“Directing Other People’s Writing Makes You Become a Better Writer”: Andrew Ahn on Driveways
There are a number of films about an inquisitive child who discovers a solemn, older neighbor next door, but it’s rare for one to provide equal weight to both the child and adult characters. Driveways, a modest but heartfelt second feature from Spa Night’s Andrew Ahn, succeeds at striking the balance. Kathy (Hong Chau) and Cody (Lucas Jaye), a mother and son from Michigan, arrive in upstate New York to clear out the home of a deceased family member and prepare it for sale. Del (Brian Dennehy), a Korean War veteran and lonely widower, spends his days sitting on the porch next door or going to the local bingo hall to reminisce with fellow vets. The father figure Cody never had, Del is neither abrasive nor creepy. You get the sense that Del wants Cody to break out of his shell and befriend people his own age, but whenever the young boy tries, he feels like even more of an outcast. Del looks out for Cody, never talking down to him nor simplifying life’s hardships for the sake of a teachable lesson. Dennehy (who sadly passed away last month at the age of 81) provides one of his most nuanced performances, and it’s to his and Jaye’s credit that the friendship feels believable and organic.
With Driveways in digital release on multiple TVOD platforms, I spoke with Ahn about shooting in the Hudson Valley, working with child actors and the advantages that come with directing a screenplay written by someone other than yourself.
Filmmaker: We last chatted two years ago at the Tribeca Film Festival, after the premiere of a pilot you had directed. Since then, you’ve continued to work in episodic series, but had you been looking for potential film projects that might become your second feature? Did you ever feel you had to quickly capitalize on the public response to Spa Night?
Ahn: I put all of my time and energy into making Spa Night. After I finished it, I really didn’t have another feature in mind. After doing a lot of press for Spa Night and having the film screen at Sundance and getting distribution from Strand Releasing, I felt really sick of myself. I didn’t want to talk about being gay and Korean-American anymore. I began looking for screenplays, books, short stories, articles, etc. outside my own lived experience—material I could still connect with, something that resonated with me. That process took a lot of time. I was reading a ton of scripts. Some were bad, and the ones that were good, I just didn’t understand why I should be the one directing them. Joe Pirro [from Symbolic Exchange] then sent me the script for Driveways and I fell in love with it. I could envision the impact it might have on audiences and the story felt really meaningful to me. I wanted to do it.
Filmmaker: So you weren’t looking for a project that was derived from a personal experience of yours, but one that you might still be able to personally relate to?
Ahn: Yeah, and what’s ironic is that I told myself that I was sick of talking about being gay and Asian, and then in Driveways, I decided I wanted the characters of Kathy and Cody to be Asian [laughs]. As a director, you have to find your way into the material. I saw an opportunity in the story, as Kathy and Cody are in this small town, feel like outsiders and are “othered.” Why not then externalize that within their racial makeup? That was a character choice I made that connected me to the characters. Maybe it feels a little reductive, but I think it’s real and concrete.
I also wanted to continue working with Asian-American talent. A number of producers and executives feel that the Asian-American talent just doesn’t exist to tell these stories and that’s 100% untrue. The talent exists but they haven’t been given the opportunity to show it. I wanted to work with Asian-American talent that could get the opportunity, the platform to really shine. Hong Chau had been given that opportunity before with projects like Downsizing and Inherent Vice and Treme. But this is the first film for Lucas Jaye, the young actor who plays Cody, and I’m excited for the rest of his career.
Filmmaker: In an interview with Scott Macaulay back in 2016, you spoke about Korean and Korean-American financiers being hesitant to invest in Spa Night, given its subject matter (you went on to create a successful Kickstarter campaign and brought on several Italian investors instead). Several of your subsequent projects have involved Korean-Americans as well. Do you still reach out to potential investors who might have a relationship to the subject matter? Or does that not even matter?
Ahn: It’s important to remember that we made Spa Night at a time when there wasn’t this current trend of Asian-American stories being overly exciting or interesting. As a result, we really did have to find investors (like Kickstarter backers) who had an emotional connection to the material. Driveways, on the other hand, was financially set up very differently. We went through the more traditional “American indie film,” finance system where it depends on which actors you can get attached to the project. We found our financing that way with Maven Pictures. Don’t get me wrong: it’s still really important to me that the people who decide to help make your film a reality (the people who pay the bills) connect to and understand the material and vision. That’s always going to lead to a better movie and I think it’s tricky when you get into disagreements late in the process. With a movie like Driveways, we were really clear about what we wanted to make and I think that shows in the final film.
Filmmaker: So Brian Dennehy and Hong Chau were attached to the project early on?
Ahn: They were, and it’s a real credit to them that they wanted to come on board so early. I think they love doing projects like this. There are some actors who want to do something that’s big and sparkly and comfortable, but Hong and Brian have this attitude of wanting to make smaller, more interesting work. We were fortunate that they said “yes,” and without them we wouldn’t have been able to make the movie.
