Giulia Caruso is a writer, director and producer with independent production company Nonetheless Productions. She produced the award-winning feature film Spa Night, which explores one Korean-American family’s struggle with personal desires, disillusionment and their sense of tradition against the backdrop of a Korean spa. Other recent Nonetheless Productions include Myrna the Monster—a short film produced in collaboration with MTV and starring Kathleen Hanna as the voice of Myrna, a native of the Moon who is adjusting to life in Los Angeles—as well as We’ve Been Around—a series of documentary shorts chronicling the lives of early pioneers in the trans rights movement.
Giulia also knows a thing or two about working with family members: her first feature, Aurora Notte was shot in her native Italy and starred grandmother and she works alongside her husband Ki Jin Kim, one of the founders of Nonetheless Productions, on a daily basis. I caught up with her to chat about the privileges and challenges of getting to tell specific, personal and sometimes familial stories…
Sallie Merkel: Can you talk a little bit about what “independent filmmaking” means to you?
Giulia Caruso: We work with a lot of first time feature directors and what we really push is, you need to be daring and you need to be bold. Because you don’t know what the next film is going to be like. You don’t know what political forces are going to be involved, where the money is going to come from… the budget is going to be bigger, you’re going to have to start giving in to certain things. So I love first films because it’s a very privileged time.
SM: I think that’s such a liberating idea—that there’s a privilege to being at the beginning of your career, so it’s important to come out of the gate with the thing you want to say. Because that will get watered down and changed—
GC: And you will change! I don’t think directors “sell out” necessarily. I think your interests and the way you think about telling stories changes. And you want to challenge yourself with different things as well, and you want to deal with a bigger budget, not because you’re greedy, but because it’s a different scale. I think all of those are very legitimate symptoms of the growth of a director—they are not bad, but they are kind of inevitable. That is why the first feature is so important.
I think making one important film for 100,000 people that can make a difference is better than making a huge film that a lot of people will see but is not going to change anything in their perception of the world.
And that’s kind of the world Nonetheless Productions operates within: small-scale, independent films. And even on the small scale, with Spa Night we are realizing that it is a business, as sucky as many of the consequences of that are. There are people putting money in, oftentimes it’s a lot of money, and you are accountable for it. You want to pay them back and the way you pay them back is by selling the film and selling the film is unfortunately but understandably connected to a series of things such as having a name cast.
SM: I think an important part of THE GARDEN PARTY is to acknowledge that the market exists and to dream up ways of making change within that.
GC: We definitely try to do that. I think making one important film for 100,000 people that can make a difference is better than making a huge film that a lot of people will see but is not going to change anything in their perception of the world. That’s where the passion comes from. So I think it’s just a matter of being clear and honest with yourself when you go into something. Because you can’t make a film like Spa Night and expect to get a $17.5 million deal. But there is a moment where you’re like Hmm… that would be great…
SM: Can you talk a little bit about balancing an awareness of the market with telling the story that you want to tell?
GC: You’d be surprised, when we were casting Spa Night some people would be like, have you considered so-and-so and they’d bring up Chinese actors, and we were like, it’s a movie about being Korean. But that’s what this industry does…
SM: Totally, that’s the fallout of white washing—reduced specificity in casting at every level.
GC: If we had wanted to make Spa Night at a bigger budget, we might have had to be like, okay, we’ll cast a Chinese actor for the lead, then you start bastardizing the whole thing and maybe it is a movie that ends up being seen by more people, but it’s going to lose its specificity, it’s gonna end up falling into formulas that have been tested in the market. What I’m interested in is the specificity of someone’s story; I am not interested in tokenization.
SM: There is a lot of talk about niche markets these days, which is exciting, because stories that haven’t been told before are being told and finding an audience, but also scary because we can all stay in our own little bubbles.
GC: I think the hope is that things start as niche market and then break through and actually become more mainstream.
SM: How would you describe your producing style?
