'Columbus,' starring John Cho and Haley Lu Richardson, is a graceful and poignant debut from renowned video essayist and film theorist Kogonada.
Encountering Kogonada's Columbus feels like meeting a thoughtful person at a party; after hours of idle chatter, someone finally wants to have a meaningful conversation. It's a refreshing feeling best appreciated in moments of scarcity. Suffice to say, in the summer deluge of failing blockbusters and franchises, this movie is a welcome offering.
Kogonada is best known in cinephile circles for his incisive video essays, which dissect the cinematic form with careful attention to both style and substance. While writing a Ph.D. dissertation on Yasujirō Ozu, Kogonada—the nom de guerre of the Korean-born director, inspired by Ozu’s screenwriter, Kogo Noda—came across an article about a little-known town called Columbus, Indiana, an unassuming mecca of modernist architecture. He married his intimate knowledge of cinema theory with Ozu-derived inspiration for his directorial debut. As a result, Columbus features an elegant fusion of humanism and formalism.
Columbus stars Haley Lu Richardson (Split) as Casey, a local young woman with a penchant for architecture and a dismal home situation, and John Cho (Harold and Kumar) as Jin, a translator who's come to Columbus to visit his dying father—who just so happens to be an architectural scholar. They form an unlikely friendship as they visit Columbus' architectural landmarks. While admiring buildings by Eero Saarinen, I.M. Pei, and James Polshek in carefully constructed long shots, Casey and Jin discuss their personal and existential predicaments. Kogonada takes care in developing his characters. Their flaws, good intentions, dashed dreams, idiosyncrasies, and hypocrisy remind us of our own.
"I think of cinema as the art of time. Architecture is the art of space."
But it isn't all conversation: Columbus revels in the stillness that great architecture commands. It produces that same awareness of emptiness, with the pursuant longing. Watching the film, as in viewing a great work of architecture, your entire personhood is encapsulated by another form.
No Film School caught up with Kogonada prior to the film's theatrical premiere to discuss how he brought his incredible command of the cinematic form to bear on his directorial debut. He reveals why he thinks all critics should make a movie—and how he pulled together his within the span of less than a year.
No Film School: I'm really excited that this film coming to theaters. As I told you at Sundance this year, it was one of my favorites. I want people to see it!
Kogonada: First, thank you, because that was very encouraging early on. When you make something, you just hope it connects or resonates with some people who might feel the same way, so those early words from you were really encouraging. I appreciate you wanting other people to see it, too.
NFS: Architecture is a main character in the film. It lives in the dialogue, the cinematography, and even the story structure. Why? And how did you decide to make the film through the prism of modernism, in particular?
Kogonada: I think the question for me that has always haunted me is: How can you be modern in this world with some kind of meaningfulness? Modern art, in general, has spoken to me quite a bit. Architecture is also one of the forms that has helped me think through this question. I think of cinema as the art of time. Architecture is the art of space. It also constructs our sense of emptiness. It makes us see nothingness and absence in a way that, without it, is almost invisible to us.
Once I discovered the architecture in Columbus, I deeply wanted it to be a part of the first film that I made.
NFS: How did you first encounter Columbus, Indiana?
Kogonada: I had read an article about Columbus in the New York Times. At the time, the AIA—the American Institute of Architects—had just ranked the most architecturally significant cities in America, and this little town Columbus was number six, behind all the big cities that you would expect to be on that list. I was like, "What is Columbus, Indiana, a city of 45,000 people?"
"From the beginning, Columbus, Indiana was always going to be more than just a setting."
I visited the town partly because I'm really interested in architecture, and at the time, it was a day trip for me. I didn't go there with the intention of making this movie, but the time I spent there felt like such a window to this world that I was wrestling with in my head. It's the question that I had mentioned to you: What does it mean to be modern? I wanted to create a very human story that would play out in this context. The town itself had a story to tell about the promise and limits of modernism. So from the beginning, Columbus, Indiana was always going to be more than just a setting.
NFS: Can you tell me a bit about how you got your start as a video essayist?
Kogonada: It mostly came from a deep desire to re-engage the conversation of cinema and to explore the aesthetic possibilities of remixing. I had stopped working on my dissertation a few years earlier with the intent of making films that expanded the kind of form I was researching. At the time, however, I was working on other things, which felt quite removed from the forms and conversations that mattered to me the most. So in a bit of desperation, I started staying up at night and making works that interested me again.
