AN INTERVIEW WITH DIRECTOR ANDREW AHN
This is an edited transcript of an interview with director Andrew Ahn, who we hosted on our podcast, Two Virgins. The full podcast episode can be found on Spotify here.
Andrew Ahn is an award-winning filmmaker, best known for his feature films, Spa Night (2016) and Driveways (2019). Driveways, starring Hong Chau, Lucas Jaye, and Brian Dennehy, tells the story of an eight-year old boy who helps his mom clean out his late aunt's house and forms an unlikely relationship with a neighbor who is a war veteran. Ahn talks with Teresa and Sam about making films with POC narratives, the use of space and subtlety in Driveways, and obstacles Ahn faced when filming Spa Night.
Teresa: Our first question is about Asian representation in this film. Your movie Spa Night also highlighted queer Asian people and I was just wondering, how did you get so many people on board with that? Is that your number one goal as a filmmaker to highlight those types of stories?
Andrew: When I was making Spa Night I was really anxious about talking about queerness within the Korean-American community. When we did auditions, I had an actor come in, auditioning for the role of the mom in the film and she told me that if I offered her the part that she would probably have to turn it down because her husband's a pastor and she just didn't think that it would be cool with him. We auditioned a young Korean American actor for the lead role and similarly, he told me, "If you offer me this part I don't know if I could take it." I told my mom about what this movie is about and she said that if I did it that she would send me to hide out in Korea while the controversy dies down.
It was similar with locations. I was going to these Korean-American establishments, whether they were churches or spas or restaurants, and if they asked what the movie was about and I told them that it was about a young Korean American man that finds out that men are having gay sex at a Korean spa, they would say no. So, it was really disheartening and it made me realize actually that it's not necessarily the case in Hollywood or in the film and television industry that you have executives or investors who are being homophobic or racist all the time. The reason why Spa Night was hard to make was because of the actual community that I wanted to portray. So that, for me, felt like even more reason to make the movie. I felt that it was really meaningful and that it would help the community in some way. The church that we ended up shooting, Spa Night at -- we had lost a church location before and had churches just turn us away. So, we decided that from that point forward, if I wanted a church scene, which I really wanted because it's a big part of Korean American culture, that I had to do a little bit of not telling the full truth.
So, we found this church and they were really down for us to shoot a film there. I had told them that it was about a Korean American immigrant family and their struggles, which is a hundred percent true. I had gone to the church the week before the shoot to just do a final scout of this space and the pastor saw me and he was like, "Hey, you're the filmmaker making the movie here next week. We're so excited to have you." And he invited me to eat lunch with the congregation and he made a speech in front of everybody saying, this is the young Korean American filmmaker showing off our culture. Aren't we so excited?
I left the church that day crying. I was in tears because I was like, "Oh my God, I'm fooling these people and it's so unethical." I talked to my producers and I was just weeping because I felt so guilty. With a lot of meditation and thought, I realized if this film allows someone from that church to feel more comfortable about talking about their sexuality, to their family, then I'm on the right side of history here. If the church is going to be angry and they want to confront me about this, I'm happy to have that conversation because I think it's a necessary conversation.
Cut to a couple of months later, after the film was done, after we had premiered at Sundance, and it was the democratic primaries for the 2016 election. I realized that my polling place was that church, so if I wanted to vote I had to go there. I was like, you know what Andrew, just walk in, vote, walk out. And as soon as I step inside I realized the person who checks your name and your address is the pastor. And I fully walked straight out of that church. I didn't vote, I felt like a bad American, like a bad Korean. Then I registered to vote by mail permanently.
It's tough. It's tough. Will I say that my desire in this industry is to really change that, to really tell stories from this community? I think that's always going to be a cornerstone of my work. There are so many interesting stories that aren't told about this intersection of the queer and Asian American experiences. Is every film I'm going to make those two things? I don't know, maybe. In some ways, hopefully. If there's a way that I could make those films and make a living that would be great. And I'll say that when I made Spa Night I don't think I thought that was a sustainable artistic career. I felt like I wouldn't be able to make money. With Spa Night, we still haven't necessarily made our money back. It's not a superhero movie. I wonder if I could make a career of really gay, really Korean things and see if that actually works out. It's something that I'm very passionate about and I think that is a community of people that should see themselves on screen more often.
Sam: On that note of racial identity in film, I heard you say that for Driveways, after you came up with the idea, you weren't sure if the characters could be Asian. I heard that you had to ask and make sure that that was something that could happen. So, I was wondering what it was like for you to come up with and write characters before you knew their race and what they were representing?
Andrew: So, Driveways I didn't write. I had actually gotten the script from our producer, Joe Piro, and it was written by two New York playwrights Hannah Bos and Paul Thureen. I noticed that the roles of Kathy and Cody weren't specified in terms of what their ethnicity was, but I can kind of guarantee you that, many other directors, a white director, would probably have read that and been like, "these are white characters." But when I read it, there was something so beautiful about these characters that I could just see that it could be so interesting if they were Asian American.
