Actor-turned-filmmaker Justin Chon is at the front of the new wave of Asian-American filmmakers. The Twilight Saga star took the Sundance Film Festival by storm in 2017 with his second film, the startling black-and-white LA riots drama Gook, which won the Next Audience Award and the Kiehl’s Someone to Watch Award at the 2018 Film Independent Spirit Awards. His 2019 follow-up,
Ms. Purple, premiered at Sundance.
His latest film is Blue Bayou, which he wrote, directed and stars in opposite Oscar winner Alicia Vikander. The moving and timely story of a uniquely- American family fighting for their future, it centers around New Orleans tattoo artist Antonio LeBlanc (Chon), a devoted family man looking to build a better life for pregnant wife Kathy (Vikander) and precocious step-daughter Jessie (Sydney Kowalske). But for an ex-con with a checkered past, life can be hard. Complicating matters is Kathy’s ex Ace (Mark O’Brien), a Louisiana cop who wants to play a larger role in Jessie’s life — despite having abandoned the girl and her mother years earlier.
When a family spat unexpectedly leads to a grocery store confrontation with Ace and his racist partner, Denny (Emory Cohen), Antonio is arrested and transferred into the custody of Immigration and Customs Enforcement. Despite having been brought to America at the age of three, the Korean-American adoptee — who is married to an American citizen — suddenly faces deportation from the only country he’s ever known as home. Trapped in a waking nightmare, Antonio and Kathy seek out legal assistance to help fight the deportation order, only to discover that they have precious little hope of keeping their family together. With Antonio facing an uncertain future, he finds an unlikely ally and source of support in a Vietnamese-American woman named Parker (Linh-Dan Pham).
Behind the scenes, Chon assembled a creative team that included editor Reynolds Barney, production designer Bo Koung Shin, and cinematographers Ante Cheng and Matthew Chuang.
Here, in an exclusive interview for Post, I spoke with Chon about the challenges of making and posting the film.
What sort of film did you set out to make, given that the American-Asian experience has largely been ignored by Hollywood?
“The films that I make, I’m trying to bring awareness of communities — and specifically the Asian-American one, and all the different experiences and stories that exist in this country. And it includes the adoption community, and I wanted to shine a light on this whole issue of immigration. I grew up in Southern California and I was friends with a lot of Korean-American adoptees, and I always felt their experience was so different to mine in terms of being an American and how they felt about it, and when I read some news stories about people being deported, although they’d been here since they were kids, and lived their entire lives in the country, it was just so emotional and heart-breaking. It just seemed so unjust, that they could be adopted and then 30 years later they don’t deserve to be able to stay here, and that’s what inspired this story.”
Actors-turned-directors, like George Clooney, Mel Gibson and Clint Eastwood, often direct themselves, but they’ve all told me “it’s never easy.” You’ve also starred in your previous films. How tough is it?
“I never intended to also star in this film, and it is very difficult because you always come last when it comes down to your performance. Your responsibility as a director is to make sure everyone else is comfortable and able to give their best performance, so mine was last in line. Even my own team and all the crew sometimes forgot that I also needed to give a good performance. So it’s far easier to just focus on one job like directing, but I just couldn’t cast someone else as Antonio — I was just too close to the character, and I’d lived with him for too long. So in the end, I just felt I had to do it, and that if anyone was going to mess it up, I’d rather it was me. That’s what I signed up for, and I just made sure I did a lot of prep and rehearsal.”
Ante Cheng and Matthew Chuang are both credited as DPs. Why did you shoot with two DPs?
“Ante has been a longtime collaborator. We’ve done several projects together, but movies never work out exactly the way you plan them. So he took a few jobs while we were waiting, and we suddenly got a green light, and he was unavailable. And I really wanted a DP that was Asian, but not from the US, and I got to talking to Matthew, who’s brilliant and from Australia, and he agreed to shoot the film. But then Ante suddenly became available. So I went to Matt and suggested that we all three collaborate, like a brain trust, and everyone could bring their skill sets and different perspectives, and it’d be very beneficial for the film — especially as I also had to act, and we didn’t have the budget for a 2nd unit. But with two DPs, I could send one off to grab other material, and also keep the quality and vision. So that’s what happened, and it worked out great.”
