The most in-demand bartender in Los Angeles on Sunday night was “The Farewell” director Lulu Wang, who smiled warmly as she leaned forward from behind the sleek wooden bar at Melrose Avenue’s Auburn, vigorously shaking a spicy mezcal margarita for one customer as she fielded a question from the next.
For five hours of uninterrupted service, that smile never seemed to fade as she slung drinks and conversation for guest after guest at her own behind-the-bar filmmaker Q&A, a delightful new spin on the format.
“I had no idea how this was going to go, or if anyone would even show up,” she mused Monday afternoon, back at work at her day job executive producing her upcoming Amazon drama series, “The Expatriates,” only a few weeks after a whirlwind awards season. “But it was a blast.”
The event was announced on social media the night before, and the line outside was over a hundred deep when Wang’s pop-up Q&A began at 6 p.m. at the celebrated minimalist restaurant, where her brother, Anthony Wang, is a sous chef.
The menu for @thumbelulu’s behind-the-bar Q&A at Auburn, where there’s been a steady line outside all night — once inside, folks get to order a delicious cocktail and ask Lulu a question. So far: Many aspiring filmmakers seeking (and finding) inspiration! #AskLulu pic.twitter.com/4sKr1cdTww— jen yamato (@jenyamato) February 24, 2020
A steady stream of fans waited their turns to step inside and sidle up to the bar, befriending each other in the queue. Just down the block, by coincidence or fate, “Farewell” star Awkwafina waved to the world from a billboard for her Comedy Central show “Awkwafina Is Nora From Queens.”
Once inside, guests ordered artisanal cocktails and mocktails from a selection curated by Wang, like the Black Manhattan made with Rittenhouse rye and her favorite, the Green Banana, an exquisite blend of Armagnac, mezcal, banana liqueur and eucalyptus amaro served with a twist of lemon.
Nonalcoholic drinks were also on offer, including beverages made with fresh-squeezed Valencia orange, cucumber and beets.
As Wang mixed, stirred and shook orders by hand with the help of the Auburn bar staff, each customer had a chance to chat face-to-face with the filmmaker. They thanked her for making “The Farewell” and asked how she balances the personal and professional.
From behind the bar, Wang saw strangers become potential collaborators, and she said she appreciated the thoughtfulness behind the questions she received.
Among the most memorable:
“What are you most grateful for this year?”
“How do you deal with being far away from family as you’re pursuing your own dreams?”
“How do you hold your ground as a woman of color when you’re in spaces that are so white and male-dominated?”
“Where do you go to find inspiration?”
“Who is the jellicle choice?”
Black List founder Franklin Leonard lent an assist as guest moderator and barback for the evening, fielding his own questions about the film industry. Drinks in hand, attendees sparked conversations with one another in the restaurant’s packed foyer, talking about the movies they love and hope to one day make.
Many were filmmakers, industry professionals and film students themselves. Initially planned as a three-hour event, the Q&A went nearly two hours overtime as Wang insisted on serving every last person who’d stood in line to greet her. By the end of the night, she’d served an estimated 300 thirsty guests and a new kind of Q&A had been born.
I asked Lulu Wang (bartending tonight) what she wanted to get across the most when doing press for THE FAREWELL. She had day jobs to finance her filmmaking career, no connections, or elite status in the industry: “I wanted people to know that I’m not special, anybody can do it.”— Carlos Aguilar (@Carlos_Film) February 24, 2020
The only question off the menu? Inquiries about Wang’s grandmother, the inspiration for her Spirit Award- and Golden Globe-winning breakout film “The Farewell.” “My tears will ruin your drink,” Wang warned in a post announcing the event, which originated as a way of celebrating her birthday week.
Wang’s behind-the-scenes journey with “The Farewell” resonated with many who came to her unconventional Q&A. Inspired by personal experience, the tale about an Asian American woman negotiating generational and cultural divides first began as a 2016 podcast episode of “This American Life” before she turned it into a feature film, fighting to tell it her way.
Acquired in a bidding war out of the 2019 Sundance Film Festival, “The Farewell” went on to critical and commercial success, winning Awkwafina a historic Golden Globe for best actress. Earlier this month, the film took home the top prize at the Independent Spirit Awards, where Wang delivered a rousing acceptance speech advocating for fellow female filmmakers.
“Write what you know” was one of the pieces of advice she shared with fellow filmmakers Sunday night, some visiting from New York and beyond. One group of attendees who had just met said they were empowered by “The Farewell” and by meeting Wang, to tell their own culturally specific stories.
“I’ve never seen anything quite like it, and it was an honor (and a heck of a lot of fun) to be a part of it,” wrote Leonard of the intimate and boozy event. “I would love to recreate it regularly, but Lulu has set an extraordinarily high bar for such a thing to live up to.”
Filmmakers of L.A.: The challenge, and the bar, is now yours.