So Yong Kim’s fourth feature film, Lovesong, weaves a delicate tale of two women navigating the shifting terrain of adulthood while they tease out a new intimacy within their relationship. Kim brings her own restrained touch to this variant of the road trip classic genre, expanding it beyond the formulaic to a sharp examination of longing and broken connections. The natural chemistry between Sarah (Riley Keough) and Mindy (Jena Malone), their nuance and gesture, gives voice to all the unexpressed emotions simmering beneath the surface. Every flickering smile and tentative touch recalls one’s own nearly there romances.
Kim’s first feature, In Between Days, debuted at the 2006 Sundance Film Festival, where it received a Special Jury Prize for Independent Vision. In advance of the February 10–12 screenings of Lovesong in the Walker Cinema, Kim discussed her personal philosophy of filmmaking, the practical realities of making a film come alive and how a single scene helped her short film develop into a feature.
Hayleigh Thompson: Lovesong focuses on the evolving relationship between two friends who reconnect at different points in their life. Knowing that a lot of your work has autobiographical elements, what was it that initially drew you to explore this unique love story?
So Yong Kim: I’m drawing from a crush experience I had while I was in college. I think emotionally it’s very true to that memory, but the events are quite different. It’s emotionally connected to me. I think that now that I’m getting older I have a certain sense of regret about some things that I didn’t act on or didn’t follow through with. I think I just wanted to explore decision making: how you make your decisions to get to where you are.
We initially did part one as a short film to see if I could do a short film about this road trip between two friends. I wasn’t really sure at that time if the film could be a feature. So we shot it with two friends who were not busy at the time and got some people together with a little bit of financing for that. We shot mainly around the house we were living at the time in Pennsylvania, very rural, about two and a half hours northwest of the city. We shot this film in six days, and I wasn’t really sure if it was going to be even a narrative short.
I wanted to make something mainly because I was waiting to cast this other film that I wrote, which is about an aging mother. It was getting to the point where I felt like I wasn’t making or telling any sort of story. I was going through these doubts in my head: Am I even a filmmaker, a storyteller? So then I just got people together and wrote a “scriptment,” a half script and half treatment, for part one which was a road trip between two friends from college at slightly different stages after college. One is married, while the other is still a fun-loving free spirit. I didn’t know until we got the footage that we could really do a feature.
Thompson: You have previously worked with both Riley Keough and Jena Malone. As a director who also functions as a writer and an editor, how important is casting for you when working on a new project?
Kim: I feel like in many ways your job as a director is 80 percent done if you can cast the perfect, most incredible, talented actor. Right? But it could also be a complete non-actor too who fits the story and can bring the film alive. I think that’s really, really amazing. At the same time, if you are one of the A-list directors, like P.T. Anderson or Scorsese, you can call people and ask them to be in in your film. But many filmmakers, like myself, are at the mercy of casting directors or people who know somebody who might know somebody and you have to go through that process. You don’t always get your number-one choices, but on Lovesong I was really lucky to be able to get these two actors who had their time free. Jena had four days open that summer, and Riley had six days exactly, and they overlapped three and a half days. I begged Jena and Riley and I got really, really lucky. You just do your best to get the best people to be part of your creative process.
Thompson: You mentioned that this film was originally based on a “scriptment,” meaning it was more loosely written than your previous work. How did this change the filmmaking process for you?
Kim: The scriptment was all I had time for. On my two previous films, I spent a year and a half or two years to write the script exactly how I would like it to be, but this was something that I felt like, why don’t I just let that control, obsessive thing go, and then really focus on just sketching out these scenes that are broad brush strokes. Then once we were on set some of the crucial scenes had dialogue in it, but then I have to say when Jena and Riley took the scene off the page it was so much better. They were just so good. It was so inspiring. I loved it. It was magical for me.
Thompson: You also work as your own editor. Did the looser framework change the editing process for you?
Kim: It does, but then it doesn’t. In Between Days, my first film, was with two non-actors. I would say their lines to them and they would repeat them, but then they went go off the book a lot of the time, too, so we experimented a lot. I think from that point on I really learned you have to mold your material. I’ve gotten used to finding gems in the material to make the film and the story come alive.
You know the scene when they are on the Ferris wheel? That was the key moment for me—also the drinking game scene at night—but that moment when they are going on the Ferris wheel and they are just looking at each other and screaming, that was the moment where I was like, “Oh, I have to make this film into a feature!” This is such a gift. It’s like magic. If I could just have this moment, three of these moments, then I have a movie. I had that one in part one, and the drinking game a bit, and the whole night club stuff. You have that one gift and you have go for it! Go, go, go, go, go!
Thompson: Throughout the film you focus on Sarah’s face, prioritizing shots of her reactions rather than showing those speaking to or around her. Was this something that arose on set or in the editing process?
Kim: I think since In Between Days Brad [Rust Gray] and I have our own way of going through the emotions of the characters and what it means to be with a character and be really intimate with a character in the scene. I don’t think it’s so much about seeing people on screen talk; it’s about what kind of reactions you get from the person who is listening or might not be listening or thinking about something else. So in any given scene it’s a lot about the scene before that came to this moment when these two people are talking and the scene afterwards. How that character gets affected by what has been told to them or how extensively they allow themselves to be exposed or vulnerable or what have you. So I find that often times when people are talking, it’s more important when they are not talking, perhaps. It depends on the content. I think that’s the general, very broad, general philosophy Brad and I have in putting the scene together and the edit and also building the whole film.
Thompson: One of the most pivotal discussions between Sarah and Mindy takes place entirely in voiceover. Would you say this is the culmination of the philosophy that you were talking about?
Kim: Yes. It is, actually. [Laughs] That moment there, I call it the magical walk at the end because this is like something that I think in my head but not necessarily something people would gather. The reason I ended up with that approach at the end, when they are doing the magical walk, is because Riley was quite sick that day, so we were very limited about much and how many times we could do that whole entire section. I ended up doing a lot of the walks not thinking that was going to have their talk over the image of them walking, but by the time we landed on the rock where they’re supposed to have this discussion together it was like fighting the battle of the light going down and then also her flu. So then, in the edit, I put that magical walk together with them talking and then seeing the expressions on their faces. Thankfully it worked but it was not something that I planned.
Thompson: A primary theme throughout your filmography, and Lovesong in particular, seems to be liminality—from Sarah and Mindy’s shifting relationship to their constant travel, even the way characters seem to float on the periphery of the frame. Is liminality something you find yourself consciously focusing on?
Kim: Yes. My husband and I move from city to city like every four years, so we’ve been kind of nomads. I had a very nomadic childhood. I always find it so interesting that feeling of not quite belonging. Wanting to belong is such a human quality. I think that’s one of the human natures that we all have.That’s definitely, for me, what is worthwhile exploring, because I think it’s something we all try to ignore or face or tackle or understand no matter what phase in life you might be in. You might be in a relationship but you still feel like, “Whoa, we are going through a transition, we are not here or there.” I think it’s such a common human experience. I have to say, though, now that I’m getting older, I’m not any better at understanding it. [Laughs]