[EDITOR'S NOTE: indieWIRE is profiling the Narrative and Documentary Competition filmmakers who are screening their films at the Los Angeles Film Festival as world premieres.]
Director Harry Kim's "Dirty Hands: The Art & Crimes of David Choe" is premiering in the Documentary Competition of the Los Angeles Film Festival. The film details Los Angeles-based artist Choe from 2000 to 2007, a period of "adventure and excess" that captivated close friend Kim, as well as the time that Choe rose to fame and fortune in the art world. Kim captures everything from jail sentences to an addiction to shoplifting to a journey to wrestle pygmies in the heart of the Congo. He talked to indieWIRE about their experience and the film's screening at LAFF.
What initially attracted you to filmmaking?
I would have to answer this in two parts. Like most kids, I was just exposed to the bigger budget Hollywood type films. There was a 99 cent double feature theater near my house in K-town to which my brother and I would go see whatever they had every two weeks. They had mostly R rated films and was a great thing for a nine year old kid. I was really confused when I saw "Blue Velvet" there. Then while in high school, my brother came back from college and started exposing me to more independent/foreign/artistic films from Tarantino to Kurosawa etc. Luckily I had some good video stores around and rented whatever I heard of. That was my early film education. Then while in college, I went to a local college film festival and I saw a slew of cheaply made student films. That's when I realized that this was something I could do also.
What was the inspiration for this film?
"Dirty Hands" is a biopic so the inspiration is right there in the subject matter. David Choe himself draws intense enthusiasm from his fans so much of what drove the project was really his life events and his energy.
Please elaborate on your approach to making the film...
I didn't set on making a feature length film about David Choe's life. The film evolved along as I reset benchmarks of expectations about the film as events occurred. My cinematographer, Johnny Granado, started following David Choe in 2000, back when I was in film school. Back then, I talked to David and decided to follow him for two weeks with a camera. I mixed Johnny's footage and mine to make a short 10 minute documentary on David's street art called "Whaled and Orgies." For the next couple of years, Johnny followed David around while I rarely shot David's life. By 2003, I talked with David about making him the subject of my school thesis. I only planned on making a 30 minute documentary that covered his art, how and why he made it, and to show, honestly, how he was living during that time. This is where I struggled to get his girlfriend, Mylan, on camera. She was integral to his life at that point. Then he went to prison in Japan and came back a changed man and went into hiding.
I was compelled to get that story. So when I found him, I asked him to talk in detail about what happened. After he did, this opened up a full story about the biography of this young man. After that point, I started gathering whatever I could about David. I followed him to the Congo, across America a couple of times, Vegas many times, interviewing anybody and everybody. From 2005 on, I started the editing process as I concurrently shot. I finally finished the film in 2008.
What were some of the biggest challenges you faced in making the film?
Money. But that is the story of most independent filmmakers. This is totally self-financed and taking on an endeavor like this fiscally crushes you on both sides. I could not hold down a steady job and I had to pump money into the movie somehow. So I did whatever it took. Thankfully, my girlfriend and my parents helped me immensely. David also gave me proceeds from one of his paintings. But some of the things I did was sell a bunch of David's old possessions on ebay, I bought and sold a piece of art that turned out was stolen and I had to fight in court, I went on numerous stressful gambling trips to Vegas with David as his money manager and retained a cut on the winnings, I freelanced computer help to two nice Jewish ladies, I received payment for traveling to the Congo and across America with David, and thanks to the artificially low interest rates, I borrowed tons from my credit cards- from which I am currently doing the transfer balance juggling act.
David. When Jim Carrey became the most famous guy for awhile, I wondered, that's great but how can someone be around him? David Choe is no Jim Carrey but the man is manic and depressive but mostly manic. And while his lifestyle is ridiculous and exciting, it's something that most normal human beings can barely keep up with. But while that last 5 years have been tiring, it has also been awesome. Just from this, I already have a good amount of stories to tell to entertain my grandkids.
What are your goals for the Los Angeles Film Festival?
Freedom. I now have the time to make money, get paid, and start living at least a little more like a normal human being. Of course I'll take the best deal that comes along but I'm a simple man. With my basic needs taken care of, I could do whatever I want, my options are wide open.
What I did not expect was how great the festival was both to the filmmakers and to the audience. They took the filmmakers on a retreat to George Lucas' Skywalker Ranch, they facilitate networking with all peoples not just the suits but all types of filmmakers, and they make the audience feel comfortable to attending and being exposed to new films. It sounds like a pitch but it's true, these people really have their shit together. So I'm kind of also just enjoying being here at my first world premiere and lucky that it happened here.
Get the latest from the Los Angeles Film Festival in indieWIRE's special section.