After Yang director Kogonada finds a kindred spirit and fast friend in Michelle Zauner, Japanese Breakfast musician & author of Crying in H Mart.
Topics covered include: Pocky versus Pepero, Kogonada buying Crying In H Mart for everyone he knows, the aesthetics of Ozu, the burden of representation, climbing the corporate ladder, knowing when to walk away, the nourishing process of making After Yang, Wong Kar-wai and Agnès Varda’s influence, poeticizing kitchen sink reality, choosing joy, surrogate families, Colin Farrell's innate humanity, and 'belonging' as another way of ‘longing to be.’
Speaker: Hey, and welcome back to the A24 podcast. There's nothing we love more than playing matchmaker with our friends. For today's episode, we introduced After Yang director Kogonada to Japanese Breakfast musician Michelle Zauner, whose name you might also recognize from her bestselling memoir Crying in H Mart. They've both been fans of each other's work for years, and it's still hard for us to believe they'd never met before this conversation. We hope you enjoy the episode, and if you haven't seen After Yang, it's available to watch now on Showtime.
Kogonada: Hi, I'm Kogonada. I'm the director of After Yang.
Michelle: Hi, my name is Michelle Zauner. I play in Japanese Breakfast and I'm the author of Crying in H Mart.
Kogonada: And this is the A24 Podcast. It's so funny. I saw, not long ago—and it made me really want to talk to you, and it's so silly—you had written somewhere, like a PSA: "I'm Korean."
Michelle: Oh yeah. You must go through that kind of too.
Kogonada: And, I feel the same thing, and there being a moment where you're like, "Oh God. Everyone thinks I'm Japanese," and feeling that need to let everyone know right away.
Kogonada: But, that happened to you from the beginning, right?
Michelle: I guess so.
Kogonada: Yeah. Yeah.
Michelle: I think it happens a lot more once I started talking about my race. But, when I named the band that, I had been in a band before, and it was kind of a side project.
Kogonada: Yeah, yeah.
Michelle: And no one ever talked about my race and I never really thought that it had anything to do with what I did creatively.
Michelle: And, so I named it that just because I never anticipated it was going to go anywhere. It was just like a Bandcamp, Tumblr project.
Kogonada: Yeah. Yeah.
Michelle: And, I just saw an animated gif of Japanese breakfast and it just evoked a pleasant image. Like, English breakfast or, like, French laundry. It just made me think of a set meal that's full of just soothing foods. And that’s why I named it that, not thinking that everyone was going to assume, or thinking that if a few people did assume they would, like, seem racist and I would call them out on it or something, you know? It'd be funny.
Kogonada: Right, yeah yeah.
Michelle: But, now that it's become such a big part of my work in non-fiction, I wish I could go back and change it. You know what I mean?
Kogonada: Yeah, yeah. No, I felt the same. Same thing. I never even thought about—I think, too, the Asian diaspora, the specificity… I think we have often lived in this world where people don't know what Asian you are, and you just know that you're kind of falling in this sort of category of Asian-ness. And, I have my own very complicated history of Japan and Korea. And then it suddenly becomes your identity and people, they have this sort of race attached to it. And yeah, there was this real sudden moment where I'm like, the burden of having associated yourself and having to clarify, because you also don't want to feel like you're denying your Korean-ness or somehow ashamed of it.
But when you wrote that, was it just a "I just want everyone to know I'm Korean," or was it part joke, or what was the—?
Michelle: Yeah, I mean, I think it was both of those things.
Kogonada: Yeah. Yeah. Yeah.
Michelle: I didn't want anyone to think I was ashamed of being Korean or I was trying to pretend to be Japanese.
Kogonada: Yeah, yeah.
Michelle: That was certainly never the intention.
Kogonada: Yeah. Exactly, yeah.
Michelle: But yeah, I think it is complicated just because—I mean growing up, especially as Koreans, my entire life I've been assumed to be either Chinese or Japanese, and Korea wasn't even a country in American comprehension.
Kogonada: Yeah, yeah.
Michelle: For the years that I was growing up.
Kogonada: Yeah. Yeah.
Michelle: But yeah, I mean, I remember my mom wouldn't let me buy Japanese products growing up.
Kogonada: Oh, interesting.
Michelle: So, if we went to the Korean grocery store and I was like, "I want Pocky," she'd be like, "No, you have to get Pepero." And that was kind of my very naive understanding of—
Kogonada: Like, some conflict.
Kogonada: Of course I read your book. I've given it to my... Someone just asked me, “How many times have you bought that book?” And I think it was like four or five times.
Michelle: Oh my God.
Kogonada: Yeah. Yeah. Because, our family's just growing and I have nephews and nieces and some of them have hit their twenties and they’re feeling lost. And, I love that you're writing from that place before anything had really happened in your life too. And, going through all of this and not knowing… and now you know in retrospect, you're successful, you were doing what you wanted to do, but in the moment it seemed that was everything, and, you have no idea what your future is.
Kogonada: So, I love that element of it.
Kogonada: But, of course, you're wrestling with not just your Korean identity, but just as a daughter and as a person and the loss, it was just so beautifully devastating, but not just—it didn't feel like that kind of brutal loss porn or something. It just felt so honest in a way that was really—I mean, I was just so taken by it. I mean, then you're also a brilliant writer.
Michelle: Thank you.
