After receiving critical acclaim in Park City, Berlin, and Hong Kong, So Yong Kim‘s For Ellen continues to stir enthusiasm. This latest film from the In Between Days and Treeless Mountain director is continuing on the festival circuit, and will have its New York premiere at the 2012 BAMcinemaFest. (She and partner Bradley Rust Gray, who Melissa Anderson referred to in the Village Voice as “the Joan Didion and John Gregory Dunne of Brooklyn-based independent filmmaker,” are also the subjects of a 2009 BAMcinématek “Next Director” retrospective.)
As we kept on talking in this interview during the 2012 Berlinale, So’s voice became stiller with every answer; it was like the very private emotional landscape she painted in her film was breathing her in. She’s a very conscious and honest filmmaker with an incredible talent for translating emotion into cinema. For Ellen, a story of a struggling rock musician (Paul Dano), fighting with his estranged wife for custody of his young daughter, is breathtaking proof of that ability.
Keyframe: For Ellen has such a complex emotional landscape. What was the very first spark that started the script?
So Yong Kim: The first thing was probably this memory of my own father coming to see us. I never met him before and there he was, saying, ‘Hey, I’m your dad. ‘Also my first two films are about women, a teenager and two girls. I had so many questions about why there are no male figures in my films. That question was stuck with me. I wanted to do something different, tackle working on a male character. And also do something personal, but not easily recognizable as being such.
Keyframe: The lack of male presence in your previous films does not imply the unimportance of such figures, though.
So: Not at all. In my first film the main character writes postcards to her dad. She has this internal dialogue with him. In the second one there’s a grandfather and also the sense that the mother is going to look for the missing dad. Their absence is a technical detail. At a certain point of my life I thought this subject is like a big elephant in a china store, and I understood I should do this. It is terrifying to go into something that still means so much. It’s not a great memory to have… but it kind of emerged at that time in my life, it was knocking on my door, asking, ‘Are you ready?.’ So I thought, ‘I’m doing it.’
Keyframe: My own father’s absence was something I always thought I did not care about. But at a certain point in my life it turned out that everything—all the subtle insecurities, irrational fears—was coming from there. Tackling this issue is always a deeply personal, emotional process. Weren’t you afraid that For Ellen will reveal too much about your own soul?
So: This is the most personal film I’ve ever made. When I was developing Joby, I put many of my own insecurities in him, this sense of being inept at being a filmmaker, not being a good parent… all these things went into this character. When I see Joby on screen, I cringe. As a human, if you’re honest with yourself, there’re these things within you that are not good characteristics. We all have that; we’re not perfect. Wouldn’t it be ease to just say, ‘Fuck it, I’m not gonna deal with it!’; ‘Why do I care?’; ‘Who’s telling me?’ What guides you to do the right thing in one’s life? How do you make that decision; do you turn left, or right? I think it’s like this for everyone… What makes you do the right thing in that very moment?
Keyfame: Paul Dano is not just acting, he is the character. Was he supposed to play Joby from the very beginning of the creative process, or did you just cast him later?
So: I didn’t really think he that would be the person when I first wrote the film. The character of Joby was a lot older, in his mid-30s. I happened to be able to send him the script, and he read it and really responded to it. He called me back, saying he loved it, and that it could’ve been interesting if the character was a bit younger… He didn’t come up and say, ‘Hey, I wanna do the part.’ So we got into a discussion about how the story might change if the character was in his 20s. It became this great collaboration between myself and him, going through each relationship Joby has… at the end it was really great result both for me and for Paul, because he suggested it. This is probably the most hopeful and optimistic film for me, because the character is younger and we can hope that this experience might change him. Not that it’s going —but there’s more sense, because of his age, of more potential, more hope.
Keyframe: Did you carefully plan everything or were you improvising? There are tiny touches in the film, like Joby’s stuttering, that seem so natural and unforced…
So: I had a very minimal script, 70 pages at most. It was really simple, for example the scene in the toy store was probably described as ‘Joby and Ellen are in a toy store exchanging the present.’ Basically what I wanted to do both with actors and non-actors was give them space, give them time, just be present and be themselves, be their character. I think the best parts for me are when Paul improvises and the dialogue is off the book, it’s my favorite thing about the film. This is the way I usually work.
Keyframe: Are the visuals also spontaneous? Because the film has a very consistent visual narrative. The camera is clinging to Joby’s face and whenever it loses him we see those disturbingly vast spaces.
So: The whole concept of the film and the way I wanted it to look was discussed with the director of photography. Reed [Morano] did an amazing job as she’s seen my other films. I love close-ups, I’m kind of obsessed by them, because I feel like it’s a vast landscape in itself. There’s so much to it… that can also be suffocating and too much for the viewer. I wanna give them space to reflect on that. This is contrary to the traditional way of filming; people don’t go for that many close-ups usually.
Keyframe: How do you work with actors in this particular context? It feels like to them it might be intimidating and hard to be so present, so visible….
