Director Celine Song on Her Debut Film, “Past Lives”

By Celine Song and Shannon Lee
June 13, 2023

Celine Song’s feature film debut, Past Lives, approaches the classic love triangle story from a refreshingly mature and deeply felt perspective to quietly devastating effect. Played by a sharp-as-ever Greta Lee, the film centers Nora Moon, an ambitious Korean American playwright who moves from Korea to Canada at a young age. In doing so, she leaves behind her childhood sweetheart, Hae Sung, who, as an adult, is played by a disarming Teo Yoo.

After losing touch with one another for 12 years, the two reconnect in the same way many of us did in the early 2000s–via Facebook. An ensuing Skype call prompts a long-distance situationship; while they are never explicitly in a romantic relationship, the commitment to and intimacy of their conversations toe beyond the niceties of a mere friendship. These are two people that know each other.

As time passes however, the two once again drift apart. Real life, away from the screen, pulls them asunder. Another 12 years go by; Hae Sung moves to Beijing and meets someone. Nora goes on a writing retreat and meets Arthur (an affable and charming John Magaro), who she soon marries (for love, but also a green card). We see Hae Sung and Nora in their respective cities (Song does a remarkable job of capturing the lived-in aura of both places), half a world apart from one another. That is, until Hae Sung decides to finally visit Nora in New York after a break up.

Based on events in Song’s own life, the drama and tension of the film lies in the profound melancholy of life moving on and the agony of possibilities. Told from the lens of immigration, these experiences are drawn even closer to the surface; past lives still haunt the present. Since premiering at Sundance this past January, the film has been dubbed the best movie of the year thus far and is already being teed up for Oscar nominations.

Ahead of the film’s nationwide release on June 23, we sat down with Celine Song to discuss the debut, her prior work as a playwright, and why the concept of alternative realities, past lives, and multiverses seems to have particular resonance within AAPI and immigrant storytelling in recent years. Past Lives is currently playing in select theaters in New York and Los Angeles.

Shannon Lee: I have to start out on a personal note. It was so striking to me that your main character’s name is Nora; that’s my mom’s name! It’s a pretty uncommon name for Koreans, even in the English-speaking diaspora. She was named after the Ibsen play (A Doll’s House). Incidentally, it also sounds like the Korean word for surprise (놀라). I was wondering if your naming your protagonist Nora was drawn from similar inspirations, especially since you’re coming from theater.
Celine Song: It was absolutely an Ibsen reference, but not my sole reason for naming her Nora. I usually choose character names because they suit multiple reasons. With Nora, it’s Ibsen but it’s also [the British suffragette], Leonora Cohen. But yes, definitely inspired by Ibsen’s Nora. Thank you for pointing it out! I was like, “No one’s gonna ask about this.” It’s such a specific and very deeply-rooted-in-theater question.
SL: If my mom’s name wasn’t Nora, I would’ve had no reason to ask. Speaking of theater, this is your first film! Could walk me through what the process was like transitioning from theater to the screen? What compelled you to present this story as a film rather than a play?

CS: One of the main reasons why I thought this would be a cinematic story is because it spans decades and continents. That is a big part of the story itself; it’s not incidental. The cities are specific cities and are their own characters. It’s important that Hae Sung is from Seoul while Nora lives in New York. The story also involves a lot of aging and long stretches of time passing.

When I was transitioning from theater to film, something that I learned was that the things I have a ton of skill in in theater translate directly to film. At the end of the day, what theater comes down to is character and story and working through scenes and blocking and working with actors, right? That’s at the heart of making theater and is also the unique job of the director.

In film, what’s great is that you can choose where the camera goes so you actually have more freedom. You can put a camera anywhere but a live audience stays in one place. I really loved that. I also thought post-production was awesome because I already felt like a veteran when it came to editing; as you know, most of writing is really just editing. I’ve done that so much. What’s so fun about working with film is you get to edit the whole thing; you have sound, image, performance…everything!

The parts that were harder were where it was my first time doing something. There were some basic things that I just didn’t know. There was a moment when I went to my assistant director and was like, “Alright. You’re gonna teach me how to read the call sheet.” It’s learning the basic, technical aspects of filmmaking. But those things are actually easier to learn because you’re surrounded by people who’ve done it many times. It’s easy to pick up.

I found the transition to be nothing but wonderful and helpful. The biggest dragon I have to slay every time is my own certainty. Most of the time, I think it will work. But how would I know? I’ve never shot it. I’ve never shot anything before. In prep, for example, I was like, "I think I know…but I’m not sure. I hope it works!” As a director, you have to take all that uncertainty but look at 100 people—who are working with you and relying on you to know—in the face and, with confidence, say, “Yeah, it will work.” Even though in my brain, I’m still like, “Will it work?” A big part of being a director is just being a confidence beacon. I think that was the hardest part but I honestly loved it. I love the challenge of it.