Kogonada: I mean, the writing itself was great, but yeah. So I've passed it on a number of times, but yeah, I was just so amazed by it. And I was thinking about... I had a friend in Nashville who I was looking for music for something I was doing. And, I think he sent me “Everybody Wants to Love You. ” And then I was just like, "Who is Japanese Breakfast?" And, I remember seeing your “Boyish” music video.
Michelle: Yeah, yeah.
Kogonada: So it's great to finally meet you.
Michelle: Yeah, thank you.
Kogonada: I think I've always been very curious about your work, and then reading your memoir, I was just like, “God, that's the whole other side that I didn't know.” And, if I'm honest, I don't think I knew you were Korean—
Michelle: Yeah, yeah.
Kogonada: Until that.
Michelle: I mean, I feel the same about—
Kogonada: But yeah, anyways, I'm glad you've taken some time to chat.
Michelle: Yeah. I've spent a lot of time with your work. It's so soothing and poetic and I've really enjoyed both Columbus and After Yang. You've directed those two features?
Michelle: And, before that I've heard a lot about your video essays.
Kogonada: Yeah, yeah.
Michelle: Is there something that I'm missing beyond—?
Kogonada: No, no.
Michelle: I'm curious what motivated you to make those essays?
Kogonada: Oh yeah.
Michelle: Because, they were also... I thought they were going to be more, like, educational vlogs in a way.
Michelle: But, they are like these poetic collages, in a way.
Kogonada: Yeah. Yeah. I don't know what they are really, but at the time I was... I had been in grad school and I was working on a dissertation and I kind of at one point realized, "Do I really want to finish this? Do I want to be an academic?"
Michelle: What were you studying?
Kogonada: It was kind of cultural studies and aesthetic theory.
Michelle: And, where was this?
Kogonada: It was at NYU.
Michelle: Oh, NYU.
Kogonada: It wasn't in their cinema program. But, I had turned all my attention to the aesthetics of Ozu, this Japanese filmmaker, and I was doing this... My advisor had passed away. And, then I was kind of really realizing that I really wanted to put all my attention in film. And Ozu had really, really had a profound effect on me. And, I had this whole theory of this aesthetics of time. And, so I changed my whole dissertation research to it, and in the process, I just realized like, "Do I want to do this as an academic?"
I kind of felt like I was killing this thing I loved by dissecting it so deeply. And, then my brother, my older brother—I'd always been doing sort of creative works. And he was questioning me, too. He was like, "I'm surprised you want to be an academic." And, I was doing other things in New York for commission. And then there was a moment where I just started—I had been doing some little docs and little things for commissioned work. And, then at one point I just decided, “Oh, I can't be an academic.” And I just started doing these works, but they weren't anything that I was very passionate about.
And, yeah, I just started experimenting with this kind of form. At the time I don't think they were called video essays. There wasn't—people were starting to put things online. And, I just started making these works that at one point were going to be articles or something. And, I just felt like, “I'm much more comfortable in a visual medium.”
Kogonada: Yeah. And, they sort of took off right away. And, then I started getting commissioned by Criterion and Sight and Sound and had some installations. And it was, yeah, it was you know how those things—like you're not expecting anything and all of a sudden it starts getting a kind of traction.
Michelle: And, then how do you go from that into Columbus? Where did that idea come from? And, I also think, I'm reticent to bring this up, but it's really fascinating to me the way that you incorporate Asian American characters. But, the story is very much not about... So many Asian American stories are about the American Dream or our identity. But, I think for a lot of us, we just want to be characters within a story where there's no pretext in all of this stuff.
Michelle: For me, I studied creative writing in college and I took every single course available with this professor, Daniel Torday, I adored, except for his non-fiction course, because I never thought I would ever write non-fiction because if I ever wrote non-fiction, I would have to spend the first 10 pages describing how my parents met and what—
Kogonada: Right, right.
Michelle: My identity was.
Michelle: And, I just wanted to write a story.
Michelle: And, I think that by the time I finally wrote Crying in H Mart, and maybe why it's resonated with people, is that that's such a secondary part of the story, that's ultimately about grief and mothers and daughters.
Michelle: And, it's a part of it. And, yeah, I'm just wondering when people ask me if I would ever write fiction or something, I get a little intimidated by that, because I feel like in a way I have to always incorporate Asian American characters in some way.
Kogonada: Yeah. Yeah.
Michelle: And I feel like that's something that you grapple with a little bit in After Yang too, where there's, what makes—
Kogonada: Yeah, yeah.
Michelle: What even makes me Asian?
Michelle: It's not even something I sit around thinking about.
Michelle: And that's something that I certainly related to in the movie.
Kogonada: Yeah, yeah.
Michelle: Just this burden of representation.
Kogonada: That is exactly the feeling, is the burden of representation. I think probably both of us would love—or even the question of this name that we're identified with. If I never had to talk about that and just could... And then, the same way that you thought, "Well, I would've just chosen a different name." And, Chris Marker is this incredible French director and documentarian and artist, and no one ever asked his—that's a pseudonym, but he was smart to just assume that no one would ever ask him about it. But, just the burden of representation, and it's both ways, right? Because, the more now that you're kind of in that position, you don't want to shy away from real important questions about being Asian.
And if you have a chance to tell that story, I also feel like more than ever, I want to be responsible to it. But it's also—I had to navigate a very white world. And, my sense of being is an ongoing process, it's not as if that's all I think about, as someone who wants to put something out in the world, or that it feels like it has to be so explicitly about it. It's always underneath the surface. But yeah, I mean, how do you—as a musician, obviously you don't have to tell that kind of explicit… you're offering something else, but as a writer, I mean, is that something that you’re feeling more and more? I mean, you kind of just said that even fiction, you feel like that would have to be at the forefront, or do you feel comfortable to navigate it without directly addressing it?
