As a gay, Korean-American man, director Andrew Ahn's mission is to make films that reflect his own personal experiences yet contain themes that can relate to the human experience in a universal way.
Historically, Asians and Asian-Americans have been underrepresented and misrepresented in American film and television. One of Ahn’s goals has been to combat this by creating a new face for Asians in the media: humanity. Through the universal human experience, Ahn has told the story of many young people’s struggles, whether Asian, black, or white in his newest award-winning film, Spa Night, which premiered at the 2016 Sundance Film Festival.
Spa Night tells the story of a young Korean-American man struggling between helping his newly immigrated family and his sexual desires for gay hookups in a Korean spa in Los Angeles. The themes center around dedication to family and discovering one’s identity, themes that can be inarguably relatable to the human experience. In this interview, he talks about his biggest accomplishments – and struggles – in creating a very unusual yet very universally themed film, as well as his hopes for the future of Asian films.
SPA NIGHT is available now on digital streaming and DVD (http://www.strandreleasing.com/films/spa-night/)
STORIES ABOUT OUR SOCIETY
Can you tell me a little about your newest film, Spa Night? What was your creative process for developing that film?
It was interesting as I was developing the story at first I was thinking of the film as more of a traditional coming of age story, a lot about this kind of sexual coming of age. Then as I was revising the script I realized that the heart of the story is actually David's relationship to his parents, and that the heart of the movie was really about the family. Things really shifted from that point and then it actually became a more universal story and one that people really could connect to even if it was so different from their own personal experiences.
It was a very universal story. By the way, congratulations for The Spirit Award nominations.
Thank you. I was really nervous because it felt like there was an opportunity there and I really wanted it. Getting the two nominations was a nice way to end the Spa Night journey. It's been a very good year.
When was Spa Night released?
Our premiere was at Sundance this past year in January in US Dramatic Competition. That was our festival premiere, and then we had our theatrical premieres in LA and New York in August.
What inspired you to write this story to begin with?
It's a personal screenplay in many ways. As a gay Korean-American man I often think about how my gay identity and my Korean identity intersect. A friend of minee told me that he had a hot hookup with a guy in the steam room of a Korean spa. That was really fascinating to me because the spa has been such a cultural institution for my whole life. It's where I went with my dad to scrub myself as a kind of family ritual. So then to find out that gay men use it as a space to “cruise” makes it sound totally sacrilegious.
I realized that this intersection of my gay Korean identity was happening at the spa. These two cultures, gay and Korean, were meeting there. I started developing the screenplay with that idea, then wrote the first draft, which was actually very short and all took space at the spa in one night. But realized that I wasn't getting a lot of the cultural elements. It was kind of too heavily focused on the sexual exploration of that character. I really brought in the film to include more of David's outside life, so that became his family, the restaurant, the sequence at USC. I realized that a lot of this film is about the spa but it's not the most important thing about the film.
Do you think that more doors have opened to you since Sundance release?
I think definitely more doors have opened for me. I was able to sign with an agency and I've been taking a lot of really wonderful meetings with production companies that I really admire. It's still going to be tricky to put together another movie, especially if I decide that I want to tell another story about the Asian-American community. It will be complicated but I do feel like I'm optimistic about my career and my ability to keep telling stories that I think are important.
Let me ask you about the Asian community and Asian film community. Why do you think that there's so few Asian films in America that are not brought in from China or Korea?
I think it's an issue on multiple levels. I think that there's this block in trying to make a film about almost any community of color. You just don't have the infrastructure; you don't have the support network in the same way that a white filmmaker will have access to.
I can very specifically talk about one aspect of Spa Night that was really challenging, and that was the casting. We put out the casting call for this main character and we saw maybe near 80 actors for it. And it was because it was a specific part. I wanted this actor to be Korean, I wanted them to be able to speak a certain amount of Korean. But had I written a role for an 18 to 25 year old white guy I probably could have seen 500 actors. Part of it is a numbers game. The other thing too that I find really frustrating is that there is actually a lot of Asian representation in media, whether it's film, TV, or digital. It's just not always mainstream. As I've been going to festivals with Spa Night some of the festivals I played at are Asian-American film festivals and they have an entire program of Asian-American films. They're just smaller budget. They don't necessarily get the marketing in order to get a wider release. My hope is that as consumers of media we do not place too much importance on what's mainstream and actually celebrate the work that exists, that is there.
What would you say as being an Asian-American are some of the stereotypes and misconceptions that maybe Americans in general, all races and colors and backgrounds, think about Asian men in general and how are you going to change that, Andrew?
