Extraordinary Expats: Filmmaker NJ Calder

  • Photo by Photo by Andrew Irwin for Seoulist

    NJ Calder in Yongsan-gu. Photo by Andrew Irwin for Seoulist

  • Photo by Photo courtesy of NJ Calder

    In one of his many guerrilla filmmaking techniques, NJ Calder was suspended from a bridge with rock climbing gear. Photo courtesy of NJ Calder

  • Photo by Photo courtesy of NJ Calder

    The cast and crew of Fear Eats the Seoul after a night shoot. Photo courtesy of NJ Calder

Her fangs were so long she was biting herself and blood trickled from her mouth down skin, pale like snow. The demon at the door struggled with her oversized, plastic fangs while she matched the numbers on the online reservations list with names and faces. It was 7 pm in Itaewon and in Laughing Tree Lab’s basement art space, thirty folding chairs surrounded by new modern art awaited a crowd eager for the premiere of Seoul’s latest independent film, Fear Eats the Seoul.

Nick J. Calder, director, writer, editor and actor, was flapping about a Macintosh in the corner, praying that its earlier antics had passed and that the screening would go ahead glitch-free. The night was young, the cut a special black and white Grindhouse Edition in tribute to the drive-in theatre slashers of yesteryear, and there were three screenings ahead of him. He greeted me dressed in neat casual with a grin as broad as his face could manage without cracking. Ethnically but almost undetectably half-Korean (unless you have a keen eye for eyes and hair), Calder is as handsome as he is passionate about his film—and so he should be, it’s a stellar accomplishment that far exceeds the standards of a typical first film.

The entire film is an experiment, it is a first everything for me, minus screen writing.

With scant resources, a primary cast and crew of nine people (closer to thirty including extras) and a budget of only 5.3 million won (about 4,600 USD), he has produced a professional-quality, feature length film which, although far from perfect, proves to be more engaging than a great deal of multimillion dollar Hollywood blockbusters. The film is genuinely tense: though both violent and scary, it relies on a strong emotional core rather than splatter, gore and throwing blood at the audience for its scares.

The plot follows a group of ESL teachers in Seoul, lone survivors of a viral outbreak that has decimated the population and transformed the rest to zombies. Themed with loneliness, isolation, culture shock and fear of commitment, it’s not surprising that the film was conceived during a difficult period of NJ’s second year as a Kindergarten ESL teacher. Now teaching part-time, he devotes most of his time to filmmaking and pursues a dream that’s gradually becoming reality.

Calder agreed to sit down for an interview with Seoulist Mag on opening night. We’re seated in a tiny café, the walls K-pop bright and hung with Polaroids of the local art community. Directly below us, an audience of thirty plus expats and Koreans sit, munching popcorn, enthralled by Fear Eats the Seoul’s second-ever public screening.

SM: How did this project get started?
NJC: [I was] teaching full time at a Kindergarten and I was really unhappy. It was very hard for me to go to work every morning and feel like I was making a difference in the kids’ lives, or in my own life. Sometimes I feel like in Korea, in education, quantity is more important than quality. The main character sort of represents how I felt when I was trapped with everyone else, just living from day to day. All of the characters in the film are stuck in this same way and they think that someone is going to save them or rescue them from themselves, but the main character and the main Korean character realize that [life] is a fight and that living is kind of like a battlefield.

SM: You mentioned that work during preproduction was sporadic and mostly consisted of alternating periods of teaching, exhaustion and forcing yourself to write. Do you spend a lot of time writing in cafes?
NJC (laughs and gestures to our surroundings): I wish I’d discovered cafes earlier. Korea is notorious for them but I was just writing at home. I really wish I had gone to a cafe because it focuses you. You’re not at home relaxing; you’re sitting in a chair where nobody can talk to you, there are no distractions and you have to write. I have an iPad now and I’ve been writing everywhere, I’m completely focused. When I’m on the bus I write, I don’t listen to music anymore, I just sit there and write. But that’s now, the writing for Fear Eats the Seoul was sporadic but after Whitney Thompson, the producer, joined, the rest of preproduction went really fast.

Photo by Andrew Irwin for SeoulistSM: So what’s the lifestyle of an indie filmmaker in Seoul like?
NJC: During production, it varied a lot, but basically Whitney would stay at my place the night before shooting and we’d discuss the plan, the scenes and prepare the equipment. If there was makeup involved Younghwa Cho (조영화) would practice the night before and get ready for whatever she had to do. Depending on night or morning shoots, we would be up 2-3 hours prior to shooting and there were a lot of shoots where we were up all night. These were, more than anything, a test of endurance. Most night shoots would end around 4am but there was a dawn shoot in September 2010, so we stayed up until sunrise. We shot a lot at night, everyone had a four-hour nap and suddenly it was 4 or 5 am and we were all running down to the park. You can’t fight the sun. A lot of our shoots ended with Younghwa, Whitney, Younghoon (the second Korean on the crew) and I sitting in a Food 2900 near the apartment, wrapping and preparing for the next day’s shoot. We ate a lot of gimbab… and Pizza School.

Post-production, on the other hand, was very lonely, isolating, solitary and had me wanting to kill myself. I edited the film, shot it, wrote it and directed it so I was very particular about everything. I had to edit it. I had no choice. I didn’t know anyone at the time who I trusted enough to handle the sound production, so I had to do that myself too, but also to learn every aspect of the process for myself. The ADR voice dubbing I did alone and it took around 3 months of trial and error. It’s been an extremely lonely experience.

