Celine Song on How ‘Past Lives’ Led Her to the “Love of My Life”

— Celine Song wears a Celine by Hedi Slimane jacket, shirt, and pants.

For W’s annual The Originals portfolio, we asked creatives—pioneers in the fields of art, music, food, dance, fashion, and more—to share their insights on staying true to themselves. See this year’s full class of creatives here.

Your tender and heartbreaking debut film, Past Lives, is loosely based on your own experiences emigrating from Korea to Canada as a child and reuniting with your childhood sweetheart as an adult. Before you made this movie, you had been working as a playwright in New York for 10 years—just like Nora, the main character. How was telling a story for the screen different from writing for the stage?

This story spans decades and continents. It mattered that the cities, New York and Seoul, were visually represented as their own characters and personalities. There are no human villains here, but there are villains—time and space. In theater, time and space are figurative, and in film, they’re literal. It’s about the little kids that these two people are, and then the full-grown adults that they are as well, and the juxtaposition. That’s the contradiction of life. We’re proper grown-ups having this official conversation, but I know that there’s still a part of us that’s 12 years old and wants to play with crayons.

Past Lives has a lot of very true-to-life depictions of the way technology influences our relationships now. It’s so easy to look someone up or get back in touch.

Technology is a part of any modern story, and especially a modern romance, because it’s about connection. When Hae Sung and Nora meet over Skype, the first conversation is nothing but joy and excitement. It’s that amazing thing of the early 2010s; it’s a proper miracle. Then, as their relationship deepens, their desire to reach over and touch the other person grows, but the technology stays the same. What was at first such an amazing thing becomes frustrating. It’s a bad connection that’s going to keep them apart.

The fact that the characters never physically touch feels sort of old-fashioned.

There are so many ways that a story like this could go. It can be sleeping together. But I always knew that the story was meant to be about a connection that isn’t intrusive into each other’s lives. They respect each other too much.

You kept Greta Lee and Teo Yoo, the actors who play Nora and Hae Sung, mostly apart off-screen.

I didn’t want them to understand each other physically. It’s not a movie about “Who is she going to go with?” It’s more “What is it like when your childhood sweetheart that you’re still thinking about completely outgrows who you are?”

When did you realize you wanted to be a writer?

I was always writing. Even as a kid, I was writing poetry. I applied to film school, but then I decided to go to grad school for theater because I felt so attuned to the professor at the Columbia program. It was a way into the theater community in New York, and that’s where I worked for 10 years. I was doing experimental off-Broadway theater. It’s a hard life.

Now that you’ve made your first feature, do you want to keep working in film?

Yes. At the end of the day, nothing trumps the feeling I get when I think about Past Lives as the movie that let me meet the love of my life, which is filmmaking. I didn’t know that I would feel like this.

What about filmmaking did you fall in love with?

The thing about love is that it’s not a list of qualities. At the end of every day of shooting, you feel so exhilarated, and you can’t wait to do it again. It was something I could fully do without thinking about anything else. Working on the movie made me realize that I could be a mother. Every day, I realized my own limitlessness and empathy, and how much I could care. I felt like, Yo, it’s so much deeper than I thought.

Going forward, what kinds of stories do you want to tell?

I have to always do a project that feels smarter, better, and faster than me in every way. In 10 years of playwriting, that was the guiding principle, and I don’t see that changing in film. I can’t imagine not being interested in people and relationships. That’s what I get excited about, because people are wild. I was a psychology major, so it has always been the thing that makes me feel obsessive—people and what they’re like.

Hair and makeup by Alex Byrne for Lancôme at Walter Schupfer Management; photo assistant: Nick Ventura; fashion assistant: Tori López; tailor: Ise Kriegeskotte.

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