You may find your own life to be boring, but channeling your own struggles and personal experiences will always feel more authentic than writing something you don’t understand. Death, cancer, addiction, homelessness, etc., may be dramatically interesting, but if you don’t know anything about it emotionally, the film will feel artificial.
As a part of our series about Inspirational Women In Hollywood, I had the distinct pleasure of interviewing Christina Yoon.
Director/Editor Christina Yoon is a Korean American filmmaker who after graduating from NYU, worked in South Korea directing branded content for Johnnie Walker and in creative development for Korean music videos and web dramas. Christina’s short films have been official selections at numerous film festivals including Los Angeles Asian Pacific Film Festival, Fargo Film Festival, and many more. She is currently in pre-production for her Columbia thesis film, which won the prestigious Katharina Otto-Bernstein short film grant and will shoot in South Korea next year. Yoon likes to make stylized dramas and genre films exploring trauma, alienation, and identity.
Thank you so much for doing this with us! Our readers would love to get to know you a bit better. Can you tell us the story of how you grew up?
I grew up in a Korean American family in Long Island, New York for most of my childhood and then moved to a suburban area in Georgia not far from Atlanta. I was a fairly shy and quiet kid, so I immersed myself in reading, journaling, and making my own creative games. I was incredibly lucky to have grown up in very racially diverse areas in both Long Island and Georgia, where I never felt my Asian identity to be shameful or “other.” I think this allowed me to feel free to follow my specific interests rather than trying to fit within a certain mold.
Can you share a story with us about what brought you to this specific career path?
I kind of owe it all to Netflix. I had always loved movies since I was young, but when I was a teenager it became an obsession. Netflix had just come out with their DVD rental service when I was around 13 years old, and my parents signed up for it. I went down a rabbit hole, flying through much of the IMDB Top 250 list — everything from the French New Wave to film noir to Japanese classics. I would stay in my room all day and watch movies on a portable DVD player. That love for film continued through high school, and then I went to NYU Tisch School of the Arts where I built my foundation of filmmaking. After freelancing for a few years, I went back to graduate school at Columbia University for Screenwriting and Directing.
Can you tell us the most interesting story that happened to you since you began your career?
I once produced a very low-budget music video for an NYC-based artist and a British director who flew in from London. It was a tiny crew of friends who were excited about the idea. The director and artist both wanted to shoot in a love motel specifically with a heart-shaped tub. We tried to get approval from several motels, but they all thought we were shooting pornography, so they wouldn’t allow us. Of course, then we put our camera and lights into large luggage bags and rented a suite without mentioning any filming. The director, artist, and cinematographer went in to shoot while I drove the van around. They later told me the tub smelled of bodily fluids, and that I had missed out. We also shot in the artist’s neighborhood bodega where she danced down the aisles, half-naked, as customers tried to buy their breakfast sandwiches. The whole experience was a lot of fun because we were up for the challenge. I have to say the music video turned out great.
Can you share a story about the funniest mistake you made when you were first starting? Can you tell us what lesson you learned from that?
During my first year of NYU, I tried to make a fully serious horror film with my friends as actors. Or just any actor I happened to know by some degree of separation. It was a ridiculous story with an accidental death, a body that falls down many stories (but somehow doesn’t bleed), and a hallucinating protagonist who recounts the whole thing in panicked voiceover. It was completely unintentionally hilarious. I guess the lesson is that if you want to make a serious horror film, you should probably do the work of properly casting actors and not have someone violently fall to his death unless you know you can make it convincing.
None of us are able to achieve success without some help along the way. Is there a particular person who you are grateful towards who helped get you to where you are? Can you share a story about that?
So much of my time at NYU was me fumbling around, making really bad short films and trying to figure out who I was, but in my last year I had an amazing professor named Yemane Demissie. He took a deeply personal interest in our artistic goals and pushed us to better understand ourselves in a way that was unusually philosophical and spiritual. Specifically, our individual visions in life — the underlying messages we wanted to express in our body of work, and what kind of stories we feel compelled to tell. This had a profound effect on my development as both a person and a filmmaker. I left the program knowing much more about what kind of director I wanted to be and what stories I wanted to tell, despite the ever-changing trends of filmmaking.
You have been blessed with great success in a career path that can be challenging. Do you have any words of advice for others who may want to embark on this career path, but seem daunted by the prospect of failure?
The path to success is still a long road for me, but I am grateful for what I’ve been able to do so far. I think we forget that writing and directing is an art form like any other. It takes years of studying, practice, and self-improvement — as much as we’d like to think we can all be overnight successes. It really takes thick skin and a humbled ego, with no expectation of anything being handed to you. I don’t think it helps to see it as just success or failure. Even if you start as an assistant or student, as long as you are constantly learning and not staying stagnant, you’re headed in the right direction.
What drives you to get up everyday and work in TV and Film? What change do you want to see in the industry going forward?
I love directing, editing, and working with other talented and passionate people to bring something incredible on page to life. You become so invested in it. It feels like you’re raising a baby with a family, and that’s always been fulfilling and thrilling to me.
There has been movement towards improving this, but there are still very few female directors working in the industry compared to men. I want to see that gap continue to close — there’s no reason for that gender disparity to exist. I’m passionate about the industry’s continued improvement of diverse representation. When I was growing up, there was almost no one in American media who looked like me. I see slow improvements being made, but this change will ultimately come from giving BIPOC creators the power to tell their stories and cast with more diversity.
