Following his acclaimed debut drama Spa Night, director Andrew Ahn has expanded his circle of collaboration on his newest film Driveways, including: James Schamus, Hannah Bos, Paul Thureen, Avy Kaufman, Ki Jin Kim, Hong Chau, Brian Dennehy, and Christine Ebersole. With Driveways, Ahn is poised to grow his audience beyond industry admirers to include audiences who long for soulful filmmaking.
Driveways debuted in February at the Berlin International Film Festival where it was nominated for Best Feature Film Teddy Award. Written by Hannah Bos and Paul Thureen, Ahn directs Hong Chau as Kathy, a woman who learns her late sister was a pack rat when cleaning out her home. While Kathy cleans and works remotely as a medical transcriptionist, her eight-year-old son Cody (Lucas Jaye) befriends Del (Brian Dennehy), a retired man who lives next door and watches each day pass from the loneliness of his empty home.
Ahn’s film was chosen as one of five for the Tribeca Film Festival’s inaugural Critics’ Week. We spoke with him about his first time not writing his own script, working with Hong Chau and Brian Dennehy, and the likelihood of directing a queer take on Bambi for Disney.
The Film Stage: How was directing Hannah Bos and Paul Thureen’s Driveways screenplay different from directing your own?
Andrew Ahn: Directing something that I hadn’t written is something that I practiced a little bit before on the TV show Disclosed, but it is different when it’s a film. There’s a certain kind of objectivity that you can have with the material when you haven’t written it. But I also experience the opposite in a way where sometimes I was more generous with the material, where if something was confusing to me I would really try and find some reason behind the confusion. I would really investigate the material. If I had written it myself, I might just be like, “Oh this doesn’t work, let me just rewrite it.” I think I was, in a weird way, both more generous and more critical of the work at the same time. It’s definitely a process. What I love about Hannah and Paul’s writing is that they understand characters so well and the dramatics of a scene. There’s a real tension to their work but in a beautifully subtle way, and they are doing things that I wouldn’t be able to do. I never would have written Del’s (Brian Dennehy) monologue because I would be too intimidated by it. But they wrote it, and it was beautiful. So that was such a pleasure, to direct things I never would have written for myself.
I was keeping an eye on the movie at Berlin, and wasn’t it up for a Teddy?
I don’t even know exactly. [Laughs.]
I was watching the movie and I was like, “Why would this be up for a Teddy?” I mean, just because you’re gay?
I think it’s an interesting aspect of the film, that is dealt with very subtly.
Even more so than We The Animals.
Oh, yeah. I’ll say that I think if a straight director were to direct the same script, it might not even register that there’s anything queer about it. I think it’s a little bit a blessing and a curse that everything I make is going to be seen through a queer lens. I think actually it’s totally cool, but it’s something that I kinda don’t have control over. It’s how an audience understands every movie I make it’s going to be in the context of my career, if they are familiar with it, and the context of my identities. For me, I would love to call this a queer movie, but it’s also kind of not up to me. It’s more queer in sensibility than it is in storyline. Cody (Lucas Jaye) is 8, turns 9 in the movie. Does Cody grow up to be queer? I kind of hope so. But it’s also really not up to me. It’s not my call. Is Cody a sensitive kid? Yes. That sensitivity is something I really connected to was part of my coming of age as a young gay man. So it’s an interesting thing. It’s one of those elements of the film that’s going to change from viewer to viewer.
Kathy’s (Hong Chau) tone in the movie is worried. Worry is her life. But there’s that one scene where she’s like “I want to take a break.” So she goes to the bar and a guy invites her home she but says she has surgery in the morning. It’s how she fends off the guy, but I feel like it reveals a desire for a better life.
That is a brief moment, it was a later addition to the script, and I really love it because it just feels so real in the situation where Kathy’s cleaning out this house and her son is independently navigating this new environment. I feel like she would get a phone call that would trigger her to go, “I need a fucking drink,” and go to this shitty dive bar. It felt really authentic to this moment in time. It’s a really interesting episode because it can be read so many ways. Does she go home because of some sense of responsibility? Does she go home because she doesn’t want this getting drunk, flirting with guys life anymore? There’s so many ways to look at it but to me, it’s important she exercise a sense of agency. That this is her life and that line that you mentioned where she mentions “I have surgery” in the morning, whether or not it’s true or that it’s a joke, she can say it with conviction and be the one in charge of her path. So, I really love that sequence for that little bit of seeing a woman’s independence, a mother’s independence. I also love the sequence because Hong Chau is surprisingly good at Big Buck Hunter. I kind of want to write an action film for her because she is so badass with that shotgun. I’m really glad you mentioned that sequence because I think it is really special.
Brian Dennehy said he played Del cynically, but I read it more that Del is tired and he’s hurt. Was that cynical/wounded person clear in the script or was that was Brian brought?
That was something that was very inspired by the script. I think it was really organic to this character and his journey. I think Del at the beginning of the film is really closed off and slowly allows himself to be vulnerable through his friendship with Cody. Even when we were thinking about who to cast, we wanted to find someone who could physicalize that journey the best. What I love about Brian is that he looks like a man who is closed off and has a pretty tough exterior. What makes Brian an amazing actor is this intense emotionality. So for me, it was about modulating those two aspects of Brian as an actor to carve out this transformation. I think what Brian did with the role was so extraordinary, making that journey not feel one dimensional but truly layered and I think it’s so great that this opening up is not without its hitches in the movie. At the end of the film I love how Brian gives us access to Del in ways we haven’t seen before, but we can still see he’s holding something back which makes it more tragic. It’s such a beautifully modulated performance. He deserves roles like this on film and hasn’t always had the opportunity. So it was a real honor to work with him.
