Observing a Chinese tradition of not telling elders when they’ve been diagnosed with a fatal disease, Wang’s relatives reunited in China in 2013 to visit with her grandmother after the family learned she had incurable cancer. Her grandmother was kept in the dark, told instead that everyone had traveled to China for a cousin’s wedding.
In “The Farewell,” Awkwafina stars as Billi, a first-generation Chinese American writer based on Wang, who struggles to find the balance between her Western upbringing and her Eastern roots. Wang’s pitch, which included a mostly Chinese-language script, wasn’t immediately embraced by producers and financiers. “It’s what you’d expect,” she tells me. “It was like, ‘What is this film? It’s all Chinese and it’s about a grandmother? How is that high stakes? What does it matter if [you] tell her or not, because she’s 80 and she’s going to die anyway?’”
Naturally, Wang wanted to have direct creative input in the project. “It was a very tough sell especially because I wanted to maintain authenticity in the casting and in the language.”
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At one point, she met with a potential Chinese investor who was excited, but also suggested that the Billi character bring a boyfriend to China with her, a white guy “who can’t even use chopsticks.”
Wang refused to bend: “That was not the movie I wanted to make.”
She cobbled together $3 million to make the film, which premiered at Sundance in February. Indie distributor A24 subsequently bought the rights for more than $6 million.
The film’s release in July was met with glowing reviews from critics and has a 99% rating on Rotten Tomatoes. As of Oct. 24, the domestic box office totals more than $17.6 million.
On top of the critical and financial success, “The Farewell” is a strong awards season player. Wang could very well earn Oscar noms for best picture, director and screenplay. Awkwafina has a strong shot at a lead actress nom. Zhao Shuzhen may earn a supporting nom for her work as the grandmother.
“I actually worry about that stuff,” Wang says about the Oscar buzz. “I have Chinese parents and a Chinese mother whom whenever things are too good, she’s like, ‘Keep your head down and be careful.’ It was always ‘One step at a time and one foot in front of the other.’”
Wang may have just taken one step closer to Oscar gold, gaining more momentum last week when her movie picked up Gotham Award nominations for best feature, actress (Awkwafina) and screenplay (Wang).
Robert Eggers is another writer-director who wouldn’t let commercial pressures get in the way of his vision for “The Lighthouse.” While it may not be a box office hit like “The Farewell,” Eggers’ second feature after his indie breakout “The Witch” could attract Oscar love come nominations time.
“The Lighthouse” is a psychological thriller starring Robert Pattinson and Willem Dafoe as lighthouse keepers in the 19th century who begin to mentally unravel while stationed on a remote New England island hit by a howling winter storm.
The two-hander was shot on 35mm black-and-white film with an early-sound era aspect ratio of 1.19:1.
The film was backed by A24, RT Features and New Regency, but Eggers recalls, “I think everyone was excited by the prospect of collaborating, and then they got the script and the look book, and they were like, ‘Oh, this is what you want to do? Can you shoot it on color digital format or even color negatives so we can have a color version so we can sell it to certain foreign markets that won’t accept black-and-white movies?’”
Like Wang, Eggers wasn’t willing to budge.
“This is how we had to do it,” he says. “And once we had further conversations, they were incredibly supportive and got why it was so important.”
Pattinson remembers Eggers hosting a party about halfway through filming. “They were showing us [footage] and I was watching it and I was like, ‘This does look absolutely crazy,’” the actor says, laughing. “‘This is nothing like I have ever seen before in theaters. Do people even put this in theaters?’”
“The Lighthouse” premiered in May at Cannes, where it won the critics’ award for best first or second features in Directors’ Fortnight and Critics Week. Dafoe could be on his way to earning his third consecutive Oscar nomination for supporting actor following last year’s lead nod for “At Eternity’s Gate” and a supporting nom in 2018 for “The Florida Project.” He is among the Gotham Award nominees for best actor.
While the lead actor category continues to be this year’s most competitive, Pattinson is certainly in the game.
“I think if there was any compromise whatsoever on this, it would have no audience at all,” he says. “You have to take the gamble.”