You have such impressive work. What are some of the most interesting or exciting projects you are working on now? Where do you see yourself heading from here?
I’m currently in pre-production for my next short film, which tells the story of a Korean adoptee from America who searches for her birth mother in Korea. It explores similar themes of identity, trauma, and alienation in the form of a mystery/slow-burn thriller. Our project won the prestigious Katharina Otto-Bernstein short film grant and will shoot in South Korea next year. My producer on Mirror, Jungyoon Kim, is a graduate of Columbia University’s Creative Producing program and will also be one of the producers of my next film. At the same time, I’m writing and developing a few feature scripts with Jungyoon — all dramatic genre films — that I hope to be able to make in the near future. I also have been doing a lot of editing and plan to continue that.
We are very interested in looking at diversity in the entertainment industry. Can you share three reasons with our readers about why you think it’s important to have diversity represented in film and television? How can that potentially affect our culture and our youth growing up today?
A lack of representation in film and television can perpetuate a negative cycle of BIPOC people feeling that there is no space for them in entertainment, no chance for them to actually make it because it seems so uncommon. That in turn can discourage BIPOC people from pursuing careers in acting, directing, etc. When I was in high school, a large part of me thought it was unrealistic for me to be a director as an Asian American woman. I know now that this industry norm is something that needed to be actively fought against (and thankfully, it is beginning to).
Representation has the power to dismantle racial stereotypes and widen beauty standards. The more we see BIPOC people in a variety of roles that challenge and flip stereotypes on their heads, the more we move the conversation forward about what is expected of cultural norms. When we go beyond the “token” friend and tell stories from honest, complex character perspectives, we are reaching audiences who feel unseen by American media.
Diverse representation carries over to the kind of content being made. There are so many stories yet untold by BIPOC creatives. We have been seeing huge successes with such films like Crazy Rich Asians, Get Out, Searching, etc., and yet so few of them have been made. The successes of these films attest to how much we are craving fresh, unique visions and stories that enrich our current culture.
These are things I feel passionately about and hope to impact in my career.
What are your “5 things I wish someone told me when I first started” and why. Please share a story or example for each.
I’m still learning every day, but here are some things that I personally wish I knew earlier:
- You may find your own life to be boring, but channeling your own struggles and personal experiences will always feel more authentic than writing something you don’t understand. Death, cancer, addiction, homelessness, etc., may be dramatically interesting, but if you don’t know anything about it emotionally, the film will feel artificial.
- Kill your ego and stop comparing yourself to anyone but yourself. Your ego will do nothing but harm if it blossoms at every achievement and is crushed by every rejection. All of that ultimately distracts from the work.
- Working on as many interesting, worthwhile sets and projects as you can in any capacity is valuable. Ideally, in a role close to what you really want to do, but you have to start somewhere. By doing so, you’ll also be able to meet close friends and colleagues. It’s impossible to be a good filmmaker without trusted collaborators!
- Be your own harshest critic in a constructive way. When you make something that you know is bad, it’s tempting to want to just put it in a drawer and never look at it again. But it’s better to analyze your work to understand what tangibly needs to improve or change, and then make sure that you are continuously improving — even in small steps. Work towards making the films you want to make, not what is popular and trendy. Ultimately, you need to be excited and fulfilled by your own work.
- Get honest critique on your work from as many trusted friends, colleagues, and mentors as you can. It might be painful at first, but it doesn’t help at all to receive false praise and not get the input of trusted audiences. Your work doesn’t exist in a bubble in your own head — films are made to be seen by others.
Can you share with our readers any self care routines, practices or treatments that you do to help your body, mind or heart to thrive? Please share a story for each one if you can.
I am a bit of a workaholic, but I do find it important to relax and de-stress. I like to do things that allow my mind to be empty or wander in a way that’s almost meditative. I love to be at the pool or by the water, to walk in quiet patches of nature or go to museums. While constant stimulation and media consumption can be another form of leisure, I am most at peace when I take dedicated breaks from it. I also find it essential to spend time with plenty of people not in film and TV, to have my mind be exposed to other conversations and ideas, and to remember that the world is much bigger than our small lives.
Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?
I don’t have a quote that’s my favorite, but this one rings true to me:
“There is perhaps no better demonstration of the folly of human conceits than this distant image of our tiny world. To me, it underscores our responsibility to deal more kindly with one another, and to preserve and cherish the pale blue dot, the only home we’ve ever known.” — Carl Sagan
A reflection on our smallness in the universe and the short length of our lives reminds me of what ultimately matters — that we are not here to live for ourselves but to share our gifts and talents with others, no matter how small or big, in the best way that we can.
You are a person of huge influence. If you could inspire a movement that would bring the most amount of good to the most amount of people, what would that be?
I just want people to live their best lives and reach their highest potential, no matter their gender, sexuality, or race. I want people to question the societal pressures and expectations that prevent them from believing in themselves. For people to take the risks and believe they can be the first, and that they can and should defy all expectations. A movement of social change comes from the actions of many individuals.
Is there a person in the world whom you would love to have lunch with, and why? Maybe we can tag them and see what happens!
Probably Michael Haneke, just to pick his brain and bask in his greatness. I don’t think he’s on social media though, what a shame.
Are you on social media? How can our readers follow you online?
@ctinayoon on Facebook, Instagram, Twitter. And my website: www.christina-yoon.com.
This was so informative, thank you so much! We wish you continued success!