Amidst the dozens of American films at Sundance featuring white, heterosexual narcissists, Andrew Ahn’s feature debut, Spa Night is one of the most remarkable discoveries of this year’s festival. Set mainly within Koreatown, Los Angeles, the film tells the story of David (Joe Seo, winner of this year’s Special Jury Prize for Acting) an 18-year-old Korean American who is struggling to find his place in the world. His parents, Jin and Soyoung (Youn Ho Cho and Haerry Kim), immigrated to the United States for their son’s benefit, but are beginning to face financial crises following the closure of their family restaurant. Once David begins working at a Korean spa with a reputation for cruising, he’s forced to come to terms with his sexuality, despite how it clashes with his cultural norms.
In the following interview, Andrew Ahn, Joe Seo and Haerry Kim discuss the making of the film, and emphasize the importance of diversity within contemporary cinema.
Andrew, what was it like for you to transition from directing shorts to a feature-length film?
Andrew: Well, of course, there’s the producing challenge, where you’re trying to make ninety-plus minutes of content versus, you know, twelve minutes of content. The number of shooting days that you need, the amount of crew, the money… There’s all of that. The artistic challenge is really… funny to me. I don’t know if I fully comprehended it until we started shooting.
The way that you tell a story through a feature is really different than a short. With a short, you kinda just lay it all out on the table. With a feature, there’s a kind of rhythm, and a pace to it, and that’s something that I learned through this process. Of course, having the Sundance screenwriters lab, and I also went through Film Independent’s screenwriting and directing labs; those were immensely helpful…
With Film Independent’s directing lab, we shot the karaoke scene, as practice. And it was really, really long, because I love karaoke, and it’s such a fun sequence. Then what I realized after having gone through that experience was that, yes, the karaoke scene is fun, but the main thrust of that scene is… it’s almost a love scene between David and Eddie, you know? You start to see this attraction that’s kind of bubbling underneath.
So, when we went back to shoot the feature, I was like, “Okay, these are the moments that I need, these are the beats that I want the actors to hit…” And so we made it faster and more clear.
What was the casting process like for the film?
Joe: For me, I came back from Asia [after] doing some stuff in China, Japan and Korea… I was out there for a while, but I came back, and within three or four months or so, I just coincidentally found Andrew’s project online… There was a small excerpt of the script aside, and I auditioned for it because it is an Asian-American story, and I’m all about promoting Asian-American stories, whatever they might be! You know? Especially this one, ’cause it was so positive.
So, I auditioned for it, and when I did get the call from Andrew saying that he was somewhat interested…
Andrew: [chuckling] I don’t think I said it that way, but…
Joe: But yeah, I was like, “Hmmm… I want to read the whole script.” And once I read the whole thing, I knew, “Wow, this is amazing. This is something that I really want to do. Something that I needed to do.” And all I needed was like, confirmations from a couple of people in my life. And they all said, “A-OK! Go for it! Do your best!” That’s all I needed, and I told Andrew I was going to do it. I don’t care if it’s for free. Let’s do it!
Andrew: What was interesting about Joe’s audition was that it was during one of our last casting sessions, and we had been looking for the actor for this part for a year. It was a long process…
Joe: I did not know any of this. I did not know who Andrew Ahn was…
Andrew: I remember a lot of actors coming in to read for that part. We would see one audition side and that would be it, but for Joe, we asked to see three, and the first one was the scene between him and the man [to whom he says], “No touching.” It’s actually a much longer scene that we cut down to that [brief interaction]. There’s the scene with [David’s] dad in the car, underneath the golf fringe. And then we also did the scene where [David] sees Eddie in the dorm.
…We chose those scenes very specifically because we wanted to see if we could find the actor who can play David authentically reacting to three different types of people. A peer, a father, and a [potential love interest.]
Haerry: For me, I lived in New York for ten years, and then I moved back to Korea. Then, I got an e-mail from a casting director asking, “Do you want to audition for this [film]?” So, Andrew somehow found me from my previous project online and contacted the casting director… I said, “Yeah, I’d love to audition.”
