Setting as a character is a cliché that’s been thrown around for years, but it’s rarely more true than in the case of Kogonada’s finely crafted and evocative debut, Columbus. The story of two people (John Cho and Haley Lu Richardson) brought together by the modernist architecture of Columbus, Indiana; the film at first uses the city’s unique backdrops as a conversation starter before delving into each character’s complex associations with the city itself.
Columbus is a stunningly assured first film, filled with master shot compositions, fastidious production design, and rhythmically paced in a way that feels mathematical without feeling cold. But it’s even more impressive when considering the performances from its lead performers, Cho and Richardson, who adeptly depict a deepening relationship, while also continuously hinting at deeper, more fraught emotional undercurrents.
Like the film itself, Cho’s performance especially has to carefully walk this line between self-consciousness and prickliness. As Jin, Cho strikes a classic movie star presence, delivering each line with a firm, upright swagger – but his cool exterior is always on the verge of breaking. It’s not a showy performance, but one built from gestures and glimpses of vulnerability. The most telling moments are less climactic conversations than quick sequences where Jin mutters to Korean by himself in his ailing father’s home or fumbles with a usually reliably calming cigarette.
Cho has had a long, prolific career playing everything from scholarly stoners to William Shakespeare, but it’s clear talking to him that Columbus was an entirely different experience. In time for the release of the film, we talked to him about why the filming felt like being under a spell, playing a character that doesn’t respond to cultural stereotypes, and the influence of The 400 Blows on the film.
The Film Stage: I think the best place to start is with the city of Columbus. It’s such a big part of this film to the extent that the city’s unique architecture is featured in almost every scene. Were you familiar with Columbus, Indiana before filming? And how did you react to being there?
John Cho: No, and it’s hard to believe until you’re there, really. It’s so many works within an incredibly small geographical area. And it’s also just that this town pops up out of nowhere. You drive through the cornfields and past the big box stores, and then this little town appears. In a way, even when you’re there, you can sort of drive by without noticing if you’re hurrying. These modernist works, they don’t scream, “look at me.” They’re there for function. And that’s Casey’s (Haley Lu Richardson) thing is that she thinks that nobody in the town notices anything about where they live. I wasn’t aware of Columbus, Indiana. I thought it was Columbus, Ohio that we were going to. Actually, I remember wondering about the buildings thinking, “Is this all really in one place?” I googled Columbus, Ohio, and was trying to look up these buildings [laughs] and feeling confused. I feel like the places, they’re characters in a sense that they allow Jin and Casey to talk about themselves, and talk about their parents, and to reveal who they are without having to explicitly reveal who they are.
Yeah, the architecture is constantly in the background, but as you’re saying, they double as a device for conversation. I’m a midwesterner, but I had the same reaction where I at first thought that the film took place in Columbus, Ohio. I realize now that Columbus, Indiana is far more exciting than Columbus, Ohio.
Well, I don’t want to slam Columbus, Ohio, but you can.
Sure, sure. I’ll keep that off the record then. [Laughs] How did you first become involved with the film? Were you familiar with Kogonada’s video essays, or his other work?
I wasn’t. Chris Weitz, who’s our producer, knew Kogonada. I think he met him through Twitter as a matter of fact. Chris is a friend of mine, and someone I’ve worked with before, and he sent me the script. And that’s how it got rolling. He might have just said, “Let me know what you think?” And it was just a beautiful, unusual script, and the writing was economical, but really felt. It was unusual in the moments it selected. I closed the script, and I was so enchanted by it, but I was also worried. I was like, “Who’s going to direct this? Who is this person, Kogonada? This is going to be such a difficult film.” In my mind, it required an auteur who had like a whole bunch of money and power, and who was going to be able to resist everyone and say, “No, no, no, we’re going to do it this way.” I was thinking, a Richard Linklater, a Wes Anderson. So then I looked up Kogonada’s work, and I was like, “Oh wow, this is an auteur. This is an artist.” And that’s when I really started getting excited.
I think that singularity you speak of is really present in the film. There’s such a palpable energy in the film. Was this an especially unique shooting experience given the location and how intimate the script was?
Yeah, just about everything in this movie was different than just about any other movie. I don’t recall a project with this much esprit de corps. If people were there, they wanted very badly to be there. It was bare bones filmmaking. It kind of felt as though being in this town and shooting all these locations, it sort of felt like we were under a spell for the summer just going from one place to another like this. We stayed in that town so we never left it. It was unusual to the way we worked. We didn’t do a whole lot of coverage because Kogonada knew what he wanted. So in a way, the schedule – the indie situation – could have broken us if we were going for conventional coverage, but we would have these long scenes that we would play out in these wide [angles]. And we were able to devote enough time to them because we didn’t have to do a lot of coverage that we weren’t going to use anyway.
