because I need to get to know them in such a deep way and they need to get to know the characters and me in such a deep way. So I really think it really had to do with how close we got creatively around making this movie. Part of it is the actors feeling like they also have ownership of the project. They also feel connected to the project and feel like it’s not just the job. It is something that’s part of their work in such a deep way. So I feel like that’s really what it is.
Past Lives is in theaters now.