“I try very hard to give the characters in my films a sense of humanity. I want this feeling for the audience that these characters exist outside of the frame. In order to achieve that, you have to let the characters breathe, giving them the time and the space to simply exist and not feel like devices to move a plot along and entertain. In my own work, I want to observe human behavior, not watch a puppet show.”
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When the film Driveways was released on May 22, critics were effusive in their praise, affording the film a rare perfect score on the review aggregator Rotten Tomatoes. The film was called “lovely, delicate, and quietly moving,” “unforced, beautifully performed, understated and quite lovely,” and a “sweet, understated masterpiece.” Before its release, the film was nominated for two Independent Spirit awards, including a nomination for lead actress Hong Chau. Driveways is so well-liked because it is itself so likeable, a big-hearted and moving tale written by playwrights Hannah Bos and Paul Thurteen (Blood Play, Jacuzzi). Driveways focuses on single mother Kathy (Chau) and her introverted eight-year-old son Cody (Lucas Jaye) as they travel from Grand Rapids, Michigan, to Poughkeepsie, New York, to clean and flip the house of Kathy’s late sister April. When they arrive, Kathy and Cody meet and form a bond with Del (Brian Dennehy), a widowed Korean War veteran who often sits alone on his porch next door.
Driveways takes a generous approach to character development, allowing Kathy, Cody, and Del to encourage one another and navigate a particularly decisive summer together as a tenuous unit. The film is bathed in the warm sunlight of the Hudson Valley and takes pleasure in small acts of kindness while allowing for affecting glimpses into single motherhood, aging in rural America, and the Asian American experience. Filmmaker Andrew Ahn lets the characters exist unabated, and gives the audience the opportunity to view their shared experiences through each of their distinct lenses. The authenticity and warmth of their interactions are a joy to watch.
Andrew Ahn first came to prominence when his short Dol (First Birthday), which premiered at the 2012 Sundance Film Festival. His debut feature, Spa Night, was Kickstarter-funded and premiered at the 2016 Sundance Film Festival, with star Joe Seo winning a Special Jury Award for Breakthrough Performance. Spa Night is a beautiful, singular work that continues to resonate long after its release. Driveways is his sophomore feature. Here, Ahn discusses Cassavetes, his collaborators, and emotional directness.
In a list for the Criterion Collection, you highlighted the John Cassavetes films A Woman Under the Influence and Opening Night as personal inspirations, and then, six months later, you won the Independent Spirit John Cassavetes Award for your debut feature, Spa Night. How have Cassavetes’ spirit and philosophy influenced your own filmmaking style that is on the vanguard of independent American cinema?
I wrote a research paper in my film history class in grad school at CalArts about the work of John Cassavetes. I was so drawn to his intensely personal filmmaking process; it was rigorous, for sure, but it still felt so instinctual. He was listening to himself. I don’t think my film work looks or sounds much like Cassavetes’ films, but his spirit and filmmaking philosophy have guided me throughout these first few years of my career. With every choice I have to make as a filmmaker, I ask myself: what is my interest and what is my emotional investment in this moment?
Both Spa Night and Driveways are studies of people in a state of flux, unsure of what the future will hold. Your films respect the characters and that process of transition by having an unhurried pace that gives them the space to explore. Can you tell me about the importance of this space to you and your films?
I try very hard to give the characters in my films a sense of humanity. I want this feeling for the audience that these characters exist outside of the frame. In order to achieve that, you have to let the characters breathe, giving them the time and the space to simply exist and not feel like devices to move a plot along and entertain. In my own work, I want to observe human behavior, not watch a puppet show. This is what makes filmmaking interesting and engaging – the surprise, the human element. I remember watching a short film at a festival that left me very cold; during the Q&A, the filmmaker said that this film was exactly what he imagined in his head, frame for frame. I thought, “How boring.”
When a work is so distilled and pure, everything presented feels enhanced. In this way, the editing of Katie Mcquerrey and the score by Jay Wadley punctuate Driveways in this really effective way.
Katie Mcquerrey and I spent many long days in the edit together! I could not have asked for a better collaborator, someone more generous or insightful. We trusted in the creative process, in conversation, in experimenting, in getting notes, in watching. There is something about editing a feature film that feels very corporeal; you have to feel the rhythms of the film in your body. Katie is a dancer and I think that really shows.
I loved working with Jay because I could talk to him as if he were an actor, speaking in intentions, wants, desires, and actions. I feel like some composers are scared of that, but Jay understands it and uses that language to inspire him. I wanted the score to feel as human as possible; he found a way to articulate that by using a prepared piano where you can hear the touch of the finger on the piano keys. The score feels like such a beautifully integrated element of the film because of Jay’s sensitivity to the story and the film’s philosophy.
