The last time we spoke with JUSTIN CHON, he was riding high off the release of his second feature as actor/director, the Sundance Award-winning Gook. In the following years, Chon returned to Sundance for his next directorial effort, Ms. Purple, continued acting in projects including the TV series Deception, and prepared for his most high-profile project yet, the new drama feature BLUE BAYOU.
Chon wrote, directed, produced, and stars in Blue Bayou, about Antonio, a Korean-American adoptee who faces deportation after his citizenship status is challenged. The film – inspired by true occurrences – was shot on location in Louisiana, and co-stars Academy Award-winner Alicia Vikander as Antonio’s wife, Kathy. Chon rounds out his cast with seasoned performers including Mark O’Brien, Emory Cohen, Linh-Dan Pham, and Vondie Curtis-Hall; along with newcomer Sydney Kowalske. Blue Bayou premiered at the 2021 Cannes Film Festival, where it was picked up for distribution by Focus Features. It is now available to watch on digital platforms. [UPDATE: Blue Bayou is streaming on HBO Max.]
We had the chance to talk with Justin Chon about his career trajectory since Gook, casting his Oscar-winning co-star, filming in the bayou, and more.
COLIN McCORMACK: Last time we talked was when Gook was just being released. It might be kind of cliché to think of doors “opening” after each project and there being a linear line from project to project. But when Gook – your most high-profile film at the time – came out, was there a distinct stepping stone that led to Blue Bayou?
JUSTIN CHON: You would think so. Studios came knocking, but that’s not what I’m interested in, so that didn’t help me. What helped was Gook did allow for MACRO to want to make Blue Bayou, but it didn’t help in terms of expediting it. It still took a long time. So that’s why I made Ms. Purple in between because it was taking too long. From an outside perspective, people might be like, “Oh, but you’re getting all these meetings and people are interested,” but in the day-to-day, brass tacks of trying to get films made, it didn’t do anything [laughs]. It was the exact same process. Making Ms. Purple, I actually made it for less money than Gook. Getting Blue Bayou made wasn’t easy, it was very difficult, so from my standpoint, it didn’t feel like anything changed.
CM: When you approached MACRO, was Blue Bayou in the pitch stage, or had you written a draft of the script?
JC: It was a pitch. [MACRO] was always the place I wanted to take it because of what their company stands for and everything. I think I only really formally pitched it to them. But they were also gracious enough that I said, “I don’t want to write an outline, I don’t want to write a treatment. It’s just not my process. I write outlines, but they’re for me. And I don’t want to get notes on it because I don’t even know what it is yet. We all know what the outcome will be, which is to bring awareness – and this is a general storyline and characters – but within that, I don’t want to be micromanaged. Is that okay? I’ll do as many drafts as you want, I just don’t want to do the process of the traditional [development].” And they were okay with that. That also might have lengthened the process of it because they had to wait to get a draft and they had to read the draft and kind of process it. But also, they were gracious in that their notes weren’t prescriptive. It was more like suggestions. There were no hard, foot-down, You better do this! So that was nice.
CM: Did you write the role of Antonio knowing you’d be playing him?
JC: Not at all. I actually didn’t want to, because I’d done it in Gook and I know how hard it is. I met with some [potential actors] and it just didn’t feel quite right. Also, it’s a job for them and I realized that after the movie’s done and it’s released, I didn’t know if they were going to have the time to speak about the movie or maybe if there’s a function in D.C. and it will help with [citizenship] legislation if they’ll be able to make it out. I was making this movie for a reason, and that’s part of it. Also, there’s a lot of difficult stuff in the film that is hard to ask an actor to do, like actually ride the motorcycle and put the time in so you don’t look goofy, and also the accent. I think if they didn’t get that right, it would really mess with the authenticity of the movie. If things are going to be difficult, I don’t have to ask myself, I can just go do it.
CM: How long before shooting was supposed to begin did you officially sign on to act in it? Did you have your normal amount of [acting] prep time?
JC: Yeah, I had more. After maybe the first two actor meetings, I was mentally kind of preparing and researching how I would approach the accent and everything. But then I had to bring it up to MACRO and see if they were okay. Also, they didn’t want to finance the whole thing so we needed a partner and they had to be okay with it too. So it wasn’t a shoo-in. It’s not like I just decided to be in it and it happened, I actually had to convince them. It can be such a weird thing where you’re going to a production company and it could be taken as sort of a vanity thing. I wanted to approach it in the right way. I’d been mentally preparing, then it was like, “Hey, what would you guys think if I played the role?” And they were like, “Let’s just think about it.” Then there was a conversation of I’m not really a bankable name, so how do we make this work if I play it? Well, who are the actresses that you’re thinking about? Who is the ex-husband you’re thinking about? Then it was, I gotta go get someone really big for Kathy. But I was not going to do it if it’s not going to be right, either. So there’s that push and pull that happened. I couldn’t have asked for any better [co-star]. Even if it wasn’t me [as Antonio], I’d absolutely want Alicia Vikander in the film.
