Past Lives : Exclusive Interview with Director Celine Song How She Turned Her Personal Story Into an Inspirational Film

Past Lives : Exclusive Interview with Director Celine Song How She Turned Her Personal Story Into an Inspirational Film
@Greta Lee Credit: Courtesy of A24

Synopsis : Nora and Hae Sung, two deeply connected childhood friends, are wrest apart after Nora’s family emigrates from South Korea. Two decades later, they are reunited in New York for one fateful week as they confront notions of destiny, love, and the choices that make a life, in this heartrending modern romance.

Rating: PG-13 (Some Strong Language)

Genre: Romance, Drama

Original Language: English

Director: Celine Song

Producer: David Hinojosa, Christine Vachon, Pamela koffler

Writer: Celine Song

Release Date (Theaters): Jun 2, 2023 Limited

Runtime: 1h 46m

Distributor: A24

Production Co: Killer Films, CJ ENM Co.

@Greta Lee, Teo YooCredit: Jon Pack

Exclusive Interview with Director Celine Song 

Q: What was the genesis of this story — it was said that it came about through an experience in a restaurant or diner?

CS: I was in a bar sitting between my childhood sweetheart and my American husband and found myself translating between them — through that, I was traversing between two worlds in a way. That inspired me so much that I could feel something special was happening with us. That really led to me thinking that maybe this could be a movie I wanted to make.

Q: You introduced people in the US to the Korean concept of “inyeon”(The ties between two people over the course of their lives). What made you decide to incorporate that in the film?

CS: The concept of inyoun is a common idea in Eastern philosophy. I’m sure there’s a word for it in Japanese. I know that there certainly is a word for that in China or India. It’s not exclusively a Korean concept. It is a word that we talk about to describe when somebody just walks into your life or you have encounters where it seems like it’s such a small thing, a really minor thing, but there is a kind of a weight to it.

Everybody you encounter in the world can be an inyoun. Even somebody who brings you a cup of water or just says hello to you in the street. Even a stranger could be an inyoun for you. The reason why I wanted it to be a part of the movie is because I knew that Hae Sung and Nora are not exes, right? They’re not like lovers or really anything. It’s really hard to describe who they are because not all connections in our life are so clear — much of it is ineffable or just hard to find a word for it.

I knew that I needed to introduce the word inyoun because that’s the best way to describe who they are to each other. You could say they’re childhood friends, but I think that at the end of the day, it’s more than that because they’re not just childhood friends, they’ve connected over two decades, right? It’s clearly a connection that endures through time and space. In doing that, they’re really inyoun for each other. That was the only word that I could think of which described who they are.

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I knew that we needed to introduce the concept to the American audience in this.

@Seung Ah Moon, Seung Min YimCredit: Jin Young Kim

Q: Greta, the lead actress, initially turned down your script. After that, you approached her again — what was the experience of approaching her again? And what was the difference from the previous script?

CS: I was really stuck on finding the right actors of a certain age range where they are in their 20s or early 30s — something like that. I thought that because this event at the bar sitting between my childhood sweetheart and my husband happened when I was 29 years old and when you’re 29 you think that being 29 is really interesting and special. I thought that the actors and the characters had to be 29. And Greta is a little bit older.

So I didn’t think that she would be right for the role because I felt she was older. Then I became 30 and then 31, and once I started being into my 30s, I realized that it doesn’t matter that the character is 29. What’s important is that she’s the right actor for the role. I think that when I went back to Greta I was like, I think it doesn’t matter how old you are, I think that if you’re right for the role that’s all that matters.

Q: Talk about how you assembled these actors? What conversations did you have with Greta, Teo and John, prior to shooting? What did you talk about during the Zoom meetings?

CS: I cast them all over Zoom because this was during COVID. I had to do it like that. That sometimes made it difficult to know the chemistry or that kind of thing. Ultimately, it was helpful in various ways because the movie is about so many extraordinary hellos and a lot of extraordinary goodbyes. It was great that Hae and Nora or Teo and Greta got to know each other through Zoom because that’s how the characters in the movie first encounter each other again since childhood.

We tried to make it align with what we hoped were aligning with the story of the movie. The process has to reflect the storytelling. In that way, we tried to make the best of that, even though, of course, that was a limitation. When Nora and Hae Sung — the characters — and when the actors Greta and Teo met in person for the first time, they weren’t allowed to touch each other because I wanted to capture the moment when a person becomes physical with someone else. Until that scene where they see each other for the first time in Madison Square Park, they weren’t allowed to touch each other until we started shooting that scene.

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@John Magaro, Greta Lee Credit: Jon Pack

Q: Though you worked in theater production in the past, this is your first feature film. What was the challenge that you faced which is different from that experience?

CS: Coming from theater, there are some things that you can control because the theater itself is a closed space. It’s an abstract space, but it’s a space where every day it’s the same room that you go in and you do the show over and over again. That’s the idea. In directing a movie, I realized that sometimes the place you’re shooting the movie isn’t under your control. Sometimes it will be raining, it will be inconvenient, and sometimes the sun will be setting so you won’t have any light.

I can’t control the world, the weather or something like that, those are things that really meant it for me. It changed the way I think about how to make something which is letting go of some control. On the other hand, I knew I had more control when it came to editing. With the post-production part, I had more control than I do in theater. In theater, it’s a live performance, the actors have to do it over and over again. I don’t have a lot of control over that. But in doing a film, I felt like I had so much control which I loved.

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Q: John Magaro married a Korean American woman in real life. How much of his experience was brought to the table? Did he do any improv not in the script? Did you allow him to do anything from his previous experience which was added to your script?

CS: The script was a script from the beginning and the actors weren’t asked to contribute. They were asked to come to the script and not do anything else. I realize that’s how I work. The script didn’t change because of John, but I think that he connected to the role that he saw on the page because of his experience being married to a Korean-American woman.

Of course, I didn’t even know that he was married to a Korean-American woman until I cast him. Then he told me, “Oh, that’s why I’m so passionate about being able to play this role.” It really had more to do with how passionate he was about playing Arthur and how hard he worked to play the character. His personal story didn’t affect the script.

Q: Talk about the reception at Sundance because this was one of the favorite films at the festival.

CS: Before the Sundance premiere, this movie was a secret that I shared with my cast and crew. Everybody who worked on the movie and I had a secret, which was this film. I felt it was like revealing the secret to a room full of people in the world. I was just so happy to be able to share this thing that I’ve been holding onto. It was a really exciting thing to learn that people were connecting to it, enjoyed it and wanted to watch it and watch it again. I think that that’s the kind of feeling, that’s the kind of thing that is the best part and you can’t expect that. But, when it happens, it’s just amazing and joyous.

@Celine Song, Greta LeeCredit: Jon Pack

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Here’s the trailer of the film.

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