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For Ellen, the latest film by acclaimed indie writer/director So Yong Kim, follows fledging musician Joby Taylor (an incredibly natural Paul Dano), who is coming off the road with his band to finalize his divorce from his estranged wife. Joby is selfish and flawed, but the audience cannot help but sympathize with him. Duped into signing a settlement that offers him a profit from the sale of the family home, Joby unwittingly forfeits his custody rights to his 6-year-old daughter, Ellen (Shaylena Mandigo).
With little help from his ineffective small town lawyer (Jon Heder) and with the break-up of his band imminent, Joby is forced to question his unruly and listless rock ‘n’ roll existence. Attempting to move on to the next phase in his life, Joby manages to negotiate a visit with his daughter to explore whether he can leave his child behind or finally become the father she needs.
We sat down with So Yong Kim to discuss the real-life inspiration behind her film, the crafting of the character of Joby Taylor, and her choices for the remarkable soundtrack in For Ellen.
Tribeca: I read that For Ellen was based on your own personal experience. Could you talk about the inspiration behind the film?
So Yong Kim: The idea of For Ellen came from this memory I had when I met my father for the first time. I remember him coming to our house, being a complete stranger, and telling us he was our father. He left soon after that, and so it’s not like I had a relationship with him or anything; I just had this memory of him. I wanted to understand that type of person as much as I could. It was during my second film, Treeless Mountain, when I started to be intrigued by that memory.
Tribeca: Joby Taylor is such a fascinating character. He inspires sympathy in the audience but repels them at the same time. How did you go about crafting this complex role?
So Yong Kim: In the beginning, I pictured Joby as a really old Asian man, then he was a ghost, then he was a middle-aged man, and then he became white. The character went through all these different transformations and I really just got stuck. I couldn’t really figure out what it was that I was trying to get at with this film. After I decided on this name, Joby Taylor, which is actually the name of a friend of mine, it was really seamless for me.
Many of the struggles Joby experiences are troubles that I face as a filmmaker and in other facets of my life. It’s really uncomfortable for me to watch Joby, because a lot of the character traits I have and really dislike in myself and try to hide from other people are on screen in Joby. I think that many people who are in the arts encounter the conflicts that Joby struggles with throughout the film.
Tribeca: I thought Paul Dano was just wonderful in the film. He was allowed to reveal a side of himself that I have not seen in his other performances. In addition to having the lead role, he also served as an executive producer. How did he come to the project? Can you talk about your collaborative process?
So Yong Kim: I met him through his girlfriend, Zoe Kazan, who I knew from The Exploding Girl [directed by Kim’s husband, Bradley Rust Gray]. Zoe and I formed a friendship, and I was able to give Paul the script to see what he thought. In the draft I had given him, Joby was older—in his mid-30s—and I wanted to see if Paul had any suggestions for actors to play the role. He came back to me and said, “I think it would be interesting to make him younger.” That’s when the conversation started, and it was really apparent from our discussions that he should play Joby Taylor.
We collaborated on everything, including the music and his wardrobe. Paul went shopping and found these great leather jackets. We also did research on YouTube, looking at music videos to find Joby’s sound. Paul was also very instrumental in finding other actors for roles and went to some meetings with us to try and raise financing. His contributions have been invaluable.
Tribeca: I loved your use of music in the film. The two most striking pieces were Whitesnake’s “Still of the Night” and The National’s “Sorrow.” How did you choose these?
So Yong Kim: Those were definitely the two hardest pieces of music to find. For the dance scene, we had to have the rights to the song before we shot it. We had four different songs that we were going after—the Whitesnake song was the third one. We got the rights the night before we were set to shoot the scene, which was incredibly stressful. Paul had been choreographing certain moves in his motel room during his time off, but I never saw what he was doing. He’d come up to me and say, “I was thinking about adding some kicks,” and I’d just be like, “Yeah, yeah sounds great!” When we told him we had the Whitesnake song, the next Monday he showed us the full routine and we went off to the set. We really lucked out.