It's a little bit reductive of me to say, but because I'm Asian, I really liked the idea of having them be Asian-American and it felt actually very supported by the script because Kathy and Cody in Driveways feel like outsiders in this town that is presumably a very white town.
So, even the kind of nosy neighbor, Linda, her question about "Oh, where are you from?" That was in the script originally. Even her saying, "I assume that you're related to the woman who used to live here." It means something different if you're Asian American and the woman that used to live here was the only Asian American on the block. Again, that line was already in there.
Another moment that I really like is the scene with the real estate agent, who's a Black woman living in this town, and Kathy asks her, "Do you like living here?" And the real estate agent is like, "I like selling here." I think that's very telling about just what it is like to be a person of color; to be someone who isn't in a city, to be with other communities, with a population. The way that I grew up, having Koreatown. What is that like for that population of Asian Americans? So that to me was really exciting to explore. I will say that I was really worried to a certain extent, I knew that by making that change that people would bring up connections to that Clint Eastwood movie, Gran Torino and that there would be this question of, "Is this a white savior story?" So, I worked really hard to mitigate that. I didn't want that to be a thing.
In conversations I had with people after the movie at screenings, I had some people say, "Hey, why didn't you make a bigger deal of Dell being a Korean war veteran and this family next door being Asian?" And I was like, "Because I don't want that to be the reason that Dell helps them." I don't want him to act out of guilt because he was a part of a war in Asia. I didn't want to make it seem like he's atoning for it, for his sins. I don't forgive him, but that's not the point. He could still be friends with these people because it's human decency. It was a really delicate balance and I don't critique anybody for having that perspective on Driveways, but it was something that I was very conscious of and I was trying to find a story that really centered the Asian American perspective, as opposed to in Gran Torino, which is very Clint Eastwood centered.
In some ways, once I made that call and once we were a hundred percent sure this was the way we're going to go with it, I had to motivate myself being like, this is the corrective of Gran Torino. Sometimes I feel very silly bringing it up because I just don't want those connections to get made, but people know. I ultimately am very proud of the perspective of Driveways and the line that it's walking. I had made Spa Night before that which basically doesn't have any white people at all. I think I could explore that. For this movie, it felt like something that I was interested in the challenge.
Teresa: This is why I think that POC creators are so important because originally when I saw, the two Asian people and then the white guy was like, "Oh my God, is this another white savior movie?" But then it walked the line so well, especially when Linda didn't explicitly ask where you really from. It doesn't need to be said for that to be portrayed and her not saying that, which I expected her to say, I was like, "this movie gets it."
It's not just like, let me throw this stereotypical line in there that everybody thinks that everybody asks. Most of the time, people don't ask that explicitly and your perspective directing the movie was very clear in those moments. Driveways isn't one linear plot line, right? The most important parts of the film are the relationships and the lines that it walks on. So how as a director do you strike that balance between enhancing relationships and having those subtleties without making the movie seem too slow?
Andrew: I think that's a real magic trick in some ways. I think that the craft of making a feature film is in some ways a rhythm. I say this a lot about the difference between short films and feature films: With short films, you can kind of craft something, like a carpenter or something. It's building blocks and it's pieces, you put it together like LEGOs. With features, it's very hard to do that because there's something magical about that experience. So you're kind of absorbed into the film as opposed to looking at the film as an object. There's real alchemy in terms of what's moving the story forward and feels propulsive in terms of pace and momentum.
I was just really happy to have worked with such a great editor, Katie Mcquerrey, who's a mixed-race, Asian-American woman who has a son that's around Cody's age. There was a real connection to the material and I always knew that Katie being a mom would bring this beautiful maternal quality to the editing of the film. Originally, there was a cut of the film that was like two hours and 20 minutes long. Now it's like 87 minutes -- or gosh, 83 -- there was a lot of essentially deciding what's the most important thing that you need to see. What really moves the story forward? With each of the actors, there was originally many scenes of exploring, but the actors were so good that we didn't always need them. You knew what the relationship was already there and you knew what this character felt so quickly because the performances were great.
I think a lot of it is just the creative process and spending time with it. We spent over three months editing the film and it's not a VFX heavy postproduction. It was really just about crafting and feeling it and understanding the rhythm of the film.
Watching it over and over again and seeing what is the spirit of this movie, versus what was it that we had initially imagined because it's always going to be different. You can feel the movie within your bones, within your heartbeat so that when you're working on a scene we should cut here or we should see more. It's the hardest part of the process, but for me, it is also one of the most fun.
Sam: For me, at the heart of the film, was this beautiful relationship between Cody and Dell. But, I feel like that age difference is something that you rarely see between actors, especially in larger movies. As a director, how did you know when that relationship felt right? Was it hard to direct the actors to get that perfect balance?
