Unsu Lee Interview
Happily, Even After
Born in Singapore in 1972, Unsu Lee majored in Philosophy at Williams College. In 1996, he moved to San Francisco to attend film school and soon afterwards started a production company called Hotbed, with fellow film director Stokes McIntyre. In 2001, he co-directed his first feature-length film Confessions of a Burning Man, a documentary about the legendary alternative community that gathers at the Burning Man Festival every year. Happily, Even After marks his first narrative feature film.
Happily, Even After tells the story of two siblings, Jake and Elizabeth, who have become dysfunctional since the death of their parents. Jake is a self-absorbed, directionless young man, while Elizabeth thinks she knows what’s best for him and tries to get him a new car, a new job and a new life. Jake sees these as superficial trappings; he’s more attached to his parents’ old house and his beloved truck, “Wondergirl.” Then enters Katie, a waitress with a mysterious past who seems to see things more clearly than they do. Happily, Even After is a contemporary fairy tale which meditates on fate and coincidence.
Nowadays, independent cinema is more than ever a blurred concept—after all, isn’t the Lord of the Rings trilogy a $270M independent film and if so, what defines it as independent? Having completed a first fiction film, which was entirely self-financed, Unsu Lee talked to us about the process of making a film in such conditions. This interview, following the recent completion of his first film, will give us an insider view into the American independent cinema and a chance to better grasp the concept of ‘indie’ cinema.
OFFSCREEN : For this film, even though it was your first feature fiction film, you have a great cast and a lot of very known crew members. So, how did you get them to work for you—on your first film ?
Unsu Lee : Basically, one of my co-producers is Paul Barnett from Ireland. We worked together on a previous project called Confession of a Burning Man, a documentary on the Burning Man festival. It was an incredible collaboration and we decided to do Happily, Even After together, and since he has a very good network of connections, we decided to take the script down to Los Angeles and show it around.
Through a contact of his, we were able to get in touch with Johanna Ray who’s a very good casting director. She has cast most of David Lynch’s films and she did Kill Bill. So, at the time, I thought that this was a complete shot in the dark; I thought that there was no way she would want to work with us having worked with all these great directors. She agreed to read the script nonetheless. So, we passed her the script and she read it that very same night.
She called us the next morning and said “I read it last night and I really liked the script. Do you guys want to come and meet?” Within 24 hours, we met her again and she said “this is a wonderful script; I’ll be able to get good actors in it”. From her point of view, the quality of the script makes a big difference; if it’s a lousy script she has to work much harder to get good actors. She was also willing to work within our budget.
OFFSCREEN : Speaking about the script, usually, when people direct their first film, they want to direct something based on their own script. You decided to option on Rebecca Sonnenshine’s script. Why? Weren’t you interested in directing a movie based on your own script?
U.L. : It’s just happenstance. A friend of mine knew I was looking for projects to do and she knew this writer who won the Nichols fellowship awards, which is very prestigious. There are only 5 scripts that are selected a year out of 5,000 submissions. My friend passed me the script and I read it and I really liked the story.
As a director, for my next film, I would like to write it and direct it. However, part of being a director is also being curious about other people. And, when you write your own script, I think most of the time you write about yourself or about your own experiences. Whereas if you direct someone else’s script, you’re getting outside of yourself. Both my first project and this project have been like that. Like, the Burning Man film … I’m from Singapore. The Burning Man is as far from how I grew up as you can get.
OFFSCREEN : So, where did the interest of doing such a film come from?
U.L. : The interest for me in doing the Burning Man documentary was just being a voyeur in a world that is very alien to me. Similarly, with this second film, it’s an all American cast and a very American film. Also, one of the reasons why I wanted to do it is because it’s set in San Francisco where I’ve lived for 7-8 years. I saw a lot of things, met a lot of people, and I felt I understood the vibe of the city to some extent and I wanted to translate that to film.
For my next film though, I would like to shoot something in Asia; an Asian film with an Asian cast. Now that I’ve done these two films that are very remote from my childhood years, I’d like to do something that taps more into these personal experiences.
OFFSCREEN : Did you keep the script as it was originally written, or had you changed it?
Once I optioned the script, I immediately decided to work on rewrites with the writer. No matter how much you like a script that someone else has written, there are always things that you want to change. I didn’t do any of the actual writing though. I gave her notes. I didn’t want to put words into her mouth. We worked on about 5 drafts. I optioned draft number three and the shooting draft was draft seven or eight. We continued to make changes right up to about a month before we started shooting. Once you cast three leads, once the writer sees who you cast, it gives her ideas as how to better tailor the script to actors you’ve chosen.
Even after we started shooting, by watching the dailies, the writer could now finally see the film materializing. Then we started to work on the ending. The ending was still unclear to us and we were not sure how we wanted to end it. So, the rewriting process is pretty much continuous, but at the same time you don’t want to be rewriting too much once you started shooting because things could get pretty messy.
