What can be said now, almost two full years later? No one takes 23 and a half months months to make a 33-minute film. Except me.
No one takes two years to make a short, but more to the point, definitely no one takes a year to edit one. That's how long Scorsese and Schoonmaker take to edit their features, but their films are three hours. I'm just not as good, is the thing. You'll forgive me for needing more time to get it right (and okay, I did get a little sidetracked writing, publishing and promoting a certain book…).
Getting it right is important for me on any of my projects– films, books, photography, writing or otherwise– but particularly so here, mostly due to the remarkable level of craftwork on the part of everyone involved. I gush here and here in numbing detail about how grateful I am for the ridiculously high level of talent, effort and enthusiasm brought to bear on this passion baby of mine. Because this wasn't their passion baby, but my own. Of course I would get up at the crack of dawn every day to throw my all into this… but the fact that they did too? If any one of the 118 people involved in the making of Men I Trust chose not to do so, this end product wouldn't be, couldn't be, what it is.
Why a Film?
Men I Trust is about two sisters and a spouse as they navigate love and loss over a period of decades. Grief, mortality, and the tragic fact of death, how it proves the existence of time; these are the things we think about but don't talk about, sometimes can't talk about, because the sensations and reflections transcend the verbal, and we're reducing them when we translate them into words.
Cinema doesn't have that problem. It's immersive enough and powerful enough to accommodate these aspects of human experience, and although the written word is better at articulating what's going on inside people's heads, images and sound are unsurpassable at expressing the experiential, the act of being. Which is why this story isn't a blog post or photo series. It's too big for that.
Why the Subject?
Back in 2009 I resolved not to make any more films with male protagonists, and I stand by that dictum more than ever. The male psyche has been explored to death, and continues to be explored to death, by filmmakers waaayyy better than me. There's no reason for me to contribute to that. Better to balance out the field a little, and explore what to me is frankly more interesting, probably because it's so woefully underrepresented in cinema: life experience as lived by anybody besides attractive, heteronormative white males between 20 and 60.
You may know I recently gave a book talk at the Greenwood Senior Center. While there, I fumbled my answer to a great question about how I write about people of races and genders beside my own (said fumble, along with video of the entire event, will be posted here soon!). I would reply now that I spend a lot of time thinking about how life looks from other perspectives. It's essential not just for my writing to have any sort of value, but for my being to be able function as I do in life, to coexist peacefully and with enthusiasm in trying to understand where other people are coming from.
There's an important new awareness now that voices of suppressed peoples should be allowed to tell their story. I support this movement and couldn't be happier to see so many more debut films and films by women and people of color this year and last.
There's a complication to this newfound inclusiveness that bears addressing, though; it shouldn't be interpreted as an inverse proclamation that we are only to tell our own story. If that's true, art dies, and fast. I'm a Korean-American man in his 30s. Although the hapa experience in cinema is basically nonexistent, and more visibility on that front would obviously be a good thing, I must admit I can't imagine anything more completely stultifying to me than making films about Korean-American men in their 30s.
Thankfully other hapa filmmakers feel differently. But speaking strictly for myself, the thought of creating such navel-gazing self-absorption bores me to tears. I'm aware all my art is to some degree about myself, but it's more potently always about others. About us. Humanity. Considering the lives of others and what we have in common is what excites me, and, well, we don’t decide what we’re drawn to.
The Essence of Reasons
Artists have to be allowed the capacity to use their imagination. We cannot take Barry Jenkins to task for Moonlight because he isn't gay. Or say Ava DuVernay can't make a film about MLK because she isn't male. Or criticize Steven Spielberg's WWII films because he never served in combat. Have you seen Sam Fuller's The Big Red One? Fuller was a vet, and the film is about WWII.
But it's a terrible movie.
Experience isn't the guarantee of quality or insight; artistry is. The best artists have the ability to empathize, to consider with care and detail what it is to walk in another's shoes. No, Kathryn Bigelow is not a young black man, but it would be a crime to diminish her prodigious skill and research in mounting Detroit, and shunt aside her sensitivity and talent in favor of talking about the color of her skin. The merits of the work will justify, or not, its quality, and should be the nexus point of evaluation around which these complicated and fruitful discussions happen.
Pedro Almodovar's career of complexly observed films about women might be one of the better examples of embracing what's universal about the human experience. Doesn't it go without saying that people are people before their gender or race, that we all have different but nonetheless relatable problems, and thusly an artist might have something valuable to say about Life, instead of just his life?
Which is how I justify making films about characters that are not thirty-something Korean-Americans. I'm not the ideal person for my subject matter, and I know it. But I hope I'm bringing something thoughtful to the table. It may be easier for me to articulate the perspectives of my homeless friends than talk about myself, or make movies about the concerns of people two decades older than me, but of course, at the end of the day my art will always be about myself, how I see.
Why the Title?
Narratively, I want Men I Trust to achieve what the title does with grammar: Men is for once not the subject but the object of the sentence, the receiver of action, not the arbiter of it.
