One of the things I love most about working in journalism is that I get to talk to a lot of interesting people. One of the things that's a drag about journalism is that the conversations I have with those interesting people tend to be reduced to a quote or three bundled into a story, with the rest of the interview — all the engaging, cool stuff that could never fit into the story — consigned to the musty corners of the archives never to be read by anyone.
Here's a good example: On July 25, 2017, I interviewed the video essayist Kogonada about his first feature, Columbus, for a feature that was published by Architectural Record. (Disclaimer: You might need to log in to see it, but registration is free and easy so.) The movie, an indie about a young, architecture-obsessed woman crossing paths with the son of a prominent architect in the Modernist mecca of Columbus, Indiana, is great. Read the story to find out why! But one thing I was quite taken by was the craftsmanship. The soundscape and editing, especially, are elegant and engaging, creating a mediative space to consider architecture and the way it works on people, physically, emotionally, and spiritually. (None of this should be surprising to anyone who has seen Kogonada's essays. And if you haven't, go to his site and watch them. They're wonderful.)
When I left the screening at IFC Center, I was anxious to talk with Kogonada about the film and his relationship with architecture and Modernism — that was to be the point of the piece, more or less (though it morphed a bit) — but also the thought and intention behind those things that so caught my attention. Later, as I did some research, I added Ozu and Antonioni to my conversational to-do list. And, selfishly, I wanted to share how the film had resonated with me. I hadn't stopped thinking about it for days.
I was lucky to have the opportunity to get into all that, and a bit more, during a 20-minute conversation with Kogonada. (It could easily have gone an hour and I think we could have been left with stuff to unpack, about the film and his inspirations.) And only a fraction of what we discussed is reflected in the published story. So I thought I would share it here, where I hope a few people will read it and take away a bit of what I did from it.
Either way, I'm going to use this blog space to publish a selection of these transcripts, lightly edited, so that these moments are allowed to live and breathe and not wither away on a hard drive somewhere. I hope you enjoy reading them as much as I did taking part in them.
Is this a day where you're going to have endless interviews?
Yeah, yeah. I think I've always know that this is going to be the hardest part of the whole filmmaking process. (laughs) But I'm trying to get through it. It's not that bad.
Yeah. Well what made you decide to jump from the kind of video essays you were doing to a feature?
I think, you know, it was always the dream. That desire to make something that really is a part of this larger conversation of cinema and existence, that has always intrigued me and always been a part of what I care about. I feel like even getting to do these essays was a part of that and a real honor and privilege. So I think through doing that there seemed to be some possibility, like suddenly some doors and connections that would make it possible. I knew that if I ever wanted to do that I should seize it.
So what was it about Columbus, as a place maybe, that made you think, "This is the opportunity. This is the thing."
Yes. Right, right. Yes. I was working on some story ideas that I knew were going to revolve around children and the burdens they feel with parents and absence. But it was deeply related to this larger question, for me, of how we live in a modern world, what it means to be modern. I was a grad student studying Modernism in the context of modernity and the way it tries to address the crisis of meaning. So then, when I visited Columbus, there in this little town, for me, it felt like it was the embodiment of all the stuff that I had been considering: Does art matter? Does modern architecture, does it make a difference? For me, does modern cinema, how does it contribute? But seeing modern architecture — and I've been a fan of it — I thought, oh my gosh. There's this town, removed from the big cities, as a kind of almost experiment, you know, and there was something so fascinating and haunting about it that I thought, "If I'm ever going to make a film, it's going to be here." Because even the background itself will speak to what I care about.
What was it about Columbus, as a place, that made you feel it was the ideal backdrop for that kind of story?
Modernization has altered the relationship between children and parents — geographically and spiritually. To be a child in the modern world is to contend with the goodbye (that is, when you leave your parents, and when they leave you forever). What to make of this absence?