Michelle: I get asked all the time how my identity impacts my music.
Michelle: Or my Korean culture. And it just doesn't.
Michelle: If anything it's like, my mother's culture in a way. The only impact that it really had was my mother was not very enthusiastic about me following that path.
Michelle: And that conflict, I think, only made me more certain that that was the path I had to take.
Michelle: I mean, the next idea I have for a book is also very rooted in the same kind of idea.
Kogonada: It's non-fiction though?
Michelle: It's non-fiction.
Kogonada: Yeah. Yeah.
Michelle: The next book I would like to write is, I'd like to move to Korea and study the language and talk a lot about, I think a lot of—my mom always used to say to me, if you lived in Korea for six months to a year, you would leave fluent.
Michelle: And, I don't know if that's still true. It scares me. But, I kind of would like to... I think a lot of people would be curious if someone in their thirties, fully immersed—
Kogonada: That would be amazing.
Michelle: —in a language, what that looks like documented, day to day of just funny observations and ways that your brain begins to link together.
Michelle: It just seems like a very natural jumping-off point. But after that, I really don't know. I probably will never want to write about this again.
Michelle: But, there's this feeling that if I ever wrote fiction, do you have to write white characters in order for a story to have nothing to do with…
Michelle: I mean, with cinema it's visual. So, you can just have a character that's of a different race. You never have to talk about it.
Kogonada: Right. Right.
Michelle: And, aside from Yang thinking about his identity, this is a multiracial family where that's never discussed.
Kogonada: Right, yeah. And there's something formal about cinema, too, that I feel like you can offer an Asian sensibility without ever even having Asian characters. It's not just about Asian faces. I don’t want to act as if—I love being Asian. And in fact, I'm hungry for my Asianness, and so it's not as if I'm bothered or burdened by Asianness, or I don't want to be Asian. I think we both know that it's just about this expectation that that's the only subject people really want to hear about if you're Asian. And we know that. And Caucasian artists, it's not as if people are just like, "Tell us about being white."
So, it's not that, because I do almost feel hungry. And when you tell me about your next project, it's like, "Oh God, that would be fascinating.” Because I also think if you're part of the displaced Asian community, it's a very common term of not feeling Asian enough, or not feeling Korean enough. And always, even reading your book, I felt envy of your love for the food. I mean, I love the food, but you went deep inside in your pursuit of it, and the way in which you are able to get inside of it.
And I feel that with all my Asian community, that we're all part of a spectrum. But I think it's also all a construct. I mean, After Yang is a little bit about the construct of Asian—like, Yang is not Asian. He's a construct of Asianness. And I feel like that is who we all are, if you're outside. If you're born and you're just in your being, that's a different kind of Asian experience. But if you're outside of it, you have to also contend with the perception of Asianness that you're also consuming in the media outside of it. So you're seeing Asianness and you're trying to understand yourself in that way.
And then other people have expectations of what it means to be Asian. And we're trying to construct our sense of being through all this construct. So, that was what was fascinating about After Yang is that this idea that this person is assumed to be Asian, but he's a mere construct of it. And I could radically identify with that, in a way that sometimes other characters, maybe, I don’t—it depends on where they are in the spectrum that I feel that connection. But that makes me think about where you are with your new album.
First of all, what an incredible year you have had. Being on that side of it, because as someone who has been indie, and I certainly feel that as a filmmaker, too, there's just this ongoing hustle of trying to—"Am I going to get enough traction?" And now you seem so much on the other side. I mean, there's some real success as a writer and as a musician. Do you feel like some sort of peace, in regard to these years of pursuing what you've been pursuing? Or do you feel unsettled?
Michelle: I think I feel both in some ways. Like, some days I feel very at peace with what I've accomplished. I think, also, just so much of being an artist, especially before experiencing any type of success, is just feeling like a complete psychopath. Just the level of narcissism that you need to believe in your work enough to put it out there and that it might go somewhere. You just feel deluded for so much of your life, and then yeah, to have it be received so well is obviously so validating. But I think I also feel so completely unsettled because you're always like, "Well, is it all downhill from here? Is this the peak?” It's impossible for me to not feel that way.
Kogonada: In this delusional dream that some of us have, would you have been content—your book is just, you're on the verge of just giving that up and getting a job. Do you think you could have done that?
Michelle: I did do that.
Kogonada: Yeah. And do you think you could have done it and then been in your 30s, and just established, not a rock star, and feel like, "Oh, I'm happy. I'm happy." Or because you had this dream, you always thought, "Oh, I'm going to be a musician." Would you have been content not having pursued that, or not having accomplished it?
Michelle: I think that I would always aspire for that until I died.
Kogonada: Yeah, yeah, yeah, yeah.
Michelle: And it happens for people, sometimes, really late in life. But I did give up music, and I had always thought, "If I finally give up working on creative projects, I am a really ambitious, hardworking, sharp person. I think I will be very successful in the corporate world." I felt motivated to climb the corporate ladder when I was 25 and I moved to New York, and my husband was actually like, "I really don't think you should give up music. I really think you're so talented and this is meant for you."
