From a law school student to the winner of First Time film director
The winner of First Time Director at the New York Film Awards, Jae Won Jung, is a highly gifted, innovative screenwriter and director based in NYC.
Her latest work, "Shadow" (2017), is an artistic film that examines the meaning of existence through the main character Sun Woo’s monologues on life and death.
In the following interview, Jung shares her inspirations and her unique creative process in making thought-provoking films.
Shadow - Official Trailer
Congratulations again on winning the First Time Director award. Could you introduce Shadow and yourself briefly?
Thank you. In Shadow, an aspiring documentary filmmaker Jae-ha receives a strange offer that asks him to secretly follow and film a mysterious woman’s daily activities for three days in exchange of significant amount of money. Jae-ha accepts the offer and the film progresses as he begins filming Sun-Woo, a stage actress. I incorporated several theatrical elements in my film.
Tell us about your background. What made you go into filmmaking?
Looking back, I realized that I have been most influenced by my parents. My father is a lawyer and also a very sensitive and prolific writer. My mother is an artist with an exceptional aesthetic sensitivity.
Thanks to my parents, I lived in Munich, Germany during my childhood and I could travel to numerous cities in Europe, learning and experiencing diverse culture. I think such experience during my early days affected me to cultivate artistic desire deep inside.
After earning my bachelors degree in law at Yonsei University in Seoul, South Korea, I moved to New York City to attend a law school. I believe New York City and the people I met there have inspired me to seriously pursue filmmaking. Moving to New York City was one of the best decisions I have ever made in my life. I have always been interested in photography and filmmaking and I actually had been developing my skills in the field, but I was a law school student back then and it was quite a challenge for me to give up law school and become a filmmaker. But, I made a decision to pursue filmmaking as I began my master’s studies in film and here I am. I think all those steps that have led me to where I am today were meaningful. There were some difficult moments and my parents were deeply worried about me. I am so thankful for their patience and enduring support.
I am sure it wasn’t an easy decision to change your path from law school to filmmaking. What kind of advice would you give to those who are making their first steps into filmmaking?
Yes, it surely was not an easy choice. I want to advise them to really think about why they want to become filmmakers. Filmmaking seems glamorous from outside, but in reality it isn’t. I hope they really think thoroughly about what makes them happy and what they want in life.
I believe that everyone knows what they want and what direction they want to pursue in life.
One should know who he/she is and listen to his/her heart. It all might sound abstract, but I think nothing can stop a person with determination. So I don’t want to advise people to just start by starting.
I think beginning filmmakers should spend more time learning about themselves. I think good films come from good people. Since filmmaking is not an easy field, it requires much effort and investigation. I am also still in the learning process. I am also trying my best to learn more about myself and my surroundings, but it never gets easier. However, I believe that this process and the questions that arise in each step have helped me mature and my films are the products of such growth.
Can you tell us about the experience of being a first time film director? What were the challenges you faced? What did you learn from the experience?
While I was a master’s student at the School of Visual Arts, I became very sick to the point that I had to take some time off from school. I went back to South Korea and had a chance to show my script to a friend. When she read the script, she insisted that I should make it into a film. I hesitated at first because I felt I wasn’t ready. Then suddenly, my dream and passion in filmmaking that I had forgotten about came back to me. I told myself that it was time to begin again. So I restarted completing the script for Shadow and in the process, I particularly revised Sun-Woo’s monologues with more detail. Serendipitously, I watched a short film around that time and could find Park Se-In, who ended up playing Sun-Woo in Shadow.
I think the biggest challenge I faced in making my first film was communication with my crew.
I learned that filmmaking is a group process. Ironically, that was the most difficult part of the experience. Since I like working alone, making Shadow with a group of people wasn’t easy for me. I learned that, as a director, I had to be more flexible with people and unexpected accidents that can happen on set. Looking back, working with a group of people was a personal challenge for me because I am very sensitive about relationships. It was really difficult.
I would like to say special thanks to my Assistant Director Cho-Hee Min, who always stood by my side during the most difficult times, and to my Production Designer Jay JeeWon Han, with whom I had the most satisfying collaboration with, and to Da Ye Kim, who helped me with translation. Without these people, Shadow would not exist.
And I have never talked about this in public, but the producer of Shadow is actually my younger brother, Ho-Sung Jung. He is full of creativity. He gave me such helpful feedbacks on the film and never hesitated in providing critical support to the film. Without his support, I would not have survived the filmmaking process. I would like to say express my gratitude to him as well. I believe that I could make Shadow because these people have helped me so much.
