So Yong Kim. Courtesy of Kino International.
Along with peers like her husband Bradley Rust Gray, Kelly Reichardt, Ramin Bahrani, and the duo of Ryan Fleck and Anna Boden, So Yong Kim is making a different, more modest kind of American independent film. Their affinity for doting languidly on visual details even prompted New York Times film critic A.O. Scott to coin a movement: Neo-Neo Realism. Kim, along with Fleck, seems suspicious of the label in the interview below, but each concedes that they strove to make their recent films (Kim’s Treeless Mountain and Fleck and Boden’s Sugar ) feel as real as possible. As Kim reveals below, her primary challenges were working with Treeless Mountain ’s adolescent actors—both of who deliver incredibly tender, precocious performances—as well writing a script from a distinctly personal story. With Gray and the couple’s two-year-old daughter Sky listening in, Kim and Fleck take stock of where they are following their successes of Treeless Mountain and Sugar as well as where they’re going next.
Ryan Fleck Okay, say something.
So Yong Kim This coffee is really good … it’s recording.
RF Yeah, but we should turn it this way.
SYK It’s multidirectional.
RF Somehow when a recorder is present it just doesn’t feel casual anymore!
SYK I know. Do we have to pretend that we like each other?
RF It’s going to be hard to pretend—you’re so unlikeable.
SYK I know (laughter). Brad called me a B-I-T-C-H yesterday.
RF Ooo, that’s staying in. Seen any good movies lately? Or bad?
SYK We saw, um—
RF Star Trek?
SYK Yes, but we saw Bresson’s Money the evening before, so, it balances out.
RF Are you and Brad Star Trek fans?
SYK Well, no, but we heard about all the special effects—big explosions and action sequences. I’m not in to that but Brad loves that stuff. Anyway, the Bresson film wasn’t great, actually. It’s considered one of the masterpieces, but at the end of the day, it wasn’t Au Hasard Balthazar.
RF I couldn’t get through Au Hasard Balthazar, I’m embarrassed to say.
SYK It’s one of the best films!
RF The one with the donkey?
SYK Yes! Oh my gosh!
RF Yeah, donkey. (laughter) My patience isn’t much these days. I did see Brad’s film The Exploding Girl, which was fantastic.
SYK Isn’t it great? It’s beautiful.
RF Zoe Kazan gives an amazing performance. Having produced it, what kind of influence did you have on the film? People are always asking Anna and I how we work together. It’s sort of fluid; we get so far from where the idea began—one idea will lead to a third idea, which becomes the movie. So it’s not like one person’s vision is riding it through, more a combination of both. How much influence does Brad have on your movies and vice versa? It seems to me that you each have such clear, distinct visions. And yet there are some similarities to the visuals of both Treeless Mountain and The Exploding Girl. Both films have a quiet, observant quality that makes me feel like I’m in the same space the characters inhabit.
SYK We have a very distinct focus on certain aspects of storytelling, and both movies have atmospheric visual styles. The Exploding Girl and Treeless Mountain are both quiet and intimate. The main thing we do for each other is encourage the other to keep going. When Brad had his script ready, I read it and gave him some notes and told him that it was great and that we should go forward with it. He did the same with Treeless. But Treeless took a lot longer to write than it took Brad for The Exploding Girl. I think it was because the story was a very personal one for me.
RF We met when we were at Sundance with Half Nelson. You had just done the writers’ lab right before the festival. How was that experience for you? A lot of those sessions are great because you get to talk to other writers and get a feel for how they work. You’re not always discussing—
SYK —the project, or the story.
RF Right, your script. You can get a sense pretty quickly if this person understands what you’re trying to do. When you find somebody who gets it, sometimes they have the spark of an idea that leads to something else.
SYK Yes, for the writers’ lab, a few advisors got the story and got the style that I was trying to make Treeless in. I usually develop my characters from little moments, and hopefully at the end of the writing process, I feel like I have a whole person. Everything—other supporting characters and the whole overall story—has to be based on my main character. I don’t really put that much importance on a big story or a theme. So, I remember the writers’ lab being really painful (laughter).
RF That pain is almost encouraged.