And I got very upset with him, just like, "You don't know. I'm 25. I need to give this up. It's not going to happen for me. You don't know how much I've been through, clawing my way into this, and it's just not going to happen, and we need to let it go." And so, I got a job in advertising. I was a sales assistant, and I quickly realized everyone thinks they're a hard worker, or most people do, I think, and that lifestyle was so miserable for me. I would just spend nine hours at a desk and leave feeling like I'd accomplished nothing.
And so, during that time, I was writing non-fiction once I got home, or I would work on mixing the record. I thought, at the end of the year, I would get a promotion. And I went in for like our year-end review, and they were like, "Yeah. So, you're not doing a great job." And I was so shocked, and I came to realize that, if you want to excel in that world, they want to take everything from you. You can't have creative projects after work. You have to think about work after work. And that's how you get ahead in New York, in that world.
And I would never ever be able to give that up. I always thought, oh, maybe I would be able to work an office job, and in my spare time, I would always make quiet records or some type of writing and have an essay published here and there. I thought that could be fulfilling.
Kogonada: Just for yourself. Just because you just needed to—
Michelle: Yeah. I think that's hopefully what a true—I don't think that part of me could ever die. I would always need to do that for me to feel a sense of purpose. I've never felt more sure about that. And I think that just made me realize what a lottery ticket I had landed in 2016, when it started to happen to me, because I realized, "Oh, I'm so miserable in an office. I can't go back there. I need to do whatever it takes to never go back there."
Kogonada: That makes me think. I've been thinking about this lately, because you're talking with young filmmakers. I'm sure you talk with people who want to do what you're doing. And more than ever—I have kids and when they were younger, we'd watch all these Disney or Disney-like movies. And it's always about, “If you dream it, it can happen.” Right?
Kogonada: And I remember watching this, it was about a snail, Turbo or something. And it was like, he had a dream to win the Indy 500 as a snail. And it all happened. All the rules changed, everything happened. And there was his older brother who was cautious. He kind of reminded me of my older brother. And he was like, "Oh, you should just be happy being a snail." And he was like, "No." And the older brother's almost vilified, like as a dream crusher.
And I remember thinking, "It is impossible for everybody, even if you're not a snail, even if you're one of the best race car drivers in the world, the chance of you winning the Indy 500 is still really slim. You could be the 100th best driver, let alone a snail.” So, that's really not bad advice to say, "This might not happen for you." Because it's just not possible for everybody who dreams of winning the Indy 500, that that dream is going to come true. No matter how hard you work, the numbers are not there.
And I think about that. Because I would never want to crush anyone's dream. And then we're both a testament to, it can happen in whatever way. But anyways, what is your thought? Because you're right. It's a lottery ticket, but also, as you are dealing with people who are like, "I want to do what you're doing," do you have any perspective of—when you say you were about to quit, I think in our culture, that feels like a real loss. But I think it's okay to think that's not an option. Or is it? Am I being a dream killer just even saying that? Do you know what I'm saying?
Michelle: No, I mean, in a way it only began to happen when I kind of gave up on my dream. But I think, in a way, there was some small part of me that never would give it up. It was almost like it took me being like, "I'm never going to be successful. I'm just going to make art and I'm okay with that." It was almost like I had welcomed in, like, "Oh, that's all you needed to do."
Kogonada: Yeah. Yeah, yeah. Yeah.
Michelle: So, yeah. I would say for people to just get comfortable with that idea. I think that the greatest thing that you can do as an aspiring artist is to make art and continually put it out in the world. And I know so many people who are far more talented writers or musicians than I am, but they stand in their own way because they never let it go. And I think that my major talent is just that I'm interested in completing projects and letting them go. And I think that the best way to look at that is just something that I comfort myself with all the time, when I finish a project, is just, "This is just who you are right now. Your art is a type of archive for who you are in this moment."
And certainly, if you continue to tinker away at it for another five years, then that would just be who you are five years later. And who's to say, if you continue to tinker with it, you don't start undoing some of the magic you had there in the beginning? So, I think, in some ways, my greatest strength is having the courage to walk away and let things go. But I don't know if you had this experience.
Kogonada: That's brilliant, though. And with you having some Asian descent, that's brilliant, too, because it's not easy.
Michelle: I mean, I don't know if you've had this experience, but when I finished Crying in H Mart, I was truly devastated. I just thought I did a horrible job and I just was like, "You know what? You've been working on this for five years, six years. I don't want to give it this anymore. You've done your best, and that's all you can do. You've lost perspective."
But I was really crushed. And I was like, "You've let down your mother's memory. You've let down yourself." Because you see yourself up here, and you land somewhere below it. And then it took six months away of it, where I was just like, "It just is what it is." And then when I read the audiobook six, seven months later, after not thinking about it or reading it, only then was I able to be like, "This is pretty good. You did okay."
And same with Jubilee. Like when I finished Jubilee, I remember my producer Craig and I, we went out for drinks and we were just like, "Huh, I don't feel anything. It just is what it is." Because I feel like, in a way, the novelty of completing a creative project is gone. Like I made my first record. I finished certain things and I just don't know anymore. I wonder if you had that? Do you have a different feeling from when you completed Columbus and when you completed After Yang? I mean, was that a different sensation?
Kogonada: You know, the nice thing about both of those projects is the process was so nourishing. Like, we had a really great set and John Cho and Colin Farrell and Haley Lu, all of them. I mean, across the board, it was just a real beginning of a beautiful relationship. And so, the best part of that, outside of my own self-critical, perfectionist way, was just, "Oh, I will walk away a better person because I got to collaborate with these artists and good human beings.”
