How Justin Chon pushed his collaborators and the envelope to get to Sundance.
Ms. Purple is a character and performance driven indie, and director Justin Chon is no stranger to acting. His first acting credit is in Jack & Bobby, back in 2005, and he's been at it ever since with major stops along the way in titles like... The Twilight Saga. That's why he knew how to throw every school of acting in the book at his young talent to get them where they needed to be for the demanding yet impactful Ms. Purple.
In 2017 Justin went to Sundance with his indie feature Gook. We spoke with Justin and his cinematographer Ante Cheng at the time, so we were thrilled to sit down with Chon once again in Park City this time to discuss how his process evolved for Ms. Purple.
It doesn't sound like it was easy, but Justin pulled his team together, and through rigorous preparation got everyone on the same page to deliver something really special.
No Film School: Congratulations. The movie was great.
Justin Chon: Thank you. Thank you.
NFS: I think one of the big questions coming off watching the movie was how you worked with the actors. Because it's very performance driven, and I want to know, I want you to talk us through how you work with actors, how you knew when you had what you needed, and how you created those relationships onscreen.
Chon: Yeah. First off, we had five weeks of rehearsal. That is, for this type of film with that type of talent is absolutely imperative. I can't expect them to step on set and be able to do that, specifically with the intimacy of their relationship and also the nuance. Also, another thing with this type of film is I tend to overwrite the dialogue so they know why they're saying what they're saying and kind of it's more on the nose. So, through the rehearsal, I start to strip dialogue away.
I also do that in the edit as well. If a scene's not working, I'll have them improv it and say it in their own words, and also say what they're feeling, and I'll start to strip it away in the edit. Specifically for them, it was just the emotional depth. I pushed them. I pushed both Teddy [Carey, in the film] and Tiffany [Kasie, in the film], I pushed them really, really hard. Octavio [Octavio, in the film] not so much, because he just played himself, like you heard in the Q&A. Yeah, but Teddy and Tiffany I pushed really hard.
NFS: And you have a background in acting. So you know how you'd approach the process, but how does that affect your process working with other actors?
Chon: I've been working for 18 years. I still act. Basically, I treat it like an acting class. We did a lot of exercises. We did a lot of physicalization. We did a lot of visualization. I did every technique in the book across discipline from Strasberg to Uta Hagen. I used everything I could in my toolbox to get them to where they needed to be, and I'm sure it was frustrating for them at times because they were just like, it's just like a hurricane, you know? But you know, I think the proof is in the pudding. Tiffany's wonderful in the film and so is Teddy.
NFS: What kind of experience did they have before?
Chon: Teddy, I think Teddy did an undergrad program at UCSD for acting. I think Tiffany did something at UCI for acting as well. But I don't think stage acting and film acting, I don't know. They're pretty different, and the size of the performances are different. Also, the thing about acting in film, in particular, you have to do it a lot to get better at it.
NFS: You mean a lot of takes?
Chon: Or no, just experience. This was their first film for both of them. In rehearsals I would actually record them, I would film them and I would look on screen what I needed to kind of adjust and fix, and we'd keep doing it. And I kept drilling them, you know? I'd give them homework to do. But they showed up everyday. Showed up everyday on time and we did the work.
NFS: There are two other things I really want to get to about the movie. One is the visuals. It's a really visually dramatic and a lot of handheld work, and a lot of great color usage. There were a lot of really nice silhouettes, beautiful lighting. What cameras did you use and can you talk a little bit about your relationship with DP and visual plan for the movie?
Chon: Yeah. We used a Alexa Mini. We used two lenses. A Todd-AO anamorphic 55mm lens, and also a 300mm Canon lens from the '80s.
NFS: Were you happy with all of those choices? Did they all work out?
Chon: Yes. I mean, you know, if we're gonna be honest, some of them were limitations of budget and we couldn't have a full set of lenses, of vintage lenses. Because we were going digital with the mini, we wanted a vintage lens, it gave it some texture.
NFS: Did you do any color correcting?
Chon: Yeah. But we tried to do everything as much in camera as possible. You know like the purple stuff with the palm tree and stuff?
Chon: That's in camera.
NFS: Oh, wow.
Chon: That's not like manipulated in post. As much in camera as ... I always think in camera is the best. And then if you have to go in ... Also, with our budget, it's not like we afford an insane colorist that can spend a lot of time.
