Of the many Film Independent Fellows debuting their projects at Sundance this year, by far one of the buzziest was Christina Choe’s Nancy. The film—the intense tale of a deeply flawed woman (Andrea Riseborough) who comes to believe that she was kidnapped as a child, subsequently insinuating herself into the lives the grieving couple (Steve Buscemi and J. Smith-Cameron) mourning the disappearance of their young daughter 30 years earlier—won Choe the Festival’s prestigious Waldo Salt Award for Screenwriting and was directly supported by Film Independent’s (Fi) 2015 Directing Lab.
Nancy is Choe’s feature debut, inspired in part by the filmmaker’s fascination with imposter stories and the age-old question: if something feels real, does it matter if it’s actually fraudulent? The result is a compelling psychodrama that touches on big ideas without sacrificing the pleasures of genre. Prior to further developing the project in Directing Lab, Choe took the project through Fi’s Fast Track film financing market in 2014.
Choe has subsequently directed an episode of OWN’s Queen Sugar for executive producer Ava DuVernay and is prepping a variety of upcoming projects. Nancy hits theaters this weekend, distributed by Samuel Goldwyn Pictures. To learn more about Film Independent’s Artist Development programs, click here.
We recently spoke to Choe about her own real-life imposter story, the utility (and not) of telling stories in a genre framework, collaborating with actors, Directing Lab, Fast Track and more. Here’s the conversation:
This is a pretty dark premise for a film. As a writer and director, what inspired you to tell this particular story?
Choe: I was really interested in creating a female character that was morally ambiguous, kind of like an antihero-type character. We see a lot of male characters like that. I just felt like for women it was pretty limited. I was also really obsessed with imposter stories. And then, while I was writing [the script], I found out that one of my favorite writing professors was actually a fraud.
Choe: Yeah, he was very enigmatic and really charming. We all worshipped everything he said. He basically taught us to write what’s truthful and told us he was a playwright from Ireland and that he was a ghostwriter for these huge Hollywood franchises. After graduation we found out that he had been lying to all of his students and all of his family. Initially a lot of people really felt betrayed, we were all shocked. And after a while thinking about it, I was like: does it matter if it was a lie? I still think he’s one of the best teachers I ever had. The theme of Nancy is very similar. Does it matter if [things are] a lie if you feel like the connection is true and authentic?
Did you already have that interest in imposters before the situation with your professor?
Choe: Before I found out? Yeah, I was already obsessed. It’s funny, because a lot of people have these stories. It was really weird. The more I talk to people about it, the more they’re like, “oh yeah, I used to know someone like that.”
Do you think that sort of thing is easier to do now in the age of the internet or do you think it’s more difficult, now, to pass as someone you aren’t?
Choe: It’s funny, because I did feel like Nancy was also a commentary in a way on how we’re all imposters on our social media. We’re all sort of presenting this false persona that’s usually very manufactured and curated, and usually much more happy and on vacation. And then you have, like, people actually going as far as to catfish people. There’s a whole term now for it, that’s also a TV show. It’s happening all the time. But I don’t know if it’s easier. I think it’s easier to figure someone out, but I really don’t know. There’s probably so much of it going on that we don’t even [know about].
To what degree did Andrea Riseborough help shape the character? How much collaboration was there?
Choe: I mean, we talked about it for—I don’t know—two, three years. So it was very organic in terms of, like, the line between preparation for it and her bringing in her input and being loose. She just got the character right away. She’s such a chameleon, with all the different parts she plays. She’s able to simultaneously keep it close to the chest as the character of Nancy, but you also feel enough of what Nancy is going through emotionally that you start to care about her to varying degrees. And I think that’s a really hard balance. I don’t know if any other actor could have done it that way because it easily could’ve played as “oh, crazy deranged woman.” But yeah, she was very involved.
I know you’ve been through some of our Film Independent Artist Development programs. Let’s start with the Directing Lab. What was that experience like?
Choe: It was a really good chance to workshop some scenes. I think we shot two scenes from the script. I always feel like that’s a real luxury, to be able to practice and try out stuff for your script that you haven’t shot yet. That’s always the most useful thing. I didn’t have time or money to do actual rehearsals. So the luxurious rehearsal-feel like that, any time you can do something like that you always learn from it. And all the people they brought in were really great. Film Independent has been super supportive from the early, early days.
And you did Fast Track too, correct?
Choe: Yeah, I actually did that before I did the Directing Lab. Again, it’s really good practice, because you really start to hone your pitch when you do it 20 times a day. I met a lot of really good companies and I’m sure some of them were tracking the project because of it. You start to realize it’s such a small world, the indie film world. Even if something doesn’t pan out from something like that, you’ll probably cross paths with that person again. There’s a community networking that happens that’s kind of unquantifiable. It’s such a people-driven industry.
Last question. What are you working on now?
Choe: Yeah, I’m working on developing a series. I don’t know if I should say about what. And I’m working on a sci-fi script for film. And Nancy comes out June 8. That’s the big thing!
Nancy opens in theaters June 8th, released by Samuel Goldwyn Films, with special guests at these screenings:
June 8th, 7:20p at the Nuart
Barry Jenkins moderating Q&A with Christina Choe
Eddie Huang (Fresh off the Boat) moderating Q&A with Steve Buscemi
Upcoming Artist Development Deadlines:
- Directing Lab, 2019 (Non-Member deadline: August 13; Extended Member Deadline: August 27)
- Documentary Lab, 2019 (Non-Member deadline: December 3; Extended Member Deadline: December 17)
- Fast Track 2018 + Sloan Fast Track Grant (Sloan Fast Track Grant deadline: June 11)