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Interview: Filmmaker Brian Jun

By Rob Christopher in Arts & Entertainment on Mar 2, 2007 5:23PM

2007_3brianjun.jpgIn his debut feature Steel City, 27-year-old writer/director/editor Brian Jun examines two generations of the Lee family living in a small economically depressed midwestern town. The steelmill dominates the town, but young P.J. (played by Tom Guiry) wants no part of it. He's seen what it's done to his older brother Ben (Clayne Crawford), who's able to hold down a steady job there yet seems utterly aimless, cheating on his wife and young daughter. The father of the family (John Heard) is under arrest, awaiting trial for a drunken driving accident in which an innocent woman was killed. When he impulsively quits his dishwashing job, P.J.'s only choice is to rely on the goodwill of his uncle Vic (Raymond J. Barry), a hardnosed ex-Marine. That filmmaker Jun is able to keep the story from devolving into either a heavy-handed polemic or a violent crime thriller is a testament to his fine sense of the messiness of truth; there are no easy answers for these characters, and the film respects them for who they are.

Steel City was shot entirely in Illinois. The cast also features Steppenwolf member Laurie Metcalf and "Ugly Betty" star America Farrera. After successful screenings at Sundance and last year's Chicago International Film Festival, the film returns to Chicago on Tuesday night at part of the Midwest Independent Film Festival. This week we were able to chat with Brian via email about Steel City and his upcoming film about Jeff Buckley, Mystery White Boy, currently in preproduction. The interview is after the cut.

Chicagoist: The first thing I noticed about Steel City is its concrete, specific sense of place: although you never go out of your way to tell us exactly where the film takes place, it's pretty clear that it's far away from Chicago. It's a place where time has almost ground to halt in a way. What was it like growing up in East Alton and how did that location influence your story?

Brian Jun: The intention when writing the story was to set it in an anonymous steel town in the Midwest. Alton, Illinois, (where we shot the majority of the film) used to employ just shy of 20,000 steel workers at Laclede Steel just off the Mississippi River. Alton, in its own, possesses a lot of history through the underground railroad, Lincoln Douglas debates, Lewis and Clark, etc. ... and I really started to embrace that and realized it was this part of America that represented a blue collar sensibility that I thought was appropriate for the story. Another goal was to make the story timeless in a way — the transient nature of the American cinema from the 60's and 70's which has been a huge influence on me. And also, I had been scouting locations for nearly 2 years prior to shooting the film, and the city itself served as inspiration to get the film made.

C: For someone's first feature, you managed to round up a fantastic cast. I noticed that you'd done a short film with John Heard before ... did having him on board affect how the rest of the parts were cast? How did Laurie Metcalf get involved with the film?

BJ: A lot of people in the past have asked me about casting. And, it's tough to pinpoint how and why I was so lucky to garner these actors. Yes, John Heard and I did a short back in 2002 as part of a program at Fox Searchlight Pictures, with the promise that I would cast him in an eventual feature called In The World of Raymond Burke. Unfortunately, that project fell apart due to various reasons, and I kept in touch with John and wrote the part of Carl Lee for him in Steel City. John was the first person to read the script, and he called me from upstate New York and told me that he was on board. It still took 2 years to get the financing, but having John on board eventually enticed Your Half Pictures to consider the project, and they became interested in the spring of 2004. After that, I was very lucky to hire Emily Schweber as my Casting Director, and she has great relationships all over town, so the project was taken very seriously by the talent community in Los Angeles. Laurie Metcalf got involved because of the veteran cast that was already in place (Heard, Barry), and she liked that both those guys came from a stage background, especially Ray Barry who had done theater in New York for 20 years. Laurie of course has deep roots at Steppenwolf in Chicago. A lot of the talent latched on at the last minute, as that seems to be par for the course on a small project like this.

C: Here's another question for you as a first-time director: how did you handle the love scenes? They felt completely genuine and natural, yet it must have taken some work to get that from your actors.

BJ: I'm trying to take myself back to that day when we shot the love scenes. Thanks for thinking that they worked. From what I remember, I put absolutely no pressure on the actors to execute any formal plan as to how they should unfold. I wanted to create a comfortable environment, and made sure that I understood that it's just simply not easy to do. We only did one or two rehearsals on set, to get over the initial awkwardness, and keep in mind my crew was very respectful to the actors, which also helped. I honestly think the key to genuine love scenes (at least for me) is to allow your actors to understand their characters fully, and realize why the scenes are in the script. Once they can grasp a definite reason, their instincts kick in, and they put themselves in that moment. That's a very general answer, I know ... but a good love scene needs to blend into the rest of the performance.

C: Do you like living and working in L.A., or do you wish you could do it in Chicago? In what ways do you think Chicago can become more a part of the national filmmaking world?

BJ: Well, I've never lived in Chicago. I like to visit when I can. I've gotten used to living in L.A., although if i wasn't trying to make films, I probably wouldn't be here. I admire guys like Todd Field and John Sayles who can do their work and live outside of Los Angeles. But I've become very fond of L.A., recently ... it's a very unique city, and it's beautiful most of the time. Chicago seems to be doing pretty well with keeping themselves on the map for filmmaking. Many larger productions come in from out of town, but I know you have a very strong independent community in Chicago. In order to get more productions in the Midwest, you gotta get the filmmakers there to feel that sensibility. Do as much outreach to both coasts as you can, and continue to offer financial breaks for people coming in from out of state.

C: Your upcoming film about Jeff Buckley is probably one of the most eagerly anticipated films of recent times. Not that there's any pressure there, hehe. I think here at Chicagoist we're all just glad that Gus van Sant isn't making it. How did you get involved in the project, what sort of role is Jeff's mom playing in the project, and if it's not too early to ask what do you think your approach to the subject will be?

BJ: Well, many people have tried to tackle this story, and it's a big challenge. The thing I have to remember is that I just came off a very small and personal film.... The Buckley project is much larger than myself, and the stakes are very high because most of the people the story deals with are alive. The wounds have not completely healed. Bio films are tricky terrain — it has to be one of the hardest genres to execute properly. There's been such an effort made to preserve Jeff Buckley's legacy and keep his music in the public eye; being part of a bio film will hopefully enhance that legacy. My approach to the story is to simply tell it well.

Picture of Brian Jun from the Steel City website.