Watch Your Tone
Korean cinema is sometimes criticised for being too inspired by American cinema.But what’s so interesting is Korean filmmakers’ willingness to avoid making decisive tonal choices.
I’ve been a victim of this myself too. Or I should say, a perpetrator. I started out as a very young filmmaker and this idea of mastering a tone for your film is very important. We are awfully proud of ourselves when we master a tone. We think we’re a good filmmaker, a good writer or director.
When we see films that have a consistent tone, it does transport you into another world. You feel there’s a mastery to it, but as you get older, it’s “Enough with this tone already. Who gives a shit. Someone picked the style and they stuck with it.” I don’t remember whose quote it was I saw recently that said, “All tone is, is having one idea and sticking to it.” I’m not dismissing it because it’s challenging, especially in film. We like to give an auteur credit, but there’s a lot of people involved, and you’re also dealing with reality.
I’m in awe of a filmmaker like Wes Anderson, where every movie looks like this enclosed Wes Anderson box. His films are charming as hell – the idea that he can always make the world fit into the tone that he wants it to fit into. It’s a very extreme example, but for other people, tone is a challenging thing to achieve. It’s the least of accomplishments, or it’s an accomplishment, but what are you saying? What are you doing? What are you exploring?
Leaving tone behind to a certain degree can be exciting. When I see this in films, some filmmakers are doing it because it’s culturally acceptable, wherein in that culture, art doesn’t have to fit into a certain tone the way it does here [America].
I came to Dogville (von Trier, 2003) very late, but as a combination of cinema and Brechtian theatre, it’s fantastic. I’m not saying every movie should be like that, but the idea that we do so little of that type of exploration is frustrating.
I’ve paid for Aviva myself, and not only is it hard to get people to go see something like that, but it’s also impossible to get people to finance it. Every once in a while I try to do that, but I would have loved to live a life where I was able to do it more often.
I remember filmmaker Joachim von Trier remarking to me that the difficult reality is that you have to be allowed to make a film.
Once in a while, I’ve taken all of the money that I’ve had from making all these Hollywood movies, and made my own movie with it. I’ve done that three times now. I made a film called Death in Love that’s a very challenging and painful movie, not pleasant, but I felt I needed to make it. I made it with my life savings, and I partially funded a movie called Boarding School.
I fully financed Aviva, which for an individual was a tremendous amount of money. For a feature shot in New York, Paris, and LA, with a cast of hundreds, with dancers in the street, it was very cheap, but for an individual, it was hugely expensive.
When I make these movies, the pleasure I get is that I don’t give a shit if I make a cent. It’s the opposite when I make a movie for other people. I feel all this responsibility to make sure they don’t lose money, that the movie is accepted. When I’m making them for myself, I think, ‘Fuck it! I’m just going to do whatever the hell I want to do. This is my present to myself, it’s my creative expression, and so I’m going to do just something that I feel has whatever integrity it has for the work itself. I’m not going to worry about anything else.’
It’s an incredibly liberating feeling and I’m quite jealous of filmmakers in Europe who have government funding for the arts. We have nothing like that here, it’s a strictly capitalist system.
Is it fair to say that many of the revolutions in the cinematic medium have come from abroad? I’m not saying there haven’t been innovative contributions from American cinema, but allow me to pose an adversarial and antagonistic question.
There was a very exciting period in American cinema in the late 1960s and early ’70s that we all talk about, where American filmmakers were influenced by the changes in European cinema, took their lessons, and applied them to traditional storytelling.
The European approach to art, which in the 1800s was very conservative for many generations, started to crack with the impressionists and [Igor] Stravinsky in the early ’20s and in the ’30s. There started to become this acceptance that art was going to become challenging and different, and not necessarily part of the capitalist money-making machine.
In America, that’s never asserted itself, and certainly not in cinema. Europe led with that and there are American filmmakers that have broken free and done similar things, but the system itself has never changed here.
Frankly, in the last ten to twenty years, the corporate system has asserted itself strongly, more so than for a long time. Now the chance of their being a band like The Clash doesn’t exist anymore, because they’d have one song and the next thing you’d know is they’d have a record deal from Sony, and they’d put their song on a commercial for jeeps.
The idea that an indigenous form of art could have time to percolate and grow, to assert itself – the last time that happened was hip-hop in The Bronx, in the ’80s.
Part of experimenting is that you have to be able to fail; it’s not experimenting if you don’t. It’s very hard to experiment in our medium. There are a few brilliant filmmakers who’s work happens to fit in with what audiences like to see. The medium in general needs to fail in order for a movie to go forward. That’s what’s exciting about making your own movie.
There are going to be things in Aviva that people like, and there are going to be other things that people will say, “What the fuck was that? Why are they dancing and talking at the same time? Why’s there so much sex? What is he trying to say with it?” I’m fine with that, as long as someone found it interesting because that’s all I care about.
This interview has been edited for clarity.
Aviva is available via Curzon Home Cinema, BFI Player, and Barbican Cinema on Demand.