I kind of take on that responsibility with a lot of enthusiasm because I think it's important. I think that there is the stereotype of Asian men being desexualized. I wasn't trying to combat that directly. What I really wanted to do was to show Asian-American characters with as much humanity as possible. Part of that includes sexuality. I think in that way it makes a character kind of sexy. For me it wasn't just about trying to pinpoint one issue or one stereotype. It was just to show as complete a human being to the audience as possible, so that we can connect to them on an emotional level, physical level, and not be able to make this character or these people on screen like, "Oh they're the other. They're people that don't exist in my world." I wanted to show that these are stories about our society.
It was interesting because I didn't know what direction you were going to go in the story. What has been the reception of this film overseas? Have you tried to show it overseas yet?
We have screened at film festivals around the world. Edinburgh, Sidney, Jeonju in Korea, Hong Kong. It's played at a lot of film festivals and we're currently looking at more opportunities for theatrical runs. We did play in theaters in Germany, and we're on iTunes there. Then we're trying to find additional places to screen this in theaters. We're on TV at Sundance Channel AMC in a couple of international territories: France, Latin America, a couple of other countries in Europe.
It's been well received but it has been complicated. I think part of that is because people aren't used to seeing Asian-American films. They're very used to seeing Asian movies, so there's a little bit of a confusion about what this specific culture is. When we screened in Korea at the Jeonju Film Festival, that was a really special experience. I was very worried about it. But actually it was a really receptive crowd. The audiences were really interested in the Korean-American experience. That was really special for them especially because a lot of people in Korea do have families who live in the US, whether it's a brother, cousin, son or daughter.
I know the Asian-American community is made up of different countries and communities, but as a whole do they support films like this? How does that really layout for you?
Like you said, the Asian-American community is actually made up of so many different people from different countries and different cultures, that it's hard to kind have a unifying campaign in a way to target everyone. The Asian-American community is super-diverse and you have different generations levels, you have Asian-Americans who just recently immigrated and then you have Asian-Americans who have been here for four or five generations. Those are very different communities. So it is very hard. I will say that the younger generation, it feels like there's a lot of support when we screened the film in LA and New York. It's just been so great to see so many young Asian-American people wanting to support stories like this.
For an older generation it's a little bit tricky. We had one older Korean-American man at a Q&A for a screening we did in LA, and he seemed kind of upset about the movie. He thought it was a bad representation of the Korean-American community. That it wasn't something that he hoped a greater American society would think of Korean-Americans as being like -- And I told him that this is actually a very specific point of view, a very specific experience within the Korean-American community. But that's the thing, we are not a monolithic community. We have different perspectives, and it's important to share a lot of that.
It's my hope that Spa Night is not the only Korean-American film out there. I also hope it's not the only gay Korean-American film out there. The more diversity there is in terms of the stories told about our community the more our community feels like a rich and diverse place just like any other community.
NAVIGATING THE FILM INDUSTRY
Was this your first feature film?
This is my first feature film. I did two shorts. I did a film called Andy that went on the film festival circa 2011, and then Dol (First Birthday) which went on the festival tour in 2012. That film got into Sundance and it was through that experience that I was really able to kind of get some traction on trying to make Spa Night. It's been four years between the short film and Spa Night premiering.
What camera did you use to shoot this on?
We shot it on the ARRI Alexa. We were able to get a grant from Panavision. We got the New Filmmaker's grant, that really helped us out. It's a really wonderful program. It allows very little budget films to shoot with super-pro cameras.
What was the budget for the film?
It's a little bit tricky to say because we had grants and donated services like the camera. Then we also did a Kickstarter campaign, we did some crowdfunding. All totaled up, it's somewhere under $500,000.
How did you raise funding? How would you suggest an aspiring filmmaker do the same?
I think the exciting thing about film is that making a movie has gotten much cheaper. For me, the way to raise your money is to be realistic about how much money you could raise, and use that restriction as a way to revise your story. If you're trying to make a sci-fi movie with aliens and explosions, that's obviously going to cost a lot of money. It's like, what's the low-budget way to do that? I think it's being realistic, and then also again, I really do believe in your network and your community. Finding out that opportunities to apply for grants, any donated services. If you do a crowdfunding campaign, being able to reach out to your network. For me it's about involving as many people as possible. If you don't have the financial resources, rely on your human resources.
Did you go to film school or did you just learn by doing those shorts?
