Special Pages | Watching Columbus with Kogonada (Q&A excerpt)

Yangqiao Lu (YL): I want to start with some basic questions, and then I’m going to open it up to the audience. You started with a background in criticism and writing, and you sort of fall into this tradition of some critics and academics becoming filmmakers. And there’s a strong tradition in the history of cinema, like the New Wave and still today there are a lot of critics are using filmmaking as a creative outlet for their thinking. So I’m wondering if you can talk a little bit about that transition from cutting film into pieces to putting together, from criticizing something to this creative process. How did you become a filmmaker?

Kogonada (K): OK. And also, just thank you guys for being here on a Sunday afternoon, and thank you for the Brattle Theatre. This is an incredible theatre. I think filmmakers that I know who’ve never practiced film criticism, the way they talk about films is a kind of film criticism. So some of us have had an opportunity, and I had an opportunity to make a living deconstructing films for a while. I don’t think I’m original. I think it’s a part of the conversation of cinema if you love the medium, as I do, and you are thinking through all those decisions and the choices the filmmakers that have meant something to you have made. So I had an opportunity to actually do a form of visual criticism, which was really great training to make films because I actually got to do the sort of deconstruction, and reconstructed through editing, but it was always with this dream or aspiration to make something larger, to make a feature. There was a programmer who’s not there any more at Tribeca who had reached out to me and asked if I was ever going to make a feature that they would be really interested, and that was a real moment for me to say if I ever want to make a feature, I should start doing that.

YL: So it’s a dream coming true.

K: Absolutely.

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YL: How did you come across this project? Did you write the whole thing from scratch? And you read about Columbus?

K: Yeah, that’s right. In the New York Times, I had read an article about this town and the architecture and, you know, I’m a bit of an architecture nerd. I’m a nerd all around so that was something that I was so curious about. I went there. I took a visit, and it had nothing to do with the film. It was because I was curious. I was there for a few hours and I had to make a film there. There was something so compelling about the town, and it really didn’t mesh with a lot of things that had been occupying my mind about modernism and both its promise and limitations. And I was already kind of working on a story idea about fathers and sons, mothers and daughters, and it very much had to do with this sort of struggle of being modern and having to deal with separation and the absence of parents, and so it felt like the perfect place for it.

YL: I think this is a good segue. Now you mention the family relationship, which is an important subject of one of the directors who hugely influenced you, which is Ozu. I don’t know if everybody knows you name, Kogonada, is the writing partner of Ozu on many of his films. And also, I’m sure the audience hasve recognized the influence, especially on the shots of the interior spaces, of domestic life. Can you talk a little bit more about Ozu and his influence on you?

K: Yeah, for sure. I mean Ozu had a really profound influence on me, not in any fetishistic way, but in a really deep existential way, really in a moment in my life when I was struggling personally. People ask if this film is autobiographical and often want to know if Jin is reflective of me, and certainly there’s some elements of that but I think Casey too, like her discovery of architecture and the space it creates for her to process meaning. Cinema had that kind of effect on me. And certainly later, Ozu. Not to give a lecture on Ozu right now, but he had a really profound effect on not only my appreciation for his cinema but a way of being modern in this world that was really profound.

YL: Speaking of Jin, was it at the very beginning clear that you would have an Asian male as the lead of the film?

K: Yeah, I didn’t write it thinking “I’m going to write a film with an Asian American lead.” I understand why someone might do that in our climate, but it wasn’t. I knew that it was going to be about fathers and sons and mothers and daughters. But, once I realized that I was going to film in Columbus, and I wanted someone to be from the other side of the world, someone really dislocated for a moment, and then I wrote what I knew. That person’s going to be Asian and not European.

Q & A with audience (excerpt)

On casting John Cho

K: I had been in communication with my producer, Chris White. He has known John for twenty years, and so he said “please let me send this to John.” Of course, you know, representation of Asian males in Hollywood or in American cinema is really limited. John had been working for twenty years, but I had only seen what I realize now is a mere section of John Cho, and so when he said that I was “I know this is going to be a pretty quiet part,” and he said “I know John, let me send it to him.” He read it and we immediately talked to each other, maybe a week or two later. He had studied theatre. He’s a big cinephile, and he’s a really thoughtful person who has been in the industry for twenty years and has been waiting to show his full humanity. When he was studying theatre, he had serious parts but that was it. Once we were in a conversation, we connected, and he wanted to play it and I wanted him to play it… That was before that whole “starring John Cho.” We had cast him, and when that happened we were like “wow, that’s great news.”