For me, modernism seeks to engage and find meaning in the absence. In particular, modern architecture reveals the aesthetics of emptiness and its significance. The presence of glass, light, walls, cantilevered beams, etc., reveal absence. So emptiness is literally constructed in meaningful ways. In this regard, the town of Columbus is a place surrounded by buildings that are thoughtfully and artistically engaging the modern condition, whether we choose to see it or ignore it. I've described Columbus as a town haunted by the promise of modernism, which is to say, the possibility that art/design could offer a meaningful way of being modern (of confronting absence without needing to reclaim conservative notions of the past).
Your feelings about Modernism are interesting, especially in the context of the kinds of essays that you're doing. I was reading a little bit about Antonioni and this kind of tension that he has in his movies between the stories he's telling, the characters, their interior lives, and then the modern world they live. But now, 50 years later, here's a movie where Modernism means something different than it did in the '50s or '60s.
Yeah. I think so. Well, I think probably just because we have the benefit of hindsight and the benefit of what is possible and the limitations of it. And, also, because I come from a different cultural context, you know? Though I was raised here and am very familiar with the Western story of Modernism, I also have this other part of me that is Asian and the way we contend with those questions, and even our traditions, are different. You know? Like there isn't necessarily the strong reaction to, certainly not to Christianity, certainly not to religion itself. Or, if it is, it's different. It's something that already has a temporality to it, already has a place for emptiness that is not nihilistic and that kind of thing. So... Yeah. It already has a different flavor when I'm processing it.
When was the first time you went to Columbus? How much time was there between your first experience and this sort of idea?
It was a few years. It was only, maybe... I'm trying to think... Maybe two, three years ago? So not too long ago. Where I really, I mean, the time I sort of encountered it. The timeline has been incredibly compressed. I went there maybe two and a half years ago, and really by the time we were eating lunch I had said to my wife, "I have to make a film here." And then a few months later, I came back, started doing some research, and then wrote the film. So that has happened within the last two and a half years.
Wow. Yeah, that is pretty compressed.
Yeah, yeah! And in fact, this time last year we were in pre-production. So we hadn't even started shooting. So it's been a crazy timeline.
That's kind of incredible to hear because one of the things that really struck me about the movie — I know this is supposed to be an architecture thing, but I come from a film background primarily and what struck me about the film is that it feels so realized, especially in a technical sense. I was struck by your sound design, for example.
Oh, thank you.
I can't remember a film that dealt with the sonic experience, the sonic quality of a place.
Oh, thank you. I'm so glad you observed that because that was such a conversation. That was so intentional in our desire to create a soundscape that captured what made this place so unique to the question of Modernism and played a little bit with the ambient and even wanting the musicscape to blend with the environment so it felt almost a part of it. So that was a really big part of how we were trying to understand space and all of that.
Yeah, the first time I noticed it was in the beginning and you can hear rain and dripping water. And then as you go through these spaces you hear — there's just quiet, and then you hear birds outside the bed and breakfast or you hear whatever. And I thought, well maybe... I don't know if it was, like, the headspace I was in but I really appreciated that. Because you never get that sense of space in that way.
Oh, thank you. That was really... That's really great. I assume most people won't ever know it and hopefully it hits them in different ways. But it was. We talked about chimes in these exact spaces where we would always hear certain chimes. And, yeah yeah, trains and bells and birds and all of those were a part of the conversation. So, yeah it's always nice to know that it's noted. (laughs)
There seemed to be a real sensitivity to the way people inhabit spaces. I think in a place like Columbus... In the press kit you described it as this sort of ghostly museum of architecture. And I think it's probably easy for someone to go in there and just shoot buildings.
So when you went into these places, how important was it for you and how did you get that across that these are places that people inhabit and encounter and react to?
Well that was a really vital part of the process, because I didn't want to just shoot... I love architecture, I love looking at photos of architecture. But I thought the advantage that I'm going to have being able to make a narrative film — and the thing that is lacking sometimes from photographs, which turn it just an object itself or even sometimes these videos kind of just glide through these spaces, is it's not how we experience architecture. Right? And it makes it just a museum object. But what's really fascinating about architecture is that we move through them and that they almost sometimes become invisible to us because they are part of our daily lives. So the way in which those spaces are inhabited and the way they are felt as a kind of part of daily life was a big part of it for me. And it was to my advantage. Like, oh, we get to really feel architecture but not as pure object but as lived spaces.