But the creative side and the person who can get really obsessed, yeah. I mean, I think, like you were talking about, you have that initial aspiration where you're like, "This is going to be fucking great." And then, in the middle, you're like, "This is shit. This is the worst, awful thing. I'm going to be exposed and it's just awful. And I can't believe it.”
But then you can work your way out of it, and yeah, to the point where you're just like, "This is the best I can do." But yeah, it takes me a moment because I won't read reviews. I just don't have the distance to read, even if my producers are sending me all these positive vibes. That is also equally—I can hardly process it, good or bad.
But then, like a year later, or when I have enough distance, I can really engage my own work. And it's not like that for everyone. I know some people, they can't watch or engage anything they've done. But once I have enough distance, I can, and I will read—I have favorite critics and writers I've always had, so I will always engage them.
So, then, once I have a little distance, I think I can, like you say, think, "Oh, I can appreciate the work that's out there." You always wanted to be a writer. Was that your first creative identity? Is like, "I'm a writer?" Or was it, "I'm a musician."
Michelle: Yeah. If I think back to it, I think I was in school newspaper, and I wrote for the city paper.
Kogonada: So, it was even journalism. It wasn’t just like—
Michelle: Because I just thought that's what I had to do. It was my way of turning what I actually liked into something that seems logical.
Kogonada: Did your mom, would she have been more supportive of being a journalist than being a rockstar?
Michelle: I think, like, any parent, to her credit, would try to temper their child's expectation of, “I want to be a rockstar.” Just like, "Well, you need to have a backup plan." And I think she just wanted me to be prepared for the financial reality that I would face. And not only that, but like the emotional toll. I think she knew I was an incredibly independent and very, very sensitive child. So I think she was just like, "This is a world that you're going to face a lot of rejection. I don't know if that's something you're going to be able to take. I think that you would be better suited for something else." I don't know. I think she thought I was a great writer. But she was always like, "You don't work hard enough.”
Kogonada: That's crazy, right?
Michelle: Which is great because maybe I didn't. And I think in a way, I always have that on my shoulders, and it's pushed me so far because I'm always like, "I feel lazy. I'm not doing enough." And I think that just is what propels me forward.
Kogonada: Yeah. I feel that way too. Yeah. I feel that same thing, where I just feel like, “Oh, I need to be working, working.” And it's very hard to almost relax. And more than ever now, with my kids being teenagers now, I feel like I have to be present, present, but my mind is all... And I always feel guilt if I'm not working on something. Have you gotten better with that? From the outside, you're just prolific. But are you, in your daily life, are you able to just relax? Or do you feel this voice of your mom, or just your own need to be working?
Michelle: I feel a constant need to be working. Even if I watch a movie or read a book or an essay or something, it has to go somewhere. If I don't have a project for it to filter out into, I feel like an incomplete person.
Kogonada: Yeah. I can feel the same fucking way, yeah.
Michelle: But I feel like I just, as a human being, I just need that sense of purpose. And I think especially after my mom died, in a way, certainly maybe that's a part of her voice that makes me that ambitious of a person, but it's also just like I have so much to say before I die, and I have this predisposition to getting cancer probably pretty early. So I just feel very confronted by how close death is, and I want to accomplish so much... I have so many ideas and so many experiences I want to have.
And I also just feel like when you're in the position that we are, once you open a door, five more doors open, whereas before you never had any door. And so now it's just like, well, I have to take advantage. This is coming up, and I can talk to this person. It just feels like a snowball that you have to constantly be pushing. And I know that I'm in a really lucky spot right now, and I want to take advantage of everything while I can.
Kogonada: Yeah. My mind, I was asking about quitting because there's this project that I'm writing about someone quitting, and it has been a—but I find myself, even as I'm talking to you and it's sparking both ideas and other projects that I'm—and it just feels like a moment where there's so much coming at you, and you're trying to process, but you also feel like this is the moment that you've been waiting for.
The one question I wanted to ask you about this shift in this album was—like the tones of my films that are very much the tone of my head space, but there is this... You have chosen to do something a little more joyful, and I just want to know how intentional that was and if you can even do that. Was it just that was where you were in your life, or were you just like, "I'm going to choose joy. I'm going to choose it. And I'm going to just make myself do a project in that way, or something lighter.”
Michelle: Yeah. It was definitely a choice.
Kogonada: It was. It wasn't that it was where you were. It was just like, "I need to."
Michelle: Yeah. I think that I couldn't say that I'm ever in a place in my life, I don't think I ever will be in a place in my life where I'm just constantly experiencing joy all the time. But I think that the album, for me, is very much about fighting for that, allowing yourself to experience that, or struggling for it. I think that's the human condition. We're all just fighting for these fleeting, rare moments of joy. And it wouldn't even be an emotion to feel if it was not rare.
But yeah, I think even when I wrote Soft Sounds, I wanted to write... I was like, "Okay, my grief album is over. It's time to move on." And then I realized I was just not ready to move on. Yeah. And so, it became this very loose, sci-fi concept album that was about grief and about disassociating in a different way.
And then once I wrote Crying in H Mart, it really felt like, “Okay, I've said everything I needed to say about that experience. I'm so tired of doing interviews, even though it's going to be something I do for the rest of my life, constantly unpacking grief and loss and trauma and illness and all this stuff. I would love to begin this new chapter of my life as an artist, and what is on the opposite end of the spectrum of all these things, but an album about joy.”
