Kogonada may only have two films under his belt, but already his work exhibits a meditative quality that is so rarely seen and difficult to pull off on the cinematic medium. Very few films have reached his realm of self-reflection and pensiveness. After Yang may seem like a familiar offering in science fiction, made of components that we’ve seen before – artificial intelligence, exploring what it means to be human.
But with Kogonada’s guidance, the film becomes a deep exploration of the space we each occupy as human beings and how our existence makes a profound effect on other people’s lives. When we live on in the form of memories, how do the people left continue to exist? Elements like grief, love, memory, and time – all of it seems to fuse together in a lifelong process that’s always in flux.
Such ideas can be so difficult to hold onto and fully understand, and for a film to succeed, such care needs to be put into the creative process. In the interview below, I spoke with Kogonada about creating the world of After Yang, how to capture the film’s magic through the actors, and the infinite pursuit of grappling with love and memory.
Kogonada: [Seeing my Zoom background] Hey Kevin, that’s a groovy background, man.
Kevin L. Lee: Thank you! It’s from World of Tomorrow.
K: Oh God. I love that. Yeah. I was like, that feels familiar.
KL: Yeah, yeah! Big, big Don Hertzfeldt fan.
K: Yeah. He’s the best.
KL: Well, thank you so much for taking the time to speak with me today. I really appreciate it. It’s an honor. And congratulations on the film. It’s an astounding, beautiful piece of work.
K: Oh, thank you, Kevin. Thank you.
KL: So I want to start by talking about just how much care you’ve put into setting and design because in your previous film, Columbus, architecture plays such a profound role. There’s a neatness to it which offers a beautiful contrast to the character’s lives being so messy and complicated. For After Yang, how did you approach designing this world, especially because it’s sci-fi?
K: I think a real sense of place has always felt important to me in regard to the films that have stayed with me. I think if there’s one thing in common with the films that have most deeply resonated with me is that I really have a feeling of its… not only its geography, but that sort of lived space. So I just… that has always been something that I’ve been drawn to as both a filmgoer and then having an opportunity to make films. For the background to just be the background, for it to just be a kind of setting and not a part of the world. I’ve always felt like it should be as realized as possible.
And that was so integral to Columbus, because I knew that I was also telling a story of place. And then this was a different challenge because it was a completely built world. It was a future world. It didn’t already have the architecture in place. And we knew it was going to be limited in scope because of it. And we knew that it was really going to be a family story and an interior story at that. So I just knew that their home would be central to our sense of place. And it was going to be about 65% of the story as well, the setting of the story. So that became sort of everything to us in our location scout.
And there was a moment where we even thought about building it. And then we came across this abandoned Eichler home. That really had the bones of something that I was kind of hoping for, which was that it was both a small space, that it wasn’t a space for the wealthy. Those Eichler homes, there are only three in New York, and this was one of the abandoned ones. And they’re built sort of for the people; they weren’t built for wealthy people. And so it was a very small house. I think when we shot it, it felt a little bit larger than it actually was, but it really was for a class of family that wasn’t necessarily wealthy.
The way that home was laid out and the central atrium, it didn’t have a tree. That was all… When we found it, it was completely white. It was concrete floors. That middle section was just concrete, but I knew that it had the dynamic for us to kind of live there for most of the film and also had its own story to tell in the way it was arranged, in the way Yang was across from Mika and the way in which that tree was central to so many shots in the film. So, yeah, that was a real discovery and it felt really important.
KL: I think the other thing that makes the film so beautiful… not only is there a sense of physical space, I think so much of your film lives in a head space.
KL: Feeling alone, feeling lost, trying to remember someone you love or figuring out how to best remember someone you love. How do you direct that? What do you talk about with the actors?
K: Hmm. Yeah. I mean, if you’re fortunate, you work with actors who have looked at your script and interrogated it and did their own research and have approached it and have a deep sense of the approach to both those scenes and to the film itself. And that was the beautiful thing, and it’s true for both of my films. I’ve been fortunate to work with actors who came into the project and us being very much on the same page. I’ve yet to feel that conflict of someone who’s just like, “No, this is the film,” and then you’re really working to try to land somewhere that would be similar.
Colin [Farrell] already had a sense that this was going to all take place within an octave and that his notes would have to be quiet and he would have to play it within this sort of range and that these were deeply interior notes. And I mean that’s what makes Colin such a, for me, a captivating actor since Tigerland and In Bruges and the works that he did with Yorgos, and even his biggest blockbuster films, there’s an interiority to him that is always very compelling.
I think your best actors, you look at them and you’re like, “Oh, there’s a whole history and a mystery, and you’re gone,” and they brought all of that into the film. So I don’t want to take credit because I think they already knew that we were already sort of on the same page.
