A tender and sweeping story about what roots us, Minari follows a Korean-American family that moves to a tiny Arkansas farm in the 1980s, in search of their own American Dream. Lachlan Milne ACS talks about shooting the new film for A24 Films and writer/director Lee Isaac Chung.

By Lachlan Milne ACS.

A Korean family moves to Arkansas to start a farm in the 1980s, in ‘Minari’ – PHOTO Melissa Lukenbaugh

Minari is a resilient, weed like vegetable that grows in shallow running water and is a staple ingredient in Korean cooking.

The film Minari is a fish-out-of-water story about displacement, family values and a 1980s interpretation of the ‘American Dream’. The script was one of the best I’ve ever read. The characters, the landscape and the tone of the film were both incredibly considered and very clear throughout. What I loved most about it was how honest it felt. Nothing was forced or overwritten, every scene served a purpose but in a really understated way. I love thinking of how to shoot projects like Minari. 

What’s the best way to stay as honest as you can? A lot of it was based autobiographically on Isaac’s own childhood. His parents migrated to California from Korea in the early 1980s, then put all of their money and more into a modest farm in rural Arkansas where they grew Korean vegetables. 

Grant Illes at William Morris Agency sent me the script. I was on the last day of another film and he just kept ringing and ringing. When I called him back I don’t know if I ever heard it ring he picked up so fast. “Lachie, go back to the hotel as soon as you’re done. Don’t go to any wrap party or drinks or anything, go and read this script and call me as SOON as you’ve finished! 

Which I did. And it was fantastic.

Illes and I had met at the Sundance Film Festival when Hunt for the Wilderpeople (2016) premiered. He would eventually call me at 5:30am on Sunday morning to tell me that Minari had won both the Grand Jury Prize and the Audience Award just four years later at the same festival, which was pretty cool for both of us.

Isaac and I spoke for about an hour on Skype. He’s a genuinely lovely guy who had a clear idea of the kind of film he wanted to make. I try not to talk too much about specific ideas on the first call, I just like to meet as people and see what we have in common. Afterwards Isaac sent me a link to some films he felt had elements he was looking for in Minari. 

There were two in particular that really stood out; Hirokazu Koreeda’s Shoplifters (2018, cinematography by Haruomi Hosono) and Chang Dong Lee’s Burning (2018, cinematography by Hong Kyung-Pyo). Both I’d seen and both I absolutely love. I love the coverage in both films, particularly Burning. We both prefer as minimal coverage as possible and being a partly ensemble film we both wanted to be able to let performances run in a wider frame and only cover it if we felt the scene would benefit from it. I was really interested in controlling the pace of the film by being restrained in how we shot it.

Jacob (Steven Yeun) in a scene from ‘Minari’ – DOP Lachlan Milne ACS, PHOTO Melissa Lukenbaugh

Production designer Yong Ok Lee had begun pre-production a few weeks before I arrived. The story takes place in the mid-1980s, so everything she sourced had to be period. A large percentage of the film takes place in a trailer home. The film’s budget didn’t allow for building on stage where we could oversize things a little and pull walls, so Lee had to find us a practical one that would serve both the interior and exterior work. 

We had a very similar aesthetic approach; we hit it off straight away. Both she and Isaac are Korean by birth, so together they drew from their childhoods and made fantastically detailed cultural and period appropriate locations. I knew I was going to rely on practical lighting in the trailer. I wanted to shoot very wide, so we were going to see both walls and the ceiling a lot of the time. We built in some LED fixtures that we coloured to look like old cool white fluorescent tubes in the kitchen and had a number of floor and desk lamps that we ran through dimmers. The interior of the trailer had a lot of wood panelling, so that combined with practical lights made it very warm. I made an interior Look-Up Table (LUT) with more blue in the shadows to counteract it and shot mostly around 3000k. 

We wanted the feel of a single camera shoot, where everyone was focused on just the one angle and the amount and style of coverage was controlled. A lot of the time there’s an obligation to use a second camera when you have it. You can end up with a lensing that is made to fit, rather than what’s right for the scene. You also don’t need close-ups all the time, or even much of the time.

We shot Minari on the ARRI Alexa Mini in 3.2k ProRes 4444xq. It’s small enough for the tight interior work and has the internal neutral density needed for the belting Oklahoma summer sun.

I weighted the lenses heavily towards the wider end. One of the best wide ranges is in the beautiful Panavision PVintage set. We shot about 75-percent of the film on the 29mm, often just moving the camera in rather than changing the field-of-view. The exterior farm locations were mostly flat with some sporadic tree lines. 

We talked about aspect ratio in pre-production and I shot tests in both 2:1 and 2.39:1 to see what headroom looked like in the trailer, and what felt better for the farm exteriors. I personally love spherical 2.39:1 rather than anamorphic. I think it’s more honest in how it represents actors and their backgrounds. The lens options are infinitely greater, particularly with wider lenses, and they tend to be much faster. We had a minimal lighting budget and some significant night exterior work to do. Faster lenses would help in a way that anamorphic would hurt us.

The film substituted the Ozarks of Arkansas where Isaac grew up for the verdant fields of east Oklahoma. We made the film in and around Tulsa, which is the second largest city in Oklahoma State. I’d never been there before we started shooting and I didn’t know any local crew. We didn’t have the money to bring people I knew from out of state, so I met with some local crew.

