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‘Past Lives’ Director Celine Song on How She Landed Her Directorial Debut: “I Knew The Things That Only I Could Know’

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Celine Song has thought long and hard about how her current choices will ripple out into the future. “Who we are now cannot escape from who we were once,” says the director behind this year’s indie breakout Past Lives.

To make her point, she starts to script a scene between her future self and mine. “What’s going to happen is, in 20 years’ time, you and I are going to have a conversation again about a movie that I just made,” she tells me. “I just know that you’re going to say, ‘You remember when you were 35 and you were promoting your first movie, Past Lives?’ And we’ll just look at each other and we’ll see very vividly what each other was like.” As she envisions it, we’ll think about where we were at this exact moment — our loves, our stresses, our likely outdated haircuts. Song continues: “We will remember this Zoom and we’ll remember me being 10 minutes late to it. You know what I mean?” 

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Even if you don’t know what Song means, she is happy to take you on that journey with her, which is exactly what she did with audiences for her feature debut, Past Lives. The film follows New York playwright Nora (Greta Lee) as she reunites with her childhood sweetheart (Teo Yoo) — from whom she was separated when her family emigrated from Korea to Canada — and introduces him to her husband. A simple premise richly rendered, Past Lives has become the year’s hottest directorial debut and a bona fide critical darling, earning awards buzz for Song and star Lee. 

Celine Song photographed Oct. 15 at Quixote Studios in Los Angeles.
Celine Song photographed Oct. 15 at Quixote Studios in Los Angeles. Photographed by Jennelle Fong

At the top of the year, Past Lives entered the Sundance Film Festival, the first in-person iteration since the COVID-19 pandemic. It was on few “most anticipated” critics lists, overshadowed by titles with splashier casts (Anne Hathaway! Julia Louis-Dreyfus!) and seasoned directors (Ira Sachs! Nicole Holofcener!). As talk of some of the more hyped A-list endeavors quieted, the question “But have you seen Past Lives?” began to permeate festival conversations. By the time the Hollywood masses were flying back from Park City, it was clear that Song’s movie was the one to have watched. 

Even more impressive is that Past Lives was the first time Song had directed anything, let alone a feature film. For the better part of the 2010s, Song, who graduated from Columbia’s MFA playwriting program, was a regular at prestigious playwright residencies and fellowships. She broke out with her 2019 play Endlings, about haenyeos, the older female deep divers who harvest seafood in South Korea. It was staged off-Broadway in 2020 at the New York Theatre Workshop before being shut down by the pandemic. 

Song’s first foray into Hollywood was only a few years ago as a staff writer on the debut season of the high-fantasy Amazon Prime Video series The Wheel of Time. Yet with nary a short film or music video on her IMDb, her feature screenplay landed with A24, which has a track record for bringing playwrights to the big screen (see Jeremy O. Harris and Zola; Annie Baker and Janet Planet). “When I was starting, the list of things that I didn’t know how to do was very, very long,” she says. 

The filmmaker plainly laid out the situation to her lead actress, saying, as Lee remembers, “I am going to tell a love story in this way. Shot on 35 millimeter. I’ve never done this before. Do you trust me? Because we are going to do this.” 

As Song tells it now, “The grounding force in making my first movie is that, when I was looking at my short list of things that I do know, I knew that those were things that only I could know, which is story and character.” After all, she is the one who lived it. 

“We came for the script and then we stayed for the director,” says Greta Lee, the star of Song’s Past Lives.
“We came for the script and then we stayed for the director,” says Greta Lee, the star of Song’s Past Lives. Jon Pack/A24

Song got the initial idea for Past Lives when she was sitting in a New York City bar with her husband, fellow writer Justin Kuritzkes (his Hollywood bona fides include Luca Guadagnino’s upcoming film Challengers), and her childhood best friend who was visiting from Korea. She was the translator and literal go-between for the two men. “I had become a bridge or a portal between these two parts of my own self,” she explains.

The tableau became the opening sequence of Past Lives, where onlookers attempt to guess the connection between the onscreen doppelgangers of Song, her white American husband and her Korean childhood friend. “I think the white guy and the Asian girl are a couple and the Asian guy is her brother,” one voiceover guesses. Another offers, “Maybe they’re tourists and the white guy is their tour guide.” 

The scene could just as easily lived on a stage, so why would the playwright bother with the messy business of making a movie? “My joke is always that the villain of this story is not a person, it is time and space. It is the 24 years and the Pacific Ocean.” She wanted to depict that time and those spaces literally — and “in theater, that is all done figuratively.” 

Of course, that practicality came with its own challenges, including the film’s much-talked-about final sequence, a long one-take tracking shot that lasts while Nora walks her friend to his cab before breaking down in tears in the arms of her husband. It was filmed on a Friday night in the East Village, which, it turns out, was a bold decision. “The East Village is not where you go for your first drink, [it’s] where you go for your fifth,” explains Song. Just offscreen, as Lee is unfurling the emotional climax of the film, there were hordes of drunk bar patrons. Says Song, “I have such amazing audio of people asking, ‘Is this Spider-Man?’ ” 

Song already has set her next film with A24. Plot details are being kept under wraps, but she isn’t anticipating a return to theater anytime soon. “I didn’t know that I knew how to make a movie until I was doing it,” she tells me. “And then once I was doing it, I was like, ‘Oh my God, I’m going to do this until I die.’ ” 

Greta Lee in Past Lives
Greta Lee in Past Lives Courtesy of Twenty Years Rights/A24 Films

This story first appeared in the Nov. 16 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. Click here to subscribe.

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