Ava DuVernay and Justin Chon talk tiki torches and movie craft


Director Ava DuVernay wasted little time before getting political at Sundance Next Fest over the weekend.

“No tiki torches from any cowards here,” DuVernay declared Saturday, less than a day after the white supremacist rally held in Charlottesville, Va. The director of Selma and The 13th, DuVernay was on hand to interview Justin Chon onstage at the Ace Hotel in downtown Los Angeles following a screening of his politically charged film Gook.

In the vein of Spike Lee’s Do the Right Thing, Chon stars in the film with an Asian, black and Latino cast as they navigate the day when four white LAPD officers were acquitted for the Rodney King beating. The film shows the events from the Korean-American perspective at a shoe store in the Los Angeles suburb of Paramount, Calif.

But DuVernay also wanted to give Chon the opportunity to talk about craft. DuVernay, who made her Sundance debut with Middle of Nowhere in 2012, made note that she, too, rarely gets the opportunity to talk lighting and cinematography.

“Ninety-nine out of a hundred times, I’m asked about [race and gender]. I’m very seldom asked questions about filmmaking,” DuVernay told Chon and the audience. “So get ready for your craft questions!”

The ensuing conversation ranged from Chon’s choice of lenses, to lighting inspirations (Schindler’s List), to the challenge of “one-ers” (long takes with choreographed movement). DuVernay applauded Gook cinematographer Ante Cheng, whom Chon said was still a graduate student at the University of Southern California. 

“Who are the people who need to be discovered?” Chon said about his cinematographer.

Chon also applied his philosophy of discovery to casting. For the role of a tween African-American girl who hangs around with two 20-something Korean brothers at the shoe store, Chon scouted local African-American churches after traditional auditions surfaced only trained child actors who weren’t right for the part. He eventually discovered Simone Baker at Fernando Pullum Community Arts Center, which provides free arts education in south L.A.

Speaking with DuVernay, Chon also took on Hollywood’s issue with casting Asian actors. He cast his own father in a major role as a Korean liquor store owner. Chon also hired YouTube comedian and musician David So to play his brother in the film.

“People who say there are no talented Asian actors? Fuck that,” Chon exclaimed. “David just hasn’t had the opportunity or the vehicle.”

For her part, DuVernay was thrilled to be talking about the nuts and bolts of filmmaking. 

“Isn’t it nice to hear people-of-color filmmakers talk about craft?” DuVernay enthused. “It’s like a unicorn.”

Photo by Ryan Kobane, copyright 2017 Sundance Institute