CM: Yeah, I’m sure it’s a two-pronged thing of being excited to work with her as a director but also a bonus of getting to share scenes with her as well?
JC: Oh my God, yeah. I was a little bit nervous to do that because I’ll be judged as a director and also as an actor. It’s like a double-whammy, right? Is she going to think I’m an idiot or a total impostor? It was pretty nerve-wracking, but I had to really be confident on the surface because you don’t want an actor doubting or feeling like, Did I make a mistake? I wanted the actors to feel the utmost confidence in my vision and in me as a storyteller.
CM: Did you guys have a lot of time before shooting began to either hang out or do official rehearsals?
JC: You know, she’s quite busy. We were able to have quite a bit of conversation over texts and Zooms, so we were talking about the accent and her look and her hair and made very specific choices. She would bring things up and we’d talk, so that collaboration was really fun, molding it for us to be complimentary. In terms of face-time, we still had two or three weeks. She was getting familiar with New Orleans and met with real people, so she was doing her work. And we did a little bit of rehearsal between me and her. I did a lot more rehearsal with everybody else. But with her, you’re working with a world-class, Grade-A, top actress, so I wasn’t worried. I was just like, Let’s go. Let’s play. But we talked a lot about our ideas.
CM: When we talked about Gook, you had mentioned how you discovered that young actress at I think a community center. How did you find the actress [Sydney Kowalske] that plays your step-daughter in Blue Bayou?
JC: Again, I didn’t want to hire a Hollywood, super seasoned kid, so I was looking in the actual area. I was looking in Louisiana, Mississippi, Tennessee, Texas, and I found her in Atlanta. The moment I saw her tape, I knew right away. It was just perfect, just right. So they drove down and I met her in person. I did audition other people, just because you never know, she might not be able to do it or whatever. And we did some improv and spent some time together. I was also vetting the parents because when you’re casting a kid, you’re just as much casting the parents. Then I sent them off and I talked to the DP and said, “Hey, let’s go hang out with them and film some stuff.” Because it’s also not a shoo-in for the production company, so I wanted us to cut some stuff so I could be like, This is the girl. Please don’t doubt this.
So I went to Atlanta and spent a lot of time with her and her family, nothing to do with the script, just spending time. I cut some [footage] of me interacting with her; we played video games and hung out, then that’s how we built it. I presented it to the producers and they said, “She’s special. How about the scenes?” I was like, “Let’s not approach it that way. Let’s make it more holistic. If she feels like she’s being tested, you’re going to fuck the vibe up.” So I’ve got to give a lot of props to the producers because they really did allow me to have my process, which is important for a film like this. You can’t treat it like, Let’s fly her to L.A.! No.
CM: You were able to bring a lot of your crew you worked with on past films as well? Or a combo of people from New Orleans, people MACRO had worked with, and your own people?
JC: All the department heads were my people.
CM: Was that something you had to convince producers of as well?
JC: Yeah. They’re just doing their due diligence. I didn’t take it [negatively]. I figured it would be foolish of them to just blindly trust me because who knows? I could be a total idiot [laughs]. I also thought it was important to meet with everybody, so I met with a lot of people for each department. So I showed them that I was really doing the consideration but ultimately, These are the reasons I think this person is really great for this job. On an indie, you don’t have the time to be figuring things out, so working with people I’ve already worked with on a few other movies, there’s a shorthand and we need that shorthand in order to move quickly. If there are problems, they know me well enough to help me solve them quickly and know what my taste is. But yeah, I still had to do some convincing.
CM: In terms of collaborators you brought back from previous works, the composer [Roger Suen] you’d worked with before as well, right?
JC: All but my first film, yeah.
CM: What was the music inspiration for this one? Especially with it taking place in a region where the music could steer toward stereotypical in other hands.
JC: The low-hanging fruit would be jazz, so I didn’t want to go there. I wanted to save one jazz cue for the lowest point in the film, just to really extract what that music should do in that city. Also, I didn’t want to use strings or keys because it just felt too manipulated. It felt too present. There’s this idea that [Antonio] has these premonitions, so it’s a faded sort of memory and a dreamlike quality for those sequences, so I figured I wanted a sense of passing air. So there’s a lot of organ. At first, I was going to do accordion but it felt too small. So the organ just had this airy, passing feel; not permanent. Wood instruments, again, felt too present and small.
Also, I use music music like Kishi Bashi, and that was more for the whimsical or the more exciting elements. I use bounce music, like Big Freedia, she’s local to New Orleans. So that was a mix. Ultimately, towards the end, it’s about trying to extract emotion. Some critics have said it’s too heavy-handed in the emotion department and I’m like, “It’s supposed to be.” I’m trying to bring empathy and understanding to what it feels like to be someone going through this. I want you to feel and I don’t want to let you off the hook. It’s not supposed to be left up to your interpretation. No, no, this is absolutely what I’m trying to do.