SL: I think great directors understand that and really shoulder that responsibility well. They have that kind of magnanimity. I’m really glad that you brought up the aspect of translating scene work and character building from theater to this film; I read in one of your earlier interviews that you made sure that Teo and John didn’t meet each other until their very first scene together to amplify the feeling of distance between them.
CS: It’s funny because it’s actually the reverse of what happens in theater. In theater, the hardest part is convincing the audience that every night is the first time these events ever happened even though the actors have done it over and over and over again. Every production of Hamlet has to convince the audience it’s the first time Hamlet has ever died. The strength of filmmaking is that we only have to capture it once. Things can stay alive more easily. That’s why I decided to do this little trick of having Teo and John not meet until their first scene together. The ability to truly capture these two people meeting for the first time can only happen once so I thought, “Why don’t we set the timing of that when we’re rolling? In the scene?”
SL: You mentioned that one of the reasons why you chose film for this story was that there are a lot of time jumps. I thought it was really striking that at the center of this film is this core trauma of immigration but you don’t actually see Nora’s early life in Canada, which I thought was refreshing. It strengthens the fact that these are things and feelings that you hold for your entire life in really subtle ways. I know this film is very autobiographical. I was wondering what it was like for you when you first immigrated from Korea and how those experiences informed how you told this story.
CS: Well, I don’t think that the story of either myself or Nora could reflect or speak for every immigrant experience thoroughly. I don’t think that’s possible. I don’t think that anybody’s story can really stand in for everybody else’s story. I’m not really interested in doing that. I think it is very much Nora’s immigration. For me, it was the usual toughness of learning a new language and getting used to the culture. I think that anytime you go through a huge change like that, it’s difficult, but it’s also rewarding. I think I’m stronger for it. In Nora’s case, you see her immigrating multiple times on her own. She’s happy to be immigrating which isn’t the case for everyone. Nora is someone who found immigration rewarding, so much so that she decides to do it again as an adult. She’s twice an immigrant, like me. She wants to pursue her dreams. It’s more about her character than investigating this trauma.
SL: In Hae Sung’s words, Nora is someone who leaves.
CS: Exactly.
SL: I really appreciate that because so much of immigrant and diasporic media is really intensely about trauma. This film beautifully articulates a different sensibility and experience of someone who is fully embracing this part of life, challenges and all, as part of who she is while also addressing the inherent tension and drama that comes from diaspora.
CS: So much of the immigrant experience is dependent on class too. Depending on how much money your family had when you moved often determines the kind of trauma that you maybe went through in immigrating as a kid. Nora’s parents are artists so they’re moving for different reasons. It’s certainly not meant to erase or replace the kind of immigration stories that also exist.
SL: I feel so grateful to be alive at a time when there are all of these different stories being told. Speaking of Nora’s family, her parents are artists who are involved in film. I think I also read that your dad is a filmmaker?
CS: Yes, my dad is a filmmaker and director and my mom is an illustrator and graphic designer.
SL: What kind of films did he direct?
CS: He made a couple of massive films in Korea. They’re very… culturally significant movies.
SL: I loved reading that! My dad was a cinematographer before I was born and he worked in television and media his whole life. I always love hearing about other Korean and Asian Americans who grew up in creative households because it’s not the narrative we often hear.
“Immigrants maybe have a different sense and deeper way of connecting to the idea of alternate realities because within their lives, there was an alternate reality that was quite real.” –Celine Song
CS: It sounds like you and I probably had pretty similar upbringings! I don’t know if it was true of your parents but mine weren’t very strict. They didn’t care at all about me being good at math or science.
SL: Totally; same here. Did your parents have any impact on your career as a playwright or this film?
CS: I think just to the extent of having the benefit of growing up in a creative household.
SL: I also wanted to talk about your live production of The Seagull, which you staged on Sims 4 via Twitch. Our director, Lisa Gold, saw it and absolutely loved it.
CS: It was so fun! Because of COVID-19, we weren’t able to go to live shows or see movies. There was really no access to live work. The only place where I was seeing live performances was on Twitch where people were playing video games. That’s where the inspiration for that production came from.
SL: There’s a real streak of adaptability with your practice. I love that you always seem down to tackle a new challenge when it comes to this medium of storytelling.
CS: Totally. To me, it feels important as I never want to do the same thing twice. It has to, in some way, feel like something that I’m doing for the first time. I think that really guides what kind of project I do.
SL: Final question, while we still have a bit of time left. When I first heard about this film and then finally saw it, I kept thinking about this growing canon of films and media featuring AAPI women and some version of a multiverse. Obviously there’s Everything, Everywhere, All at Once, but also shows like Beef and that episode of Pen15 that follows Maya’s mom. There’s this sense of alternative possibilities that haunt all of these characters; the nagging what-ifs.

CS: I think the multiverse thing is everywhere these days. Even the big franchises are obsessed with the multiverse. I think that has something to do with the internet or the way that we are now able to see the ways that everybody lives. We can see how the rich live, how the poor live, what it’s like to live in almost every country. I don’t think the multiverse is specifically about the AAPI community, although I do think that the theme could have specific resonances with AAPI and immigrant communities. Immigrants maybe have a different sense and deeper way of connecting to the idea of alternate realities because within their lives, there was an alternate reality that was quite real.

I think it also comes from all the ways sci-fi is becoming real; we’re conducting this interview over Zoom! The film touches on that too, with Hae Sung and Nora communicating over different platforms like Facebook and Skype as time passes.

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