The entire time first-time director Celine Song shot “Past Lives” in New York, she knew she had to finish her location exteriors with the film’s last shot. The camera follows childhood friends Nora (Greta Lee) and Hae Sung (Teo Yoo) as they walk along a village road. They greet each other. She takes an Uber. And then she goes back to her apartment, where her husband Arthur (John Magaro) is sitting on the porch. It is shot in one long take. Six minutes and 26 seconds, to be exact.
“I remember when we were location scouting and found this road,” Song said, “I remember saying to everyone 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 that in order to put everything we’ve got against it, because if that doesn’t work, none of the movies work.
It was late in the shoot before they moved to a soundstage. They had spent two nights filming the key 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,” Song said. “So it was a way to make that scene easier in some ways. Although obviously the technical part is complicated, because you’re trying to claim the location of the whole street.”
Half a block to New York City is a fair distance, especially in the East Village. “So if you really move a foot to the side,” Song said, “we’re going straight to the zoo that is the East Village on Friday night. And it was quite miraculous how we managed to achieve that. And when we talked about it, we knew we wanted to take this walk. But my DP (Shabier Kirchner) asked me which direction they should walk, and then she would go home. And I said, “Sure, it should go right to left, that’s the past.” If you look at it as a timeline, you’re walking to a point in the past, you’re taking Hae Sung back, and you stop there. And then she has to linger for 45 seconds. I was tailing it with my hand. I was standing in line at the Uber, it was like, ‘perfect, it feels right, let’s go.’”
They were shooting on 35mm. “So we had to change the magazine (film magazine) every time,” she said. “We would make one, and then it would change. And she would be living there after she’s gone and he’ll have to go back into her past. And then she’ll stop and then she’ll turn and push into the present and the future. Right. So he has to go the other way. And then where is his present, where is his future, is Arthur sitting on the porch, which is also his home.
The song was blessed with some kismet on set. “A couple of miraculous things happened,” she said. “There was this piece of wind, that would blow in the direction to the past and where the Uber would go off. And we didn’t have a wind machine. “Oh my God,” we were trying to figure this scene out so hard that we hadn’t thought about the possibility of wind. But the wind just showed up. This is just a pure cinematic miracle. And then I realized that when she was coming home, she was supposed to cry, but she didn’t cry the whole movie. So this is the moment where she’s alone for the first time almost in the movie. She and she is able to afford to suffer like that. That walk speaks of grief for the little girl who never got to grieve. It’s not about “oh my god, I would like to go with Hae Sung”, it’s more about the girl.
The film is not about Nora choosing one man over another. “No, never,” said Song. “And once Hae Sung is gone, the next shot, the final shot is him in the car. And of course he goes from left to right. So he too has to find his own way forward because until then he hasn’t been able to. He was good for him. And he finally managed to close that door. So for me, and when I was talking to Teo the actor about what he should look like being kicked off Uber, the easiest thing for him is to feel self-pity or melancholy or sadness. But really, I was like, ‘No, you should look like you’re at peace, and you’re happy, and you’re exhausted, but in a great way, like the way you’re going to feel once I’ve done this movie.