‘Past Lives’ Director Deconstructs Her Best Picture Nominee and That Ending


The Big Picture

  • The bar scene in « Past Lives » took four months to write and was inspired by a real-life experience, shaping the emotional depth of the film.
  • Celine Song’s experience writing for « Wheel of Time » taught her the importance of leadership in filmmaking and taking creative responsibility.
  • The character dynamics in « Past Lives » showcase a realistic portrayal of love without traditional villains, emphasizing deep emotional connections and personal growth.



[Editor’s Note: The following contains spoilers for Past Lives]For playwright-turned-writer and director Celine Song, her first-ever feature film, Past Lives, has taken movie lovers by storm. The romantic drama first premiered at Sundance 2023 and went on to garner numerous awards and nominations, and is now nominated for two Academy Awards, Best Picture and Best Original Screenplay.


Based on Song’s own personal experiences, Past Lives shares the story of Nora (played by Greta Lee), whose family immigrated to Canada from Seoul when she was a little girl, leaving behind her best friend, Hae Sung (Teo Yoo). Years later, the two reconnect and find they still share a special bond, but the distance between them makes cultivating a true relationship difficult, and they once again go their separate ways. Another decade later, Nora is married to Arhtur (John Magaro), but Hae Sung is finally able to make the voyage across the Pacific to visit the girl he can’t forget. They spend their time discussing destiny, the past, present, and future, and what it means to love.


Following Drumpe and Landmark Theatre’s special FYC screening of Past Lives, our own Steve Weintraub hosted an exclusive Q&A with Song to talk about her film and the journey from her debut feature to the Oscars. She breaks down the bar scene, the relationship between the film’s trio, and the final shot between Nora and Hae Sung. Song also shares her inspiration for the film, why it had to be a movie instead of a play, how writing for Wheel of Time influenced how she handled her production, and why she won’t talk about her upcoming sophomore feature, Materialists, starring Pedro Pascal, Chris Evans, and Dakota Johnson.

Past Lives

Nora and Hae Sung, two deeply connected childhood friends, are wrested apart after Nora’s family emigrates from South Korea. Twenty years later, they are reunited for one fateful week as they confront notions of love and destiny.

Release Date
June 23, 2023

Director
Celine Song

Runtime
106 minutes

Main Genre
Drama

Writers
Celine Song

Read Our ‘Past Lives’ Review

Drumpe: What has this whole thing been like for you to this experience going from Sundance to now?


CELINE SONG: I remember standing in the green room of Sundance. We showed this movie at Eccles Theater and I remember walking around in the green room, and being like, “Well, this movie is not going to be a secret anymore in two minutes.” Because a part of it is, like, when you’re making a movie, and especially with the cast and crew, we really hold on to it like it’s a little secret that we have. Then to know that it’s going to be out in the world, it was so completely scary. But then, of course, I think that when the Eccle’s audience received the film with so much warmth, since then I have not worried about the movie in a way. Because I think that, to me, just knowing that that room itself received the film… Because the whole movie is a question that I think that I just wanted to ask, which is, “Well, once, one night I felt this way before. Have you felt this way before?” And then to know that there’s an entire audience that responded with, “Yes, I have felt this way before,” I think that was all the answer I needed back at Sundance, and everything else is gravy. [Laughs]

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For people that don’t realize, the Eccles is like a 1,000-seat theater that can make or break you.

SONG: Yes. The sound is a little wild there, you know?

The film is nominated for Best Picture and Best Original Screenplay. What is that like for your debut film?

SONG: It’s completely unreal and really, really cool and super fun. I always talk about it, because of people, of course, ask me, “What is it like to be nominated?” And I’m always like, “Oh, I wish I had a really interesting answer,” but the answer is so simple: it’s amazing. It is so cool. It changed my life.

You went to the Oscar luncheon today, and so I have to ask, what is it like? Who was the person that came up to you or that you got to go talk to that you were like, “I cannot believe I’m having a conversation with this person?”


