Lensing, Composing and Manufacturing Designing For “Minari”

Writer-director Lee Isaac Chung’s Minari (A24) made a major splash at last year’s Sundance Film Festival, winning both the Dramatic Grand Jury Prize and the Audience Award in the dramatic category. And the recognition continues–even when the film is on the receiving end of a controversial Golden Globes decision to limit it to the foreign language category. Minari wound up winning the Globe for best foreign language feature and it’s picked up several Screen Actors Guild nominations, often a harbinger of things to come at the Oscars.

Also boding well are assorted other honors including winning three New York film Critics Online Awards–taking the marquee best picture crown as well as best foreign language film and supporting actress for Yuh-Jung Youn. 

Furthermore Minari has earned six Film Independent Spirit Award nominations–Best Feature, Director, Screenplay, Male Lead (Steven Yeun), and two for Supporting Female Actor (Youn and Yeri Han).

An American production with dialogue mostly in Korean, Minari is deeply personal for Chung in that the story is inspired by memories of his childhood. We are introduced to a Korean-American family that moves to rural Arkansas in the 1980s, a father’s dream to start a small farm there, the struggle of immigrants in a new land strange to them, and a boy’s touching, tender and charmingly comic relationship with his loving, at times foul-mouthed grandmother who moves in to help. While not a factual representation of his own experiences, Chung’s story was crafted to reflect the spirit of those experiences, taking us on a unique empathetic journey of a family in search of its own American Dream.

It’s a story in which each family member is heroic and resilient in his or her own way, all contributing to help the family survive and endure, shedding light on what really makes a home–in this case the physical home being a nondescript trailer on isolated farmland. Bringing this family to life is a brilliant ensemble cast in which parents Jacob and Monica are played, respectively, by Yeun and Han, while their son David is portrayed by newcomer Alan S. Kim, daughter Anne by Noel Kate Cho, and grandma Soonja by South Korean acting legend Youn. Also integral to the story is a neighbor, handyman and farm helper Paul, a devout Pentecostal who speaks in tongues but also through the universal language of kindness. He is portrayed by Will Patton.

Named after a peppery Korean herb which is among the crops being cultivated on the fledgling farm, the film was produced by Plan B, the company in which Brad Pitt is a partner/EP. Chung credited Plan B producer Christina Oh with helping to assemble the production family behind Minari. “I had been doing more arthouse films and was looking to Christina to help navigate my pulling off this film,” shared Chung. Oh brought in artisans for Chung to consider and whom he wound up embracing, including cinematographer Lachlan Milne, ACS, NZCS, editor Harry Yoon, ACE, composer Emile Mosseri and production designer Yong Ok Lee. Mosseri, for instance, had worked with Oh on Plan B’s acclaimed The Last Black Man in San Francisco.

SHOOT connected with Milne, Mosseri and Lee to gain their perspectives on Minari and on working with Chung. SHOOT also reached Chung (interviewed in Part 3 of our Road To Oscar series, 1/15/21) who noted that a couple of challenges posed by the film stood out for him, starting with his writing the script on spec.  “I was writing it in the dark,” related Chung, “I wasn’t sure if it would land anywhere. I’m writing about my family in a way and it can be boring when you talk about your family way too long. Talking about my family for two hours stands out to me as being the hardest. Then there were the limited time and resources–and within that having Alan, our seven-year-old actor (who portrayed David) on set for just six hours a day. He’s almost in every scene. So there was no room for error during 25 days of shooting. For me and everyone, we couldn’t make a mistake. You didn’t always have time to think some things through. It felt like we worked a lot on intuition. Lachlan’s (DP Milne) great experience helped. He’s experienced in working on features that have had difficult schedules.” And Chung was quick to credit the cast in dealing with that schedule. “That family feels so real. They (the actors) had to be so real with each other when we had the cameras rolling.”

In that vein, Milne explained that he kept “coverage very simple. Isaac (Chung) and I made a clear decision not to necessarily shoot coverage just for the sake of it. Each actor had to earn a closeup. You needed to make a statement to make someone larger in frame. This was an ensemble cast so we wanted to bring as many of those people into the frame whenever we could, sometimes have people stepping on each other’s lines. It was more honest, real and integrated like the audience was just there observing.”

For Milne the tone of the script shaped the approach to lensing the story. “The script felt so honest. I wanted to do justice in a photographic sense to the honesty of the story. This was not about cranes, big dolly moves or multiple camera coverage. It was all about honesty and simplicity, to document in a photographic way. Isaac had the same attitude towards the approach. It was clear we had a very similar sense of what needed to be done.”

Milne credited his agent with turning him onto Minari. The DP was on the last day of shooting a Paramount film, Love and Monsters, in Queensland, Australia, when he got a call from his agent, Grant Illes of WME. Milne recollected his agent saying, “‘Go straight home. Don’t go to the wrap party, Read this script. It’s a gem.’” Milne noted, “In 24 hours from knowing nothing about the story to then reading it, I felt strongly that this was something I needed to do.”

The strength of the story–as well as the strength of character, the kind of person that Chung is–made the experience on Minari especially gratifying for Milne. “It was one of the best director-cinematographer collaborations I’ve had in my career,” assessed Milne who deployed the ARRI Alexa Mini coupled with Panavision PVintage lenses. Milne relied on practical lighting as much as he could inside the trailer. He generally went for natural illumination of scenes, the light coming from the environment whenever possible. 

Milne added that taking on distinctly different challenges from one project to the next is “one of the great joys of filmmaking.” An example of the wide-ranging work juxtaposes the eloquence of simplicity needed for Minari with the far more elaborate, special effects-heavy work he lensed in Stranger Things which marked Milne’s first foray into series television. The DP’s career is rooted largely in independent film.

