Australian cinematographer Lachlan Milne was finishing up on another film when he got the call for Minari. He read the script the same evening that he received the call and signed on to the film the next morning. He would soon find himself shooting in oppressive heat with a cast speaking a language he did not understand.
In our conversation, Milne and I discuss these challenges, how they were overcome, and the beautiful film that resulted from the work of a closely-knit cast and crew.
Awards Daily: How did you come to Minari?
Lachlan Milne: I was finishing a film in Queensland, Australia, and it was the last day of the shoot. I was operating a crane shot and my phone just kept buzzing and buzzing, and I saw that it was Grant, my agent. So I knew something was up. I did something I’ve never done before on a set, which is ask for a minute to step outside and take a call. Grant said, “Do not hang up the phone. I’ve got this script, it’s called Minari. Don’t go to the wrap party tonight, don’t go out to dinner, don’t do anything except go home and read this script, and I’ll set you up with a call with (Minari director) Lee Isaac Chung in the morning.” And that’s exactly what I did. I went home and read it and it was the script I’d been waiting for some time – it ticked all the boxes for a film that I would love to see as an audience member. I jumped at the chance. I took the call the next day and that was that. It all happened incredibly quickly.
AD: So many of the people who worked on this film are either South Korean or Korean Americans and much of the film is spoken in Korean. As an Australian, what was it like to work within an unfamiliar culture on a set where I’m sure many of the principles could communicate more easily with one another?
LM: I had nothing but support and friendship (from the cast and crew). Not only was I an outsider to the Korean culture but also not being an American. My angle on compared to just about every other member of the crew was slightly skewed. It was a real education for me on a number of different levels. The emphasis on family and culture and friendship as a basis for the moral compass for a lot of the people on the film was really apparent to me. To the point where we would eat a lot together, go to each others houses, we would see each other on the weekends, and go out outside of work. There was a real camaraderie, a real family, “we’re all in this together” attitude towards the work. I don’t know if that’s a South Korean thing or if it was just because I was surrounded by such wonderful people.
The really interesting thing to me was I wanted to be respectful of how personal the story was. Not only to Isaac, as it’s quite autobiographical for him, but also for people like Steven Yeun, and YJ (Yuh-jung Youn), and a lot of key members of the cast and the crew as well. It was a very familiar experience for a lot of people on the film. Which I think has given the film this fantastic grounding. I’ve spoken to some Korean friends of mine who are first or second generation immigrants and they all say it feels very familiar to them – especially when their parents see it. There’s a real honesty about the film that I really love. Particularly when I was working because I’ve never operated on a film that was in a different language to what I speak. I didn’t realize until I got on set – which I know sounds silly – because i always read scripts in English. I knew when we filmed it most of the dialogue would be in Korean, and on the first day, I realized I didn’t really think this one through as well as I should have. [Laughs] But it’s funny, at a certain point it becomes kind of instinctual. Maybe because the performances were so strong, clear, and genuine, and all I needed to do was listen for a couple of key words or ask David (Kim), YJ, or Steven who would then give me the cue to work with. When they would improvise at certain points, I would kind of do the same as well, which I feel like gives the film a more live, observed quality. It was a real education for me on a number of personal and professional levels.
AD: That “observed” quality you mentioned. I really felt that watching the film. At times it’s almost like eavesdropping.
LM: I’m so glad you felt that. It was a real driving force for all of us that we spoke about beforehand. As a cinematographer, I like to try not to influence things if I can avoid it. I like to try and keep it as honest and observational as I can from a compositional side of things, to keep a low profile and try not to get in the way. Particularly when you’ve got such a fantastic ensemble cast like this. The film will only benefit from you fitting as many of them in the frame as you possibly can, given the spatial constrictions of something like a trailer. Isaac and I were always interested in trying to be wider at all opportunities when there was multiple people in the room. To your point, so that it feels like you’re peeking through a door jamb. We didn’t want it to be a showy film in any sense. We wanted it to be beautiful in an honest way. It’s not a big dolly and track film, it doesn’t have any cranes in it, it’s a relatively statically shot film for the majority of the film. We wanted the camera to kind of sit back and watch things play out a little rather than remind everybody of the process of filmmaking all the time.
AD: There’s a real patience and stillness in the film. I also love how glances are often just as important as dialogue when characters are interacting.
