Lee Isaac Chung
Filmmaker, 31, Boerum Hill
Filmmaking is by nature a collective, often social endeavor, sure, but consider Chung a special case. His much-lauded Munyurangabo was made with a crew from a filmmaking class he taught in Kigali, where he was volunteering alongside his relief-worker wife; the empathic group effort is mirrored in the film, about friendship and reconciliation in genocide-scarred Rwanda. Coming up: Lucky Life, a recent Tribeca selection concerning contemplative young Brownstone Brooklynites, whose production Chung describes as “a gathering of friends�€� in a setting that made us reflect.” His company, Almond Tree Films, is also currently producing short films in Rwanda.
The L: The process that led to Munyurangabo's creation—much of the crew came from a filmmaking class you taught in Kigali, where you were volunteering as a relief worker—is a fascinating backstory that many critics have used to contextualize the film when discussing it. I'm curious to hear your thoughts on the relationship between process and product in general, and whether, what and how your filmmaking process might matter to the viewer who comes in cold.
Isaac: I think about that a lot because I don't like the idea that the story behind the film could overwhelm the work itself, but then again, none of us create films without an intricate context. It's the same reason we obsess about the biographies of artists and create myths around them. In any case, I feel the story behind Munyurangabo's creation could be taken as a simple novelty, and I hope it wouldn't distract the viewer from the work. Personally, if someone saw the film and believed that it's made by a Rwandan, I would feel very satisfied.
The L: You've since directed a second film, Lucky Life, here in the States. Was the experience—planning, logistics, collaboration with cast and crew—at all comparable?
Isaac: The production period of Lucky Life felt like a gathering of friends, most of us knowing each other well, that was able to create a setting that made us reflect and be immersed in nature. Lucky Life is about poetry, and the production felt that way—I'm still very nostalgic about it. Munyurangabo was different because many of us were out of our comfort zones. Somehow, this feeling of discomfort created an atmosphere that forced us to be very vulnerable to one another, and I think it elevated the work.
The L: Your production company, Almond Tree Films, has thus far been synonymous with your feature films (and one short directed by Munyurangabo's cowriter Samuel Anderson). But you say "Currently, the company has interest in extending its partnerships abroad, and in producing short and feature films in international locations". What do you hope or envision for your producing collaborations? Anything brewing?
Isaac: My company is producing three short films in Rwanda right now, commissioned by the Tribeca Film Institute. It would be great it the company could be a hub for filmmakers in Rwanda to get their films made. But as for countries outside of Rwanda, none of us at Almond Tree seem to be interested in producing for now, so the partnerships will be limited to whatever we wish to direct. Personally, I'd like to make another film or two abroad. South America, Europe, Asia�€”I'm not sure where yet, but I'd like to direct in a language I don't speak again.
The L: What are you working on next, and how do you see your career changing over the next five years?
Isaac: I've been working on a few scripts but after realizing that it would take a long time to get them financed, I decided to shoot a fairly quick film this fall called No Love Lost. It stars Amanda Plummer (Pulp Fiction) and Brooklyn actress Luisa Williams (Day Night Day Night). The film is about a man who steals millions from the bank where he works and hides away in the woods with his girlfriend and mother. It's somewhat inspired by a news story I read. As for any changes in the next five years, I've been thinking of making an action film, which would be a big shift from the contemplative cinema I seem to have embraced.
The L: If you could collaborate with any other New York City artist (living or dead), who would it be, why, and what would you create together?
Isaac: I don't feel worthy enough to collaborate with most of the artists I love. I feel shy around them; I doubt I'd get anything useful done!