Aleta talks with Emily Kim about her short film To the Lights, which was screened at the 43rd Hawaiʻi International Film Festival (HIFF). This episode is part of our weekly series of WĀHINE DIRECTORS @ HIFF 43 - a series of interviews that are a great opportunity to learn more about the directors' films that were screened at HIFF and their creative process. Also available on our podcast.
EK: I'm Emily Kim and I wrote and directed the short film To the Lights. My film is about a young girl who's faced with a chance to escape North Korea when she must confront her loving father who's devoted to his nation.
AH: And what was this story inspired by?
EK: Yeah. So I grew up in Seoul, South Korea, for the first 11 years of my life, and it was really interesting. I felt like no one really talked about North Korea unless it was in the news, which then would only be highlighted when topics of politics or nuclear warfare were talked about. And so I thought that there should be more stories about the people and the day to day life, you know, beyond the politics. So I just did a lot of research. I read a lot of books and watched documentaries and met with a bunch of North Korean refugees who later became my friends. And I just heard their stories and was inspired to shine a light on the humanity of the country. Because I just don't think that it's really focused on in movies. It's either like a meme, like the interview, or, you know, it's about Kim Jong un in the news. And so we don't really see a lot of stories about the people there. And growing up in South Korea, these are people who, you know, share the same blood and history and, you know, family with. So I just wanted to tell a story about the people.
AH: Wow. That's really interesting. And it sounds like you not only had a personal connection, but you also kind of did the research before you went into it. Can you talk more about your research process? And I'm really curious about those interviews that you did. How did you organize that and what was your process kind of walking into that?
EK: One of the biggest resources that I found super helpful while I was researching was this club at USC. I went to school there and in my senior year I joined Liberty and Korea. They have a nonprofit organization and they have a chapter at USC. So I joined this club and started going to the weekly meetings and I learned a lot about North Korea and the club president. She had connections with North Koreans who had escaped. And so I asked her for any contacts who would be willing to speak to me and kind of could be a cultural consultant on the film. And so I met a North Korean refugee who's now living in South Korea. And he told me his story and he gave feedback on the script. And I showed him my vision and like the visuals and the production design and everything so that I was making sure that I was just being responsible and, you know, wanting to portray life as accurately as possible. And so that was really helpful. And he even met with the actors on Zoom and kind of gave tips, especially for the North Korean accent, which is different from the South Korean accent. So really paying attention to those small details like that was really helpful just to be able to to talk to someone who has lived this in real life.
AH: That's amazing. And maybe kind of going back to the script, you know, you started by saying there was this kind of population of people that you wanted to highlight that you hadn't really seen being represented. So how did you get from that being Point A to point B, this finished polished script? Like, how did you find the characters? How did you find the tension? What was that process like?
EK: Yeah, I actually had written the feature version of the script first, so I wrote a feature in my senior year of college. I really wanted it. It's been a story that's been sitting with me for years before starting from high school, and I knew that I wanted to tell a story about North Korea. And just over the years these characters have come to me. And then I wrote the script my senior year and I wanted to make a proof of concept for it because I just knew that a lot of people weren't familiar with the world. So I crowdfunded and just got a bunch of friends to help me make it and brought together just a great team. But the script was, yeah, basically an excerpt from the feature, or it was kind of a reimagined telling of the feature, just to get the world across and the characters and the stakes.
AH: Yeah, absolutely. I might ask you about the feature script a little bit, since that's where it all came from. How did you find those characters? And especially because you highlight this parental and child relationship and why specifically did you choose to have that be the relationship for this film?