…[The casting director] sent me the script, and it was beautiful. Especially in the ways that [Soyoung] was depicted… She was multidimensional, layered and full of depth. And it’s not easy for an Asian American actress to [be offered to play] such characters with a full arc. So, I made an audition [tape] with my iPhone. (Laughs) Then, after I e-mailed it to Andrew and the casting director, we FaceTimed.
Andrew: What we were looking for this character of Soyoung was someone who just had experience, and could understand how… even after having gone through difficult times, could still withstand it. I remember our casting director, Julie Kim sending us audition videos and [upon seeing Haerry’s] thinking, “Oh, this is totally Soyoung.” So, we actually had to go through the Visa process because Haerry was in Korea, but we knew it was worth it. And if it meant having to raise more money so that we could pay for those Visas, that’s what we had to do.
You used Kickstarter to fund the film, correct?
Andrew: Yeah, Kickstarter really worked for us. We raised over $60,000, and while that’s not the full budget of the film, it was enough for us to convince investors that there’s an audience for this film. We had 592 backers, which is huge, and we just wanted to let [the investors] know that we were serious. We’re making this movie one way or the other, you know? So, the $62,000 actually led to the rest of the financing, which was awesome.
Joe: Thank you, Kickstarter!
You’ve stated that your previous short film, Dol (First Birthday), which premiered at Sundance in 2012, was made to come out to your parents as gay. Considering that Spa Night also deals with a young man coming to terms with his sexuality, in addition to the relationship he has with his parents, was this film based upon aspects of your own life?
Andrew: It’s interesting, because my parents saw the film for the first time yesterday [at the premiere], and there’s a scene where Joe’s character [David] takes a toothpick out of his Dad’s mouth, and I remember doing that for my Dad when he was sleeping. But what kind of broke my heart is that my Dad wouldn’t know that, because he was asleep… I just started crying, and it’s not like, the most dramatic scene, but I couldn’t help but think, “Oh my God.” (Chuckles)
Spa Night is very personal, but it’s not super autobiographical. Yet, the internal struggle that David has, I connect to immensely.
As someone else who I identifies as gay, I do too.
Andrew: Yeah, and it’s so funny, right? That it could be such a different context, but you connect to that character, and I really think that’s the power of art and filmmaking. And with parent-child relationships… That’s something that I, especially being a child of immigrants, think about a lot.
My parents moved here, in a way, for me. And that’s a strange kind of pressure. I feel like my mind is a little preoccupied with it. So, this film was trying to explore that, understand, and give myself a healthy medium to kind of vent both the frustrations of that, and also make my parents proud.
Joe and Haerry, how did you get into the mindset of your characters?
Haerry: I thought of the script as if it were a map, [because] everything starts from the script. But, I also thought about my parents, of course, and how they struggled. Even though they were in their own country [Korea], but still. I think every family goes through this kind of hardship at a certain point.
Even today, I realized, “Oh my God, I’ve experienced this myself.” Because I came [to America] when I was 24, and then started acting. My English was bad, and I couldn’t say anything in acting class; I just watched other people. Then I started working at the school cafeteria and library, all while trying to make it here. So I realized why I understood this character on such a personal level; I guess it was in my psyche somewhere.
Andrew: I think that really shows in your performance, too.
Joe: For me, it was tough… It was tough… But Andrew’s script was great, because it doesn’t just pertain to whether you’re gay or straight. It’s about a kid trying to find his identity. And for every minority in this country… everyone’s just struggling to do that. For David, he has to feel this way, and I had to mentally prepare myself for that. It was a very tough role to prepare for, but it’s definitely something that I’ll cherish for the rest of my life, and it was just so rewarding.
Considering that we live in such a prejudiced, heteronormative society, where even LGBTQ-films based on true events, such as Stonewall, are whitewashed for the general public, was there any difficulty in getting your film off the ground?
Andrew: Fortunately, having been supported by Sundance, it really helps. It’s a stamp of approval. And I think that audiences are getting hungrier for more diverse stories. You want to see something that you’re not absolutely familiar with. I think that’s because as human beings we’re curious, and I really feel like this film can help fulfill that curiosity.
I was really fortunate that the roadblocks weren’t going to stop us. My producers and I, we were going to make this.