Where do you get your inspiration from?
From all sorts of things. I am usually inspired by exhibitions, films, and music that I enjoy or by some unforeseen events in life. A filmmaker has to visually reveal his or her own story. On that note, I think my surroundings and my own experiences are my most significant inspirations. Before shooting Shadow, I had an opportunity to travel to Vienna, Munich, Berlin and Dresden. What I experienced in Munich and the exhibition I saw in Vienna affected the style of Shadow.
I was deeply moved. Also, since Shadow incorporates many theatrical elements. I went to watch many plays with the actress Park Se-In and my crew. Going to theaters with my staff was a part of my way of building relationships with them. I am sure it helped the acting as well. I was particularly inspired by monodrama style in theater and diverse theatrical directing styles. Anton Chekhov’s “Seagull” was truly inspirational.
Which film directors and movies inspired you, and from what else do you get your ideas?
Persona by Ingmar Bergman, Happy Together by Wong Kar-Wai, Blue Velvet by David Lynch, Birdman by Alejandro González Iñárritu are among the films that have influenced my film. I am also inspired by paintings and photography, particularly for the color palette for my films. I especially like Edward Hopper and Kim Hwan Ki’s paintings and Ken Schles’s photos. When setting off to my work, I believe that most significant inspiration comes from the people and the events that surround me, and from the feelings and lessons learned from such authentic experiences.
As far as I know, Shadow is your debut film. What was the message you wanted to deliver through this film?
I have worked on multiple film productions, but Shadow is the first one that I directed. Through Sun-Woo’s monologues, I attempted to think about the meaning of life and death. Sun-Woo represents duplicity of human psychology, which is portrayed metaphorically by inseparable light and shades. Eventually, I wanted to depict the finite nature of human beings as a shade vanishes along with the disappearance of light.
You also wrote the script for Shadow. What was that process like?
-The script that I had originally planned to film was “Where we were”, which is also the backbone of Shadow’s plot line. It is the play that Sun-Woo rehearses in Shadow. While I was writing “Where we were”, Alex Dinelaris, the screenwriter who won the Academy Award for Best Screenplay for the film Birdman, who happened to be my professor in screenwriting, offered me a new direction and epiphany, which allowed me to develop Shadow. Birdman embodies many theatrical elements and I was influenced by the film. I began fine-tuning “Where we were” to be a dramatic script within Shadow. I also tried to maintain the thriller genre style while incorporating theatrical elements into the film. I wrote the first draft in New York City but it wasn’t completed until I added some details in Seoul, South Korea. There were some changes in location and I finally finished writing in Korea.
We couldn’t ignore the beautiful cross-genre cinematography in Shadow, which not only you’ve written and directed, but also shot on your own! You combined solid documentary-style shots with powerful and very aesthetic narrative camera work, and moved so fluidly between that two that it’s practically seamless. What made you choose these styles of cinematography?
As I have mentioned before, I have continued my work in photography and video-making since I moved to New York City after graduating from law school. I think my personal experiences and my own perspective that I have developed through such experiences are reflected in my film, Shadow.
Recently, my photos have been added in a poetry book titled 'The Wind crosses' and my photo essay book titled, 'the moments', will be published soon. Those people who are familiar with my photography works have told me that Shadow is very similar to my photos.
I personally like close-up shots and I prefer long takes, which I believe are quite apparent in Shadow. Because I wrote, directed and shot Shadow myself, I think I know the film to the fullest. I would like to thank Park Se-In for sharing this experience.
“…When I move too far, I lose myself. And when I am too close, I forget myself…” Shadow is full of memorable, thought-provoking monologues. How did you work on those with the cast to achieve such excellence in the performances? Did you use any visual or musical references to help them get into your mind and bring your vision to life?
“Where we were”, a short play in the film was originally created as a film script, so I thought the actors should have a good understanding of the play’s plot. Since, the lines are abstract and hard to digest, I had to constantly communicate with the actress to share ideas on character analysis, speech, voice and composition for the play within the film. I believe that our collaboration definitely helped her to comprehend and execute the role better.
As we communicated and learned about each other, we simultaneously built trust and a complete understanding of Sun-Woo in both the play and the film, even without explicitly mentioning the character. Park Se-In did a phenomenal job without any mistake on the set and I was so proud to have found her. I enjoyed every moment of working with her. Thanks to our strong relationship, scenes from the play in Shadow and Sun-Woo’s character came out just as I had envisioned.
