Site-Specific Art: Video Essayist and First-Time Director Kogonada Takes a Chance on the Subtle Columbus

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Late at night, Casey (Haley Lu Richardson) and Jin (John Cho), two people that barely know each other, contemplate their uncertain places in life while staring at a piece of art in Columbus, Indiana: a building that has endured the changing times.

Their exchange is defined by coded simplicity. In intriguingly pedestrian questions and answers, they unveil their fears, regrets and the implanted aspirations they wish to reject. This is the work of a true humanist.

Kogonada, the acclaimed video essayist and first-time director behind Sundance hit Columbus, populates his quiet setting with intimate conflicts, poignant conversations, and characters whose delicate observations about their reality are as endearing as they are wrenching. In a town where buildings are one of the few constants, a bright young woman whose future might be elsewhere wants to stay for the sake of her mother, and a man whose future is elsewhere is forced to stay for the sake of his father. Both know their departures are inevitable.

Like his feature, Kogonada is warm, generous, humble and tremendously wise, and in this conversation with MovieMaker he advocates for the study of film but not necessarily for film schools, admits writing dialogue is a mysterious endeavor, and explains why growing up in a working-class family continues to define his relationship to art in general.

Carlos Aguilar, MovieMaker Magazine (MM): I was delighted by this first feature. I know you didn’t grow up in Columbus, so how did you discover this hidden gem of American cities?

Kogonada (K): Thank you for saying that about the film; it means a lot. I discovered Columbus through an article I read in The New York Times. I was really surprised by this story of this town that existed in the Midwest. It’s a town that I’d passed on the highway before, but I had never thought to pull over and visit the town until I read this article. The article was about the modern architecture that existed, so I wanted to visit the town. I went there with my family, and I was blown away. I was really moved by what it represented, by the architecture, by all of it.

MM: Columbus is one of those towns that we typically see as “flyover country” in cinema, but what strikes me about your film is that it’s a place where art and architecture are present and thriving.

K: Yes, I think this question about architecture—and it’s also true about all art—whether it matters, whether it’s only for the elite, whether it’s only for those who live on the coasts, is an important question for me. I want to believe that art—and I include cinema as a part of this discussion—matters to people, so yes, that this modern architecture existed in one of these flyover towns felt really important and relevant to the questions I had about art in my mind, and certainly about modern architecture.

Kogonada, director of Columbus. Courtesy of Sundance Institute / Photograph by Kyle Flubacker

MM: The framing of the film is impressive. It seems to be very driven by the architecture, the lines and its symmetry. Can you tell me about creating the visual language of the film?

K: We knew that we had a special set of locations. You don’t often get to film scenes in front of such incredible design, and the lines from the building and from the other structures were thought out, and had their own forms that they were trying to communicate. We wanted to present the space wide enough and from a particular angle whereby we could feel everything that was significant about the space, and we could see the characters in relationship to those spaces and structures.

MM: Since the frames are so carefully created, do you storyboard? What’s that process of getting those frames specifically designed?

K: Initially, before the cinematographer and I started to make visits, I had selected images from other films as well as photographs that would capture a particular aesthetic. I shared that with Elisha Christian, our DP, so we had a starting point. I was also fortunate because he had seen some of my essays, and certainly those essays reflect a certain kind of approach to films that matter to me. I think he was quite aware of my sensibilities, and how I wanted to approach the composition and the spaces. We had a lot of conversations about that. I also had an illustrator from Berlin, Mihoko Takata, draw some conceptional art. It was less of a storyboard, but it reflected the mood of the composition. Then, we visited each site before we started shooting, and it was really then that we began to take photos. Nowadays, there are apps that will mimic an actual lens, so we were really able to block out how we were going to approach the spaces, but of course on the day of shooting you make adjustments as well.

MM: Going back to the idea that art is seen as elitist, or a luxury: I feel like your video essays really democratize film criticism and how we see art.

