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Tribeca ’10 | Director Lee Isaac Chung Brings a Poem to Life in “Lucky Life”

Tribeca '10 | Director Lee Isaac Chung Brings a Poem to Life in "Lucky Life"

Following his last feature “Munyurangabo,” shot in Rwanda, director Lee Isaac Chung returned to the U.S. to tell an altogether different story in “Lucky Life.” The touching drama will be making its world premiere at Tribeca this year, and is competing in the World Narrative Feature Competition.

Every year, Jason, Alex, and newly married Mark and Karen leave New York for a North Carolina beach house to reconnect and relax. But this year is different: Jason has been diagnosed with an aggressive terminal cancer, repurposing their trip as a meaningful—yet uncertain—farewell. Sharing laughter and camaraderie in even the most quotidian activities, the friends struggle to conceal their grief and use their disillusionment as an affirmative force. Some time later, as Mark and Karen prepare for the birth of their first child, memories of Jason seep into their new phase of life.

Inspired by the poetry of Gerald Stern, a onetime poet laureate from New Jersey, Lee Isaac Chung’s follow-up to the acclaimed “Munyurangabo” is a sharply observed, soft-spoken rumination on companionship, memory, life, and loss. Steeping the film in woeful hues leavened in baths of light, through wide angels and even archival footage, cinematographers Jenny Lund and Koji Otsuka poignantly capture the ephemeral quality of a moment in progress, and the life that happens in between. [Synopsis courtesy of the Tribeca Film Festival]

“Lucky Life”
World Narrative Feature Competition
Director: Lee Isaac Chung
Primary Cast: Daniel O’Keefe, Megan McKenna, Kenyon Adams, Richard Harvell
Screenwriter: Lee Isaac Chung, Samuel Gray Anderson
Producer: Samuel Gray Anderson
Editor: Lee Isaac Chung
Director of Photography: Jenny Lund, Koji Otsuka
Composer: Bryan Senti
Original Poetry: Gerald Stern
97 min., U.S.

[Editor’s Note: This is one interview in a series profiling directors whose films are screening at the 2010 Tribeca Film Festival.]

Director Lee Isaac Chung on his early filmmaking career and what lead him to write/direct “Lucky Life”…

I began my filmmaking career by shooting a feature length documentary in China in 2004, the year I graduated from film school. After completing the film, I realized that I would prefer to shoot narrative films. I filmed my first narrative feature in 2006, a story set in Rwanda called “Munyurangabo.” “Lucky Life” is my second narrative film.

I worked on the idea for “Lucy Life” while in Rwanda for my first film. After having struggled through some close friends’ and family members’ battles with cancer, I wanted to create an American drama about the experience of tragedy and memory. The concept for the film became concrete after I read Gerald Stern’s poem “Lucky Life.” I wanted to take an audience on the same journey that Stern’s poem took me, by adapting to the screen the emotional journey of the poem as I experienced it.

Chung on the bare bones approach he took in making the film, and on the challenges he faced in completing the project…

My writing partner Samuel Anderson and I prepared a scene outline for the film, around eleven pages of numbered and detailed scenes, similar to the approach we took in “Munyurangabo.” With much of the dialogue absent from this outline, I asked the actors to improvise the dialogue in the scenes. I also avoided any type of storyboard, and because I wanted to shoot using natural light, much of the camera placement and movement was a direct response to the environment and lighting that I found on location. We worked through two tropical storms, so this type of shooting required a fair amount of spontaneity and problem solving, which made the process more invigorating for me.

The film was somewhat of a departure for me in that I knew we would not have a traditional plot or narrative structure. In this situation, it is difficult to know if these scenes will work, particularly since I wanted the imagery of the film to carry the emotional journey; this is difficult to plan and envision, so the development process of location scouting, casting, and writing, seemed like an exercise of faith.

Director Lee Isaac Chung. Photo courtesy of Tribeca Film Festival.

Chung on what he anticipates at Tribeca…

It would be crazy to think the audience will enjoy the film; I simply do not know what the response will be. This is my first public screening of the film, and I’m quite nervous about it.

And on his personal inspirations…

I watched several films by the great Japanese director Kenji Mizoguchi repeatedly; nature and memory permeate his films and exist in a kind of symbiosis. I think the influence by Andrei Tarkovsky is the most immediately apparent; “The Sacrifice” is one of my favorite films of all

Chung on what’s in store for him…

In September or October, I will begin production on a new feature called “Foolish Things” starring Amanda Plummer. The film is about a woman who, in experiencing a mid-life crisis, begins to stalk a younger woman in the city who she believes to be a younger reincarnation or phantom of herself. I am also in development of a film called “South Wind,” which will be a kind of an ode to the ‘lovers on the run’ genre.

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