“This wasn’t my idea,” said Bobby Choy, as he strapped on his guitar Saturday night, though if it was, the perpetually bashful artist probably wouldn’t tell you. Shaking up the usual filmmaker introduction for his directorial debut “Fiction and Other Realities,” the self-deprecating singer/songwriter and now writer/director gingerly stepped up to the mic, apologizing to the crowd for requiring them “to read a little on a Saturday night” – though for much of the audience at the L.A. Asian-Pacific Film Festival, you suspect the subtitles may not have been required – and just after blaming the producers for putting him up to it, announced, “I’m going to sing a song about following your dreams – it’s called ‘Never Going to Happen.'”
As fans of Choy’s musical alter ego Big Phony already know, what came next was an elegantly wrought ode to failure studded with witticisms that sneak up on you as the beauty of the song threatens to carry you away, and it’s fair to say nothing’s been lost in translation with his move to filmmaking with an utterly disarming and charming romance. With “Fiction and Other Realities,” Choy slips into a role not far removed from his own life, playing a Korean-American musician who tags along with his friend’s band Paper Kings as they tour Asia with a stop in Seoul, where he’s intrigued to learn more about his father who recently passed away. However, there’s less time to ruminate on the past than he might’ve guessed when he comes across a busker (Hwa Young-Im) with a similarly idiosyncratic sense of musical phrasing as he does, and it isn’t before long that the two are dueting at open mic nights with potential for coupling off-stage as well.
Undeniably sweet but flavorful because of the spice added by its setting in Seoul, “Fiction and Other Realities” is, like much of Choy’s work, much more sophisticated than it appears at first, unfolding as a simple love story that comes to include issues of identity for the Korean-American who feels comfortable for once in Seoul even if he can’t speak the language perfectly. But told with considerable warmth, Choy’s debut (co-directed with Steve Lee) makes one feel at home no matter where in the world you come from and as “Fiction and Other Realities” swept audiences off their feet at the L.A. Asian-Pacific Film Festival, he spoke about getting the nudge to take a crack at mixing artistic pursuits, coordinating a cross-continental shoot and, with a cameo from his co-star Todd Goble, a particularly crazy day of filming when his prayers were answered.
How did this come about?
Bobby Choy: It’s nearly about three years since the conception of the film, [which] seems like a long time. I’m a singer/songwriter first, and over the years, I’ve licensed a lot of music to films and I always found that really fascinating and a lot of fun to go see my music on the big screen. I wrote my first song when I was 14 and I’m turning 40 on Monday, and I got married and I felt like I needed to step up in my career, do something bigger with my music and I thought maybe [I should] make a film where I can inject my own work. I live in Seoul [where] music films [such as] “Once” and “Begin Again” actually do a lot better in Korea than they do in the U.S., so I did some research on that and decided totake a shot at writing a script.
I was in a movie called “K-Town Cowboys,” so I had a little bit of knowledge, and it gave me a little bit of confidence to just try it at least, and I wrote the script on my flight back from my wedding. The first draft I wrote was about 120 pages and then I sent that out to all my filmmaker friends in Los Angeles, where I lived for about nine years — [to] screenwriters to directors to actors, and I kept getting feedback for a year to where I got it to a place where I actually could feel confident about making a film.
Did you know from the start you’d be starring in this?
Bobby Choy: I did think about if we could get someone else to star in it, but because it’s semi-autobiographical and all the live music is basically my songs, I thought I’ll give it a shot. I tried the acting in “K-Town Cowboys” and it was fun. It was very nervewracking and I give it up to all actors for what they sacrifice to do what they do. I really, really worked hard to try to get to a place that I could play myself. [laughs] You should be able to play yourself easily, but even that’s difficult, I learned in this process. I asked a lot of advice of friends and I had a lot of people watching my back — Seijin [Park], our producer, I met through a friend, and I couldn’t have gotten anything done without this guy. It just seemed like perfect timing when we met.
Did it help having your music at the core of the project?
Bobby Choy: The music helped me navigate the script and where the storyline was going, and [it was] something that [made it] comfortable for me — to actually pick all the music before I wrote the script. I picked 50 songs and just whittled it down to about 25 and followed an emotional curve and I got that cue from watching those John Carney movies that are music-centered like “Once” and “Begin Again.” I watched every single music film I could think of, just to get an idea of what I was taking on. [Someone sits down at the table.] This is Todd Goble, who plays my best friend in the film. He’s an L.A. actor, but we flew him out to Seoul and he spent a good couple weeks out there.
Todd, what was that like for you?
Todd Goble: It was one of the best experiences of my life. I didn’t know a lot about the Korean culture before this, but it was a humbling opportunity to go over there and to learn so much about a way of life I didn’t necessarily know. I got a call from Bobby and he says, “You have to come out in four days” and I had to drop everything I was doing out here, but it was amazing and beautiful. There were a lot of things I got to learn that I just would’ve never expected.
What was it like facilitating a cross-continental shoot? I understand Steve Lee, your co-director was instrumental in pulling it off.
Bobby Choy: Steve Lee, a friend of mine who also lives in Korea, but he’s also a U.S. citizen, is actually one of the few filmmakers I knew in Korea and I needed someone to really protect the Korean-American story in my film because we’re shooting it in Korea with a completely Korean cast and crew. I didn’t have the confidence to direct a crew that only speaks Korean and Steve is fluent in Korean, so he was a perfect fit for bringing on as a co-director. It was necessary for me because I didn’t even know what goes on on a set for a director, so we did it together and I think it worked out.
Was there a particularly crazy day of shooting?
Bobby Choy: Every day was crazy. “K-Town Cowboys” was a union film [in America], so we had a lot of rules we had to abide by and in Korea, it’s a little different. We had days where we shot for 20 hours, and it’s a different grind there. They seemed to be on a different level in terms of pumping out material and projects and I feel like they want the long hours, so it was really interesting to watch the crew want to work 20-hour days because they just wanted to get the project over with, maybe. [laughs]
There’s one specific day where it was just raining all day and we were filming on a rooftop…
Todd Goble: It got super, super cold and the extras were amazing. But we’d be in the middle of the shot and there were like a hundred people there and [people were] like, “To hell with this. I’m going home.” And then we’d do the next shot and the extras would change, so we had to deal with the weather, we had to deal with the cold and then the extras, and they’re right being upset because they’re freezing, so that was super crazy. Then we were doing this song, [and] when you play the songs, they do them twice as fast [because on camera they’re slowed down for effect] and I remember Bobby and I were playing and I didn’t know we were going twice as fast, so [when] I went twice as fast [to match] the beat of the song, I got so dizzy I fell off the riser that we were shooting on.
Bobby Choy: Because it was slow motion, we were trying to get that effect. I just remember we were holding onto everybody [on set] – [all those] extras that night and we were five minutes away from having to send everyone home and losing a lot of money for losing a full day of filming. I remember just getting on my knees praying to God, just saying “Please, just help us, please.” And the skies opened wide. It was crazy. It stopped raining. Even the rooftop dried up and we were able to shoot that entire night.