When Greta Lee first read Celine Song‘s screenplay for “Past Lives,” she had an instant, visceral reaction to the ending.
“I felt ill,” Lee recalls. “I was destroyed. And then I was trying to figure out how to keep reading while being blinded by my own tears.”
It’s a response that would go on to be shared by many as the movie began shattering audiences last January at the Sundance Film Festival. The tears continued to flow as A24 released the film in theaters in June, where it went on to gross $21 million domestically on a budget estimated at $12 million. While that’s impressive for an independent film from a first-time filmmaker without marquee names, the impact of “Past Lives” cannot be measured merely by box office. Nor is it reflected by the strong critical and awards showing, which includes a best feature trophy from the Gotham Awards, countless top 10 lists and five nominations from both the Golden Globes and Spirit Awards.
The real testament to the film’s power becomes apparent when people speak about the movie. That can be to one another — it’s rare for the title to come up in conversation and not elicit an immediate response. But it happens to the filmmakers and actors, as well. As Song jokes, “I think I’m the filmmaker who knows the most about strangers’ unrequited loves and childhood sweethearts.”
For Lee, it happens everywhere — at the grocery store or the gas station or in the pickup line at her kids’ school. “What’s so incredible is the sheer diversity of the people I meet,” Lee notes. “People from all over the world share their stories with me.” And it’s not just those pining over a long-lost love. Lee recalls the older couple who told her the film reinvigorated their vows to each other. And the young woman who said she’d never been in love before — and the film made her excited to experience it for the first time.
On the surface, “Past Lives” has a deceptively simple premise. Na Young and Hae Sung are 12-year-olds in Seoul, South Korea, who are separated when Na Young’s family immigrates to Canada. Years later, Na Young (played by Lee) lives in New York and goes by the name Nora. She reconnects online with Hae Sung (Teo Yoo), who has spent years looking for her. While the chemistry is apparent, the distance is insurmountable and the two are unable to reunite. Years later, Hae Sung comes to America to visit Nora, where she is now married to Arthur (John Magaro), a loving husband with insecurities about their relationship.
But Song has managed to subvert expectations by creating a scenario that while very specific, feels universal. Song presents three complex individuals trying to do their best. “It would be so much easier if Arthur was a jerk,” she notes. “Or if Hae Sung was possessive and came to New York to ruin Nora’s life. Or if you felt Nora wasn’t loved and she behaved immaturely.” In a medium where “drama comes from adults behaving like children,” the filmmaker wanted to ask another question. “How can we find drama in three people trying to do their best to not hurt each other, even though the situation is impossible?”
The film culminates in one of the most-discussed scenes of the year, where Nora and Hae Sung bid farewell as they wait for his Uber to arrive. She then walks back to her present life with Arthur. Its technical achievement has been covered at length — it was done in one shot and the actors weren’t even certain when the car would arrive. In their interview with Variety, Song and Lee discuss the emotion of that final scene and how there is sadness — but also hope and beauty in the moment. They also discuss the concept of inyeon that is integral to the movie, the passion of the crew and how Billie Eilish lyrics helped inspire the character of Nora.
I want to start at the ending. Celine, do you enjoy making people cry?
Celine Song: I think about the ways a movie is going to live inside of audiences really differently. I don’t think it makes sense to only inspire tears — I think it can inspire a sense of bliss, too. The movie can mean so many different things. A lot of people see Nora cry at the end of the film, and they feel so connected to her and they also cry.
And it’s not necessarily a sad cry. I want people to know they’re not going to be depressed watching this film — it’s more a cry of recognition or release.
Song: The thing is, the characters really get the ending that they want. For Nora, what an amazing gift that her friend has brought her — she gets to know that her 12-year-old self was very much loved, and she has the opportunity to say good-bye to the girl she left behind. And Hae Sung wanted to meet the woman this 12-year-old girl became — and then he gets to close the door. And Arthur wants to know his wife better, so how wonderful he gets to meet his wife as a 12-year-old crybaby at the end of the film. So this visit is only a wonderful thing, it’s only a gift. I don’t see it as depressing; it’s meant to inspire people. We’ve all experienced that feeling of realizing we’re no longer 16. But in some ways, that 16-year-old is forever.
