The director of For Ellen discusses her love of moviemaking and her shortfalls as a mother.
For Ellen is the third feature by Korean-American filmmaker So Yong Kim, and it's also her most high-profile work to date. The film sees Paul Dano playing a down-in-the-dumps rocker who's saddled with a paternity case he doesn't want to deal with. He quickly finds out that signing away custody to his estranged daughter, Ellen, is much more tough than he initially expected. This follows So's superb examination of untethered toddlers, Treeless Mountain, and her 2006 debut, In Between Days, about a Korean girl adapting to life in the US. LWLies: With the new movie, how long had the idea been with you?
Yong Kim: A little white, but not as long as Treeless Mountain. Treeless Mountain was the first film I wanted to do but didn't know anything about filmmaking. I had to make something smaller, which was In Between Days. I was going this crisis of identity as a filmmaker after Treeless… It was really about trying to do something that's completely different that went against expectations but was also challenging. For Ellen is about my tiny memory of meeting my father for the first time. He actually came to our house and said, 'I'm your dad!' but I'd never met him before. I took that and started to write the story. It took a while because your memory is a completely unreliable source of facts. I think it took about a year to finish the script.
How did you prompt those memories?
It was using that moment and then reversing it. I knew I wanted to do a film about a male character, so it was going to be the father at the centre. In the beginning, the father was much older, so it took a while for him to become younger and younger. And then he became a rocker. I really got stuck at one point. I thought it was this really self-indulgent thing that I was building. So I had to put the script down for a while. Then this name of Joby Taylor emerged. He was actually a friend of mine who I lost contact with. His name came on like a lightbulb.
Joby was based on a real person?
No, just the name. I just put this name with this character and it all came together. It's something about that name…
What does the real Joby think about this?
I don't really know. I lost contact with him quite soon afterwards. Joby Taylor is almost a saint. He worked for the Peace Corps for three years, he was training to become a priest and he's incredibly spiritual. I don't think he'd be against it. He'd probably get a kick out of it as he's so different to the character I wrote. It's just such a great name.
Was Paul Dano the embodiment of the character?
The Joby character I wrote was much older. He was in his mid-thirties. But I gave the script to Paul just to have a read for the younger, lawyer character. And he came back and said he really connected with the main character. He had this idea that he was really soft spoken and subtle and he wouldn't come out straight and say that he wanted to play the lead. 'So how would you feel if the character was younger…'. He did so much research about rockers, so he put a lot into the role.
It seems like a natural fit for that role. He seems like a very actory actor?
Yes. He was completely immersed in Joby. He even drove the car the character drives in the film to the set. So when he comes he's completely ready. When he leaves, he's in character so he would drive the car back to the motel where we were staying, take everything off, then he's back to being Paul. He's completely immersed in it. What was great working with him is that he never had questions about the character when we started shooting it.
There's a very anti-clichéd depiction of youth in this film, and Treeless Mountain. The kids are never annoying precocious.
I don't try to represent them in one way or the other. My daughter is five and she does crack some jokes, and that comes from her father who is a wisecracker. So she imitates him. For me, when I'm writing these characters like Ellen or Jin and Bin, I really try to get into their background and find out where they are in their lives. You have to respect them in that sense. Because Ellen is being raised by just her mother, she's forced to be more responsible, to be a little bit more grown up. In that sense, Ellen is much more serious and focused. Credit to her mom, who you don't see in the film, she has been honest to Ellen about who her father is. That is why she's very level-headed when she meets him. Children in a lot of sense reflect how they are raised by their parents. They absorb everything that is around them. Claire is reflected in Ellen, which is why she's not in the film. It's the same with Jin and Bin in Treeless Mountain. I think children in those kind of situations are mature.
Do you have any personal interest in child psychology?
No, these are my own interpretations. I'm not a very good mother, in a way. I'm not trying to fish for compliments or anything, but I had to get a book to find out how I should be talking to my own daughter. It's completely different being on the other side. But no, I haven't studied child psychology, but maybe I should.
There's a great scene where Joby is in a mall with Ellen and leaves here while he goes to the bathroom. There's an intense sense of dread as to what's going to happen to her.
That scene has been in the story for a while, but during the editing process I took it out. And then I put it back, and then I took it out again. It's expected that something might happen because he's such a self-centred dude. He expects her to be sitting there. He thinks it's simple, bit it's not. I get embarrassed when I see the film as it reflects a lot of my own insecurities about filmmaking. Joby's dedication to rock is like my dedication to film. The artistic process is a long one. I feel for him at the end.
Do you get angry on set?
No, I really love production. It's like being high for 20 days. And you're up at four in the morning until I don't know when. I don't get angry, but I think in my mind I do. It has to come out somehow. I think filmmaking is a learning process more than it's therapy. I've never been in therapy myself so I don't really know.