“Past Lives,” the breathtaking, Brooklyn-set romance from first-time feature film writer-director Celine Song, slow-boiled into an indie hit for distributor A24 this month through its employment of “radical restraint,” star Greta Lee told TheWrap. But some viewers may be left frustratingly, heartrendingly wondering why Lee’s Nora and her childhood love, Hae Sung (Teo Yoo), never consummate their affections in a kiss after he travels from South Korea to New York City to visit her two decades after she emigrated to North America.
Answering why the characters choose to sit in their longing, Lee said that the film’s creative team was “betting on something more than that.” Speaking with TheWrap alongside Song ahead of the film’s national expansion on Friday, Lee even coyly added that “someone in our cast” (see: her) had been initially advocating for a kiss before realizing it wouldn’t have been truthful to the circumstances.
“There was very briefly a conversation about a scene — I don’t want to name names — but someone in our cast may have been advocating for an additional kiss scene — someone who’s not present here,” Lee said, laughing. “A different movie than this, we easily could have had more physicality, not just kissing, even something more explicit. But I think that the bet that we were all making, originating from Celine, was we were betting on something more than that.”
Song said her reasoning was in part the idea that longing “is gone if it is consummated.”
“That thing was actually harder, I would argue, than just showing maybe a more conventional idea of laying out a painful love story,” Lee said, speaking to the process of performing such restraint. “Instead, we were really put to task in terms of betting on this emotional arc that was full of this kind of restraint, and betting on the audience experiencing this kind of longing, this authentic longing that can happen without a lot of touching and a lot of kissing.”
Costarring John Magaro as Arthur — Nora’s white, American husband who serves as both an emotional pillar and a blockage to her will-she, won’t-she relationship with Hae Sung — “Past Lives” is a lush, quiet immigrant romance of “adults doing their best to behave as adults,” Lee said. As Nora juggles her past and present in an unlikely love triangle, the film’s final moments are really the only within its 100-minute runtime where her emotions are allowed to break free — and therefore, so are the audience’s.
Lee and Song spoke with TheWrap about constructing the film’s emotionally exacting, tear-inducing closer and what it was like to create something so close to the heart.
There are moments in “Past Lives” that just make you catch your breath. Was it as emotional an experience making it as it was experiencing it?
Greta Lee: Well, Celine was cool as a cucumber. Truly, I still refuse to accept that this is somehow her debut as a director. It was a highly personal experience for all of us, but so much of it was sitting on our emotions and how we felt about it privately. That was just the magic of what Celine set out to do from the beginning with her scripts. It really stood out from that first read, it just felt like such a flex to do that — to tell this love story in this way, like, so full of this restraint. It’s this radical restraint. And not just, like, quiet, but how to expand on what can seem like a mundane exchange or really simple ideas about love — stretching them out, making them cosmic and universal, massive in scale. On a lot of levels, it’s actually easier to just emote, right? To show everything, to just succumb to tears. [Song] very famously would say, “No, no tears, no crying.” It was so essential.
Celine Song: To me, from the subjectivity of creating the story and telling the story to the objectivity of making it and turning it into images and getting into the work that they’re able to do, I think that that’s the thing that I’m transversing through. If I am able to be objective, if I’m able to hold a ground on how much restraint and how much needs to be held back, or how much needs to be let go of; if I’m in control of that and if I’m really focusing on that, then they’re able to push and live and breathe like people. I had to have a set of eyes, even though writing it and of course, telling the story itself was such a subjective experience, the making of it had to remain objective in some way.
A part of it is it’s like having intelligent actors who are able to then use all the energy of wanting to cry or wanting to do certain kinds of emotive performance and really holding it, not letting go of it and really be able to transcribe it.
One of my favorite things about these three characters is that they’re all so smart. They’re all kind of grappling with this tension between the head and the heart. What about that tension really intrigued you in terms of storytelling?