My camera department was primarily made up of fantastic brother and sister duo, Jon and Jaimie Roman. Both were incredibly supportive of me and worked tirelessly in sometimes really difficult situations. Jon pulled focus as well as initially managing the digital intermediate (DIT) workflow. Jaimie was the machine behind us, humping gear and keeping us going all day. Those two were wonderful. Clay Flores came in during the shoot to support us on set and take over data and was equally solid. Matt Fleishman did some great Steadicam work and I operated A-camera. 

The film is 100-percent shot on location. When we were scouting it was really important to find a farm location that could give us a lot of variety. On an only twenty-five day film there isn’t much time to relocate, especially if your shoot day has to absorb any company move.

David (Alan Kim) and Soonja (Yuh-jung Youn) in ‘Minari’ – DOP Lachlan Milne ACS, PHOTO Melissa Lukenbaugh

I was keen to have Jacob feel as isolated as possible when he was outside. It was his decision to bring his family out to the middle of nowhere to follow his dream. I wanted him to feel overwhelmed by the landscape so we shot a lot of wides, and when we did come in closer I used mostly wider lenses. Being a mid 1980s period specific film, when we went into more urban areas we had to be careful. The art department didn’t have the budget to make any serious changes so we had to shoot around anything built in the last thirty-five years. Frames were often dictated by what we couldn’t see.

We only built one set at the farm, a structure that is built during the story. The trailer home was a 1980s period appropriate practical set that we transported to and rewired on location. The wonderful Oklahoma gaffer Steve Mathis made it so all the fixtures could either be run from battery packs we could hide in the set, or from the practical outlets in the walls. To supplement the practical lamps, we used a modest compliment of Litemat bi-colour led sources and one or two HMI lamps through windows.

The exterior work I almost did nothing to. Mostly just negative fill in any medium or close work. It was high summer, and the schedule didn’t allow for both early morning and end of day, so based on the scene I chose when we would shoot it, and at what point during the week so turn around didn’t become an issue. I let the sun be harsh and top lit for a lot of the exterior work. Working the land is hard, the family are struggling to make their new life work. I wanted the quality of light to feel as brutal and relentless as possible. 

Minari is such a wonderful performance-driven film. The script is so personal and Isaac put together an incredible cast. Steven Yuen and Yeri Han are Jacob and Monica, the parents of Anne and her brother David who is director Isaac Chung as a young boy. Yuh-Jung Youn, who is a household name in Korea, plays David’s grandma Soonja. 

I had a meal with Isaac, the producers and the cast before we started shooting which is always such a nice thing to do. It’s a chance to learn a little about each other without the hustle and urgency of day one. When we get to set, I ask the cast how much they do or don’t want to know about the frame. Do they want to know the lens size, or how big or small they are in frame. If it’s a wide-shot and they’re moving around I like to give them an idea of where the edge is but not say “this is as far as you can go”.

If it’s an emotional scene, I like to work out with the director what coverage they see for it, so that way the actors know that if there’s a close-up they could hold their performance. If not, let it go in the wide-shot. Thinking of the scene in the context of the arc of the story is really important. Again, it’s a pacing thing for me I think. What comes directly before and after influences how you shoot a scene. Maybe you need an ‘in’ to the scene to help the cut. Sometimes a scene needs an ‘out’ that wasn’t scripted, like a textural shot. Maybe because you’ve just come out of an intensely emotional scene that’s hand held and panning between two actors who are improvising a little you want to go wide and static to ground everything again.

Paul (Will Patton) and Jacob (Steven Yeun) in ‘Minari’ – DOP Lachlan Milne ACS, PHOTO Melissa Lukenbaugh

We also had minors pretty much every day on set with very specific labour hours so they tend to inadvertently dictate the schedule and often we would roll between takes to steal little candid moments. Alan Kim put in a truly film stealing performance as David.

One of the biggest things operating on Minari was that it’s mostly in Korean. A lot of operating is reactionary and when you don’t understand what the actors are saying it makes that pretty tricky. I had my sides always printed in English so I knew what the tone of the scene was. We’d rehearse and I’d watch the actors’ body language more than I normally would. It was tough at first but I actually learnt a lot that way.

I am a big fan of the colouring Dave Cole at FotoKem Hollywood is doing. We were on a Paramount film that was still in editorial, so I asked if he’d be interested in finishing Minari in the mean time. I had made three LUTs in pre-production that I stuck to for the shoot. There was a day exterior, day interior and a night interior. I used Rec 709 for the night exterior. He rebuilt the look of all of them and used that as a starting point. He asks great questions about the tone and feel of the scene and goes from there.

At that time, I was on another film in Hawaii so I had to grade remotely. Isaac and I both really liked where the film was sitting already, and our colourist has great instincts, so I felt really comfortable that it was going to be fine. Cole would send TIFFs as well as lab rolls for me to comment on. I would make notes after shooting and he’d make the changes the next day. I would have loved to have been in the room with him, however I’m really happy with how Minari looks.

I’m incredibly proud of this film. In many ways it’s the most creatively rewarding project to date, and one of the best director/cinematographer ‘collaborationships’ I’ve had. 

The cast, as well as being professionally excellent, were all wonderful human beings. Steven Yeun in particular is outstanding in this movie. I think for the amount of money, time and difficulties the lack of both of those things present, it’s a beautiful movie. Sometimes having very little defines a film in a way that greater resources would not. It’s a very simple film, which I think is its greatest attribute.

I don’t think I’d change anything to be honest, I love it.

Lachlan Milne ACS is an award-winning cinematographer known for his work on Taika Waititi’s Hunt for the Wilderpeople (2016), and seasons three and four of Netflix’s Stranger Things (2019).

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