One goal for minority filmmakers is to no longer be considered minority filmmakers. Failing that, it would be keen to be asked about craft rather than minority identity. As an Asian-American born in the United States of immigrant parents, I'm still trying to sort all that out for myself. There's an Ani DiFranco lyric that's stuck with me from those halcyon grad-school days where she was a constant point of reference for me (and now you know just enough about me). It goes, "Every time I move, I make a woman's movement." Yeah, preach it. Who the fuck knows what we represent to the ruling culture? I'm just over here making shit.
Mr. Ahn is a phenomenal filmmaker. His first film, Spa Night, is a delicate, beautiful coming-of-age and coming-out drama following a young Korean man as he comes to accept who he is in LA's under-filmed Koreatown. It's a deeply personal film in which Mr. Ahn demonstrates a filmmaker's eye in his carefully composed tableaux and his canny use of diegetic sound. He understands the importance of collaboration, a faith that shines through everywhere but most in the confidence of his sometimes-non-professional cast's performances. He has faith in his audience, too, a quality rare and valuable. His sophomore feature, which recently screened at the San Diego Asian Film Festival, is Driveways, a sentimental film that isn't sentimental, built on the conversations people have with one another and predicated on the idea that if there's hope in bridging the things that divide us, it's in these little chance meetings across race, class, age, and gender.
I filled Mr. Ahn in on how the Klan burned out Denver's Chinatown on Halloween night, 1880, thus depressing Denver's Chinese population to the current day. There's a plaque on a building a few blocks from Coors Field commemorating the event. I also mentioned how our old airport was named after the Grand Wizard of the Klan and how that name still describes an up-and-coming neighbourhood north of the city. You know, the usual pleasantries shared between strangers in strange lands.
We turned our attention to his films and I asked him about the use of environmental sounds and the absence of music in Spa Night.
ANDREW AHN: The choice to not have score and just really work with sound design, diegetic sound, diegetic music and spaces--a lot of that was actually initially dictated by budgetary concerns. Spa Night was really humbly made and we didn't feel like we had the resources to hire a composer or to purchase drop-needle music, so I decided to take that restriction and make it an artistic choice. It fit in well with the rest of the aesthetic choices we were making to have a really grounded experience of time in the film. There are no montages where you skip through time. You're really sitting with the characters within each scene. There are jumps in time between scenes, but during them I never wanted to gloss over moments. I wanted to stay with the audience.
FILM FREAK CENTRAL: A score can distract from that.
Absolutely, it can. So it worked for us. It would be making the point better if we just heard what he hears in every moment we see on screen. We pushed the sound design, we wanted there to be a subjective quality to it. In the steam room of the spa, there's this drip-drip, drip-drip that's very rhythmic, kind of musical in some ways. We pushed those kinds of elements to underscore the narrative and the character as he develops in the film.
And for Driveways...
For Driveways, we took a very different approach, in that there's an experience of a summer--there's a certain nostalgia to it. Something about the script and the film that reads like Cody's memory, like it's something that's happened to him in the past where he meets Del and there's this house his mom is cleaning. That kind of reminiscing and nostalgia, I felt, could really be aided by a score. That was something I then had to decide what kind of score are we thinking about. Should it be a drone, kind of modern and electronic? Or should it be a little more heart-on-your-sleeve, sincere piano and violin? We went with that, I think, because it highlighted that nostalgia of the film. For me, it fit in with the performances and the warmth of the cinematography. With both of my films, I was really trying to base those decisions on what's the story being told and what are the elements of those stories that I most want to emphasize.
In Spa Night, the skin scraping jumped out to me as a noise that sort of announces a certain evolution for David: a literal shedding of the skin.
We actually Foley'd that sound to make it more distinct. For me, I don't think I was as conscious of the metaphor as what you're putting together, but those particular moments we scored with that sound, I did spend a lot of time with our sound designer to craft. The mopping sounds when David first discovers what's happening at the spa--the scraping of the skin. Those were very particular sounds and we wanted it to be loud enough--they weren't loud enough to pick up during production and I wanted there to be a certain violence to it. It's in moments of disruption that people can change, get shaken from their seated position, and there's a sonic violence to cue that new chapter. Those moments function as chapter breaks, checkpoints.
