Since the film had its world premiere at the Sundance Film Festival earlier this year, Celine Song’s Past Lives has captured the collective heartstrings of audiences around the world. Inspired by events in Song’s life, her stellar directorial debut follows Nora (Greta Lee) and Hae Sung (Teo Yoo), childhood friends reunited decades later in New York City, where Nora lives with her husband Arthur (John Magaro). Over the course of a week, these three characters confront the honest, necessary realities of their situation and the emotional complexities that come with thinking about the decisions they’ve made in life that landed them where they are by the end of the film. Song, a celebrated playwright, has created not only one of the best films of the year but a debut feature that ranks as one of the best of the 21st century. In our review from the Berlin Film Festival, Savina Petkova perfectly described the film as “salvation cinema,” with “elegant storytelling, lingering emotions, and a spectacular trio of performances.”
During a nearly thirty-minute conversation with the writer-director in the Hamilton Room at the 2023 Middleburg Film Festival, we spoke about the process of bringing Past Lives to life, her film influences as she was making her directorial debut, the collaboration process with her actors, her transition as a writer from stage to screen, and how she has been taking in all of the praise of the film so far. As we got started, she and I looked at each other and laughed at how busy our day at the festival had been, and that this was the last interview for each of us to do on the day, so it set the stage for a very relaxed conversation. The more the interview went on, the closer both of us leaned across the table, easily engaged in the moment as we talked about her extraordinary film. As we wrapped up, she ran around the table, and did something that normally doesn’t happen; we hugged. As she said “I hope we meet again” as we exited the room, I knew she meant it. It’s all about human connection with Song, and through that, she is able to break down our walls and get to our emotional core. In creating Past Lives, she has delivered a part of herself that is now tied to all of us. It was a true pleasure sitting down with Celine Song to talk about this special film she’s made, and I too hope our paths cross again.
Ryan McQuade: I’d like to start with the origin of the piece. It feels like this has been a long time coming for you to tell this story. What was the turning point that urged you to write the screenplay and to make the film?
Celine Song: Well, I think it really did come from that moment that I was sitting in that bar in the East Village, which, of course, begins and ends the film, sitting between my childhood sweetheart, who is now a friend, and my husband, who I live with in New York City. I think just what propelled me was that night, which is the kind of feeling that felt, to me, completely extraordinary, because I was becoming a portal between not just two different cultures and languages, of course, but between parts of my own self. There’s an amazing way that I felt. I felt so powerful and empowered in that particular moment. Then, of course, that moment stuck with me. I think that moment really got put in a bit of a maybe pile, of like, “Oh, maybe I’ll do something with that,” because it was such a special thing. It was an interesting thing. Then I think that there are some things that stay on the maybe pile. Some things fall out of it. This one was sticking with me for a long time.
Something that was true is that I was telling my friends the story of me sitting there and having these feelings, and all of my friends had a story to share of their own that made them feel that way, even though maybe they were not from the same background or the same cultural makeup as me. On top of that, I found that I became better friends with every single person that I told the story to. So I knew that it was a story worth telling. When I got down to actually writing the script, it was an interesting thing because I was writing this in 2019. This was before Parasite. I knew that the movie was going to be bilingual because it had to be.
It’s about being from one place and then living in another, so it had to be bilingual. But there were a couple of things that made me feel like nobody would want this movie, one of which is that Final Draft at that time didn’t support the Korean alphabet, so I couldn’t write it in what is called the industry standard program. A part of it is that I was like, “Oh, they didn’t even think about somebody like me writing a story like this, so maybe that means that they don’t want it.” Secondly, of course, there is the question of subtitles, where I feel like the conversations about subtitles were at a very different place back then.
What I thought at the end was, “Yeah, but I feel compelled to write the screenplay. I’m just going to do it. Maybe it’ll be a spec that gets me another job.” You know what I mean? I was like, “Maybe they’ll give me other jobs because they like the spec.” But I was, of course, hoping that I would get to tell this story. The fact that I got to, and then, many years later, I’m here, it’s amazing.
RM: Most filmmakers go and look at maybe something that they’ve connected with to start a project, for inspiration. For your first film, did you have movies that you drew from? Were there influences from other things that you’ve seen that made its way in?
CS: Yes. Well, I think that’s part of the chip on your shoulder thing, of being a first-time filmmaker, where I, of course, want to have my own voice and my own language, and I want it to be something that comes from myself. So there is a part of it where I was intentionally not looking at one single film as like, “I want to make a movie like that.” I didn’t want to do that because I wanted the movie to exist on its own terms, and it needed to invent its own language. Not only that, I need to invent my own language.
