‘Past Lives’ writer Celine Song on the hardest scene to write

When Celine Song decided to make the jump from stage to screen, she did so with a very personal story, about reconnecting with her childhood friend from South Korea. And it turned out, Past Lives was very personal for the audience, too.

“Nothing touches me so deeply as when somebody comes up to me, no matter who you are, and tells me that they really needed Past Lives, that they say, ‘I actually needed this movie,'” Song says on the latest episode of the Awardist podcast. “To have been able to make something that — for all of us, my whole team — make a movie that somebody feels that they need it, I think that’s the most incredible thing.”

Song earned an Original Screenplay Oscar nomination for her debut, and the film a Best Picture nomination. The Morning Show‘s Greta Lee stars as Nora Moon, who reconnects after 12 years, virtually, while in college in New York with her childhood friend, Hae Sung — played by Teo Yoo — and another dozen years after that in person when he visits Nora, now married, in New York. They are reminders of each other to another, simpler time, of each other’s shared culture, of lives that could’ve been very different had her family not moved to North America.

Below, read portions of Song’s interview on The Awardist, as she explains the real-life situation she found herself in that served as the movie’s inspiration, how her stars brought the movie to life in unexpected ways, the hardest but most important scene to write, and that heartbreaking climax.

Teo Yoo, Celine Song, and Greta Lee of ‘Past Lives’.

Getty Images; A24

ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY: Is this an idea that you had been playing around with for a while and were figuring out what to do with it? And how did you land on a movie being the right way to go?

CELINE SONG: I knew that it had to be a movie because of the nature of the story. This is a story that spans many decades, in two different continents. My joke about it is always that the villain of the story is not a person in the movie, but it’s the Pacific Ocean and the 24 years. So in that way, you have to be able to feel Seoul and New York City coexisting, and being different and the same. And you also have to see the 12-year-old children and grownup actor and actress who are then also coexisting exactly the same and different. It needed to have a contrast of different parts of our lives. And it also had to be cut in a way where you’re transported from one place to another smoothly.

This is not one of the strengths of theater. And I’ve worked in theater for long enough to know that that’s not really what theater is about, necessarily. It is a cinematic language that I needed to tell the story. So that really was the initial thing.

As for playing around with it, it all started from this one moment in my own life where I found myself sitting in a bar between my childhood friend who had come to visit me from South Korea and my husband that I lived with in New York City, and I was translating between these two people in culture and language. And eventually, I realized that I’m translating between two parts of my own self and my own history. I would say that the next day I was feeling like, huh, maybe I’ll write something about that.

So that opening scene is pulled straight out of your life.

Yeah. That scene I think is the launch point, and that was the inspiration for the whole film. It really was about building a film around that moment because that feeling is so amazing. You realize that you’re having a drink with your past, the present, and the future at this bar. And I had a feeling that this is not a unique feeling; I had a feeling that this is a feeling that so many of us have had before.

Teo Yoo, Greta Lee, and John Magaro in ‘Past Lives’.

Courtesy of Twenty Years Rights/A24 Films

From the writing perspective, what scene was hardest to get right, one that you perhaps kept rewriting and finessing as you went along?

That scene at the bar, at the end.

Oh, at the end. The flip side of it.

The flip side of it, the conversation where all of Nora’s worlds have to collapse and become one. It’s really about: How do we let these characters be true to each other — and even more true and even more true and even more true — until they’re really talking about what the whole movie’s about. The structure of the film is, there is a bit of it where it is a mystery story, where the opening scene is about the question of, who are these three people to each other. And then by the time that we are in that scene again, near the end of the film, the audience has become the detective now [and has] some answers. They’ve been gathering evidence, and now they can maybe answer the question, who are these three people to each other? That’s really the structural thing that I needed to crack from before I could write the whole film.

What is something Greta Lee brought to Nora that you weren’t necessarily expecting?

There is a line in the film where she says, “I’m just a girl from Korea.” I remember being so amazed by the way that Greta said that line, there’s something completely disarming about it. It’s not strained, it’s not difficult — it’s effortless. It’s a beautiful acceptance that she has. I think that what she brings is what I needed these actors to bring to the characters, which is the amazing contradiction that is in all of us, which is the fact that we’re no longer 12. If you and I knew each other when we were 12 and then we saw each other now, we might be able to say, “Do you remember when we were 12?” and then you and I would be transported back to who we were when we were 12. I know that I still have some of the things I was when I was 12, but I’m actually very different. Which is it? Are you still 12 or are you no longer 12? Greta, she’s so professional, she’s so adult. She’s a mother. She’s an incredible force and a very powerful person. But when she’s teasing, when she’s making jokes, when she’s vulnerable, she suddenly feels about 11. She suddenly feels so young. And you can just see it in her face, what she was like when she was a kid. And that’s a quality that I really needed from this character more than anything.

Celine Song and Greta Lee on the set of ‘Past Lives’.

Courtesy of Twenty Years Rights/A24 Films

When you saw Teo Yoo’s tape — or met in person, whatever it was — was it an instant, like, oh my gosh, it’s him, the angels sang? Was it one of those kinds of moments?