SONG: Well, at this point, honestly, I feel like I had already met everybody that I feel that way about generally. Like, I feel like I went to the AFI luncheon and things like that, and that’s where I met [Steven] Spielberg or, like, Martin Scorsese or whoever, and then they would tell me that they’ve seen the movie and that they love the movie — and Chris Nolan told me this. So, that has been happening throughout this entire awards season, and so it’s been so amazing. Then I feel like beyond that, today I feel like the people that I hadn’t met before were documentary makers and short film filmmakers, and for them to come up to me and tell me that they loved the movie, that meant a lot. Those are the ones that hadn’t met until today.


Why ‘Past Lives’ Had to Be Celine Song’s First Film

How did you debate what you wanted your first film to be about, or did you always know this was gonna be your debut film?


SONG: I think that the story itself is the thing that informed me that this would be a movie. Past Lives, I’ve made this joke before, but the villain of the story is the Pacific Ocean and the 24 years, and because of that, you actually need to feel and see the different cities. So, you need to feel and see and smell Seoul, and you have to feel and see and smell New York City. So I think because of that, it needed to have the visual language that is not what is usually my form of writing, which is plays, because I was a playwright for 10 years. So the reason why I wanted this to be a movie is because of those things.

Also, the movie is about the contradiction of how the 12-year-old and then almost the 40-year-old are the same person, so I need to be able to cast the child and the grownup. In theater, a 40-year-old can play a 12-year-old and a 12-year-old can play a 40-year-old. We all know, like, The Wizard of Oz or something, and a kid is playing like a grandma or something. That’s what you can do in theater. So, time and things like that are quite figurative and very malleable in theater. In film, it’s very literal; time and space is really literal. So, I wanted to shoot children and also shoot the adults and to fully imply that they’re the same person because that’s really what the film is about.


Just like how you and I are sitting here; we are grownups, we’re not 12, and something that’s really true is that even though we’re not 12, and we’re adults, and we know each other only as adults, we both have a little secret, which is that we were 12, and there’s a 12-year-old person that we know still exists in some way within us. If you were to talk to my mom, and if you said, “What was Celine like when she was 12?” To her, that 12-year-old will still be fully living and fully alive and very vivid and present. So I think that it is because the movie is about that contradiction, right? Like, we could be 80 and still be like, “Remember when we were 35…” 30 years from now. I’ll be 65 and you’ll be like, “Remember when we first had this Q&A for your first movie and you were 35?” And I’ll be like, “Oh, I know. Remember when I was 35?” But right now you’re going to be thinking about what I’m like here, now, right? And for you, I will still be that 35-year-old in some way. So, that’s the kind of way that our life holds so many contradictions, and the way that time passes through our life is so surreal in that way, and I think because that is what the movie is fundamentally about, I wanted to be able to cast both children and adults and have them coexist in the same same time in the same space. That’s really why I felt like it should be a movie. So, it really was the story itself that got me to make it into a movie.


‘Past Lives’ Was Inspired by Celine Song’s Real-Life Experiences

Teo Yoo and Greta Lee as Hae Sung and Nora looking at each other while sitting in some steps in 'Past Lives' (2023)
Image via A24

So the opening of this scene happened to you in real life. Can you talk about that?

SONG: I really just found myself sitting in this bar in East Village, it’s a bar called Please Don’t Tell, but the place that we ended up shooting the scene — mostly because there’s no room for cameras in Please Don’t Tell — is a bar called Holiday Cocktail Lounge. In that bar, I found myself sitting there with my child sweetheart, who had come to visit me from Korea, who is now a friend, and my husband that I live with in New York City. I was translating between these two people in language and culture, but then at one point, I realized that I was translating between two parts of my own self and history and my whole story. I think in that way, I realized I’m not just having a drink with an old friend and my husband, but actually I’m having a drink with my past, the present, and the future all in the same room.


