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A Date with Destiny: How Celine Song Adapted Her Own Experience Into Swooning Romantic Drama 'Past Lives'

With her first feature, the Korean-born playwright-turned-filmmaker drew upon her own life to craft a movie that deeply connects — at Sundance, on 2023's festival circuit and with audiences everywhere.
By Sarah Ward
September 04, 2023
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By Sarah Ward
September 04, 2023
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Celine Song understands the power of a moment. Past Lives, her debut feature, is filled with scenes and meetings — minutes and mere seconds, too — that are so potent they're almost overwhelming. Making the leap to cinema from the stage, the playwright-turned-filmmaker has crafted a quiet, patient, contemplative and deeply felt romantic drama that knows intimately how emotions can swell to bursting point in something as simple and commonplace as a glance, walk, Skype call or drink at a bar. One of the movies that had 2023's Sundance Film Festival talking, plus everywhere from Berlin to Sydney to New Zealand since — and is destined to be showered in awards love, too — Past Lives is well-aware of what it's like to spend oh-so-many moments wondering what could've been or still might, and about what's meant to.

Arriving after focusing on the stage, getting experimental with Chekhov live and online with The Seagull on The Sims 4 and writing for the initial season of streaming series The Wheel of Time, Song's first effort as a filmmaker springs from a specific moment, in fact — and one that she also recreates on-screen with her characters Nora (Greta Lee, Russian Doll), Hae Sung (Teo Yoo, Decision to Leave) and Arthur (John Magaro, The Many Saints of Newark). Past Lives takes inspiration from the writer/director's own experiences in a number of ways. "I would say it's an adaptation of my life, or inspired by," she tells Concrete Playground. It was the power of a moment sat in a New York bar with her American husband and Korean childhood sweetheart, however, that helped put the picture in motion. 

Behind the scenes on 'Past Lives'.

"I wasn't sure if there was a movie in it, but I think that what I really did feel is that it did feel like a significant and special moment, and a very revelatory moment in my own life," Song shares, chatting in August when she was in Australia for the Melbourne International Film Festival. "I feel like living your life as an ordinary person, I think that there are moments in your life where your life suddenly feels completely extraordinary — and it's totally epic, too. Then you just suddenly feel the total sheer scale of your life expand."

"That kind of was this weird moment where I was like 'huh, nobody in this bar probably knows this or feels this, but I think that I just am feeling so massive sitting here in this little bar with these two people'," Song continues. "I think that it made me feel like 'maybe this is something that might connect with other people?'. And then, more and more, I learned that it does connect with a lot of people, and that honestly has made me feel less lonely more than anything."

Past Lives

Past Lives begins with Nora, Hae Sung and Arthur sipping and chatting as fellow bar patrons observe, guessing about who the trio are to each other. From the outset, the film connects with that powerful moment in Song's own existence, with the three figures that'll wander through her feature's frames coping with love and life, and with viewers doing their own watching and pondering as well. From there, the movie heads backwards, first to Nora (Moon Seung-ah, Voice of Silence) and Hae Sung's (Leem Seung-min, Good Deal) time together as pre-teens, before the former and her family move to Canada. Then, it jumps forward twice in 12-year increments, checking in wth the pair — and Arthur once he enters Nora's life — as time passes on and distance stretches their youthful bond. 

As this tender and heartbreakingly honest picture unfurls, Past Lives' audience doesn't just experience an affinity with folks realising that they're having a moment, but with the "what if?" questions in life, being torn between the past and the present, and trying to work out who you truly are. With its title drawn from the Korean concept of in-yeon, aka the fate that connects anyone who crosses paths, Past Lives' viewers feel a date with destiny as well. Getting swept away by Past Lives is easy; making it play that way wasn't, of course. Song chatted us through the details, including subjectivity, authenticity, getting the personal to feel personal to everyone else, and the ins and outs of casting when you're taking cues from your own life.

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Behind the scenes on 'Past Lives'.

ON MAKING SONG'S FIRST FEATURE

"I wish that I could give you some a lofty thing that I was trying to do. But honestly, I think because it was my first movie, it was just getting through the day and getting a movie made more than anything.

I think that every day, the number-one goal that you're facing is just 'okay, how do I make this movie — how do I get through today, and get the footage and get the performances I need?'.

That really was the primary drive. I wish I had big, lofty dreams for things, but it was so much more like I was like learning how to do it as I go because it was my first movie. That really was so fully occupying me that it was hard actually for me to feel like I could have any goals beyond making the movie."

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Past Lives

ON TAKING INSPIRATION FROM REALITY, AND FROM SONG'S OWN STORY

"It really does start from that amazing subjective place — that is the part that is the autobiographical moment, which is that moment in the bar. But then, of course, in turning it into a script there is an objectification of the subjective moment, where it becomes a script that you're writing. And then from there, there's another layer of objectification, where you, with hundreds of people who are working on the movie, turn it into a film — which is then a whole other set of objectification.

And, part of it is the subjectivity of the actors, for example: they come into the picture and you're working with the actors to create these characters. So, by the time that I was making the movie properly and then finishing the movie and all that, I really was looking at the thing as making this movie.

