Director's Chair: Lee Isaac Chung — <I>Minari</I>
Issue: March/April 2021

Director's Chair: Lee Isaac Chung — Minari

When American/Korean director/writer/producer Lee Isaac Chung debuted his latest film Minari at Sundance last year, it got a standing ovation, won the audience and grand jury prizes, and immediately emerged as a front-runner in the awards season. The bi-lingual family drama, a tender, funny, evocative ode to how one generation of a family risks everything to plant the dreams of the next, follows a Korean-American family that moves to a tiny Arkansas farm in the 1980s in search of their own American Dream. But the family home changes completely with the arrival of their sly, foul-mouthed-but-loving grandmother. Amidst the instability and challenges of this new life in the rugged Ozarks, Minari shows the resilience of family and what really makes a home.

It’s an immigrant story that Chung knows well, as he grew up on a small farm in the Ozarks. But instead of becoming a farmer, he pursued a career in movies. His first feature film was the ultra-low budget Rwandan family drama Munyurangabo, which premiered at the 2007 Cannes Film Festival to great acclaim. His next two feature films, Lucky Life and Abigail Harm, raised his profile on the festival circuit, and his new film looks certain to cement his growing reputation.

Here, in an exclusive interview with Post, Chung talks about making the film — which is getting a lot of Oscar buzz. Its six Oscar nominations include: Actor in a Leading Role (Steven Yeun), Actress in a Supporting Role (Yuh-Jung Youn), Directing (Lee Isaac Chung), Music - Original Score (Emile Mosseri), Best Picture, and Writing – Original Screenplay (Lee Isaac Chung).

You waited till your fourth film before making this deeply personal film about your American/Korean childhood. What sort of film did you set out to make?

“A lot of ideas and motivations converged on this one for me, particularly from real life. My wife and I had a child, and we moved across country to California. Living out that new experience, coupled with my desire to reset how I approach writing, I got into different books that guided my approach. I wanted Minari to be a coming-of-age story that works as a portrait of various people in a family; the child’s coming-of-age involves his growing understanding of family. The film was meant to exist somewhere between a coming-of-age story and a family drama.”

The American/Asian experience has largely been ignored by Hollywood, so as both writer and director, how important and challenging was it to get this story made? 

“I wasn’t feeling motivated about the lack of Asian/American portrayals in cinema, although I’m sympathetic to those efforts. Personally, I thought this might be my last chance at making a film, given how difficult the work had become. When something feels like the last hurrah, I dig into the motivations that matter most to me, and that’s my own family. I wanted to make something that could preserve the story of my parents, while expressing some feelings toward my wife and daughter. Ultimately, I thought it should be something I can leave behind for my daughter. I think the timing of this lined up well with the industry’s newfound openness to diverse stories, so I didn’t feel the Asian/American aspect created challenges.”

Where did you shoot, and how tough was the shoot?

“We decided where we would film in Tulsa, Oklahoma, about two- and-a-half months before production. Plan B and A24 read the script for the first time in February 2019, and we began filming five months later in July. This short of a development period is out of the ordinary. Our rushed schedule, culminating in a 25-day shoot, was the most difficult aspect for us. We had no margin for error. On a few occasions, we had less than ten minutes to grab the last scenes on our call sheet. These were scenes, not shots. I felt we were relying a great deal on instinct to get the work done quickly.” 

Talk about the look you and DP Lachlan Milne, ACS, NZCS, went for.

“We couldn’t have pulled this off without him. In our preparations, we talked about going for a wide angled, presentational approach, with people coming in and out of frame for a feeling of realism. We didn’t always stick to this strictly, because we didn’t want the film to feel too formal. We also tried to play it loose and respond to performances and dynamics that we discovered during each scene. We shot with the Alexa Mini and Panavision P vintage prime lenses, mainly the 29mm. We aimed for a subtle, natural, light aesthetic, both indoors and outdoors. We worked quickly, and I relied a lot on Lachlan’s visual eye and instincts with complete trust.” 

Tell us about post. Where did you do it? 

“We edited in a little building in Frogtown, Los Angeles, courtesy of A24. Kent Sparling designed and mixed sound for us at Skywalker Ranch. Mike Ugoccioni at Secret Weapon VFX did our visual effects. David Cole was our colorist at Fotokem. When post goes as well as it did for Minari, I love post production. I don’t take it for granted that the actors and the production team delivered something rich to work with. It’s easy to like post when you feel the film is working. But more than that, this one felt special due to all the working relationships.”