Which is great, considering how the industry has been revealed to be so biased towards Caucasians, especially right now with everything centered around #OscarsSoWhite.
Andrew: Yeah, it’s so strange. I think this is why independent film is really exciting, and I just want to remind people that the Oscars are not the only rubric.
I was actually unaware of the fact that Korean spas in Los Angeles are considered to be places where men occasionally hook up. How did you become aware of this particular scene?
Andrew: It all started with a conversation that I had with a friend who told me he had hooked up with someone in a steam room at a Korean spa. And I didn’t believe it, because when I went to the spa, it always [seemed] so family-oriented, and it was just [filled] with old Korean dudes just scrubbing themselves… But if you do a quick Craigslist search in Los Angeles, look under m for m [men seeking men], and search ‘Korean spa,’ the number of listings is insane. It’s totally insane.
So when we went location scouting, I went with my cinematographer [Ki Jin Kim], who is Korean American and straight; he’s actually married to one of my producers, Giulia Caruso. We went to a spa together, and I told him, “Let’s just relax for a little bit,” and he totally got cruised!
He said, “Oh my God, this totally happens,” and I said, “I told you! This exists!” It’s not a huge thing; I’d say many spas in Los Angeles are family-friendly, but certain spas have reputations. And honestly, it’s the same thing with gym locker rooms or showers. Anywhere you have homo-social interactions: men on men, women on women, there’s always the potential for the slippage into the homoerotic. It’s something that if you look for, it’s there.
Joe and Haerry, what kind of roles did you have before this film, and what did you learn through the making of this one?
Haerry: When I was in New York, I went to many auditions for television and film, and [ended up getting bit parts.] No disrespect to those roles either, they’re necessary too. But, [after continuing to play], ‘Grocery Store Owner,’ ‘Nail Salon Worker,’ ‘Rape Victim,’ I said, “Okay, I’m done.” It made me focus on theatre, and now I’m directing shows in Korea. Then this beautiful opportunity came, and it was like a godsend.
So this means a lot to me, because when I first told my husband that I was auditioning for [Spa Night], he said, “Oh, if it’s another [bit] role as a waitress, don’t do it.” (Giggles) I said, “No, she’s completely different! She’s a full character!” And he was very happy that I got to play this part.
Joe: Yeah, for me, there were so many roles [that were] just ridiculous, especially for Asian males. For the longest time, I was getting [offered], ‘Nerd #2,’ ‘Asexual Guy,’ a best friend with a girl, of course, who gets beaten up by jocks… It just got to the point where I thought, “Ugh, god, there’s got to be something more than this.”
So then, I did go to Korea, because there, Asians are athletes. Asians are lawyers. They’re “masculine,” they’re “sexual,” you know? It was something different, and I thought, “Wow, you can [play these kinds of characters] as an Asian man!” I really wanted those types of roles. With Andrew’s script, I was like, “Finally!” (Chuckles) Here’s something that I could really put my heart into.
Haerry: It’s not that we as actors only want big parts, or anything that grandiose, but a character that has a real personality, with roots. You know?
Joe: It was so refreshing to see this type of content coming out of America. And I’m also glad that when I got back [from Korea] I was introduced to Andrew and given the script.
Andrew: (Giggling) Yeah, I am very glad that you came back from Korea!
Joe: I know, I know! (Laughs) I just hope that this film really propels Asian Americans into the American mainstream to an even greater extent.
Definitely, and I think it’s wonderful that you guys got accepted into the U.S. Dramatic Competition.
Andrew: Yeah, when you submit a film into Sundance, it’s either as a short or as a feature, and then they [the programmers] categorize it. Obviously, because we’re a U.S. production, the U.S. Dramatic Competition [category] was what we were hoping for. And we got in, which was awesome! When we got the call from Kim Yutani, the programmer, I thought, “Great! Wonderful!” I kind of freaked out, hung up the phone, had a little squeal (chuckles) and called my producers.
When [the producers] asked, “What category are we in?” I thought, “Oh, probably NEXT.”*
[Editor’s Note: Films placed in the NEXT category are defined as “Pure, bold works distinguished by an innovative, forward-thinking approach to storytelling populate this program. Digital technology paired with unfettered creativity promises that the films in this section will shape a “greater” next wave in American cinema.” Most often, they are considered to be edgier or more unconventional than the film’s in the U.S. Dramatic Competition.]
