Thanks to her previous films “In Between Days” and “Treeless Mountain,” and a none-more-indie cast featuring Paul Dano and Jena Malone, So Yong Kim’s latest “For Ellen” (our review here) had to be one of the most anticipated films of the Sundance Film Festival. Forming one half of a power couple of indie cinema (with Bradley Rust Gray, director of “The Exploding Girl” and the upcoming “Jack and Diane“), it marks her first time working with more established names and proves to be her most accessible project to date.
We were lucky enough to get a few minutes of time with Yong Kim at Sundance this week to discuss the project, her collaboration with her lead actor, and whether we’ll be seeing the final part of her Korean trilogy any time soon.
Your previous films were mostly in Korean so can you talk about the decision to cast Paul Dano and take the film in a different direction?
I feel like I’m working in the same theme for me, because it’s very personal. You know the germ of the story comes from a personal memory. So, I think it’s surprising for people because I did two Korean language films, and suddenly I’m doing this film with actors and cast that are white and named. But the decision was because I felt, I can do a film in Korean, I want to do a film in English. I speak English, why not? And it’s so much fun and freeing somehow. As an independent filmmaker, I think if I made another Korean language film it’s like ‘yeah, of course she can do that.’ It’s like challenging for me to use different colors in the pallet.
When you wrote the script were you imagining casting it in English with American actors or was it up in the air at that point?
When I was first writing the story, it was really just about wanting to work on a film about a male character. It didn’t matter if it was white, Asian, it didn’t matter for me. After my first two films which are about teenage girls, and two young girls, I wanted to go and develop a story about a male character. And I don’t know why but that was really important to me, but that was the beginning, and then when I was collecting notes on the script, the character was in his late sixties, an old Asian man, then he was a ghost… it had so many transformations. So you just never know what you start with.
What guided you through that creative process? Was it all internal or were you getting feedback from other people?
I never send my script or writing to anybody until it’s completely ready. I don’t talk about it with my husband Brad either really. I keep a tight lid as to what I’m doing. Maybe Brad knew at one point the character was a ghost and he was like “what kind of film are you writing?” I think he was really surprised. But no, for me it’s very internal. I want to, you know, protect the baby. Protect the film as long as I can.
Can you talk about some of the challenges of working outside of your comfort zone and getting inside the characters head while you were writing?
I think the scariest part about the writing of the character was not the fact that he was male but it was more that the most terrifying thing about this character is that he has so many traits of myself. That’s the most embarrassing thing I’ve seen on screen. I think at some point in my life, when I thought I wanted to be like, a great painter, a figure painter, when I was going to art school. So I went through that stage of believing in that way. I don’t know, I just see so much of him and his interactions with Butler and stuff, how I might have acted towards people who are different from me, or who do different things then I do. Like you know? And just things like that. So for me the film was challenging, because I really had to go into these parts of myself that are really unlikeable. That’s difficult for me to face. You don’t think that way? When you have an interaction with someone, and you walk away from it and you’re like “oh my god, I’m so embarrassed,” you know?
At the Q&A you talked a little bit about the 70s influences in the movie. I was wondering if you could talk about how those came about. Were they in your mind while you were writing this or is that something that developed after you finished the script?
I think it happened somewhere along the line. The last scene where he gets in the truck and leaves was one of the first scenes that I wrote. Because I wrote the scenes out of sequence, that and the fly scene were the first two scenes. So it was there from the very beginning, and then I watched a lot of 70s films on and off during the development, and also before we went to production. I just love that era, that decade of filmmaking, there’s so much spirit in that, of people telling great stories that are personal, but super well made, and I don’t know, they’re like independent voices that came out in that era. I have so much respect for that, and it’s inspiring. To a certain extent, I think we might be going through that phase in independent filmmaking right now. Young filmmakers are coming up, so I think it’s really exciting.
Paul Dano mentioned that he read this script as a friend but decided he wanted to play the part and had to convince you to make the character younger. Did you rewrite the script once he signed on or was that something you just adapted on set?
