In the time before the cameras began to roll on “Driveways,” Andrew Ahn would drive around the Hudson Valley, stopping at libraries, pizza parlors and roller rinks. He had visited before, but only briefly and he wasn’t about to go into production on any movie where he wasn’t as familiar with a place as his characters would be.
“I really wanted to capture this kind of intimate community, centering it around human beings that lived there and not drone shots,” Ahn says with a laugh, just before the film made its North American premiere just south of where he filmed in New York at the Tribeca Film Festival. “That for me is a superficial way to get to know a place. I want to see the people. I want to see the people’s faces. I want to hear them talk. I want to see them play bingo. It was a real summer love affair that I had.”
At first in “Driveways,” it doesn’t seem like that feeling will extend to Cody (Lucas Jaye) and his mother Cathy (Hong Chau) when they drive into the suburbs in “Driveways,” with the nine-year-old unhappy that he’s been uprooted to spend his break from school helping to clear out the house of his late aunt. However, a thaw sets in as Cody begins to bond with his new next door neighbor Del (Brian Dennehy), similarly stranded with little to do besides head to play bingo at the local VFW Hall in his golden years, and while there’s plenty of warmth generated between the two as a friendship develops, Ahn helps it along by getting just right how the summer sun can wrap itself around you the closer you get to the Eastern seaboard as it begins to gain a grip on Cody.
Although a world away thematically and geographically from his debut film “Spa Night,” it’s not unlike the way in which Ahn rendered the sensation of dew on the skin rearranging the neurons inside the head of the teenage protagonist as the steamrooms of Koreatown in Los Angeles captured his imagination, and with just two films, he’s instilled the confidence in the audience that every image you’re seeing has seared itself into the memories of his characters for life, and more excitingly, that you’re privy to a formative moment without ever seeming as if time has stopped or started for the purposes of a story. Drawing upon an exquisite script from Hannah Bos and Paul Thureen, the director may have initially found himself at an unfamiliar distance from “Driveways” in its setting, yet closes the gap in making the experience of it so tactile emotionally as the characters of all ages grow and with the film continuing on its travels to the Seattle Film Festival this week, Ahn spoke about how he felt right at home on his second feature.
How did this come about?
A few years ago, Symbolic Exchange, the production company, reached out to me. Joe Pirro really loved “Spa Night” and we were trying to find a way to work with each other, so he sent me the script that they had been developing with the writers Hannah Bos and Paul Thureen. They’re playwrights, and they’ve written for TV, but this was the first film that they’ve written and I read it and just cried. It was so beautiful and so subtle. And it was just an intensely human story, which is so rare. At this point in the game, I had been reading scripts for a year, looking for something to direct that I didn’t write and so many were great projects, but didn’t feel like me and didn’t have this sense of respect for its characters to the degree that I really demand in my work. So when I read [“Driveways”], it was a really an exciting opportunity. And I do this thing where I pitch for films and I’ll say, “Hey, what if we made them Asian?” [and did so here] because the roles weren’t specifically written to be an Asian-American mother and son, but I could really see that as a possibility and how it could add to the story in a really meaningful but subtle way. Usually, it doesn’t work, but for the first time, it did. [laughs] James Schamus and Joe Pirro were like, “That’s a great idea” and I was astounded. That was the beginning of it.
Was it interesting directing something you didn’t write?
Actually, I’ve done more of it [now] than I have directing stuff that I have written, but it still feels new to me because the beginning of my career was so much that – the writer/director process. A lot of people told me it’s a good thing because you can be more objective with the writing if you haven’t written it yourself. I almost found myself doing the opposite where I kept giving the writers and the writing the benefit of the doubt, and you have to learn when to be generous and when to have a more critical eye. But it was just such a lovely process working with Hannah and Paul because they’re so collaborative. There were some small rewrites and then just on set, things change. Different locations pop up and [with] actors, we’d get someone who’s really exciting that doesn’t totally adhere to how they’re written in the script, and they were so collaborative in the middle of the process where we could spitball new ideas. I really loved that process and I plan to continue to direct other people’s writing — I hope to direct another film that Hannah and Paul write. They’re just so talented.