So: I’m not that experienced in working with professional actors. The main thing I tried to carry over from my previous films into this film is to work with Paul as if I’m working with a non-actor. For me there are some guidelines: you’re always in character, unless I say ‘Cut!’ But for Paul… he was in character all the time, until we finished shooting. He drove the same car his character is driving to the set. The moment he left the motel room until the moment he came back and stepped out of the car—he was Joby. That was really amazing to experience. He never left that until the evening when he could take his tattoos and makeup off… That made my work a lot easier. He was so consumed, he was Joby Taylor all the time. I could easily set camera in one place and shoot him, and he was just there.
Keyframe: It sounds great, but a bit dangerous as well, because this is not an easy character to handle psychologically.
So: It was very intense for him, because his personality in real life is very gentle, thoughtful, a contrast. Joby’s completely different. It was very draining for him.
I’m not that experienced in working with professional actors. The main thing I tried to carry over from my previous films into this film is to work with Paul as if I’m working with a non-actor. For me there are some guidelines: you’re always in character, unless I say ‘Cut!’ But for Paul… he was in character all the time, until we finished shooting. He drove the same car his character is driving to the set. The moment he left the motel room until the moment he came back and stepped out of the car—he was Joby.
Keyframe: How about the styling? Everything in Joby’s image seems so unforced.
So: Paul did a lot on his own research into music and outfits. He’d bring things back and I’ll be like, ‘Yeah, that’s a good direction.’ We watched a lot of music videos together that could be a reference for Joby’s type of music. We had somebody dye his hair to this specific color; we didn’t want to go too dark, so he wouldn’t go towards goth. We had a lot of fun with that. During the shoot he didn’t wash his hair until the shower shoot.
Keyframe: Exactly! A friend of mine warned me before the screening that I’ll want to wash Paul Dano’s hair all the time!
So: [Laughs.] I think it just adds this whole layer of grease, time, and dripping with this slimy feeling.
Keyframe: After the screening I kept on thinking about the title ‘For Ellen.’ Is Joby really doing it for her, or for himself?
So: There’s definitely a musical element to the film. When he comes back to her bedroom, Ellen is playing ‘Für Elise.’ Also the last shot of the film is an homage to Five Easy Pieces, where the main character is a pianist. When I finished the first draft of the final script, I just wrote ‘For Ellen.’ Because for me, I made this film for Ellen. And I though the title is going to change later, but it stayed.
Keyframe: The scene if Fred’s house really surprised me. It’s purely comical, contrary to the rest of the narrative.
So: When I was developing the lawyer character I wanted him to be a contrasting personality to Joby, but still have a common thread. There’s something about Fred, in his history, or the relationship with his mum, that connects them together, even though they’re completely different. Whenever I get invited to someone’s house, or someone’s parents house I go into their world and have to figure out how does it work. The dinner scene was something that Joby had to experience. For him the lawyer is like a tool, a means for him to get what he wants, because he’s selfish and narcissistic, assumes that everybody around him is catering to his existence. So when he goes to the dinner, he is surprised. Fred has a mother and a life. I really like that moment when Joby’s trying to digest that; he’s happy at the end, but at the beginning….It was a relief to me, writing this scene, where he finally gets to sit and eat something with other people.
Keyframe: I though the music, however not very present in the film, was very skillfully chosen.
So: You have your dreams as a director. You’d love to have a certain song in the scene but sometimes that’s constrained by budget. For this film we got really lucky because we had three choices for the dance scene and finally White Snake came through and we were able to get licensing for that the day before we shot the scene. That was just perfect. We also have that Beastie Boys song that he dances to the mirror… almost all the music worked out. I do not have a big, traditional score with violins and stuff. The music had to be very specific for Joby.
Keyframe: There is an amazing chemistry between Paul Dano and Jena Malone onscreen. Do you think you might want to work with them again?
So: I think Paul would probably like to take a break from working with me. I have another project that I’d like to work with him on. It’s a short story adaptation. He knows about it, but I haven’t developed the script yet. And also he needs to get a little bit older for that role, so….
Keyframe: You’re really planning ahead!
So: Well, not that much older, not in his 60s! Just in his early 30s or so… I’d love to work with Jena again but I don’t have… The thing is that I don’t pick the stories. It might sound cliché, but I guess it’s true: the stories pick me. And no matter how hard I want to push this film that I want Paul to do, I can’t. I optioned it two years ago, but it’s just not quite there yet, it’s not telling me it’s time to work on it now. Whereas in ‘For Ellen’ the story was like ‘You have to do this now. You can’t avoid it.’ It was knocking on my door. I’d like to work with both of them again. I just don’t have the story telling me it’s time.
Keyframe: You wrote scripts for all your films. It seems very organic; the writing is an integral part of the product. And now you’re saying there is a story you’d like to adapt… Can you imagine yourself working on somebody else’s thoughts, words, experiences?
So: Maybe that is why I’m not developing this project as my next film. Because I feel I don’t know enough to tackle it. I think I can, but I always try to know what I’m capable of and what I need to learn to get to a certain level. That adaptation is just sitting there saying ‘The time’s gonna come, but it’s not yet.’
Anna Tatarska is a Polish film journalist, working for film.wp.pl, KINO, Portalfilmowy.pl, Aktivist and Exklusiv.