Q&A with Celine Song
A creative triple-threat—playwright, screenwriter, director—Celine Song has set herself apart for her graceful studies on the pitfalls of the human condition. Her play Endings—a meditation on the relationship between writing and identity as an immigrant twice-removed from her place-of-birth—had its world premiere at the American Repertory Theater in 2019, leading to her being a finalist for the Susan Smith Blackburn Prize. Her debut film Past Lives also wrestles with borders, stressing the porousness of national identities, romantic relationships, and how one life may inform the next.
Past Lives opens in theaters today.
Q. Central to the film, and accented in its title, is a belief in human connection transcending our lives. What drew you to this idea when you began writing Past Lives?
A. I was interested in ordinary people living ordinary lives, being absolutely heroic in the most mundane way — through love that endures through time and space, love that asks for nothing in return, love that transcends life and death. A connection like that, no matter the nature, can turn anybody into someone extraordinary. It felt like a worthy pursuit to depict something so extraordinary that I saw in people every day, everywhere I looked.
Q. Throughout Past Lives Hae Sung and Nora are seen exchanging lovelorn glances in a series of slow zooms. How did you go about establishing the film’s visual language with cinematographer Shabier Kirchner?
A. The love story of Past Lives wouldn’t be complete without my creative romance with Shabier. The movie is what it is because of the thousands of hours Shabier and I spent talking to each other deeply. And I know that he would want me to also mention the stunning work of Grace Yun (PD) and Katina Danabassis (CD) for creating the profound and detailed worlds from which these images are drawn.
I’m a writer first, so the thing that guided me in finding the visual language of the film was simple: story and character. Does it feel right for the character? Does it tell the story I’m trying to tell? How do we get from A (where the scene begins) to B (where the scene has to go) as simply as possible? This was my first time making a movie, but I knew that everything had to make both poetic and practical sense. The shot had to feel inevitable, like it was the only right way to shoot it. The blocking had to be efficient and rooted in reality. The timing had to be philosophically sound. It was always an instinct. I learned that if I asked these questions, demanded these criteria be fulfilled, and followed my instincts whenever we were making a shot list or setting up the camera, a visual language would start to emerge naturally.
I found that in the pursuit of making this movie in the way I believed in, sometimes the prettier image had to be set aside to better tell the truth of the scene or to get to the heart of the character. Shabier was my creative soulmate in making this film, because he’s fundamentally a storyteller who prioritizes character and story over making good-looking pictures. That’s his temperament and ideology, even though he is one of the world’s most gifted image-makers to stand behind a camera.
With Shabier at my side, Past Lives naturally began to speak in its visual language. At first like a child learning to speak — then fluently and confidently, like a river. At times, it even sang.
Q. Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind is notably name-dropped midway through Past Lives. What were some of your influences making this film?
A. I don’t have a single film that inspired me, but I’ve been influenced by many that have helped solve some difficult filmmaking problems. Here are some that provided great solutions for Past Lives: My Dinner With Andre by Louis Malle, Breaking the Waves by Lars Von Trier, Mirror by Andrei Tarkovsky, and Like Father, Like Son and Distance by Hirokazu Kore-eda.
Q. Where have you found inspiration that people might not necessarily expect?
A. This Volvo ad Shabier found: https://vimeo.com/286782081
Q. What’s the last play that you saw and loved?
A. Prima Facie on Broadway. You should also go see Liza Birkenmeier’s Grief Hotel when it opens June 21st.
Q. Do you have a preferred mode of procrastinating?
A. Playing video games (Fortnite, Valorant, Overwatch) and watching reality TV shows.
Q. Do you have any inklings as to who, or what, you might have been in a past life?
A. When I was a staff writer for the Wheel of Time Season 1, the writers room helmed by the wonderful Rafe Judkins went to Bali together. While we were there, we decided to get our past lives read by a shamaness. She told me that I was an enterprising and tough businesswoman who was the boss to a lot of beautiful talented women dressed in silk, and everyone in my writers room agreed that I was obviously a madame at a brothel.
Q. What image would you like to end this interview with?