In Forum’s “For Ellen”, director So Yong Kim revisits the topic of adult inadequacy and infant maturity as struggling rocker Joby (Paul Dano, “Little Miss Sunshine”, “There Will Be Blood”) heads north into the frigidity of America’s wastelands to sign divorce papers that will also keep him away from his young daughter.
Some residual instinct for what’s important in life encourages him to hold out for a re-connection with his child. The result is a beautifully considered look at what it is that keeps us grounded. Whether Joby has actually learned anything from his daughter remains to be seen.
There are still tickets available for showings on Wed, Feb 15 at 14:00 at Delphi Filmpalast and Fri, Feb 17 at 22:00 at Cinestar 8. So go!
You really get the audience involved with Paul Dano’s character, Joby, hoping that the ending is a new start. Intentional ambiguity?
Yeah, I think for me, it could go one way or the other. Is he repeating his past or is he going to start something new. And I think the way you interpret that depends on who you are, actually. I showed a rough cut to this couple and the wife thought that Joby was going to start a whole new life, to be changed by the encounter with his daughter. The husband thought he was completely hopeless case, that he’s never going to change and that the last scene of him taking off in the truck proves that. It could be one or the other and I don’t want to say which one.
Shaylena Mandigo (Ellen) is too young to read a script. What kind of guidelines did you give her?
Basically I told her to listen to what the other person is saying, mainly Joby. And also to never look in the camera. I didn’t have to tell her to be focused because she was already a very focused person. If she was looking at you, she never looked away. That was never a problem.
You’ve been attached to “neo-neo realism” which keeps its distance from established stars. Why did you want Paul Dano for the role of Joby? He’s quite well known.
He has this really interesting look sometimes, of being very tired and old – despite his youth. It’s a wonderful contrast. I was looking for someone to play that part and it was definitely an actor, from the beginning. Paul actually read the script for a different role, but he called me back and was really interested in the main role. When I wrote the script, the man (Joby) was a lot older, like in his mid-thirties, so we talked about the story might change because the character becomes younger, then the daughter is younger.
In 2009 you said that you were interested in working with music in film, because music allows the audience to feel a certain way. But this music is not just about mood, it’s about content and character.
I really don’t like the way a lot of mainstream films use music. So I haven’t used music in my previous films. In this film I didn’t think I needed music until I had a rough cut. And then I thought: I think I need music. I called a friend and he sent me something very traditional. I said NOOOOO, I can’t use this. What I wanted more were sounds, or pieces that kind of blend into the landscape that indicates his more, psychological, emotional states, but I didn’t want that to dictate to the audience that this is how they should feel.
Well, it’s also the fact that Joby is a musician … we kind of assume that the music is also his choice.
The moment in the hotel room is very private. When you’re composing, you’re writing something that means something emotionally to you. It’s internal, as opposed to his outgoing, outrageous person.
The film is set in a snowy, cold landscape, but the film felt, to me, really warm. What they do is a contrast to the physical world, not a reflection.
I think when you go out into the cold, you feel challenged and invigorated. It kind of reinforces your life. This sense of being part of nature so, yeah, it’s not to make one feel that the characters in this environment don’t feel anything. You’ve described it really well. The story just wouldn’t work if it took place in the south, in the heat. Here, you have to survive.
This film is more optimistic than Treeless Mountain. Is that to do with being a parent?
Yeah, I think I’m slowly getting more optimistic. My first film In Between Days, I don’t think the ending was very optimistic. But Treeless was just a little bit more – and then this film, I feel like, yeah, it is optimistic. And due credit to Paul. He’s the one who convinced me that the character could be younger because he wanted to play the part so badly, so we had this long discussion about the role and what it could do.
Dano’s character spends the entire film in a leather jacket and skimpy jeans, and it’s freezing out …
It’s like he’s just not very prepared, for life, you know. He just thought that he’d be up there, sign the papers and leave. Paul and I developed this whole backstory for him so that we never had to address that during filming. It took a while: his hair, his outfit, all the tattoos have a certain story, to make sure that there is a time period to his life.
How fixed was the script when you went into filming?
I mean, the script was really short – about 70 pages. The toy store was just: “Joby takes Ellen to the toy store to exchange present.” There was a lot of room for Paul to play around with each scene. And for both Paul and John: I didn’t want them to stay on the book. I wanted them to see what they could get out of the scene so that it’s satisfying for them, and it’s satisfying for me. It took me a year to finish the script and I don’t want to hear what I’ve written. It’s so much more exciting for me if they go off the book and do something that’s in character.
As in 2008’s Treeless Mountain, children behave like adults and vice versa. Does this interest you especially?
Yeah. A little bit. I love the contrast between the two. We now have two kids and our daughter, the oldest one, is five. Watching her grow up makes me feel that in many ways, children are so much more perceptive than adults give them credit for. I don’t know. In many ways I feel like I’m this willow, blowing in the wind, and she’s the solid earth. So the movie kind of reflects my own, well, parenting experience.
Is this just observation or actual commentary?
Both. But for this script and this story, I really wanted to understand someone like that, a male father figure who left a family and returns back to confront his past and what has happened. That was part of my journey.