In case it’s not glaringly obvious at this point, representation matters. In front of the camera, but behind it as well — perhaps even more so. Take, for instance, Andrew Ahn’s latest film, “Driveways.” The film stars Hong Chau as a single mother tasked with packing up her hoarder sister’s house after her death. Meanwhile, her shy son Cody (Lucas Jaye) comes out of his shell through a friendship with an older neighbor, played by the late, great Brian Dennehy in one of his final film roles.
The film is not explicitly about Asian American identity, at least not in the way Ahn’s career-launching debut film, “Spa Night,” was — deliberately and devastatingly. But the story, of two outsiders thrust into a community by circumstances outside of their control and the various characters who either welcome or discomfort them, is subtly deepened and enriched by the fact that they are Asian American. Which is why it’s extra delightful to learn that the characters were not specified as Asian American in original the script. That was Ahn’s suggestion, one he’s made many times before, and without much luck. He was pleasantly surprised when he got the green light from producers James Schamus and Joe Pirro.
“I did something that I’d done very often in my career but has never worked — I asked the producers — ‘Hey, what if I make them Asian?’ And James Schamus and Joe Pirro were the first producers to ever say yes to that,” Ahn said during a recent interview with IndieWire. “That was really cool, and I think a sign of a changing industry that understands that people want to see stories about people of color, in this way that it have seemed like a box office liability in the past.”
While he had given similar pitches on other projects, both in television and film, Ahn admitted with a laugh that a few of those may have been a bit of a stretch. What was so appealing about “Driveways,” which he says he probably wouldn’t have chosen to direct had his suggestion not been taken, was how the change brought added layers to this particular story.
“Kathy and Cody come to this town that isn’t so welcoming to them, and they feel a little bit like outsiders. To externalize that and have them be Asian American felt like it could really work,” said Ahn. He praised writers Hannah Bos and Paul Thureen, award-winning New York theater makers who made their feature film debut with “Driveways.”
“They were just trying to write characters that felt like outsiders. As soon as you externalize that feeling into a physicality, into race in this case, it all still worked and helped add this layer of nuance,” Ahn said. “I don’t think I would have made this film otherwise.”
Rather than altering the script to bring race to the forefront, Ahn said the changes were much more subtle. He worked with production designer Charlotte Royer (“Madeline’s Madeline”) to get specific about what an Asian American hoarder’s house would look like. A few moments in the script benefited from added shades to what may otherwise have been throwaway lines. For example, when busybody neighbor Linda (Christine Ebersole) meets Kathy and Cody for the first time, she says, “I assumed you were related,” meaning to April, Kathy’s sister.
“It means something different when April is now Asian American and Linda sees two other Asian Americans and is assuming they must be related, ’cause why else would they be there,” said Ahn. “That line was actually written that way in the script, and I just wanted to kind of emphasize it slightly in the performance. It was kind of amazing how little we had to do to the script. It was just about emphasizing those moments in the direction that really let them feel real and authentic.”
At other times, Ahn had to actively choose to keep things subtle, like when Linda asks where they are from. At one point, Ahn said there was discussion of having Linda ask — “Where are you really from?,” which he decided against. “It could have been super cringey, and I didn’t want to do that.”
Previously, Ahn wrote the script for his 2016 debut “Spa Night,” which follows a Korean-American young man embracing his queerness amidst a conservative family life. As a queer Korean-American man, the film more directly addressed themes that are closer to Ahn’s identity. He said he related to the character of Cody being an outsider. Purely from a critical standpoint, there is a world in which Cody can be read as queer, but “Driveways” is in no way an explicitly queer film.
“There are challenges that queer filmmakers of color have to face in making work,” Ahn said. “I would love to have made an entire career of gay Korean movies, I don’t know if I could ever pay my bills that way.”
In conversations with cinematographer Ki Jin Kim, whom Ahn calls his “work husband” and closest creative collaborator, the duo discussed having to outdo “Spa Night.”
“‘Spa Night’ had this exciting element of gay sex, and ‘Driveways’ doesn’t have gay sex for us to make this feel exciting or dangerous. We just have to tell a really great family story,” Ahn said. “So I took that as a challenge.”
“Driveways” is currently available to stream or download via iTunes, Prime Video, GooglePlay, Microsoft, and satellite and cable On-Demand providers.