There’s such an elegant deliberation to the unexpected angles Kogonada picks. I have to think it would be a little weird on set when you — for instance — find out he’s going to shoot a long take that plays out entirely in a mirror. They work exceptionally well in the film, but was there a relationship of trust you had to have with Kogonada in these moments?
Your reading is one way to understand it, but the other way to understand it is that he’s having a whole lot of trust in his actors. A lot of people would plan on constructing the performance in the editing room, and therefore get gobs and gobs of coverage, so you could sort of piece together a performance. But he was very present, and was looking for a performance on the day. So in a way, he was trusting us. He’s saying, “I need you to give me this performance, and I’m not going to put it together in the editing room later on. I need you to give it today.” So I found it empowering.
There’s a comparable precision to the rhythms and cadences of the dialogue. Your charged delivery, especially, is almost reminiscent of classic noir. Was that something you brought to the character, or was it something that kind of emerged as you filmed?
I’m not sure. I tried to say what was on the page. I wanted to be like one of those modernist buildings [in Columbus], and so that was on my mind. I wanted to dress like one of those buildings, and walk and talk like one of those buildings. And that’s kind of what you see a little bit.
You’ve been one of a number of actors who’s been vocal about issues of representation and the lack of not only high-profile roles for Asian Americans, but the problems of generally being pigeonholed into racial stereotypes. In Columbus, your character, Jin is not only a character who’s anxious about how to balance their cultural identity and own identity, but he doesn’t seem defined by his Korean heritage. How do you personally try to find the balance in terms of the roles you take between something where you are faithfully representing a cultural identity and creating your own identity?
Well, I don’t know if I have a great answer for you. I don’t know how to find that balance. One is always trying or attempting to find balance. I don’t know if I think about it that much either. I mean, it’s really much more emotional than that and less intellectual. You have a script, and you either respond to it based upon who you are, or you don’t. There are things that occasionally come across my desk, and I don’t feel them or I’m not interested. And some I really respond to like this one. One of the reasons why I like this movie is that it’s not beholden to any ideas of representation. It seems to shrug all that politics off, and it doesn’t respond to any stereotypes. It’s just sort of his own thing.
Is that a rare sensation to find when reading a script?
It is. Yeah. I’ve found in my career where the character seemed to — and it’s because they’re not written Asian usually — that the character seemed to be absent of any cultural history, which can be progressive, but also not mirroring life entirely. And then it’s either there, or it goes the other way where a character just sort of talks about where they come from all the time, which also seems unrealistic. I think in both those instances, they’re meant to respond to some kind of political situation. And this is the rare story for Asian American roles where — certainly not rare for Asian roles, but rare for Asian American roles — the character’s sense of culture seems to be proportionate to how at least I feel in real life.
What was your first impression of Kogonada as a filmmaker when you first met on set?
We had talked a lot, and really, we just talked as two guys who liked movies so much. You don’t know what a person is like on set until you get on set with them. And I wasn’t sure what he would be like, obviously, but I had high hopes. In retrospect, I think I was surprised by his maturity as a filmmaker. This was his first feature. There were things that he did that impressed me. And even, “impress,” is kind of the wrong word. He was very in tune with performances. You might not think that because the film is so beautiful to see. That a person who’s that concerned with composing a frame might not be as concerned with the performances. In my experience, I felt like that’s all he was concerned with. That it barely registered that he was setting up these beautiful shots. And that upon viewing the film, I realized there was so many things that he could have said on set, but didn’t. That is to say, he didn’t overburden the actors. He tried to make the scenes as simple as possible, and not clutter the preparation with too much data. I don’t know. I just felt like he was really serving the actors everyday. It just felt like it was really about us. And I see all the other elements he was working with now, and I marvel at the restraint he showed everyday.
You mentioned you two talked as movie fans. What were some of the influences that you two talked about for the film even before you started shooting?
Like a lot. But one in particular that we talked about was The 400 Blows. And like for me, that was a touchstone. It’s this sort of polaroid of this boy’s life who’s suffering. We sort of move in, and are with him very intensely, and then we’re out. And it felt like that for Casey’s character. I felt that there was a kinship between Casey’s story and The 400 Blows, and that’s one that I can recall discussing.
Looking at your future, you have a few different projects, but I’m especially curious about Serial Dater, Jena Friedman’s debut with you, Imogen Poots, and Timothy Simons?
Yeah, I don’t know when we’re shooting that, but I’m really excited about that. It’s a really good script. That’s one of those like you were asking, “How do I choose and balance?,” and it’s like, as I say. For me, it sounds like I would do more thinking because I’m asked about these things a lot, you know. But I talk about them because I’m asked about them. And it’s much more for me just like, “Oh my gosh, I vibe with this person so much.” And Jena is one of those people. She’s so smart, and her script is so funny. It’s about a girl who falls in love with a serial killer. That’s a great set-up.
Columbus is now in limited release and expanding.