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So Yong Kim | Interview

The SAIC grad’s new movie, For Ellen, was inspired by a childhood memory.

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When I ask So Yong Kim about Chicago, her thoughts turn to Wicker Park. “I miss the Division/Ashland area,” says the Korean-born filmmaker, an SAIC graduate who now lives in Brooklyn. Kim has called from New York to talk about her new film, the characteristically muted For Ellen. Perhaps inevitably, our conversation turns to her old Windy City stomping grounds. “We used to go to a lot of shows,” she remembers. “Like Liz Phair.”

“Liz Phair?” I hear someone scoff in the background. The voice belongs to Bradley Rust Gray, writer-director of The Exploding Girl, as well as Kim’s husband and longtime collaborator. “Brad was too cool for school,” she says, identifying the disembodied dissenter. “So he went to see Ministry with the cool people.”

Divergent musical tastes aside, Kim and Gray have been working together since the mid-’90s, when they were both students at the Art Institute. (Partners in life and cinema, they produce each other’s films and often write and edit together.) Gray’s Jack and Diane, a lesbian romance with a lycanthropic twist, is scheduled to arrive on demand September 28—just ten days after VOD subscribers gained access to Kim’s latest.

Inspired by the director’s childhood memory of meeting her absentee father for the first time, For Ellen stars Paul Dano as a young musician who drives to frigid upstate New York to sign divorce papers, only to discover his estranged wife is seeking sole custody of their young daughter. When the film premiered at Sundance in January, Kim called it her most personal effort to date—a strong statement, given the semi-autobiographical elements in both her first feature (2006’s In Between Days) and second (2008’s Treeless Mountain).

“I put a lot of my insecurities as an artist into [Dano’s] character,” Kim says. “Being a filmmaker isn’t so different from being a musician. You’re never sure if you’re doing it for commerce or art’s sake.”

A true international director, Kim has made movies in Canada, Iceland and Korea. Though she’s lived in the States since she was 11, For Ellen is the first of her features to be shot in America. It’s also the first to boast established acting talent. (In addition to Dano, the cast includes Jena Malone and Napoleon Dynamite star Jon Heder.) Having worked almost exclusively with non-professionals, Kim found the ability to shape the performances refreshing. “It was actually super incredible for me,” she says. “Because you can’t do that with non-actors. You get what you get there.”

Kim shot the whole movie in just 18 days on 35mm. “Because of the landscape, and having so much white and snow, I felt it was really important to shoot on film,” says the director, who usually works with digital. “Most of the money went to film stock. Don’t tell Paul that!”

Speaking of Dano, production almost halted when the actor fell dangerously ill and had to be hospitalized. According to Kim, the scenes they shot after he was back on his feet gained a verisimilitude no Method techniques could accomplish. “He looks really exhausted,” she says. “Luckily, those were the scenes where he was supposed to be.”

As for concerns that a name cast signals some kind of sea change in Kim’s micro-indie filmmaking ethos, fans can probably rest easy. “In one way, it’s incredibly frustrating trying to have people work on your film for so little money, and beg and steal and all that,” says Kim. “On the other hand, on the creative level, you really have to turn all your lights on in your brain. I get so high off of that. Everything is alive inside my head and my body.”

She pauses, and then adds: “And then afterwards I completely crash.”

For Ellen is now available on VOD; the film is scheduled to open at the Gene Siskel Film Center on October 19.

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