RM: Yeah. We’ve got to see what a Celine Song film looks like.
CS: Yes, exactly. That was such a big part of the project for me, being my first movie, that I think I was intentionally trying not to think about, “Well, this movie could be more like that,” in that holistic way. But, of course, I was pulling from ideas, or what I would usually call solutions, from so many different films. I’m very much an omnivore when it comes to watching movies. You know what I mean?
CS: At one point, I will watch Die Hard, and then I’ll watch Tarkovsky. It didn’t really come from one genre or one wave or anything like that. It was very much like, “Well, there’s this one moment in that one film.” For example, in Breaking the Waves, there’s a moment at the beginning of that film where the character turns to the camera and breaks the fourth wall. I don’t know if you remember that moment, but-
RM: I do.
CS: Yeah! To me, I’m like, “Well, that was the only time that I’ve seen the thing that Greta has to do in my movie done in a way that I know is right.” Of course, the meaning of breaking the fourth wall is different in that one to this one, but that is one that I think is worth looking at. Greta hadn’t seen the movie, so I told her that she should see the movie. That would be one thing. Or there’d be like, of course, My Dinner with Andre as the reference for the entirety of the bar scene, because what I really love about My Dinner with Andre is that it’s just the conversation, but there are moments where you’re in shallow waters. There are moments where you’re in the deep sea. You just slip into each thing. It’s not transitioning from a light conversation to a very, very deep, and sometimes even dark conversation. It happens in a way where it feels like you’re slipping into it. It’s not quite like, “Well, time to have an important conversation.”
It is so just in the look and then just the new language and language can do it all. So, to me, I had everyone watch that film. I think there are just things like that, that we were pulling from. Like Father and Like Son, by Koreeda, and the walk home in that film… It’s not a walk home, it’s a walk away from home. Do you know that film?
RM: Yes, I do.
CS: You know how the boy is walking, running away from his father, who we learn is not even his father, walking away, and then we are just trying to catch him through cars and light? We’re just trying to follow him. We’re trying to keep up with him because, of course, the father, or not the stepfather, his stepfather is also chasing him, too. So it’s that thing where it’s like, I mean, even that, I think, that we were looking at that as a reference for the end scene, where it’s meant to feel like we’re just walking and peering at her, as opposed to it being like, “Time for a walk.” It feels a little bit more like we are getting to sneak a look. We get to watch her.
RM: I found your capturing of the passage of time to be absolutely incredible. You come from the stage. So could you talk maybe a little bit about the difference of how to capture the passage of time in a film as opposed to capturing it on the stage and how maybe there are some similarities you were able to carry over into Past Lives?
CS: Yeah. Completely. I mean, part of the project is for me to capture what time feels like to us. It’s always contradictory because 12 years can pass like this, and two minutes can feel like an eternity. That’s what life feels like to us and how time passes through our lives. I wanted it to feel like that in the movie as well. But the thing is, to me, in theater and film, it is a completely different approach to time and space because in theater it is figurative. In film, it is literal. In theater, all you have to do to set a story on Mars, this is usually the example I give, which is, if you want to set a story that’s happening on Mars, all you have to do is have an actor sit on stage and say, “So this is Mars.” The whole audience will come with you. They will cross time and space, and they’ll come. Maybe you can help them a little bit. You can put on a little red light. That’s all you need to do. You just have to say, “Well, today on Mars, I’m going through this today.”
When it comes to setting a story on Mars in film, you have to build Mars or go to Mars, because time and space are quite literal in film. I think for this movie, I knew that the story needed to be told in a film, in a cinematic way, because time and space needed to feel quite literal, because, of course, the story is about the way that … My joke is always that the villain of the story is 24 years and the Pacific Ocean. I don’t have any other villains. Those are the villains, right? (laughs)
RM: (laughs) Yeah, that’s true.
CS: Then the thing is, you’re always going to, because of that, you needed to see Seoul and New York, and you needed to see the 12-year-old and then almost the 40-year-old. You need to see them literally, and you need to see them coexist. I think the thing about my experience in theater, being so connected to it, is all of it, because to me, I have so much more faith in the patience that the audience has for silences. I know the audience is unbelievably patient as long as they know clearly what the silence is about.
If they don’t know what the silence is about, they cannot even take a two-second silence. But the audience can be in an endless silence if they know what the silence is about. So, in a funny way, the two minutes where they’re waiting for the Uber and the silence of that only makes sense because you can only sit through that, you can have stakes in that silence, because of the time you spent talking about everything in the bar. In a way, it’s contradictory, but the silences only work because of the language. By the time that we’re in the silence, we know what they’re not saying.
RM: We can fill in the blanks.
