By Garry Maddox
Greta Lee with John Magaro and Teo Yoo.Credit: A24
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Celine Song’s life changed six months ago. The Korean-Canadian playwright was virtually unknown outside the North American theatre scene until a film she had written and directed – her first – started winning fans at its Sundance debut.
Suddenly, filmgoers were coming up to the 35-year-old after screenings of the achingly beautiful romantic drama Past Lives to talk about it. Its concerns – love, memory, changing cultures, the passing of time – have been stirring up deep emotions.
“It feels like I’m a confidant sometimes,” Song says on Zoom from her New York apartment. “Audience members will come up to me and they’ll talk about what in their lives it felt connected to. You become like a deep friend about this one corner of their life. They’re like, ‘I feel you know me.’ ”
Past Lives tells a semi-autobiographical story about a Korean-Canadian playwright living in New York (Greta Lee) who is visited by her childhood love from Korea (Teo Yoo) while married to an American writer (John Magaro). Its intelligence, quiet sensitivity and moving performances make it one of the year’s best films – widely considered a likely best picture contender at the Oscars.
“I feel like I grew up with my own kind of trust fund”: Celine Song.Credit: Matthew Dunivan
It’s backed, as it happens, by the independent American production and distribution company A24, which had Everything Everywhere All At Once and The Whale win the top six awards at the Oscars this year. The reviews have reinforced the audience response that Song describes as “dreamy, a total dream”.
Variety called Past Lives a “truly special feature debut, a treasure that is at once achingly autobiographical and disarmingly universal”. The Hollywood Reporter described it as “an exceptional movie” with “interludes of soaring romance that will make you catch your breath”. And Deadline Hollywood considered it “an elegant and unexpectedly mesmerising character piece that speaks profoundly to the concept of love in the modern age”.
Song grew up in South Korea until she was 12, when her family – her father is a filmmaker, her mother a graphic design illustrator – emigrated to Canada. She went from Ha Young to Celine, though family memories differ about whether that’s a reference to the classic French film Celine And Julie Go Boating or Canada’s own Celine Dion.
In her early 20s, Song moved to New York to study playwriting at Columbia University and then started a writing career. She was on staff for the Amazon drama series The Wheel Of Time (2021), but her work has largely been for theatre, including the play Endlings (2021). It counterpointed the story of three older Korean women who make their living diving to harvest seafood – so-called haenyeos – with a New York writer musing about her Korean-Canadian heritage.
“Some people grew up with trust funds,” Song says. “They’re so lucky. But I feel like I grew up with my own kind of trust fund because my mum understands what it’s like to be a freelance artist. So I have the kind of support that people who don’t have that can’t imagine. Not only a complete understanding and emotional support but also creative support too.”
The moment that inspired Past Lives came when Song, then 29, found herself in a New York bar late one night with her Korean childhood sweetheart on one side and her Jewish-American husband on the other. She is married to Justin Kuritzkes, writer of Luca Guadagnino’s coming Zendaya tennis film Challengers.
“It felt like an ordinary evening but also something extraordinary was happening”: Celine Song with Greta Lee on set.Credit: A24
“I found myself translating what can really only be described as a casual conversation where we were trying to get to know each other, like we’re on a date, between these two guys in two different languages,” she says. “They were both making such an effort to get to know each other and I realised it’s because of me.
“I felt like a bridge and a portal and also the host of this amazing event. It felt like such an ordinary evening but also something really extraordinary was happening between the three of us.”
Song jokes that if she had been less lazy, she might have started dramatising the experience in the following days. Instead, she put it in the “maybe” pile of future projects.
”Over time, there are things that fall out of the ‘maybe’ pile and there are things that stick to the ‘maybe’ pile,” she says. “And this, for some reason, kept sticking. I kept thinking about it. I was like, ‘Maybe that’s something, maybe that’s something.’ ”
When she told the story to some friends, Song realised that this night in a bar was a decades-spanning, continent-spanning story that resonated with others. It was the past meeting the present.
“All of them lit up with recognition because they’d been there,” she says. “They had their own stories to tell me and we felt connected and we felt deeper into our friendship because I’d told them the story. That made me go, OK, maybe it is worth pursuing.”
But it still took time for Song to write the script.
“I procrastinated for like months,” she says. “I’m just looking at an empty page and just being like, ‘I don’t know where to start,’ just looking at it and dabbling with things. And then I wrote the very first scene of the film.”
