PARK CITY, Utah — Have breakfast with writer-director So Yong Kim, tell her how remarkable her new film is, and you’ll see her put her menu in front of her face in embarrassment. But hearing compliments on the quietly exquisite “For Ellen” is something the filmmaker is going to have to get used to. It’s that good.
The film, which premiered at the Sundance Film Festival this week, stars an excellent Paul Dano as the hard-edged and distraught Joby, a twenty-something hipster rock performer who’s lived only for his music and, on the verge of an unavoidable divorce, has to decide if he can live for something else as well, his young daughter Ellen.
The role is a change of pace from Dano, and with its brooding central male character, “For Ellen” is something of a departure as well for Kim, whose previous films, “Treeless Mountain” and “In Between Days,” dealt with girls. “I didn’t really want to, I felt really terrified of starting,” she said of the new direction. “But it felt like the right thing to do at that point.”
What unites “For Ellen” with Kim’s earlier films is its focus on family, which stems from her own background. “I grew up in a really weird situation in Korea,” the director, age 42, said. “My parents divorced when I was 4 or 5, my father disappeared, and my mother went to America. For five years I lived with my grandparents or aunts, it was kind of a nomadic lifestyle.
“So I’m very interested in stories about individuals within a family, how that person is shaped by family or lack of family. They’re always like a search for me, I’m trying to find out if other people felt the same way I did. It’s a learning thing.”
One of the starting points of “For Ellen’s” script, Kim said, was “a memory of my father visiting, such a little blip, but when you are in a vulnerable phase, you tend to remember things.” So the Joby character started “as my father now, then he turned white, became younger, and when I finished he was in his late 30s, an Adrien Brody type.”
That is far from Dano’s age (he’s 27), but Kim gave him the script because she was thinking he might be good for the role of Joby’s divorce attorney. “He called back and said in his soft-spoken way that he didn’t want to step on my toes but the 1/8character Joby3/8 could be younger, that would be really interesting.” The filmmaker considered carefully, gave Dano the part and never looked back.
“Working with Paul was an incredible experience; he takes the character to another level, explores all the dimensions I could not express,” Kim said. “He totally spoiled me.”
Playing Joby’s super-serious daughter Ellen is Shaylena Manigo, discovered in a first-grade physical education class in Massena, N.Y., where the film was shot. “She was one of the most serious little girls I’d ever seen, even doing skipping and jumping jacks in P.E.,” the director remembered. “She was meticulous, she would not stop until she finished,” a trait that pays off in a wonderful scene in the film where Ellen carefully picks out a doll with her dad.
Given what a gifted filmmaker the New York-based Kim has turned out to be, it is a bit surprising to discover that she went to the Art Institute of Chicago determined to be an artist. “But a professor told me I was a horrible painter, I didn’t have the touch,” she remembers. “I had to do something else with my life and I started doing multimedia and experimental videos.”
It was at the Art Institute that she met her future husband and fellow director Bradley Rust Gray (“The Exploding Girl”). “Brad had been to USC, a proper production school, and when I saw him shooting it seemed so natural in a way, I thought ‘This is how you do it.’”
Despite her experimental background, Kim makes films she considers to be “not cutting edge, not pushing the boundaries of cinema. I really want to do traditional filmmaking very well, that’s my focus at the moment. I want to get really good at telling stories in a way that conveys emotional journeys.”
In this she is helped by Gray, who co-produced and co-edited “For Ellen” with Kim. (When he makes a movie, she returns the favor.) “It’s up and down, interesting and challenging, but it makes our work better,” said Kim, who’s hoping to find a distributor at Sundance. “I do the first cut on my films, I include all the precious pieces I love and don’t want to let go. We battle over every cut, even four frames. ‘If you cut that, he’s not going to blink. What’s what going to mean?’
“When you’re writing, you put as much as you can into the script, you don’t know what might be important. When you’re editing you take a lot out, you take out everything that distracts from the focus. A little extra fat is not necessary. It’s not perfect until everything is out that doesn’t need to be there.”