CS: We can fill in the blanks. We’re so busy filling in the blanks emotionally and so deeply collectively that we can sit in that silence forever. That really was connected to how I wanted to … So I decided when the Uber was going to come. Nobody on set knew, including myself, when the Uber was going to come. All it was, was I’m going to give a cue. That’s all it was. The actors only knew two things. They’re the only ones who knew this. They knew that the Uber was not going to come until they turned and faced each other. The second thing was that they needed to turn to each other as slowly as they could possibly imagine. That’s it. Those were the only two instructions they had. They didn’t know when Uber was going to come. I was the one who was cuing it.
When I was watching the monitor trying to decide on when it was going to come, I couldn’t go by a number. I couldn’t go by anything except for the internal clock I had. It’s a subjective thing. I wish it was a little bit more objective, but I didn’t know how long it’s been myself. I didn’t know until I got to the moment that the car should come then. But the thing that I’m trying to find in that subjectivity, in that subjective search, is that I’m trying to find the moment for the car to come that feels like both too fucking long and too fucking short, because it somehow has to be that contradictory like we’re saying, the two minutes that feel like an eternity.
You have to feel like, “Oh, my God. When will this fucking Uber come? Uber, please come. Please come. Please come.” But then, also, when the Uber comes, there has to be a part of you that’s like, “No, no, no. Give us 10 more seconds. Give us 10 more. No, no. Don’t come yet. It’s not time.” It has to be both of those things. The only way for me to know that is to trust my own internal rhythm, my own subjectivity, or what feels like that.
RM: You mentioned what you feel internally. Externally is what you present in the film, this idea of in-yun, which is that we’re all connected. Could you speak to the idea of making a story that is about personal connection, the sadness of losing that connection, but the curiosity and the complexity of that connection resurfacing?
CS: I think there is always an impulse to evaluate connection and to apply value systems to connection. I think that is such a thing that just happens when you live in capitalism when you live in late capitalism. It’s a powerful thing where it’s like, “Well, we want to overvalue or undervalue, put a number or a ranking to the connections that we have in our lives.” But a part of the thing about in-yun is that there is no such thing. Just because this is a connection that you two have in this life, it doesn’t mean that’s what it was in last. Maybe in the last one, it was more intimate. Or maybe in the last one, it was less intimate, and how amazing that in this one it is so much more close.
I think that it’s like, “Well, it is easy for us to see the connections in our lives.” That’s also true about Nora. It’s easy for Nora to see Hae Sung and Arthur, and for Hae Sung and Arthur to see Nora and each other, and to really think about it in terms of what are the rankings here, or what is the competition here? What is the fight here? What is that? You could also accept that “No, I think it is just simply a miracle that these two people are here together.” The thing is, you and I, in this life, are meeting at Middleburg. We’re here as our colleagues. We’re meeting here because of our respective jobs. In this life, I know that this is the relationship we have. Hopefully, we keep meeting each other for movies, and we get to know each other, but this might be it, too.
Regardless of what relationship that we have in this life, you can treat this as like, “Yeah, we just did this. It’s fine. I don’t know this person. We’re done.” But there’s also a way to think like, “Well, but it is amazing, if you think about it, that we had this 20-minute conversation here about my first movie, which is such a special thing for me.” Maybe next time we connect, we’re going to feel again like, “Oh, my God. How amazing that we are at this thing together again,” and we’ll talk about it again. Then, of course, it’s also an especially wonderful thing for us to then think about, “Well, hundreds of lifetimes ago, maybe we were a lot closer, and maybe a hundred lifetimes ago before that, maybe we were not close at all.” To me, there’s just no way to know. I think in that mystery is what the concept of in-yun is.
Also, it’s exactly where I think it can be easy for you to be like, “Nora, which guy are you going to choose?” You know what I mean? But I know that the truth is that, well, it would be so much easier if one of them was a jerk, if Arthur was a jerk, and she could do whatever, or if Hae Sung was a loser, and then she could do whatever. The truth is, that’s not the truth of it. The truth of it is that there are three people who are really doing everything they can to not break each other’s hearts. But that is actually what’s harder about it. It would be so much easier if they were awful to each other, but they’re going to be good. So, to me, the thing that I know it’s going to run into is always about the evaluation of connection, but in fact, the characters themselves are going to see each connection and find it to be special because of this constant in-yun.
RM: The crafting of these three characters, which I think are some of the most complex three characters we’ve seen this year-
CS: Thank you.
RM: …can you talk about developing them with your actors? But then also talk about creating them from your personal experience. You’re writing Nora as if you’re writing a version of yourself. Former and current relationships are written into the fabric of the film. Can you talk about the collaborative experience of bringing these characters to life?
