Filmmaker Interview: Shawn Ku
by: Maggie Mackay
In anticipation of Film Independent’s screening of Beautiful Boy, Director Shawn Ku has a revealing, deeply personal, and surprisingly funny conversation with Film Independent.
Maggie Mackay: I read that a very personal event inspired you to write and make the film. Can you talk a little bit about that and the genesis of a project that comes from this kind of experience?
SK: It all sort of started with Virginia Tech. My parents happened to have gone to school there, they met, got married and had my sister while they were there at school. They knew that place really well. So when the shooting there happened, and I think because he was Asian, it particularly rocked my family in some weird way.
But subsequent to that, I had a close friend who had come into town visiting, and he was staying at my house. We hung out on a Friday night, had dinner, talked and caught up, and then went to bed. I let him sleep in the next day and after a while I was like: “Okay, it’s time for you to get up.” I went into his room to find that he had died. It was horrible of course and really traumatic for me, but it was particularly difficult being the person to tell his parents that he had died. He was young, barely 40 at the time and it was completely unexpected. There was no reason why—it took nearly six months to find out why he died. So for his parents—living with this and being told by a stranger over the phone what had happened and there being no reason for his death—these things became a huge focal point for them. Anything and everything they could glean from my last conversation with him—had I gotten a sense that he was fulfilled at the end of his life, did he seem happy? All of these things that we hope for our kids and hope for people to achieve before they die. It was a lot.
I had his phone and his friends and I had to go through his address book and make sure that we’d told everyone what had happened, but once in a while people would call and I would have to tell them. Or they’d not know and leave messages and I’d have to listen to them. A few times I would find messages from his father who had called just to hear his voice. And, if you think about it, that’s kind of what our relationships are—unless you really think about someone being gone and them not being in your life anymore, there’s no landmark to tell you: “he’s gone.” That was especially the case for my friend’s parents because he was an adult and not living in their house anymore, so it wasn’t like they had seen him everyday before he died so there was almost this suspension. It was a really difficult thing for them to process. So a lot of these little moments wound up in the movie.
MGM: To me this movie is, at its core, about grieving and what grieving is. I so appreciate that you focused on that as opposed to the “event” itself.
SK: Yeah, that was really difficult as we were setting up the project. There’s constantly that person who wants to know “Why?” And wants that in the script. But for me, that inability to get—or give—an answer was important, especially for me as I was coming out of this time when someone had just died and we didn’t know why.
As far as the character [of the boy] goes, people’s motives go with them to their graves. Even when we see scary manifestos online [from kids who commit these kinds of crimes], these don’t really tell us “why.” Everybody feels tormented and teased, but we don’t all take a gun and shoot people down. So there’s so much more to the “why” than we think. And I feel like we keep asking that question, but to a certain extent we’ll never get an answer.
MGM: Can you talk a little bit about the writing process with your co-writer Michael Armbruster? I was surprised when I realized that it came from two people because the film really feels so cohesive and like it comes from one voice.
SK: This is our second script together and we started writing pretty organically. Back before we started writing together we would talk each other through our individual scripts. As a writer you find that when you meet that person who gives you good notes—notes that show that a person understands what you’re trying to accomplish, yet isn’t imposing their own sense of writing on you—you kind of cling to that person desperately, because they’re rare. We’d found that in each other. So eventually we got to this place where we were like: “Let’s try writing something together.”
Our first script was actually a silly romantic comedy about a little girls’ dance competition. But the thing that we share is that we’re both internally over-thinking people so there was a common voice to a certain extent. Our processes are different depending on the story but, for this one, we knew what the story and process were going to be. We talked about the story basically being a love story set on the background of this horrible event. And as far as process goes, it becomes kind of boring. You beat out the story landmarks and figure out what happens at the hour mark of the movie, and all those sort of standard things you have to put into a script.
MGM: Were you guys sitting in a room together, or taking different scenes, and meeting up to hash things out, for example? A lot of filmmakers will be reading this, so I’m curious to hear you talk about how you and Michael worked all that out.
SK: Once we had the story beaten out enough to start writing, we’d usually split it up by sequence, like ten or fifteen page sequences. I like to start and finish because I’m a director and I’m control freak. But we tended to leap frog through the script. We wouldn’t necessarily write the whole thing before we’d back up and re-evaluate because, as you write, sometimes these things find their own life and don’t necessarily fit into the constraints you’d initially thought they would. Sometimes we’d get to the end of the first act and just go back and re-examine. This one, because it was, to a certain extent, not necessarily plot driven, was much more of a “vomit process.” You “vomit” out what you think is going on and then you go back and micro-manage and massage the moments that you think are important. So for the first part, for the “vomit draft” we were in our separate corners. We’d take a day or two to work out the sequences and then we’d sit down in a room together and blindly read it, usually out loud. We’d each take a main character and just read it and see how it felt and sounded.
