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Destiny Comes to You: Celine Song on Past Lives

One of the buzziest titles at this year’s Sundance Film Festival was A24’s “Past Lives,” the directorial debut of playwright Celine Song. Attending a packed screening with a row of Chicago-based critics was a highlight of the festival for me. There wasn't a dry eye in the house when Song’s tender, melancholic, and unusually wise romance faded to black. 

The film stars Teo Yoo as Hae Sung and Greta Lee as Nora, childhood sweethearts who reconnect in New York City 24 years after Nora’s family emigrated from South Korea to Canada, and John Magaro as Arthur, Nora’s husband. 

At the Chicago Critics Film Festival in May, I saw the film for a second time and was further struck by its rich, emotional texture. At a Q&A after the screening, Song described how her life inspired the film’s plot. Like Nora, her family emigrated to Canada when she was 12 years old, and she further emigrated a second time from Canada to New York to attend Columbia University’s M.F.A. program in playwriting. One night she found herself having drinks with her childhood friend and her husband, prompting her to ponder how these two men from such different parts of the world would likely have never met if not for her. 

From this kernel, Song crafted the heartfelt story at the center of her film, using the Korean concept of In-Yun to explore the various interpersonal relationships of her characters over more than two decades. Greta Lee, perhaps best known for her work on streaming shows like “Russian Doll” and “The Morning Show,” gives the performance of her career as Nora, finding in the character delicate layers of rich, often conflicting emotions. Teo Yoo and John Magaro are equally compelling scene partners, crafting such a complex connection to Nora—and with each other—that it would be juvenile to call the situation merely a love triangle. spoke to Celine Song at the Chicago Critics Film Festival about casting this highly personal film, the concept of In-Yun, striking the right emotional tone with its score, finding inspiration in “My Dinner With Andre,” and how she filmed that incredible penultimate bar scene. 

I saw this originally out of Sundance, and I loved it. I went because I saw Greta Lee was in the cast, and I was so impressed with her in a film I saw at SXSW a few years ago called “Fits and Starts.” Since this is such a personal story, the casting of that central character must have been so important. Did you cast Greta first and then build around her?

I think you'd have to start with Nora because she is at the heart of it. She is the burning center of the film, or she's the core of the film. So, of course, it has to be built from her in that way. Finding the right person for it is personal, but it wasn't about finding somebody who is going to come off one way. It was so much more about the depth of her work and the depth of who she is as a person and if she's a soul match to the character. It was really about the character and if she felt like the character more than anything else. That was what the casting process was.

Did you do chemistry tests with her and the two adult male leads? 

No. I think that in casting, one needs to have an eye out. But the chemistry test I did was with the two children, their child characters. They don't have a lot of lines, and they had a lot of work that they had to do, so the chemistry has to be instant. It has to be so easily communicated to buy it all the way through. It has to spark the whole film in that way. So to me, it felt important to do a chemistry test with them. That was really, really wonderful and really, really helpful. 

What I made the children do, which I know is really hard to do in an audition, even with adults, was to ask them to do ad-lib because they didn't have enough lines to do enough acting for me. I had the little girl first, Seung Ah Moon, then I was trying to find the right boy for her. Then the boy who was in the movie now, Seung Min Yim, came in. I asked him to ad-lib asking the actress who played the little Nora to stay in Korea because he doesn't like that she's leaving and he wants her to stay. He did such a beautiful piece of ad-lib and such a convincing piece of acting that it made the little girl who was playing little Nora cry. She was like, “Do I have to leave? Do I have to leave Korea?” And I was like, “You don't have to. You don't have to leave.” [laughs].

Obviously, the idea of In-Yun is central to the story. I'd never heard of it before this film. You mentioned in last night’s Q&A that the film was inspired by a meeting between your actual childhood sweetheart and your husband. Was In-Yun part of your concept from that initial spark? When did that come into the process of the script writing?

I think the concept of In-Yun is a pretty commonplace phrase in Korea. So it's true what Nora says when she says it's like just something Koreans say as a pick-up line. It's just a way to feel connected to someone, even if you just met them or you just met them a couple times. They will say, “Oh, hey, we must be In-Yun.” That's something people say. So to me, it is the first thought that sort of popped into my mind of like, oh, that's what this is. 