Greta Lee: There is a heartbreaking poignancy at the center but one that is, for me, optimistic. It’s about how love manifests itself not as a neat path and isn’t about choosing right or wrong — it’s a separate entity that exists in its own life. Yes, it’s bittersweet but I feel really buoyed by what Nora has to look forward to. I was listening to a lot of Billie Eilish while filming and there’s a song she has [“My Future”] where she says she’s in love with her future. And I loved that idea so much for Nora. I’ve been saying that the greatest romance could be the one that you have with your own life.
Did you always see the ending that way, or did it change over time?
Song: I could not have written it without knowing how it ends. I think the first thing I wrote was the very opening and then I wrote the scene at the bar leading into the final walk home. I always knew we were driving towards that ending. It’s meant to be a knife — you want the ending to be sharp.
Lee: The ending was a relentless beacon of light that never stopped reminding us of the enormous pressure leading up to that final moment. We always had the viewer in mind in knowing there would be a payoff to this beautiful invitation to come along on this ride with us.
The film has this leitmotif of inyeon, how people are fated to connect. Did making the film have a similar feel? I imagine people were passionate about working on it.
Song: Whenever I run into anyone involved in the film, we talk about inyeon. Obviously, it’s important to the film but we talk about having worked on the film as inyeon: How we are all tied together because of it and how special it feels. That’s how this movie can exist.
Lee: Celine did something that was so brilliant — I only learned this recently. She asked the departments to do an exercise where they read the script out loud — our cinematographer read the role of Nora Moon. It created an automatic investment across the board for everyone, not just the actors.
You had staged readings where the crew played the roles?
Song: Well, we did it over Zoom. So my DP would play Nora or Hae Sung or Arthur. We all took turns.
Greta, did you ever see any of these other Noras?
Lee: (Laughing) I’m sure some of them could have given me a run for my money.
Song: We’d read it out loud and then talk about it. So when I’m talking to my DP or production designer and we have to change the way we’re making a scene, we could always navigate it because they understood what we needed to achieve. It wasn’t just, “Greta has our job and we have our job.” It was, “We know what Greta has to accomplish in this scene because we know how this part of the story fits into the whole script.” We were all partners in how we were going to face the day.
Lee: I’ve said we all came for the script, and we stayed for the director. Every moment was something we discussed collectively, and I love specificity and I love teamwork. I’ve never been in a situation where I felt so well taken care of.
Song: And I’m so happy to talk with Greta here because so much of it is about these performances. This film doesn’t have special effects or period costumes, I didn’t give Greta crazy costumes or makeup.
Lee: I asked for special effects! I wanted a little bit of CGI! I was like, “Can we please have some aging makeup?” But Celine brutally denied us all.
Song: So the entire story is really happening through the sunrise and sunset of the actors’ faces. It spans many decades and many continents and the scale of it is the scale of a person’s life. And that’s massive and vast. At the heart of it, pulling the story through, is these performances, with Greta at the center of it.
Greta, there are many scenes where the actors have to convey so much while something goes unspoken. Was that intimidating?
Lee: It was daunting and profoundly humbling but also fascinating and a goldmine. But it all boiled down to the script. There might be an assumption because it was so collaborative that we were finding things in the moment or just being present for each other. But if you read the script, it is incredibly surgical and precise in what it’s asking for.
Song: My joke would be that every day I asked Greta to jump off a cliff with me and every day she did it.
Lee: And never cry while doing it! Never shed a tear.
Can we talk about that? Nora is working to keep herself together through the film — was it hard to not cry or be emotional throughout?
Lee: Yes, but I understood why. I think there is sometimes an expectation for an actor to push or to show big emotion. But what felt really radical about this opportunity was to not go there — to just let the truth of a moment be enough. And there is so much to mine from those pauses. Getting to play in a more naturalistic style is something I really enjoyed and hope to return to.
So how much of a relief was it to get to that final scene?
Lee: We were joking it was our Michael Bay moment of the movie. There was so much pressure leading up to it. We’ve talked a lot about how it was engineered — it was one tracking shot and we laid tracks the length of an entire New York City block. But the emotional experience of walking back and forth from her present into the past, and then the past back to her present and then the future was enormously challenging and thrilling and difficult and terrifying. It sounds dramatic, but saying goodbye felt like enduring some sort of death over and over again. I felt like I was training for it like it was an action film. To be able to do that and not give away what was going to happen — we wanted the audience to wonder, to sit on the edge of their seats until the very last moment. And that required so much from everyone collectively to pull it off.