That scene has unseen bar patrons wondering about the woman and two men sitting together across from them. Which one is the Asian woman with? Why aren’t the Asian man and woman speaking much to the white guy? Is he their tour guide?
“You’re introducing the trio in that first scene,” Song says. “Then when we come back to that scene later, the meaning of the scene – the same image – is now different because the audience has lived through [their story].”
Song finished the script in a month: “When I start and I know where I’m going, it’s like an every night, every day, no breaks kind of thing.”
So, why write Past Lives as a film rather than a play?
“It’s a really epic and dramatic thing that’s happening with them but it has to only happen in their faces”: Teo Yoo and Greta Lee in Past Lives.Credit: A24
Song says that decision came down to the way time, space and location can be shown on screen – literally rather than through the audiences’ imaginations on stage – because it’s a story about how decades can change characters’ lives. It was also that the characters had to age.
“We need to see them as children and then as adults, and we need those images to sort of coexist, which is the magic of what you can do in film,” she says.
Song admits she had no idea how to become a filmmaker, but she included notes on how she would want to make Past Lives in her script. “It was almost a pitch document,” she says. “It was a bid to make the movie from the script. And people fell in love with it the way I hoped they would.”
Song never faced the expected response from potential financiers: that they loved the script but thought someone more experienced should direct it.
“I think that’s because of a couple of things,” she says. “I had a bilingual script and I’m bilingual. And how many directors are bilingual with Korean and English? And because it’s such a personal story, they were probably more willing, because they’re like, ‘Well, she’s an expert on this script – and the story – so why not?’ ”
While much of what Song had learnt in theatre applied in filmmaking – “character, story, how to put together a scene, how to block a scene, how to work with actors” – she found directing a revelation.
“I felt like I discovered myself,” she says. “I remember after my first day of shooting feeling like, ‘Oh, my god, I was meant to be doing this.’ It was so spectacular for me. I fell in love with it.”
There is a video online from a Sundance interview that shows Song looking stunned when Lee, sitting beside her, says that Past Lives had been originally cast with two other leading actors.
Song laughs at the memory. “I was just shocked that she wanted to talk about it,” she says. “It was the first time I did press, so I was a little surprised that ‘Oh, we’re going to talk about what’s in the kitchen.’
“But she wanted to talk about the way it came back into her life like fate. She thought that she’d lost it, then it came back. So I completely understood after she started talking about it, but at the time I was a little shocked.”
Asked about the recasting, Song insists her two stars are so amazing she cannot imagine anyone else playing their roles. But, with a little prodding, she admits casting two younger actors originally.
“The event in the bar took place when I was 29,” she says. “When you’re 29, you think that 29 is interesting: ‘I’m almost 30, how cool.’ But by the time I was casting the movie properly, I ended up thinking the actors should be older. You want to feel the impact of time on the actors’ bodies and faces, what they wear and how they are.”
“You want to feel the impact of time on the actors’ bodies and faces.”Credit: A24
Cleverly for a first-time director, Song stopped Lee and Yoo hugging or even touching during rehearsals or shooting, until the scene when they come face to face for the first time as adults in New York.
“It’s a really epic and dramatic thing that’s happening with them, but it has to only happen in their faces,” she says. “It has to only be communicated to the audience through the way they’re standing, the way that they hug, the way their faces are.
“I can’t put a shimmer [effect over the scene] or do fireworks, but what I can do is make it feel like the first time a person who has just been an idea in your head turned into something physical. Someone who was a concept in your mind becomes somebody you can touch and feel, and feel the heat. They benefited so much from that.”
Similarly, Song kept Yoo and Magaro – childhood sweetheart and husband – apart until their characters met for the first time. The first take of their meeting is in the film. And she had Lee rehearse separately with them.
“At the end of rehearsal, I asked her to tell the guy she was rehearsing with what it’s like rehearsing with the other guy,” she says. “She learnt a lot from that because she felt like she had to communicate well with them. And when they see each other for the first time, the conception they had about the other guy collapses.”
Even with all the deep emotion in Past Lives, it’s still a surprise when Song says she originally studied to be a therapist.
“I thought that’s what I was going to do,” she says. “Then I was, nah, I’m gonna be a writer.”
Safe to say that’s now updated to “filmmaker”.
Celine Song will be a guest of Melbourne International Film Festival at screenings of Past Lives from August 5-13. It opens in cinemas on August 31.
Email Garry Maddox at [email protected] and follow him on Twitter at @gmaddox.
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