The movie feels like you’re watching a documentary of some people’s lives. You could have added thirty minutes of plot to move things forward, to hold the audience’s hand. But the way Ki Jin Kim shot it, it’s so full bodied, that you had enough to explore in each scene. It felt like it’s the viewer’s job to put the pieces together, but that kind of stuff works so well in movies.
I’m glad that you appreciate that aspect of the film. I think that hand-holding would only make this film feel more cliche or make it feel like other movies that we’ve seen before. I think what makes this film feel special is it’s kind of intense focus on these humans and not necessarily a plot. I do think that there’s a plot in here that is very satisfying. I think it’s more of a plot than Spa Night in a way, but I think it’s one of those things that as filmmakers, we all agree that the priorities should be these people, these human beings, the situation. I think that’s what gives the film that kind of quality of watching real life. Having it feel like a documentary in ways. I think the work that my editor Katie Mcquerrey did in the editing room was so special. There were many things we could have done to modulate the plot in the edit, we had shot stuff that would have explained something sooner. In watching the movie, it was like, “It doesn’t matter.” Because we are interested in Cody and Kathy and Del, we don’t need to know too much about Cody’s father. You get one phone call and you get everything you need to know in the tone of his voice. It was a real treat to focus on emotion and character and make a really narratively economical movie.
What makes this so great for you is that actors really yearn for these kinds of parts. I mean, Hong Chau saw Spa Night and she said, “I’ll do anything you want to do.” Maybe working with these folks you could land Disney’s live-action Bambi. Queer Bambi.
Oh, I would totally do that. I would totally make queer Bambi. [Laughs.] That was one of the really cool things about Hong is that she saw Spa Night in the theaters. It’s not like she watched it when she got my letter and was like, “Who is this guy?” She is very aware of what is happening in American independent cinema, international cinema. When we were in Poughkeepsie shooting Driveways she was at the theater every weekend seeing like, Eighth Grade and these indie films that I think a lot of actors overlook. So the fact that she’s seeking that material out as an audience, it really gives you a feeling of her taste as an actor. She’s amazing, and I love working with her.
Brian refers to Lucas as “the kid.” I know he doesn’t mean it in a bad way, but he calls him “the kid” and it’s so funny.
Brian and Lucas’s friendship on set was so authentic. I was really scared that they wouldn’t like each other and that would reflect in the movie but they were fast friends. I could tell from the first scene that Lucas shot with Brian that Brian was really impressed with Lucas. Brian made a joke about how Lucas knew his line better than Brian did. That respect for a young actor was such an asset to the film. That this friendship feels authentic and heartfelt and that’s really the core of the movie. There was one scene when Del tells Cody he’s moving to Seattle, we had shot Brian’s coverage first and then we shot Lucas’s coverage. After we finished, Brian came up to me and said, “The kid was so good. He was giving me so much. Can I shoot my side over again?” The fact that he was inspired by this young actor and motivated to do better after a decades-long career: he wasn’t going to phone this in, he was really going to try. To me that was astounding. That’s so special.
Brian saying “the kid” that’s Brian-isms. I really love every time in the film he says, “My daughter and her lady friend,” and that’s the kind of line where if most actors tried to deliver that it would look really bad and fake, but you believe Brian Dennehy. He’s a man of a certain age, and that’s a real asset to the film. I’m so glad that we didn’t cast a younger actor and try to age them to the eighty years old we needed Del to be. It’s in his experience, it’s in his face, it’s just a real portrait of an elderly person that isn’t romanticized or made cute.
Brian made a joke that Disney made an offer to Lucas but they low-balled him. Was that real?
I’m not totally sure. [Laughs.] I love that Brian mentions that. Lucas is definitely such a special talent. I saw his self tape. Our casting director Avy Kaufman sent me his tape and immediately I was like, “Ooh, this kid has got something.” We did a callback with him, and then we did a chemistry read between him and Hong and I threw a challenge his way where I made him do a scene with Hong that he only had 5 minutes to look at before and he nailed it. I really think that his career is gonna take off and that he’s a real actor for life. He’s got the skills to transition from being a kid actor into being an adult actor. I was so impressed. A lot of kid actors when they finish a scene they will look at the camera or look at me, like “Oh, did I do a good job?” What I loved about Lucas is that he would stay in the moment until I yelled cut and that’s really hard to do. A lot of kids are really uncomfortable staying in the moment. They get uncomfortable looking at another actor’s eyes. But that was something I could see between Hong and Lucas that they were really affecting each other. I think he is going to have a great career, but I don’t know anything about a Disney offer. [Laughs.]
What’s the life of this movie? Where does it go next?
We’re going to play a couple more festivals. I think this is a film people will love to see on the big screen. Just to hear it and be absorbed by it, it will be a special experience. It’s interesting how you mentioned earlier how Brian said he played Del kind of cynically. We can kind of argue the definition of what cynical is, but I think the film’s point of view is not cynical. I think there is a lot of filmmaking that is cynical, that is made just to shock, to look cool, that’s afraid to be emotional. This is a movie that I really wore my heart on my sleeve and I wanted it to feel human and respectful, and I think that’s filmmaking that will touch people’s hearts. I think that it will resonate with people in a way… other films might superficially entertain, but I think Driveways will stay with people. We are figuring out distribution now. I hope to do more travel, talk to more people, do more press. I really want the best for the movie.
Driveways played at Tribeca Film Festival and is now available digitally.