NFS: Sure. And you did use a fair amount of handheld camera work can you talk about that?
Chon: That's kind of the trick, is that there is a lot of stuff on sticks. But you just don't remember that shit, you know? You just remember the stuff on the handheld and I think that's a compliment because there's a purpose for the handheld. The handheld is for moments that are unsure, and you know, the typical use of that.
Chon: Yeah. Action or movement.
NFS: The arguments.
Chon: Yes the arguments and instability and all that stuff, and trauma and all. But you know, like a lot of the stuff that's with her dad, or like her solo, a lot of it's on sticks. But the handheld stuff, we kind of continued our visual language from Gook in a way in terms of coverage. We do a lot of moving masters. And then once I'm happy with that, then we'll start getting into the nitty-gritty and getting coverage. But I think that Ante's [Cinematographer Ante Cheng] such a great operator that we'll rehearse a few times and he's so intuitive with the camera that he knows when to move in, when to come out, and when to swing and all this stuff. And sometimes I get mad because he'll ... This happens all the time, he'll swing away from a character when I'm like, "No, that's a fucking line. We need it." Or "That's the thing that was impactful." But you give and take, right?
if I'm making a movie that is outside of the system, I'm gonna experiment and we're gonna have some fun, which sometimes means we're gonna fly by the seat of our pants.
And my relationship with Ante is very, very close. I include him from the very get-go, from the inception of the idea, and then as I write pages I send them to him and we talk. We work very, very closely and we talk about visual motifs and color palette, and all that stuff.
NFS: So was he present at rehearsal?
NFS: Because it did feel like at times like the camera was another performer, particularly in some of those more active, moving, violent moments.
Chon: Yeah. It requires the audience to participate. Also, I send him music, music I'm thinking about. It also affects mood and tone and all that stuff. And choice visual choices, so like I send him pieces of score that might be similar or songs, and he listens to them and we talk about it.
NFS: Yeah, the score was amazing. It was really eclectic. There were so many different sounds, and there were motifs. You heard returning themes but sounds from different cultures...
Chon: I'll tell you this because I haven't been able to talk about this in an interview yet, is obviously there's the melancholic score, that's great. We know to pull that off is pretty difficult, but we did it. And there were the needle drops, like the Paloma Negra influence in the film. The cool thing that I found was when things are a little bit lighter or when they're together and things are kind of nice, or when he comes into the picture, the music kind of, the score kind of shifts and there is this acoustic guitar, like nylon string kind of steel guitar that comes in. And it's like the story's pretty lonely, so it lent this Western vibe, like a Texan sort of like ... One of my favorite movies is Paris, Texas, and it has this sort of lonely vibe, but it still has a sense of like levity to it.
NFS: To me, it struck me as very Californian. The setting Los Angeles is very much a part of the story.
Chon: He's even kicking dirt. He's kicking dirt, like kicking rocks. And also there is Mexican influence in those cues. It's all cohesive, it's just people think it's really eclectic because it is sonically a little different from each other, but I think if you really break it down, they all have something to do with each other.
NFS: Yeah, it weaves together and it returns. I think when he's yelling at the dad, there's like a jazz sound to the music for a little bit. Did you kind of pick these moments? Did you really pick these moments in advance? Did you have songs in your head?
Chon: Yes. I had pieces of music that I loved, but obviously ... and that's the danger of temp score, is you get ... But I'm pretty good at disconnecting myself from the temp, but that was the thing is I would send the composer things I was thinking about. The issue I think about sometimes the composer wants you to know that this is all possible, so they'll put a lot of flair on it and I'm like, I was just constantly like, "Strip it down. Strip it down. Simpler the better. The more efficient the better. Just simple, simple." And he'll add like a little tremolo or like a little trill or whatever and I'm just like, "Take that off." And he's like, "Oh, man." There was a lot of back and forth because of that, actually.
NFS: When you plan how you shoot in scene, like in terms of simplicity on that same note, do you shot list and storyboard?