KL: So were there moments on set where something magical came to life and just something that was totally unplanned happened?
K: Yeah. I mean, I feel like in some ways it was constant because again, I think I was really mesmerized by the decisions that the actors were making, and as much as we sort of controlled the environment and we knew where we wanted them in relationship to the space, they also had freedom in occupying that space in different ways. And if within that space they felt uncomfortable, we would kind of rethink it, but then within that, there’s all these sorts of choices being made.
I was constantly mesmerized by the notes Colin played and the way in which… For a lot of these actors, we have a number of actors who only have one scene with Colin. And it’s a big deal for them to act against Colin and a lot of them sometimes would bring a different kind of energy. And Colin would always adjust according to how that other person was playing. He was like the best jazz musician who really understands that sort of relationship and doesn’t try to outshine but really complements. So he was doing that throughout the film. And I was just, I mean, you could just see this incredible jazz musician who had gotten to a stage in his life that he didn’t feel like he had to always blow everyone out of the water with a flurry of notes. He was just sometimes comfortable with sustaining one note or two notes.
I think Justin [Min] in his conversation with Jodie [Turner-Smith] in the butterfly scene, there were moments where he just cried, and it was a surprise to him because he was trying to sustain this robot, but these emotions would come out. And I knew how I was going to cut that. I knew that it could exist in that world, but I never told him, “Hey, cry here,” you know?
K: It was just a sort of moment. But I knew, even as that happened, how much it would deepen our sense of that memory and complicate it. So those are things that just happen, and you just feel grateful.
KL: Yeah. I just, I remember… I can watch three hours of Colin and Justin just talking about tea.
K: You’re my ideal audience then! [Laughs]
KL: [Laughs] Exactly! And I also remember because… Haley Lu Richardson, this is your second time working with her. And I remember seeing the film and thinking, “Wow, she hasn’t shown up yet and I’m waiting for that dynamic.” So I really appreciate how you describe the jazz musician metaphor because I was waiting for that dynamic. It draws back fond memories of what you created between Haley Lu Richardson and John Cho in Columbus, this chemistry where it’s like they’re soulmates, but it’s not in a romantic way. It’s just two people who are working in their own rhythm to understand one another and see one another.
K: Oh, that’s so well put. Yeah. I think I’m very drawn to the possibility of soulmates that don’t have to be consummated in the way that it traditionally is, that we long for those kinds of connections that are often deeper than just pure romantic expression, but it has its own kind of romance to it. Yeah, yeah, yeah.
KL: I want to say that the character Yang meant a lot to me.
KL: Especially the dynamic between Yang and Mika because I have a younger sister, she is eight years younger than me, and she’s my favorite human being in the world. And she’s 19 now, but my most precious memories of her is when she’s around 10 years old, which is probably around the same age as Mika in this film.
K: Mmm, yeah.
KL: And it’s just… At some point, your film, I broke into tears and it just… it made me think about what my existence could mean to someone and how much heartache my absence could potentially bring. I felt like in your film, you were trying to dig deep and get closer to some sort of universal truth about love and memory and time.
KL: Can you share… I’d like to hear a little bit from you about that creative process, because it’s a lot to explore, to tell a story.
K: God, you’re identifying the things that I care about. And however imperfectly I’m pursuing that in film, it is the thing that I am trying to grasp, and there is something ineffable about all those elements that you express and have identified. But that is, I think for me, the lure and joy of getting to work in this medium because I don’t know if… The most ineffable things are elusive and I love that because I think if you could contain it, it would diminish the beauty of it.
And so I think all of those subjects that you describe are worthy to pursue and fall short of every film that I make. I think until the day I die, there’s some elements of those that I’ll be in pursuit of because they’re all vital to me understanding myself, but I don’t imagine that I’ll ever be like, “Aha,” I’ve contained it because they’re constantly shifting and mysterious to me, but that’s such a beautiful way that you describe that. Especially in relationship to your younger sister and the recognition of your own absence and what that might mean.
And I have… I’m the youngest of four, and I remember when my sisters left and being so surprised at how… deeply I miss them because they’re… those relationships are complex. And sometimes you’re like, “Oh, I can’t wait until they leave,” and then they leave and then you’re… you feel hollow, right?
So there’s something there that I think is reflecting a greater universal truth of like greater impending absence. The small deaths are always more interesting and compelling to me nowadays than the big death which we know is coming. But I think small deaths of saying goodbye to someone you love or parting ways for a moment are so revealing and haunting and can also orient us in a way that is meaningful.
KL: Mr. Kogonada, thank you so much for taking the time. I really appreciate it. And congratulations on the film.
K: Thank you so much, Kevin. It was a joy to talk with you.
After Yang is currently in limited release from A24 and also streaming on Showtime.
Photos: A24; Kyle Flubacker