SM: Where in Seoul did you find inspiration for your work?
NJC: Basically, it comes down to me sitting on a train and listening to music. I carry a notebook with me everywhere. There were a few times that I would get on a bus from Gangnam and I would sit in the back of the bus, take it to the last stop, get off and then get back on again and take it back to Gangnam. I believe in the importance of writing with your fingers and taking a pen to paper and writing. I wouldn’t recommend taking the bus with a laptop, but I had a notebook with me at all times. I’d listen to music that inspired the film and use that to write scenes in the films.

SM: One of the principals of independent films is ‘shoot first, ask forgiveness later;’ how did this play out in Seoul?
NJC: Sometimes, the Koreans are very relaxed about things. There were some scenes where there were lots of extras in makeup; the locals were freaked out and out of nowhere, the police showed up. I did my best to explain things in Korean when I could, usually just by saying ‘it’s a movie’ in Korean and they would say things like ‘Uh, OK, but you shouldn’t be shooting at night, it’s scary!’ I thank the universe for this secret gift of not having to deal with permits and people who just want to kick us out of our shooting locations. A lot of the film is on the screen now because of the Korean mentality of ‘oh alright, it’s not harming anyone, just let them do it.’

The best example of this is a shot late in the film where a lot of demons race out of a parking lot. I wanted a kind of crane shot and to get it, I was hooked up to a bridge going across the Han River, illegally I’m sure, by rock climbing gear. It was pouring with rain and all these people were looking out of the nearby buildings, one of which was where the demons where running out from, confused and scared that all these people were gathering with long fingers and stuff. They called the police and when they showed up, I was hanging at the top of this bridge and I thought it was over. So I pointed to the camera and said ‘yeong-hwa’ (movie) and they nodded and were like ‘OK,’ and they left. So Korean culture has helped a lot to get the film to the finish line.

SM: What about your Korean? Was language ever a problem?
NJC: There were plenty of other obstacles due to language, but nothing serious. I don’t speak enough Korean to have a real conversation and one of the main leads is Korean and she doesn’t speak a lot of English either, so it was a little difficult but everyone was so passionate and game for it that it was never an issue of language, just an issue of whether or not we could get it on screen.

Image courtesy of Nick CalderSM: How have native Koreans reacted to your project?
NJC: With the exception of those who were a bit spooked during the shoot, the reaction from locals has honestly been completely supportive. So many Koreans have been really surprised to find that a lot of expats have dreams, skills and other lives that exist outside of teaching English and that before they came to Korea, they had these dreams and carried them with them. So I think that it’s always shocking to them, in a good way, to see that foreigners aren’t just wasting their lives, or drinking them away, but that they’re part of growing art communities in Korea.

SM: What’s your advice for other independent filmmakers in Korea?
NJC: Enable yourself—buy a camera, there is no excuse. Save your money, don’t go out drinking and partying. Buy a computer that can edit the HD quality of your camera and start practicing and creating content constantly. Just make more and more stuff and don’t make any excuses. No ‘I’m going to wait until I have this equipment and that crap,’ just fucking make a movie. Just make any piece of shit and you’ll realize that it wasn’t so important that you made this amazing thing the first round, it was that you grew from that first round and that you just keep constantly improving and hopefully, you’re passionate enough that it improves exponentially and not just with baby steps.
Live your legend. Have enough confidence in yourself, not egotism or narcissism to know that you can make it. There’s no better way than to imagine yourself where you want to be and imagine that you’re already there. Live your life accordingly.

SM: What’s next for Fear Eats the Seoul?
If you’d like to see Fear Eats the Seoul you can track its progress at njcalder.com and on Facebook. There will be an original color run of the film on Halloween weekend, Sunday the 30th and Monday the 31st at Laughing Tree Lab in Itaewon. Tickets are on sale now via Eventbrite for 10,000 won (full details are available on Facebook.) There will be a 2012 festival circuit and we are also planning a non-conventional university “tour” of the film here in Korea to expose it and the revolution of making digital features to Korean students, as well as gain a more general Korean audience and display what the expat community here is doing.

NJ Calder’s Top Five Korean Films

1. The Host (괴물, 2006)
It’s so wonderful to watch this giant monster movie but feel that it’s is so apparent that the film is about their family and getting back a family member you lose. The monster is this thing that is affecting the story, it’s not the story, and if it was shot in America, I’m not sure it would be that way.

2. A Tale of Two Sisters (장화, 홍련, 2003)
It’s a horror film, a ghost story, and I think it’s just so superbly done. Lots of great tension and music.

3 & 4. Old Boy (올드보이, 2003) and Sympathy for Lady Vengeance (친절한 금자씨, 2005)
These two from Chan-wook Park’s vengeance trilogy are just incredible films that to me, represent the part of Korea that I like to see. Some of the scenes are so Korean that people really react to them and think ‘what!?’ You asked about the first movie in the trilogy, Sympathy for Mr. Vengeance, but actually, I dislike the characters and think that the others are superior films where you can actually relate to the characters. In Sympathy for Mr. Vengeance the characters were kind of assholes that you couldn’t relate to. For me, there was no sympathy for Mr. Vengeance.

5. I Saw the Devil (악마를 보았다, 2010)
The story seemed a bit similar to the typical revenge tale, but in its execution it’s very refreshing and new.

Andrew Irwin

About Andrew Irwin

Andrew Irwin is a runaway broadcast technician from Sydney and wannabe ninja. He keeps his TV locked in the wardrobe and when he isn't teaching kids English, he divides his spare time between studying Korean, travelling and writing fiction.

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