Driveways is an especially earnest and loving film. There are moments where an audience’s expectations are subverted purely because of its generosity. Something like Cody’s birthday at the VFW – could you talk a bit about the film’s tone?
It’s easy to be cynical, to distract an audience from emotional truth with attitude or style. I wanted to be as emotionally direct as possible with Driveways, which is deceptively difficult to do. There’s always the fear that unless you build distance you’ll slip into mawkishness. But the screenwriters, Hannah Bos and Paul Thureen, wrote something with so much honesty that I had to make the film this way.
In Spa Night and Driveways, attention is often paid to the objects surrounding the characters, and the objects tend to act like specters of intent. Do you think of objects as vessels?
Film is such an external medium – you can only understand what you see and what you hear. You don’t have the access to internal psychology in the same way that you have in writing. In this way, objects can serve as evidence in a film to help the audience understand a character. Characters interact with these objects and reveal something about themselves.
Spa Night and Driveways diverge in their look – Spa Night was rich in blues while Driveways is often amber, for instance. How did you and cinematographer Ki Jin Kim approach Los Angeles and rural New York differently?
Ki Jin Kim is my closest collaborative partner in filmmaking. We met at CalArts and have been working together ever since. We take our cues from the location, finding a cinematic strategy and visual thesis statement by scouting. We observe the light, the architecture, the landscape. With Driveways, we saw so much green, because of the lushness of the Hudson Valley during the summer. For that reason, we looked to find a way to balance it out by highlighting a golden, copper color.
I also love working with Ki Jin because he’s such a story-driven cinematographer. We spoke a lot about the sense of nostalgia in Driveways, whereas in Spa Night, we spoke a lot about being super present and in the moment. This difference reflects itself in various ways. The shot size in Spa Night is fairly tight and claustrophobic, while in Driveways, we’re pulled back more, utilizing more wides. There’s a certain physical remove that hints at this temporal remove.
What was the process like of finding the two homes in Driveways? Were the interiors filmed elsewhere or in the homes seen in the exteriors?
This was challenge number one! As soon as we arrived in the Hudson Valley, I was on a mission to find these two houses. I knew we had the option of separating the interiors and the exteriors, but for various reasons, both creative and practical, I really wanted to find two houses next to each other with a driveway down the middle where we could film both inside and outside. It would allow us to get good sight lines between the two houses, offer us flexibility in scheduling, and feel a continuity in space.
It was an arduous process involving a location scout, the producers, a local realtor, my production designer Charlotte Royer, my cinematographer, and myself. We ultimately found two houses that worked on basically every level. My producer, Joe Pirro, spoke to the homeowners with so much heart and passion for the film that they agreed. I am so thankful.
How do you direct a scene that features a young talent like Lucas Jaye and a seasoned performer like Brian Dennehy? How does one cultivate that dynamic – or the dynamic between Lucas and Hong Chau?
I wanted to create a set environment where the actors felt supported, allowing them to feel safe to play, to experiment, to be generous, and be vulnerable with each other. On Driveways, I knew I was working with lovely, talented actors – I didn’t want to get in their way. I tried to have as light a touch as possible. Once you create this atmosphere, chemistry between the actors can really blossom so organically. Brian, Lucas, and Hong got along so well. There was a real tenderness between the actors that is such a gift to the film.
I would love to have seen Driveways in a theater, surrounded by strangers all connecting to it. It’s such a community film. Does it pain you in any way that the film was not able to be screened in theaters due to the Covid-19 pandemic? Is there solace in the reactions the film is getting?
The response to the film has been lovely, especially since it serves as a tribute to Brian since his passing. I hope more and more people get to see the film and find something valuable in the experience. I would have loved to have screened Driveways in theaters, but the pain I feel around this pandemic is caused by so many people dying around the world, not a missed theatrical release. My heart breaks thinking of all the people who have lost family members and friends to this disease. I know that we are saving lives by practicing social distancing and sheltering in place, so I have no sadness that Driveways isn’t playing in theaters right now.
I often think back to my time at CalArts where we talked a lot about being citizen artists, artists engaged with society in a meaningful way. This moment in time is historic, with the pandemic and the call to action to end police brutality against black people. As a filmmaker, I understand the important role art plays in inspiring social change, but I also know that there’s a limitation. We still need protest and policy change to upend bigotry. This is where my attention is at, at the moment.
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Unless otherwise indicated, all images are from Driveways, provided by FilmRise. Used with permission.