I think that felt so strange to me, and extraordinary to me, and I’m still an ordinary person while having this completely wild feeling, that it really stuck with me for a long time before I decided that maybe I should try to express that and turn it into a script. I think that’s what I meant when I said, I wanted to ask the audience the question, “Have you felt this way before?” And I think that when the audience responds with, “Yeah, I have felt that way before. Maybe I’m not a fully bilingual Korean-Canadian-American woman, whose story spans the Pacific Ocean over 24 years, but I still have felt a version of it before.” When I showed the movie in Ireland, they were like, “Well, I understand it because I moved from Glasgow to Dublin.” There are little ways that you leave a piece of yourself behind no matter where you go. So I feel like the audience responding to my question, “Have you felt this way before,” with, “Yes, I have,” I know that it’s been making you feel less lonely. I know releasing this film and sharing the film has been just a journey of feeling less alone.


I’m so curious, what did your childhood sweetheart think of the film?

SONG: I don’t think he has seen it yet because it hasn’t come out in Korea yet. It’s coming out later this month.

[Laughs] So I’m fascinated by the editing process because it’s where it all comes together, so what did you learn from friends and family screenings or like a test screening that impacted the finished film, if anything?

SONG: This is how I am as a writer, as well, I feel like usually the film that I’m sharing at that level is the film that it’s going to be in a way. So, I wasn’t really showing it in a test screening or anything like that. Of course, the studio, A24, was behind this, which is that when we were showing it, we’re not showing it so that we can feel informed by it and then change the movie. It was very much about, like, “Well, who understands this movie? Who’s going to receive this movie?” So, there wasn’t a huge change from sharing it in that way.


But the editing process is amazing, totally rigorous. Like, it made me a better writer. Definitely, definitely. There’s nothing like it, there’s nothing like editing a film, because you see the movie come together and then you start to see things that don’t fit, and you’re heartbroken because you loved it, right? There’s so many things that I’m just like, “I love that scene. It’s got to go. It’s dead to me. No one will ever see it. It’s a great scene. Get rid of it!” [Laughs] I don’t know, it feels very hardcore.

Director Celine Song speaking to Greta Lee as Nora in a field at sunset for Past Lives
Image via A24

You edited this a long time ago, so you might not remember…

SONG: I remember it all. All the heartbreak. All the cuts!

What was the last thing you cut out of the film before you picture locked, and why?


SONG: There was a little bit of a longer piece of the immigration itself, and I think that was the last thing that I ended up cutting.

In the airport?

SONG: In the airport. There was like a whole little bit of it where the family was settling down in Canada a little bit. That part was really heartbreaking to cut because it was during COVID and we had to bring, at the time, unvaccinated Koreans from Korea to New York City, where we’re all masked and fully in COVID protocol, and it was a nightmare for insurance. Everybody was freaking out. But we flew them here so that they could shoot the sequence of them settling down in Canada. So we spent so much of our resources shooting it, and that’s part of the reason why I wanted to hold on to it. Because sometimes, the making of the thing is the thing that makes you feel like, “Yeah, what a waste,” because you’re thinking about all the money that was spent on it, and you’re like, “What a waste! I don’t want to throw it out because it’s such a waste.” But then you have to be like, “But you don’t need all that.”


I could be mistaken, but I believe you used two different crews, one in America and one in Korea, and you shot in New York first. What is it like working with two different crews? How are they similar? How are they different?

SONG: They’re similar in that they are unbelievably resourceful and they taught me everything I know about filmmaking, because it’s my first movie. They’re different in that everything is different, just like the whole filmmaking culture is different. Of course, the language and the culture itself is different, but also the filmmaking culture is dramatically different. So the way that the crew is set up is different. For example, when it comes to the lighting crew, here, of course, everything is a union position, at least in New York City, everything is a union position. But in Korea, you just give the budget for lighting to one person, who’s the gaffer, and he hires everyone and pays everyone based on what he wants to do. So you just give him the whole budget, and he also owns the equipment; you don’t rent it. He owns all the equipment because he runs a company. So that, for example, is really wild to get your head around because sometimes you’re like, “Can we get that equipment?” And they’re like, “No, but we own this other one.” So that part of it was wild.