SYK And it was necessary for the Treeless Mountain script because it’s a personal story, so I had to go through this process of growing up and letting go; I was too attached to actual past events. I had to go back and write it from scratch. It wasn’t so much about finding a formula to transform a personal story into a good film, but about figuring out what wasn’t working in the script. I realized from the advisors’ questioning that Jin and Bin—the two main characters—were not strong individuals as written characters. They were just half of a memory; what I remembered was built into them. So it was all the more painful to realize that on top of not writing well, there was a lot of difficult personal stuff I was still tapped into. I really had to distance myself and let Jin and Bin be their own people.
Still from Treeless Mountain. Hee Yeon Kim as Jin and Song Hee Kim as Bin. Courtesy of Oscilloscope Pictures.
RF Working with incredibly young kids is a completely different way of working. How old were they?
SYK Almost seven and five.
RF There are no “actors” for that age. Once you got on the set, how were you guiding your vision of what was supposed to be happening with these incredibly young children who probably couldn’t read, right?
SYK No, they didn’t read the script. I mean, Hee Yeon—the older girl—could have read it, but it would have taken her a long time; she was in first grade. I think the most important thing of Treeless was the casting. We only had three months to cast before the start date. We visited as many elementary schools and kindergartens as possible in Seoul. We had to get permission from the principal and the teachers, so it took some time. When I met Hee Yeon, I knew she would be perfect. She had this unusual self-confidence and strength. From our first interview, Hee Yeon challenged me in a way that young Korean children do not normally question authority. I discovered Song Hee, who plays Bin, through a photograph which was sent to me by my assistant in Korea. I fell in love with her face. You guys have great acting, too. Your main actor in Sugar, Algenis Perez Soto, was a non-actor, right?
RF Yeah. Algenis was a baseball player. Casting was huge for Sugar as well. It was a long, arduous process. I can’t say I’m in a big hurry to shoot interviews with Dominican baseball players again anytime soon. Did you operate the camera for Treeless Mountain?
SYK No, our cinematographer Anne Misawa operated the camera. I wanted to be very careful with atmosphere for the actors; kids are incredibly sensitive to environment. If anybody was loud or talking on the set, we got rid of them as soon as possible. If it was a night scene we were shooting, I made sure the set was completely quiet and dark, so when they walked in they’d realize, through the setting, what kind of atmosphere would be in the film. We just made sure they felt really secure, protected, unembarrassed about what they were doing. I was constantly by their side with the remote monitor, so I would be telling them the lines. (Sky starts crying.)
RF SYK Are you okay?
RF What happened? (talking to Sky) That looks like it hurts a lot—that would hurt me, too.
Sky It was an accident.
RF Looks like the end of the universe was just averted.
SYK Back in full swing!
RF So you were feeding them lines?
SYK Yeah, from the edge of the frame—patrolling. My voice is all over the soundtrack! A lot of the time people ask directors about actors improvising. But you can only improvise with very professional and talented actors, because they don’t really need guidelines. There’s a lot more managing you have to do with kids. Everything has to be perfect for them in order to be themselves. It was very touch and go.
RF They weren’t distracted by the camera?
SYK The older girl especially learned how to work with the camera. We’d say “cut,” and she’d be out of the emotion that she was in during the scene. She’d be running around screaming, playing, kicking some rocks, and then would come back and lie down and look sullen, showing concern for her little sister.
RF Really impressive. They were so phenomenal. Okay, this is silly, but are we, like, two-fifths of the neo-neo-realists? If you count Anna and I as one….
SYK Oh my God, and Brad and I as another….
Bradley Rust Gray (From the background) I’m not in it!
RF Well, you should be. We have to come up with a secret handshake or something and not tell Brad until he becomes a member.
BRG Yeah, I have to be invited; I have to do an initiation.
SYK I think Brad’s films fit more into Neo-Neo Realism. But he also has a little more of a surreal or magical feeling in his
films … unless it was social content! Brad, is that what it is?
BRG Dude, I’m not in this.
SYK (laughter) Okay, okay.
RF Do you imagine yourself telling stories that require a much larger—the word “canvas” is usually used, but—budget? Or movie stars? Or are you opposed to that? I’m not opposed to that at all. In fact, we have a couple projects that might be going in that direction—or in a very different one! But if they did, we would definitely be kicked out of the Neo-Neo Realist Club.
