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18th BFI Future Film Festival, 2024

"I went to every single Korean church in my area and approached random families and asked if they wanted to be in a movie."
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Haneol (John)

WORLD PREMIERE Based on a true story. A newly immigrated Korean father goes into a deli trying to order food for his family– only with the help of a dictionary.

Hi Haneol (John), thank you for talking to TNC. How does it feel to have First Night part of this years BFI Future Film Festival?


It’s incredible. Simply amazed and excited to be part of such a program. I never would have thought First Night would go overseas but here we are. BFI FFF was recommended by a friend for the vibrant community and the people at the festival. I can not wait to meet everyone and celebrate our work together. 


With this being First Night’s World Premiere, are there any nerves ahead of the screening?


I’m actually quite nervous. I made First Night with the intention of an American audience. Ironically, the world premiere will be in Europe! I have no idea if this subject matter of alienation and immigration is talked about in the UK. I’m excited and nervous at the same time to see the reactions in the screening room. 


How important are festivals like Future Film Festival in creating a platform for short films and emerging filmmakers?


Film festivals like FFF are incredibly critical in building the next generation of emerging filmmakers. The film industry is hyper competitive and saturated with a ton of work. To have a specific space for the younger generation to express their work is priceless. FFF offers a platform for filmmakers to take the next step and unapologetically show their authentic selves. I’m just excited to be part of the ride. 


What more can be done on a local/national level to offer short films more visibility to audiences outside of the festivals circuit?


In the current film industry, the rise of streaming services have changed the whole dynamic of filmmaking. Some may argue that this uprising is negative but I see it as a golden opportunity for short films. To justify playing a short film in a theatre is and has been incredibly difficult. However, with streaming services, buying and selling films on these platforms is completely viable. Streaming services such as HOB, Netflix, and Disney have already started doing this and I can not wait for it to become more prevalent. I like to think that one day a market for short films will actually exist thus creating more opportunities of investment in short films. 


Did you have any apprehensions about making a film that draw from your own lived experiences?


I had two scripts initially. First Night and another script that was comedy, far detached from my personal experiences. I immediately wanted to pitch my comedy script because I knew it was going to be easy to make and fun. My producer pushed me to reconsider. Yes, it was incredibly difficult to shoot something that is so raw to me. However, I am forever grateful that I did follow through with First Night. Through First Night I got to untangle and process my fathers experience. Through First Night I had a moment to understand my father. I remember when I showed First Night for the first time to my father and he simply smiled and said “I feel understood.” Honestly, at that moment, I didn’t want anything more from First Night. I felt what making a film is all about for the first time. Films are made to empathise with people in my opinions and I’m so glad I got to do it with my father. 


As a South Korean/American how much does has this cultural and social identity help inform your storytelling?


It helps me inform my story drastically. The Korean American experience is vast. For example, in my view there are different types of Korean American. There are the 2nd generation, who are born and raised in the US. There are the 1.5 generation, who lived their childhood in Korea but moved in late elementary or middle school. I am a 1.5 generation. Finally, there is the 1st generation, the actual immigrants, our parents. I explain this because in today’s society all the asian film we see is made through the perspective of the 2nd or 1.5 generation because we had the privilege to become an artist. Our parents never could become a filmmaker so stories about them are forever lost. This saddens me. I want to express the lost stories of our parents' 1st generations in my stories. 


Can you tell me how First Night came about?


First Night came about when I was conversing with my parents. I wanted to know more about the struggles of immigration out of curiosity. I began to ask questions about what it was like to come to a different country and experience the American political climate. I drilled my dad about political topics, immigration laws, and much more and it came to a point where my dad laughed at me. He looked at me and stated that my generation is so knee deep in politics. He expressed that these political difficulties are very important but he stated “I feel the most scared and vulnerable when I am trying to pick up medication.” It struck me then. The language barrier is something that is not talked about deeply because my generation of Korean American can perfectly articulate English. Therefore, I began to imagine what it would be like to have absolutely no idea of the foreign country’s language. It’s pretty scary. The small things that scare us are sometimes the biggest boulders in our life. From these thoughts, I wrote First Night. 


Because of the deeply personal connections you have with this story how much flexibility do you allow yourself with the production once you started shooting?