CS: What was important more than anything is for these characters to feel like an authentic representation of what it’s like to be a human being who lives in the modern world. The depths of these characters have to just come through, and one of the ways that I knew that it is possible is intelligence and also, especially, emotional intelligence. We can connect to them because they’re at least as emotionally intelligent as an ordinary person who is thoughtful and who wants to connect to the movie. So absolutely, they should be intelligent. Absolutely, they should be able to articulate, because there’s a mystery to the movie that you have to articulate for us to be on the journey with that mystery. For you to know what the mystery is, you need to speak it.
In terms of that emotional intelligence, I think it also speaks to the actual outcome of the film. Hae Sung returns to Korea, their attraction and intimacy with each other is never consummated. Nora returns to Arthur. What was the decision-making process behind not exploring what a kiss might have looked like and to instead live in that tension?
GL: [Laughing] There was very briefly a conversation about a scene — I don’t want to name names, but someone in our cast may have been advocating for an additional kiss scene — someone who’s not present here. But that was, I mean, I think a different movie than this, we easily could have had more physicality, not just kissing, like, even something more explicit. But I think that the bet that we were all making, originating from Celine, was we were betting on something more than that. And that thing was actually harder, I would argue, than just showing maybe a more conventional idea of laying out a painful love story. Instead, we were really put to task in terms of betting on this emotional arc that was full of this kind of restraint and betting on the audience experiencing this kind of longing, this authentic longing that can happen without a lot of touching and a lot of kissing.
CS: I think the thing about longing is that it is gone if it is consummated, right? The other part of it is that the actors are being tasked with this thing — I think what you’re saying about ‘harder,’ in some ways, it’s only harder because it is sometimes hard to imagine the drama in it, which is that they’re caring for each other and they’re putting their own feelings aside, or own needs aside, so that they can be there for the other person. And it’s happening between all three of them at any given moment in the film. So to me, it’s like being able to behave like adults, or being able to behave well and be good to each other, is really at the heart of where the drama of this movie is.
GL: Yeah, there’s such a generosity in the way these characters are constructed. I love what you say about this movie, on the simplest level, just essentially being about adults doing their best to behave as adults. And I find that so hot and sexy. That idea is so modern and so fresh and radical and something that I don’t think we get to see so much.
I want to tap into that final parting of ways and the long shot that it takes for Nora to return to the brownstone and finally have that emotional release. What was it like filming that and ending on that grace note?
CS: What was so miraculous about that night is the difficulty of not only being able to lay 150 feet of track to be able to shoot this walk to the spot and Uber and then the walk back, but it is also that Greta had to do this unbelievable performance where she does have to cry. The cry has to come from the whole movie that came before. It was just such a difficult scene when it comes to actually achieving it. And I do really think it was a miracle that had happened.
GL: Celine finally allowed me to cry. And I’m just really overcome with gratitude of her just letting me have that release in that moment. But yes, shooting it, there was so much thought put into every aspect of that. And the idea that the tracking shot that moves from left to right is covering the distance of moving backwards versus forward in time — all of those things were really deliberate.
CS: Well, it’s like a timeline. Nora is walking with Hae Sung to a spot in the past by walking from right to left, and then they stand there, and they stand for two minutes, and I was the one cuing the Uber. So Greta and Teo didn’t know when the Uber was going to come. Those two minutes had to feel like it’s eternity, but also it has to feel like it’s too short. And so you cue the car and the car comes and of course, takes Hae Sung and drives into the past. And then Nora stands there for a moment — and it was so miraculous, there was a wind. We didn’t have a wind machine, but there was a little piece of wind that was blowing her skirt in the direction where Hae Sung drove away. And then, Greta turns around and she starts making her way back. That walk is so much about the longing and the possibilities and things like that. But it also is about her, for the first time in her life, grieving the little girl that she left behind. She finally got to say goodbye. So that’s what that walk home, that’s what the crying is. And then at the end of that walk is her present, which is her husband and her home. And then she goes home.
This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.