LM: There are large periods where the dialogue isn’t necessarily being used to convey what’s happening in the story. Isaac and I wanted to be as restrained – that’s the word we kept using – particularly with the coverage. The temptation is, especially when you’ve got young talent that might be unpredictable or that you might have to edit around because one take might be (significantly) better than another, but we tried to be really disciplined with our coverage. Because if you shoot a two takes, the temptation is to use the better one, but if you don’t shoot it, you can dictate the pacing of the film a little more. We would commit that this is a one shot scene so we could shoot it a little wider and get as much of the cast in frame as possible. We did some quite lone, 2-3-4 minute one shot scenarios where the performances would start out happy and jovial, but by the end of the scene things would turn more serious. By having the longer shots, you could see all of those emotions play out in real time, rather than relying on editing to tighten it up. Just from the honesty side of things, that was super interesting to me as a filmmaker.
AD: Probably your most high profile project before this film is the work you did on Stranger Things…
LM: Which is a little different. [Laughs]
AD: Coming from a project like Stranger Things, which is so FX heavy, has a large budget and a totally different, vibe, how did you get your head around the very different task of shooting Minari?
LM: I just let the story dictate how I felt it should be shot. I know that sounds a little indulgent, but we also didn’t have the budget and access to equipment that you would on something like Stranger Things. Honestly, I don’t think the $15 million version of this film is as good as the $2 million version. One of the great things about this film is what we didn’t have. That forces you to really think things through. Especially with coverage, because we couldn’t shoot too much film because we didn’t have the budget for that much processing, and we couldn’t have that many locations, which dictated what we couldn’t do. Which sounds weird, but I actually think the low budget version of this is the best version because of what it required of us.
Personally, I don’t have an issue changing genres or budget scales, I find that exciting. Also, I come from independent films in the first place, so I’m used to working with limited time and resources. To go to something like Stranger Things where you have the opportunity to spend some money and get more equipment, that’s a luxury to me. What I’m more accustomed to is independent films where everyone is on it for the right reasons and everybody is there to serve the story. Which is the essence of what this film turned out to be.
AD: Necessity being the mother of invention, as the cliché goes.
LM: Totally. You play the cards that you are dealt. There’s always a $2 million version, a $20 million dollar version, a $50 million version of everything. But just because there’s more money and more time doesn’t necessarily mean it’s going to be better. Being forced to think laterally and be clever about things I find to be creative and fascinating. There’s a desire by everybody on a small film not to let anything beat them because of the limitations of the project. It galvanizes people’s relationships together and I think you end up working towards the same goal.
AD: Minari has a mixture of both beauty and plainness in the shots. The landscape can at times be quite beautiful, but at the same time, there’s nothing more plain than a trailer out in the middle of the woods. How did you balance those competing aesthetics?
LM: I wanted the interior of the trailer to have a practical, warm, homely sort of a feel to it. To shoot as wide as possible, I relied on practical lights because we were shooting in a space that was twice as wide as it was high, so it was very difficult to keep things out of the frame. That was one of the things that (editor) Harry Yoon and I talked about in pre-production. Particularly with the exterior work, we shot it in June-July of 2019 in peak sun with temperatures in the ’90s everyday and shooting for 14 hours a day. There were lots of ticks, lots of snakes, and all that sort of stuff.
But from the visual side of things, what was really important to get across in the story was the sheer scale of the project that Jacob (Steven Yeun) had undertaken. How isolated they were in the decisions that they made. This lonely, isolated trailer in the middle of this vast field with nobody around – you don’t get the sense of any other neighbors, they don’t even have running water. But particularly when Jacob is toiling in the field, when he’s starting to till the ground and get the farm together, I loved the idea of showing how he has taken this whole burden of providing this new life, on a wing and a prayer for his family in a place where he knows no one and initially doesn’t have any help. To see this single man alone in this big, open, insurmountable field facing down what seems to be this impossible task was visually important. I also didn’t want to diffuse the light and let it feel more desaturated and relentless – which is what t felt like when we were there on the day. Speaking to Isaac, that’s what a lot of growing up in the Ozarks was like and we wanted to be honest to that memory.
AD: I asked Harry Yoon this next question as well. When I was watching Minari, the visual work of Terrence Malick’s films came to mind. Particularly the domestic scenes in Tree of Life, as well as Days of Heaven and Badlands too. Harry referenced Malick as a specific inspiration for him on this film. Is that the case for you as well?
