NYAFF 2013 Interview: E J-yong Talks Directing BEHIND THE CAMERA Over Skype

The 2013 New York Asian Film Festival is well underway and that means it's time to check in with our resident interviewer for the fest, Diva Velez. First up is a chat with E J-yong, director of the 2010 NYAFF selected mockumentary Actresses. For his latest film E J-yong honed his sights square behind the camera, taking a stab at, well... himself, in this stupendous mockumentary of the very art form and industry that nourish him. And he directed it all remotely. Over Skype. The film's full title is: Behind The Camera: Why Mr. E Went To Hollywood. [ed. Ben Umstead] 


Twitch: What inspired you to make this film about directing a movie remotely over the internet?
 
E J-yong:  I was sponsored by the Samsung phone company. The promo team wanted me to make a short film for the new Galaxy phone.  So I was looking for a story for the promotional film and then suddenly in this space, I was inspired by the fact that these days to get some information or inspiration to write the scenario, we can do at the desk with a computer and the internet.  I realised I don't have to go out to research; I can get all the information from the internet, so what about making a film with the internet?  So the first ideas came from that; I can make a film remotely.  So I wrote the scenario about my process, the story came from my own experience to prepare this short film. 

I made the short for the company, called How to Fall in Love in 10 Minutes, a story about a director who has the same story as me; he has a proposal from a company and was preparing, but at the same time his girlfriend is coming from abroad and the shooting day and her holiday is the same.  He was worrying about what to do and he gets the idea that while he's with her he can also direct the film.  Then the studio set became chaos and the actors and staff get confused.  Finally, he finished the film and gets love at the same time.  The short film was important for me because I got the money from the company, but I was fascinated to make a kind of fake documentary feature length film because in reality I was wondering whether it was possible to direct in remote.  It was kind of my experiment.
 
Do you think directing remotely will be the future of filmmaking?
 
Yeah, I guess so.  Still, when I first got the idea I was very excited, so I was looking for whether it really happened before or not.  I saw that it had never been done for a whole film.  There are some parts, for a big film like 007, where they're shooting in Istanbul or the Amazon or Russia, if the director cannot go, then some parts they shoot with the second unit.  In Hollywood, they tried a little bit to shoot in remote, but I found out ours was the whole process. 

When we started to use the mobile phones, it was uncomfortable at the beginning.  Even the telephone people thought, "Why don't we meet or talk face to face?"  But these days, people don't complain about the mobile phone or telephone, so directing remotely the first time might feel a little bit strange, but in the future I don't think it would be strange anymore.  If directors still have the time - we don't have to do the whole film in remote - but when you have to do it they will accept it.  So I think the use will increase in the system more than it is right now.
 
I feel like you show both sides of the argument of directing via internet because you're making the film and all the staff and actors are on board, but then so many things go wrong.  You can't even check the costumes properly without the actors jumping up and down and there's a huge line of staff from each department waiting in front of the monitor to give you their daily reports.
 
Actually, some parts are faked, so we give the idea of people being uncomfortable.  In reality, some technical problems like some sounds didn't take, or the internet connection broke up, so the communication was difficult; that really happened, but most of the stories in the short film was just my imagination.  The reality was a little bit uncomfortable, but it was possible.  This film is a mixture of a fiction and a reality show.  Simply it's a fake documentary because there are some fake parts, but 70% of the film was just a documentary.  People played their roles, they knew I was not there, but they pretended they never heard.  That's the acting.  But the funny thing is when the guy started to spread the rumour that I was in Seoul nearby {In the film, Director E explains his absence by claiming he is in Hollywood}.  I gave that rumour to the actor, but I didn't give him the sign to start.  He started to tell people the rumour and the actors really got confused because they heard from me that I couldn't be there, they were thinking, 'Maybe he's somewhere around the set?'  They thought they were being manipulated and being told a lie, so people really got mad, which I didn't expect.  I expected some confusion because I wanted to know and see what happens when the director's not on set, but that kind of chaos really happened.  That I didn't expect.
 
I interviewed Director Lee Joon-ik and I can picture him playing the kind of prank as in the film when he stages a walkout of the stars.  Was that real?
 
I should say that when I started this project, I knew I wouldn't be on set; that I would be away, but I had to do the short film for Samsung.  It was important, we made a contract and an appointment and a promise, and that shouldn't be failed.  So just in case, I needed somebody to help with communication or problems, I needed somebody to take charge.  The cinematographer suggested Lee Joon-ik, so when he gave me that idea I was very happy.  He is a very capable director and his character is also interesting, so I was happy that he could help me.  The short took three days and most of the actors already knew about Actresses, so they had some idea of what this film was going to be, but the difference was I was there. The actors are very talented people, but on the other hand, actors are also very passive.  Some actors are very spontaneous and like improvisation, but many actors they just enjoy more following the script; having a character makes them feel more comfortable.  They are not used to playing themselves. 