Since they come from a theater background and your visual compositions are always so striking, was it complementary having that discipline of rooms in mind?
A lot of their writing really kind of pushed me to have to think outside my comfort zone about cinematic language and visual design – even just that last scene of the movie, I don’t want to necessarily spoil things, but it’s a big scene and the blocking is very straightforward, so it was a real exercise in how do we find the beauty in this? How do we find the emotional intensity through the framing? It was a really good sign that Ki Jin Kim, my cinematographer who I worked with on “Spa Night,” [said] that he loved the script [because it meant] this is going to be visually interesting as well. It was a real challenge because often when I’m writing my own work, I’m almost already thinking about things like blocking and adding it into the script, but what was great about it is that Hannah and Paul really do understand the dramatics of a scene, so there’s always an emotional tension that I could then hook onto as a director for the actors, for the camera, for the sound design. It all was very organic.
So who was more intimidating to work with – a newcomer like Lucas Jaye or a legend like Brian Dennehy?
I was so happy to meet Lucas because just reading the script I realized that the actor that plays Cody would have to be amazing, otherwise I would have to do a lot of work as a director. Child actor performances really run a gamut. We really were just trying to find someone who could engage the viewer and have a certain kind of cinematic charisma. Our casting director Avy Kaufman sent over Lucas’ self-tape audition and just the way he was looking off-camera at who I found out [later] was his mom, reading the lines with him, was so intense and so real and he was so in the moment. When I met him for callbacks, he was so great and we did a chemistry read with Hong Chau [where] I even threw a challenge at him where I made him do a scene that he had only seen five minutes before and we went over the scene twice and then when he did it with Hong, he had the lines memorized and was fully present, so I was like, “Oh my God. I don’t have to worry about him.” Lucas was so fun to work with and enjoyed himself on set so much that at the wrap party, he cried because it felt like a great summer camp experience for him and for me, the fact that he enjoyed this experience meant the world to me, so I wasn’t scared at all.
Brian Dennehy I was intimidated by, just because I know he’s such a titan of acting and theater. We went to his home in Connecticut to do some costume fittings before the shoot and he showed our costume designer a Tony Award and I couldn’t even look at it because I was scared. [laughs] But what was so great is that Brian was so excited to work on this. I was afraid that he was going to come into this telling people how it should go, but he was so collaborative and I think that’s part of his theater training – he really loves working with a director. So it was a real pleasure and the chemistry between Brian and Lucas was really authentic. They were buddies on set and they would chat and talk and I actually had to tell Brian to be not as warm to Lucas when we were shooting some of the earlier scenes in the movie. But [there’s a scene late in the film where] we shot Brian’s coverage first and we shot Lucas’ coverage and Brian came up to me after and said, “Andrew, the kid is giving so much and I’m so inspired. Can we shoot my side over again?” The fact that he’s inspired and wants to do the work after a decades-long career is just so exciting. That was a real gift.
Were you changing things up based on the energy you were getting from the actors?
A big question for us was, what does this relationship between Cathy and her son Cody look like? Because there’s a lot of subtlety. It’s definitely not a traditional mother/son relationship, so seeing them in that chemistry read was really illuminating. What I love about Hong’s performance in the film is that you can see the dynamics of her motherhood — her frustration and the exhaustion, but at the same time, the real love and care that she has for her son. Then how Cody responds to his mom, I love it where sometimes he’s really in tune with her and then other times, he’s off in his own world. The kind of nuances of their relationship just felt really lived in and that was so immediate. There was something about the way they looked at each other, the way they understood each other, even in that chemistry read that they found each other’s energies, so it was just a really joy for me to build that and add layers to it. I was pretty sure about it and I told myself the challenge now is not to get in the actors’ way. I have to facilitate. And that’s a real skill and I feel like I was able to really facilitate the performances in this film and will continue to get better, but Lucas, Brian and Hong are world class.
