An emerging film director has something in common with some Columbus’ most noted designers.
World-class Finnish architect Eliel Saarinen took a significant risk when he built First Christian Church in Columbus 75 years ago. Its Modernist style looked nothing like churches of the day.
A man known as Kogonada took a risk last year when he wrote a screenplay and recruited backers for an independent movie partly about Saarinen’s architecture and other notable structures in Columbus — without even knowing if his small film crew could get approval to shoot his debut feature project in the city.
He did, and managed to complete a three-week filming deadline.
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“I didn’t have a backup town,” he said with a laugh, speaking by phone from his home in Nashville, Tennessee.
The “Columbus” movie director and his female lead, Haley Lu Richardson, will visit the local YES Cinema as their independent film project makes its Hoosier debut Sept. 1. The pair are expected to conduct a question-and-answer session at a couple of the showings slated for the venue’s 177-seat room.
Organizers have not yet pinpointed which showings will feature the two, however.
More than 40 movie theaters in other parts of the United States have booked the “Columbus Movie with that list expected to grow, according to representatives of the Sundance Institute, which has offered distribution expertise and guidance.
Columbus city leaders and tourism officials embraced Kogonada’s idea last July, expediting street closures and working out indoor filming inside local businesses and churches, among the familiar sites the Columbus audience will recognize when the movie arrives in about two weeks.
The movie was made on a budget of slightly less than $1 million in a feature-film industry where a $70 million budget is considered a lower end for some studios, but reviews have been glowing from coast to coast.
Those pieces have described Kogonada’s artsy architectural shots as “breathtaking,” “surreal” and “gorgeous.”
He was inspired to do the film after visiting Columbus a few years ago and taking the architectural bus tour.
“I feel incredibly grateful (for the attention),” Kogonada said. “When you’re dreaming of making a film, your ideal hope is that it connects and resonates with an audience. There’s nothing more satisfying. And it means so much to me that people are responding to the film. It’s humbling.”
Granted, his whirlwind, global tour of film festivals that began in January with Sundance in Utah has taken the family man on the road far more than he ideally would prefer.
“It’s been a little overwhelming,” he said of the flurry of promotion and publicity. “It’s something I’m still trying to manage.”
Despite most of the media accolades, he has purposely limited his exposure to reviews to avoid either elements of euphoria or dejection. However, he said he is thrilled that a number of journalists have clearly identified his focus and goals for the film.
He politely declined to spotlight those elements, preferring not to unnecessarily influence or sway new viewers.
“Columbus” highlights the story of Casey (Richardson), an architecture nerd who lives with her recovering addict of a mother (Michelle Forbes) in a small Midwestern town marked by celebrated, world-class modern design that Kogonada photographs artfully and lovingly. Jin (John Cho, who previously played Sulu in “Star Trek Beyond”), a book translator from Korea, rushes into town to tend to his father who falls seriously ill while on an architecture-related visit.
Casey and Jin find respite in one another and in the architecture and its symbolism that surrounds them. They struggle with the weight of life’s choices, and what kind of life those choices shape and construct.
In recent months, Sundance staffers have worked alongside the director and his producers to help plan everything from theater bookings to publicity, marketing and a future release to outlets such as iTunes. Koganada said he could not have effectively planned the movie’s limited release without the institute’s hands-on expertise and guidance through its Creative Distribution Fellowship.
Chris Horton, director of that initiative, said the film will have reached its maximum of about 30 venues, nearly all art-house theaters as YES once exclusively was, by the end of the month.
“Sundance is very committed to this film,” Horton said, adding that the initiative has been almost like operating a learning lab in the real, day-to-day film world. “Through our resources and support that we’re devoting to this (project), we’ve definitely been able to help the film’s team with all of the distribution rollout. That’s in keeping with Sundance’s tradition with artist support.”
Kogonada said he remains grateful for the city’s support for the movie.
“I certainly feel like I have benefited from a lot of people’s generosity,” the director said.
He has posted thoughts online and discussed in interviews about the closeness of the cast and crew, “forged in the fire of film making.”
“We were sad when it was over,” he said. “But we’ve all been so happy with the results.”
So happy that cast members such as Forbes have joyfully tweeted and posted about sold-out shows on the coasts. Plus, leading actor Cho has referred to Columbus in national interviews as “an emerald city.”
Interestingly, at nearly every U.S. screening Kogonada has attended for a question-and-answer exchange, at least one person has raised a hand to tell him they are a former Columbus resident.
“That has been a real delightful surprise,” he said.
Kogonada mentioned that he recently briefly returned to the city in the process of doing a short supplemental disc about Columbus and its architectural history. The work will be packaged as a bonus element of the home video version of the film.
Erin Hawkins, director of marketing for the Columbus Area Visitors Center, acknowledged that the staff has discussed the possibility of selling copies of the movie at the center when it comes out on disc.
Hawkins, a Columbus native, described the project as “a love letter to Columbus.”
Kogonada acknowledged that he unfortunately has missed most of local residents’ social media posts, with many gushing about the film trailer’s beauty featuring the Miller House, First Christian Church, North Christian Church and other well-known sites.
“It’ll be great to see the buildings and spaces again,” he said of his upcoming stop. “I know that the way the film will be received there may be different than elsewhere.
“To some people in other places (in the country), the town is a mystery. They are just now discovering it. But people in Columbus are surrounded daily by buildings from some of the greatest architects. So, I’m looking forward to knowing their response.”
About 2,000 tickets to the “Columbus” movie have been sold locally, according to YES Cinema staff. Most are for showings in the opening week beginning Sept. 1, when the 104-minute movie plays on both screens — a 177-seat room and a 146-seat room — at the venue at 328 Jackson St. downtown.
On opening day, tickets are available to the four earliest showings but sold out for 5:30, 6:30, 8:01 and 9:01 p.m.
Tickets are $4 for all ages for matinees before 6 p.m. with evening admission of $6 for adults and $4 for children ages 12 and under. There is a $1 per ticket processing fee for online purchases.
“Columbus” opened in art-house theaters in New York City and Los Angeles the weekend of Aug. 4 — and averaged a robust more than $14,000 per theater, according to Box Office Mojo, a website which tracks movie revenue.
Since then, it has expanded to venues in metro cities such as Seattle and San Francisco. Last weekend, it averaged $6,409 per venue, a total better than many top-grossing movies which are shown in far more theaters. “Columbus” moves to Washington, D.C., and Philadelphia on Friday, among other locales.
More than 40 theaters in different parts of the United States have booked the film, mostly art-house outlets, according to staff at the Sundance Institute.
“When you’re dreaming of making a film, your ideal hope is that it connects and resonates with an audience. There’s nothing more satisfying. And it means so much to me that people are responding to the film. It’s humbling.”
— “Columbus” film director Kogonada