You mention chapter breaks, was that your strategy editing your first feature?
It's interesting editing a feature film. We hired an editor for Spa Night, a Greek editor, Yannis Chalkiadakis, and I was really surprised how it all felt very musical. You're creating these phrases, these sequences... You have a breath at the beginning and at the end. You have pauses you need to give to your audience and at the end you have this entire piece. One of the easiest ways for me to understand these phrases was to think of how sound design acts as these markers. I think that's what gives Spa Night this dynamic quality where you have quiet punctuated by heightened, disruptive, sonically violent cues.
Tell me more about your work with [DP] Kim Ki-jin on both films.
What I love about working with Ki-jin is that he's a filmmaker and a storyteller first before he's a cinematographer. He's less gear-driven and technical. What I love about him is how he's driven by emotion. Let me give you an example: When we were casting Spa Night, we had come down to two actors for David--one obviously was Joe Seo and there was another great actor we were considering. Ki-jin had seen both actors and seen their reels and came to me to say, "Hey, this is 100% your decision, but if you cast Joe, I think I want to shoot the film on a tripod and steady--but if we cast this other actor, I want to go handheld." What I loved about that is that Ki-jin was really thinking about these actors and their energies. He felt that as a cinematographer he could highlight a different quality in each with these choices. This is why I love working with him and why I'd like to work with him for the rest of my life.
Did you have similar conversations around the colour palette?
Yes. We were trying to find what mood we were trying to evoke and just like with the score question, we tackled questions of degrees of film grain, even, visual effects that are almost subliminal for most of the audience, but affect how they engage with what they're seeing and how they experience the film. With Spa Night we were drawn to a lot of photographic references: very bright, clean light and very dark shadow. We noticed that so many of the locations we were filming in had this cooler, industrial feel to it. The spa of course with the blue neon lights, the fluorescent greens of the golf range. The character of Koreatown, especially at night, was what we wanted to explore. With Driveways, Ki-jun and I were in the Hudson Valley for a few weeks before production and we were just struck by the quality of the light there.
It's very green.
(laughs) Yes, very, very green. We wanted to capture summer if we could, the golden hour, the kind of warmth of the landscape because that's ultimately what we wanted to convey in the film. Kathy and Cody should stay here. We want them at the end of the film to have found a home. If we didn't make it feel warm and inviting in the choices we made, maybe the audience would feel more unsure about the ending. It was key we made this place feel like a place where they belonged. That was what was driving the aesthetic choices.
I want to highlight a scene late in Spa Night where David chases his dad out into the street--the father is framed against a gate and David is framed against an open road.
It's interesting, this moment is so important to me. I remember each of the decisions we made in this. I can't say they were all intentional, but we crafted them in a way for them to be expressive. It was a very hard scout. Ki-jin and I combed Koreatown for many, many nights looking for the right place to shoot because we knew how important this scene was. When you shoot a scene like this where there's no dialogue, just two characters, two looks, location means so much. We'd found it on one of the nights we were scouting, and there was something about the light both close to the camera and also far away, in both directions, that really excited us. There was something about being able to find an intimacy, out in public. We made this choice about coverage where David is in a pretty tight close-up and his dad's in a pretty wide, that to me had a lot to do with how we wanted the audience to experience this film from David's point of view. His father had to be a mystery to him.
"Location is such an organic way to find story."
When you talk about finding moments, I want to ask about a couple: Cody picking a sticker off a counter at the store--and Cody putting out Kathy's cigarettes.
