Past Lives is a wonderful film from first-time writer-director Celine Song. While in Australia for the Melbourne Film Festival, I had a chance to talk with Celine about the project…
Matt: The opening scene is incredible and such an interesting way of introducing the characters – looking at them from afar and being spoken about by people we never see. What was behind that creative decision?
Celine: I wanted to think of this movie as a bit of a mystery story. It’s not a murder-mystery whodunit but it’s the type of mystery which can haunt us throughout our lives – who are these people to each other… who are we to each other? It felt like the right way to begin the story.
When we come back to that same scene near the end of the film, because we have gone on the journey with these characters, the audience has many clues to help solve that mystery of who they are to each other. We can also hear the conversation and discuss that very question.
Matt: I had a chance to see this film in New York last month and it was serendipitous and I visited Dumbo the day before and took a photo of Jane’s Carousel. New York City has such a strong presence in the movie so how did you settle on the shooting locations?
Celine: I live in New York City and it’s a very personal city. The way I wanted to show New York is connected to the characters more than anything. I don’t believe every New York City film should have the Statue of Liberty but I felt it was important for these two characters to end up there because one of them is an immigrant and the other is a tourist. This makes it a very special, romantic, important place to them both.
When it came to Jane’s Carousel in Brooklyn Bridge Park, I loved the carousel being enclosed by a glass case. It’s protected from the wilderness in a glass building. There’s something about that which spoke to the story of the film. Their childhood is this amazing, fragile, protected thing and it felt like the right symbol for the film.
Matt: I saw someone post a photo on Twitter of the front steps outside Nora’s and Arthur’s apartment. What does it feel like to be responsible for an additional little piece of New York film history?
Celine: That also taps into the way I wanted to show New York. It’s the same with so many other cities but the most special places are often not the places you see on postcards. It’s the places you walk past every day, or the place where you had a certain conversation, or a place that meant something. You can’t point to that spot as a place you can find.
That’s how love and relationships work. A place or a person becomes special and meaningful because of the way we see that place or person. That was the philosophy of how I wanted to shoot New York.
Matt: I love the music score from Grizzly Bear members Christopher Bear and Daniel Rossen and I’ve downloaded a couple of tracks already to my phone. It’s like a kind of reflective mix of piano and jazz. How did you all settle on what would best suit in the film musically?
Celine: I wanted a musical world that would point to the silences in the film. I also wanted to make sure the audience had room to feel something on their own terms. I didn’t want to hammer the audience with a massive string score that begs the audience to feeling something. I wanted room for the audience to find it themselves – a little more contemplation, memory, intelligence as opposed to pushing something overly sentimental. Dan, Chris and I spoke about that a lot. How do we make a very emotional score that is not sentimental and that was the guiding principle.
Matt: There are some beautiful long takes in the film. Can you explain what was behind that creative decision as opposed to a traditional, more edited film?
Celine: This movie is about ordinary people with ordinary lives. I didn’t think we could feel the moments in a “live” way by cutting back and forth too much. I wanted to be intentional about when we go in for a close-up or when we do cut the camera. The goal was to cut as little as possible.
I wasn’t thinking too much when doing it but in hindsight, I think it’s connected to my 10 years as a playwright. I’m more comfortable with the audience’s patience. It’s something you can ask of an audience if the silences and the long takes have a clear emotional content. What’s important is that the audience understands the meaning of the silences, and they can also tell their own story “into” those silences.
Matt: You have two wonderful leads in Greta Lee and Teo Yoo. Did you always have them in mind when writing the script or were there a lot of people considered as part of the audition process?
Celine: I can’t create characters if I’m thinking about what actors will play them. I was doing open auditions where a lot of tapes came in. Greta and Teo walked into the proverbial audition room which was Zoom because I was making this movie during COVID. During those Zooms, I could sense they were right for the character almost immediately. I then spent more time with them which confirmed they were the right people. I saw Greta as Nora and Teo as Hae Sung.
Matt: This film premiered at Sundance with many other films back in January, but it has really cut through and found its audience over the past months. It’s made over $9 million at the US box-office and people are talking about awards at year end. I’m sure you always knew you had a great film but at what point did you realise this was going to break out and be such a success?
Celine: I remember sitting there in the green room of the Eccles Theatre waiting for the world premiere at Sundance. In a way, I’d been making this movie in secret. I was making it just with the cast and crew. I was very nervous because the secret was about to come out and be shared with the world. I didn’t know how they would receive it and care for it.
You have a lot of control during the production but then you have to let go of all control and worry if audiences will care. Sundance helped me realize that there is an audience for the movie and there’s a world full of people who connect to the story of Nora. That is what is exciting to me. Every time it opens in a new region and audiences experience it for the first time, what I feel is that I’m not alone. It’s not just a specific feeling I had one time in the East Village. It’s a universal feeling.
Matt: What are you working on at the moment? What might we see from you next?
Celine: I’m going to keep making movies!