Before writer-director Kogonada’s “Columbus” was a critically acclaimed breakout at this year’s Sundance Film Festival, he first made a name for himself in the film world by creating popular video essays about great auteurs ranging from Stanley Kubrick to Wes Anderson. As a recent guest on IndieWire’s Filmmaker Toolkit podcast, he discussed how these online videos were key to his transition from the academic world – where he was writing a dissertation about the films of Yasujiro Ozu – to becoming a filmmaker himself.
“I feel like I’ve always been an accidental academic,” said Kogonada (who does not use his last name and has never revealed it publicly). “I had a set of questions that started one way and was very philosophical and a bit existential, but it ultimately led me to Ozu.”
The great Japanese director’s films were incredibly moving for Kogonada, but Ozu’s use of form was deceptively simple and distant, not something that could be easily dissected or explained.
“It really was, ‘I’m going to try to figure out what it is about his films that initially felt very unimpressive, but kept haunting me.’ Whatever that was felt so profound to me, it also felt very modern,” he said. “I think one of the reasons Ozu is someone who people return to [is he] isn’t easy to just reduce to something – he certainly is not this sort of traditionalist, he’s certainly not a western modernist, he is something else and whatever he was exploring and offering felt so relevant, even today.”
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Trying to locate that intangible intersection of Ozu and modernity became the focus of Kogonada’s academic writing and research, but the process made him realize that he was more interested in exploring Ozu’s ideals and use of form from an artistic point-of-view rather than trying to dissect them with his academic writing.
“I think one of the reasons I walked away [from academia] was for me it was sort of killing the thing that I loved,” said Kogonada. “I just want to make something that is trying to pursue the same type of form that [Ozu] was pursuing, but trying to think about it in our present moment.”
Exploring the work of his favorite directors, including Ozu, by creating video essays became an important outlet for Kogonada. He no longer was trying to come up with comprehensive or definitive understanding of their work; instead, by getting his hands on footage from their films and playing with it on his computer, he was exploring how they expressed abstract ideas and characters’ feeling that sparked his imagination and emotions.
One such essay was a simple montage combining shots of characters’ hands in the films of Robert Bresson.
“I think sometimes I struggled with the lack of emotion in [Bresson’s] films and when I cut that I remember feeling so moved and realizing how much of the emotion he located in the hands,” said Kogonada. “He was really trying to keep the actors from emitting in the face or even in the dialogue, but then in the hands he allowed all of this emotion to be expressed. There’s something really moving about that.”
As essays like the Bresson one started to accumulate thousands of views, Kogonada began to make a name for himself and being approached by people inside the film industry. He realized that if he were to become a feature filmmaker himself this was his opportunity to strike while the iron was hot.
He found the perfect world for his feature debut when he visited Columbus, Indiana, which is a small midwestern town that in the mid-20th century invited many of the great modern architects to build some of their greatest works.
“This little town became a canvas for modern architects, and for me it became this case study, this experiment, can architecture make a difference – or does modernism and this dream of modernism, what happens if you put it in the middle of this town? What is the effect of that?” said Kogonada. “It’s fascinating, because it’s the fundamental question for me – does modern art matter, or is it just this thing we do to distract ourselves? I was fascinated by it.”
The filmmaker’s biggest struggle was creating precise, geometrical compositions that incorporated the city’s modern architecture while drawing the audience into an emotional story about two characters whose lives are intertwined with the town and its architecture.
“For me modernism, can feel very alienating and very cold and often for a purpose, often that’s what the artists are exploring,” said Kogonada. “But I really wanted to marry form [in] the context of the human struggle and for there to be some kind of warmth in this context.”
In other words, “Columbus” was a vehicle for Kogonada to provide a new platform for the ideas in his dissertation about Ozu, time, and modernity. He knew that, if the film succeeded, it would be dependent upon audiences having the same type of emotional responses that he experienced with Ozu’s masterpieces.
“If this film fails or succeeds for someone, it’s going to be in relationship to that,” he said, “people who felt so disconnected it felt like an intellectual exercise — or people who didn’t.”
‘Columbus’ opened at the IFC Film Center in New York and Nuart in Los Angeles on August 4th. It will continue to expand in the coming weeks – to learn when and where, click here.
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The music used in this podcast is from the “Marina Abramovic: The Artist is Present” score, courtesy of composer Nathan Halpern.