A homecoming: ‘Columbus’ film trio shares the love in emotional return to city

IT seems altogether fitting that Haley Lu Richardson, perhaps as unpretentious and unvarnished as any Hollywood actress could be in real life, had to learn to blow smoke — literally.

Actually, she had to learn to smoke, period, for her leading role in the “Columbus” movie shot locally in August 2016. And that memory of lighting up for practice for the first time in the back of the local downtown store of Baker’s Fine Gifts, with owners Jeff Baker and John Pickett, came rushing back with ample humor Monday evening at the North Christian Church building.

“You’re much better now than you were (then),” shouted Baker from a crowd listening to Richardson’s reminiscing.

She, costar John Cho and director Kogonada returned to town for The Columbus Movie Fifth Anniversary Celebration with the Stars’ 90-minute panel discussion in front on an estimated 300 people, whose applause and post-event praise showered the visitors with love.

Landmark Columbus Foundation organized the evening with support from the Columbus Area Visitor Center, and a collaboration grant with the City of Bloomington from Indiana Humanities and the National Endowment for the Humanities.

In a city in which people love their architecture — North Christian and other Modernist structures figure prominently in the critically acclaimed 2017 film — they clearly have come to love and appreciate as much the trio of people who spotlighted Columbus’ most famous buildings.

That seemed evident by the applause throughout the panel discussion. In the film, when a renowned architecture scholar falls suddenly ill during a speaking tour, his son Jin, played by Cho, finds himself stranded in Columbus. Jin strikes up a friendship with Casey, played by Richardson, a young architecture enthusiast who works at the local library.

The duo struck up a friendship in real life — so much so that Richardson was overcome with emotion when Cho complimented her Wednesday on what she dramatically drew out of him during the film. She responded by sweetly resting her head on his shoulder.

Cho also offered heartfelt praise to the town that he also gushed about on TV talk shows to promote the movie.

“Every person we came across was just so open,” Cho said. “It felt like they were sharing the town with us — and for that, I am truly thankful.”

That statement triggered enthusiastic applause.

Kogonada reminded the audience that the very idea of a director and a film’s stars revisiting a movie shoot city several years after establishing something of a bond is nearly unheard of in the film industry.

“That in itself says something very special about this place,” the director said.

And Richardson, again pulling out a bit of her unscripted charm and unique sense of expression, thanked people such as the local visitors center’s marketing director Erin Hawkins, a key behind-the-scenes person for the film as much as anyone.

“Erin’s my OG (original gangster),” the actress said, using slang that denotes mad respect and admiration. “She’s my girl.”

The line elicited goodnatured laughter. Much the same, Kogonada is her guy, so much so that she appeared in his 2021 science fiction flick “After Yang.”

“All I want is to work with him over and over again,” she said after patiently greeting fans and well wishers for literally an hour after the discussion. Kogonada did the same, while Cho had to leave the church a bit earlier than that. They also posed for photo after photo with locals and signed sheets and movie posters.

Cho mentioned that he visited Columbus City Hall Monday morning and stood in his favorite spot there — under the front of the structure’s cantilevered arms.

“It’s like a little miracle,” Cho said.

“I was really struck by that space,” Kogonada said.

Richardson acknowledged for the first time that she was really struck by the moments of silence in a scene in “Columbus” in which Cho’s character asks Casey why the Irwin Conference Center means so much to her. In her movie response, she is shown from a distance speaking, but the sound goes mute, allowing viewers to grasp their own feelings about the Eero Saarinen structure.

That was not in the script that originally had the actress actually speaking audibly.

“When I first saw that (edit), I (happily) started crying,” a touched Richardson said, and then suddenly grabbed the hand-held microphone and asked Kogonada how he decided on such.

“I didn’t want people to judge any of her reasoning,” he told her. “You can see the answer in her face.”

People have loved Richardson so much that the Facebook page for YES Cinema, where the film premiered locally Sept. 1, 2017, refers to the Phoenix, Arizona, native as “Columbus’ adopted daughter.”

She lived up to that heartfelt billing right from the start Monday, specializing in off-the-cuff, super spontaneous remarks both serious and comical.

That included an oops at the very beginning in which she confessed this return was emotional and hard to describe. In that struggle for the right words, she let a small obscenity slip over the mic. The crowd understood and broke into laughter when she went wide-eyed and immediately covered her mouth.

Cho added to the levity by quickly folding his hands in prayer and looking heavenward.

“To be back here feels so personal,” Richardson finally said. “I already feel like I am going to cry.”

An honor bestowed

The love extended to the stars and director of the 2017 movie “Columbus” included a special salute from Indiana Gov. Eric Holcomb. He wrote a proclamation, read Monday by Mayor Jim Lienhoop, making director Kogonada and his film stars John Cho and Haley Lu Richardson, “honorary Hoosiers.”

Each got their own official copy of the proclamation.

Kogonada and Cho immediately pumped their fist at the announcement, and Richardson exclaimed “oh my goodness.”

A few top quips of the night

Haley Lu Richardson on the Miller House: “I want to live there. If you let me, I’ll take good care of it.”

Kogonada on architecture: “The thing that I especially love about architecture is that it offers shape to feelings.”

John Cho on the city’s impact: “Sometimes special moments in your life intersect with a special place. And this was that place for me. We weren’t here very long. But it left a very deep groove on my heart.”