Interview with PAST LIVES director Celine Song

Theatre-maker Celine Song has entered the world of filmmaking with her debut feature film, Past Lives, which tells a semi-autobiographical story inspired by Song’s life. Born in South Korea, Song moved to Canada with her family when she was 12, leaving behind her best friend, a boy she would later reconnect with as an adult. Greta Lee plays Nora, the character based on Song, while Teo Yoo plays Hae Sung, who have come together in New York over twenty years since they last met. Their friendship is complicated by time, distance, and Nora’s relationship with Arthur (John Magaro). We spoke with Song to find out more about the film.

Was it daunting to tell such a personal story, or did you feel excited?
It is always exciting when embarking on a project you believe in, and you think is a story worth telling. That enthusiasm sometimes is a like a sunrise; it’s something that grows over time. At first, I wasn’t sure if people would be so interested in something that feels like really ordinary people going through something extraordinary and that way that ordinary lives can be epic. Some ordinary lives can span decades and continents. There were some questions; I wondered if there’s an audience who wants to connect to a story like this. Over time I’ve learned that, okay, it is maybe going to be a great story, and people are going to want to come.

Talk to me about casting Greta Lee as Nora. How do you cast somebody to be you? Do you give notes and say that is not how I would have done that, or did you give her free rein to create Nora?
We are trying to create characters with all my actors. It is about finding the character the way that you find characters with an actor through any project. It was always a conversation about how do I connect with Nora and what Nora is going through. It really was an amazing collaboration that I had with Greta.

Theatre is such an important part of your life, and the opening scene in the bar feels like an immersive piece of theatre that the audience becomes part of. Is that what you were trying to achieve? Did you want to connect your theatre and film side?
I think so because breaking the fourth wall is very much a theatrical thing. Something that I really wanted for that moment is I wanted the audience to feel very implicated and feel like they were detectives in this mystery. The mystery of the film is not a murder mystery, but it is a mystery of who these people are to each other. I really want to cast the audience so that they feel interested and curious about who these people are to each other the way a detective might be. I think that is why I wanted to break the fourth wall and make eye contact with the audience.

How did you find the transition from theatre to screen?
Theatre is about story, characters, dialogue, and blocking, which is the job of the director on a film set as well. That transition was very smooth because I could really bring my experience and skills in story and character and things like that right over to film, and it really worked there. I learned how to be a filmmaker for this movie, and that is very special.

In theatre, rehearsal is essential, but you kept Teo Yoo and John Magaro apart on set. Why did you make that decision?
Rehearsals for theatres have a very different rhythm because it is about doing the show every night for weeks and weeks and weeks. That is really the end goal. The theatre is so much about the consistency of doing the whole bit of storytelling over and over and over again. When it comes to film, it really is about the magic of the moment and the magic of what you can capture for each moment. I think that was why I was interested in, you know, the two actors apart. I kept them apart because, first of all, I wanted them to develop chemistry with Greta Lee, who plays Nora, away from each other so that they weren’t going to talk to each other or compare their own chemistry with her because she needed to build a separate world with these two guys. The other part was that the guys were starting to develop an idea of each other. They started to imagine and assume and make some figure in their minds about what the other guy was like. It is so magical when we are able to see those two worlds and those two ideas of each other collapse. It is a little bit of an explosion. It required a lot of work from the whole production team to keep two principal actors apart. I think it resulted in something magical at that moment when Hae Sung and Arthur first meet.

When Nora and Hae Sung reunite as adults, there is such innocence. They both feel like 12-year-olds who happen to be in these adult bodies. How did you work with them to free their inner child?
It starts with casting because both actors have this amazing quality where they have a bit of a contradiction. When I met them, they were put-together, professional adults. When they smile, joke, or laugh about something, they suddenly look like kids. They had that contradiction in their souls, the contradiction of the little kid that we have inside of all of us and the adult – that’s the magical thing. Greta asked me if I wanted her to improve her Korean; she sounds beautifully like a kid when she speaks it. I remember in our first conversation saying no, I think that you should speak Korean like a kid because that makes sense for the story that we are trying to tell, which is that with each other, they are children.

I love your take on masculinity. Arthur does not start throwing his weight or feel threatened by having another man around. It’s different from how we usually see masculinity portrayed on screen. Tell me a little bit about that.
I can only try to depict masculinity as I understand it and love it. I think sometimes masculinity feels like it is something that is supposed to be a bit of an external expression or a show; it usually means a show of strength. But I think there is a tremendous amount of show strength in these two characters in the movie, Arthur and Hae Sung. The strength they feel is that they have the strength to keep their own insecurities, needs, and thoughts aside so the person they care about, Nora, can have her experience. Part of it is about restraint. What I love about masculinity is being able to put yourself aside and make room for the person you love. That is the kind of masculinity that I really connected to.

Past Lives is your debut film, and everyone is raving about it. Is that something you take on board?
I am always excited whenever somebody says wonderful things, like people telling me they connect to the story. This is an independent film, and it really does need audiences to come and really tell each other and really encourage others to come. I think that any positive conversation about it is a really wonderful thing. When it comes to it being my first film, I know that I’m going to make movies for the rest of my life, and I think it is certainly a really exciting thing that I get to do, which is sharing my very first film in the world.

Words – Cara O’Doherty