I watch a lot of movie trailers. Often one will begin and I'll roll my eyes, thinking, “Great. Another movie about boys and guns." That's what we think is happening as we start to read the title here… but wait! Who is this I? There's someone besides men who have authentic, essential lives burning with joy and pain?
Of course there are. The title is the title because I want the audience to enter the film from the female characters' point of view. One starts out on the sidelines, and gradually becomes a main character. The other is the I who takes a leap of faith– trust– in someone she cares about. The male character (being trusted!) is defined by his love and support for another, and thus plays what would normally be the female role.
It's tiresome to watch film after film where the female character is always a supportive wife without goals looking up to her man, but I happen to know some men who are like that, defined by their love for another, and I think they're absolutely beautiful. In their emotional security and generosity I think they represent both an epitome of what being a man can be, and also the danger one risks to one's identity when it's so heavily defined by that of someone else's.
The Relational Act
Humans are relational beings. We define things by their relation, or differences, to the things around them. We understand ourselves, for example, by noting what we are not. We conceive of life as a series of dualities– light and dark, motion and stillness, joy and pain, day and night, love and fear. We enjoy harmonies in music– contrasts from chord to chord. We speak of variety, even in the organization of our routines. In physical eyesight we are drawn to the point of highest contrast between tone values. It's all about contrast.
Which is why cinema is the most immersive art form. Because the principal communicative element of the film medium is the cut. The juxtaposition of moving images. Only in cinema can you set two moving images next to each other and create a third thing, the meaning that arises from between them. Or set the contrast between an image and the music underneath it. This is cinema, pure cinema, the human relational act of defining brought to bear at its most condensed and dynamic. The film medium doing what only it can do, beyond the purview of literature, theatre and all the other forms we see hints of in film.
Basically: we weren't going to rush the edit.
Of particular note in highlighting among those 118 lovelies mentioned above is co-editor Brittany Hammer, the Thelma Schoonmaker of Seattle. You don't often get to collaborate at the level where silences communicate as much as the words. Yes, it's a film about grief, but we wanted it to sing. To sizzle. Film is a visual medium. My training is photography, and I like to go for high-impact; if all we're doing is parking the camera in front of actors and having them read lines under flat lighting, it's not worth making a movie. It should be a sensual experience, as rich with popping color and dynamic edits as any joy-filled art piece can be, while yet keeping those high-wire aesthetics relevant to effectively amplifying the issues at hand. Figuring that out took a year, because I'm not the Martin Scorsese of Seattle by any stretch, and it was worth every minute.
This is all what I'm trying to achieve. You get to decide if it's effective. Like my book, this film contains everything that I am, to probably embarrassing degrees I'm glad I can't comprehend. Filmmaking is the biggest, hardest, most complex thing I know how to do, and after eight short films, this is the first time I am completely happy with the result. Ninth time's the charm, I guess.
Each of my previous pictures is marred by some major, unfixable flaw– something technical, bad audio maybe, or a critical casting mistake– and it’s always been my fault, something I the director didn't know enough about. I was hellbent on ensuring I made no such goofs on this one. We auditioned a hundred people. The screenplay, which is partly in French, was translated and vetted by five experts, two of whom are French teachers, and the footage was reviewed for take selection by two more French speakers, one a native. We took no chances on anything. As an earlier post explores in much more detail, short films don't usually get made at the frankly ridiculous levels we pursued here. Who knows what I'll make of it in ten years. But right now I'm happy.
The poster above reads, "medium-length film." That's right. This isn't a short film. It's 33 minutes. Short films are all about brevity: how efficiently and quickly you can get in and out with a story. I admire that form, but Men I Trust isn't that. It's a Chunky Monkey. We're not speaking in the vernacular of short film grammar here, but of feature film grammar. This shift in approach came about partly on the discovery that you can't do snappy, fast-paced dialogue about... grief and mortality.
The attempt here is rather to create something that feels more like the third act of a feature than a short, where we use the time-based nature of cinema not as a crutch but an advantage, something to revel in and explore. We (like to think we!) shift tempo and rhythm like a conductor would– as another tool in the kit, the better to envelope the viewer in an experience.
Believe me, I'm completely aware of how presumptuous this all sounds, as my passengers with their altogether more elemental problems remind me nightly. I'm not saying I nailed it. I'm saying I tried to nail it, and I prefer watching movies that err on the side of being too creative rather than too banal. I'll take an interesting, living, experimental failure over wooden dead serviceability every time. At best, I can say with confidence this film is definitely the former and definitely not the latter.
I can't wait to show you what we’ve come up with. The feedback so far has been glowing. It'll be a while yet before a screening, but there will be one; I want to take an extra moment to get everything right (sound familiar?), with blu-rays et cetera for y'all. Plus, organizing a screening at a theatre is darned expensive, after you've just spent everything making a film! Stand by for more promotional materials and information as the year wears on.