EK: You know, in pretty much all the stories I write, I always have a strong female protagonist, so I knew that I wanted to focus on a young girl and specifically a young girl like a child, because I think that one of the themes of To the Light is hope. And hope is something I think that's tied to our youth and having the perspective of that childlike wonder of being curious and brave enough to ask, you know, what more is out there in the world was something that was really awe and I wanted to come across. And so focusing a story through the lens of a child and seeing how her hope, how she can hold on to that hope as long as she can in this really dark world. But it was interesting to me. And I think that the father daughter relationship, it stemmed from just a lot of real life stories I read and heard about. It's very common for people to escape at a really young age, and not this often. It's more common that you escape as a child with maybe one parent or maybe with a sibling or just by yourself. It's really hard to go and travel together as a family because it's such an arduous journey. And so I think that that relationship of having to let go of family is also just really heartbreaking and the hard truth of it all.
AH: I really loved the performances. I thought the relationship between the daughter and the father felt so authentic.And I, I think that a lot of that has to do with your writing. Like you really set an intimate scene at the start and you could kind of feel that. And so I am wondering, when you were approaching casting, and especially since it's like an adult and a child and chemistry reads like, how did you find these two?
EK: Yeah, I got really lucky with the casting. I reached out to Justin Chon's casting director, Justin Chon, who directed a bunch of amazing movies, one of them being Miss Purple. And I just there were two child actors in that movie that I wanted to reach out to. So I cold emailed the casting director and inquired about these two kids, and he told me that they're no longer acting, which was unfortunate. But he said, What is your story about? You know, I'd love to read your script. And I explained to him that, you know, it's a very low budget. And then unfortunately we cannot afford a casting director. But I sent him the script anyway and all of our materials and my pitch deck, and he just fell in love with the story and ended up casting for free, which is so, so generous. He found most of our cast. It was really such a I feel so lucky because the cast is phenomenal and I couldn't have been, I don't know, more grateful to have them be a part of this project. And Alissa, the main girl, I knew that she's been on Broadway before, she's been in Frozen and her brother acts too. He was in the film Minari that A24 did. And so they're just such a talented family and everyone who's a part of it was amazing. And we, we really focused on chemistry and building an authentic relationship through rehearsals and just spending time together. Like we ate so much food together and just hung out a lot in the space that we were going to film on location weeks before we started shooting, just to get comfortable and, you know, make sure that Alyssa felt good about the scenes because she she was so young when we shot this like 14, playing a 13 year old, 12 year old, and they were really the emotionally charged scenes. And then our father actor was also so incredible and he's a method actor. And so it was a really interesting process for everyone and it was incredible to see the magic come alive on set. Wow. my gosh. That's amazing. I feel like that's such a good tip for, you know, other directors are like maybe just take a shot, like send that email to that casting director to see what happens.
AH: I feel like that was destiny for you. Definitely. I am curious if you can share some of the details of what you would do in rehearsals. Like what was your directing approach to getting them to that emotional place and perhaps a difference between directing a child and directing an adult?
EK: Yeah, definitely. Alyssa’s family I think was kind of a major factor because they were, you know, they were so chill and Alyssa so much more, I mean, I kept forgetting that she was so young the whole time because she just acts like a little adult. And her parents were really generous with their time, too, and would come by to rehearsals or just drop her off, you know?
And I think that she felt that support from her family. And also I just wanted to create the most warm, loving, just natural environment for her to be in. But she really took the character into her own hands, and I felt like she came in with such a strong sense of who Son is. And same with the father. And I felt like on set it was almost less so about working with their characters, but more so working with them as who they are in real life. Just them as actors and people. Because the more we got comfortable as friends, the better their chemistry was when they acted. I feel like most of the rehearsals really focused around us, just getting to know each other and being comfortable and confident, you know, being vulnerable in those ways. And yeah, they really brought their A-game.
AH: Kind of going back to your story with the casting director, that is kind of a huge deal that you were able to get, the actors you were and the reach that you were. And so this is kind of a question almost for me personally is, have you struggled with imposter syndrome in your directing? And I think especially as female filmmakers, this has been a common theme I've heard from other people as well, is like sometimes when I get a big budget, I'm like, my God, suddenly I have this money and like all these people are looking at me. So did you experience that? And if so, what's your advice?
