By Aaron May
Cinema is one of the most collaborative forms of art. This is not new information. Many cinephiles will spend 10 minutes watching the end credits scroll by on films.
But which roles really draw us to go see a particular movie?
Often we trust certain actors to choose smart projects and give great performances and this was a great year for that – favourites like Leonardo DiCaprio, Joe Pesci, Laura Dern, or interesting newer players like Adam Driver, Cynthia Erivo, or Saoirse Ronan. These names draw us to go see their films regardless of the subject. Other viewers might be immediately curious about something from a particular distributor or producer like A24, NEON, or even streaming giants Netflix and Amazon, as of late, since they often back artistic, controversial, or unique story explorations. When it comes time to choose award winning films, however, most often it is the director that gets top billing.
Successful directors repeatedly work with favorite collaborators - directors of photography, editors, composers, actors - so their body of work can reflect the change and growth for all of these artists. However, it really is the director that governs this vision and process from beginning to end. With awards season in full swing, we wanted to take a look at two directors that have been appearing on many peoples lists this year and see where their stories came from and what brought them to tell such important tales in such unique ways.
In May of 2019, Korean writer-director Bong Joon-ho took home the Palme d’Or, the top prize at France’s prestigious Cannes Film Festival, for his film ‘ Parasite’, a darkly comedic thriller about class division and just what necessity and desperation can drive a person to do. Before breaking out as a film auteur in Korea, Bong had briefly worked as a tutor for a rich family while he attended Yonsei University in Seoul in the early 1990s.
While only lasting for two months before being fired, he worked with the youngest boy in the family and had commented on how much he felt like a fly on the wall in this upper class house, with the boy even showing him a somewhat hidden floor below the house where he loved to go play. Bong began to notice all of the other roles that it takes to keep a large, wealthy house running. The maids, the drivers, the cooks etc., and just how easy it could potentially be to slowly infiltrate the workings of such a place. It wasn’t until 2013, as he was finishing up post production on his film ‘Snowpiercer’, that he began to connect his past experiences with that film’s portrayal of dangerous class division.
This is what led him to start creating the story for Parasite. Parasite is Bong Joon-ho’s seventh feature film and his second Palme d’Or nomination, after 2017’s ‘ Okja’. These Academy nominations make Bong the first Korean director to be nominated for a Best Director Academy Award and Parasite the first Korean film to be nominated for Best Picture.
This year marks the second Best Director and second Best Picture nomination for acclaimed British theater and film director Sam Mendes, after 1999’s ‘American Beauty’. In the late 1980s into the 1990s, Mendes began working in theater, directing Dame Judy Dench in London’s West End Theatre at the age of 24 and working with this years Best Actor nominee Jonathan Pryce in a revival of Lionel Bart’s Oliver!
Only five years later, in 1999, Mendes made his switch into the world of film. With 1917, his eighth film, Sam attempts to take on a grandiose moment in history, framed through the eyes of two young boys, all based off a story that his Grandfather used to tell him from his times as a messenger on the Western Front. Making an accurate war film is never easy. Doing it all while making it look like one single continuous shot, even less so.
Doing all of that while still maintaining an extremely intimate and personal story, with dynamic character arcs, moments of levity, and moments bittersweet sadness, is almost impossible. Sam achieves that with ‘1917’.
These filmmakers may have built lasting names for themselves over long and artful careers, but their stories are no different than the rest of us. We have all been a fly on the wall at a quiet job, a traveler learning and absorbing all we can from other cultures, a student, be it of life or of the classroom, or even just a listener to one of our Grandfather’s old war stories. Sometimes it does go beyond all the people and big productions and sometimes it all just comes down to where we look and how we choose to tell the stories we tell.
‘ 1917’ runs at The Civic until Tuesday Feb. 4. Parasite shows again, Thursday Feb. 6.
Aaron M. May is a L.V. Rogers grad, film maker, and cinephile. He works as a TV and film editor in Vancouver.