As chronicled in SHOOT’s Road To Emmy coverage last year, brothers Matt and Ross Duffer, creators and EPs of Stranger Things, initially gravitated to Milne due to a recommendation from director/writer/producer Taika Waititi (an Oscar winner for Best Adapted Screenplay for Jojo Rabbit). Milne had shot writer/director Waititi’s Hunt for the Wilderpeople, which Ross Duffer described as “a movie that’s told at such a high level but has a sense of fun and heart to it. Lachlan really brings just that to the set besides his skill as a DP. He brings an energy to the set.” Milne’s lensing for Stranger Things included the final two episodes of season 3 that the Duffers directed.

Emile Mosseri
Chung recalled telling composer Emile Mosseri when they first met that he didn’t want a score calling attention to his Korean heritage. “I didn’t want it to be culturally specific,” related Chung. “He appreciated that and I otherwise gave him the freedom to come up with what he thought was best. He gave me five pieces before we went into production, telling me they were just sketches. The work blew me away from the start. To me they were fully realized pieces and they allowed me to have a better understanding visually of how I was going to film some of the scenes.”

While his music may have helped inform the way scenes were shot, Mosseri observed that Chung inspired him. “We were setting a mood before anything was shot. It all started from Isaac’s script–and that script inspired the music. The script informed the music which informed the edit and how some  of the film was shot–and all that came back to inform the  music in turn again. Lachlan informed the music with his incredible cinematography. It’s like we were all throwing the ball back and forth.”

Mosseri said the overriding influence for him was the idea that Minari had “a warm, glowing, beating heart at the center of its family. The nucleus of this family contained love and warmth. At the same time there was much tension, struggle and pain. I wanted the music to reflect both those worlds–not in the sense that love was in one scene and then cued to a scene with tension. Every piece of music had to contain both–warm and emotive with some tension underneath. We set out to achieve that orchestrally and instrumentally, experimenting with different tools, strings, piano, guitar, synthesizer. Love and tension were baked into the batter of the score.”

The process of developing that score has left a lasting impression on Mosseri. “I had never written music before the film was shot. I would like to do that from now on whenever possible.”

There was also a coordinated, collaborative effort thereafter. “Isaac is brilliant,” said Mosseri. “I worked most closely with Isaac and Harry (editor Yoon). I would like to have that relationship with directors and editors on future projects. It’s almost like co-writing a score. I feel like Isaac and Harry co-wrote the score with me. They put pieces of music in places I might not have ever thought to do.”

Mosseri added that while he was composing, Yoon was assembling scenes. “He (Harry) would piece together segments of film using my score. Harry and I were working at the same time that Isaac and Lachlan were shooting. That kind of approach offered more than traditional compartmentalizing. To have that kind of collaboration, to be completely in tune with your collaborators, was the biggest joy and biggest takeaway from this experience.”

Still, the first cut of the film surprised Mosseri. “The writing was all there but I had no idea of what was to come. They beautifully captured this portrait of a family. Lachlan captured the land. He captured Jacob’s (played by Yeun) spiritual connection to the land. The performances were wonderful. I had no idea that this boy Alan would give such a performance. You couldn’t have known this boy would have that much magnetism and depth. I wasn’t emotionally prepared for the first cut of the film.”

Mosseri’s feature filmography as a composer includes Minari, The Last Black Man In San Francisco, and Kajillionaire. Among his TV credits are HBO’s Random Acts of Flyness and Amazon’s Homecoming. Mosseri is also a member of the group Human Love, and a recording artist and touring musician.

Yong Ok Lee
Minari made its initial impact at the Sundance Film Festival in 2020. This marked the second straight year that a film that production designer Yong Ok Lee contributed to had opened eyes at Sundance. In 2019, it was Lulu Wang’s The Farewell.

Lee noted that Chung had specific ideas about location and tone yet afforded her latitude to do her job for Minari. “He didn’t give me a lot of references. He showed me his family photo in front of their trailer home but didn’t ask me to do the same and recreate that, of course. Mainly we discussed the characters, which really helps as I went for details that would reflect who these characters are.” Lee said her priority was “how much I could help make each character believable with visual language. That was my biggest consideration for this movie–how I can make each character come alive.”

Lee was drawn in on a personal level as well in that the story was about her culture. She had a first-hand sense of that culture and period of time. Lee also shared that it was special and personal to get to work with a majority Korean cast and crew–native Korean and Korean Americans–on an American film. 

She had to scramble to find resources, including local crew support in Tulsa but ultimately did so, procuring much of what she needed otherwise–such as period furniture and decorations– from yard sales and flea markets which Tulsa locals had turned her onto. Lee added that uncovering the right locations posed a challenge. Especially hard was finding a water stream that was integral to the story. She also had to obtain Minari plants, eventually sending a crew member to drive out one night to Kansas City to bring the plants back on location in Tulsa.

Chung marveled over Lee’s work on Minari. “She pulled this off with limited resources and time. She had four weeks to do essentially a period film–truly amazing. Her sense of visual detail was so strong for locations, environments, personal details. We knew a lot of this film would be about visual details. She allowed us to be able to make it work. The details for instance went down to the smallest things. Within the wallet of Jacob was a Price Club membership. He has just arrived (in Arkansas) from California. That wasn’t in the film but it contributed to the detailed portrait, her attention to detail. Every drawer that you opened in the house (trailer) contributed to the portrait of this family.”

This is the 10th installment of a 16-part series with future installments of The Road To Oscar slated to run in the weekly SHOOT>e.dition, The SHOOT Dailies and on SHOOTonline.com, with select installments also in print issues. The series will appear weekly through the Academy Awards gala ceremony. Nominations for the 93rd Academy Awards will be announced on Monday, March 15, 2021. The 93rd Oscars will be held on Sunday, April 25, 2021.

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