Then the next day, I got an e-mail, and one of the attachments was the FAQ for filmmakers with films in the U.S. Dramatic Competition. And I thought to myself, (exaggerating) “Nooooo!”
So, when I called the film office the next morning, I asked, “We’re in NEXT, right?” And they said, “No, you’re in U.S. Dramatic.” I thought that’s so awesome that Sundance can really champion this film, and give it that sort of platform… I mean, this story can only happen in the U.S. It’s an immigrant story [set in America.]
Even with my short film, Dol (First Birthday), where there’s actually a lot of English being spoken, people were like, “Oh, is this set in Korea?” No… It’s in L.A. Because I think that people just assume, you know? But it’s such an honor [to be in U.S. Dramatic this year], and I’m so glad Sundance actually took the bold step in saying, “Hey, this is an American film.” For me, that just speaks [volumes.]
Agreed! And the characters in Spa Night mainly speak Korean, too, while occasionally switching to English. Did you write the script with that in mind, or did you just switch from Korean to English in an improvisational manner? I apologize if I’m coming off as naïve here.
Everyone: No, no, no!
Andrew: Not at all, in fact, it’s a good question, because it’s an interesting process that we went through [in deciding this.] In the screenplay, David actually speaks a lot more English. The italicized lines were in Korean, and after we cast Joe… he was so comfortable and spoke a lot more Korean in the film [especially in scenes where David interacts with his parents.] And I think that’s really great. As a Korean American, second generation, I know that even within my generation, we have different levels of Korean-language ability. So it felt truthful as an actor to do that.
Joe: And the reason why I chose to speak more in Korean than English is because, in Korean, there’s a way of speaking formally to your parents, where as in English, you can’t really do that. So, I wanted to create that aspect of duality in regards to [Korean] culture, where you have to show respect, and American culture, where you can be free and independent. I really wanted to make that clear, and that’s another reason why we chose to incorporate Korean [dialogue into the film.] I thought it was very important to David’s character.
Andrew: There are a few lines in the film where… like, I could tell that Joe was tripping over some of the Korean. But we decided to keep some of those moments because they felt really authentic. They’re actually good character moments. I did fight for a few lines to be in English, such as when David asks Soyoung, “What if she thinks it’s gross?”
That’s the first time I noticed the transition into English, too!
Andrew: (Chuckles) Yeah, there’s some things that you can’t say in English, and there’s some things you can’t say in Korean, and the line, “What if she thinks it’s gross?” just felt very American to me.
There are moments where I thought, “Let’s try that [in English].” We kind of played around with it in the edit.
Haerry: I was surprised, because I got the script in English, so I thought, “Oh, I’ll be acting in English.” Then, just a couple of days before I came, I got a script in Korean, and I asked Andrew, “Are you sure you want it to be a subtitled film?” and he said, “Yeah.” (Laughs)
Do you all have any upcoming projects that you’re working on?
Andrew: Well, as a filmmaker, I’m also interested in television. There’s a lot more diversity, and it’s also a lot more risk-taking, in a way. But yeah, I’m always going to want to tell more gay and/or Asian American stories. It’s always going to be a part of my work, and of course there might be stories that come my way that might not be either of those, but I connect to because it’s a family story, or an immigrant story. I’m just excited to keep working.
Joe: I’m looking at a couple of scripts right now and, honestly, I just want to keep working also. I still want to do projects that really speak to me, and that I can really put my heart into. We’ll see, I’m just keeping my options open right now.
Haerry: I hope this film gets to be seen by so many people, and then keep working as an actor. I hope that I [get to continue playing these] types of characters more along the way. I really do hope so.
Joe: And seriously, Andrew. You had the chance to cast bigger names, which would have easily lead to distribution; would have easily been bought up. And I’m just really thankful that you took the risk in casting us.
Andrew: This is the hope with audiences; it’s not about the bigger names, it’s about the strength of the story.
Joe: Exactly. And that’s why I’m hoping this film takes off.