CS: Totally. Well, I think that the truth is that even though this moment itself in my life was so autobiographical and a very, very personal thing with real people involved, I knew that by the time it was turned into a script, it was already going through a complete objectification process. So, in part of that, I think it would be one thing if I were writing something where I’m accusing somebody of a crime, which is what you can do. You can make something like that. But this is really about a feeling that I had once of being loved. So, to me, it was not such a complicated thing to navigate the real life part of it because, to me, it was very much an inspirational moment. It was very much an inspiration. From there, of course, it’s so personal and so rooted in reality, but it is still, at the end of the day, something that became a thing that, as it was becoming a script, I had to write dialogue for. It was already becoming something that was closer to an object for other people to understand.
From there, from the script, then I was able to further objectify the film, objectify the story, into something that I’m making with hundreds of people, and of course, my cast. I wasn’t talking to any of my actors saying, “Well, you should copy somebody else, or you should emulate the other person.” It was very much about, “Well, there’s this person, and there’s you.” Let’s find a character together. We’re going to find this character together, you and me, because also what feels like nothing in real life feels like everything in film. That’s the power of drama. In some ways, it might be a random fact about a person, but in a movie, because of the way that the story has to happen, it’s going to speak volumes about what the character is. There’s a part of it where you cannot just emulate the person that exists. It’s so much more about, “Well, how are we going to find the character together?” This character is going to be something that is very much a collaboration with me and my actor based on this script where the character’s already been made into an object.
By the time that I was making the movie, by the time I was in the edit, it was really hard for me to really access the part of it that is so literally personal. It is personal through and through, but it is not quite literally personal. You know what I mean? I think that’s a very real thing. Also, I was so overwhelmed by the thing that was the true secret and the true personal part of making this movie, which is that it was a revelation to me that I’m a filmmaker, or it being the very first film I learned that I knew how to make a movie, which I didn’t know before, and I didn’t know about myself as an artist or as a person. Also, it was perfect because it’s a movie about the self-revelation of a woman. It’s a movie about the self-discovery of a woman. The making of that movie was a process of self-revelation and self-discovery.
In doing so, I think that it was just this complete … I don’t know. By the time that I was in the edit, for example, it really did end up feeling like I made this movie. The part of it that is personal is in the air of it, but it’s not necessarily something that at the time I was like, “Well, does it feel exactly like …” I don’t even remember that time.
RM: You have been going from film festival to film festival. The movie has premiered. Everyone’s been receiving it, experiencing it. For yourself, how have you been taking in all the praise and the experiences? The stories that you talked about from your friends, now you’re hearing the audience’s stories. How has that felt to you in the process of delivering this film to everyone?
CS: Yeah. I think, first of all, there’s nothing creative about this answer, but it’s nothing but amazing. I wish that there was a creative answer, but it’s amazing.
RM: I think that’s okay to say.
CS: Yeah, I think so. I think it’s completely amazing. I go to so many different parts of the world, in parts of America, and everywhere I go, I get there, and I meet the audience after they have seen the movie. Part of the thing that I notice is the way that they feel connected to it is so deep and personal. What I was saying about the objective is that it’s now becoming subjective again in the audience. When I feel that, to me, I can only describe it as I feel less lonely.
I feel less alone because I know that this thing, which was just a private feeling, just a personal secret feeling I had in this bar, sitting between these two people that I care about, it now has become something where the people whose language I don’t speak sometimes, they’re feeling so connected to it. That makes me feel like, “Well, actually, I’m so not alone. This feeling is not something that I only had alone.” So I describe it as nothing but un-lonely. It’s a way to feel less lonely. What’s the thing? Oh-
RM: To carry with you?
CS: To carry with you. It’s like what I thought I knew about the audience and what I thought I knew about people is true. Exactly. I think that’s what I mean. I was hoping when I was making the movie that this feeling would be like, “Have you had this feeling, too?” You know what I mean? The question of, “Have you had this feeling, too?” I suspected they must have. They’re people, too. They go through time and space, too. They know that, too. They know we can’t take back time, too. They know they can’t take back space, either. So I’m like, “Do you feel this, too?” That really is the question of the film. The audience is coming back with, “Absolutely.” My response to that is like, “Oh, actually, what I know about people, what I believe of people is that, and what they’re capable of when they talk to me, basically, when they’re listening to a story with me. I just know that it’s just true and real. Yeah. That’s appealing.
RM: Absolutely. Thank you so much for your time, Celine.
CS: Thank you, Ryan. This was such a good conversation.
Past Lives is currently available to rent or buy on Prime Video and more.