But this In-Yun is so different with these two guys, too. Because I think it's easy to think about In-Yun as something you can only have in a special destiny with somebody else. That, to me, is a very Western way of thinking. In the Eastern way of thinking, so much about In-Yun is something that comes to you. Destiny is something that comes to you, and you can't really stop it. It is something that you have to learn to accept. 

What was going on with In-Yun to me? I was like, well, the person who gives you a cup of water when you're thirsty, even that person is In-Yun, even if you never see that person again. But also your mother is In-Yun as well. I would say that your mother and yourself are much, much deeper In-Yun, probably one of the deepest In-Yuns you can have. But it doesn't mean that the person who brought you a cup of water when you needed it is not In-Yun. So it is something that I think can be a part of everybody's life and the way we think about everyone. 

I think part of that is that it makes every relationship we have, or even every encounter we have, have weight and have meaning and depth. Because if you can think of the person who gave you a cup of water as a person that you have In-Yun with, yeah, then I think that the way you think about that person, the way you treat that person, and the way you care for that person changes. I think In-Yun can be a pretty amazing thing that one can have. 

That would be a much better way to go about exactly thinking about the world.

I want you to just live your life and just be able to say I think that person is In-Yun. We are really special In-Yun.

I love that. I noticed on this second watch—I hadn't really thought about this—but the three sections are each 12 years apart. Is there a specific significance to the 12 years?

I felt like it needed to be a really significant length of time, and I think 12 years can really change a person. You can really seem like a new person in 12 years. But of course, just like all things, it's always contradictory. Even after 12 years, you can seem like the same person. To me, 12 years just felt like a hefty number of years for a person's life, so both the change and the sameness can feel significant.

I love the sound design in this, specifically the audio of the Skype calls. The whole audience seemed to viscerally react to the first Skype beeps. It's such a nostalgic form of communication. Zoom and FaceTime have replaced it now, but Skype just feels like a very specific time. I'd love to know how you recreated that and whether you intentionally meant it to feel nostalgic.

Something that I think is really true is that Nora and Hae Sung may have made more of an effort to stay in touch and see where the relationship goes if the connection at the time that they were doing this was as good as it is now. Yeah. Exactly. So it was important for the film to depict the time in technology when it was a lot shittier. There was an extra layer of it being more frustrating or a little bit harder to connect through it. To me, that is where the timing or the times interact with how we end up connecting with people. 

It was really important to me that the actors are able to experience the frustration and also to act with each other. So I wanted to do it practically. There were not that many references of being able to do a whole breakup scene or something like that over Skype. So we built two sets that were connected by a cable, and we put a throttle on it. Oh, and I was controlling the throttle like a DJ. So that I could control how bad the connection was or when it freezes. I could cue when Skype freezes. And the actors also interacted with it live, because they're also having to experience the frustration of it. And that, of course, becomes a part of the work that they're doing as characters.

I had a friend around that time who has since married her husband, but that first year they were apart—she was in France, he was in Californiathey Skyped the whole time. And the way you depict it in this film felt really true. I think that the experience of trying to stay connected is so difficult, and you captured it beautifully. 

It’s so frustrating, but in the beginning, he was just happy to be talking to them. So it's like magic. It's like sci-fi. You're like, “It's amazing that I can even see this person and talk to this person. It’s so magical.” 

But then I think over time, it starts to erode. And that's what that sequence is. It's about how the initial feeling only actually makes the longing grow. Then you start to realize that what you get from Skype is not enough. And suddenly, Skype just feels so frustrating. But first, you're so amazed by the possibility of Skype because you're like, “I can't believe we're connected.” And what you expect from there is to be able to be satisfied by Skype. The thing that I kept saying when we were making that part of the film was that it has to be shitty. It can't be perfect. It can't be good. It has to be frustrating. 

Speaking of the emotions of the film, I absolutely loved the score. The first time I watched it, I was like, “Is this Grizzly Bear?” and then the credits came on, I was like, “I knew it!” How did they get involved?

I was always looking for the right people for the story. Every part of it has to be like working on chemistry reads, it has to be about the chemistry of their voice and the way that their music is connected to the story. They seemed perfect, and I know more than ever, now, that they are the perfect people for this film. I don't know how old you are, but I feel like we kind of grew up in that time where we're just like, “Woo! Grizzly Bear!”

I’ve seen them live like seven times. I remember when they were a $12 ticket band, and now it’s like $75. I'm like, what happened? But also, congratulations to them. Their style is so delicate, and the film is so delicate. The emotions are delicate but also huge, a bit like their album Yellow House, a big album about small things.