GC: It’s a balance. The ability to put things in order in an understandable way is important. You take this mess that is a film and then you streamline it, you’re like, okay this needs to happen, that needs to happen. Turning a thought into an act. But I’m also very involved in the development process: working on the scripts and the story and characters. So it’s a very creative position. Being a director affects the way that I produce a lot. Both Ki Jin and I studied directing and we both have a broader understanding of story and also an understanding of all the different creative elements that go into making a film. Because we’ve done it ourselves we know the emotional rollercoaster, which is a huge part of being a producer—talking on the phone six times a day, saying, it’s okay, we’ll figure it out or knowing when to say, no that cannot happen.
SM: What is it like working with your romantic partner as a business partner?
GC: So far it’s great! We come at it from very different angles. He’s very visual and I’m very narrative-driven; I studied literature. We complement each other. But it’s funny that you ask that because we recently really kicked into gear on a story that we are co-writing and co-directing. And it is really our story.
SM: Ooh! What can you tell me about this project?
GC: It’s called 15 Holiday Meals and it’s a story of an Italian-Korean couple, who met in LA and they’re going to Italy for Christmas and Korea for New Years to meet each other’s families and it all revolves around 15 meals.
SM: Two of the best cuisines.
GC: Yes! It’s about the food and the rituals, it’s about the family tensions, the drama and the comedy and ultimately the overall arc is the love story of how you are affected when you see your partner deal with their family and the culture that they grew up in but have moved away from.
SM: It so speaks to what you were talking about before, that specificity that you value in storytelling.
GC: Yeah, I think so. But then it’s funny because we talk about it with people from different backgrounds and they’re like, Oh my god, I had that exact same experience.
SM: But isn’t that the paradox—the more specific you get in your storytelling the more universal it becomes?
GC: That’s very true. That’s something that I think we both really believe in and we both really care about in all the movies we make as producers too. That specificity.
SM: I wonder if you could speak a little bit about working in an American context as a non-American.
GC: A lot of the movies we make and write are about immigrants. One of the things Andrew [Ahn, director of Spa Night] said is that the film is seventy-five percent in Korean, but it’s as American as a cowboy story. So the immigrant experience is definitely something that informs the kind of films we make.
What I’m interested in is the specificity of someone’s story; I am not interested in tokenization.
Also, the film industry in Italy is very small and anchored in an archaic system; it’s still very male-driven. There are some great films made within that system. But only within the last few years have they started producing small, really independent films. It’s also rare to see a movie about someone who is not Italian in Italy. But I have Italian stories that I want to tell and I feel like there are great films being made there, so I hope to be part of this change. Our ultimate goal with our company is to do co-productions. I would like to be able to make movies in different countries and to tell stories from different countries.
SM: I love that you are so confident sharing your goals.
GC: It’s so hard to have these kinds of conversations where it’s honest and it’s a dialogue. In this industry you are always watching yourself and I’m not very good at that. I like transparency and we work in an industry where you can’t always be as transparent as you want.
SM: Could you talk a little bit about dealing with difficult situations as a producer and director?
GC: I’ve been in a couple situations where people we’ve collaborated with or have talked about collaborating with have turned aggressive, and I’m like we’re done. I don’t need to take that. I’m not interested. I’m not going to pretend like you were nice when you were an ass.
SM: The power of saying no is huge. That’s something that keeps coming up in the interviews that I do for TGP. The power of saying, I don’t want or need to work with you.
GC: And a lot of people don’t do that.
SM: There’s this mentality of need that were fed in this industry—especially actors, but I think everybody—of be nice to everybody and say yes to every opportunity.
GC: And I do think there is value in that. Now we’ve started to say no to things. But when we just started the company, we did say yes to everything and we did everything and really tried to explore all the possibilities.
SM: You learn who you are and what you want from that.
GC: And then you can say, no, I’m not interested in that. I think being nice to everybody is important, until you’re not nice to me. Then, I’m still nice… while I tell you to fuck off.
But it’s important to remember that we are in a super-privileged place. Because we are making the movies. We could have a shitty job that we don’t like and still have to deal with discrimination. I feel like my mother saying this. I mean, it’s a job and it’s fucking hard. So it is a hard job. But out of all the jobs, if you love it, it is a privilege to get to do it.
*This interview has been edited and condensed.