EK: Oh my gosh, of course. Cause I feel like I've got imposter syndrome on many levels. On one level, it was the first short film I had directed of this scale. We crowdfunded $15,000. It's about a $20,000 budget short and the cast and crew, maybe it was like 25 people, which isn’t the most? But for me it was a lot. And so I just wanted to and, you know, I loved all these people I was working with. I just wanted to make everyone proud. And sometimes on set I'd be like, Whoa, this is really happening where I have to call action. And sometimes it's a little surreal that I also feel like everyone who was on set was just so wonderful. I never felt out of place. It just came natural, I think, because just the environment, just the people were so great to work with. I never felt like I shouldn't be there, you know? And I was just so confident in the story and that the message I wanted to tell and I knew these characters and these actors for so long and everyone had worked so hard in pre-production.It just felt like once we got to set, as surreal as it was, I was like, No, we're all meant to be here. And we're meant to tell this story. So I feel like I just owe it all to the support of everyone around me and less so about my own abilities. It was just like such a great team effort, really.
Aleta: I love that. It almost sounds like your advice is like, make sure you're picking a crew that can collaborate and all uplift one another.
EK: Yeah, absolutely. And also, I got lucky with the cast too. Sometimes I have imposter syndrome because, you know, I'm 22 and I'm directing like a 55 year old man and I'm like, What am I doing? But at the end of the day, it really was mutual respect. We had respect for each other and the story and the characters. I think we all just had the same goal. And so there was really no ageism or, you know, sexism or the things that you would typically encounter on set. I think just because the people were so great, I know that's not the case for a lot of young female filmmakers. So yeah, I guess just really trying your best to find the best people you can work with.
AH: Right. I thought that this film was just like a feast for the eyes and you keep bringing up, you know, you had your pitch deck ready and visual references. So how did you work with your DP on this?
EK: Yeah, our DP is amazing. His name is Joseph Yao and he is super talented. It's crazy. Now, looking at the visual deck I had shown him and then the end result because he really nailed the visuals perfectly, essentially. And we collaborated on the shot list together and we did a lot of a few scouts to the location and kind of walked through each day and every single shot. And so learning from Joseph how to best utilize the camera to, you know, get the best performances from our actors. And I mean, that's the whole point of film is, you know, blending those worlds. Otherwise you're just like directing a play or something. But film is so visual and there are so many creative ways to evoke emotion. And so that was a really cool experience.
AH: And I have to ask, did you edit this?
EK: Oh, yes. I also edited it.
AH: Yeah! You gotta mention that. I mean, it's awesome. So as a director, how did you approach the edit and, and how did you being the editor, did you know that going into it that you were going to edit it?
EK: I was 75% sure. I just knew it would probably be easiest because I just had a very clear vision of what I wanted. And I think even, you know, when you're writing and you're directing, you have an idea of how the cut will come together. Yeah, editing is this directing. Editing is rewriting. And it was a challenge, but it was all worked out.
AH: Did you have a guiding principle for yourself on, you know, where to make a specific cut or when to end something or which shot to pick?
EK: Editing is always so hard because there's always so many choices you could choose from. You know, the best performance could maybe have the weakest camera movement or the best camera movement could have the weakest performance. So you're constantly making the hardest decisions. So I feel like I was just trying to find the balance of what best helps move the story forward, or I guess what best serves the story. I think getting feedback from a lot of people is also helpful. So it wasn't just me in a void with, you know, Premiere Pro, but I had so much great feedback and trusted peers, you know, helped me kill some of my darlings.
AH: I hat was your biggest struggle or like something you had to overcome in this film and how did you, how did you overcome it?
