So Yong Kim, an award-winning independent filmmaker who has made four feature films, met Ava DuVernay several years ago at the Sundance Film Festival. The Los Angeles–based Korean-American writer-director won the Special Jury Prize for her debut film In Between Days in 2006, and premiered For Ellen and Lovesong at Sundance in 2012 and 2016, respectively. Her film Treeless Mountain premiered at the Toronto Film Festival in 2008.
When DuVernay called her to gauge her interest in directing Queen Sugar at the end of last year, Kim jumped at the chance. For years, she had been trying to direct episodic TV. “It is a tough, tough market to break into,” Kim said. “It’s amazing that Ava focused on women directors who had no episodic experience. But now that I’m getting more experience, I’m realizing how challenging it must have been for her to pull that together and the support that Oprah and OWN must have given her. At the time, I didn’t realize all of this because I was so green.”
Kim traveled to New Orleans to shadow DuVernay as she directed the pilot and leaned on Barnette whenever she needed support during her seven-day shoot. “For me, directing is about collaborating,” she said. “You have to lead, but leading in a sense where you encourage people to collaborate and participate in a way that everyone feels like they’re doing their best as a creative person. If I have a specific idea about a scene, I communicate that with the actors and see what they think. But if they already have certain ideas, I work with them. There isn’t one general brush stroke I use. It has to be specific to the person.”
In one of Kim’s favorite scenes to film, Ralph Angel goes to the bank to apply for a loan. “There are certain scenes I choreographed and I’m happy they turned out fine, but for me it’s the quiet moments when the character is just sitting and waiting, or those uncertain moments when you see something in their face,” she said. “Ava really wants to keep that breathing space and quiet, contemplative moments and I think that’s why it stands out as a beautiful show.”
As a fan of her movies, DuVernay said she was excited to see Kim in action on set. “She has this really light, graceful touch,” she said. “Which is very different than mine.”
Working on Queen Sugar landed Kim jobs on some of TV’s most critically beloved series: the penultimate episode of the third season of Amazon’s Transparent, the first episode of the third season of ABC’s American Crime, and an episode of Jay and Mark Duplass’s upcoming HBO comedy, Room 104. “I feel very fortunate,” Kim said. “What Ava wanted is happening with all of us. Isn’t it funny that people are like, Oh, we didn’t know there were that many women directors. What do you mean?”
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