Director So Yong Kim: 'We thought that we'd capture something — or maybe not. It was a big gamble.'
Making its premiere at Sundance 2016, Lovesong follows the intimate, long-time friendship between Sarah (Riley Keough) and Mindy (Jena Malone). The story is told in two naturalistic snapshot moments: Sarah, while taking care of her daughter in the absence of a father, embarks on a road trip with Mindy; then, they reconnect three years later just before Mindy's wedding.
By evoking a simmering specificity and a beautiful on-screen relationship between the camera and actors, director So Yong Kim (Treeless Mountain, In Between Days) shows us that the spirit of the quiet drama is alive and well. We spoke with So Yong Kim about achieving simplicity, working with her own kids on screen, and what freedom in filmmaking means to her.
No Film School: When crafting a piece that's largely naturalistic, how do you find those little moments that say everything?
So Yong Kim: There’s those iconic moments in life: you get your driver’s license when you’re 16, you get to vote, you graduate from college, you get engaged, married, have kids and then you die. How you live your life from day to day is so important, and I’m trying to learn from discovering that. Some of the big events in your life, the big wedding that could overshadow your other day-to-day life, and I wish that every day your routine could be as important as a big wedding.
Lovesong was so much more improvised and free than my other films, and I felt it was important to experiment with the scenes and the actors. A lot of the creativity comes through in the film. It has a lot to do with what my actors brought to the scenes and I feel very fortunate I got to collaborate with them. When I’m shooting a scene I have a concept of what I’m trying to look for, then they took it away and put their own ideas of the character or what the scene can be.
NFS: What was it like working with your own children?
Kim: You just have no idea. But that’s the excitement in working—a lot of directors who are masters, they do things to trick themselves so each scene can be fresh again. Even if they rehearse the scene for 6 months with actors, by the time the shooting comes along they know when a scene is becoming stale. So throw a kid in there, or a dog, or a monkey, something!
NFS: How did you decide on the structure, tying the two parts of the film together?
Kim: It just seemed very organic. Our actors were only available a specific amount of time and I had a short amount of time to come up with a concept. We weren’t sure when I had written part one that there would be a feature film in it. We set out to experiment and have a blast with our friends and around our neighborhood. We thought that we'd capture something—or maybe not. It was a big gamble.
"It's important to make your first film exactly how you envision how you want to make it because that emotional connection stays with you."
So when we were shooting we thought “Okay, we’re gonna have something here.” Right after we wrapped I brought my partner [Bradley Rust Gray] in to shape the rest of the story. So we brainstormed several options and thought “Okay, it’s a love story, let’s do a wedding.” Three years made sense, two years was too soon, four years is forgettable. Three years the wound is still open a little, it’s just enough time to transform out of their past.NFS: Freedom seems to be a theme for a lot of filmmakers who have been making films for a while. When you’re moving fast and loose what’s the environment like?
Kim: It’s chaos. Chaos. Especially in part one. In part two we had to be much more organized. It was just a lot more people. Part one was so much about capturing moments, it was so chaotic but there was so much energy there. We shot for 6 days and the first two days we only had the DP and the sound guy. All the interior house stuff we didn’t do any lighting at except a couple practicals. Once Jena came, we loaded everything in the car and went on the road trip and at that point we had a gaffer and a camera assist. For part one we used Canon cameras because they were affordable and minimal, 7D, Canon C100, C500. Part two we used Arri Amira.
"I’m not a big fan of scores in films and I’m very self conscious of scores vs music and how they should be working in this film."
NFS: How did you capture the rodeo scene?
Kim: It was difficult but a friend of ours knew this organization and we got permission to shoot the live event while it was happening. We told them it was more of a documentary, we had signs up for documentary crew shooting. It was a tricky scene for us to edit. When we did the test screening or showed it to our internal team, they didn’t understand the purpose of that scene. But for me it says so much about their dynamics, their history and their relationship.
Mindy's character is very similar to Jena's personality; she's very impulsive, spirited and adventurous but also loyal and comforting. Sarah, on the other hand, is introverted and responsible. She became pregnant during college and decided to keep the child and raise it with her boyfriend, who became her husband. So Sarah and Mindy—who were friends in college—are very opposite in their personalities but they make a yin-yang kind of couple who complement each other through their differences.
NFS: I like how the film doesn’t linger on any moment too long, and especially appreciate the transience of the music cues. How do you decide which moments not to show and when to take away the music?
Kim: I’m not a big fan of scores in films and I’m very self conscious of scores vs music and how they should be working in this film. Cuz you want it to be just right, emotionally, and you don’t want it to be too didactic. “Oh she’s sad, so let’s play sad music on top of it, and then she’s going to cry and that’s going to make the audience cry!” That drives me crazy and I don’t want to drive my audience crazy. It was amazing working with Jóhann Jóhannsson, it was such a learning experience. We made this deal that he will read the script and send me sketches and I will see where I can fit it and if I don’t use any of it, that’s fine with him. If I use it in a minimal way, he’s fine with that.
NFS: Advice for filmmakers?
Kim: Go make your film. Everyone says that, right? It's important to make your first film exactly how you envision how you want to make it because that emotional connection stays with you. You don't want to make your first film and say, "I regret listening to my producer and compromising." You don't want to come back to that regret later. You want to feel like you made your film the way you wanted, the way you believed, that it was your concept and you treasure that experience.