OFFSCREEN : You went to film school, how did you find your experience there?
U.L. : In 1996 I got off the military in Singapore and decided to move to San-Francisco. I went to a film school called the Academy of Art College. Which is not a prestigious school by any means, but, what impressed me when I did a tour is that they had a lot of facilities and I got the feeling that if I went to that school I could immediately get hands-on experience. And, since I had a previous degree in philosophy, I didn’t feel I needed to do a full liberal arts degree; I knew what I wanted to say, I just needed to pick up the skills. So, I went there for two and a half years and I was lucky enough to meet two other friends and we founded a production company while in film school.
OFFSCREEN : Other than helping you to develop a certain networking, was film school any of any use to you, and if so, in what way?
U.L. : I think it was. Looking back I feel that film school was probably the only period when I was free to explore without any commercial agenda or without any outside agenda. Even on this film I started to realize that everyone involved in the film has their own agenda. The production designers want to make the film look as beautiful as possible for their on purposes, the actors have their own agenda too and as a director, you constantly have to balance these agendas and make sure they serve the story. It’s one of the things I struggled with ever since leaving film school, but it’s an important part of the process of maturing as a director. As you mature, you become better and better at calling these things.
But, I’m definitely grateful for film school. The other thing in film school is that I learned more from my peers than from the teachers. Some of my fellow students were always pushing the bar and there was a healthy competition going on. Teachers give you the rules, and that’s important. However, if you really want to say something new, you also need to know where and how to break the rules.
OFFSCREEN : You got a degree in philosophy. How and in which way could this have affected your approach to film directing? Bruno Dumont for example has a degree in philosophy and this affects a lot of his films.
I’m still not sure about what impact it has had. Part of me is very cautious about my philosophy background; you get all of these ideas, and not all of them necessarily translate well into film. Film is a very different medium … you have to tell a story. I’m sure most philosophers given the opportunity to make a film would probably make pretty boring films for the public.
So, part of me has been very cautious about not letting too much of what I wanted to say in philosophy transpire in my films. To say the things I want to say in philosophy, it would be best to write a philosophical essay. Maybe, however, this background helps me to articulate what I’m trying to achieve in the film.
OFFSCREEN This year, the TriBeCa Film Festival received about 3,300 submissions. How come they ended up choosing your film?
U.L. : You know, I have no idea [laugh].
OFFSCREEN : What are you going to say then at the panel at NYU ? [note : panel entitled “How to get your film in the film festival circuit”].
U.L. : There is going to be three other directors at the panel and some of them have gotten into a lot of bigger festivals like Berlin and South by Southwest. TriBeCa is the first big break for my film. We actually won an audience award at a sneak preview in Sinoma Valley about a month ago. It was wonderful to get that. I’m hoping that the momentum continues.
As far as TriBeCa goes, at the panel what I would like to say to film students is that most people say there are a lot of gatekeepers and that you need to know a lot of people to get in. In general, I find that to be the case. However, if you have a fairly decent film, or you believe in your film, you should just send it out to as many places as you can. TriBeCa is one of the places where we sent the film with no contact, nothing. And then, in February I got a call from Nancy Shaffer who called me on my cell and said: “I just saw your film. I just wanted to say I really liked it, but I can’t make a decision until after Berlin”.
They go to Berlin and they see what films they want to take from there. So, I had to wait until after that. After Berlin, she called and said “we’ve decided to go with your film”. That was really exciting; it’s a good feeling when your film can just stand out amongst the others.
So, it really was just about the fact they liked the film. But, it actually helps to submit to film festivals early on. There are a lot of festivals where we just made it by the deadline. My guess is that by that time they have already picked most of their films. This is what happened with TriBeCa; we submitted very early.
OFFSCREEN : Where did the money come from for this film?
U.L. : Friends and family. I put in some of my own money and some people helped me.
OFFSCREEN : Have you tried to get some financing though?
I have, but I’m not very good at asking for money because you just know this is a high risk thing. The level of responsibility towards your investors is something I’m still trying to deal with. Friends and family are different because there is a sentimental aspect to it.
I’m hoping that in the future I can continue to raise money just by saying “you’ll never get money back, but look at this as a cultural activity …”. Even if you go to investors, and there is some commercial interest in the project, there are always strings attached when people give you money. I’m hoping to find the channel of financing that leaves me as free as possible to do what I want.
OFFSCREEN : Do you not think you can make some money back on this film?
U.L. : I’m hoping to, but it’s more long term. Part of it is just having patience and not jumping on the first deal that comes along. The film hasn’t been picked up for distribution. We’re actually still looking for distributors. I have the feeling that people in the US might not be aware of how successful this movie might be outside the country. The real test is going to be with foreign sales. I’m hoping to recoup the budget just with the foreign sales alone.
