Susan Kouguell speaks with Matthew Friedman about his work on The Farewell and his collaboration with Lulu Wang on their third film together, and his editing philosophies.
“Every frame matters”
— Matthew Friedman
Writer and director Lulu Wang’s The Farewell opened with a limited release on July 12, yielding the best platform opening of the year, and continues to maintain a 100% score on Rotten Tomatoes. Now, in just over a month of its release, this low-budget independent film continues to average at number 7 at the crowded summer box office of big budget studio films. If numbers are any indicator, audiences have a strong desire for poignant, character-driven stories, and The Farewell is just the proof to build such a case.
About The Farewell
In this funny, uplifting tale based on an actual lie, Chinese-born, U.S.-raised Billi (Awkwafina) reluctantly returns to Changchun to find that, although the whole family knows their beloved matriarch, Nai-Nai (grandma), has been given mere weeks to live, everyone has decided not to tell Nai herself. To assure her happiness, they gather under the joyful guise of an expedited wedding, uniting family members scattered among new homes abroad. As Billi navigates a minefield of family expectations and proprieties, she finds there’s a lot to celebrate: a chance to rediscover the country she left as a child, her grandmother’s wondrous spirit, and the ties that keep on binding even when so much goes unspoken.
I had the pleasure to speak with Matthew Friedman about his work on The Farewell and his collaboration with Wang on their third film together, and his editing philosophies.
About Editor Matthew Friedman
Matthew Friedman has edited features around the world and has credits in numerous genres, including Alvin And The Chipmunks: The Squeakquel, the 3D dance movie Step Up Revolution, the comedy What Happens In Vegas, the Netflix original film Step Sisters, and several pilots, including the pilot for the series The Loop. His most recent credits include Posthumous and Life In A Year. He edited the short film Dog Food, which premiered at SXSW and won San Diego Comic-Con’s Best Horror/Suspense Film Award. He has worked with directors and producers, including Betty Thomas, Shawn Levy, Andrew Lazar, Adam Shankman, Karen Rosenfelt, Jenno Topping, and Charles Stone III. Friedman has collaborated with Wang on both of her feature films, as well as her award-winning short film Touch. He is perhaps best known, however, as the voice of the talking bird in Scary Movie 2.
Kouguell: Let’s start with your background in editing.
Friedman: I went to film school at Northwestern in Chicago. They didn’t have a specialty editing program, but I always enjoyed editing. When I graduated, I wasn’t sure what I wanted to do. I thought maybe direct but having directed a bit in college I didn’t really like it. I found out about an internship with a studio in Atlanta in 1993 and faxed them a top 10 list of why they should hire me. Funny things like: ‘good at math’. I got a call almost immediately after I faxed them. They offered me an internship in either the art or editorial department. I fell into a great situation working with the editor Emma Hickox—she’s Anne Coates’s daughter who edited Lawrence of Arabia. Emma is magnificent and taught me so much that I didn’t learn in film school. She said, move out to L.A. and I will hire you as an assistant. And I did and she hired me.
Kouguell: Tell me about collaborating with Lulu Wang.
Friedman: One of the great things about Lulu is that she’s incredibly tenacious and never gives up. On our first project together, she was cutting Posthumous in Berlin with a different editor and not getting the response from the screenings, so they looked for someone to come help them polish it. I went out to Berlin for three months in the summer to recut the film with her.
One of the things that happened early on, that goes to my philosophy, is that every frame on the screen must be placed there consciously to further the story. If it’s not there to support the story it should be cut. The way we worked, for example, is that I went through the first reel, and then we worked together on what I cut. Sometimes when she asked me to put something back in and I would suggest to tighten it up, she would suggest: “OK, split the difference.” This leads to another philosophy when I’m editing, which is to ask: ‘What is this character thinking? What’s in a character’s mind?’ You can’t edit a scene without understanding what characters are thinking in order to cut their performance.
Kouguell: You’ve worked on projects of all genres. What makes this one unique for you?
Friedman: I got my start cutting big, broad studio comedies which was very enjoyable, but I wanted to start working on more risky and more unique, character-driven projects. So, I stepped away from those and started cutting more independent films. The Farewell is the culmination of that desire and that move. The reception it has received is amazing and humbling, and I couldn’t imagine a better result when I made the decision to work on independent films.
I like cutting in multiple genres. Obviously, The Farewell has a lot of comedy and a lot of crying so the skills I’ve acquired from cutting different genres I am able to work that together.
Kouguell: Did you stick close to the script?
Friedman: It’s a matter of degrees. This is true in virtually every movie. The script is the jumping off point; it’s a road map made before the contributions of the other creative people, including the director, actors, and director of photography, step in.
The intention of the script is followed completely. Lulu understood the story she wanted to tell. All the other creatives brought their flourishes into it. That’s why I like being an editor; I can put my finger in all that everyone’s contributed.
Lulu is such a tenacious person, she is always rewriting through the editing process and she considers what she can improve in post-production, she never stops.
Kouguell: The film’s pacing has a definite rhythm to it. For example, not rushing through quiet moments, seeing characters think and breathe on their own.
Friedman: I was vicious in terms of every frame matters. There are scenes that are cut quite quickly and when you shift to those quiet moments it helps to bolster the emotional effect of the performance. Indeed, there were times I would cut something, and Lulu would say, ‘I would hate losing that’ and we’d discuss what the intention was, and sometimes we’d come to the conclusion that it shouldn’t be there.
Other times I would try to cut something, and she’d say, I want more space for emotion’. Like the groom crying. All those moments are specifically designed. Lulu and I had intense conversations about how long everything would be, to the frame. Nothing was arbitrary. It was important to understand what was going on in the characters’ minds, what they were wrestling with, and give them enough time to move through those emotions, their decisions, and what they were processing.
Friedman: I went to see The Farewell at a movie theatre with a full audience on a Sunday afternoon. It was the first time I saw it with an audience who paid money to go. Watching their reactions and feeling their reactions was really the reason I got into filmmaking in the beginning. Helping to tell a story like this, bringing them to laughing, to crying and move them finally to hope, is just such a rewarding experience.
There was a random guy behind us who said after the film, ‘I’m going home to call my grandma’. Lulu said in interviews that’s what she wanted, to move audiences to build connections with other people. The critical responses have been the icing on the cake.
To learn more about Lulu Wang visit her website here.
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