Director Kogonada’s portrait of the internal and external make-up of Columbus, Ohio invites John Cho and Parker Posey on an unexpectedly impactful journey. With the film hitting cinemas in early October, HOME’s Artistic Director of Film Jason Wood spoke to Kogonada about helming his feature debut…
I can think of very few films that capture the spirit of place as deeply as Columbus. Can you talk about how the idea for the project originated?
I knew I wanted to make a film that explored the burden that children feel in regard to their parents, in particular this feeling of impending absence. After taking a trip to Columbus, Indiana, with my family (having read an article about the town), I felt immediately compelled to set the story there. For me, the town is a testament of this pursuit to find meaning in the construction of space, in the relationship between absence and presence, in the aesthetics of emptiness.
I have read that you have an interest in architecture and this is very much evident in the film but it’s also a work that is very much about the meaning and value of architecture in human terms. How we relate to buildings, our environment and therefore each other is something you articulate very eloquently. Was this a primary objective?
No doubt, this film is partly a meditation on how we shape forms, and how they in return shape us. And it was driven by my own desire to explore and understand this dynamic. In the end, I don’t know if I’ll ever fully understand how we are moved and altered by the things we construct, but it’s a mystery that seems worthy to pursue. I want to believe that forms matter, but for me they only matter if they’re able to deepen our sensibilities, our empathy…
Class is also central and you explore the dichotomy between both the academic institutions and the striking buildings and the working class citizens, who are living in the suburbs. Architecture often offers the illusion of democracy and inclusion but in Columbus, Indiana, the buildings really do seem to be designed for all, and not just the wealthy and the privileged. Was this another aspect of the place and the story that was of interest to you?
Absolutely. The wonderful thing about Columbus is that these magnificent buildings exist within the context of everyday life in a town surrounded by corn fields. They have been made ordinary in their everydayness. The key is to see what has always been there. And this kind of seeing doesn’t belong to a certain class. In fact, privilege may hinder our seeing… a cynicism born of excess or a presumption of knowing.
Antonioni has been mentioned by a number of writers when discussing the film and there are some parallels perhaps in terms of framing, but Columbus is much warmer and soulful in tone. Were you keen to explore the possibility of a balance existing between formalism and humanity?
Yes, the possibility of this balance was and is everything for me.
You must be sick of this question but John Cho – who is something of an Antonioni type character in that he has something re-awakened in him – is playing a role that may be unfamiliar to many spectators. Did you both like the idea of playing with perception in terms of the type of roles with which he is more commonly associated? Also, I must add, the rapport between Cho and Haley Lu Richardson feels so incredibly natural…
I’ve said to John that he should be the Marcello Mastroianni of our times. He seems to very much inhabit that type of presence. The rapport between Haley Lu and John was something to behold. It was immediate and full of genuine care. I feel so fortunate to have worked with them.
It’s also very gratifying to see Parker Posey back on screen. This feels like a footnote type question but was she someone with whom you felt an affinity in terms of wanting to work with her? Her alignment with a US independent cinema sensibility seems to sit right with the kind of filmmaking that Columbus feels simpatico with.
To have Parker involved in the film was an absolute dream. I can’t say enough about her ongoing pursuit of authenticity; then and now. She continues to give space for independent cinema and new filmmakers. She’s an inspiration. Truly. (And everyone should read her new book, You’re on an Airplane: A Self-Mythologizing Memoir)
The above also highlights – as I suppose do the earlier mentions of Antonioni – the dichotomy between a western and eastern filmmaking tradition. You have previously produced work on figures such as Ozu and Kore-eda so I wondered if you could say something not so much about how they have influenced you as a filmmaker (though feel free to expand on questions of film form should you wish) but more perhaps about how they have more generally impacted upon your way of thinking.
They offer me a way of being modern in this world without losing my soul.
In closing, I’d like to genuinely compliment you on the film. I found it a strangely spiritual and meditative experience. It also made me re-evaluate my own relationship to my environment. What are you hoping other viewers take away from watching it?
Thank you so much. I think I’d be delighted and grateful if other viewers responded to the film the way you did.
Interview by Jason Wood, Artistic Director of Film.
Columbus is released on Fri 12 Oct. Find out more and book tickets here.