CM: There’s that Roger Ebert quote about movies being empathy machines.
JC: Yeah, empathy machines. I absolutely subscribe to that. I always feel like the music needs to be an extension of the character’s feelings. How they’re emotionally feeling.
CM: How long was your shoot?
JC: It was 30 days.
CM: And it was always set in New Orleans from the initial conception?
JC: Always, yeah.
CM: Had you worked there before on other stuff? What brought you to that location?
JC: I dated a girl from there for a long time. I have a lot of friends there. And I did a film [From the Rough] there in, I think 2008 or 2009, with Taraji Henson and Michael Clarke Duncan while he was still alive. So I knew the area and then it was about re-discovering it and really diving in deeper.
CM: Were you able to go there during the writing process, or just during pre-production?
JC: I had people from there read the script. This film was quite complicated in ways because I’m representing a lot of different people who I am not: The adoptee community, the South, New Orleans, ICE, law enforcement. I just wanted to make sure it’s authentic. After I wrote it, I went once with a DP and we did a photo scout, just taking photos. At that point, they had already agreed to let me be in it so I dressed as what I thought the character would be. The look changed a bit, but I cut my hair. Then we shot photos with me in the environment. And then, later on, I went early with another DP – because there are two DPs on the project – and we stayed in Biloxi, Mississippi, and New Orleans for about a month-and-a-half or two months and kind of vibed it out.
CM: Did that help with the accent work as well?
JC: Yeah, but I had a dialect coach who really helped me prepare and make it authentic and specific. It was based off of three people and we had all the considerations of socio-economic, class, region, and all that stuff. She also helped me with creating the mosaic, so in other scenes, pairing other peoples’ accents to make it feel real and not forced or like a “movie.” Because of the accent and the region, there was a lot of consideration on that.
CM: Were there any specific days or scenes that were the most difficult, either from the performance side or the production side of things?
JC: Everything at the bayou. We got flooded out, so we lost a day-and-a-half. We couldn’t even access the bayou because the roads were underwater. Then shooting there, you’re in the elements. It’s cold as hell, but you’re doing rain work. I was getting brain-freeze from the water being so cold. And it’s not the safest. There are gators and snakes, so you needed an animal wrangler. It’s not as simple as taking a camera out there and shooting. Lighting support is pretty difficult because it’s night work and you have to be able to place cranes in the right places. How do you get there? It needs to be accessible. So that stuff was not the easiest.
CM: We don’t have to talk about specific numbers, but is it safe to say this is the highest budget film you’ve worked on in terms of directing?
JC: Yes, as a film. I just finished a project called Pachinko for Apple TV, and that was even larger. Each episode was probably twice the budget of Blue Bayou. So now I’ve kind of done the gamut. I’ve done more expensive, world-building television and a smaller mid-range indie film, to the absolute micro-budget.
CM: Yeah, even going from Gook down to a lower budget on Ms. Purple, then up again with Blue Bayou, in the actual day-to-day when you’re in the shit, is it noticeable to you on the ground? Or are you just problem-solving regardless of how much cushion you have on either end?
JC: Yeah, it’s just different considerations and differences in style. The TV show, you don’t want it to look cheap. They’re spending that much money, you want to make sure you get the production design, so I’m going to shoot it a little bit differently. But it’s all storytelling. How does it serve the story? What’s appropriate for this story? My newest film that I’m in the edit for is cheaper than Blue Bayou. So I think there’s a trend here. I did Gook, then I went down. Maybe the next one after this film will be bigger, but I don’t know. I’m budget agnostic. I don’t give a shit. What’s a budget that’s necessary for this story? What I do care about is how fast it gets made, though. I just don’t want to wait around. So I’ll take less money if it’s going to help me get the film made faster and sooner and still there’s a path forward for accomplishing my vision. But it’s an expensive art form.
CM: You talked about the Apple TV show, but what else do you have coming up that you’re psyched about?
JC: I have a film, Jamojaya, which I’m in post-production for. Then the Apple TV+ show, Pachinko, is going to be out sometime next year, I’m not sure what they’re planning. It’ll be sometime in the first half of the year.
CM: And are you acting in both of them as well?
JC: No, I’m not acting in either one.
CM: Oh, wow.
JC: [Laughs] Yeah, I’m serious when I said I didn’t plan on being in Blue Bayou. People don’t believe me, they think it’s some vain [project], but I truly thought it was necessary. So I’m not in the next two. I really wanted to focus just on the directing aspect. Not to say if there’s a really incredible director that I feel their project has some purpose, I’d absolutely [act]. If Wayne Wang, the director of Joy Luck Club, called me for anything, I’d go out for free. If there’s any meaningful work, I’d love to act and not worry about the directing. But I’m enjoying myself.
This interview has been edited for clarity.
If you’re an independent filmmaker or know of an independent film-related topic we should write about, email firstname.lastname@example.org for consideration.