Writer/director Andrew Ahn’s feature film Spa Night premiered in competition at the 2016 Sundance Film Festival (e.g. nominated for the Grand Jury Prize for U.S. Dramatic films) and recently Ahn won the 2017 John Cassavetes Award at the Independent Spirit Awards for the film. The star and lead actor of Spa Night, Joe Seo, also won a Special Jury Prize for Breakthrough Performance (Dramatic). ScreenAnarchy’s Timothy Tau got the opportunity to talk to Ahn about the film, as well as current projects he is currently working on now.
SA: Congratulations on winning the 2017 John Cassavetes award at the Independent Spirit Awards for “Spa Night” and also the other accolades the film has received! Because your speech has also been covered by several outlets, I was wondering what your thoughts were about the current state of the film industry and acceptance of voices or perspectives not conventionally heard from? Do you feel that is the future of cinema or the direction cinema is headed?
Ahn: The film industry is a reflection of what is going on in society. Yes, there is progress being made. We are seeing more and more representations of marginalized people. However, it often feels like this progress is two steps forward, one step back. For me, the future of cinema is inclusive; I feel optimistic that we’ll get there, but there is a lot of work to do.
SA: In terms of screenwriting, what has been your approach or process in drafting the screenplay for “Spa Night”? How did the idea for the story start and what inspired you to write it down and turn it into a film? Was it based on any source material and any experiences from your own life? When you directed the film, do you want the actors to adhere to the written word strictly or are you open to them straying from the parameters of the words?
Ahn: The screenwriting process was arduous. The idea for the film came to me when a friend of mine told me that he had a hot hookup with a guy in the steam room of a Korean spa. For me, the spa has always been a family space, a traditionally Korean space. When I found out it was being used as a space for gay men to hook up, I was shocked. As a gay Korean American man, I saw two of my identities co-exist in one space. This realization was the initial spark for Spa Night.
The very first draft of the screenplay took place entirely at the spa in one night, but I realized it wasn’t getting at the heart of what I was interested in. I slowly began to develop the family storyline of the film, which I feel like is the true emotional core of the story.
The dialogue you end up with in a film is always a collaboration between the writer, the director, the actors, and the editor. The balance changes from film to film. On Spa Night, the actors strayed pretty fairly close to the script, but dramatically they bent, shaped, and crafted their lines in ways that I, as the writer, could never have imagined.
SA: I realize that “Spa Night” has been funded via a Kickstarter campaign. How did you find that process and what were the benefits v. challenges of going that route? Do you recommend that approach to other independent filmmakers?
Ahn: I am a big fan of Kickstarter. It truly “kickstarted” our film Spa Night. It gave us that first bit of momentum, exposure, and financing to get the film going. When you make a Kickstarter for your project, you put it out into the world. You are emotionally taking that first step to getting it done; that’s a really meaningful first step. I recommend crowdfunding for many projects, if it feels appropriate, but it’s important for people to know that this money is not free. It’s hard work! My team and I raised around $60,000 for the Spa Night Kickstarter campaign and I think we put in about $60,000 worth of work.
SA: Star Joe Seo won the Breakthrough Performance award at 2016 Sundance, where the film premiered. How did you end up casting Joe for the film’s lead and how/when did you learn he was the right actor for the role? What was the process you found in best working with him and the rest of the cast, e.g. improvisation, directing style, facilitating the actor’s process? Any other cast members you want to highlight or talk about?
Ahn: Our main goal in casting for the role of David was to find an actor who felt like a good son, someone who exuded kind heartedness from their soul. Joe is that person!
Working with Joe was great. He’s such a feeler; he likes to wrestle with his emotions. My directing style with Joe reflected this. I never wanted to be cerebral; it was more about directing from the heart. [Actress] Haerry Kim and Younho Cho, the actors that play the parents, are trained theater actors in Korea. Younho is such a physical actor; there’s something very Charlie Chaplin-y about him. Haerry is just such a natural actor; she felt so grounded in every scene. I love the scenes in Spa Night when you get to see all three of them work; they’re so generous with each other.
SA: Several short films you have made in the past (e.g. Dol, Andy) have won accolades and acclaim in the past. What were some of the challenges in making a feature for the first time vs. making a short?
Ahn: Features often (but not always!) cost more money, but that’s boring to talk about. For me, there are two main differences. One, shooting a feature is an endurance test. You’re on set for longer. It’s physical. It’s an athletic performance. Two, editing is difficult! With a short film, you can hold the whole film in your mind; you can watch it five or six times in an evening. With a feature, you can maybe watch it once a day, but even that’s too much. You have to learn how to build phrases, feel the rhythm of the film, and connect the phrases to find the whole.
SA: What types of cameras were used to shoot the film? What did you use to edit on? Did you work with your cinematographer (Ki Jim Kim) to craft a specific cinematic look/feel for the film in terms of lighting, colors, mood, etc.? Any interesting stories from set?
Ahn: We edited on Avid and we received the Panavision New Filmmakers grant in order to shoot on the ARRI Alexa. It’s a great camera and produces a beautiful image, as long as you work with a cinematographer who knows what they’re doing. Ki Jin Kim does! We worked together to create a cinematic language that reflected a visual yearning; a desire to see more. We thought a lot about what you don’t see — what’s in the shadows, what’s hidden behind steam or glass, and what’s just out of frame. Ki Jin is brilliant at this.
One of my favorite scenes in the film is the golf range car scene between David and his father. Most of the scene takes place in darkness, but Ki Jin had our gaffer drive around the parking lot to shine his headlights into the picture car. Every now and then, the headlights shine in and you can see David’s father’s face, the vulnerability and emotional honesty of a man apologizing. It’s just enough access to him. Any more and it wouldn’t feel realistic. Any less and you wouldn’t be able to connect to him.
SA: Congratulations also on netting distribution with Strand Releasing. How do we buy/watch/stream the film as interested audience members? What is next for the film (in terms of screenings, or is the only way we can watch it on DVD/On-demand/Online)?
Ahn: Spa Night is available on iTunes, Vimeo, Amazon, and Netflix. You can also purchase a DVD of Spa Night through Amazon. It’s got some cool bonus features like an interview with me and Joe Seo, as well as an alternate ending (!) and a scene that I act in that I cut out of the film.
I’m still doing some college screenings and Q&As for Spa Night, but it’s dying down. Now, it’s mostly just online viewing!
SA: What is next for you in terms of upcoming projects?
Ahn: I’m working on a variety of different projects. My next feature is a Korean-American story based on a novel. I’m also working on some television ideas; in many ways, television has become a place where you can showcase diversity better. My hope is to be able to make a career out of this!