So at the beginning, with Actresses, because I was there, they felt they could depend on me all the time.  In this case, they felt something like with Actresses and they already knew I wouldn't be there, but in reality they were very embarrassed.  The reality was a bit different than what they thought, because many of the actors were unfamiliar with each other; some knew each other, but they were not very close.  They all wanted the director's direction, but I just let them free and they didn't know what to do.  Some people, we tried to do something, but there was no reaction, so it didn't work to escalate the situation.  So everybody was just shy and they didn't know what to do.  The first day nothing much happened; they were more concerned with shooting the short film.  There was not much chance to show themselves.  So the second day, Lee Joon-ik was quite worried that my experiment was not going to be successful, so he started to get himself more involved, just being funny.  I expected a little bit of that; that as a director himself when he saw the situation would be boring, he just started to provoke the cast and make trouble, so he helped me with the film a lot.
 
You began in features making melodramas, "An Affair" (1998), "Untold Scandal" (2003), which was a period film based on "Les Liaisons Dangeruses", "Homecoming" (2007) which is a personal look back at history, then "Dasepo Naughty Girls" (2006), a film which mixes animation and musical sequences and now the two mockumentaries.  It feels like your films grow more avant-garde as they go on.  What is inspiring that?
 
When I remind myself about studying in film school, I was more interested in unconventional or not typical cinema.  So far according to my film career, I've made two different styles of film; one is following storytelling and the more straight narrative, and the other is the more experimental.  That kind of thing I always thought of when I was 20 and I started as a genre film director, but I realised I was also comfortable with melodramas.  When I made those films I realised I could make narrative films, but I was always more interested in the experimental.  I don't plan my career like, "The next film is this, and next film is this."  If I get some inspiration at a certain time that is interesting, then I would just do it.  Like Untold Scandal was quite successful, Dasepo Naughty Girls failed at the box office.  We realised the reality, then we started a new commercial film, but the next one was Actresses; it wasn't a guaranteed box office success.  I was just focused on that idea, so I just followed.  So my career is quite mixed.
 
There is a quote from Alfred Hitchcock you use in "Behind the Camera" -- In feature films the director is God; in documentary films God is the director. As someone who is mixing reality with fiction, where does that leave you? 
 
In my filmography, I enjoy very detailed direction and I ask the directors to follow.  I act myself and I ask the actors to follow me.  Some actors enjoy that.  On Untold Scandal, Bae Yong-joon would wait for me, "What's next? Show me," but Jeon Do-yeon was not happy with that.  When she came to the set and then she wanted to talk to me, she was a bit upset, but when she came to see me, I was acting myself.  On those kinds of films, I don't give the room for them to just act like this.  I just direct what I want.  So Jeon Do-yeon is walking, then in five seconds tears, in eight seconds cry.  Because I want that; there's a rhythm for editing.  But Jeon Do-yeon wasn't happy with that.  When I direct those kind of films, I know what I want so I just give the direction of what is in my mind.  But on this kind of film, I kind of enjoyed when unexpected things happened.  It's the best kind of film.  It's not as proper documentary, but still, like in Lee Joon-ik's case or in the director role case, they have what to do, and things spontaneously happen, action, reaction, and from that some new and different energy comes.  So I'm not a director like Hong Sang-soo who always follows their style.  This is kind of my style, I don't limit.
 
There's a scene in the film where people are speculating about why you're not on the set and someone says that you went to Los Angeles so you could say you made a Hollywood film.  You also have cameos by Kim Jee-woon who made a Hollywood film ("The Last Stand"), and Ryoo Seung-wan, who has made a big international actioner ("The Berlin File").  Is being able to say you've made a Hollywood film a big deal in Korea now?
 
Actually for me, no.  When I thought of this project I wanted to be away; not in Seoul, I was thinking it would be Hawaii, or it can be Bollywood, or maybe I could be hiding somewhere in Seoul.  The important thing is that I'm not in the set.  But I chose Hollywood because Hollywood is Hollywood. Most of the directors talk about Hollywood.  Hollywood is an icon of the whole film industry, which is why I chose it and also to make fun of myself and make fun of other directors, also who want to go to Hollywood.
 
What is your next project?
 
My next one is a story about an older actress who is about 70 and she gets some stress from ageing and getting older.  Most of her close friends start to die and her mother has Alzheimer's and all this stress is coming at the same time, so she gets a job and goes to Greece.  So she thinks of her life and just waits for death or to decide her life.  The last days of an older actress.  The working title is Odyssey; she goes to Greece and cruises some islands and her life is kind of like an Odyssey, a long journey.  I'll start shooting in February and it'll be done by next August or September.

This interview was cross-published on Diva's website The Diva Review.  
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