photo by Carolyn Drake
The impetus for So Yong Kim’s career in filmmaking was simple, and she’s aimed to keep it that way ever since.
Kim debuted her third film, For Ellen, earlier this month after her two previous projects, 2006’s In Between Days and 2008’s Treeless Mountain made waves in the indie film circuit.
It marks the Korean American filmmaker’s first English-language film, as well as her most personal project to date.
Starring Paul Dano and Jon Heder, For Ellen captures a moment in time when rocker Joby Taylor (Dano) hits rock bottom, with a career going nowhere fast and the risk of losing custody of his young daughter, Ellen (Shaylena Mandigo), looming dangerously over his head.
Ellen is equal parts head and heart, and Kim’s decision to write the narrative stems from her own experiences growing up with an absentee father.
Here, Kim tells Hyphen about her love for storytelling, how she manages to write with two young children in the house, and what she’d want to do if she weren’t a filmmaker.
The story behind For Ellen is loosely based upon your own life growing up. What spurred you to create a film that is so personal?
The idea came about from memories that I had from meeting my father, who came to see us when I was six or seven. He walked into the house a stranger and said, “Hi, I’m your dad.” And then he disappeared. He was never in my life before and then afterwards, he was never in my life. So I have this memory, but for me, it’s not just a memory. I wanted to explain and discover and learn about someone like that, because I never had a relationship with someone like that before. So I guess it kind of started with that moment, but I wanted to tell the story from his point of view. The whole journey, in order to understand him better.
Your story telling style is so calm and reflective. How did you keep manage to keep that vibe consistent in all of your creative works?
With all three scripts, I tried to keep things as simple and as minimal as possible, without much flourishing descriptions or camera moves and all that. I find writing extremely difficult. So when I write, I try to make it as simple as possible.
I think with For Ellen, I finally got the script to a point where (the actors) could use it as a blueprint. I realized on set that (Dano) could go in so many different places than what I had initially imagined, so I thought that was the best way for the actors to do it. For me, the script is just a guideline or blueprint that I start from and then hopefully, what I have on film afterward is better than that.
So writing isn’t your favorite thing. But what is your personal writing regimen and how do you overcome writer’s block when you’re working on screenplays?
My husband (fellow filmmaker Bradley Rust Gray) and I have two kids, and they’re 5 and 1, so things are different around the house now. When we didn’t have children, Brad and I were always like, ‘Oh, we’re working’ so we had to have the perfect quiet space but now it’s totally chaotic. So now I get up super early before they get up, which is really rare, and then I find it best to write early in the morning.
My desk is literally between the bathroom and the hallway, so I try to squeeze myself in there and start writing. I think it’s just a matter of now realizing that it’s more a mental than a physical space that I need - or at least, I’m trying to train myself that way. And if I have a moment during the day, I just collect notes, a lot of notes, so then when I sit down in front of the computer, I’ll have 30 minutes or an hour of just typing stuff. But I don’t know how other people do it (write). It’s just an impossible task.
What prompted you to write and get into films in the first place?
I think for me the main thing was always the storytelling. I worked on Brad’s first film Salt. We made the film in Iceland with just Brad, myself and the DP, and it really made me feel like, “Wow, you can make a film as simple as that?” I mean, it was so easy. Well, that’s relative, but it did make me think, “Wow, I’m going to try to tell the story.” Once the whole filmmaking process was demystified for me, I knew I wanted to tell stories and I thought I’d try that, and that’s how I got into film.
If you hadn’t gotten into film, what do you think you’d be doing as a career? Or just in life in general?
I went to art school, so I originally really wanted to be a painter. Later in life, I’d love to pick up painting again. It’s so wonderful, and I still feel connected to art in a way. If I weren’t in filmmaking, I might have gotten a civil service kind of job, because if I wasn’t writing or directing, I think I’d actually prefer not to be in the industry.
I did figure painting and drawing for quite a bit. I was better at drawing though, because my teachers explained to me that I didn’t have an understanding of colors. So they actually recommended that I just don’t pursue painting. But when I’m 60, 70, I might just go back to it. It won’t matter at that point what colors I’m using, because I can just use the excuse that I can’t see properly because I have problems with my eyes!
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