I was also thinking a lot about the third album is very much—after getting through the sophomore slump, when you hit your third album, it's like, “Oh, I can start to think about my work in context of one another. Now I have this catalog of where I should be.” And so, I have this wall in my apartment where my vinyl is up. And Psychopomp is this melancholy sky blue color, and Soft Sounds is this moody, red and black thing.
And so for the third album, I was like, I want it to be yellow, because it's almost cloyingly, just like, “you will feel joy” color. But yeah, I think that the album was very much about, I wanted to make something theatrical and boisterous and fun and joyful. Because I think that especially as an indie artist, you're just expected to be so broody all the time. I liked that challenge. It seemed like a fun and surprising thing to do as an artist.
Kogonada: I love that. You are from Oregon, you have that indie spirit, but when you told me about the business side of you in New York and that you could conquer it, I'm totally, even talking to you, I can imagine you with everything on your wall. You are a visionary, a bit of... And the way you even imagine your career feels more intentional, not just a granola, on the trails, and being whimsical like that. But it feels also like you're very thoughtful and intentional about that.
And even, speaking about visionary, I wanted to go back to the music videos too, because those are such—there's such a visual language there. And I just think every color and light and costume, do you love that part of directing when you're doing a music video? You seem like someone who's just so attuned to real details, visual details.
Michelle: Yeah. I'm really lucky. I have a wonderful collaborator, Adam Kolodny,, who I have to talk about in this podcast, because he's been the cinematographer on all of my music videos. And he was the one who pushed me into directing to begin with and has only uplifted me and my work.
But yeah, I feel like my favorite part about directing is just the idea and just the excitement of putting a treatment together and visualizing it. And then the actual directing of it is just your expectations all crumbling— [laughter]
Kogonada: Yeah, yeah, yeah, yeah.
Michelle: I find it to be such a heartbreaking medium. It's so ruthless and so expensive and challenging, that it's difficult... The idea of doing that all the time and particularly bringing out performances in people is very intimidating to me. But I do love parts of it. I love creating a world, a visual world.
Kogonada: You have a definite style. All of them have a real distinct vision. And it's also nostalgic. What's your decade? What is a decade that you return to, in regard to influence or just taste? Because it feels like a throwback a bit, there's a visual throwback, but do you have a—
Michelle: Wow, that's a great question. I never thought about that. I don't know if I feel like I have a decade, but there are certainly directors that I feel like I'm constantly stealing from.
Kogonada: Like who?
Michelle: Like, Wong Kar-wai is an obvious one, and I think the playfulness of Agnès Varda is one for me. We made a video called “The Body Is a Blade” that was very inspired by Cinévardaphoto and her use of photos and collage and that kind of thing. So those two directors are certainly a really big—
Kogonada: I love Varda.
Michelle: Me too.
Kogonada: I had a crush on her to the very end. I was like, I would marry her.
Michelle: That is such a beautiful career for me, and such range and…
Kogonada: To the end.
Michelle: Just so singular. She died on my birthday.
Kogonada: Oh, did she really?
Michelle: She did.
Kogonada: So you guys are fucking connected. But she, to the end, she was the singular artist. And I think that one could make a real case that of the French New Wave—you think of Truffaut and Gordard and Rohmer—that it's Varda. And to me, it's like, who had a career like Varda?
Michelle: And just unparalleled, I mean, so singular. I also just love—I just got a new phone, but my background, my wallpaper used to be this photo of her on a camera, holding Jacques Demy’s hand as she's directing. And I don't know, I just love love stories like that. And their relationship is so interesting, that she is this woman who creates incredibly cerebral films. And he is so flamboyantly making these musicals. They're so different, and I find their love story to be so beautiful.
Kogonada: And also, yeah, she loved him to the end. The way she talked about him. Yeah. Yeah. We should have just made this all about Varda because she's worth that. Yeah.
Michelle: But I also was—I think just this year, I became a huge Kore-eda fan.
Kogonada: Oh God. Yeah, yeah.
Michelle: I just watched a couple months ago… Nobody's Home?
Kogonada: Nobody Knows, yeah.
Michelle: Nobody Knows. Yeah.
Kogonada: God, so crushing.
Michelle: So crushing. And his style is so interesting because it reminded me a lot of Shoplifters, in the way that there's something that happens at the end of the second act that just blows you out of the... It just is so left field. And just it's so crushing. Where your jaw just is dropped, and you have this pit in your heart for the rest of the third act, I feel like. Such an incredible film.
Kogonada: Yeah. He was a documentarian first, and you can feel that because it's observational, but the way he constructs his films, just like you say, it's always... Yeah. There's a turn there. And it's always so moving. And as devastating as Nobody Knows is, it's also a real— there's so much pleasure in that too, as a family. And too...
[Colin Farrell enters]
Michelle: Oh my God.
[Colin and Kogonada talking]
Colin: Love you, man. Talk to you soon.
Kogonada: This is Michelle.
Colin: Colin. Nice to meet you. How are you? Pleasure.
Kogonada: Thank you, Colin.
Colin: I'll talk to you soon. All best.
Kogonada: I love him so much.
Michelle: What a surprise.
Kogonada: Yeah. God, what a gift he is, man. He's such a gift. I can't even explain.
Michelle: Was it intimidating to work with someone like that? Or he's such—
Kogonada: I mean, he's such a... God, anyone would be fortunate to work with Colin because he could be the biggest diva in the world. He's had such a... But he is as grounded and soulful as anyone you would ever imagine and was always on the set. He wasn't a person who was in his trailer—he was just so lovely. I feel real fortunate because John Cho is like that as well. And that's who I want to work with, people who are human beings first, and then... But Colin, God, I can get really emotional thinking about what a gift he's been in my life. But I feel that way with a few people.