MGM: I love the idea of a “vomit draft.” Did you just coin a new phrase?
SK: Ha! Yes, I love the process of a “vomit draft,” because you give yourself the freedom to let your subconscious write and you know what you’re trying to accomplish but you’re not trying to micro-manage every little thing. Sometimes you discover these little things that are just swimming in your subconscious somewhere and they wind up on the page and you realize: “Oh wow, this is what this is about” or “This is a beautiful moment we hadn’t planned on and here it is.” I love vomiting.
MGM: Hilarious! So back to the process . . . Your leads, Maria Bello and Michael Sheen are stunning in this. I’d love for you to talk about casting, and then I’d also love to loop it back around and have you talk about how the script and characters might have changed once you brought them on.
SK: In terms of casting, we knew where this movie was sitting in terms of budget and accessibility so obviously we weren’t going after Julia Roberts, but I’ve always loved Maria and I always thought it was the perfect role for her. She’s just one of those actors who, to a certain extent, I’m always wondering why she isn’t in more— she should be in everything!
In terms of Michael, I’d recently become a fan of his. I see a lot of movies and when I saw Frost/Nixon I was like: “Wow, this guy is amazing. There’s nothing he can’t do.” So I brought his name up. There were definitely people who were like: “But he’s so English.” I had to convince them, but I felt that it really didn’t matter. Frankly, when I first spoke to Michael, we didn’t even talk about accents or the birthplace of the character. It didn’t matter if he was a British transplant, I thought: “Whatever he walks onto set with, I’m happy with.” A father is still a father, whether he’s British or American.
And finding out that these two were both interested in a doing a movie on which they’d literally be getting paid nothing, and they’d be working with somebody who’s a nobody—me—blew me away. The night before I had to meet with Maria for the first time I was up all night thinking: “How am I going to pitch her? How am I going to get her to trust me?” I walked into the restaurant and was waiting for her and getting nervous and she walked in and the first thing she says to me is: “When are we going to make this movie? How are we going to make this movie?”
Michael was pretty much the same way. I called him up after he finished a press junket for something in London. It was really late here and we were having one of those midnight conversations in the dark. He was so open and thoughtful about human nature and so open to sharing his feelings about broken relationships and being a parent. The thing that he and Maria have in common is that they’re both not with the person who’s the other parent to their child. So they really pulled into the idea of trying to make things that are out of control work, and the fears every parent has about how they might be messing their children up. I knew, after that talk with Michael, that he really got the character.
Oddly enough, Maria and I coincidentally study with the same acting teacher in New York and, as soon as I mentioned that to her, she was like: “Oh my god, you studied with Freddie? I studied with Freddie! Now I know I can trust you implicitly. I know how you think, I know how you work.” So that was a huge door-opener. She was so available and open and trusting on set. She’s a very collaborative actor anyway but, for this kind of role, I really wanted her to feel safe because she had to really go places.
With Michael, we shared a similar childhood in a way, in terms of being sensitive kids and having complicated relationships with our fathers. These kinds of things helped us to really get each other and helped Michael to get the character. It’s funny how much you can get to know someone on one phone call.
In terms of the script, we did a re-write when we got Michael on board. Mostly because before that, people kept feeling that the movie was more about the mother character and that she was the lead. People thought the father had a smaller role and I was getting really frustrated by that. So we did a re-write to give him bigger moments and more scenes in his arc, because we’d always intended for it to be a two-hander. By the time we finished that last draft, I was really surprised when we didn’t get any notes back from Maria or Michael, character-wise. There was nothing coming back. Which, on one level, worried me and, on another level, worried me! I felt that they would ultimately know the characters better than I did, but we didn’t get much back from them. Obviously on set, there was some improvisation, but in terms of arc the script didn’t change at all.
MGM: That just tells you how strong your writing is.
SK: Thank you so much. There were definitely bumps early in the rehearsal process, just in terms of discovering the characters and trying to understand their motivations in particular scenes. But the more we rehearsed, the less of an issue certain things became because the actors got to know their characters and their relationship so well.
MGM: I think what really stands out about the film is how, for having such a tragic catalyst, you have these beautiful moments of hope and even moments of humor. I love this idea of starting with two people who are distanced and bringing them together in the wake of a tragedy—usually it’s the other way around.
SK: Yes, that was a conscious decision from the start. And it was really hard because the producers, again, were constantly asking: “Why? Why? Why?” And at the end they wanted the reveal that answered that question. That made my skin crawl, because for us, ultimately, we wanted to give these two people love.
MGM: And, in the end, the film really is about love. Thank you so much for sharing so much with us. We’ll look forward to doing this again and to meeting you in person next week!
Maggie Mackay and Shawn Ku will meet again after the Film Independent screening of Beautiful Boy May 24.
May 18th, 2011 • No Comments