NFS: What steps did you take to make the transition from video essayist to getting this film off the ground?
Kogonada: I was fortunate to be able to make a career doing these film essays, and I was also being commissioned to direct some small, visual pieces. But there was this moment where because of some opportunities and contacts, I became interested in the idea of making a feature. It was always a dream of mine, but then it seemed possible. I knew at that point that if I were really serious, I would need to write something. I had a notebook full of ideas for stories that I wanted to write.
"The Asian male lead...was weirdly something that was a challenge for a lot of financiers."
Once I found Columbus, the movie wrote itself really quickly. We visited the town and then within a few months, I had written Columbus. Then, there was the issue of trying to find support and financing, and because I had written an Asian lead, that was weirdly something that was a challenge for a lot of financiers. That was honestly surprising for me. It was really eye-opening.
Kogonada: Chris Weitz and I had been in communication because of some of my essay work. He's a big part of the Hollywood world. He wrote Star Wars: Rogue One. He is one of the most generous people that I've met and he also loves Ozu. He read the script and really responded to it. Then, through him and Andrew Miano, one of his partners, I met Danielle from Superlative Films. She read it and had no problems with the Asian male lead. She was just a champion of the script. She was my ideal producer I didn't even know existed. She came into the project with money and as people know, that changes everything. It became a reality.
The timeline was really condensed, though. This time last year, we were in pre-production, so we didn't even start shooting a year ago. Once Danielle brought in the money, we had weeks to get everything together before we started shooting the film.
NFS: Common industry wisdom is that if you have a strong script, then someone will read it and want to make it. The proof is in the pudding. This sounds like the perfect example of that. Can you talk a bit more about your writing process? The dialogue is very naturalistic.
Kogonada: I had the beats. I knew the way I wanted it to move, and it was going to be its own rhythm. I didn't have a three-act structure. I just knew how this film was going to present this particular period of time between the two main characters.
"There's a real danger of taking on too much and everything becomes compromised because you run out of time."
I'm writing my second feature right now and I'm having the same moment. It's a struggle, struggle, struggle until it's not—until you have some window into it, and then it really opens up.
I did have a few readers look at it to give me notes. In a few scenes, the conversation was different, and if it wasn't for these notes from people I trusted, they would have been much different.
NFS: When you found out you had such a condensed time for pre-production, that must have been a very heightened experience. It's your first time doing this and you had to do it full speed ahead. How did you approach that process on fast-forward?
Kogonada: There were multiple challenges because we also knew that it was going to be an 18-day shoot and it was very site-specific. It wasn't one of those things where we could be like, "Well, let's just find another space," because it was written for these specific spaces. We had an incredible line producer in Max Butler, who was local, which is a real advantage. Having a good line producer is critical. It was vital for this project.
Kogonada: Before we had gotten financing, Aaron Boyd and Ki Jin Kim and Giulia, the other producers, had been discussing how to pull this off. Max Butler had just worked on Love Song with a group of people in the area, so he knew a crew who would be able to tackle this subject. If it wasn't for him, and having access to the crew—and they were this incredible group of people—I don't think it would have been possible, because it had to happen right away. We brought our own DP from Los Angeles.
"I knew that I wanted to have every shot count, and I knew that that would mean that I would have to have less coverage."
NFS: Everything about the film feels very deliberate. It plays like you had plenty of time to sit down and pre-plan everything. Do you feel like you had enough time to work on some of the more specific elements, like character development with the actors? These are such a rich, dynamic characters.
Kogonada: I should say that before we had money, one of the first things Chris asked was if he could show it to John Cho, who he had worked with a number of times. John quickly read through it and really responded to it. There aren't a lot of parts for Asian American male lead actors, male actors. It only took a conversation with John to really realize that he was Jin.
Soon after that, we also offered the part to Haley Lu Richardson. Haley, at the time, had not even been in Split. I think she had just finished shooting that and Edge Of Seventeen. I really felt like she was Casey. Chris just said that we should go after her. Typically, producers are like, "Let's get the largest name possible," but he really trusted me on her.
John and Haley were a part of this project for, I think, close to a year. There was a lot of prep in that regard, and I think that showed. They loved the characters and felt passionate about the project and knew what they wanted to bring to it.
