In conversation with: Eileen Yoon
Hello everyone and welcome to my second newsletter! First of all, thanks to everyone who subscribed and read the first post, my interview with Rose Bonica.
This time, I interviewed filmmaker Eileen Yoon. Her film Chimera just premiered at the 39th Annual CAAMFest! You can buy tickets to watch Chimera as well as 80+ films on-demand at caamfest.com until May 23.
I caught up with Eileen and we talked about Chimera and the story behind it, what inspired her to become a filmmaker and the Academy Awards. Read the interview below and make sure to subscribe and leave a like or comment.
Hey Eileen, thank you so much for taking the time to answer my questions. How are you doing?
Hey Johanna, I’m doing good! Been a stressful and fun month for me. How is it almost June already?
Thanks for interviewing me for Substack!! :)
Are you currently in New York or Seoul?
I’m currently in Brooklyn, NY.
Your most recent film, Chimera, is now available to stream on Demand in the US. Can you tell me a little bit about the project?
The film follows Ayeon’s present-day moments in New York with flashbacks to her childhood Christmas in Seoul. It’s a film about finding a home, bringing people together with food, and choosing your family. The film was shot in both Seoul and NYC right before the pandemic broke out. It was a lot of fun to shoot in both locations because both the people in front and behind the scenes were my really good friends I’ve made over the past four years in school and friends I’ve had for life. I was able to take them to the places that I’ve called home in both cities.
The story follows the lead character, Ayeon, who grew up in Seoul and now lives in New York. She’s reflecting on her childhood memories and the cultural differences. What made you explore those topics?
I grew up as a third culture kid as a Korean-American in Korea. The desire for the script was to show what my experiences in both cities have been like. Because I grew up in an international school, I was able to learn from different cultures and assimilate into the western cultures almost seamlessly when I moved to the US. However, this was also followed by the feeling of belonging nowhere at the same time. The film’s title, Chimera is reflective of my experience, because like the mythical creature, chimera, a hybrid of different animals,
I feel like I’m a “cultural chimera”, a hybrid of different cultures.
So in the film, I was trying to show these memories and cities flowing through each other to show how the feeling of floating between places and feeling at home at the same time.
You often make use of colour in your work. How do colours impact Chimera?
I love color and I think it has a really strong way to evoke emotions. We wanted to keep the look consistent between the two cities with the use of color. I worked closely with our NYC and Seoul unit production designers, Alicia Lee and Josefine Cardoni, along with my DP, Grace Zhang to show colors in both lighting and set dressing to tie the cities in with the color green. Green makes me feel nostalgic for a variety of reasons and wanted the film to have that feeling.
We also used color to show the main character’s personality. Red was used to indicate Ayeon’s younger self, and to show her vibrance as a child. We see present-day Ayeon wearing green and with a more reserved spirit than before.
Chloe Zhao was the second woman and the first woman of colour ever to win Best Director at this year’s Academy Award ceremony, which is frankly quite shocking. How diverse do you perceive the film industry?
I think it’s great that there’s finally a role model for those growing up. With Parasite winning best picture last year and Chloe Zhao winning Best Director this year, it will definitely set the tone for the future. But I am wary of being too optimistic. My only hope is that we can have POC films that aren’t about the struggle of being an immigrant. The stories we all hold are so unique, and I would like to see more diverse stories being told. I want to see films where we flourish and celebrate the joy of our cultures. That’s something I need to be conscious of when writing as well.
I feel like the films that I’ve made with more struggles with my identity have been received well, but I would like to make something completely different than an identity struggle.
You’ve worked both as a director and DOP. What role is more challenging, and which one do you prefer?
I think each is challenging in its own ways and I love doing both.
I like the creative freedom and challenges I face when I’m a DP. As a DP, it’s a lot of fun creating an image with the director and visualizing their mind. It’s a puzzle that comes together beautifully on-screen.
I say this a lot -- but filming is a lot like cooking and dancing. It’s choreographed and planned out, yet so beautiful in how everything seems to flow. You improvise when something doesn’t pan out right so it’s like a huge problem-solving game as well. No matter how small or large you’re always going to have to improvise.
For now, experiences as a director spans in music videos and my narrative short. I’ve always loved music and had a passion for it and putting visuals to lyrics is something that constantly excites me. It’s almost like a contained experimental film in the ways it’s able to break the typical narrative structure. The director really has to express the tone and mood to the actor and I feel like with more practice I’ve definitely been able to do that but something I still need to work more on. It’s both challenging and interesting to create these bonds with the actors to create empathy for the characters that are built out in a film.
You’ve also directed music videos. How do those differ stylistically from more traditional films?
Collaborating with musical artists has been an interesting journey for me. I usually DP the music videos I direct and it gives me a lot of freedom to grow and experiment in my style. I get to go all out and create absurd sets without having to explain it — unlike a narrative film.
There is a more universal structure that narrative filmmaking takes on.
Like Chimera, the narrative films I direct are written by me. It’s a real deep dive into my consciousness in the process and almost therapeutic. For example, I feel like I’ve come to terms with who I am as a culturally fluid person and my relationship with my father and his past. The way I direct I have to basically explain my emotions to them and put it in their perspective. I’m not sure if it's masochistic to stir up those past memories to make something, but it’s very fascinating to see everything unfold.
And how did you get into wanting to make films in the first place?
Since I was very little, I wanted to go to culinary school however, my father kept discouraging it up until high school when it was time to make my college decisions. He said it was “long hours and heavy lifting”. Little did he know that filmmaking would be the same.
I chose to go to film school because of my love for the arts, photography, and my interest in action movies. I was interested in the process and honestly had no idea what I was getting myself into until I was on set in school. The more I created with others, the more I loved doing it and I feel like I’m learning every time I collaborate with others.
NYC is opening up to full capacity soon and the pandemic seems to finally be under control in the States. What are your plans for the rest of this year?
Dance. And dance with PEOPLE! Sometime in my time in London in 2019, I unlocked this part of me where I was unapologetically myself on the dance floor. It has always been a huge stress relief for me and simply such a euphoric moment. I want to get back to that ASAP and dance with random strangers. I miss the little eye contact you make with those around you and start dancing with them and I’m really looking forward to those moments again.
The upside and the downside to going to an international school is that everyone you went to school with is dispersed all around the world. It’s really nice knowing that anywhere in the world there may be someone to visit, but also hurts me knowing that it’s been so difficult to see certain people. I’m looking forward to traveling again and giving those people a huge hug.
A large part of me, as you can see in the film, is made up with my relationships with my friends and people. They’re the ones I feel at home with and I see a light shining my way.
I spent the beginning of the pandemic alone in my apartment in a very secluded area of Brooklyn so I am ready to embrace everyone again.
I hope you’ve enjoyed this interview and please subscribe, leave a comment and/or share!