Interview with "Seoul Searching" Director Benson Lee

March 10, 2015


Benson Lee’s Seoul Searching (2015) made its premiere at the 2015 Sundance Film Festival in January and will be the Opening Night film of the 2015 CAAMFest on March 12, 2015. The film is a heartfelt, hilarious and often moving 80s period piece that is also a cinematic love letter to John Hughes movies but infused with a fresh Korean American sensibility, a story set in a summer camp that unites Korean teens from all cultural backgrounds for the purpose of teaching them about their heritage. In real-life, the program was shut down after two years because the kids were too unruly. The film provides a glimpse of why the camp was both such a wild experience and “the best summer” of Director/Writer Benson Lee’s life.

You were at Sundance in 1998 with your feature film "Miss Monday". Now you are back in 2015 with "Seoul Searching."
What has changed about the festival since then?

Sundance back in '98 was definitely less celebrity and sponsorship driven than now. Back then, you could walk into a random bar on main street (on the first weekend of the festival) and just chill with other filmmakers, actors, producers etc without dealing with massive crowds. It also had less "swag" and TMZ paparazzi and was way more relaxed and indie oriented.

What has remained the same?

Sundance has always championed indie filmmakers to the extent that "Sundance" is now synonymous with "U.S. indie film." The festival has always placed the indie filmmaker in the spotlight and played a profound role in the evolution of American indie film. In addition, they continue to champion minority filmmakers. Every time I go to Sundance, I'm always so happy to meet indie filmmakers from such diverse backgrounds.

What are your thoughts on the state of Asian American cinema today? E.g. where it has been, where does it still need to go?

We've come a long way but we have a much longer way to go. What excites me though is we have more Asian Americans working in the field than ever before. There's actually no shortage of talent in front of and behind the camera. What's also important is we have more AA decision makers i.e. directors, producers, and executives who have the power to facilitate movies and television with AA themes and leads. The most important thing we need to do now -- IS WORK TOGETHER. If we cant do that on both a creative and executive level, we're doomed.

I was particularly impressed by the performances, especially how talented actors such as Justin Chon and Jessika Van seemed to be perfectly cast in their roles. What was your audition process like?

It was a combination of going directly to the actor, holding auditions in person, and holding an online casting call through Facebook.

I have also heard that some of the cast are non-actors – particularly the scene-stealing Esteban Ahn. What was working with them like?

I personally get a thrill from working with non-actors because it's like polishing a rock into a gem. But this requires a lot of rehearsal which we were fortunate to have. It's also through rehearsals where we get to test the script and improve it through our collaboration. This was actually my favorite part of making the film because everything after that was pure hell.

What was the writing process like?

Actually the evolution of the script didn't involve a lot of rewrites but rather a continuous process of condensing the script. My first draft was almost 200 pages which makes for a 5 hour movie. I of course modified and improved scenes, but it was all under the primary mission of condensing the script.

Could you speak on the influences of 80s cinema on your film and why you decided to use that genre as a stylistic framework?

I'm an 80's child and the good teen films from that era made a lasting impression on me. Yet, I couldn't stand the depiction of Asians in any of those movies. My goal was to pay homage to John Hughes and capture the spirit, style and attitude of that era with Asian characters as the leads.

I also appreciated the 80s costume design by Shirley Kurata – how did you work with her to achieve the wardrobe look?

We studied a lot of 80's films, videos on youtube, and went through a lot of high school yearbooks.

What are your general thoughts of certain films being made today imitating some of the visual trends from the 80s? (E.g., Drive, The Guest, Cold in July, Spring Breakers, Turbo Kid) Do you think there is still a strong nostalgia for that period or John Hughes films? I also particularly liked the Don Johnson or Miami Vice reference towards the end of the movie.

I've only seen about half those films and I don't have an opinion on the 80's references they make. I personally don't think a strong nostalgia for the 80's exists, but when it's there and done properly, there's a lot of people who appreciate it, which is why they're re-releasing the "Breakfast Club"!

Although there is a comic tone throughout the film, I was also moved by many of the emotional scenes. What stands out to me is after the fight breaks out between the Korean and Japanese students, we realize that the Japanese students are actually Japanese citizens of Korean ancestry, no different than the Summer Camp attendees. The side-story about Kris finding her real birth mother was also particularly poignant. Were these real experiences?

Yes, the fight with the Japanese kids actually took place in the summer camp I attended. The adoptee character did not exist. I decided to include an adoptee in the story because they're an important part of the Korean diaspora who are quite often overlooked.

I was particularly impressed by your kickass soundtrack, which almost feels like another character in the film (tracks include The Clash's "Should I Stay or Should I Go", Spandau Ballet's "True", Erasure's "A Little Respect" and Art of Noise's "Moments of Love" that plays perfectly in a very spiritual scene with a giant Buddha statue). As a director, how does music figure into your creative process, in either storyboarding or putting scenes together in your head?

Music has always played a very important role in my work. It quite often serves as the fuel to the scene, and yes, to some extent it is a character.

Are you like Tarantino in that you know exactly what song to use in certain scenes?


Did you use any originally composed music?

Yes, we have a whole underscore outside of the soundtrack music created by my composer Woody Pak.

Do you have plans to release the soundtrack on iTunes?

Yes. When? I'm not sure.

Craft questions: How long did it take to shoot the film? Camera used? Editing program?

7 weeks. Arri Alexa Studio. Final Cut Pro (FCP) 7.

Any interesting stories of crazy things happening on set?

Not really. Everyday was hell.

What is next for the film?

Film festival circuit and then a theatrical release in the summer.

What is next for you as a writer/director?

I have a studio project, another indie film, and a drama series in the works.

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Timothy Tau

Timothy Tau

Timothy Tau is an award-winning writer and filmmaker and was recently named by PolicyMic magazine as "6 Young Asian-American Filmmakers Who Are Shattering America's Asian Film Bias." His short story "The Understudy" won Grand Prize in the 2011 Hyphen Asian American Writer's Workshop Short Story Contest and is published in the 2011 Issue of Hyphen Magazine as well as online. His short story, "Land of Origin" also won 2nd Prize in the 2010 Playboy College Fiction Contest (See October 2010 Issue of Playboy Magazine). Both stories are being developed into feature film projects.