The film has an almost documentary look and feel to it. Talk about the look you and your DPs went for.
“I’m glad you noticed that, as the whole idea was to shoot in all practical locations in New Orleans, and to embrace everything, from the weather to the culture. I’m a huge fan of John Cassavetes and I wanted that same look — real and grounded, yet sort of timeless, so we shot Super 16mm on Arri, which I’d decided to do very early on when we hooked up with Macro, our production company.”
When everyone’s trying to cut costs, wasn’t that more expensive?
“Yes, as there’s barely any labs left dealing with it, so we had to ship all the dailies to FotoKem in LA, which wasn’t convenient, but I really felt that the grain you get with 16mm and how it reacts to natural daylight was very important in making the film feel very visceral and real. So I just stuck to my guns.”
Tell us about post. Where did you do it? Was it remote because of COVID?
“COVID very much affected it. I edited it mostly in LA with my longtime editor Reynolds Barney, and we also spent a few months in Hawaii cutting it, and we’d pretty much finished and were about to lock picture when COVID hit. Then, most of the rest of post was all remote, including the DI with colorist Tom Poole at Company 3, where me and the two DPs were in their LA offices and Tom was in their New York [office]. I did all the sound in New Orleans at Apex Post and spent a few weeks there working in a mask with all the COVID protocols in place.“
Do you like post?
“I love post, as you finally get to sit down and have time to think. Production is so intense and high-stress, and we only had a 30-day shoot to get everything we needed, but then post is where you can re-evaluate all the material and start actually finding and making your film. And stuff you thought was so important when you were writing it may suddenly seem redundant, and other stuff becomes more important as you dive deeper into it. Post is so fascinating, and we did post for about seven months. Obviously it’s not ideal when you have to do it remotely, but we all adapted fairly quickly.”
How did you and Reynolds Barney work together, and what were the main editing challenges?
“He was with us for the shoot in New Orleans, and I do a rolling edit so he’s cutting as the footage comes in, and then we get together [on] the weekends and look at what we’ve got so far. We have a very close relationship and we’re great friends, so we have long philosophical conversations about stuff while we work — not necessarily about the work, but it all feeds into the work, as it gives us the latitude to think about the films in different ways. And I love working with him because it matters to him — it’s not just a job where he clocks in and out. It takes time to find the film, and you need a partner who’s willing to push and go there, and find the right balance of tone and pace and so on.”
Talk about the importance of music and sound to you.
“I talked about the score with another longtime collaborator, composer Roger Suen, for years while I was writing the script, and he sent me tons of examples, and I also teamed up with someone in China to get the traditional instruments and sounds, so we all worked together. I wanted to capture the authentic sounds of New Orleans without it sounding like the stereotypical jazz. It needed its own identity, and a melancholy feel to it, and we did the sound and final sound mix at Apex in New Orleans, and we made sure that Foley captured the real sounds of the bayous. I didn’t want it coming from a sound library. And we used local ‘loop groups’ to make sure it was all authentic — even the background chatter.”
There are a few VFX, like in the underwater sequences. Who did them and what was entailed?
“Tunnel Post did them and they’re all pretty subtle. I wanted them to be all unnoticed, so they didn’t interfere with the naturalism, but obviously the underwater sequences had to feel a bit dream-like without going too far, so there was work there, and also the scene with the boat, where we added some water VFX. But most of it was the normal clean up of reflections and booms and so on.”
What about the DI? What was entailed?
“We wanted to enhance the colors a little bit, but to also keep it all very naturalistic. Ante, Matt and me used a lot of natural light when we shot, so we wanted to make sure we kept the integrity of that approach and the docu-style look. We didn’t want to heighten it too much in the DI. For instance, the scene at the bridge with the pink skies — that’s pretty much what we actually shot. There was no need to super-enhance it, and Tom is such a master of his craft and so experienced, you don’t really need to give him many notes. It turned out great.”
“I just finished posting the upcoming [Apple TV+] series Pachinko, and I just started production on my next film, about an Indonesian father and his rapper son. It’s been pretty hectic.”