SYK My next film is definitely going to get me kicked out of the Neo-Neo Realist Club. Do you think this label means you can’t use stars?
RF Well, part of the theory is that you don’t use movie stars. That everything feels very … real. So you might get kicked out of the club if Tom Cruise appears in your next movie.
SYK (laughs) If he’d grill and eat grasshoppers, then maybe! But I don’t think The New York Times article on Neo-Neo Realism will be a straightjacket on my feature films. I don’t think if I made a horror film people would be like, “What happened to you?”
RF Do you want to make horror films?
SYK I have been thinking about it since 2006. I think it would be really fun. But I don’t know exactly what the story is. I don’t have one yet.
RF With the movies you’ve made, you’ve had complete control over every step of the process. Let’s say you made this horror film that costs however many million dollars. Would you be willing to give up some control? For instance, on both Half Nelson and Sugar, Anna and I did not have final cut.
RF We just decided we didn’t want to get into a fight about it; if someone ever really wanted to take the movie from us, there would have been ways to deal with that. But we didn’t foresee that happening. What’s interesting about knowing that someone could take it away from you is that it forces you to at least listen to those people’s opinions instead of instantly shutting them out and saying, “This is my movie, read the contract, I have final cut.” It opened up a discussion that I might have otherwise shut off.
SYK That’s so interesting because I think I would be open to going through that experience.
RF We were incredibly lucky to have such great producers. And HBO, who did the financing, was very supportive as well.
SYK It would be interesting to go through that process and see how it would change the way I work or think about the film. We financed In Between Days. It could have been an experimental film or a short film or anything. It didn’t have to be a feature film. I also didn’t think there would be any audience for it; I was just making something I wanted to make, or being what I wanted to be. With Treeless, our producers Jay Van Hoy and Lars Knudsen brought in these great investors who had a totally hands-off attitude. When we showed them the cut they were fine with it. That cut was very similar to the final cut. And there was no music in it, you know?
Still from In Between Days. Jiseon Kim as Aime. Courtesy of the artist.
RF Did you get a chance to screen the film for Korean audiences?
SYK Yes, we screened it at the Pusan Film Festival in 2008; it was the first time the Korean cast and crew saw the finished film. I think they were wonderfully surprised by the finished work. The audience’s response was very warm. The film’s going to open in September so we’ll see how it does with the general public. I’m a little nervous about that.
RF We screened Sugar in the Dominican Republic, New York, and Iowa—the main locations we shot the movie in. Each location had its own specific response. The Dominicans were amazing. They gave so much instant feedback: laughing, cheering, shouting at the characters on the screen. In Iowa, people were more restrained, polite. Though I did hear some cheering when Miguel comes to Iowa. I was wondering if you could sense the difference when screening Treeless, in, say, Korea as opposed to Denver.
SYK Yes (laughter). We just had a preview screening in San Francisco for an Asian Film Festival, so most of the audience members were Asian-Americans. That screening was great. A lot of people had a sense of nostalgia because they were first-generation, so they felt some sort of connection to their past. They had, I think, maybe a different level of understanding.
RF Do you watch the movie during screenings?
RF I don’t either.
SYK I’ve watched it once, when it showed in Toronto, to see how it plays with an audience. But I became so distracted with the cuts or how I should have fixed a sound. It drove me crazy. Why’s this person coughing at that cut? Why’s that person leaving at this moment? Then I write it all down.
RF Any kind of rustling, breathing … you hear a sigh and it’s like, The movie’s completely falling apart!
SYK I know! And Treeless is so quiet, there’s no music, so you can hear everything. I just go bonkers.
RF Does that influence how you’re going to make your next film? Maybe wall-to-wall music and some action effects?
SYK No, no action effects!
RF Maybe a low hum throughout? Like the subway at the Angelika?
SYK Or something subliminal, like a high-pitched sound.
Sky Puzzle’s done!
SYK RF Yay, puzzle!
SYK I actually think there might be some music in my next film, because a character is always listening to music. There’s an Icelandic composer, Jóhann Jóhannsson, who I wanted to work with for Treeless, but it just didn’t work out. His compositions are stark and minimal, so I thought it would be a good collaboration. But when I was editing I realized it really didn’t need any music.
