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“Growing up in a creative household was my version of having a trust fund”: A Q&A with Past Lives filmmaker Celine Song

Here, the former arty kid from Unionville talks about how the GTA inspired her indie superhit, whether choice and destiny can co-exist, and the mundane beauty of Iced Capps

By Daniel Reale-Chin
"Growing up in a creative household was my version of having a trust fund": A Q&A with Past Lives filmmaker Celine Song
Photo by Getty Images

Past Lives is your first feature film, and it’s already a critical darling and frontrunner for best movie of the year. How does it feel? Right now, all I can think about is taking this one step at a time. We just had the North American release, but it’s an independent film with a small budget, so the fact that it’s getting any kind of attention is such an amazing thing.

You’ve written for both the stage and TV. Is writing a movie screenplay any different? Fundamentally, no. It’s all about story and character: how to put a scene together and how to push the narrative forward. In theatre, time and space are not literal—it’s a live performance of language and emotion. TV writing comes with the pressure of needing the art to succeed in serial form. I find that there’s a bit more freedom in writing for film, but at the end of the day, audiences show up for the story. 

What made cinema an ideal medium for Past Lives? It’s a love story about ordinary people living ordinary lives, but it’s epic in scope, spanning decades and continents. It takes place in Seoul, New York and Toronto, and the main characters’ relationships with these locations help demonstrate why they can’t be together.

Throughout the movie, we get to see these loving, sweeping shots of all three cities. If you had to pick one, which would you call home? In some ways, all of them, though it’s more like they all live inside of me. They’re the building blocks of who I am. Part of me feels like my home is in Korea, because I was born there. Today, I live in New York, but Toronto is where my parents are, and I visit all the time.

You grew up in Unionville and Markham, specifically. Yes. I remember plenty of good times visiting Toogood Pond Park with my family, and I went to Markham District High School. It’s funny—most of my memories from that time are mundane. You know, walking with friends to Tim Hortons to hang out and drink Iced Capps. 

Mundanity is also an element of Past Lives, isn’t it? Despite the movie being set in these big cities, you never showcase any famous landmarks. The goal was to take everyday, average places and transform them into destinations that would reveal themselves to be memorable to the characters—and of course to the audience. For example, I wanted to authentically depict the customs room at Pearson airport, because it represents immigration and transition. As I go through life, I’m realizing that the essence of who I am is increasingly connected to the places I’ve lived and visited.

That sounds so romantic. Everyone has romance in their lives, it just sometimes manifests in subtle ways. Like, I’ll be listening to a Death Cab for Cutie song and be instantly transported right back to Markham.

Your father is also a filmmaker, and your mother is a graphic designer. How has their work influenced you? Growing up in a creative household was my version of having a trust fund. It was a really supportive environment, and it made my own career path easier to navigate. My parents, as fellow artists, always understood my work. 

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Have they seen the movie? They loved Past Lives. They’re so proud.

The Korean philosophy of in-yun, which is similar to destiny, is an important motif in the film. Were you worried that non-Korean viewers may not understand it? It’s not complicated. Like destiny, it’s sort of this notion that you create ties with people, potentially over many lifetimes. Chinese and Indian philosophies have their own words for it. Even if you’ve never heard of in-yun, you’ve experienced it.

Past Lives is also about making decisions and sticking to them no matter what. Do you believe that choice and destiny are at odds? A part of in-yun says that destiny just comes to you. But if you want to do something, you will do it. So, in my mind, choice and destiny aren’t at odds, per se. They’re just in constant conversation with each other.


This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

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