Past Lives

I think that at that point I felt pretty distant from the aspects of the movie that were that started from an autobiographical place. But now that what I really love is it's kind of full circle now — the audience is coming to meet this movie, and they're actually then able to experience it subjectively. They feel like it connects with them autobiographically on their own, too.

I think that's the process of making personal work, and I think that's really what the process was for this. I really do think of it as a very personal film because of that. And the words I would usually use, I would say it's an adaptation of my life, or inspired by, or something like that."

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Past Lives

ON MAKING A PERSONAL FILM THAT FEELS PERSONAL TO AUDIENCES, TOO

"That's always the dream and goal for it, because I feel like I have to believe that if I'm being as honest and authentic with the experience of what it's like to be a person, I just know that there is an audience that's going to also connect to it like that. I've really treated it very much as a test of how real can I be with the audience, and how real can the filmmaking be. Of course, I'm talking about the truth of the thing, rather than the facts, because some of it is about the truth of what it's like to be a person. 

As long as it is communicated in the best way, as clearly as possible — I think I used the word 'clearly' often, as you want to be able to tell the story as clearly as possible — at the end of it you really do want the audience to come along for this journey. And even though it's really specific, I think that the dream is that you're able to see yourself in it and you're able to connect it to your own life.

Past Lives

This movie doesn't have conventional ideas of spectacle. We don't have wild costumes. We don't have VFX. We don't do anything that is outside of what is likened to human experience. So I think some of it just had to be relying on the authenticity of performance, and that's where the story is going to be. That's how the story was going to connect with the audience — they're going to feel how real the movie is going to be, the way that the movie is going to reach everyone.

I've been finding that no matter what walk of life you come from, you're going find something in the movie that you feel connected to."

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Past Lives

ON MAKING AN AUTHENTIC "WHAT IF?" STORY WHEN EVERYONE SHARES THAT TRAIN OF THOUGHT

"That really is the the part that is difficult about making a movie where you can really feel connected to it. It's going to live and die on if the audience will come along for the journey and believe it, and believe the characters and believe the story.

I think without question, that's where you're going to be able to see very, very high emotional standards. We do, of course, all experience 'what could have been?'. 

Sometimes it's the person, but sometimes it's a city — and sometimes it's a lifestyle or a job. If you ever have had an experience like that, I think you're going to connect to the movie."

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Behind the scenes on 'Past Lives'.

ON THE INTRICACIES OF CASTING WHEN YOU'RE TAKING CUES FROM YOUR OWN LIFE

"I don't think that I was looking for actors who were going to play basically those people [IRL]. I was looking for people who were going to play the characters that I've written. So something that I wanted is to make sure that none the actors thought that what they were trying to do is to replicate people who exist.

I wanted then to come with me in finding the characters that we're trying to to pick for the screen, because it's a completely different thing altogether — characters in movies are very different than people in real life. People in real life, it's not so clear what their arc is. In our lives, I don't think that we know what our arc is in our real life, because we don't live in narrative. We live in a life, compared to characters in a film who have to live in a narrative, because that's what we're going to be watching.

Without question, the actors were not being asked to replicate real people. What they were being asked to do is the scenes, and part of the thing that I was looking for in the actors is, first of all, are they great actors? The way that I wanted to make the movie, sometimes I would ask the actors to just do the whole scene — which is, of course, something that comes from my background as a playwright — and I really wanted them to be able to do the whole scene if I asked them to. That's something that only actors that are really excellent actors are able to do. So, that was the first thing that I was looking for. 

Past Lives

The other thing I'm looking for is what I would call a soul match to the characters, where I really wanted the actors to have some deep kind of soul connection to the characters — it has to do with the way they're talking about the characters, but it's also, more importantly, the engine or the fire that a character has to have.

It is something that the actors themselves could have — that the heart of Nora is going to be found in Greta's heart as well. I think you could really feel that in the film, where Nora is showing up but it's not just that Greta is playing Nora. I know that for the film, the only way that this movie can work is that Greta had become Nora.

That's what's both amazing about casting and also what's very difficult."

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Past Lives

ON THE RESPONSE TO PAST LIVES SO FAR — AND THE SUNDANCE EXPERIENCE

"You just hope for the best for the movie that you're making kind of in secret. I really did think about it as something that was a bit of a secret between me and everybody who was working on the movie. Then, as for how the world was going to receive it, that's been an amazing part — it's just nothing but joy and like excitement.

I remember at Sundance, I'd been working on the movie again in secret with the people who worked on the movie with me for many years. Then I remember waiting at the backstage of Sundance, knowing that it's going to be in the in the public's hands from this moment on. I remember really feeling in that moment like everything's going to change, and this is going to be a moment where I'm going to have to let go of control or let go of everything.

It really was like wandering into the unknown. I think that every time that there has been such a warm response, which is how it been, it's just such an exciting thing — because great word of mouth means that more people are going to come see the movie, and I think that's always the dream for it. You want to be able to share this thing that you made."

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Past Lives opened in cinemas Down Under on August 31. Read our review.

Images: courtesy of A24.

Published on September 04, 2023 by Sarah Ward
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