And speaking of belonging, and speaking of family, it is this surrogate—you do realize you can have these surrogate attachments. I have this line in After Yang about grafting. And I've been fascinated about grafting because it's a real thing. There's this idea that you can't really be... It's only blood that really connects people together. But you're like, no, in nature a tree can literally graft another limb, and you can be a family tree in a very real, physical way, and create. And I've seen that in my life, that you can have real emotional attachment. We have four pets, and at that level you can get so emotionally attached to a pet that they feel like family.
Kogonada: So as human beings, we do that all the time. We just don't realize how actual that is. We just think it's, “Oh, we're just pretending that we're really close,” but you can genuinely create family in a way that is physical. And I'm sure you feel that with your husband too.
Michelle: Yeah. And my band too, we've been in the same band for almost five years now. And so we’ve traveled the world together, spent every day together, sleep in the same room together.
Kogonada: Maybe more family than most families.
Michelle: Yeah, for sure.
Kogonada: That's a deeper level of family.
Michelle: Yeah. It's really wonderful. I have a number of brothers in my life, I feel like, that are always looking out for me in that way.
Kogonada: Yeah. Yeah. That's, that's so sweet.
Michelle: What do you think is next for you and what do you feel like you'll be bringing from these experiences to your next work that you're excited to employ?
Kogonada: Like I said, the Columbus type of film, there's still so much I want to explore there, but I do feel like I'm also ready for a challenge. I think more than ever, I think if you had asked me this two or three months ago, it might have been different, but I'm just open. I'm open and I've been thinking about my head space, and I could think about grief and death and all of those things forever, too, because I've been obsessed with those questions since I was a little kid and the same kind of feeling that you have in regard to the temporality of life and all of that and the urgency of it, and I think that has always been in the wheelhouse of my obsessions and the cinema that has most moved me often is in that space, maybe not even explicitly, but just formally, there's something about it. But I'm also really challenged to make something that's more accessible in some ways. Because I love that. Colin and I were just talking about that the other day. And I'm moved and love those kinds of films as well.
And I almost need to give myself permission to consider being a part of—I feel like if I gave myself over, especially when that's done really well, you always have a real appreciation when something can hit a large audience but be done really well. So I've been allowing my head to...
Michelle: How do you feel you open yourself up to that?
Kogonada: I don't know. This is a question for you because you come from an independent world. There's some cred to that. And then there's a real sense of your artistic integrity. I still have that '90s, “you don't sell out,” that sort of thing that was a burden for a lot of people as well. So it's something to navigate. Can you keep true to yourself—but also, being honest with yourself is that you can love broad things, that those things also are what connect us as human beings. So I'm really literally in the middle of processing it, but trying to be open to it and just even allowing myself to say, “Oh, it's not necessarily compromise.”
And that's why I was curious too—but maybe you didn't make Jubilee thinking like—did you make it thinking it was broader? Or did you just make it thinking it's a different tone or note? Or were you like, “I want a bigger audience for this”?
Michelle: I think that it's like the death of art to think that this will bring me a broader… not that—
Kogonada: Exactly. That's not the question to ask.
Michelle: For me personally. I look at artists like Björk or Kate Bush, who are two incredibly bizarre, singular artists, that I never got the sense that they were like, “Okay, this album's going to put me in an arena.” And that's what I wanted to find within myself. I'm not an experimental artist. I'm not interested in dissonance. I'm not interested in something that's willfully challenging. I like pop structure. I like structure. I like craft. I like things that sound pleasing. But I think ultimately I will always be an indie artist because I just realized those are the tones that I like. Even if I made a song that, like, Dua Lipa could sing, I will never sound like that.
So there's always a part of me... I remember even when I was working on, being in a writing room with a producer, to try to sell something, they're like, "Oh, you have an indie sound." And in my mind I was like, “I write pop music. I don't know what you're talking about. I'm not indie.” But I think that there's a place that I'll never be able to go just because it's not my sensibility or something. And it's not really interesting to me, but I don't really mourn that because I'm so happy with the heights that we've achieved, that I think that ultimately I have to just do what feels naturally interesting to me. And I'm really lucky that I'm not someone that's naturally interested in noise music, because that's much more difficult.
And the same thing with writing. I am just interested in narrative. I would never make something willfully weird.
Kogonada: No, no I agree. There's a kind of film, cinema that people love, but it's a little exclusive. It requires you to know things before you even see the film and it is obscure and abstract and it's almost—and I can appreciate it, but I don't ever fall in love with those films. You know what I'm saying? They don't stay with me. They're almost like accomplishments or exercises. And the reason why I love Ozu is he was a genre filmmaker. He just elevated it to such a degree. And he said, "Oh, I just make tofu." People are like, "You're an artist." He's like, "I make tofu." But he elevated that fucking tofu to the point where we still talk about it. But it's really accessible.
Michelle: Wait, that's something he said? I didn't—
Kogonada: Yeah. He's just like, "I just want to make a good tray of tofu." He said that all the time, that was his answer. I'm going to do this thing with Criterion where I want to program Ozu and Hitchcock, because they both started in silent films and they're both from Imperial Islands and they're both now considered—Sight and Sound, every 10 years they do this incredible poll. And the last poll they were, I think with Orson Welles, just considered the three masters. But Hitchcock used to always say, "I just want to make a slice of cake." He felt like, "Oh, my film should be a treat and should help people escape from kitchen sink reality."
