Justin Chon x David So
Images & Video by Sophie Caby
“There’s always capitalism trying to find a way to corporatize media or art,
but I’m excited for the future and how people can
create really innovative stuff without relying on corporatization.”
— Justin Chon
From first time director Justin Chon, Gook tells the story of two Korean American brothers who befriend a young African American girl around the time of the 1992 Rodney King riots. The film stars Chon, David So and Simone Baker and premiered at the 2017 Sundance Film Festival.
Justin Chon is an actor and director from Irvine, CA. Chon has appeared in films such as Twilight (2008) and 21 & Over (2013) and will be in the upcoming ABC crime series Deception (2017). He co-starred and directed his most recent film, Gook (2017).
Born in South Korea and raised in Sacramento, CA, David So is a YouTube comedian and actor who starred in his first film, Gook, this year. So owns and operates his own soft serve joint, Drips & Swirls, in Koreatown, Los Angeles.
It’s been a several years since actor Justin Chon first approached his friend and YouTube comedian David So about co-starring in Gook. At the time, Gook was no more than an idea simmering in Chon’s imagination, but the film came to fruition this year as his impressive directorial debut. Starring Justin Chon, David So and fellow newcomer Simone Baker, Gook follows the unlikely friendship between two Korean American brothers and a young African American girl during the 1992 Rodney King riots. The two friends discuss the road to Gook, YouTube and what they hope to accomplish next.
Justin Chon: Alright, David. We already know each other, but tell me about how you came up in the game.
David So: Where can we begin? Sacramento, I was terrible in school. My GPA average was 2.7, which mind you was pretty good considering the quality of my work. And then I went to college begrudgingly, didn’t want to be there.
JC: You went to UC Riverside, right?
DS: Yeah. UCR at that time was a shithole.
JC: But now it’s really good.
“I took this sociology class that had to do with new age media, and I saw this like YouTuber do something and was like ‘That guy’s famous?! He sucks!’ So I was like, ‘Cool, I’ll do my own!’”
— David So
DS: Yeah they took my tuition money and built all this shit. I went to UCR for a little bit, and during that time I was trying to do music and stand up comedy—acting wasn’t something I’d ever wanted to do. After UCR, I went to a community college for a couple of years, then I was at Sac State. I took this sociology class that had to do with new age media, and I saw this like YouTuber do something and was like “That guy’s famous?! He sucks!” So I was like, “Cool, I’ll do my own!” Created content, video blew up, moved to LA. I actually met you during the first year and a half that I was in LA, and the rest is history. What about you?
JC: Caused a lot of trouble when I was young. I went to USC with a 3.2 or 3.1 GPA, which was good enough to get into USC at the time. Now, it’s like you need…
DS: Like a 4.8.
JC: I majored in business, but after an internship in Silicon Valley I realized I didn’t want anything to do with finance or tech. So I started acting at 19. I enrolled in school, fell in love with it and just climbed the ladder. Then through being in other people’s projects, I realized I didn’t want to always be someone’s bitch.
DS: What’s the first thing you ever booked?
“When I would sing, I was so nervous that I would just talk and be doing stand up anyways. I remember people saying, ‘Oh, you’re that stand up comedian that sings, right?’ ‘No, I’m a musician!’”
— David So
JC: In the beginning, I booked a bunch of commercials. I did a commercial for Toyota. It was right here in Little Tokyo, at the Japanese Center with all the glass. Basically there’s different spots: “You’re going to represent Tacoma as the rugged guy. You’re going to represent Camry…” And I was like, “Oh, so what’s mine?” They’re like, “You’re going to represent Corolla.” “Damn it!” But yeah, I did a bunch of commercials and got my SAG card from doing extra work, so I have a lot of sympathy for extras because I know what it feels like. Then directing just came naturally from being on set so much. Tell me about your dreams of wanting to make music.
DS: First of all, my dad is a pastor. Every Korean kid that has a pastor for a father knows how to play the guitar because we had to do it in church. Then I used the guitar to talk to women. From there, I tried to make it into career, but it wasn’t something that I really wanted to do in the long haul or try to make it in the market. Comedy was more natural to me anyways. When I would sing, I was so nervous that I would just talk and be doing stand up anyways. I remember people saying, “Oh, you’re that stand up comedian that sings, right?” “No, I’m a musician!” So I had more of an inclination toward comedy.
“That’s what cool about acting. Whatever skills you acquire during your life, it’s all useful because you end up using everything at one point or another.”