Harry Yoon cut this.  How did you work together, and what were the main editing challenges?

“Harry edited dailies while I was on location, which was a necessary resource during production, and he completed a first cut within a week of my return to Los Angeles. Before I saw it, he warned me many times that I would hate his first cut. It was about two-hours-and-45-minutes long, but I was pleasantly surprised by it, feeling that the core of our story was in there. Given that the film isn’t entirely plot driven and relies on multiple narratives and characters, the unique challenge to this film was figuring out how to anchor the heart of the story. We learned through trial and error that the young boy’s — David’s — watchful gaze matters a great deal in various moments. There is an A side and a B side to the story as well; the first half has a lighter tone and feeling, and then the B side grows a little darker. Balancing this took a lot of work, and I was grateful for Harry’s sense of story and timing. 

“Overall, I feel as though editing went very smoothly. I know this isn’t always the case. This project was personal to Harry as a second-generation Korean/American, and I felt we were very well aligned in the type of film Minari should be. Harry has an incredible mind, and working with him and his instincts unlocked a lot of the film for me. We also had a great assistant editor named Irene Chun, who juggled many tasks and was very tech savvy.” 

Talk about the importance of music and sound to you. 

“Our composer, Emile Mosseri, had a studio a few minutes away. We visited each other’s workspace quite often. One of the unique aspects of this film was that we didn’t work with a temp score in our edit and used Emile’s sketches from the start. Emile sent me many musical sketches before I started filming, so this influenced many of the scenes. Having this connection to music from the start was incredibly eye-opening for me, and now this process is something I’d like to keep for the future — music is as important to the emotional register of the story as any camera move or actor’s gesture. I find sound to be just as important and try to emphasize it in the script from the start. I know that sound will not only tell the story, but also make us feel it, and sound designer Kent Sparling and I wanted the sound to place the audience in the lush Ozark countryside. He had a lot of field location sounds of summer cicadas and birds he had recorded in the South over the years. I made a special request for the spring peepers I would hear every summer growing up, and we used those for some of the dusk and night shots. Dmitri Makarov was our dialogue and supervising sound editor. As a native of Russia, he did an incredible job editing our Korean dialogue.” 

There are a few VFX. Who did them and what was entailed?

“Mike Uguccioni of Secret Weapon VFX and Harry worked together in the past, so we had a good workflow from the start. The VFX work was minimal, but helped to make important patches. There were a few shots that needed stitching, some stabilization work and augmentation of a fire scene. We painted out some things in the background that wouldn’t work in a 1980s-set story.”

What about the DI? 

“Working with colorist David Cole was great. He and Lachlan have worked on a couple of other features together, so they had a good shorthand and understanding of each other’s aesthetics. Lachlan and I didn’t feel there were too many problem shots going into the DI; we tried to focus our time on achieving the right atmosphere for the film within our natural style, and David is great at keeping scenes looking natural, while adding bits of magic to help a shot. 

“One aspect I’ve never dealt with in DI was the color timing of subtitles in conjunction with the picture. We had to think a lot about the look, placement, and brightness of the titles. A trick that we found was that for darker scenes, it was better to dim the subtitles by about 10 to 15 percent. This kept the information in the shadows from disappearing, but allowed us to keep the scene as dark as we wanted. We found that bright subtitles change the way the eye adjusts to darkness to evaluate a shot, and it doesn’t quite work the same to make the overall shot brighter. 

“And Stefanie Hong did much of the work for us in translating, formatting and timing our subtitles. She came to us from the Korean film industry and is a true expert. She got our subtitles worded correctly with the proper nuance from the spoken Korean word. It’s not an easy task. Irene Chun did a lot of work in formatting and outputting these subtitles as well.” 

Did it turn out the way you first envisioned it?

“I try to plan my trips knowing that the experience itself will be more meaningful than the execution of an itinerary. In that way, the unexpected things make the film what it is. I’m happy with the way it turned out.” 

What’s next?

“Right now, I’m working on a live action adaptation of the Japanese anime Your Name with Bad Robot and Paramount. In addition to that, I have another personal one that I’m working on that I hope to build in a similar fashion as Minari.”