I did go to film school. I went to California Institute of the Arts in Valencia, California. That's actually how I met my cinematographer and two of my producers, Ki Jin Kim and Giulia Caruso, because they were in the same program as me. There's something about that film school experience that just gave me a lot of confidence and ability, and training that I couldn't get in any other way. It was expensive, but I'm really glad that I did it. It really helped me kind of fast track my way into having a career where I can tell stories that are meaningful to me.
Would you advise new filmmaker to go through the film festival route?
I think so. I really recommend film festivals and if only because it's a way to connect with other people. It's a great way to build your network. There's so many people at film festivals who want to support independent voices and I think that festivals are such a special gathering of like-minded individuals. I really benefitted from it. Obviously, there are other ways to get your movie out there seen. I think that those are also really valuable but even then the whole point is to try and connect to an audience, to connect to other people.
How long did it take you to shoot a film?
It was a really short shoot. We did 17 days of principal photography, and then we did a day and a half of pickups. So all said and done it was about 18 and a half days. That was just the production. We had about a month of pre-production, and then of course there was a lot of time spent in the editing room. But it was a whirlwind shoot.
How long did it take to edit the film?
We edited the film for about four and a half months, which is actually kind of quick, but we were in the editing room a lot. Part of the editing process was also figuring out that we needed to do a little bit more shooting. We shot a little bit more, that day and a half, a couple of months after. We were really hoping to make a couple of film festivals that month so we had the fire under us.
FIRST IMPRESSIONS AND HOPES FOR THE FUTURE
What did your family think of the film?
It was interesting. My parents actually drove to Park City, Utah to attend the premiere at Sundance. My mom and dad packed the car with cup ramen and fruit because they were afraid we weren't going to eat there. They drove from Los Angeles to Sundance. When they watched the film I think they were really happy. They knew what the film was about beforehand and I think they were glad that it wasn't as risque as it could have been. Also, I think that they were really happy to see representation of people like them; these first generation Korean-American immigrant parents as main characters in a film. I think that's so cool and exciting. My parents were very proud.
If you were to do this project all over again, knowing what you know now, now that you finished your first feature film, what would you do differently? Technically, creatively, otherwise?
Honestly, selfishly, I would have loved to have had more time to shoot the film. I think that would have allowed me to bring out certain elements of the story that I ended up cutting because I couldn't quite get the impact that I wanted from them. But that said, I feel like my team and I did the best we could given the situation. I don't really want to say that I could have done that, or I should have done that, or we could have pushed harder here. Because I really respect how we made the film.
It's special to me in the way that it might not be perfect, it might not be exactly what I thought of. But I think it's a product of our hard work and the restrictions that we had to deal with. I thought we found solutions that were creative and interesting. I'm very proud of it. Do I want to make another one really quick? Yeah. Do I want to make one with a bigger budget, with more time? Definitely. That will be the next movie.
There are a lot of opportunities in television now. Some people say that that's really the medium for independent filmmakers now. What would you say is your dream project? Would there ever be a possibility of going into television?
I think television is definitely the medium that's pushing diversity in a way that feels better than film. I'd love to do television. I'd love to be able to tell a story across multiple seasons and really find that kind of grand scope. That's really only possible when you have the time. However, I think that cinema is always going to be my true love. There's something really special about going into a theater and spending an hour and a half to three hours in a dark room, fully-focused on this giant screen in front of you. That experience is just so special. I'd really love to be able to keep making films while also exploring other ways of telling stories. Whether it's television, installation, or on a digital platform, I want to have a fun career and I think that means exploring different ways to tell a story.
What are you working on next?
I’m working on a few different things. Nothing that I can fully talk about. I'm working on a film based on a book that I'm excited about. Then a couple of projects that are about Korean culture in America. Then I'm trying to figure out a romance film. I really want to do a relationship movie. I think trying to find love is something that can really make a movie universal. It's a theme that I'm wanting to explore.
A gay romance or a hetero romance?
I've been thinking about that. I kind of want to do both. I will say that I think a gay romance would be kind of more up my alley. But I'll also say that it depends on the characters and the world that they live in. So I'm not limiting myself there. I do think that queer themes and Asian-American culture, those are always going to be kind of the cornerstone of my career. I think I'm always going to go back on wanting to tell stories about these communities.
supplementary editing by: Alexis McEnroe
SPA NIGHT is available now on digital streaming and DVD (http://www.strandreleasing.com/films/spa-night/)
Photo Credit: Mitch Dao