Filmmaker: You shot in upstate New York?
Ahn: The screenplay was originally written for western Illinois. The screenwriters, Hannah Bos and Paul Thureen, are from the Midwest and were dipping into their childhood experiences when they wrote the script. For various reasons, we decided to shift our focus to the Hudson Valley. We felt that it had the right feel. It’s somewhat ironic that we filmed in Poughkeepsie primarily, as that’s where Hannah and Paul met when they went to school at Vassar (and the roller rink that Cody has his failed birthday party at in the film is where Hannah used to skate). This part of the country might not have been where Hannah and Paul grew up, but it’s where they got to know each other and began their writing collaboration. Establishing that personal connection with our screenwriters mattered to me. A number of films were shooting in the Hudson Valley while we were in production. Jim Jarmusch was shooting up there.
Filmmaker: On The Dead Don’t Die?
Ahn: Yeah, and Josephine Decker was shooting her new movie, Shirley. We jokingly wanted to try getting a bowling competition going between each of the three casts. It would have been fun to have the crews meet. The Hudson Valley is used to having a lot of productions up there. There’s a lot of talented crew located in that area. We were also close enough to New York City where someone like Christine Ebersole, who has a supporting role in our film, could come and do a couple hours on our set and then go back down to New York City for an evening performance. It really worked out for us.
Filmmaker: Given the primary location of the film (suburban homes side by side in a quiet country setting), how did you find the houses?
Ahn: Finding the two homes next to each other (with the driveway in between) was what gave me the most anxiety throughout pre-production. There was always the option of separating them, like you could shoot the interiors somewhere else (even in a studio), then shoot the exteriors with whichever two houses you liked, but I really wanted an authenticity of space and place. That continuity was important for the actors, that they could walk in and walk out of a space and not have to separate between the two. We wouldn’t have to shoot one part of the scene in one location on one day and then another part of the scene at a different location on another day.
We searched far and wide throughout Poughkeepsie, looking for houses with porches attached to them. We had our location manager looking, I was looking, my producers were looking, etc. We ultimately found these two houses through a real estate agent that we went to and asked, “Hey, we have an interesting challenge for you…” She was awesome. She already knew the neighborhood in a way none of us could have, thought of these two houses immediately and had previously been in touch with the families.
We went over there and tried to be as nice as possible to the homeowners. While I knew that the production would be paying to have these families temporarily live elsewhere, I wanted to thank them for opening up their homes to us. Location is very much what our film is about and it was imperative that we find the right one in order to get that across.
Filmmaker: Are you mapping out those exterior shots of the homes in your head the minute you arrive at the location? I hesitate to use the word “desolate” when describing the neighborhood, but the area feels very country-like and the surrounding green environment (in addition to the homes) instantly plays a role in how the audience perceives the surrounding space.
Ahn: We wanted to give the sense that this was not an urban neighborhood, that it had a “small town” feel to it that could be a bit jarring for some people. I think that’s especially true for people of color, as it’s not where our communities primarily are. That was the feeling we were trying to capture. At the same time, we also wanted to capture the natural beauty of the space and the grass, the trees, the sunlight, etc.
I work best when I’m grounded within a location. As a result, it was really hard for me to shotlist the film and discuss shooting expectations with my cinematographer until we found the location. That was priority number one. Most of the locations in Spa Night were ones I already knew; that wasn’t the case with Driveways. For much of the pre-production process, I was driving around town, going to different libraries and supermarkets, places like that. I wanted to be in the place as much as possible in order to find a way to portray it.
Filmmaker: Was this your first time working with child actors?
Ahn: I had actually worked with a child actor on the very first short I made in film school at CalArts. It was produced by fellow filmmaker Eliza Hittman, who also has a film currently in release.
Filmmaker: Never Rarely Sometimes Always, which is also youth-focused.
Ahn: Exactly. The short I made was titled Andy and the main character is a young boy with that name (I was doing the autobiographical thing again). The young actor was, I believe, six years old at the time. The experience really prepared me for how to work with kids in the future and I wasn’t intimidated by the challenge of doing a feature film with a child actor at the center.
That being said, I was really anxious to find out who that actor would be. I knew that if I could find the right person, I could arm myself with the tools to help get the best performance. Much of that challenge comes in the casting process. Right off the bat, you want to learn about them as an actor, like what works for them and what doesn’t. We worked with the best casting director in the business, Avy Kaufman, through the auditions, callbacks and chemistry reads.
With Lucas Jaye, I was learning more and more about him as an actor and what he responded to, direction-wise. I wanted a naturalistic performance and the way to get that with Lucas was to make sure we didn’t over-prepare him. He was so good at nailing a scene the first time around that I didn’t want to get him over-rehearsed or stale. We showed Lucas’s parents the full script first and I asked that they not share the script with him. They thought that was a cool idea.
Filmmaker: When did you show him the script?
