Benson K. Lee is an award-wining filmmaker whose directorial debut, Miss Monday, was invited to be a part of the Dramatic Competition at the Sundance Film Festival in 1998. The film went on to win a Special Grand Jury Prize for Best Actor: Andrea Hart. A decade later, Lee made his first documentary, Planet B- Boy, which in 2008 became the top-grossing documentary in the United States and was distributed to over 30 countries. In 2013, he successfully adapted Planet B- Boy into a 3D feature, Battle of the Year, with Chris Brown, Josh Holloway and Laz Alonso. Benson’s recent film Seoul Searching, an American/ Chinese/ Korean production, has already been shown at various film festivals, including CAAM Film Festival, where it received the Audience Award for the Best Narrative, and the 41st Seattle International Film Festival, where Lee was awarded with the Youth Jury Prize for Best Futurewave Feature. Seoul Searching had its European Premiere on February 27th in London – as a part of Asia House Film Festival, where we also caught up with the filmmaker himself.
The day I was invited to attend the European premiere of Seoul Searching in London happened on a gloomy Saturday afternoon. I had asked Benson Lee for a short interview before the screening took place in the 119-year-old Regent Street Cinema, the place where the first film, Cinematographe, was shown by Lumiere brothers in 1896. I arrived early to make sure everything was prepared for the interview, and that there was a good spot for us to chat. I won’t lie; I was feeling a bit apprehensive – you never know what sort of person you are going to talk to and the weather did not help – but I didn’t wait long for Benson to show up, and what a pleasant surprise he turned out to be! He welcomed me with a big smile on his face and was eager to answer a few of my questions; we quickly got ourselves something to drink – a nice glass of wine – and sat down to begin the interview.
There are countless filmmakers out there who have their own story to tell about why they became one. What initially attracted you to filmmaking, and how has that interest evolved?
When I was younger I loved movies, ever since I could remember, and I grew up watching them as an escape, I was very curious about what was going on with the rest of the world, so movies were sort of an answer for me. I have never thought I would be making films until I went to college, where I met a few film students and I helped them to make movies. I still didn’t have confidence to make them though (laughs).
Later on, I went to another University where I started making films on my own, and that was the time when I realised that’s what I love to do and that’s why I persuaded it full time, I made a commitment.
Your latest production, Seoul Searching, was screened at various film festivals and received positive reviews. What prompted you to write the script and make the films itself?
It is based on my personal experience. When I was young, my parents sent me to the special summer camp in South Korea, I was just 16 years old and it was in 1986. Initially I didn’t want to go, but when I got there and saw how cute all the girls were (laughs), I thought “okay this is not gonna be that bad”. I met Korean teenagers from all over the world, from Europe and South America. I discovered the world through these friends that I made, and it turned out to be a coming-of-age summer and one of the greatest summers of my life.
I decided I wanted to make a movie about that, but on top of that I wanted to make a movie with Asian teens, because there is such a lack of Asian teen films or positive Asian characters in English language films. On another level I wanted to make a note to John Hughes’ works; he is one of my favourite filmmakers from the 80s, the films that I love but hated for his description of Asian characters; I wished to make a movie that I wanted to see when growing up.
Do you think that you managed to bridge certain cultural gaps with Seoul Searching?
Yes, I believe so. We have a representation of lots of different Asian characters who are from different parts of the world. It wasn’t only about bridging the gap between, I guess, Koreans and being Korean, you know nowadays there are many people who are bi- cultural, and whose parents emigrated from another country, and they have their own stories. In that respect I wanted to bridged that story about their experience where their parents might be from another country but they were raised in their adopted country. There is quite often schism between the parents and children, and that causes a lot of grief.
In terms of production what sort of challenges did you have to face while making the film? I have heard that you used one of the crowdfunding platforms to support Seoul Searching; you also managed to gather an incredible assemble of actors through an interesting casting process via social media, what was that process like for you?