[Laughs] I called him back, and when I met him, we were just starting to talk, and I remember him smiling, talking about something and making a joke. And I remember feeling like, huh, look at that — he looks about eight years old even though, of course, he’s a grown man. So there’s something about that where the character also has to embody the contradiction of being one thing and not the other. I had a feeling when he walked into the Zoom like he is the right person for this role… I usually say his face is Times Square, where all the emotions and everything that’s going through his head is seen. It’s on a massive lit up sign. There’s something so completely open and expressive about his face that I felt like, oh, I would love to see the sunrise and sunset of emotions on that face. And I think that really was the initial feeling. I was like, oh, yeah, he can do so much without saying a word.

You did not allow Teo and John Magaro to meet until the characters do for the first time on camera, in Nora and Arthur’s apartment. Did that pay off in the way you were hoping?

Yes. We were rolling when the two actors met for the first time as characters, and that shot is in the film. The surprise of encountering the person that you’ve only heard about, that you’ve only heard about from another person’s getting to know that person, I think is so shocking. We wanted to be rolling when that happened for the human beings who are playing these characters too. The most important thing about that scene is actually what happens as soon as they meet, because we were shooting it is as if it’s a cowboy standoff. A little bit, right?

Sizing each other up.

Yeah. And there’s a moment of silence where they’re trying to figure out what they’re going to do. Our reference was literally a Western for, how are we going to shoot that scene? So we basically have these two encounter each other, and the first thing that happens is that Arthur says hello Hae Sung in bad Korean, and then Hae Sung says hello to Arthur in bad English. This movie is written and made bilingually, and I’m bilingual and it’s that way because it matters tremendously. That is what is at the heart of the story: It is about two people from different worlds, even in different languages who are trying to understand each other, and what an amazing act of care that they have. They could show up and they could be really mad at each other, they could walk away from each other, they could punch each other. But instead, what these two men decide to do is try to speak the language that they do not know how to speak so that the other person can feel connected to them. So in that way, that was such a crucial scene, and we talked about the scene a lot. But the actual thing had to come from speaking in the other person’s language, which of course makes them feel more vulnerable and less powerful too.

Teo Yoo and Greta Lee in ‘Past Lives’.

Jon Pack/Twenty Years Rights/A24 Films

The big climactic scene on the street, heading off to that Uber, did you write it one take and always in a wide shot?

No, I wrote it as an emotional journey. It was so much more about the emotional journey of her walking home and what she’s walking home about. So it was more instructional for what the performances were going to be. The thing that I did have written is that the two minutes where they’re waiting for the Uber, I wrote that it has to be two minutes. It should feel long and it should feel short at the same time. I feel like I had an idea of how time should work in the script — all the silences, the beats, what’s going through their heads, what has to be on their face, all of those things were scripted.

I had made it very clear that this is the scene that this whole movie hinges on. So we were looking for that street, and it really took the efforts of my location manager and my DP walking around East Village at night for weeks to find that location for the walk home…. The street has to feel like a neighborhood street, it has to feel like an ordinary street that a tourist might not notice, but it also has to feel extraordinary and beautiful and perfect. So it’s a contradictory instruction for how to find the street.

We were talking about laying 150 feet of track to get that scene in this one very, very long take. We do get into close-ups for a little bit of conversation, but every time we did go from the beginning of that scene to the end in one go. I do think about the scene as the key to the whole film, even though it’s the very last scene. My DP asked me a practical question, which is: Which direction is Hae Sung and Nora walking to the Uber, and which direction is Nora going home? And then it clicked for me. That of course has to be the horizontal line; her walk home should be treated like a timeline, and she should walk from the right to left because it is like they’re taking a walk down to the past, and then they’re going to wait for two minutes where they get to have Uber — all the potential and the dream of the child and everything in the world in those two minutes. And then when the Uber comes, the Uber is going to take Hae Sung and is going to drive him into the past, which is from right to left. And then, Nora waits there for one moment, and this is something that we had not scripted and I cannot believe that I had not scripted — and it’s just straight up the world taking care of us — that there was a little piece of wind that started to blow on her skirt, and it actually blew her towards the past, if you’re to think of it as a timeline. And then she turns around and she starts walking against the wind towards her present and the future, and at the end of it, she sees her husband there in her home. And that’s the ending of that sequence. And then the very, very last shot of the film — which is Hae Sung being driven away to the airport — the direction, again, had to reflect what we have set up as the timeline, which is that she will then also get driven from left to right.

Greta Lee in ‘Past Lives’.

Courtesy of Twenty Years Rights/A24 Films

Listen to the full interview with Song on the Awardist podcast below, where she also explains why Greta Lee thought she didn’t originally get the role, why she didn’t allow Greta Lee and Teo Yoo to have any physical touch until their characters are reunited on screen and how that setting connects to their childhood, and what excites her most about her upcoming second feature, Materialists, with Pedro Pascal, Chris Evans, and Dakota Johnson in talks to star.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

Check out more from EW’s The Awardist, featuring exclusive interviews, analysis, and our podcast diving into all the highlights from the year’s best in TV.

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