OFFSCREEN : You’ve now done a feature documentary film, and a feature fiction film. Which type of film do you find easier to make?
U.L. : They are totally different types of project. I never saw myself as a documentary filmmaker. It just sort of happened that I met Paul Barnett, my co-producer. He was thinking about doing a documentary on the Burning Man. So, I thought it would be fun to party for a week to check this thing out. I didn’t realize it would stretch into a three-year project.
What I find interesting about documentary is that you see the story unfold before you. With narrative, most of the creative work is done at the screenwriting stage. After that it’s just execution–even in post production you’re conforming to the script. On the other hand, it’s much easier because everybody has the script and they know what they have to do, as with documentary you have to wait a lot for the story to unfold. I feel lucky because a lot of documentaries take seven or eight years to finish, where as I did it in three years.
Even with the documentary though, we tried to hybrid forms. We made it very narrative. It follows four first-timers to the Burning Man Festival. So, it’s like a narrative taking you through the festival with them. We did a lot of things with the sound design to put the audience in the experience too.
OFFSCREEN : Talking about narrative techniques, on your production company website [hotbed.com] it says “its mission is to appeal to audiences through innovative storytelling”. What does that mean exactly, and why is it important?
U.L. : Basically we’re just reacting to how difficult it is to break through in this business. In the past few years, production costs for film in this country has gone up 10-15% a year, where as marketing costs have gone up 30% a year. To market a film successfully is a real challenge now. We just want to push the brand of Hotbed so that people respect us for the quality level or a certain style. So we just build our own audience.
In the future, who knows, maybe filmmakers can sell their own DVDs through their own websites. You just say “Hey, I like David Lynch I’ll just go to DavidLynch.com and order his DVDs”. You remove the middlemen. But, before you can do that, you must build an audience step by step through festivals like TriBeCa and through different screenings.
OFFSCREEN : But, all that seems somewhat utopian. You want to get rid of all the middlemen, you said earlier you want to raise all the money by yourself so you never have to deal with “strings attached” from people who give you money. Do you think it’s possible?
U.L. : I don’t know, there is only one way to find out! The only alternative for me is extremely unattractive. I don’t want to work in L.A., I don’t want to have to go to lunch meetings and having to deal with agents and all those things. If I had to do that, I would just be a writer. I’m just wondering about the sacrifices you have to make in that system.
I love the work that David Fincher does, he’s an incredible director, but do I want to live his life, I’m not sure. Not in the sense he has a lot of compromises to do because he’s very strong in his vision, but I’ve talked to people who know him personally. They’ll say that even he has difficulty to get a film green-lit because at the level he plays at, he doesn’t want to direct anything less than a $60M film. Yet, at the same time, he wants to direct things that are very cutting edge like Fightclub or Se7en. Of course, the studios are very timid about that. They think twice before giving him $60M to do something totally crazy.
OFFSCREEN : You talked about David Fincher. We could also talk about Lord of the Rings the same way. These films are “independent films,” yet, they have high budgets. What is independent cinema today?
U.L. : There again, the line is very blurred. I went to Sundance this year and very few of the films are really independent; most of the films had distribution already or they had studio backing. If you really think who are the most independent directors today there’s probably Steven Spielberg. Perhaps Fincher too; people who are within the Hollywood system. I think it’s really just a mind set. I think being willing to take risks and being willing to do what nobody has done before; that’s being independent. It doesn’t matter where the source of founding comes from, it doesn’t matter what the budget is. Even a low budget film director may not be independent because he doesn’t defend his ideas well. For example, his actors might take over the project.
OFFSCREEN : A lot of directors say they don’t like to make films and that it is not the fun process that most people outside the industry think. But, you seem to like it quite a lot?
U.L. : I’d say it’s a lot of work, there’s lots of ups and downs. This being my first film there was a lot of time where I was thinking, “What am I doing ? What have I gotten myself into?”. It’s a roller-coaster and there’s always something that will happen and you say “ok, so this is why I’m doing it, it’s totally worth it”. Especially when people see the final product and they get something out of it, it’s very rewarding. And production itself is the best part; it was like a 6 week hobby. You’re shooting at a different location everyday with the same crew, so it’s like a family, hanging out and having fun. But of course, 6 months before that, and after the film is released, it’s a lot of work.
This interview took place at the Tribakery during the TriBeCa Film Festival in Manhattan, New York City.
In 2002, the TriBeCa Film Institute successfully launched the First Annual TriBeCa Film Festival. Created by Jane Rosenthal and Robert De Niro, the mission of the TriBeCa Film Festival is to enable the international film community and the general public to experience the power of film by redefining the film festival experience. The TriBeCa Film Festival was founded to celebrate New York City as a major filmmaking center and to contribute to the long-term recovery of lower Manhattan.
All photos were taken from the film’s official website, where you can also view a trailer.