Permitting is very strange because in New York City, when we were shooting there, we couldn’t move a tripod without the mayor’s office knowing about it. We couldn’t, like, walk across the street to shoot on the other side without the NYPD getting involved and asking for more money. [Laughs] So it’s the kind of a process where the whole city is in on it when it comes to what you’re doing. We couldn’t do anything without the city saying it’s okay. In Korea, it’s still a bit of guerilla filmmaking where we scout a place, and I’ll be like, “Can we shoot here? And they’re like, “Maybe.” [Laughs] We’ll show up on the day with all the trucks and all the people and all the everything and the equipment, and, “Let’s find out.” Then we get there and I’m like, “Well, can we permit?” Because, of course, everybody’s nervous about it, and I’m used to the New York process, so is everybody else because I went with a primarily New York crew. We were all like, “Yeah, but what if, like, cops show up and shut us down?” And they’re like, “They won’t. If they will, we’ll figure it out. We’ll give somebody a call. We’ll figure it out.” So, some of it is that kind of a thing where there’s so much it felt like we couldn’t control.


That’s crazy.

SONG: It’s pretty crazy. [Laughs] It’s pretty amazing. I mean, we would just go to places. Like some of those places, we just showed up with the whole crew and we would just shoot. Of course, sometimes the neighbors, because we don’t have a permit, they would come out and they’d be like, “Are you allowed to shoot here?” And then of course, part of our location manager’s job was to go and talk to that person, and they usually would have a box of ginseng to bring in. He’s like, “Give me one second,” and they’ll go in, they’ll come out, and they’ll be like, “We got it, let’s keep rolling.” So that part of it is so different.

Yeah, that’s not America.


SONG: That is not America, no. Once, we asked somebody in this area in Queens where we’re trying to shoot, we wanted to ask this one house to turn one light on because we just really could use that little source of light, and he was like, “Five grand.” And I’m like, “What?” And they’re like, “Yeah, five grand.” But in Korea, I remember, we were trying to shoot in this little neighborhood, and there were four drunk guys in Seoul who basically just put their chairs up, and they were like, “We’re not moving.” They were in our shot and they were like, “We’re not moving an inch. This is our spot. We’re not moving.” And what happened was that our accountant, she just went up to them and she says, “What if we just moved your chair to a really great view and we bought you a box of soju?” And they said, “Deal.” Meanwhile, my line producer, who was a New York line producer, she was counting cash to be like, “Is $500 gonna be enough?” Because we’re used to the New York way of people saying, like, “You want a light on in our house? Five grand.”


The Bar Scene in ‘Past Lives’ Took Four Months to Write

Hae Sung (Teo Yoo), Nora (Greta Lee), and Arthur (John Magaro) sit at a bar and talk in 'Past Lives'
Image via A24

I’m curious about your writing process with this script. Did you do a deep outline and figure everything out, or did you do any sort of writing just to see where it went?

SONG: I don’t outline but I’m a pretty structure-forward person. Basically, the process of writing it was, I’m a big procrastinator, as well, so I spent four months just basically not writing it. For four months or so, I think that I was working on, like, six pages or something, which was the scene in the bar at the end. So I was just working on little piece of dialogue for that. I did everything but actually try to write it. I was just working on those six pages for four months. Then one day I just realized that the whole film should begin in that bar as the first scene, and then Nora should turn to the camera and break the fourth wall, and then we should jump back to 24 years earlier and start from childhood, and time will move linearly until we land in that scene in the bar. And by then, the audience is going to realize that the question that was posed in that first scene — which is, who are these three people to each other? — they’re going to be able to answer the question when we’re back in that scene, because they’ve heard the story of who they are to each other.


I think that once I figured that out, then I could write it in a month. I mean, it’s a wild month. I usually call it my demonic state where I don’t eat, I don’t sleep, I’m just crazy looking at the thing. But it is a month. It takes a month from once I figured out the structure, and then I feel like the rest of it is just driving towards that scene. Then at some point, in the driving towards that scene at the end, I realized that there’s another scene at the end after that. I think that that really was the process of writing the whole thing.

‘Past Lives’ Can Be Broken Down Into Three Goodbyes

Greta Lee, Teo Yoo, and John Magaro in Past Lives
Image via A24


I’m so curious about that ending scene, because one of the things about that is it’s one of the few times, if I remember correctly, you have a moving camera. Since we can do spoilers, talk a little bit about that sequence, because you’re having the camera go with them to the Uber and then you’re having the camera come back. I think you’ve said in the past, it’s like she is going from the past to the future as she’s walking back to the walk-up. Talk a little bit about why you wanted the moving camera and what the moving camera signifies.