When you mention keeping Brian Dennehy’s performance a little bit colder at the beginning – is it difficult to parse out the right amount of information to keep the story interesting in such a delicate drama like this?
There are a few broad strokes, like emotional shifts that I go into production understanding very well. These are things that are really inherent to the screenplay, they’re inherent to even how we cast. We really wanted Del to feel like he had these walls so that when the walls do come down, it feels more cathartic and Brian’s physicality brings those walls immediately to the screen, and really on set, I’m really searching for and gathering options. I’m a real believer in the edit room and I know that I can have a strong instinct on set, but that it might actually be totally wrong, so my job as a director is to really believe in what I’m doing, have a vision for every sequence, every scene, every shot, but at the same time, I need to cover my ass and I need to be aware that something may come up in the edit room that’s better.
A lot of those nuances and complexities were things I could see as potentials and I really put it together with my editor Katie Mcquerrey in the editing room. Something we really fine-tuned in the edit was the first act of the movie. [Now] you see this mother and son driving and you wonder where are they going, what is this house, who is this neighbor, but there are other versions of this where you know a lot more a lot sooner. There are versions of this where you knew even less, so it’s really hard to predict that when you’re shooting and it’s really important that when you shoot it, you direct it in a way that you can really modulate it in the edit.
How did Jay Wadley’s gorgeous score come into this?
I love the score so much. I started talking to Jay before we shot the movie and he read the script and had a personal connection to it because a family member of his was a hoarder and they had to clean out like an airplane hangar’s worth of stuff, so he was really emotionally plugged into it. And in our initial conversations with him, I couldn’t tell him what instruments I wanted or even necessarily the vibe, but I could tell him the emotions and he fully understood that. Once we showed him an early cut of it, we really started to find the instruments and we were really into this idea of a prepared piano, having this piano feel a little bit muffled and wounded, so there’d be this real pathos and vulnerability in the sound.
Jay’s real talent is he’s an emotional composer, and I just remember hearing some of the first cues come in and I was like, “Oh, this stuff is going to be so gorgeous.” It’s definitely subtle, but it’s not trying to shy away from emotion and that was really inspired by the material. “Spa Night” had no score at all, so this was a unique experience for me, but in “Spa Night,” I didn’t feel like score came naturally to the material in a way that “Driveways,” was begging for it. And Jay’s such an amazing collaborator, he worked until four in the morning many nights sending me many cues and I’d have to tell him to go to sleep.
What’s it been like traveling with it?
It’s so cool. Joe Pirro had reached out to me with this script two years ago, so it’s actually been a fast process and it’s a little like we’re flying by the seat of our pants. I remember we sent out an offer to Brian Dennehy and it’s like, “He’s not going to say yes.” And he said yes. And we sent out an offer to Hong Chau and I said, “She’s not going to say yes.” And she said yes. [laughs] And then I was like, “Oh, are we going to be able to find our Cody?” And then Avy Kaufman found Lucas. It was just one of those things where it was all clicking, and also for me, “Driveways” is the kind of movie I wish more people made. There’s a lot of cynical filmmaking right now, that’s trying to look cool or trying to make a point or to shock people and I think there’s a worthfulness in that, but I’m kind of a sensitive guy and I really want to see movies that are genuine and aren’t afraid to be emotional and sincere, so the fact that “Driveways” is getting this attention, it feels really special to me. It’s really hard to find these really intimate family dramas and for them to be done in a way that’s not melodramatic but really grounded, so for me I would love for people to watch “Driveways” and just have it connect to this really deep part of their humanity. For me, that’s what makes cinema so special is that it’s such a way to connect with human beings.
“Driveways” will next screen at the Seattle Film Festival at the SIFF Uptown on June 7th at 7 pm and June 8th at 12:30 pm.