That sensibility seems to work with that kind of interaction or investigation of Modernism because so many of those buildings are supposed to be transparent...
Right. (laughs) That's right.
...or not necessarily invisible, but you can see through them.
Yes. Yeah, yeah, yeah. I think that's right. There is something particular about Modernism that I think both... Well, you know, it's funny because I think in some ways it both reveals this inhabitation and the spaces that are lived, but it also I think sometimes in the popular imagination it feels cold because of the glass and maybe it feels like it isn't as cozy as older sort of traditions. But for me, in the way that you say it, I think that it is the thing that interests me, the relationship between these empty spaces and life itself. I think that is really interesting to me.
Was there a building in Columbus that kind of got your attention right off?
Mm. I think that there's something really impressive about the Saarinen buildings, both Eliel and Eero Saarinen. You know, the building that stayed with me — and I've had this with cinema, as well, where it's, like, “Oh, I'm almost not paying attention to it,” but then when I leave, it's like, “Oh,” was the city hall, the one with the cantilevered beams. And then the one that's also a part of it is the Deborah Berke, I think which really takes you... You really have to attend to it, because the context is, like, this parking lot and it's very easy to ignore. So those were interesting.
You mentioned that you're interested in architecture, but did you have any kind of personal relationship with architecture? A friend or family member? Where did that come from?
No, no. My dad had said once to me that you should be an architect. And I think I maybe thought about that. But, no, I mean, there's no... It is... I think art does this, right? If you start... Let's say, for me, I'm working-class immigrant kid and then suddenly something speaks to me, and maybe it's cinema, maybe for someone else it's painting, or whatever. But once you enter that world where something formal, aesthetic, moves you, I think it's not isolated. Like suddenly you find yourself liking museums, which you never would have. And for me, that's how it was. Like suddenly I found myself, like, attending to architecture. So it really was that. Although, you know, I think architecture is always striking to me, always stops me a bit. But it's all just as a layperson.
In the press kit, you mention that the character arc of Casey kind of reflects yours in terms of cinema hitting you at the right time. I wondered if you could expand on that just a little bit. Was there a film that did it? Or what was that experience like for you?
Yeah, and it has done it a number of times. So it's not just one. But certainly, for Casey, it's particular... I definitely see myself in Casey and Jin because, for Jin, there was also a moment, once you do love something, then you can really know it for 15, 20 years and you lose the love for it and then it becomes an academic subject for you and then you resent it or whatever and then you have to love it again.
But I think when I say that, there was a particularly dark, existential time in my life where I was really feeling loss and trying to figure out meaning and have wrestled through other, you know, had kind of worn out certain ideas that were not meaningful to me anymore. And then it was the films of Ozu, and at that point I had started loving films. But even my approach to films was the typical [thing] where the form itself isn't so important. You're just ready to interpret it and ready to talk about the content of it. And I remember through my reading I realized people were talking about Ozu and I was like, "Oh, I should watch this," and being so unimpressed with it. And just like, "oh," and moving on to the next thing. At the time, Good Morning was one of the only Ozu films you could watch. And, yeah, I was just, like, "Oh, why are people talking about this film?" (laughs) And then, like, a week later I couldn't help... It was still in my mind. It felt like a memory. And then time kept on passing. So many other films you're really impressed by, and the next morning you can hardly remember it, you know? This had the exact opposite feeling, where I was, like, "Eh," and then I could not stop... I felt the scenes, I felt the time. And then it made me want to revisit it. And then I ordered films from Japan. I just started going, "What is going on?" It opened up a world to me, and not just in a fetishistic, like, "Oh, I'm a fan now," but, like, a way of seeing that really created space for me in this darkness to process life itself differently and to say, "Oh, this thing I'm trying to escape, whether it's this feeling of nothingness or whatever, that there can be value there. There can be something there."