SONG: It all came from this one question that my DP asked me, because we found the street in this village, which was a very difficult thing to find. My location manager and my DP, they walked around East Village looking for the street, because the part of the reason why it’s so hard to find the street is because it has to be both completely ordinary but totally beautiful and amazing in the whole film. It is that magical thing where it’s like, it has to be so average looking, yet so beautiful, which is really in the eye of the beholder, right? So it was a subjective search, and we found this street, and my DP and my location manager showed me this street, and I’m like, “We found the street. We got it.” And the first question that my DP asked me, and it was a practical question because we were about to lay 150 feet of track to get that shot, was, “Which direction is she walking?” And I think that this really unlocked the language of the whole film, which I realized that, of course, it has to be treated like it’s a timeline. Nora should walk to the Uber from the present towards the past, wait for two minutes, and just dwell in those two minutes with Hae Sung. Then, when the Uber comes, of course the Uber is going to come and then drive him away into the past, and then Nora is going to dwell in that moment for one second.


And by the way, this was a movie miracle, but there was a little piece of wind that came — we didn’t have a wind machine. I was like, “I can’t believe we didn’t think of a wind machine!” But thankfully, the wind showed up and the wind started to blow her towards the past, right? Then she turns around and she starts pushing her way towards the present and the future, and at the end of it is her home. And then of course, the very last shot of the whole thing is Hae Sung being driven away to the airport, and the direction of that drive has to also be from past to the present and the future, right?

Part of the reason why the scene is here and the reason why it feels this way is because this movie is in three goodbyes, and the first two are failures, right? Because the first time they say goodbye, they’re 12 and they’re too young to do this properly. They don’t actually know the weight of their goodbye in a way that I think that when we’re 12 we don’t know what it’s like to say goodbye, because we’re too young to know. Then I think that when they reconnect in their twenties, something that happens is that, again, they are not able to say goodbye properly because they actually hurt each other by saying goodbye. There’s actually such a possibility for them to maybe be lovers, but it just never actually happens because of the distance — the Pacific Ocean being the villain. So then you get there, and when they say goodbye, they don’t do a great job because they hurt each other in a way that only we do in our youth. They actually think that they’re gonna have another shot, so they’re like, “Well, maybe we’ll talk later. Maybe we’ll figure this out later.” And then of course, 12 years after that, when we get the final goodbye, that’s the goodbye that works because that’s the goodbye where it is a proper goodbye.


The goodbye is that, you know, Hae Sung flew 14 hours to be here so that he can confirm that this little 12-year-old girl is no longer here, right? That’s what he came here to confirm, because he was a 12-year-old boy still hung up on that 12-year-old girl on some level. So I think that he flew all the way so that they could get a proper goodbye. So, when they say goodbye in front of the Uber, and there’s a flashback and we go back to the two of them in childhood about to say goodbye and go their separate ways, the lighting of that scene, it’s lit in the dark. The reason why it’s lit in the dark, which is the same time as when they’re saying goodbye as adults and not the same time as when they say goodbye as children, is because it’s meant to imply that those kids have been waiting to get their goodbye for 24 years in that corner, and only after 24 years in the dark are they then able to let go of each other and say goodbye.


A glimpse into the past in Past Lives
Image via A24

So because of that, the reason why she’s crying on her way home is actually because she is finally getting to say goodbye to a 12-year-old girl that she left behind. She never got to go home crying as a 12-year-old, so she’s going home as a 12-year-old girl for the first time in her life. I think that’s the gift that Hae Sung gave her. Without Hae Sung coming to visit her, I don’t think that she would have known that she needed to say goodbye to her 12-year-old self. So, what an amazing gift for her. And Hae Sung, he gets to close a chapter of his life so that he can sort of move forward himself, right? He gets to say goodbye. He gets to have closure. So what a gift that he has given to himself, his 12-year-old boy self, as well as his adult self. Of course, Arthur gets a gift, as well, because Arthur, as we know, wants to know his wife and wants to understand her better. All he wants is to know his wife better, which is part of the reason why he’s learning Korean. So what an amazing, happy ending it is for him that he gets to meet his wife as a 12-year-old girl. So when he sees her, and we know that he doesn’t know her as a crybaby because of what they talk about in the kitchen, the ending of his story is that he gets to meet her as that. So there is a way in which these two men are able to understand her better because of this trip. So, I think that’s really the ending for me.