I guess the real question was what wasn’t challenging, first of all it took me sixteen years to make it, because I wrote it in 1999 (laughs). So just getting financing for an Asian film, with Asian characters who spoke English, is very difficult. And finally when I got the opportunity, it was also about making the movie in Korea, so obviously the language barriers might have been an issue; however, we got ourselves a very good translator and managed to work without any major problems. Also Korean team was very passionate about the filmmaking and extremely hard working, it was a real pleasure working with them.
So how was the casting process via social media then? Why social media?
Simply because of the lack of talent in that age range, there is a lot of talent out there but it is not like if I wanted a white actor, I could have gone to any casting agency and I would have a pool of actors; for Asians it is very limited, and on top of that I also like new actors, non-actors, they kind of like singers you know, they have talent but they are raw in their talent, and my job is to help to kind of refine that for the character. I had no problem in finding non-actors, quite a few of my cast members are non-actors and they did a very good job.
What do you feel is the best thing to keep in mind while making a film?
You definitely must know how to tell a good story and then you have to know how to sell a good story, it’s important because it is such a big business, and so much money involved. Quite often artists aren’t very equipped to have the business savvy and how to raise that large amount of money. So, I actually would recommend to filmmakers to learn sales, learn business; just understand when they go to people with money they have the physical responsibility to pay it back.
So there is a lot of pressure involved in making films?
Oh absolutely, this is why filmmaking is the hardest thing to achieve, you know, any writer can write a novel, any painter can paint a painting on a canvas, but filmmakers have to work with so many people and raise so much money that, sometimes, is just astronomical. Even on a micro budget, which now is considered to be over $200,000, you have to work hard to get this amount of money. You also have to think about the crew, which is another aspect of the filmmaking, you have to deal with issues on everyday basis with a cool head, you have be a people person and super charming, of course. Filmmaking in general is hard but also very rewarding.
Recently more and more people are inspired to get out there and make films themselves, no longer being restrained by the studios. What’s your view on today’s filmmaking? Do you think you would like to stay independent or would you consider joining hands with a studio?
I think that filmmakers have to understand that if they are going to make their own vision then they have to raise their own money, it is that simple. If you work on someone else’s vision, if someone hires you or if it’s really big money or if there is more physical responsibility, then you have to understand that people will be very concerned about the money, and quite often they may ask you for something that may not match your vision. As a result you gotta make certain sacrifices, unless you are super charming and lucky, then they will give the power to you. The rule of this game is the more money involved the more pressure you have to make it back, and the more you are not allowed to do something corky or personal, you know, it has to be for the mass audience. The secret of indie filmmaking is to keep the budget really low so that there is less risk and people can take more risk as a result.
Lately, there has been a cloud of controversy hanging over the Busan International Film Festival. Are you aware of it, and if so, what is your opinion on the situation?
Yes, I am aware of it. I think it is really sad when a government withdraws their support of a festival due to one movie that makes a political statement, and honestly that movie just gave another angle and that’s what film is all about, and that’s why you should support films, because films expose what’s out there from different aspects, and that’s what film festivals are for. Unfortunately, in this case this is very political, politics should have nothing to do with film festivals. This kind of issue may affect many filmmakers and their filmmaking, it is really scary.
Are there any aspects of filmmaking that you would still like to explore?
No, I am happy with what I have done really.
How about making another documentary?
It depends, I am not really a documentary filmmaker, I do enjoy it but it is very difficult. I really like making feature films.
Do you already have a project in the works, what are your future plans?
Yes, I have a K-Pop project that I am developing right now. I am hoping it will take off, that’s gonna be a bigger film.
All about K- Pop idols?
Sort of, but that’s all I can tell you right now (laughs).
Thank you so much and I am looking forward to your new project.
Written and interviewed by Maggie Gogler
Edited by Sanja Struna
Feature photo: © 2015 Courtesy of the photographer
Other photos: © 2015 Benson K Lee, AsAm News, CAAM Festival