Filmmakers Talk Building Families for Awards Contenders Like ‘Parasite,’ ‘Marriage Story’

Many of the most memorable movie families don’t rely on looking alike. Intimate family dramas are testaments to the power of great acting, where sensitivity, emotional perceptiveness and imitation create a bond that resembles the real thing. The directors behind some of 2019’s most acclaimed ensemble-driven films used several strategies to create believable family ties.

Bong Joon Ho, whose “Parasite” depicts an unusual symbiotic relationship between a wealthy family and a poor family in contemporary Seoul, says he often works with photos during the casting process. “Because cinema is a visual medium, I thought that the families should give off a family-like air from first glance,” Bong says.

Bong takes photos of possible actors himself, and also tries arranging existing photos into various formations to create two families of four.
“When we look at family photos in real life, we inexplicably get the sense that they truly are one family, and I wanted my actors to give off that kind of feeling,” he says. “In particular, Ki-woo and Ki-jung of the poor family really resemble each other. That was an important factor in casting the two actors. One of the main [promotional] stills for ‘Parasite’ is a photo where the two are crouched down side by side trying to get the wifi signal, and it was intentional to show their resemblance.”

For Noah Baumbach, “casting is intuitive and emotional.” His latest film “Marriage Story” chronicles a grueling divorce between a Brooklyn theater director (Adam Driver) and an actor (Scarlett Johansson) who wants to return to her Los Angeles roots.

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“I don’t think family resemblance matters,” Baumbach says. “When the roles are cast right, you start to imagine physical similarities because you’re responding to something else, the essence of family.”

Baumbach has made several bittersweet and emotionally lacerating films about parents and children, including the semi-autobiographical “Squid and the Whale” and the family portrait “The Meyerowitz Stories.” In developing a familial rapport between a group of actors, Baumbach says, “familiarity is important. A lot of that comes from rehearsal. Family members or couples have language and rhythms that are their own, and they have secret language and shorthand, based on a long history of conversation. You want to get the actors comfortable with the language.”

Marriage Story” toggles between Nicole and Charlie’s perspectives, and also between their once-shared Brooklyn apartment and Nicole’s childhood home in L.A. Baumbach says it was important to rehearse in these spaces, “both of which have history layered into them. That means creating a world for these people and the actors to find familiarity. If you’re shooting an actor in their movie home, you want to have them walk through a door a few times before you shoot it. So you know which way the doorknob turns. You don’t think about it, you just do it. Those little physical things can be important.”

For Lulu Wang, writer-director of “The Farewell,” it was crucial to think about her own family while casting the semi-autobiographical film about a Chinese family’s decision to lie to their beloved matriarch about the fact that she only has a few months to live. Wang knew that this decision, which her own family made in real life, wouldn’t make sense to an audience without the right performances.

“For example, the mom says some pretty harsh things, and the grandma says some things that might be misconstrued as mean, but it’s just part of their personality,” Wang says. “So for those characters, I was looking for certain qualities so that when they say particular lines, you don’t hate them. For the mom’s part, it was about finding someone who came across as sarcastic and witty and intelligent, and for the grandma, somebody who was strong but warm, so that even when she acts really bossy, you know that it comes from a place of love.”

The 76-year-old Chinese actress Zhao Shuzhen has received raves for her performance as Nai Nai, the grandmother. “Zhao Shuzhen herself is a much milder personality; she’s very sweet and shy and giggly, and my grandma is the opposite of that. She was a general in the army, and she has a sternness about her that is both strong and kind of funny for those of us who know and love her.”
In the case of Little Nai Nai, the grandmother’s younger sister, Wang cast her real-life great-aunt Hong Lu. “That character is one of the most complicated ones,” Wang says. “She’s the one who starts the lie. And she is putting on a performance for the rest of the family and her older sister, one that is incredibly joyful and warm and inviting, but it also has to be believable. Because my real little Nai Nai was the one that actually did experience this in real life, I felt she would bring the most empathy to the role, both the lightness and the weight that the character requires.”

Writer-director Trey Edward Shults did something similar with his debut film “Krisha,” casting several members of his own family for a tense micro-budget drama. For his latest, “Waves,” an epic, shape-shifting story about an African-American family in South Florida, the process was rather different.

“The family didn’t even fully meet in person until the night before we started shooting,” Shults says, of a cast that includes Sterling K. Brown and Renée Elise Goldsberry as the parents. “But each member felt like such a good human being that was so talented, that I felt a natural good energy with, that I believed they would line up and it would come together.”

For the lead role of Tyler, a sensitive high school student, Shults knew whom he’d be casting. “Everything started with Kelvin Harrison Jr.,” he says. “He was the lead of my last film [“It Comes at Night”], and we loved each other and wanted to work together again. So it was super-collaborative with him, from the writing on. It started from a place of trust.”

“Waves” concerns itself with the question of whether family is best defined by blood ties or caring relationships; Shults says the theme is inspired by his own experience. “Honestly, I have a similar family dynamic, where my stepfather basically is my father, and I went through the same kind of thing Tyler does, where you say the worst things to the people you love the most. I really wanted to explore that, because I believe in family, and that family doesn’t just have to be blood. But sometimes that is by blood, and you’re linked whether you like that or not, and you have to reckon with those relationships.”

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