LM: Those are probably three of my top ten films to be honest with you. If I had a gun to my head and I had to choose definitely those three would be in there. I’m a huge fan of his because of the way he uses the camera as a storytelling device. What he does for mood. The combination of sound design and camera, but without dialogue. The way he tells stories with lensing and jump-cutting or coverage, I find really fascinating. There were definitely a couple of moments that were spontaneous. There’s a scene in the film just after sunset when Jacob is smoking a cigarette by himself in the field. It was a transition between day and night and I had just taken the camera out to shoot the sunset as a transitional shot. We didn’t have a lot of time to establish day to night themes but we wanted to get a shot to give the film a bit of pacing. Steven just happened to walk up behind me and he was just taking five and smoking a cigarette, and I saw him there and just took the camera and kept rolling. I walked out toward him and shot 3-4 shots without cutting and that ended up in the film. I had quite a wide lens on him because I was getting these sunset shots, and I think it unintentionally ended up feeling like a Malick-y sort of sequence. For me, visually, there’s definitely some Terrence Malick in this film, for sure.
AD: The sort of visual and emotional peak of the film is the fire scene. I know you avoided using any effects and shot a real burning barn. That scene has a dynamic that stands out from the rest of the film. How did you approach that sequence while keeping in mind wanting it to fit with the film as a whole?
LM: It is a bit of a stand alone part pf the movie, isn’t it? It is the big emotional peak. It’s essentially the whole family watching their hopes and dreams go up in flames. We spoke a lot about that scene, and because it was a modestly budgeted film, to do something like that takes a lot of time out of what is already a relatively short schedule – just because of the amount of money and safety and discussion and preparation that goes into shooting a scene like that. I as a huge advocate, as was Isaac, of trying to shoot it in camera. Initially we talked about some VFX enhancement and not doing quite as substantial a burn as we ended up doing. I’ve done quite a lot of VFX heavy stuff now, and it can be fantastic as long as you have the resources available to do it. But nothing, especially in a situation like the scene in Minari, quite as real as doing it in camera. Particularly with the actors’ performance – them being able to react to the fire on that scale. I felt like that would bring it some extra gravity.
It was going to be a hard sell given the scale of what we wanted to achieve due to the budget. Personally, I was apprehensive about it being underwhelming at such a pivotal moment in the film for these characters. So, we did it for real. I shot a lot of the key performance stuff where you don’t see a lot of the barn with simulated smoke, lighting, et cetera with a controlled burn. Then we had the interior with Monica and Jacob trying to save everything they could. I think it was the only day that we had two cameras, which we needed because we knew we only had one crack at it. We used a hand held with a wide angle to capture Steven and Yeri. We shot them closer to the barn before it really started to go up in flames. Then we gradually got further and further away until there’s this wonderful moment of the silhouettes in the lower right of the frame just as the flames are starting to take hold – I love the symbolism of that shot. It had a gravity to it that I think we would have sold ourselves short on had we relied on VFX. I think everyone ended up being happy with it, but at the time, it was the biggest discussion in the movie – that scene. There’s always one scene where you talk about it forever and ever, and that one was ours.
AD: That was the scene that most made me think of Malick – the burning of the fields in Days of Heaven.
LM: Yeah! That was a reference point. One of the great things about that scene is that we did the adults’ performance when they were looking at it burning down the first time even though they were looking at a bunch of lighting effects. The second time, when we actually did it for real, I started to hear what sounded like crying while I was doing the operating of the camera. Once I felt like I had gotten a lot of the wider stuff of the barn, I just slowly walked up to them and started shooting them, and that’s what they were doing (crying) and some of that made it into the film. We shot it toward the end of the schedule when everyone was galvanized by the experience of working on the film and it felt like a sort of release for the actors. There was something so genuine about it – them having the actual fire to react to.
AD: It has to be very gratifying to see the response the film is getting. Wonderful small films like this can disappear if they don’t receive acclaim and support.
LM: It’s wild. It’s amazing. Which no one thinks about at the time (you are filming). As the sum of it’s parts, as a piece of the puzzle – I was just texting Isaac and (producer) Christina Oh today – because the Golden Globes came out, and we got the foreign film nomination, and I keep saying it over and over that I can’t tell you how happy I am for you/us as a collective. There were a few key people in this project who put so much of themselves into it because they saw the potential and they just loved the story. There’s something so simple and pure about the story we were telling that people gravitated toward Steven Yeun, and YJ, and Christina, and obviously Isaac, and even a lot of other behind the scenes people like myself. I’m just so genuinely happy for Isaac because he’s a genuinely lovely human being and this was quite a cathartic experience for him. On a personal level, it’s just lovely to be associated with something that people really enjoy and everyone seems to take something positive away from it. Especially given what everyone has been through for the last 12 months.
AD: As someone who was born poor in the south myself, I found the film really spoke to my own experience. My family scraped by working the land for many years before and even after me so that I wouldn’t have to. In that way, I found Minari to be very accessible as an American story.
LM: The only difference from your story and the story in the film is that the actors are speaking Korean. [Laughs]