HomeInterviewsPast Lives : Press Conference with Director Celine Song, Actor Greta Lee

Past Lives : Press Conference with Director Celine Song, Actor Greta Lee

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):   Wide

Release Date (Streaming): 

Box Office (Gross USA): $9.9M


Distributor: A24

Production Co: The Searchers NV, Killer Films, 2AM, A24, CJ ENM Co.

Past Lives, Greta and Teo


Press Conference with Director Celine Song, Actor Greta Lee


Q : How did you transform your personal experience into a story that could be shared with others?

Celine Song – What happened to me personally was sitting in this bar in New York City, between my childhood sweetheart, who came to visit me, and my husband. Basically everything started from there. When it comes to the actual feelings and their complexity, everything of course started from this very subjective place. The feelings I experienced in this bar, as well as that I felt towards these two people who were and are a part of my history, were completely different. And they don’t really know the other person’s key to the part of my identity or selfhood that I think it can only exist in both of those worlds.

The process involved transforming that subjectivity into an objective script, from there, into a film. I wasn’t asking Greta to recreate my feelings or something that I experienced, I wanted her to create Nora, so we could find each other. I think that what started out as such a personal thing over time, became a project that had a greater focus on the experience of being a person who traverses vast amounts of time and space.

I love the fact that this thing which was really personal and autobiographical, became in some way really personal and autobiographical for audiences as well. I think all of our lives are made of moving  through many different places. You can move through spaces, but also you can move through time: you’re never gonna be 16 again, right? So there is a part of the story where all of us can feel connected: this feeling like you are many different people for many different relationships, many different connections. To me it is what’s really exciting about life.

Q : What was your reaction to the script when you first read it? Were you able to separate the character from the director’s personal experience?

Greta Lee – I first came into contact with Celine’s movie through the script that was sent to me by my agents. It was fairly traditional. It was very out of the blue, actually. I think the subject line just said something like, “Korean, do you speak it?” and at that point, I wasn’t sure I wanted to shoot a movie in Korean. I didn’t know Celine, I just started to read and I really felt immediately clear that it was something I’d never read before.

Even though I have a different experience as an immigrant than Celine and Nora, I still felt the same feeling that Celine just described. I’m Korean American, I was born in Los Angeles. But reading the screenplay was such a visceral experience, it felt so undeniable, it felt electric, and it felt terrifying, the same feeling that now we’re sharing with audiences. People who are not even immigrants, people from all over the world who are telling us: “I know this feeling.” So it wasn’t a matter of trying to recreate or impersonate Celine, I always felt some kind of automatic and immediate trust from her. I don’t take that for granted. Being able to collaborate with her so precisely and distinctly in order to create Nora, it’s been the opportunity of a lifetime, for sure.

Q : What aspect of Greta made you believe she was the appropriate person to play Nora?

Celine Song – I developed such a deep relationship with Greta after we started working together that I can only describe it as the feeling of falling in love. Just like falling in love,  when you meet that person, there was just the feeling that she was the right person. And I’m a pretty cynical and questioning person, so it was really funny when I just knew immediately that she had the soul of Nora, the soul that I was looking for, that fire at the center of the character.

The first time we met in person I remember we talked for like two hours, basically just so that I could confirm over and over and over again my instinct was correct.  At that point Greta wasn’t fighting to have the part, I was the one fighting to confirm it, because I really wanted her to be Nora. She was going to transform a lot in order to span the decades. I believed in her work so fully, it was about her craft and her personal work. All I can say is the second she just walked in, I knew she was right for Nora’s role.

Past Lives, Greta, Teo and John

Q : What steps did you take to cultivate the fire that Celine mentioned?

Greta Lee – It was all on the page. In this scenario, we all came for the script and then we stayed for the director. There is this sort of assumption that, because of the style of the movie and because of the pacing and the tone and the naturalism and the acting, we were winging it or finding it in the moment. The truth is there has been so much effort and homework. We’ve been so overly meticulous in a way that I’m so grateful for. I need to underline the fact that we had to examine the work of our incredible young actors, Moon Seung-ah and Leem Seung-min, they were absolutely essential in establishing the chemistry that Teo(Yoo) and I were after as adult actors. We really relied on them heavily, watching their gestures and their physicality.

Celine Song – I think that the truth of a movie like this is all going to live on the actor’s face. Because that’s where all the story happens. So all I could do is entrust the actors. And this is what I think is unbelievable, what Greta was able to accomplish, the material that she actually showed up with on set after all the work that we did offset.

Q : Is it possible to think of Past Lives as a film about letting go of your childhood in some way?