I really want to thank you for that answer. That was fantastic. Sometimes directors don’t wanna be that specific with their explanation, but I appreciate your pulling the curtain back and sharing.

Why ‘Past Lives’ Isn’t a Traditional Love Triangle Story

Greta Lee and Teo Yoo on a train
Image via A24

One of the things I think that everyone responds to in this script, and one of the things that really moved me, is that there are no villains in this. We’ve seen the version where the guys are fighting over the girl, and this is a very realistic portrayal. Can you sort of talk about that aspect? You’ve mentioned it’s the ocean and time, but that there is no villain.


SONG: Well, I think it is very easy for this movie to become something where you’re starting to take sides, but what was really important to me is that in life, it’s so rare that you’re actually able to take sides, especially when everybody is behaving like adults, right? I just knew that there could be drama. The drama that I was pursuing in the film is for these three people to treat each other like adults and to do their very best to not hurt each other. The truth is that — we were talking about the two-men-fighting-over-the-girl story — I can only depict masculinity in a way that I love, and then in the way that I understand it, in the way that I actually believe is the masculinity and the men I love. The truth is that we talk about masculinity, and often the masculinity is about, “She’s mine! Go over here. Get over here. Don’t touch her…” right? But I think the truth is that the masculinity that I love, that I respect, and that I think is just so moving is very much about, “Well, I have vulnerabilities, and I am afraid, and I have jealousy. I have all these insecurities and everything, but I’m actually going to set those things aside because I just care about you too much for me to let that be the thing that runs the room.” There’s something so moving about that that I really love.


I think that the truth is that Hae Sung and Arthur, when it’s just the two of them in the bar, the two of them, they’re having that conversation, and they say to each other, “We are in-yun,” the song that’s playing there is John Cale’s “You Know More Than I Know,” and that really is what’s happening in that scene. These two men are recognizing in that scene that they each hold the key to Nora that the other guy doesn’t have. In another movie, they would resent the other guy, they would fight over the keys, or they’d be like, “How dare you have a key to her that I don’t have,” or whatever. But the truth is that these two men, what they’re able to do — and to me, this is the manliest thing possible — is that these two men are able to then look at each other and say, “Actually, if you were not here, she would not be unlocked in full. She would not be a full person if you were not here. So in fact, you need to be here and I need to be here, and together I know that she can be loved completely. She can be understood and loved completely.” And because they’re able to do that for each other, that’s how they’re able to have the ending that they get, which is that Arthur walks away with a deeper understanding of Nora and deeper love for Nora, Hae Sung walks away with a deeper understanding and a deeper love for Nora, and Nora gets to feel loved and be loved in a way that is so full and complete. I think that’s part of the gift that they’re able to give each other, and that’s really at the heart of this particular drama.


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I read that your two male actors did not meet at all until they were on set together for the first scene.

SONG: Oh yeah. That scene where they meet each other at the apartment, that’s the first time that those two actors met each other. It took a lot of work from the AD department to make this happen, because of course, they have to figure out the logistics around, like, the hair makeup truck so they’re not sitting with each other. So they didn’t meet each other until that scene. Another thing that I did that was a little bit sick, probably, is I asked Greta Lee, who plays Nora, to tell the guy that she’s having the rehearsal with what the other guy is like, so that you can start to form the idea of what the other guy is like without actually having met that person. The truth is that that’s what this whole film is about at it’s heart. It’s about the way that we hold on to things that we know about the person, even though maybe the person has outgrown it, too. So it’s kind of about the illusion that we have about a person that we don’t know, that we see then completely collapse, and then the truth comes out about who the other person is, and the truth of that person is more beautiful than the illusion always, right?


