[Editor’s note: The following interview contains spoilers for “Past Lives.”]
The whole time rookie filmmaker Celine Song was shooting “Past Lives” in New York, she knew she had to finish up her location exteriors with the ultimate shot of the movie. The camera follows friends since childhood Nora (Greta Lee) and Hae Sung (Teo Yoo), as they walk along a Village street. They say good-bye. He grabs an Uber. And then she walks all the way back to her apartment, where her husband Arthur (John Magaro) sits on the stoop. It’s filmed in one long take. Six minutes and 26 seconds, to be exact.
“I remember when we were location scouting, and we found this street,” Song told IndieWire, “I remember telling everybody in my crew, ‘so this scene is the hill that we’re all going to die on. So we’re going to have to figure out how to do this in a way that we’re going to put everything we have against it, because if this doesn’t work, none of the movie works.”
It was late in the shoot, before they moved onto a soundstage. They had spent two nights filming the pivotal bar scene that inspired the film, as Nora translates between her American husband and her childhood sweetheart. “So the actors were emotionally in the perfect place to be able to shoot that scene,” said Song. “So that was a way that you can make that scene easier in some ways. Even though of course, the technical part of it is complicated, because you are trying to claim the location for the whole street.”
Half a block in New York City is a fair distance, especially in the East Village. “So if you move truly one foot to one side,” said Song, “we’re gonna run right into the zoo that is the East Village on Friday night. And it was it was pretty miraculous the way we were able to get it. And when we were talking about it, we knew that we wanted to do this walk. But my DP [Shabier Kirchner] asked me which direction that they should walk, and then she would walk back home. And I said, ‘Of course, it should go from right to left, it’s the past.’ If you look at it as a timeline, you’re walking towards a spot in the past, you’re walking Hae Sung back, and you stop there. And then she has to linger for 45 seconds. I was queuing it with my hand. I was queuing the Uber, it’s like, ‘perfect, this feels right, let’s go.’”
They were shooting in 35mm. “So we had to change the mag [film magazine] every time,” she said. “We would do one, and then it would change. And she would dwell there after he’s left and he has to leave back into her past. And then she’s going to pause and then she’s going to turn and push herself towards the present and the future. Right. So she has to go the other way. And then where her present is, where her future is, there is Arthur sitting there on the stoop, which is her home, too.”
Song was blessed with some on-set kismet. “A couple of miraculous things happened,” she said. “There was this piece of wind, that would be blowing in the direction towards the past and where the Uber was going to drive away. And we didn’t have a wind machine. ‘Oh my God,’ we were trying to figure out this scene so much that we had not thought about the possibility of wind. But the wind just showed up. That’s just a pure filmmaking miracle. And then I knew that when she was walking home, she has to cry, but she’s not crying for the whole of the film. So this is the moment that she’s alone for the first time almost in the film. And she is able to allow herself to grieve like that. That walk is about the grief for the little girl that she never got to grieve. It’s not about, ‘oh my god, I wish I went with with Hae Sung,’ it’s more about the girl.”
The movie isn’t about Nora picking one man over the other. “No, never,” said Song. “And once Hae Sung has gone, the next shot, the final shot is him in the car. And he’s of course going from left to right. So he has to find his own way to move forward too because until then he hasn’t been able to. It was good for him. And he finally was able to close that door. So to me, and when I was talking to Teo the actor about what he should look like as he was getting driven away by Uber, the easier thing is for him is to feel self pity or melancholic, or sad. But actually, I was like, ‘No, you should look like you’re at peace, and you’re glad, and you’re exhausted, but in a great way, like the way you’re going to feel once you’ve made this movie.”
An A24 release, “Past Lives” is now in theaters.