In Gook, two Korean American brothers, Eli and Daniel, share a strong and unlikely bond with an 11-year-old African American girl named Kamilla. This bond, along with everything else, is put to the test during the start of 1992 L.A. riots as the two brothers are forced to protect their family shoe store amidst the rising chaos.
The film is written, directed, and stars Justin Chon (Twilight) as Eli in a film about the L.A. riots, an event he revisits from his childhood. Justin arrived to New York to promote his film, and I had a quick chat with him about his experience making his second feature film as well what Gook means to him.
JP: Hello, to start things off, could you introduce yourself; who are you and what do you do? And what type of person you are?
CHON: My name is Justin Chon, and I am an actor, director, writer, and producer. I am talking to you because I directed and starred in a called Gook. The type of person I am, I would say, I’m against the grind, against the stream, constantly. I have an agenda to tell or create stories, whether through film roles, through acting roles, or scripts. You know, pieces of art that I think is important and filtered through my perspective, which just happens to be an Asian American perspective.
JP: In one word, how would you describe Gook?
JP: Why did you specifically want to tell this story? How did your background as an Asian American influence the reason you wanted to tell this story?
CHON: The backdrop is the 1992 L.A. riots. There’s a lot of racial tension in the film between Koreans and blacks. It’s relevant because of all the police shootings that are happening now, and twenty-five years later we’re still examining that, and it being the 25th anniversary of the L.A. riots, it’s a good milestone to talk about these things. But, at its core, the film’s, the real essence of it is the friendship between this store owner, Eli, and a neighborhood eleven-year-old African American girl.
This story, in particular, I wanted to tell because my dad had a store in Paramount, and we were looted the last day of the riots, so it’s a very personal connection and experience to the event, and I think it’s really important that all sides of the story are told, so you know, there are other films that were made about this, and I think it’s important that we examine, you know the white and black relationship. But also I think, this is story is valuable — it’s told from a Korean American’s perspective. But also, how I just view the world in general, not just it being an Asian American film, it’s just as much an African American film, as half of the cast is black. It’s just my perspective on the time and place.
There are a few other L.A. riots films. I thought it was important that the Korean perspective was represented in the fabric of the stories. Also, it’s important that Asian Americans are represented and at the table. Platforms like Sundance give you the opportunity to present and talk about your films. I feel it’s something that’s very positive that the Asian American community and also in general, minority filmmakers to tell stories through their lens.
JP: How did you find your cast members?
CHON: David So, who was my brother (Daniel), was a Youtuber I’ve been friends with for about six, seven years, and the role is written for him. The Korean store owner across the street was played by my actual dad (Sang Chon). He was a child actor in South Korea from ten to twenty-five. Curtiss Cook Jr., who played Keith, he’s a New York native who lives in Jamaica, Queens. I found him through fellow filmmaker friends. Kamilla, played by Simone Baker, I found her, in South Central, in the Fernando Pullum Arts Center, and I found her because I wanted to find someone who was very genuine and wasn’t too polished and rehearsed. She’s just, very talented, and a force of nature that I felt was gravitational and brought a lot of levity to the film.
JP: How did you manage those relationships between the cast members on set?
CHON: I did a lot of rehearsals. We worked out any issues they had or challenges we needed to work on that we took care of them before we started shooting, so on set it was pretty smooth. In terms of management, that’s just my job as the director, you just figure out ways to manage different personalities. A lot of that was worked out through rehearsal.
JP: This was shot in L.A., correct?
CHON: Yeah, shot in Gardena, between Compton and Englewood.
JP: How was the production experience in general? Would you do it again?
CHON: It was great! I mean, I got to make my own film that I believed in, I’ve done one film before this, but this was more of a passion project than that was. I’m really proud of that, but that was like a practice run for me to make this film, and if I were to do it again, absolutely. I’m a creator, so I’ll be acting and directing and writing. No plans to retire, so this is what I’ll be doing. As an actor, I’ve been acting for sixteen years, I’m here in New York, shooting a show for ABC called Deception, and my hope is between seasons I can hopefully make a film in New York. That’s the plan.
JP: What films were you influenced by for this film?
CHON: For this film, the most direct influence was a French film called La Haine (1995). It’s also in black and white. It’s about three friends who are very angry about this guy losing intensive care that the police beat so that’s he’s going to die. I would say that that’s the most direct influence for this film.
JP: Is it also why Gook is in black and white?
CHON: There’s a few reasons, but that is a big reason it is in black and white.
JP: What’s harder? Getting started or finishing the product?
CHON: Just as equal. Both are just as hard. Getting started is very hard because you need the money to make it, and finishing is very hard because you need exhibitors to play the film and you need to get distribution, and it needs to make its money back, so every single step of the way is very, very difficult.
There’s the inception of the idea, and it’s about mining it and developing it over time and outlining, and then after outlines, you write the first draft, and then after the first draft, you do a ton of rewrites. Then, financing, then, actual production and casting, and then, location scouting and budgeting, and finding the right people for the team like the cinematographer, production design, and after that, it’s how you’re gonna roll out your film, do you have an audience for it. Then what’s the proper way to advertise your film? I don’t think there’s any comparison about what stage it’s supposed to be easy.
JP: From your experience, what would you tell developing new filmmakers out there?
CHON: I think, go out and create. Go out and make stuff. You learn through failure and through experience, and the only way you can experience making films is to actually do it. These days, with technology, you can learn how to make films on your own, I don’t think you necessarily need film school, it is a luxury for time, but I think going out and shooting yourself is probably the fastest way to learn. Sound equipment, you can just get a Zoom, (Sony) A7S, if you can’t afford an A7S, I mean, Tangerine (2015) was shot on an iPhone. There’s really not an excuse for not going out and making something, I think tools are accessible and everything on the Internet now, you can troubleshoot almost anything. Special effects or storytelling, script phase to production. There’s information online. So I think that’s the best advice I could possibly give.
JP: Outside of filmmaking (and work), what do you do?
CHON: Besides work, like acting, I surf. I watch of a ton of movies. I really enjoy what I do, it’s not really a job to me. I watch films constantly. I’m married, so I spend a lot of time with my wife, and whatever she wants to do. We travel a lot. I was just in Germany, Copenhagen, Amsterdam, and I’ll take any opportunity to travel and experience different cultures. I’m constantly interested in people and what they’re about, and always looking for inspiration from life in general.
JP: What sort of areas would like to explore in the future, in terms of future projects or films?
CHON: So right now, I’m writing a script with this guy, Salvador Paskowitz, we were in Age of Adaline (2015), and I’m doing a story with him. I’m doing a book adaptation called Counting By 7s, and then I’m also doing a film about international adoption.
JP: Any other comments you want to make about Gook?
CHON: It comes out August 18th, in L.A., at the archive in L.A. Live, and then expands to a bunch of Regals across the nation. Locally here, it’ll be at Union Square, August 25th. If you care about great stories but also minorities in film, I think it’s a great film that, in general, is a very heartwarming film that anyone from ten years old to seventy years old can relate with, so I highly suggest, highly hope and plead that people go and watch the film.