The end credit song was really difficult. The ending is kind of open, so finding the right tone was crucial. We tried Journey, we tried Neil Young, to see how certain songs would feel, not that we could have ever gotten the rights! We happened to meet The National’s singer, Matt, in Brooklyn through a musician friend of ours. For two years, I tried via email to get him to write a song for the movie. It was always, “No.”
However, when we were living in Berlin, The National came to do a show and my husband and I went to see them. This was two weeks after I had given birth, so we actually took our baby with us when we went to meet the band at this hotel. I asked them again if they would write a song for the movie and they were just like, “Shouldn’t you be at home?” [laughs] So I gave them a cut of the movie and asked them to watch it. I asked if I could get the rights to use “Sorrow,” and they said yes! I was so happy. They were happy too, because that means I would not harass them anymore [laughs]. It worked out nicely.
Tribeca: The cast was amazing, but I was really entranced by Shaylena Mandigo, the young actress who plays Paul Dano’s daughter. You have an amazing ability to work with children. What is your approach?
So Yong Kim: I just try to create an environment for young actors that is really safe and that makes them feel comfortable. Plus, I always try to cast kids whose personalities are very close to the personalities of the characters they will be playing. I also do very simple tests with them on the video camera to see how they follow direction and whether they will look directly into the camera or not. That’s pretty much it. Shaylena was so mature and incredibly smart for her age. She felt free to let me know if something was bothering her or anything like that. I do love working with kids, but I don’t think I could ever work with my own [laughs]. They would never listen to me.
Tribeca: The scenes between Paul and Shaylena were so organic to me. Was the film very tightly scripted, or did you allow for some room for play between the actors?
So Yong Kim: There’s a little improv, but not much. During the mall scene, in which Joby and Ellen are at the food court, Joby keeps striking out with his daughter. Finally, he asks in mock frustration, “What do you like?” and she responds, “Cupcakes.” That was entirely unscripted. It was wonderful because I was hoping something like that would happen between them at that moment in the film. It is an intense scene, because he is explaining to her why he hasn’t seen her before.
Tribeca: Did you go through the traditional casting process on For Ellen?
So Yong Kim: Not really. I had a casting director who helped, but Paul was a big asset. He was already on board, so he was in a position to recommend other cast members. Also, I had known Jena Malone from a previous project, so it came together pretty organically. I did do a casting session in New York City for the role of Ellen, which went well, but the kids who auditioned were a lot older than I had expected. They didn’t match as well with Paul because he’s so young himself. We found Shaylena on location in the town in upstate New York that we shot in.
Tribeca: What were the biggest difficulties you experienced while shooting on location?
So Yong Kim: One of the largest challenges we faced was when I drove up to the location [near the Canadian border] with my production designer to look at the hotel we were going to use, and we found that a week before we were set to start shooting it had burned down. We had no idea. So we spent a week looking for a new location. That was huge.
Plus, it was so cold. You have no idea how cold it was. I felt so bad for Paul, because he’s wearing this thin leather jacket and tight skinny jeans with patent leather shoes while the rest of us were covered head to toe in Canadian goose down jackets. It was a really intense shoot for Paul. He got really sick and spent time in the emergency room. It was pretty brutal out there.
Tribeca: Well, you made it through and have an excellent film to show for it! What’s next for you?
So Yong Kim: I’m working on this ensemble piece, which is completely nagging the back of my mind. [laughs] It’s about a matriarch who is 70 years old and has a bunch of kids that come together as this unique family organism. It’s so different from anything I’ve ever written.
For Ellen is now playing at Film Forum. So Yong Kim and Paul Dano will appear in person for a Q&A following the 7:20 show on Friday, September 7. So Yong Kim will return on Saturday, September 8, for a Q&A after the 6:30 show. Find tickets.
Like For Ellen on Facebook.