On still images

K: Because we were dealing with space and architectural space, and honestly, all cinema deals with architectural space, whether it’s explicit or not, and so for me that’s a big part of cinema. As it was specifically about architectural space, I knew that I wanted to shoot wide. I knew that I wanted us to feel that space and to have enough time to encounter that space. I also knew that I wanted us to feel the relationship to that space, so I wanted it to primarily be stationary. But I mean, there were moments when it was going to move with the characters, and even when it was going to move, we knew that it wasn’t going to be a pan or a handheld or a glide-cam but that it was going to be on tracks and move imperceptibly. Honestly, we wanted every frame to count. Part of it was our constraint. We had eighteen days to shoot it, and I knew that I would have to make a sacrifice, either to do a lot of coverage and not compose it as carefully or that I was going to compose it carefully and do a lot of coverage, and that’s what I chose.

YL: Which is an interesting, because I always feel like with sculptures and architectures, it’s actually a cinematic experience when you are walking around them, but I was actually surprised by the way that you handled it. I understood why when you showed that Harry Moore sculpture, you showed it twice from one angle. To me, that’s very smart, because, basically, these architectures are the psychological protagonists of the film, and the film finds its own vision through its angles instead of relying on the material structure of the architecture and the space itself. If Summer Hours of Assayas is about the secret life of objects, then this film is about the secret life of space.

K: That’s really a high compliment, and really nicely put. I do feel like cinema, and I’ve said this before, that cinema is the art of time, and architecture feels very much like the art of space. It defines space for us, and it’s such a profoundly distinct art form because it allows you to move through the art form. It’s not purely an object. It has this quality of inhabitance. It’s part of our everyday-ness, and so there is a relationship between the temporalities and the spatial elements of architecture. And, again, both architecture and cinema are also about space and time, and so that was a real desire, to put those together.

On why all the smoking in Columbus

K: Yeah, I’m pro-smoking. Nah, I’m joking. (Laughter). That wasn’t to promote smoking at all. It was always in the narrative of Casey. Casey is a good daughter. Her rebellion is going out at night to look at buildings. My kids, they’re not teenagers yet, but if they were like “bye Dad!” and they went out to see buildings, I would be like “Ah, yes!” And that’s Casey. I had always written Casey, like carrying the world on her shoulder and finding art when she needs it. When we meet her, the real mess has already happened and she’s still coping with what it means to be a child who in some ways was abandoned for a period, and it is a kind of crutch or necessity, a way to calm her. As calm or together as she seems, I think she’s always on the brink of losing it, and she’s doing everything she can to keep it together. She feels that their lives are dependent on her. Haley Lu is, by the way, just this amazing dancer. She was a dancer before she was an actor. She was a competitive dancer. When she moved to L.A., she danced first before she acted. It reminds me of the dance scene. I said “you have to dance ugly. It has to be primal and you’re dancing for your life. You’re dancing to keep sane. Kind of like smoking. The smoking is no longer working. You have to dance this out.” And she got that. I also know people who smoke, like my smoking friends or people on the set, and they immediately find a space and they immediately bond with each other. I sometimes just wanna walk in there and say “hey!” but it doesn’t work. It’s an exclusive club. So I also knew that Jin was also carrying the weight of the world, and that would be a way (for them to connect). Also visually, there is something about the impermanence of smoke and really when it plays off something hard and structured like a modern building, I like that visual relationship.

On how making Columbus changed his relationship with cinema

K: It’s humbled me. I think when you observe cinema beyond the nuts and bolts of making it, from financing to distribution, you are just seeing this piece and you have this idea that there’s this auteur and they can make any decision and you disassociate it from the collaboration, you disassociate it from the real obstacles of everyday. So there is something about your theory becoming humbled by practice. And I do find humility towards this thing that I love, which is good. That’s a good thing to be humbled by the thing that you love and to have your own theories humbled by it. I know now that any film, whether I like it or dislike it—and you’re allowed to, you certainly can still critique the film—but it is something for a film to just be finished. But it has also awakened something. Cinema means so much to me on this deep existential level, and all I ever wanted was to somehow participate in that conversation because I think it’s worthwhile. Part of this film is like this question “does art matter?” in the face of tragedy or poverty or political unrest. Does this thing that takes a bunch of time and a lot of money, whether it’s architecture or sculpture or cinema, does it matter? Or is it just this thing that we do and it’s a distraction? Deep in my being, I want to believe it matters. I think it does because I know that at a time in my life, and ongoing, when I was struggling, that art and cinema help me as an existential being. It creates space for me to see the world in a certain way and to be sensitized to humanity. It also makes me eager to continue to participate.

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