Meet Ien Chi: filmmaker, photographer, dreamer. His mission: to empower, inspire, and influence people through his films which aim to discover what it means to be human. At only 20 years old, Ien has already won several awards including Best Director and Best Picture at Campus MovieFest—the largest student film festival, First Place at the 2010 Annual Emory Arts Competition, Seoul Foreign School Visual Arts Awards, among others. Ien talks to us about venturing into the film-making world, staying true to his ultimate artistic goals, and shares his thoughts on film school and Hollywood.
Your first film-making experience was in the seventh grade. Can you tell us more about it and why it inspired you to continue in film?
So in junior high, I was part of a mock trial team in school and we had to find a way to tell the jury what happened to our defendant. Instead of just telling them though, we came up with the idea to make a movie. One of my buddies brought his video camera and we just started fooling around filming the event we were trying to delineate. It was a marvelously fun experience for me – to be able to create this story with a few good buddies. And it seemed like I had a knack for it as I was the one who chose most of the angles and came up with different shots. When we showed the final video in class, all of the students were howling and having such a good time watching it; it was a tremendously rewarding experience. When I moved to Korea for high school, the memory of making those little films in junior high stuck with me and made me want to make more because it was so fun! I guess that’s how my filmmaking passion was ignited.
I don’t think I have one favorite director but I tend to have phases of obsession with a particular filmmaker/director. These phases have included Steven Spielberg, James Cameron, Gus Van Sant, Sean Penn, Akira Kurosawa, Stanley Kubrick, Danny Boyle, David Fincher, etc. Pretty much any filmmaker who is notable, haha. All of these figures I admire greatly because of their ability to be themselves and be so ruthlessly determined through their passion to tell great stories. All of them have their distinct individual qualities – but that’s still the one thing among them all that I truly admire: the ability and willpower to be oneself.
Haha, you guys seem to know a lot about me! Well, I think inspiration comes in infinite forms. It’s a mysterious thing. But for me, I think it only works when it comes very naturally through something I’ve been thinking about for a while. That commencement speech by Steve Jobs was in my head for a long while and I still think about it occasionally. That’s what popped up when I was writing the screenplay for Tick Tock. Crippled—another film I did—was made in a time when I was feeling cynical about the nature of human beings; and certainly you can see this reflected in the film’s plot. So I guess inspiration comes from whatever I’m going through in life. It’s as if I’m mirroring my life experience in my films – and that’s probably the way it should be to try and make something genuine.
There is a very different process for each film. I’ve done a film in a single night that turned out pretty good. In the case of Tick Tock it took about 4 months or so. But of course, it wasn’t as if I was constantly working on the film for four months. Just thinking about the overall process though, I think the pre-production stage should be significantly long. After writing an initial screenplay, letting it boil for a couple months or years makes the best potential in it come out. For Tick Tock we had like two months prior to filming. But every week or so I’d come up with a new idea and change around the screenplay. So imagine if we’d filmed Tick Tock right after I wrote it the first time. It would’ve been a lot worse than what it is now. In terms of execution, it’s just a matter of staying consistent with your own expectations and vision. This means casting the right people, choosing the right locations, getting good music, etc. It’s a process with very many factors.
What are the biggest challenges that you face right now as a young filmmaker?
Well, I gotta be truthful. I worry about my future every day. Literally. Especially in our generation where filmmaking has become very democratized, I’ve got to find a way to wade through all the ridiculous amounts of content out there. And somehow, I need to make films that are both artful and engaging. Film is a business, but it’s also an art – and therein lies the paradox. Many people say to me that to make widely distributed films, I’ve got to be willing to give up a lot of creative freedom. This is what I’m most worried about. I must be able to find a way to stay very focused and clear in what kind of stories I want to tell. I must not be a sellout.
Emory isn’t particularly known for its film department. Why did you decide to stay in Atlanta instead of transferring to a school in LA or NYC?
Yes, this is true. Truth be told, I was rejected from everywhere else when I applied to colleges (including from USC film school). Oxford College of Emory was pretty much my only choice, and now I’m at the Emory main campus. But I think this has all been for the better. Must one go to film school to be a filmmaker? I don’t think so. Making my own films has kind of served as my own film school and so far it’s been working out very well (thank goodness!). In addition, I think college is pretty much the last time in your life when you can study whatever you want to study without any huge obligation to stick to it for the rest of your life. I’m a religion major because I feel like the most powerful stories come from religion or have religious undertones. I always tell people what my dad tells me: if Jesus was born today, he’d be a filmmaker. He was a world-changing figure who spoke through stories and parables. And essentially, filmmaking is storytelling. Emory itself has a great religion department, and I’m glad it does because it’s my major! In the end, it’s all for the storytelling.
Do you plan on going to film school in the future? Moreover, do you think aspiring filmmakers of this generation—with YouTube and other valuable sources readily-available online—need to invest on having a traditional film school background in order to succeed in the field?
As of now, I don’t plan on going to film school. Graduate film school is probably too expensive for me anyways. In answering the latter question, I definitely don’t think one must go to film school to succeed in the field. Proof of this is a bunch of the biggest directors that have made it already. Look at James Cameron, Christopher Nolan, Peter Jackson, Steven Spielberg, etc. These are all ridiculously good filmmakers who all made it into filmmaking their own way. Specifically, figures like Christopher Nolan majored in other areas in order to develop storytelling abilities. I think that’s most important – reading, experiencing, discovering, etc.
What other activities/hobbies do you enjoy doing?
I have to think about this one, haha. Lately, my hobbies have declined because of schoolwork and everything. Besides film watching, I enjoy photography, playing the guitar, and just hanging out with people in general. I’ve recently discovered how nice it is to be social and meet new people and mingle; to have lunch with random people I read about in the school newspaper doing cool things or meet through clubs.
What are your views on the current state of Hollywood (remakes, IMAX 3D)? Do you see yourself as being a part of it?
I think Hollywood is very unoriginal these days and is trying to play it way too safe. Too many superhero stories and films based on books. Of course there are exceptions where the film version has its own creative interpretation and twist. But maybe it’s because of the state of the economy or something – but Hollywood needs to step up its game and put out some more original and innovative films! In my case, hopefully I can be fearless enough to take the risks to make engaging and challenging films. But first, I need to actually get the attention to be able to make some more widely seen films – which is why I’d like to make a feature or two on my own.
Can you tell us a little about your upcoming projects?
In July, I shot something in San Francisco with William Sun – a friend from high school. It’s a short film set to be about 17-20 minutes long. I think it’ll be all done by February. We just haven’t had the opportunity to work on it a lot because of no computer, time issues, etc. The film is about a young guy named Zane. The story covers his struggles growing up as the only white kid in the neighborhood; one day, he encounters a situation representative of his crucial decision of whether or not to follow the common path of crime. It’s a film about his struggle to do the right thing amidst the intense pressure around him to take the easy way out. Hopefully it’ll turn out to be good!
Watch Ien’s short film, Tick Tock below:
[Photos: Courtesy of Ien Chi]