NFS The visual compositions are also very deliberate. What was your process of pre-visualizing the film's imagery, especially shots with architecture prominently displayed?
Kogonada: I took photos of the buildings on return visits. I had an illustrator, Mihoko Takata, draw some concept art to capture a sense of space and mood. I also collected stills from other films that captured the sense of space and composition I was pursuing. I shared all of these with my DP, Elisha Christian, and then we had long conversations around the locations while taking more photos. Ki Jin Kim, one of the producers, who also happens to be a cinematographer (Spa Night), joined these conversations.
We talked quite a bit about how to approach those spaces, but then it really was a challenge to talk about how we were going to break into the space. I knew that I wanted a lot of wide shots—to really see the space and dwell in it, so we often started with the wide shot. Then, we would ask ourselves, "Do we need to go in? And if so, why?"
"I found myself editing and re-editing the film in my head throughout the production."
What mattered to us in presenting the space was really trying to get every shot to count. I think that's the other advantage of being an editor, and even having worked on video essays. I thought, "You know, I understand the functionality of that shot, but as an editor, I will want to do everything I can for that shot not to exist in the film." That makes things a little bit easier because it was like, "Okay, I want to love every shot so much that I want it to be a part of the film [when I'm the one editing it]."
NFS: As an editor, while you were on set, did you have a vision for pacing?
Kogonada: Yes. I think, because of the 18 days of shooting.... I've had enough creative projects to know that there's a real danger of taking on too much and everything becomes compromised because you run out of time. So, you start out really strong, but by the end, there's no way that you can do everything you want. Right away, I knew that I wanted to have every shot count, and I knew that that would mean that I would have to have less coverage. I knew that I shouldn't put too many things on the shot list so that we could really get the shots that we wanted.
In terms of pacing, while we were shooting, things were being changed a bit, so I found myself editing and re-editing the film in my head throughout the production. By the time I edited it, I knew how certain things were going to play out.
"It would be beneficial for any theorist or critic to somehow participate in the practice of [filmmaking]."
One of the contingencies of the financing was this real attempt to get into Sundance, so it meant that there was a deadline that right after we shot that we would have a first cut in three weeks. That's, again, a really compressed timeline, but it helped because I was able to edit in my head and know how things were going to work out.
NFS: Did you encounter any surprises in the editing process, or was it as you imagined it would be?
Kogonada: There were certain things, like the weather, which was changing on us. It ended up being a really great thing because it added its own mood and context. You can't ever plan for weather, unless you have a huge budget and you can make weather. I knew that we had to get pieces of certain kinds of weather that while it was happening. This is something I was able to do as a director and editor; when it started raining, I knew that I would need other shots of rain to make that work.
NFS: At the film's Q&A at Sundance, you said that the "conversation of cinema altered me at an important part of my life."
Kogonada: The details are somewhat personal, but I can speak about it more broadly. The conversation of cinema for me, beyond the technical and historical aspects, is a conversation of time, existence, and humanity. It's deeply philosophical, but in a way that is fleshed out and materialized—philosophy as a kind of temporal experience. I've always struggled a bit existentially in regard to meaning, which can be somewhat amplified when you're younger. During a particularly dark period, when certain foundations seemed to be crumbling, I encountered a form of cinema that moved me, and I began to engage the ongoing conversation (albeit often by myself via a book or a film or an essay or a review or a Criterion supplement). It gave me space to breathe, to think, to question. It changed me.
NFS: You approached film initially from a critical theory perspective. Did you find that anything changed in your thinking about the relationship between a theorist/critic and a filmmaker, in the nuts and bolts of the process of making your first feature?
Kogonada: Oh, 150%. It's a very humbling process to come from theory to practice. You can theorize anything and really also identify what you think should happen without realizing the obstacles of practice. I'm so glad to go through it. Not just the filmmaking part, but the financing part, and even the distribution part. I really realized what it takes for an audience to encounter a film—all of the things that determine what we are going to see.
It would be beneficial for any theorist or critic to somehow participate in the practice of [filmmaking]. It definitely altered my sense of both theory and criticism. It'd be too much to tell you all the factors, but I will say it definitely gave me a lot of insight and appreciation. I've heard other people say that once they start making films, it's harder to critique them, only because you realize what an accomplishment it is just to make a film. I understand that now better than ever. It takes a lot. It takes a lot to make a film and anyone who's done it—at whatever level—can appreciate that.