You know we sent the script to Paul, and agreed that it’s totally possible, and made the story more hopeful at the end perhaps, and then I didn’t have to rewrite the script at all. We just worked with what we had. Everything seemed very organic once Paul came on board, everything kind of fit into place. I’m really grateful for that collaboration, because Paul is a great cinephile, and he’s seen so many films, and he has a great language of cinema, so it was for me a great learning experience because I also learned from the way he worked. I feel almost like I’m spoiled. I had this chance to work with Paul, and I kind of expect all of the actors in the future to be that dedicated and that focused, and that excited about films and story telling. I just feel like I got really spoiled on that. Do you know what I mean? Now my expectation is I want that or nothing, all the time.
Can you talk about his process a little bit? How much of the character was in the script and what did he bring to it?
You know he’s a musician himself, he’s in a band. His band’s music is really different then the type of songs that Joby listens to in this film, and Brad, my partner is a filmmaker but he’s also a music connoisseur. I’m not! I had a vague idea of the type of person he is, and the type of music he would like, and I knew what type of songs that his band would not be singing, but I couldn’t pinpoint what it is. So from that point of view, Paul and I spent a lot of time shopping for the outfits, looking for the jeans and his hair color. His makeup, his fingernail polish, his jewelry and everything. His tattoos, what the designs meant. Paul and I are kind of the same, we don’t ever come out and say no, I hate that. He’d be like no, maybe not like that. So we were always kind of eliminating things and finally focusing on the exact one. And the music, I think Paul was listening to a lot of Led Zeppelin, AC/DC, Guns’N’Roses, He’d be like “listen to this song,” or I would send him stuff or we would send video clips of bands, you know? So we went through this research period, which is fun. That’s actually the most fun phase you could go through. So through that we were able to come together in this kind of hard rock, glam band wannabe. Led Zeppelin and Buckcherry combined. But not quite, you know?
It’s such a specific type of music that has its fans but I wouldn’t imagine you or Paul would be into it.
Yeah, I mean it’s not…we didn’t want it to be “Haha, isn’t that funny?” We wanted it to be respectful. if it was indie rock bands we understood that, we have friends in Brooklyn who are struggling musicians and we know that lifestyle very well, we know the songs, you know? But then it would have been too much like us, like talking about our world. So I thought well we should put some work into this and Paul felt the same way.
Where did you film the movie?
New York. It’s colder in the film then here. It’s below 20, below 30. You can’t tell but it’s that cold. You get a sense that it’s cold.
It definitely has that gray feeling to it.
Well it’s New York but, borders Canada. That area is very much inland, so there’s no warm water circulating on the ocean. New York Coast is warmer, because of the Atlantic.
How long was the shoot?
We had 18 days and we lost two days because Paul got really sick from the cold. We were so terrified that we wouldn’t have the film. And the whole thought of having to come back in the winter to reshoot. Because you know you can get your whole team excited like, okay, it’s 18 days, it’s focused, you’re here for this amount of time and that’s doable. So we were terrified.
How did you pull it off without the two days?
We forced Paul to feel better with a lot of medication, we had a doctor on set to monitor him, it was really intense. We tried to catch up each day the days we lost, so the days were longer, and then we had one extra day that we were saving so we shot all of the scenes that we lost on the last Saturday there. We shot six scenes on that Saturday, which is a lot. We started at 4:00 in the morning and went until very late. But every single scene we shot that day we used, it’s in the final film. Every single one. It’s crazy, right? If only that could happen every day you shoot. It was intense but good.
Luckily him being sick can work for most of the movie.
Right, because he’s hung over.
So you mentioned that you don’t really show your scripts to your husband [filmmaker Bradley Rust Gray] before they’re finished. Do you give him input on his scripts?
Not until he’s ready. Not until he’s done. And likewise. I think that’s because we feel that you know when you’re writing these characters are so fragile. Like any slight comment could affect the characters so much. So we really try not to attack the idea, or the concept, or the development of the character. And i feel that more so than Brad I think, although he really doesn’t want me to know anything about his script until the first reading. So I don’t know, we do that to have some boundaries. Otherwise we wouldn’t be able to be married, have kids, work together and have a good friendship going, do you know what I mean?
Maybe, but the thing is, I have to follow certain urges and instincts, and right now I feel like I need to wait on that. Otherwise it will be the same story over and over again. I’m sure there’s a third coming, but I don’t know when.
— Interview by Cory Everett