So, when the two men met for the first time, we were rolling, and the first take was so good that it’s in the movie. The take you see, that’s the first take. So you’re seeing the actors actually take each other in for real, because everything they heard about each other, everything they’ve been feeling around it, it all goes away when they have to face each other and they have to say hello to each other in the other person’s language. Like John Magaro, his Korean in the film isn’t very good. It’s bad Korean. Teo Yoo is actually able to speak great English, but he put on poor English for the scene. And I remember John asking me, he was like, “I could get better in Korean. I know it’s bad. I’ll make it better.” And I was like, “No! You should be terrible.” Because the truth is, it’s not a movie about a guy who’s fluent in Korean. It’s a movie about a guy who is trying, who’s bad at it but is trying. So, when Hae Sung and Arthur see each other for the first time, and of course, the actors see each other for the first time, what they do is they say hello in the language that they don’t speak. Arthur says hello in Korean and then Hae Sung responds back hello in English. And I think that that’s where, really, the movie lives. It is about the way that we are mysteries to each other, but also it’s also the way that we can take care of each other in the truth of it, too.


Did you watch any films during the screenwriting process or before shooting that you used as inspiration in terms of the way you wanted it to look or for inspiration? I don’t know if this is the case or not, but for me, I really felt like — and maybe I’m reaching here and you might shut me down — there was [Richard] Linklater-esque influence. I saw, I felt, a little Before Sunrise, but maybe that’s just me digging in.

SONG: No, I think that those movies live on the conversation, and so does Past Lives. It lives on the conversation that two people are just having. So I think in that way, I think definitely it was a reference, but I think that when it comes to the making of the thing, the reference was Louis Malle’s My Dinner with Andre. I asked everybody to watch that so that we could figure out how to do the bar scene. What I really loved about My Dinner with Andre as a language reference for the camera language, the editing language, performance language is that what that movie does that’s so amazing is that you’re just listening to the conversation and you just don’t realize what’s going on, but then you just realize that you’re in the middle of an ocean, and you’re suddenly like, “When did we get so deep in here? What happened? Why am I sinking?” But when the conversation began, it was in shallow waters, and I think that it just happens in this way that is so effortless that I think that’s really a part of it.


Hae Sung says that line, “I didn’t think that liking your husband would hurt this much.” That’s a line that, of course, sinks the whole conversation into the depths that this is going to go. That’s the first line of where they’re going to go, which is this conversation about past lives. So, it’s easy for that scene to be like, [says dramatically] “I didn’t think…” and then the camera is, like, right there. So I think that that was something that I, of course, wanted to fight because I think that the way that deep conversations like that go in our lives is that sometimes just, like, something gets said, and then you’re just like, “Oh shit, we’re in the deep end now.” And I don’t think that there is music coming on and a close-up and all of that for us to plunge into those parts of the conversation. So, I think that that’s something that I really pulled from that movie.


How Writing for ‘Wheel of Time’ Influenced Celine Song on ‘Past Lives’

From left to right: Perrin, Egwene, Lan, Moiraine, Nynaeve, Rand, and Mat
Image via Amazon

I read that you worked on the first season of Wheel of Time as a staff writer. What did you learn on that series that maybe helped you as a writer that you didn’t know before?

SONG: I think just truly leadership. When it comes to our showrunner, Rafe Judkins, he taught me so much about what leadership is. What you realize is being sweet and wonderful and really fun to be around and all of that is a wonderful thing, but that’s actually not what makes a good leader. You can have all of those things and still not be a great leader. Actually, what makes you a great leader is taking responsibility. What I mean by that is just truly always making sure that the responsibility of this movie being good be on you, always, every moment of it. It does this thing where it can take the pressure off of every single person and everybody can start doing their work without fear, right? So, because I am able to then go to my crew and say, like, “I need help and I want you to give me every idea you have. I promise you, if your idea is bad or if your idea fails us, you’re not going to take the blame for that. You’re not going to take the fall for that because I’m going to make a decision about which one of those ideas we’re going to do, and it’s going to be my call, and you are going to have no responsibility when it comes to this movie being great. I promise.” When you’re able to say that, then, of course, everybody on set, including cast, including crew, everyone is able to operate without fear, because then they can actually be opened up creatively.