I've only seen a few of Ozu's films. My wife and I watched The Only Son because... Ozu is a big blindspot in my sort of education, but I had seen you referenced it and thought I should watch this. But we saw Tokyo Story, and it was one of those things that just stuck with us for a while. What strikes me is that your film, and Modernism maybe, gives you space to consider....
Yes. Yeah yeah. I think that's a vital... It's funny because he used to always talk about, people wanted to call him an artist and he's, like, "No, I'm a tofu maker. I'm a tofu maker." But, you know, he often talked about taste and after-taste. For him, what he and his writer were pursuing was not the immediate response. So, it's funny, because in retrospect I read this and I was, like, "This is exactly what was happening!" But they often talked about after-taste. And I think in order for it to happen, you have to create space in the experience. It's the thing that stays with you. It's the thing that isn't so disposable afterwards because you actually have spent, you've actually endured time in a certain way. So I think it was a vital part of this ingredient that he was working with. I really do think he was trying to speak to a modern Japan that needed to understand things. So I think it was really a part of it, yeah.
Do you consider yourself, through these essays you made, a kind of architect? It seems like you're building things out of pieces into something that's completely — it's critical, but this whole is different than the pieces it uses.
Yeah. Yeah, no, and I don't see it as, like... Those pieces that I make are not intended to be like lesson guides or even instructive. They are mostly just built on the form itself and trying to play a little bit with what's possible there. mean, I wouldn't call myself an architect by any means but I do think there's a lot of parallel to both cinema and architecture. I think they're really great partners. I think that there is this thing that you visualize and then often need collaboration to construct. But, you know, I think architecture is a great sort of analogy for other creative forms. So I definitely can see that building forms and playing with that is certainly a part of the process.
Are there great, not necessarily architecture films, but films that include architecture or deal with architecture that have struck you or stayed with you?
Yeah, for sure. Antonioni, L'avventura, Red Desert, those are... He makes you contend with space. I think Ozu. I think the interior, domestic space is something that you feel in the films of Ozu. There's this great film called Tony Takitani, which is sort of fantastic and has stayed with me. And then Tati, Jacques Tati. Yeah, yeah, yeah. Playtime is obviously an exploration of it.
When you got to Columbus to make the movie, how did your experience there or did it impact you while you were making the movie? Did it change how you went into something that maybe you didn't expect?
Mm... Hmm... Well, it certainly has taught me so much about the feature film form. I certainly have been changed because of it. But Columbus itself? I mean... Yeah. Yeah. Because I think having that much time with that sort of, again, this town that is, again, almost like this experiment of the impact of Modernism. I think I walk away with more questions. I think I walk away with more... Yeah. I think I walk away with questions about this thing. But it didn't resolve anything or there were no final answers to anything. But, yeah, I feel still like there's so much more for me to understand about it.
And then maybe as a last question, just to go back to the technical side of this, something else that struck me was the editing. The editing felt very Modernist....
....in this sort of repetition. There are these patterns at the beginning and the end....
Yeah, yeah. Oh, great.
But when I left I thought, when you look at a Saarinen building there are patterns in it. So I wondered if that entered your mind or is that just something... Then going back and watching your essays, it's very clear that there's a lineage there...
Yeah. Yeah, yeah. Right, yeah. No. You should be a film critic, not an architecture writer...
That's where I started, actually.
OK, yeah, yeah. (laughs) Well, this is a good one. You should only, like, you should be the architecture film critic. (laughs)
That's kind of what I've become at Architectural Record, actually. (laughs)
Oh good! Well, good. There you go. Um, yeah. Yes. The answer is yes. I think the pattern of space and time has always been central to something that I'm drawn to and something I care about. And certainly I knew that it would be a part of this film.
Great. Well thank you.
Thank you, so much.
What's next, by the way?
I'm writing it. It's a... Yeah, yeah. So, it's... I can't. I'll explain it later. (laughs)