EK: I think one of the biggest challenges is probably in pre-production. It was my first time crowdfunding as well. We did Kickstarter and I mean $50,000 is a lot to ask for. And I learned quickly that, you know, friends and family, those resources deplete maybe in the first one or two weeks and then you're like, my God, I still have so much more to raise. And so you really have to think outside of the box. And we were cutting it close and I was cold reaching out to so many people, and I ended up messaging this man on LinkedIn who I saw was involved in North Korean stories, and this was just some stranger on the Internet I sent our script and our deck and our Kickstarter link, and he ended up being our EP and donating $5,000 just this this stranger on LinkedIn, so compelled by this story. And so I guess one of my biggest learning experience is just the worst anyone can say no to any question is no. And so much of this film came together because of, you know, the kind acts of strangers who just feel compelled by your story. And I think a lot of people told me that the story is very niche and might not appeal to a lot of people. And it's kind of like, okay, who cares about North Korea? You know? So it's moments like those that are really heartwarming and remind me of why these stories need to be told, because people do care and people will want to watch your movie.
AH: I think that also speaks to your strength as a producer and just your willingness to put yourself out there like I believe in my vision. Will you support me?
EK: Yeah, yeah, yeah. I think that was another big learning lesson. I think kind of going back to your imposter syndrome is just realizing that as the director, you are the captain, you're the leader. And so if you at least appear confident and put your 100% in, everyone else will follow suit. And so that was I mean, of course, with the help of a great support system, but sometimes it is just faking it till you make it and you're the leader so everyone will follow as you do.
AH: Yeah, that's some good advice. Speaking of advice, do you have advice that you kind of wish you had at the start when before you got this budget, maybe for female filmmakers who are just kind of starting out right now?
EK: I think I kind of mentioned this before. It's just really just, you know, picking really great people to work with. And sometimes you don't know. I think it's rare to, you know, know everybody on your set. And I got to work with so many new people that I had never worked with before, too. And so it's like taking a chance on new relationships as well is really important. And so I guess being open to whatever happens because at every stage, like pre-production, development, production, post-production, there's going to be a billion obstacles and it's all just problem solving. And so knowing is almost a little freeing because like you have your North Star, you know the story you want to tell, but the path to get there is always kind of open ended. You never know. You have an idea of what each day on set will look like. You have an idea of what the edit will look like, and then it's never exactly as it seems.I think that that's like almost the best part of filmmaking is that there are so many ways to go about it and you know, different choices could have made it a completely different story. But you trusted your vision and yeah, with, you know, all these amazing people that you decided to work with. I think just being open to any possibility is huge. Instead of just, you know, being stuck in one way. Right? And it totally does. Like it's kind of like rolling with the punches and then maybe something better will come out of it.
AH: What are you working on next?
EK: I recently signed with the management company. I'm actually based in L.A., and so I signed with Range Media Partners in August, which has been exciting. working on writing some other features in the comedy and the horror genre and just trying to write and direct as much as I can, directing a couple commercials and I'm going to transition to fully freelance in the New Year. And just my goal is just to create more and just have more time to, to be on set and hone my skills more. And so that's the plan. And then hopefully, you know, keep writing and a directorial debut in the next few years would be awesome for a feature directorial debut feature.
AH: I see it for you. I think you're going there.
Emily Kim is a director, writer, and actress with a global background, growing up between South Korea and Hawaii. Since graduating from USC’s School of Cinematic Arts with a major in Film/TV Production and a minor in Screenwriting, Emily has written/directed short films that have premiered at Oscar qualifying festivals such as the Hawaii International Film Festival. Her most recent proof of concept short, TO THE LIGHTS, has been nominated for Best Short at HIFF and won the Jury Award for Best Narrative at NFFTY. In addition to short films, Emily has directed national commercials for brands such as Mother’s Nutritional Center, which has aired on various channels and platforms from Nickelodeon to Hulu. Emily is currently working at Sony Pictures as President Sanford Panitch’s second assistant. She is represented across the board by Range Media Partners for writing, directing, and acting.
Aleta Hammerich is a local filmmaker and graduate of UH Mānoa School of Cinematic Arts with experience in directing, cinematography, and editing. She has worked on projects such as Reel Wāhine of Hawaiʻi (2021), The ‘Ilima Lady (2023), and Homestead (2023). Aleta is passionate about using filmmaking as a platform to share women’s and LGBTQIA+ stories.