The “Where, We Were” writing on the wall is a wonderful example of how nuances in art and design can play an important role in storytelling, providing an additional layer to the film. Shadow is full of those beautiful nuances. Were they already featured in the screenplay or suggested by your crew during pre-production?
The play within the film, “Where we were” is in fact one of the most endeared scripts I completed in New York City. Shadow happened to be completed first somehow, but I wanted to give a preview for this script which will also be produced at one point, and I also thought it would portray Sun-Woo’s emotions very well. Based on the plot of “Where we were”, I began revising the monologues on remembrance, existence, farewell, and death. A play within the film serves a crucial role in the film’s storytelling and I wanted to focus more on Sun-Woo’s emotional flow through the play. Accordingly, I had to choose a monodrama format to add specificity to her lines in the play.
My friend and the production designer of Shadow, Jay Jeewon Han, designed both the poster for the film and the play. She is a graphic designer and also my best friend. She and I have a lot in common and I knew she would do a great job. I took the photos for the posters and she did the poster design for them. She really understood the film and she knew exactly what I wanted, so we had a satisfying collaboration throughout the production. Her expertise in design completed the visual style of the film. I personally really love the poster for Shadow.
What was your favorite moment on set? What is your favorite part in the film?
Out of numerous characters I have created in my scripts, Sun-Woo in Shadow is my favorite one. I think my favorite moment on set was when we were filming Sun-Woo’s monodrama scenes. As we rehearsed the movement and the tone for the shoot, Park’s experiences in stage acting really helped the process and I enjoyed every moment of that shoot. Park’s Sun-Woo perfectly matched what I had envisioned in the script.
My favorite scene in the film is when Sun-Woo comes out of the theater after the second day of rehearsal and begins walking in circle aimlessly. Sun-Woo mysteriously turns around and around and falls down and starts laughing. It was on the script and I remember such idea just came to me suddenly. I think that scene reveals Sun-Woo’s mysterious and melancholy character. I also like the shots of Sun-Woo seen through Jae-ha’s camcorder.
The poetic and philosophical lines in Shadow exhibit Sun-Woo’s enigmatic psychological state. What is your favorite line from Shadow and why?
My favorite line from the film is spoken by Sun-Woo during the play when she says, “That’s why ephemerality is as beautiful as eternity.” A moment is easily changeable, fragile and even transient, yet there are some that persist without transforming. This line embodies my hope for my precious memories to never disappear or deform through the passage of time.
Shadow has been receiving critical acclaim from multiple international film festivals, being described as “a beautiful thriller with poetic expressions”. What have you been up to since completing the production?
I have been studying photography and film as a master’s student in New York City and I have continued my photography work and screenwriting. Shadow has been invited to several international film festivals abroad and I have attended some to do guest talks with the audience. It has already been 7 years since I graduated from Yonsei University, and it felt so special to be back to my alma mater for an interview. I didn’t expect to back to my university as a film director!
I once attended a film festival in Italy to do a talk with the audience and I was very moved because so many people came to participate. One of the audience told me how watching Sun-Woo made her painful and sad, and urged me to continue making good films. I really hope to.
I will continue my work as a film director if my films can touch the viewers’ hearts.
What are your plans for the future? Where do you see yourself in 5 years?
I want to make unconventional films with the most ordinary subjects, films with emotions but without much explicit expressions. I recently watched Greta Gerwig’s Lady Bird and it is similar to a kind of films I want to make myself. I hope to continue working in both South Korea and New York City as a film artist. In 5 years, I also wish to teach diverse approaches to visual storytelling in universities.
Would you like to share any last remark?
I am truly honored to have won the First Time Director award at the New York Film Awards. Making Shadow was a challenge, but I am so thankful to be able to share such good news with my family and friends.
First and foremost, I would like to thank God, my heavenly father. My favorite bible verse is, 'The heart of man plans his way, but the Lord establishes his steps.' (Proverb 16:9) and I believe that God has established every step of my life. I am so thankful for my parents who have been so supportive of my work. They have patiently waited for me and I am glad I could make them proud after making Shadow. I would like to thank my dearest brother, Ho Sung and Stew.
As I was filming Shadow, I made a promise with my mother and thankfully, I could keep the promise. Coming back to New York City, I made another promise with her and I hope to accomplish that as well. I am still developing and I believe that thanks to this award, I have gained a new opportunity to mature my passion in filmmaking. I will continue doing my best.
Thank you, New York Film Awards for the interview.