Stop Admiring and Start Remembering: Isaac Chung Discusses his Sundance-Winning MinariPhoto by Michael Dunaway Movies Features Lee Isaac Chung
All week long, I wondered if Lee Isaac Chung’s Sundance film Minari, starring Steven Yuen, was as good as I thought. Was my judgment being clouded by the fact that Chung is a friend, and the subject matter and tone right up my alley? After the film walked away with both the Audience Award and the Grand Jury Award, I can confidently say my initial reaction was on the money. Chung sat down with me at an off-the-beaten-path Park City café to discuss the film.
Paste Magazine: Thanks for giving us some time today to talk about your incredible film, Minari. It’s my favorite film at Sundance. It’s just so moving. It reveals its genius slowly, like a flower opening up. It’s a real achievement. In this film, it’s the husband’s dream that they’re really pursuing. For many artists, there’s this sort of tug of war between one’s dreams and one’s family. Do you want to talk either about how it grew out of your own thoughts, or stories that other others have told you?
Isaac Chung: First, thanks so much for that introduction. So, yeah, the film kind of came out of piecing together about 80 memories that I have of growing up in Arkansas. It’s something I started to do after my daughter was born. I started to think about the types of films I want to make, and I wanted to leave something that would last for her. A couple of years ago, I had read this quote from Willa Cather about how her work really began when she stopped admiring and started remembering. She’d been trying to let her work basically be so influenced by other writers, or so much in the vein of what was in style at that time, that she was not really just doing the work of mining her own life.
Chung: She finally started to write about her own life and My Antonia was one of the first works of her own experiences growing up in Nebraska on a farm. That was really inspiring for me. I don’t want to remake her book, but I want to remake that sort of process. So I just started to remember all these different things from childhood and growing up on the farm. I noticed that it was all centering around the time when I was around my daughter’s age, like what I was doing was kind of seeing the world and seeing my memories through her eyes. Since she’s been born, it’s almost as though my perspective has completely shifted so that I see so much of the world through her eyes.
Paste: How old is she now?
Chung: She’s six-and-a-half-years old now. She acts like she’s middle-aged sometimes. But one of the first memories I have is that my dad took us to this mobile home in the Ozark mountains in Arkansas and just said, “Hey, this is our house.” And my mom’s crying and saying, are you kidding me? What is this place? For me growing up, I always knew my dad was pursuing things that were a little bit wild and different and really reaching for the stars in his own life to create. He wanted this vast land in America, like these old Hollywood westerns, like the big country and all these things like—
Paste: Like the Garden of Eden.
Chung: The Garden of Eden! And I think in the past I used to feel bad for my mom, for all the things my dad did. But then I look at my own life and I just think, wow, this thing I’m pursuing, trying to be a filmmaker, it’s so similar to what he was trying to do. I feel like I understand him in a different way now. As an artist, we constantly think about what kind of sacrifice we are asking our families to make for the sake of our dreams. It’s a troubling thing, but at the same time, they’re our dreams and there’s something very beautiful about that. About pursuing something and having a hope that you can really do something that can affect the world. So I was just wrestling with all that stuff and at the same time thinking, what is it in the end that really matters? What is it that remains? What is it that’s a lasting work?
Paste: As a writer-director, you’re kind of both the son and the father in this movie. In the writing process, how did you explore both sides of that and really inhabit both of those characters at once?
Chung: I see myself in both of them. I see myself as the silly little kid who was the rascal and all that stuff. Then, also, the dad who is quite serious and trying to pursue different things. My way of trying to portray both of them was through their relationships. That’s why I structured it so that the boy and the grandmother is one love story, and the father and mother is the second love story. The family’s survival hinges on these two love stories in a way.
Paste: Let’s talk about Will Patton’s character. It’s so great to see him with a role that he can really sink his teeth into. He is, in his relationship to his religion, a somewhat absurd character, but he is also one of the real spiritual touchstones of the movie. I love how you don’t shrink away from either side. That character could easily have been just the comic relief or could have been the heavy-handed “religious message” figure. Instead, he’s neither. He’s a real living, breathing person. Tell me about finding the right tone for that character. How much was in the writing, and how much was in Will’s performance that you found together?
Chung: It was in both. In the script, he starts off seeming like a spectacle, seeming like a kook in a way. And then slowly you see that there’s more to him than you would think. In the longer cut that we had, he gives a little bit of his backstory and you kind of see that he takes his faith very seriously, that he’s wrestling with a lot of demons.
Paste: I feel like that would be less powerful with the backstory—we want to wonder what it is that’s causing that, you know?
Chung: I wasn’t sure if people were going to just completely lose interest in this guy, but I love how he kind of brings this idea of Christianity. I think Christianity is portrayed in such a simple way sometimes.
Paste: Most of the time.
Chung: Yeah. And just one single perspective of what is Christianity. But here we have so many different people of faith and they all express it so differently. I had Will read a book about an old Russian fool, Boris Godunov. Have you ever read that book? It’s this Russian book that’s just really great, about this holy fool back in like the 1600s. But at the same time Will was asking me, do I need to try to get the Holy Spirit during the shoot? We hardly had any time when we were filming with him, just because of our schedule. And he’s like, “I just—give me a little more time. I think I can get the Holy Spirit.” He was so invested in taking it very seriously, but then at the same time, working with me on little details—he scissor-cut his own hair, he picked out those glasses with those frames that make his eyes really big. We knew that he was treading that line and being a holy fool. I love holy fools that are completely foolish and completely wise.
Paste: Yeah. The line from the line from Don Quixote—“he’s either the maddest wiseman or the wisest madman I know.” I was in the Press & Industry screening where people are probably a few measures more cynical than the public audience. When he first started praying, more than a few people started laughing.
Chung: Some people have watched it and thought he was going to kill the family. But that’s an honest response.
Paste: That’s so dark.
Chung: Yeah. That was in our LA test screenings. I think that just shows there’s a bias against Southern white men who are religious.
Paste: And poor. There’s a class issue there.
Chung: Yeah, that’s true.
Paste: I will not forgive myself if we don’t discuss Steven Yeun’s incredible performance. He really dominates this film with this quiet but sort of steely determination. Tell me about creating that character with him.
Chung: It’s similar to Will Patton. I love working with all of these guys, and Steven is just the same. He brought so much to the role, thinking through so many things in the script that were very problematic and I knew it. I felt like sometimes I could be kind of lazy because he would come up and say, “You know, this is what I think is going to help this.” And I would be, “Okay, great!”
Paste: Instead of we’ll fix it in post, we’ll fix it in Steven.
Chung: Exactly. That dude is so insightful on so many things. Working with him was just fantastic.
Paste: As is your movie. Thank you for your time!
Michael Dunaway is an award-winning filmmaker, writer, photographer, and general troublemaker. He is Paste’s editor at large and the host of the Paste podcast The Work. You can follow him on Patreon.