K: I’m so glad that you say that. I do think that it comes from the same place, because I was raised working class. I did not start my life with access to a lot of high art. I think there are creative forms always around us, but not [rarefied] ones. And then, later, my parents continued to do well, and we sort of went up the ladder, but it never felt comfortable, regardless. We maybe moved from working class to middle class, but it was something that was always rooted in my immigrant identity. I found myself having more access to these art forms, which really resonated with me and mattered to me. I also found myself having a different kind of reaction to them. The more I intellectualized these encounters, and the more I intellectualized my experiences, I found myself creating more and more distance from the way I had initially responded to cinema, specifically. For me, working it out through the video essay, at a time when I was leaving academia, was a part of recovering my relationship to cinema in a way that was less intellectualized, for lack of a better word. At that point, I really wanted to explore things that were more accessible.

I want to make clear that I believe in rigorous study of cinema or any art form. I don’t mean to suggest that that is something that we shouldn’t pursue, but for me, I needed to recover something else, some sort of emotion that had always been important to me, in regards to how art moves me. So that’s a really long, convoluted way of saying yes, I think these essays are about that. I never really thought about it in this way, but I think you’re right.

MM: What then is your vision on the value of attending film school? I ask because the character in your film might know more about architecture than someone studying architecture. What’s your view on academic learning, as opposed to engaging with cinema empirically?

K: I think if you want to make films, you should be a student of films, but I don’t think that has to take place in a film school. More than ever—but also always—there have been ways to teach yourself about the art forms you want to participate in, and I think that’s really true for cinema today. There’s so much available now. I didn’t go to film school. I was working out ideas in the realm of critical theory, so I don’t think it’s necessary at all, honestly, but I think it is necessary for you to be a student of film, for you to have conversation with the history of cinema, and for you to engage with it in its present form. For me, I think that can only be valuable.

Columbus star Haley Lu Richardson, photographed at Sundance Film Festival 2017 by Fabrice Dall’Anese

MM: Another thing that I found fantastic about the film, being an immigrant myself, is this idea of wasted talent. People feel that because Casey’s so talented, she has to leave this town, she has to go somewhere else, she has to be bigger, she has to aspire to something else. Where did that notion come from?

K: I think this decision of when to leave a stage in your life is a dramatic one. When you think about tension in drama, in film or in a screenplay, it’s often really external, but to me, this is an incredibly quiet drama that we all encounter, which is: When do we move on, and what are the questions we have to answer to make that decision? Yes, I think sometimes it might be the expectations that other people have of you, in relationship to some talent or ability they think you have, but that still becomes a really difficult question if there are things in your present life that you value. You might have a really good argument for why you need to stay. I also believe in the mutability of life, that change is constant, but it’s often really difficult to accept. For me, the way that we address change is a modern question. More than ever, we are confronted by possibility and pressures of change, but I’m not a conservative in the sense that I think things should always be the way that they’ve been. I do believe in and value progress, and making that move, but I also think that every time you say bye to a stage in your life, it is a small death, and small deaths are hard to accept. Whether the next stage is wonderful and necessary, it’s always hard to say bye. I knew that was going to be a part of the story. Specifically regarding talent, and feeling like you have to exercise the deeper talent that you’ve been given, I don’t know if that’s so specific to me, but certainly this question of expectation and being responsible for what you’ve been given, I think that’s certainly a part of this story and why I wrote it.

MM: Did people close to you or those who watch your video essays ever say, “You should make a movie; you should use this talent?”

K: It wasn’t as if I, like Casey, was resisting taking the next step, because I really wanted to make a film. Deep in my heart, I thought, if I ever had the chance to make a feature film, it would be something I would love to do, and feel honored to do. It was just about opportunity. But you’re right, there are some similarities there, and again, I don’t think I was really even conscious of that. There was this constant momentum and this question of, “What to do next?” I think maybe in this way, there is resonance. I do ask this question: “Could I live with myself if I didn’t pursue this dream I might have, or something that I think I could accomplish?” There was a moment where I thought about the risk of taking the time and energy to pursue a feature film. I’m not so naïve to think that that can happen easily, at all, but I did ask this question. “Will I be able to live with myself if I don’t pursue it, and really pursue it at the risk of failing? If I don’t do that, will I be able to live with myself?” and I thought, “No, I need to at least try this one time.”

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