Usually, I would say they could give me 10 bad ideas, but they always gave me, like, nine great ones and one bad one, you know what I mean? Like, the batting average would be amazing. But all they needed to do is to trust that I’m not going to make it their responsibility, and I’m going to take the responsibility of all the failures because, by the way, now that there are all these successes for the film, I get to take advantage. I get to take credit for all these successes of this collective work we did, right? So given that, I think when we are failing, I should also take responsibility for that, too. That only seems fair to me.

100%. Speaking of, you’re making another film, I believe, this year. For people that don’t realize, you might have scored a few actors that people have heard of for your next film? Can you tease people what your next project is and who you lined up?


SONG: No. [Laughs] What we’re going to do is I’m going to make the movie — because this is the thing, I’ve talked about this particular thing before, but it’s so hard to talk about anything until it’s actually been made. I’ve made this joke before, which is that, my line producer, after I finished the director’s cut, asked me, “Fuck, marry, kill: prep, production, post-production.” And I said, “Okay, easiest answer, I would fuck production because it is so fun.” The highs are high, the lows are low, it’s dynamic, there’s so much energy. Hundreds of people are, like, gathering and we’re just like, “We gotta get it done today!” There’s something urgent — I would definitely fuck production.

I would marry post, because post is about partnership and it’s about building on something. Every day it gets a little better. Sometimes you’re annoyed, but you get through it. It’s like there’s something really beautiful about post, where I’m like, “Well, I could be in post forever if I needed to. It’s okay. I’ll do it forever.” And I think that that’s really the truth about my relationship to post, is like, I feel at home and it very feels safe, and I could be in it forever.


And I would kill prep. The reason why I would kill prep is because you feel like a snake oil salesman, right? Because every day you’re just showing up to your production office and being like, “Yeah, let’s spend $400,000 on that location because it’s going to be beautiful.” I don’t know if it’s going to be beautiful. How would I? What would I know? I hope it’s beautiful. But you have to make these wild, binary decisions about the fate of the movie and how we’re going to spend the money that we have just based on a hope and a dream, or like a vision. [Laughs] So it’s really scary, and I think it was especially scary because it’s my very first film, so I don’t have experience to rely on to know if something that I wanted is gonna work. So anyway, all this is a way of saying it’s so early and we’re not even in prep. We’re so early that to talk to you about, it’s too much.


Greta Lee and John Magaro in Past Lives
Image via A24

I won’t pressure you on that. I will ask, though, what did you learn? Because making your first film, you learned everything in terms of locations, in terms of what you could do with maybe unions in New York, whether or not to use a crane? I mean, the list goes on and on and on. So what did you really learn making the first that you’re gonna apply to your second film?

SONG: Well, I think that you’ve said it, which is that it is the whole thing. But something that I really felt is that, the list of things that I knew when I started making the movie was super short. It was just story, character, actors, blocking — I think those are the four things that I’ll put on the list of things that I knew. Then, the list of things that I didn’t know — endless. Everything, right? Like everything from how do you read the call sheet to, like, how some of these permits work. Everything. Like how long it takes for hair and makeup, I had no idea about anything. So the list of things that I didn’t know is super long, and then the list of things that I know is, like, story, character — nothing. Like, what I know from being a writer. I think that every day, the list of things that I don’t know would shrink and the list of things that I do know would grow. And to me, that is the most enlightening experience ever to just watch the things that I know grow infinitely about filmmaking.


I feel like a couple of weeks into shooting Past Lives, I came home to my husband and I said, “I think I met the love of my life. I think it’s filmmaking, and I want to do this until I fucking die.” I really feel that way. It was a revelation to me, and it was a discovery to me because I didn’t know that I could feel this way about something. I felt so completely devotional. I felt a devotion for it, for making this movie. And then I was like, “Oh man, I’m going to do this shit forever, aren’t I?” I could just feel it in a way that just felt, I don’t know, I felt remade or something as an artist.

Past Lives is available to stream on Apple TV+.

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