Director Shawn Ku was on his way to study at Columbia Medical School when he got derailed by something strange — MGM musicals.
Since his mother was in the medical field and his father was a biochemist, Ku was expected to go into the medical field too (his sister is a doctor). But there was one thing that was different: his mother loved old musicals. The Gene Kelly, Fred Astaire kind. The MGM musicals kind. And Ku got pretty much addicted to watching them. The fact that his older sister played piano and was around drama school solidified his interest.
Deciding he had more time to pursue medical school (“there was not a ticking clock”), Ku opted to dance on Broadway, segued into directing and writing and from there, went off to film school.
Although Ku has been busy promoting a film thriller that came out this weekend called “A Score to Settle” with Nicolas Cage, he happily sat down with Moviehole to talk about his career and what it takes to go places in the film business.
Moviehole: What was your first big break?
Shawn Ku: In terms of film, I went to USC film school and did a thesis film, it was called “Pretty Dead Girl.” It was a musical about a necrophiliac, a silly fun musical that premiered at Sundance and got me attention and got me signed and a movie at Warner Brothers. It was my big break, but that film fell apart and I floundered and then I did an independent feature called “Beautiful Boy,” which won an award at the Toronto film festival. So I had two film breaks.
Moviehole: How did you get involved with ” A Score to Settle”?
SK: A producer from “Beautiful Boy,” Eric Gozlan, and another producer was working on it and then Eric sent me the script. I was intrigued and surprised by it and John the writer was inspired and we did some changes where Nic Cage signed up. We were off and running from there.
Moviehole: What was your biggest challenge on this film?
SK: It was challenging because our budget didn’t have as much money as the movie demanded, so we didn’t have a budget to support the film as much as we wanted to do. It was a very tight schedule and all of it was a challenge because there was no luxury to get too fancy to spend a lot of time on stunts and fights to make them huge and larger than life. We were constrained by that and had to be creative to make things exciting and emotionally charged.
Hopefully the characters and story is what makes things great. It was a struggle but we moved quickly and thanks to Nic, he was always ready and excited. He’s so enthusiastic and excited about movies which is surprising in that his career is so long; he inspired everyone on the crew and everyone was excited because he was excited. He set the tone and work ethic. He is inspiring, really.
Moviehole: Please explain what this film is about?
SK: It’s a story about Frank who came out of prison after two decades and missed more than half of his son’s life. He’s being released because of medical issues and diagnosed with bad insomnia and so his life might end. So he wants a relationship with his son but to also get revenge on men who wronged him and struggles with what is more important?
Moviehole: What is your directing method?
SK: I think a lot of directing is adapting to what the actor needs in how to communicate with them and how much to interfere in their process — when to leave them alone and when to step in. It’s like negotiating any relationship with any new person. To hear their input and adapt. In terms of working with a cinematographer, I had never worked with one before; it’s about communicating what I think and understanding what he thinks.
Moviehole: Do you see any current trends in filmmaking right now?
SK: You saw things like skipping the bleaching process when everything was darker and grainier, looks have changed. Like everyone was doing handheld, it’s funny — we talked about where does this film fit because part of it is slightly nostalgic, like Nic’s character is living in the past and then pushing forward, but it’s also about the youth taking over. We had a discussion about this film — are we doing hand-held or locked off shots, are we doing something retro? Also at a level are you trying too hard to be fancy as far as cinematography? It’s kind of an interesting dance you do.
Moviehole: What is your advice to newbies?
SK: I think it’s hard to get some attention now because there was a day where you had a short film and it got attention; nowadays to a certain extent anybody has a way to make a movie, like shooting it on an iPhone and doing the sound on another phone. The hardest part is finding a good story to tell, be it writing it or finding it somehow and creating it. You have to make something if you want to direct, you can’t just say you’re a director. A film is only as good as its script. So much of it is about the subject matter — what is special about that story, have we seen it before? Are you ahead of the trend or behind it?
Sometimes I get scripts and I say do you want the truth? I will read the whole thing but I WILL tell you the truth. It’s hard to be open to criticism because it’s so personal, writing in a way. You have to learn to be open to criticism. And it has to readable and if that’s your first film it will be overshadowed if it was a bad story. But I think that’s the way to do it; go and make something and get into a festival and take baby steps one at a time. Or write a hell of a book and insist you get to direct.
Moviehole: What are your filmmaking goals?
SK: I just want to tell stories for people to be moved by them and be changed by them. I just want them to be seen or heard.
Moviehole: What are your upcoming projects?
SK: I have a movie shooting at Netflix and another script hopefully to be shot in Mexico by a Mexico director. Those are the two films I’m involved with right now. My screenplay that Netflix is shooting is about little girls dancing, that’s more my mom’s speed (laughs).