Those quiet, observational moments in Driveways came from multiple, different inspirations. The scene with Kathy and Cody at the hardware store was actually scripted, believe it or not. That's a real testament to the kind of sensitivity of my screenwriters for Driveways, Hannah Bos and Paul Thureen, and a big reason I wanted to make this film, because there was something about these little moments that they had written that were so unconscious and elegant. I'm really drawn to that kind of keen and wordless character development. With Cody stepping on his mom's cigarettes--while we were shooting that scene at the rest stop where he first does it, Ki-jin noticed that Lucas was doing that every time after I said cut and he said, "Hey, are you seeing that?" So we picked it up in its own shot. It says so much about their dynamic in such an efficient way.
Does the scripting guide the improvisation?
Definitely. Because the scripting is so lovely, it would definitely help us understand what we were looking for in these characters so when these improvised moments presented themselves, we were ready to take advantage of them. My hope is that in the end, they all feel authentic together--that there be no distinction between what was plotted and what was an accident, that it feel just like life unfolding. We want these characters to do things that seem comfortable to the characters doing them.
Talk to me a little bit about the story of place in your films.
I'm very inspired by environments, by locations. Spa Night is almost entirely inspired by these things happening in Korean spas, where this very cultural space, very traditional space, could also be very sexual. It was the first spark in thinking about what eventually became the film. Location is such an organic way to find story. The first draft of the script was very short, sixty some-odd pages, and it took place all in the spa in one night. I realized it wasn't quite exploring the intersection of identity I was interested in, the gay and the Korean identities. That draft just felt really "gay" in a crass way. It read like softcore gay porn (laughs). I realized the way to introduce the Korean element of the film was by seeing David's family and seeing Koreatown, the world outside. The first thing I did to expand the screenplay was to write down the names of places I go to with my family: a church, restaurants, a golf range... I started with the locations and then thought about what happens in these places.
They're all coded.
Exactly. For me, I only went to the golf range with my dad, never my mom, so that location would be in the film a place where the father and son have a conversation where the dad confesses something he couldn't say in front of the wife. In the church, you have Korean parents being competitive about their children and so that's the scene I wrote there. Very location-inspired, the whole process.
And for Driveways with a script already written?
The process was different, but I still had the same respect for locations. The scouting process was really important. I got to know the area we were filming in as well as I could. The four-to-six weeks before filming started, we drove around like madmen going around to every library, every VFW, every hotel swimming pool. We went to so many motels looking for the right pool...and based on those scouts, we made adjustments. Cody's birthday party was initially scripted to be at a pizza parlour and I had gone to all these different pizza shops in the Hudson Valley and none of them felt quite right. But where would kids go for a nice birthday party in this area? I remember searching online "kid's party venues" and this roller rink popped up. Oh my god, perfect! That juxtaposition of that with the VFW was so funny and it played you know like this place a kid thinks would be a great place for a party but you get there and it's kind of intimidating and scary...
Especially for a kid like Cody...
Yes, right? That location really spoke to us. So we went back to the writers and said hey we can't find a pizza parlour that's right for this scene, but we found this roller rink. I explained why I thought it would work and they were really on board with it. It's always about taking advantage of what exists rather than shoehorning something into a space where it feels artificial. It was such a blessing to be working with this team and these writers who were so open to that process. They understood how important it is. We all shared this belief of the primary importance of space.
Tell me about the framing--do you storyboard?
Ki-jin and I have a process we've been refining since we started working together on shorts. We shot-list the entire film, but the shot lists aren't super-specific. We don't necessarily draw out and storyboard every shot. Partially because you can't know what each location will give to you. You see the architecture and you'll realize, Oh, I need to change this shot because I need to frame this character in a different way. Then there are times you get to the set and you see the light and you're like wow, we need to capture this scene right here and right now in this moment so we adjust to that timing. So the shot list is a document to know what's important...
It keeps you on theme...
Yes, exactly. It keeps you keyed in on what each scene is meant to convey, but once you're on set, there's pleasure in the flexibility in being able to change things out. For me, it's a little bit like jazz improvisation where you train your whole lives to be able to improvise in a cogent way. I want to continue to refine that with Ki-jin, to know what we need to plan ahead of time so when we get on set, we're free to be expressive and to take advantage of spontaneity: the happy accidents that your team will provide for you if you let them and you're open to it.