Plan A Magazine editor Eliza Romero caught up with Justin Chon on the eve of the national premier of his film Gook (nationwide August 25). This year has been quite the year for Korean and Korean American filmmakers and actors working together for American audiences, including Bong Joon-ho’s Okja and Kogonada’s Columbus. But Chon’s Gook is the most firmly rooted in American storytelling, and follows a single fateful day — set during the 1992 L.A. Riots — in the lives of Eli (Chon), his brother Daniel (David So), as well as Keith (Curtiss Cook Jr.) and his little sister Kamilla (Simone Baker).
We had a chance to screen the film before its debut and can confirm: Gook sets the high-water mark for Asian American movie making, from the script, original score, break-out performances, gorgeous black-and-white cinematography, and just the sheer heart of it. Gook feels like a fresh start. Go see it this weekend, and if you really want to make it count, go see it twice.
ER: Justin, you wrote an editorial about walking out of an audition. You said that you drove 50 miles and then you realized that they just wanted an Asian guy to do an accent for laughs. Did these kinds of experiences push you towards directing?
JC: I don’t think it was necessarily just that, but I do think it’s a contributing factor. Directing wasn’t my dream — it wasn’t like I set out to be a director. My first passion was acting; that’s what I enjoy doing. It’s almost out of necessity; it’s making the roles I’d like to see. Having done it twice, I do enjoy it, and it’s something I’d like to do. But no one is going to portray Asian American males probably more realistically than I would, unless it’s another Asian man. There’s a white guy doing it; it’s probably not going to be authentic.
ER: Probably not, I agree with you. I grew up on shows like The O.C. and movies like 21 and Over, and of course I saw the Twilight series. For an Asian guy in Hollywood, do you need those breaks before you can realistically approach people for a project like Gook? Do you feel like you had to make a name for yourself before you could approach people and get funding for the movie?
JC: No, because I didn’t get any studio money. I feel, this film, anyone could make it if they had the story. It’s not like I had an advantage. It’s funny because… [long pause] sorry my Bluetooth’s not working so I’m driving while talking on the phone and I just saw a cop… I feel after I put out the editorial, there’s someone who said, well, maybe it’s easy for him to complain because he gets opportunities and he has the luxury to do so, because a lot of people just have to take their jobs and don’t have an option. I think, maybe, but I’ve managed to ride my career and not have to do those, and I’ve turned plenty of things down when I totally could have used the money. I always felt I didn’t want that type of career where I would have to regret anything. In terms of “did I have an advantage?” I don’t think so, because I raised the money for this film — there were some blind investors I didn’t know — but for the most part, it was donations in increments of three, six, nine thousand through our networks. It wasn’t like it was Warner Brothers.
ER: So you looked to family and friends for financing?
JC: Yeah, the majority of it was as an investment thing, so anyone could have made this film. Not because I was special or something, or I had experience to get it made. In terms of the actors, they are all unknowns, except for maybe David So. The rest of the actors, there’s no big name stars in the film. I don’t think that was the barrier to entry. I think the barrier to entry was the skill-set, in terms of me as a director, having done it before. Having the luxury of being on set so much as an actor, I think that is a barrier to entry if you don’t have experience running a set and directing actors. But beyond that, I don’t think my career up to that point really gave me an advantage in getting the movie made. I guess I’m saying, if you have a film in you, you can just go for it.
ER: How did you get your crew and the actors?
JC: We auditioned some experienced actresses, but they were too polished, so we started talking with some black churches in the Los Angeles area, and a friend recommended this place called the Fernando Pullum Arts Center. That’s where we discovered Simone Baker (Kamilla). David [So] (Eli) I was friends with for around five years, and I actually wrote the role for him. Mr. Kim was played by my dad [Sang Chon], and I wrote the role for him as well. I didn’t actually want to act in it, but doing so saved us a lot of money. I didn’t have to pay myself [laughs]. A lot of the extras were dancers, part of the dance community. Curtiss Cook Jr. (Keith) was recommended by another filmmaker friend from New York, so that’s how I met him.
As for the crew, the producer I had worked with in my last film and I was an actor in a film he was producing around five years ago. We kept in touch. The other producer, he was assisting for a film I did in India; I just kept in touch with him, so when this came up I just gave him a call. And everyone else I just sort of got to know over the years. I do a lot of experimental shorts. My Director of Photography, Ante Cheng, he was the DP for one of the short films I was just in, and I just kept in touch with him. One of my editors was still in school, in college, as a boom operator, and he moved to California to join ASI and was still in school. Also my DP was still in school, still actually in school, a USC graduate program. Only half the crew was actually trained. Some of the crew hadn’t even stepped on set before — that’s where [Producer] James [Yi] stepped in and trained a lot of people from the ground up.
So, this was made from the heart. It’s a lot of people’s labor of love. The woman who did wardrobe, I knew her personally, and she worked on a film I was in two years prior. I just pieced it together. I also helped produce this film. It wasn’t like someone just did everything for me — I had to go out and handpick these people.
ER: Gook is having a huge moment right now. Do you think it’s going to be a moment for Asian American men?
JC: I think it’s a moment for Asian Americans in general. I really think that we were just the underdog. I want to give credit to the Sundance Institute for programming it and giving us the platform for it to have a voice, and to Samuel Goldwyn for acquiring it. But after that, it’s really the Asian community that came out this past weekend and supported the film. I’m not sure if you saw the article in Deadline, but we were the #1 per screen average this weekend for specialty film. We beat out every other title, including something like Patti Cake$, which was sold for like $7 million or so. And here we are, we beat them out per screening. I mean, the community came out and supported it, and that’s incredible. It’s a moment for all of us because people need to see this. And the African American community came out as well. And a lot of people just came out. I looked at the audience this weekend, and it was just diverse. It wasn’t just Asian people. But I think for the Asian community it’s big, because people actually think it’s important.