And also it's not sentimental. It is always a push to keep the music from verging into begging the audience to feel something. Because the thing is, the movie will get the audience to feel something if there's room for them to feel something on their own. I think the music should always be in support of that and never be begging or pleading for it. The Grizzly Bear guys, Christopher Bear and Daniel Rossen, just know in their bones how to walk that line because it's part of their work. 

But it was also so fun. I just loved being able to say to them, we just need a little more emotion. Part of the austerity or part of the intelligence, or part of the joy of their work is not leaning into the easy emotions. So you can ask them, “I need this to feel a little bit more emotional." What they would bring me would not be overly sentimental. I kept asking for something, and then they would know how to find it in the perfect way.

Yeah. That was amazing.

I think it's perfect for the film, you know, just bottled it.

Hae Sung’s friends in Korea are so fun. They feel so natural. I'd love to know how you brought them in. They're always so supportive.

I auditioned them from Korea over Zoom. They're amazing character actors from Korea. I also asked them to do a bit of ad-lib as well, because they also don't have as much material. They hadn't read the script yet, but I told them the story. I told them, as Hae Sung, the story of Hae Sung, of what I, as Hae Sung, intended to do. And then I asked them to give their friend advice on whether he should go and see Nora in New York. A lot of them had amazing answers for what they thought their friends should do. But almost all of the guys in Korea said that he should go and see her and see what happens. So, again, it's a little bit of a chemistry thing, too. It's about the connection that they can have with Hae Sung and with each other.

The New York bar location is so central to the story. You open with it and not quite close with it. It's such a warm, amber-colored space. I'd love to know what you were looking for and how you found that particular space.

It’s called Holiday Cocktail Lounge, which is in the East Village. We were looking for something that is sort of ineffable, which has the feel of a local bar. The kind of place that you would take your friend to when they're in town, but also had to feel really special because a really special conversation has to happen. It is about a thing that you cannot quite describe, which is kind of like the relationship that Hae Sung and Nora have with each other. It has to feel totally mundane, like the kind of bar you would just walk into, but, like the movie, it has to feel special, and it has to contain the whole movie too. That is something that you only know by seeing it. 

At the Q&A last night, you mentioned “My Dinner With Andre,” which is such an amazing film. Did you have the cast watch it while you were prepping those conversations?

I asked all my department heads to watch “My Dinner With Andre,” and I think I did recommend the actors watch it as well. What I love about that movie, it's so funny because you don't really think that you're watching anything that is so dramatic or so significant until you're deep in it. Then you're suddenly like, “How do we get here? How did this conversation get here?” 

That's the feeling that I needed that whole conversation to be because it's the penultimate scene. So it also had to be put together that way. I put the scene together that way so that when we cut into each shot, it has to feel a little bit like you're sort of slipping into it without even fully realizing it. 

I love that when they’re talking about Arthur, you don’t cut to him, but when they’re talking about something other than Arthur, you cut to him listening. 

I think you have to feel connected to that character, to Arthur, because him being at that bar is what makes this movie unique. That Nora and Hae Sung are able to have this conversation because of and in spite of him sitting there. I knew that there needed to be a moment where he's a bit of a touchstone, where we can just see the moment in it, and that was the right moment for it. The conversation is being spoken in Korean, a language that Arthur does not understand, so there is fear, and there is vulnerability. There’s the insecurity that is going through his head. 

We were shooting on film, so we put in six minutes worth of a fresh mag, loaded it in, and we pointed it at John Magaro’s face. I said, “I'm going to spend this entire mag on your face while you listen to what these two people are talking about in Korean without you understanding it. And you should give me in that six minutes every version of listening that you can think of. What we found was that if he looked too angry, he seemed insecure, and if he looked too chill, he seemed like he didn’t give a shit about her. So the key was striking the exact right balance between the two.

Are there any female directors who either inspired your work or inspire you in general?

I really have been such a big fan of Kelly Reichardt. I fell in love with John Magaro in “First Cow,” and “Showing Up” is also super great, so I would really want to shout out her name. 

"Past Lives" will be available in theaters on June 2nd. 

Marya E. Gates

Marya E. Gates is a freelance film and culture writer based in Los Angeles and Chicago. She studied Comparative Literature at U.C. Berkeley, and also has an overpriced and underused MFA in Film Production. Other bylines include Moviefone, The Playlist, Crooked Marquee, Nerdist, and Vulture. 

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