Andrew: It was a little bit of a gamble because Lucas, who plays Cody, and then Brian Dennehy, who plays Dell, hadn't met until the day before shooting. Brian wasn't available and Lucas had to fly over from Los Angeles to New York where we were shooting. So, I wasn't sure if they were going to get along. But thankfully, they're both very lovely people. Lucas... you just want to take care of him. He's an adorable kid and he's such a great actor.
I remember when we did our first scene Brian Dennehy was like, "Oh my God, the kid is so good." So there was just immediate respect that they had for each other and I think that really helped. Their friendship was really genuine, between takes they would be joking around. Brian would help Lucas with a British accent for fun, it was really endearing. As a director, I just had to get out of the way and reveal it for the camera. That's all I had to do.
The hardest thing actually was trying to get, scenes from earlier in the film where Dell and Cody aren't friends. Those were actually trickier shoots because Brian would be so friendly to Lucas and I had to tell him, "Actually, Dell doesn't just doesn't trust Cody." and Brian would say, "Why? The kid's great. He's so nice and he's adorable." So, it was this thing of doing the work in the casting, trying to find the best actors who were empathetic and generous and then trusting that they would click, and they did. It was such a gift to the film because if that relationship didn't feel authentic I knew I didn't have a movie. I agree with you, it's very much the heart of the film.
Teresa: Even with Cody's mom, she was protective, but also somewhat chill with her son hanging out with this random neighbor. I kept on telling Sam, her aesthetic and her dressing just seemed very cool -- like a cool mom. In general with the characters, did you have specific people in mind that you were molding them after from your own life?
Andrew: Yeah, Cody for sure. When I was thinking about bringing that character to life, Hannah and Paul's screenplay was so good at finding that humanity. I was thinking a lot about myself as a kid. As a sensitive kid that's a little bit nervous around bullies who are definitely going to grow up to be straight, that was a thing.
With Dell, I thought a lot about my own grandparents, and Kathy was actually very much modern me in some ways. She was my way into the story, this very modern character, trying to juggle many different things and having to live a little bit by the seat of her pants; never quite sure where you're going to get your next paycheck and being responsible for someone. I really understood that modern dilemma.
I had feelings about each of these characters and then it wasn't until we cast each of them that they came to life a little bit more for me. My casting director had a specific take on Kathy that I really enjoyed; that she wasn't going to be an overly sweet mom. She was going to be stressed out and working with each of my collaborators, like my production designer, Charlotte Royer, just figuring out the objects that these characters are surrounded by. Even just what backpack they're wearing. I remember figuring out Cody's backpack, which was a whole thing, and we found this blue and pink backpack that just felt like I would wear that.
With our costume designer, Matthew Simonelli, it's just like, "Where does Kathy shop?" And he was like, she's probably going to Goodwill, but has an artistic eye. She finds those vintage finds that like she can style really cool, you know? A lot came from collaboration. Like if I were to design these characters from the ground up, solely by myself, I think they wouldn't be interesting or they wouldn't necessarily feel three-dimensional, but it's through conversations and collaboration with really artistic people that have insight that these characters really, really came to life.
One of my favorite stories about our costume designer, Matthew, was that in early conversations with him about Driveways, he had mentioned, "Hey, Kathy and Cody should share clothes. They're about the same size and they're very close and intimate.
They've come on this road trip expecting to be in this town for maybe a week and then they end up having to be there for months. They probably don't have a lot of clothes with them." It's a really subtle thing in the movie, but Cody wears Kathy's shirt every now and then, and at one point I think one of them wears the same leggings. Even though it's kind of an Easter egg, for me, I was like, "Oh, that's really beautiful because it shows how close these two characters are, even if they aren't necessarily hanging out all the time in this movie together."
Sam: One other thing that I thought was really beautiful in the movie was it felt like a lot of the shots were about space. The lobby space inside of the house felt very claustrophobic, but there were other shots inside the house where it felt open. Also, the idea of a suburb, in general, gives this spacious kind of feeling.
I was wondering, how did you navigate shooting in these small and large spaces? And what did it mean to you to leave room between the characters?
Andrew: I'm very glad that you observed that. The cinematography in Driveways is very subtle in many ways. There's not a lot of camera movement long takes, but it was still very expressive to me in telling this particular story. My cinematographer Ki Jin Kim, he also shot Spa Night, is a Korean filmmaker that I love and we just really get each other. When we were talking about Driveways, we talked a lot about it from an emotional point of view and this film is so much about these characters' relationship to space.
They move to this small town they aren't familiar with, and they're cleaning out this house. Their environment is as much a character in the film as they are. Ki Jin really wanted to show off the space in a way that allowed it to be an integral part of the story. We talked a lot about how the space and the characters' relationship to the space changes. How at first, it can feel really claustrophobic and tight and scary, then by the end of the film, this wide-open space can feel like freedom and growth in the future. We really worked to highlight that, both in the production design and in the lighting and in the framing.
In that hoarder house, it was really important to Ki Jin that all of the light comes from outside so it feels like a cave. This desire to feel like my films are grounded in a location... to me is really important. I think location changes who we are, it affects our stories.