Kogonada: And Ozu was just like, "I want to make tofu."
Kogonada: And almost like, “I want to poeticize the sort of kitchen sink reality.” So I'm just fascinated about both of that.
Michelle: What did Welles want to make?
Kogonada: Yeah. Yeah.
Kogonada: Yeah. Yeah. Steak shaped like himself, I think.
Michelle: What do you want to make? What food item are you going after?
Kogonada: I do, my DP and I, we always use food. When we were making After Yang, we constantly, we ate ramen maybe two or three times a week and would talk about our process, and we would talk about the broth and the layering of the broth. And we were like, "Oh, this is, just the sounds and every—” We just wanted to have the subtle layers of a good broth of ramen. And that's not a bad thing. Because I do want to make accessible films. I think you're absolutely right though. The question of trying to pursue a broader audience is the death of art. And you feel that when you’re talking to some people and that's where their starting place is, what does the audience…?
Michelle: You can hear it. There's a cloying sound of someone trying to do that.
Kogonada: So I don't ever want to do that. So I guess the question I'm open to is, maybe the... I don't know. Honestly, it is in process, but I don't ever want to make something that doesn't feel true to my sensibilities. And I know I don't want to make stuff that's exclusive. I think my films do require a certain kind of patience because that's a bit of my sensibility, too. But I think maybe that, more than ever, is what I'm thinking through. I also like well-paced films. I like movement, and this is what I'm trying to figure out is, in my sensibility and the stuff that I love, as I choose other projects.
Do you feel like musically or formally this last album is different? I know content-wise, but do you feel like your form has changed, your sensibilities have changed or stretched, or does it feel still very much…?
Michelle: I think that my sensibility has remained the same, but I think I'm just more confident and more ambitious. I think working with Craig Hendrix, who produced the last album with me and this one, it opened me up to a broader palette in a way. Three years ago, I never would've thought, “Oh, we should put a string arrangement here,” or “I'll write a horn arrangement here.” And now I feel completely confident that we can.
We have the budget to bring those types of musicians in, and I have the confidence to write that type of arrangement or the scope to see something. I'm just more cognizant of the quality of tone. I just have a stronger sensibility I think, and I definitely went into it—for me, the biggest thing, if anything, I wanted to just go very big for this new record, I wanted this theatricality. And I think for the next album, I'm more interested in a sense of timelessness and quality and a classic kind of sound.
And one thing I really love to do, and I wonder if there is a parallel in film, is—one new thing for me when I feel like I've plateaued in my craft is to take some type of lesson. So I've started taking guitar lessons again to prepare because I want to just become a wizard at finger picking. The last album, I started studying a little bit more music theory and I found that to be really helpful and challenging. I wonder if there's anything that you’ve—do you do anything like that to prepare for going into a film, because you have to just be so present.
Kogonada: Yeah, it's a weird—it's such a unique art form because it's like a timed event, it's like a timed art form. The day starts and then you just can't keep working on something. You have to get a certain amount done by the end of the day because there's so much money being spent every day. Sometimes I long for like—I wish it was more like painting or writing. When you're writing, it's not as if every day you have to hit a certain mark. You might have self goals, but it's not as if—so film has to be done by a certain amount of days or it gets really costly.
So practicing that—you only get to practice directing when you're directing. There's no real exercise, but I do think what helps and that—I love directing because my head is always active about decisions and the consequence of decisions both aesthetically and… So I'm always interrogating decisions, both the decisions people make in their own art and decisions that I—so it's just a fascinating thing for me just to think about filmmaking, as you know, and even the music videos, you just have a thousand decisions you have to make always. And so you can prepare for that, because you can just know what you love. And going back to a food analogy, what I realize is, more than ever, you can have all this also predetermined—you can have a recipe in mind, but the best chefs, they go to a market and they see ingredients that they didn't even imagine that they were going to use, and it changes.
Michelle: What were the things like that for After Yang?
Kogonada: Sometimes it was the way something hit the shadow of a wall, and we're just like, "Oh, this is a moment. And let's make this a memory." And sometimes it's just the actors, how they're feeling about something. And I know that there are directors who just are going to force their recipe. They have a recipe and sometimes it's great. And I think Hitchcock was that way. He knew exactly what, and he said, "Actors are like cattle, you just have to get them through and have them do what they need to do."
But I very much like the… There are people like Terrence Malick, who is really—there's all these stories. Colin tells a story of him, in a scene, and all of a sudden, Terrence Malick saw a flock of birds flying. And even in the middle of the scene, he makes all the camera follow the birds because that's what he wants to capture in that moment. It's not like that, but I do think there's a way that you can approach filmmaking and be sensitive to both what you want to capture, but the best ingredients of the day. And this is what me and my DP Benjamin have—we've been obsessed with, is there a way to make a film that way and really try every day to try to, whether it's the lighting of the day, whether it's a performance and whether it's a space itself, and get the best ingredients and figure out if that's going to make for a better film.
And we're just starting that, but we're pretty excited about really trying to figure that out. So, yeah. Anyways, God, it's so great to—
Michelle: So good to meet you. Thank you so much.
Kogonada: Yeah, no, thank you.
Speaker: Thanks for listening. The A24 Podcast is produced by us, A24. Special thanks to our editor, Thom Wyatt, and Robot Repair, who composed our theme.