Celine Song –  I think that we’re asked to let childhood go all the time, aren’t we? I don’t think it was necessarily something that I was advocating. Adulthood is actually behaving like adults while knowing that there is a kid inside of us. That contradiction is the heart of what the story is, the two characters have to deal with that. That is just a natural part of what is life, what it’s like to be human: there are moments where you know that in different people’s eyes you are a different person.

Q : What was your method for preparing the computer scenes with Teo Yoo as opposed to the scene with John Magaro?

Greta Lee – It was instrumental for the story that Nora had to hold this feeling of being flanked by these two men, feeling like she’s sort of standing at the threshold of two worlds. It is shocking to her to have all these feelings across culture and time and space. I felt that could only happen if I was able to create two distinct worlds with two actors. I was so lucky to have two absolute veterans who brought their full everything to this. It has been a deeply fulfilling and personal experience for all of us.

Teo and I started on Zoom because we live in different countries, much like Nora and Hae Sung: this way we had the chance of building a realistic and deep childhood connection over a short period of time. And then we met in the United States a few weeks before shooting, so we started experiencing being physical beings to each other, like we described in the movie.

On the other hand, John and I had a very different and distinct task, creating a functional and mature marriage, deep and believable.John’s character, Arthur, is not a villain in this: for that to work we needed to show and build real love .Celine was so brilliant in in having the idea to keep the two of them completely separate until the very moment they meet in the film: I felt physically different with both of them. For so many reasons, not to mention language, your body has to physically transform in order to speak each language.

Celine Song – For the scenes at the computer we built two sets and we connected them with the cable, then we put a throttle on it, so that the video would be crappy, like it was 12 or 13 years ago. Greta and Teo had to do these really emotional scenes over the screen. I felt that was going to be helpful for them to actually deal with the technology. They were able to feel alive and do the performance that they needed against the frustration of technology. It really helped their performance.

Past Lives, Greta and Celine

Q : What led you to create Arthur, Nora’s husband, such an important role?

Celine Song –  From the very beginning we decided together with John Magaro, who is an incredible actor, that Arthur being a fictional character, through the filmic language he had to be more articulate than a real person.  He had to be deeply connected with himself and with his relationship with Nora. We talked a lot with John about how to shape his personality, express his understanding of the situation. Then I let him free to put all of this in his acting, and he accomplished exactly what I was looking for in the character. A superb work.

Q : How do you feel about the way Past Lives is resonating with different audiences all over the world?

Celine Song – It’s a universal experience to see this particular movie because they all laugh and cry the same things. If I think that everything really started from this one feeling that I had in this bar, it just makes me feel less lonely. It just makes me feel like the feeling that I had at that time is not just for me. Past Lives talks about who you are in your life and where you are in your life. It is such a personal experience that you’re actually going to respond to the story as who you are and where you are.

Greta Lee – I was so moved when  a young woman said to me: “I’ve never been in love before and seeing your movie makes me so filled with hope and excited for life”. I didn’t expect that kind of response.

Q : Why did you decide to end the movie in that way?

Celine Song – On one side, we have Nora walking towards her present and her future. She walks Hae Sung to the Uber, a scene meant to look like a timeline where she is very much walking him to a place in the past. And then once the Haesung’s car drives away, away into the past, she’s going to turn around and starts walking towards her present and the future. So I knew that Hae Sung also deserves to walk towards his future. And he gets to drive away into that.

Q : Have you ever considered a different ending for Past Lives?

Celine Song – No. It was always, to me, the way that these connections sort of exist throughout life. I fully believe that there’s no connection that is better or worse, more important or less important. I think every connection has its own place in a person’s life.

Check out more of Adriano’s articles. 

Here’s the trailer of the film. 

Adriano Ercolani
Adriano Ercolani
Adriano Ercolani Profile Italian Film Critic and TV Author living in New York since 2011. Critics Choice Association member. Graduated in History of Cinema in Rome, he works as a freelance correspondent for some of the most important Italian outlets like Hollywood Reporter Italy, Comingsoon.it, Cinefilos.it and Ciak Magazine. He started working as a film critic almost thirty years ago: in his career he attended the most important Film Festivals (Cannes, Venice, Berlin, Toronto, New York Film Festival, Tribeca) and conventions (San Diego Comic-Con, New York Comic-Con, Disney D23). All over the years he has interviewed some of the most important contemporary authors like Michael Mann, Martin Scorsese, Clint Eastwood, Peter Jackson, Alexander Payne, Joel and Ethan Coen, Kathryn Bigelow, Christopher Nolan, Greta Gerwig, Jane Campion). In 2009 he interviewed Christiane Kubrick and Ian Harlan inside Stanley Kubrick’s private office. Other than movies he is fond of American literature and basketball. Los Angeles Lakers fanatic. He lives in New York with his wife and his bossy 3-year -old daughter.


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