Because the budget was incredibly low and I was working with completely non actors, and a kid, I had to have flexibility. Yes, the story is incredibly personal to me but there is a lot of room for play in filmmaking when you liberate yourself from perfectionism. The family you see in the film is an actual family. Because the area of the US I live doesn’t have many Koreans, I took an unorthodox approach in casting. I went to every single Korean church in my area and approached random families and asked if they wanted to be in a movie. I got a 99 percent no. The one family that said yes, I was exhilarated but the mom was the polar opposite of the person I wrote. So, I had to rewrite the script to cater towards the actress. This was the level of flexibility I had to give myself because the movie wouldn’t have been made. 


What’s been the most valuable lesson you’ve taken from making First Night?


First Night made me realise why we make movies in the first place. On the first private screening of First Night my father flew in across the country to watch it in the theatre with me. When the movie started I could care less of what the movie was playing. I watched my father the whole 12 minutes of the film. The subtle smiles and the intense look. After the screening he said he felt understood and hugged me. From there, I didn’t care what festivals First Night got into. In my heart, this film just got accepted by the best person in the world for me: my father. I realised we make movies to forgive each other, cry together, connect one another, and empathise. I realised that when we make movies for the right purpose none of the shiny thing matter. 


When working on a film like this how important are the creative collaborations between you and your team?


It breaks or makes the movie. I was spoiled and incredibly lucky to have an amazing team by my side every step of the way. I take an approach to put everything on the table first. Letting my DP speak about certain shots he wants and trusting his visions but at the same time protecting the integrity of the film was incredibly easy with my DP Tanner Grandstaff. My producer Jared LaCroix gave excellent inputs in every step of the creative process from drafting the script to the colour of the subtitles. We worked incredibly hard. In fact, we shot the whole film on an iPhone with me and my producer acting in it to perfectly dial in our shot list. So, yes, there is a cut of the film where I act like an 8 year old. It’s incredibly funny. 

Where did your passion for filmmaking come from?


I’ve always wanted to tell stories. From the age of 4, I would tell stories to my parents, brothers, and any relatives. It’s always been with me since I was a kid. But immigrating to America and experiencing the harsh reality of financial difficulties, I never thought to pursue anything in storytelling. All throughout my middle school and high school I participated in business only classes because I wanted to make money. I did well in school. In fact, I go to a pretty good college now with a full scholarship. I was never happy though. So, when I came to college, I took a leap and took a film class for the first time. I instantly fell in love. I made 8 short films in the span of 6 months. I was on fire. From there, I kept challenging myself as a storyteller and rekindled my love for storytelling, except through a visual medium. 

"The process of finding your voice and constantly honing your craft is what makes this whole thing worth it."

What does First Night say about you as a filmmaker and the stories you want to tell in the future?


As mentioned above, I want to tell stories that explore the 1st generation of Korean Americans. The only mainstream cinema that has done this is Minari and Pachinko. There should be more of it. First Night is just my stab at this first generation story. The stories about our parents and their struggles deserve to be shown on the screen. We have to catch up on all the stories that were buried in their generations. 


What’s the best advice you could offer fellow immigrants/filmmakers who want to share their stories on the big screen?


Forget about the big screen. Make it for you first. Liberate yourself from the idea of perfectionism to impress because your film will never be perfect. This is a beautiful thing. You get to have the opportunity to improve your storytelling. The process of finding your voice and constantly honing your craft is what makes this whole thing worth it. It’s not about getting your film shown in a big theatre. 


Lastly, don’t quit. From my observations and experiences, the people who make it in the industry aren't necessarily talented people. They are the people who never doubted and kept going. It’s not about how talented and great you are. It’s really about how long you wanna stick around.


And finally, what do you hope you audiences will take away from First Night?


I hope they get a glimpse of what it feels like to not know English. English is such a widely spoken language that it works everywhere. The words thank you, there, that, no, yes, and I all will work anywhere in the world. So, I think English speakers have no idea what it feels like to not know anything. I wanted to show the complete vulnerability of what it would feel like if you didn’t know even the simple words. The deafness that can occur in a language barrier is maddening and I want the audience to experience just that. 

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