With equal parts cuteness and intelligence, this story about a Korean exchange student who must find his way alongside odd friends in smalltown American is an often hilarious and beauitful analysis of Asian work ethic versus the artistic freedoms and independence promised by America.
What brought you to tell this story?
I co-wrote the screenplay with Ryan O’Nan, who also happens to be a producer on the film/Butch Blossom/my creative soulmate/my heterosexual life partner/BFF. He’s a Jack-of-all-trades to say the least. We both grew up as kids that moved around a lot and had trouble fitting in. I grew up in a Korean family but in neighborhoods that were predominately other races. So I had identity issues.
I remember when my parents sent me to Korea for a summer program when I was a kid, I was always viewed as the American kid. I was never fully accepted even though my ethnicity was Korean. And they could smell it right away that I was not from there. And when I was in America, even though I was born in the U.S. and raised as an American, I was always viewed as the Asian kid. I never fully felt accepted until I discovered myself as an individual and was comfortable in my own skin. I think a lot of races raised in America can identify with this issue. So the fish out of water story was always appealing to me.
I also had relatives and friends that were F.O.B.’s (what Asians like to call foreigners that move to America, an acronym for “Fresh Off the Boat”) and I saw the issues that they had to confront. As adolescents, many of the ones I knew were shy from uncertainty and never revealed how creative, beautiful, and unique their souls were. We wanted to tell a story about someone who found the courage to do so.
How did you pull off the accent and dumbstruck role so well?
My ethnicity is Korean, South Korean not North. If I was North Korean, I would either be a spy or an escapee and probably be killed for revealing that I was one or the other.
I’m actually a Korean-American. Born and raised here, so English isn’t really an issue for me. Well sometimes it is I guess. I co-directed the project with Gavin Kelly, one of my best friends, who I admire greatly as an artist and human being. So trusting him and communicating with him was quite effortless. We had a similar vision from start to finish, and spent a lot of time with each other during pre-production. Almost too much time. Just kidding. Like every partnership, of course there were tireless debates and disagreements, but because we both knew that satisfying’s the film’s potential was the number one goal rather than satisfying our own egos, we were always able to find healthy compromises.
Thank you for thinking I pulled off the accent well. I worked hard on trying to find a happy medium between believable while still understandable; which can be more difficult than you think. A very thick Korean accent is borderline indecipherable. I have friends and relatives that are native Koreans, so I spent as much time as possible with them soaking up as much as I could, in terms of accent nuances and Korean body language.
We also hired a local Korean accent coach during production to help with the subtleties of the accent. Which I’m not sure helped or did more harm, because I got so nervous around her. I’m just joking, she was great, I owe most of my improvement to her. My Korean is very subpar, my grammar and vocabulary is equal to that of a kid in kindergarten. More difficult than the accent was actually speaking Korean without an American accent, which my Korean friends have told me, I sound pretty awkward. Koreans are the harshest critics in the world.
Is it challenging to cast for an indie film, or are people ready to bet on these projects?
Yep, it can be challenging casting indie film as first-time directors because the actors have to take a bit of a leap of faith in you and the project. It’s really vital to attach great talent, which then attracts more great talent, and so on. Our casting director Jessica Kelly was totally incredible at helping bring together the right cast. It’s a delicate process because you’re working to cast the right ensemble of actors one by one, who not only can bring the characters to life in the right way, but also complement each other. And it’s such a specific comedy-drama tone we were going for in the film.
Then, if/when actors want to come onboard, it’s very tricky juggling everyone’s schedules with such a tight shooting schedule, and becomes a bit of a game of Tetris, but you try and make it all work. We are grateful that Mercedes Reuhl was such a believer in the project early on and she was the first to sign on. That helped the process a lot. And then some of the actors we had worked with before on other projects and/or were friends and wanted to be a part of the film, like Alan Cumming who had worked with Ryan O’Nan before, and Chris Marquette who Gavin had worked with. Caitlin Stasey who played Cherry was a big exciting discovery for us when she was brought to our attention, and we’re already big fans of Annie Potts, Melanie Lynskey, and Richard Kind’s work, and elated when they came on.
There is great tension between the American ideals of free-thinking/independent lifestyles and the Asian ideals of hard work, diligent study, etc. Did you hope to portray as one being better than the other, or are you advocating a blend of those styles?
The goal wasn’t to prescribe one set of values or cultural ideals over another, or even to really define those in any concrete sense. We just wanted to focus on the story of how these specific outsider characters could grow and evolve and become better versions of themselves through their relationships with each other.
Joon and Butch have very different backgrounds, yet as they both don’t “fit in” in this small town, they’re constantly aware of and subject to powerful stereotypes and preconceived negative notions of what others think of them. They don’t fit into some concepts of “normal” by those around them, and as fellow outcasts with creative spirits; this is what draws them together. They end up finding strength, encouragement, and courage in each other.
Joon is buried under the pressures of prescribing to his parents’ rigid expectations of him, but deep down he knows there’s more he’s yearning to be. Butch is naturally bold and rebellious, but is scared to take big next steps in life. So they’re both trying to break out of these confines in their lives, these molds, in order to mature and be confident in who they are. It’s this coming-of-age aspect we hope resonates with audiences from all backgrounds and walks of life, because everyone has to grow. So probably if there’s anything we’re advocating it’s to try to keep an open, searching mind and heart, and to keep pushing yourself and those close to you to be brave.
Do you expect the discipline of KSR to take off as the masses see the film?
I don’t think its something that we expect to happen, but it would be amazing if it did! We would be very proud, if we inspired people to express themselves in what they believe in, just as long as its positive. How awesome would it be if you saw herds of people dressed as canines and cattle covered in fake blood/red jelly breakdancing fighting in a flashmob protesting animal rights?
Were you aware that there is a massive foreign student population in Santa Barbara?
No, we didn’t know that. This will be our first time in Santa Barbara, so we’re not really sure what to expect. But what a great coincidence! We would love to reach out to everyone and anyone!
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