ER: I’ve been reading all the reviews; and you are 90% fresh on Rotten Tomatoes. It got a way wider release than originally expected. Are you nervous about it or excited?
JC: I’m excited. There’s really nothing to be nervous about because there’s nothing I can do now about what the film is. I’m excited because I didn’t think we’d get a theatrical deal. The reason why I wrote it very lean, budgeted it very lean, was because I thought it would probably be a digital release, like on Netflix or whatever. I knew the business model and knew I could make my investors full, so that’s why I had budget in mind. I really didn’t think we’d get a theatrical deal, and some people do a theatrical release just to get reviewed. Big publications will only review you if have at least one or two screenings. So, I was thinking that was going to be the extent of it. But the fact that we’re doing seventeen or twenty screenings next week — never in my wildest dreams would I have thought that was a possibility.
ER: That’s amazing. I wanted to ask you about your thoughts on Asian male and black female stories and roles and why you decided to put both into Gook and what do you think you’ve accomplished.
JC: If I’m going to make my own film, and if I’m going to raise my own money, I’m definitely going to cast diverse and have it not just be men, but have females in there. I was going to represent two very underserved demographics, which is the Asian American male and the African American female, in entertainment and film. That was a conscious choice. I think I accomplished humanizing Asian American males.
There’s this conversation about what’s the difference between diversity and representation. I feel diversity is when a network show or film does well, for example, in China or something, and they get a Chinese actor and give him a remedial role. That’s diversity. It’s diverse, because yeah, you got someone in there, you’ve filled your quota. I think representation is stories that accurately portray our experiences as Asian Americans in this country, and are also authored by us. I think that’s representation and what I accomplished. I feel like it’s an authentic portrayal of a certain subset of Asian Americans that lived in LA at the time. I’m proud of that because people watch this film — they say, oh it’s so authentic, it feels real, I remember growing up in LA at that time and the film captured what it feels like.
I’m proud of that and it’s important, because at first you feel it’s weird watching a film with two Asian American guys who have no aspirations to go to Harvard or whatever… with an African American female in their friendship. But then, that sort of consideration evaporates during the course of the movie. It’s just three units. I truly feel people are connecting with that, questioning themselves, saying it’s very authentic. They feel like they learned a lot from this film, and they never thought of Asians being of color. I think that’s what this film has accomplished.
ER: Yeah, it goes against the whole model minority myth.
JC: Yeah, the model minority myth is total bullshit. We’ve been utilized as a fucking wedge within minorities as the model. We’re just automatically pitted against other ethnicities, and that’s bullshit. It’s just their excuse to use us for some other agenda, and that’s why we have to tell these stories, because that’s not cool. They have their own ulterior motives and we’re being utilized. Because systemically, for example David So in the film, his parents own a black beauty supply. And what we don’t realize, the resentment comes from this why do these people come here and why do they get loans to operate in our community and why do they got loans that we’re not allowed to get. But you know, those questions are intrinsically the problem. They’re pitting us against other minorities, and through the process of creating the film, we’ve come to realize we’re mad at the wrong people. We’re mad at the wrong people. We shouldn’t be mad at each other; we didn’t create this system. We’re all just trying to figure it out and survive. Through this process of creating the film, David said, I didn’t understand why they were so mad and angry at us. But they didn’t see me go home and be broke as fuck too. David said, we didn’t have a lot, it’s not like we went home to a mansion and a Mercedes. We were living in poverty as well. It’s just that we owned the business. I guess it did add something to our names.
ER: I won’t keep you much longer, I know it’s a busy weekend for you. But congratulations on what’s been happening. I first heard of Gookmonths and months ago and have been following its progress. I’d be really surprised if there wasn’t an Oscar nod.
JC: That’s a whole other conversation because the Oscars are so political. It opens wider, that’s basically it! Just say it opens next week across cities through Regal Cinemas.
It’s really important because next week is a two-story press where it goes national. If it does well, then it gives the industry no excuse but to pay attention to this film — films that are told by Asian Americans are being loved and supported. Next weekend is actually the very most important weekend.
ER: We’re all definitely going to be there to support it.
JC: Yeah, because one week is a fluke, second week is undeniable. Once they start focusing on how other films fail instead of how ours succeeded, they’re trying to hold us at bay and see if they can’t talk about our film. But two weeks in a row, they can’t not talk about it.
AG: You beat films with Jon Hamm and Geena Davis in it. Those are big names.
JC: We beat films with Jon Hamm in the box office this week. The community is coming out to see this, and it’s a moment for us, and we should push it all the way so the community knows it. We’re not going to sit around and be the good old quiet, invisible Asian people. I put my vote in. Let’s make some motherfucking noise. That’s where I put my vote in.
We’re so close.
Hopefully next week, man. Because we showed them this weekend. There’s going to be talk around town. Next week, if we kill it and do something, it can really turn heads in the industry. I’m getting emails from random managers and executive producers saying congratulations. These are not Asian people; people are noticing, saying oh shit this is happening. If next week, it happens again, shit man, we don’t know what’s going to happen. And I don’t even know what’s going to happen, how that’s going to change our perception in the industry. Because dude, this has no names. The three main leads are Asian American males and one African American females. People are going to be like what the hell is going on. And it’s black and white. And it’s about the riots. We saw Detroit bomb at the box office, and this film is going to make a difference? This no name kid Justin directed this film? It’s going to turn heads.
ER: It already is.
JC: We’ll see. Let’s go all the way, we’re like right there. Our community is right there. This could be something where we have all congregated like a united front. We’ve never seen that ever.Ever. Tell all your friends to go out this weekend; every ticket counts.