Ahn: Lucas saw the script for the scenes that we were shooting just twenty or thirty minutes before we were shooting them. We would go over it briefly and I would give him a certain amount of context. Truthfully, I just wanted him to stay present and in the moment. Partnered with scene masters like Brian Dennehy and Hong Chau, Lucas came alive in a way that’s incredibly hard for kid actors to do, and he would do it scene after scene.
Filmmaker: Do you have to toggle between different “directing hats” when you’re working with a child as opposed to a more seasoned performer? And how, in scenes involving both, do you juggle that dynamic? Do you communicate with the two scene partners together or do you take them aside and provide notes separately?
Ahn: Much of that is dependent on the cast. I really loved how Hong and Brian worked with Lucas, not treating him any differently than they would an adult scene partner. They showed a special kind of generosity. For example, there’s a scene in the film where Del tells Cody that he’s going to be moving to Seattle at the end of the summer. On that particular day, we shot Brian’s closeups first, then Lucas’s closeups. Once we finished, we were done with the scene, or so we thought. Brian came up to me a few minutes later and said, “Hey, Lucas was really good and inspiring there. I have some ideas that I’d like to try. Could we do another take of my side of the scene again?” Essentially, Brian was motivated by his child co-star to do his take over again! He wanted to remain on set and give it another go.
I wanted to capture the real relationships that these actors were forming on set. Brian and Lucas became friends fast. Brian would help Lucas with a British accent between takes, just for fun. There’s a scene where Hong and Lucas eat pizza on the porch in the dark, and between takes, they would keep eating pizza and be like mother and son in a very touching, bonding kind of way. I wanted to facilitate (rather than get in the way of) those relationships. A film like Driveways is all about these human beings and I didn’t want to force a heavy directorial hand. The essential challenge of being a director on a film like this is to have as delicate a touch as possible.
Filmmaker: Lucas’s natural instincts made their way into the film nonverbally as well. During a recent Q&A, you recalled a story about the moment early in the film where, at a truck stop, Lucas steps on Hong’s fallen cigarette to put it out. That wasn’t planned?
Ahn: It wasn’t. We were filming that scene and shooting Hong’s close-up where she’s smoking the cigarette. As directed, Lucas walks up to her from behind, surprises her, and she subsequently drops the cigarette so that they can hit the road again. I thought the take was great and maybe it was a oner that wouldn’t require any additional coverage. My cinematographer, Ki Jin Kim, then came up to me and asked, “Hey, are you seeing what Lucas is doing? I’m like, “No, what?” He said, “Lucas is stomping out the cigarette before walking away on every take.” That wasn’t something we had told Lucas to do. He was just doing it on his own for fun and it worked really well for quickly establishing that mother-son dynamic. I was just like, “That’s brilliant. Let’s get another take of that.” Even as the director, you’re only one person with one set of eyes. My goal on any production is to enable the crew to work collectively. That moment with the cigarette, while very subconscious, adds a texture to the mother-son relationship and to who they are as individuals. It’s efficient because it’s succinct.
Filmmaker: Now that you have two features under your belt, one you wrote yourself and the other by a set of writers, have you discovered a preference for what you wish to direct? Is there more of a feedback process and different mindset that comes with working off another writer’s material?
Ahn: The goal should be that your approach remains the same. That being said, they feel very different. If you’re working off of your own script, you have to take off your writer’s hat and put on your director’s hat when you’re on set. But it’s a vastly different feeling (when shooting something you didn’t personally write) having to manage a number of different instincts. When you’re directing something you’ve written, you’re often fighting to be objective. When you’re directing something that you haven’t written, you’re fighting to be subjective. You’re trying to find a more personal way of looking at the scene beyond what’s just on the page. It’s very easy for someone to direct something they haven’t written with a kind of remove. The goal is to try and brush that distance away. For the rest of my career, I hope to be going back and forth between directing material that I’ve written and directing material that I haven’t.
On the episodic, series-based projects I’ve recently worked on, I’ve found that directing other people’s writing makes you become a better writer. You begin to see, in a very intense way, what other writers are doing. It’s not the same as just reading someone else’s screenplay and thinking, “Oh, I’ve learned some lessons from this.” When you actually have to direct that other person’s screenplay, the lessons that you learn about writing really come across. What I’ve learned from Hannah and Paul’s script for Driveways are lessons about intense character development and humanity. There’s a boldness in their writing.
I’m thinking back now to that final monologue Del gives in the film. In the past, the idea of coming up with that monologue would have scared the shit out of me. I never would have written that scene. I would’ve totally backed out, said “No way, I just don’t think that the scene is going to work. I’m going to write a quiet moment where they just sit on the porch and that’ll be it. Is that cool?” And yet, this epic monologue that Hannah and Paul wrote is quite special and the fact that I got the opportunity to direct Brian Dennehy performing it is really cool to me. I’m so glad that Hannah and Paul wrote it so that I could direct it. It was the opportunity of a lifetime for me. I’m really sad to think that I might have missed that opportunity had I made a decision early in my career that I was only going to write and direct my own stuff.