Sunlight still washed over Los Angeles on Sunday late afternoon when cinema enthusiasts and aspiring professionals began lining up outside Auburn, a fine dining establishment on the corner of Melrose and Citrus, to partake in a one-of-a-kind session between a filmmaker and her audience—a series of boozy exchanges that had us all drunk on unsentimental inspiration.
The idea first originated as a Twitter musing on February 4, when director Lulu Wang proposed a behind-the-bar Q&A timed for the week of her birthday (February 25) and wondered whether fans and supporters of her culturally relevant and indelibly moving film “The Farewell” would show up. With the evening surpassing estimations of interest and attendance, Wang would later share that the anticipated three-hour timeframe turned into five without bathroom breaks.
Minutes before 6:00pm, the scheduled time for service to start, I arrived with no detailed knowledge of the mechanics beyond the dos and don’ts she posted upon announcing the event.
There were 95 other people in front of me, an exact count I know because of the numbered signing sheet that went around to keep track of the crowd. As number 96, with a couple hundred more people behind me, wait time outside the venue was approximately 90 minutes, with another 45 minutes or so added once inside.
In line, staff handing out wristbands to those over 21 would also explain how the interaction would unfold: one question per drink with the interaction lasting no longer than two minutes. No follow-ups. Underage participants were allowed since organizers implemented three mocktails, non-alcoholic, juice-based blends listed simply as Orange, Green, and Red.
“Did you see the rules on Twitter?” the woman checking us in would ask before letting us know our patience would be further tested even after stepping in. Most of us were undeterred. Nearly everyone confirmed they knew the stipulations of the interaction, after all, it was through “Film Twitter”—a term used to refer to the collection of online voices that write, make, or discuss the art form on the platform—that all of us had found out about this unique gathering.
Wang kindly requested patrons not to inquire about her grandmother (since, as she wrote, it would make her cry), to not pitch a screenplay or hand her a headshot, to refrain from taking photos of the meeting (“Do it for your life, not for the gram,” she added), and to not have “more of a comment than a question,” just standard Q&A etiquette that’s often overlooked.
Occasionally, those who had already gone through the experience would walk by the long queue and reassure us it was worth the extensive wait for great delayed gratification. “I promise you’ll love it,” one excited young woman exclaimed enthusiastically.
Conversations among the expectant attendees ranged from singing the praises of Wang’s movie to confessing they hadn’t seen it yet but wanted to be part of the moment. Others workshopped their potential questions for Wang with heir friend’s feedback. “Is that a dumb question?” someone asked his group. “She probably has answered that a million times,” a stern friend replied.
Understandingly, being face to face with a creator of Wang’s deserved prestige instilled anxiety on some. You only get one chance to “pick her brain,” so you want to take advantage of that unprecedented shot.
Around 7:30pm, I crossed the doors into the space where mixing magic and speedy talks were occurring. Jen Yamato from the Los Angeles Times, a longtime champion of Wang and “The Farewell,” was taking in the scene and tweeting candid tidbits of the action. Having been there since the moviemaker-turned-mixologist-for-a-day poured her first liquid creation, Yamato had overhead many of the chats between Wang and costumers, and confirmed the vast majority were emerging storytellers parched for a drop of encouragement.
Acting as barback and moderator, The Blacklist’s Franklin Leonard kept the rotation moving along, taking some of the orders, handling payment, and even throwing in some information for screenwriters seeking to get their work wider attention. It was a two-for-one deal for most, who’d hear from Wang and Leonard while liquor flowed.
Half an hour later, I finally made it to the final stretch before reaching the talented bartender. Along the wooden bar leading to her, several disposable cameras were placed for guests to snap a selfie or a shot that captured the energy of this singular night out. Though cell phones photos were discouraged, some images, from folks unable to control their need to document, can be found on social media.
Menus of the specialty blends Wang was offering were also scattered throughout: the Spicy Mezcal Margarita, the Black Manhattan, and the Green Banana. At some point, just as I was approaching the finish line, most the sober options were gone, pushing me, and those that came after, to make my Sunday a little more celebratory.
Getting to hear what the person in front of you or behind you while you paid asked was part of the charm. In my case, it was a question regarding how houses embody our memories and also transform with time, and a more traditional query about Wang’s writing process. More than a Q&A, what transpired was closer to a one-on-one masterclass with a director who a year ago had just premiered her sophomore effort at Sundance and now was concocting beverages to order a Golden Globe-nomination and a Spirit Award win later. Cocktails garnished with industry truths and filmmaking advice is what Wang was serving.
Engaging so personally with others yearning to bring their projects to fruition, Wang helped demystify the figure of the unapproachable film director sitting on a mystical pedestal and whose career is always shrouded in secrecy. Rather than setting up a ceremonious situation with an unequal power dynamic, she humbly made drinks for those eager to learn from her no-shortcuts journey. For one night, Wang democratized access to first-time knowledge from someone who’s broken through via sheer diligence.
My turn finally came around 8:20pm. I ordered the Spicy Mezcal Margarita, and as Wang avidly put it together, my final decision on a meaningful inquiry was made. Myself a journalist, who curiously never got to formally sit down with her for film’s release, I stayed on brand and asked about the story behind the story. “In doing press for the ‘The Farewell’ what was the most important thing you wanted to get across during interviews?”
Thoughtfully whilst stirring another glass, Wang spoke about how people in the business don’t acknowledge their privilege and how some successful artists come from a well-positioned lineage that gives them a leg up. For her, moving from Miami to Los Angeles represented a step full of uncertainty that made her parents worry.
With no industry connections, working day jobs to finance her filmmaking aspirations, and a dream to direct an American production almost entirely in Mandarin, she made it. Yet she doesn’t see her accomplishments as exemplary, but as proof that it’s possible for everyone else too. “I wanted people to know I’m not special, anybody can do it,” she told me. After thanking her I moved on to settle my tab. Meanwhile, Wang recommended a movie to the girls behind me, too bad I couldn’t hear what it was.
As I stepped away from the bar, sipping on a drink that lived up to the promised heat, as delicately intense as the whole encounter, it was evident I would savor such hard-earned, intellectual delicacy for the foreseeable future. It’s the longest I’ve ever waited for a single drink, but that’s totally okay. Once the flavors vanished, the generosity of it all truly settled in. Cheers to you, Lulu Wang, who, for a lovely evening, was the most popular bartender in LA.