Chon: I did a lot, for this film particularly, I did a lot of pre-blocking in rehearsal. So, I had an idea of maybe how the location might be and we hadn't got the location yet, but I would start the pre-block stuff and I'd start to figure out what kind of coverage I'd want to get, an idea of it. But you know, if I'm making a movie that is outside of the system, I'm gonna experiment and we're gonna have some fun, which sometimes means we're gonna fly by the seat of our pants. In the system, you can never do that. They would be like, "No, we need to know. We need to have some assurance that we're gonna make our day," or all that stuff. But I've been such a self-sufficient filmmaker for so long that I'm not worried about making my day. I'm not worried about the shot list. It's important for certain, like action stuff, like the karaoke stuff, all that was like I meticulously was like, "Okay, this is what we're gonna get," because there's also safety involved. I don't want anyone getting hurt.
NFS: How does your producers and ADs and all that, how do they all feel as you're going with, "I don't care about making my day"?
Chon: My producer hates me, yeah. My producer freaking hates me. And is constantly like, "Oh my god, are you serious? You want to do that?" Yeah. My AD hates it, 'cause I'll switch stuff around all the time and scheduling gets insane. But my DP loves it. We're just creating.
NFS: I think your end product is more of a reflection of your vision and the raw thing you created on set.
Chon: Yeah. It's just more live. Specifically, we had a scene where ... you know the scene he pushes the bed across the street? When I pitched that to the producer, he's like, "Absolutely not, we're not doing that." And I said, "No, we're gonna do it." And he's like, "No, we're not gonna do that." I said, "If you don't let me do it, I'm just gonna get some of the crew members together on off hours and we're just gonna shoot it anyways. Do you want to be there and protect the camera? Make sure we don't get the camera confiscated or something happens? Or do you want me to go off?"
If you don't let me do it, I'm just gonna get some of the crew members together on off hours and we're just gonna shoot it anyways
And because I produced this film, I was able to do that. But he was just like, "God, why are you making my life such hell?"
NFS: So, did you have to permit the street and block it off?
Chon: Hell, no. It was just completely guerrilla that if you set up, if you put all those cars there, hire police officers, set up the camera, that's the busiest intersection of Koreatown. It's Olympic and Western. It would cost a fortune number one, and number two, it takes so damn long. It took us five minutes to shoot that.
NFS: The guerrilla filmmaker in me loves and is terrified by the thought of all that.
Chon: Yeah, yeah.
NFS: I've made a lot of things in LA that were guerrilla style and I know, my first thought is, "Film LA and parking and trucks..."
Chon: Yeah, and I hate all that shit. Another cool tidbit is when I was planning this, I hit up Sean Baker. He's the king of guerrilla filmmaking and I ask him, I said, "Hey, for Tangerine, what'd you do? Did you permit?", blah blah blah. And he's like, "Dude, don't worry about any of that shit. Just go shoot it." And he gave me a lot of great advice, but it's like, I think that sort of indie mentality, that spirit is so fun and exciting. But it's also like, dude, there's a reason why all these things are in place, permits are in place, so I understand it. I shouldn't do every production like that. But I think for this, I felt like I just wanted to. I just wanted to.
"Dude, don't worry about any of that shit. Just go shoot it."... but it's like, I think that sort of indie mentality, that spirit is so fun and exciting.
NFS: It feels like the story unveils itself over the course of the movie. We really don't know much at the beginning and we're slowly picking up these breadcrumbs about the backstory. Take me through the discovery. Did you have it all planned out? Did you discover who these people were and what their history was? How did you structure it?
Chon: I think in any writing process, you do discover more and more and more, and you get more intimate with the characters. But I would say from the initial draft, the broader stroke ideas are pretty intact. But the nitty-gritty, yeah, the little details change in terms of even the look and the wardrobe and all that stuff.
NFS: Where did the inspiration for the whole story come from?
Chon: I have a younger sister and we have an interesting relationship. I also wanted to show collateral trauma that's passed down from parents to children. Also, the thing with the dress is that it's a representation of dresses are constricting and restrict the way you move, and you wear different dresses for different reasons, like the traditional thing and the cocktail dress for at work. And one of the questions I posed is like, as an immigrant, what are the things that are worth bringing over from the old country? Also, what should we leave behind? Including the practice of the karaoke world, because that's brought, that idea's brought from another country and it's practiced in the US. Obviously, my answer to that is very clear, what I think about if that should exist or not.
NFS: Well, it's a great, movie and thanks so much for the time to chat.
Chon: No problem thank you.
For more, see our ongoing list of coverage of the coverage of the 2019 Sundance Film Festival.