RF We were talking about festivals before; I’ve become frustrated with the Q and As recently. It’s good to get audience feedback, but then I find myself over-explaining the inherent mysteries of the movie in a way that I think robs the audience of thinking about it for themselves. Some people get really hostile; they’re so uncomfortable with the slightest bit of ambiguity. Have you encountered something similar?
SYK During one New York screening this guy actually said, “You have so many plots missing in your movie!” And I’m like, “It’s not a mystery movie!” But I think maybe Sugarencounters this situation more because it’s English language-based, even though it starts in the Dominican Republic. I think people come into Treeless and think, “Ugh, it’s a foreign language film.” An “Asian film.”
RF One of those other movies … anyway, I tend to drink during screenings and I get a little belligerent by discussion time.
SYK Brad did that recently.
BRG I don’t know what you’re talking about.
RF Anna wanted me to ask if you were another kind of artist before you were a filmmaker or if you always wanted to make movies.
SYK I was a tinkerer. I made experimental films and videos. I studied performance art in Chicago and that’s when I started making films because I wanted to do projections on stage for people.
RF Was Brad making movies when you guys met?
SYK He was doing sculpture, and then he went to the University of Southern California to become a filmmaker.
RF No wonder he likes explosions.
BRG I went to the British Film Institute when we both studied in London. She’s left out like two years of our lives. And so studied performance art at University College London.
SYK It was theater design, dude.
RF Did you watch any of the Japan-Korea World Baseball Classic game?
SYK No, what happened?
RF It was a very thrilling end. Korea was winning late and Japan came back in thrilling fashion to win.
SYK I’m not a baseball fan because my brother was on a baseball team when he was in junior high, and he made us work at the hot dog stand. It was just so boring and painful. My brother was also terrible. He struck out every time he went to bat. When you guys were working on Sugar, did you reference any other films that are baseball-related?
RF We looked at a lot of movies.
Sky Look at this puzzle!
RF The puzzle looks great! We looked at baseball movies mostly to see how they shot them. I’ve been watching baseball games my whole life, so I kind of intuitively understand how baseball should look on television. We looked at Raging Bull to think about the subjectivity of shooting sports. We watched Before Night Falls to think about how music comes in and out and plays with reality. You’ll hear source music coming from a scene, then that music will cut out and then the score will come in, and it’s a completely different feel. It’s pretty profound how mood can shift based on the music. It’s manipulative, but those are tools of cinema that I like.
SYK Film scores are designed to add that manipulation.
RF Yeah, and I’m trying to conjure certain emotions and feelings so it’s a tool for that.
SYK I actually got a good Q and A question—I think from a composer—about how music can give the audience permission to feel a certain way. It can say, “It’s okay if you feel this.” I thought that was an interesting way to view it.
RF Yeah, and it’s nice when it goes against the expectation, too. Typically, scores say, “This is how you should feel at this moment when this person is saying this line,” although it’s already obvious. But you can play with that expectation as well.
SYK Right, and turn it around, although I think music is really difficult. Can I ask you another question? When you and Anna develop, how do you negotiate what one person wants versus what the other wants if it’s not the same direction?
RF We try to get on the same page in pre-production as much as possible. But things are always happening on set, and I think we’ve learned to embrace that and not force an agenda on it. If our ideas conflict, we’ll try it both ways or talk it through. Usually when we’re fighting—mostly in the writing stage and in post-production—one person fights the longest and cares the most, and the other will eventually say, “They must really care about this.” But neither one of us is so stubborn that those kinds of things become epic.
SYK There was a scene in Treeless that I wanted to take out, but Brad was so adamant about it that I left it in. For The Exploding Girl, I picked one shot for the end of the film and he wanted to try other stuff, but I really felt strongly, so he gave in. So we kind of negotiate like that for each other’s films, too.
RF It’s interesting that Brad would fight very hard on something for your movie.
SYK (laughter) And then I’m fighting even harder on his.
RF That’s surprising to me, because I would think that part of why you direct your own movies is so you have the final cut, the final say on the story.
SYK Yes, true. Also, as the directors of each of our own films, we can decide to listen to the other person or not. At the end of the day, it’s about making the best film possible.