— Justin Chon
JC: That’s what cool about acting. Whatever skills you acquire during your life, it’s all useful because you end up using everything at one point or another. Nothing goes to waste.
DS: It’s weird, I see a lot of my friends who are actors who didn’t do a lot of things when they were younger, and they kind of make up for it now. They’re trying to do boxing classes so they can diversify their portfolio. Learn how to do stuff they never did before. It’s like watching a child learn how to walk. Like, “How do you shoot a basketball?” “What? You’re 30 years old!” But it’s like, “The role is for me to shoot a basketball. I want to make sure it looks good.” When I was younger I did Brazilian Jiu-jitsu because I wanted to try different things. All this stuff I never thought I would be able to use ended up actually useful when I became an actor.
JC: I was the same way. I was really mediocre at a lot of stuff, but ‘ve done a film where I’m a golfer. I’ve done a film where I’m a tennis player. I’ve done a film with martial arts. I’ve done a film playing music. Because I’d already done it a little bit, I was halfway there. It’s cool because whenever you get a part like that, you get to hyper-focus on that thing and actually get good at it. As far as Gook, what did you think about the script? And what did you think about the project when I approached you about it?
“Hanging with YouTubers, I realized, ‘All these guys are just making stuff and getting sponsors to pay for their video content.’ And it inspired me that it was never about the skill or preparation.”
— Justin Chon
DS: It was years before we started. You’d probably conceptualized it at that point, but we were talking back and forth about it. We talked about making it into a shoe story, which is already accessible, which is why we went that route. It was interesting for me being part of a film in general as it was just not something I thought at that point in my life I wanted to do. I was just doing stand up comedy, so film wasn’t a natural job for me. Natural for me would be to maybe chill off of YouTube, chill off of stand up, start taking acting classes and move forward from there. It was a bigger jump than I expected, but when you first brought it up to me a while back I was like, “Yo, this is something that’s within my realm anyways.” It has to do with growing up as an Asian-American in the early 90’s, so it was emotions that I already felt. The character was already catered towards me, so at that point it was very doable but still a challenge.
JC: I think that’s sort of the magic of the YouTube world. You get the sense anything is possible. Hanging with YouTubers, I realized, “All these guys are just making stuff and getting sponsors to pay for their video content.” And it inspired me that it was never about the skill or preparation. I had been on enough sets to know how to direct like at a basic level, but it was always like, “Where am I going to get the business aspect? Where am I going to get the money and stuff?” Watching you and all our YouTube friends showed me that, “Yeah, we can find a way to get the money somehow.” The difference when you’re a YouTuber is you brand yourself, and when you’re a filmmaker you have to sell the actual product rather than yourself.
DS: There’s a difference in caliber between YouTube filmmakers and traditional filmmaking. Three to four minute content is very short-sighted. You just need a few “ba dum-dum tss” and you’re done. For a lot of content creators on YouTube it’s impossible to push it to 15 minutes because they don’t know how to fill in A, B and C. All they see is A and a little bit of C, and the meat inside is just done. You don’t need character development or to emotionally invest in the characters. Scene work and all this other stuff doesn’t matter as long as they get a laugh, a chuckle or a frown.
JC: It’s instant. In film, you’re asking the watcher to be much more patient. But storytelling is storytelling, and I think whether it’s YouTube or short films or documentaries or features or television series, I think there’s rudimentary caveman principles of how to tell a story. The essence is still the same, so it becomes a matter of taste. Most YouTubers couldn’t care less about the film that won the Oscar. They’re more about “I’ve noticed a lot of social media people would rather see a blockbuster.”
DS: They’re more focused on that one space, and it’s just their taste. But you can’t crossover into film expecting that you know everything, and vice versa. Doing this film was a foreign thing to me, and I wanted to get rid of the notion that “because I’ve done this, I should be able to figure this out.” When we were on set, I couldn’t wrap my head around what you were doing. You were doing specific shots, and when i saw it I was like, “It looks good!” Then you’re like “Nah, I hate it.” Filmmakers need to have a more extended vision.
JC: Well, it’s just different.
DS: It’s very specific. I’ve been on YouTube for so long, and there’s a lot of things that you can get away with in a five minute segment. If a word wasn’t said right, if the lighting goes a little bit off or you didn’t get a shot, you’re not going to scrap your whole project. You’re like, “Well, I’m on a schedule. I’m going to put it out.” But film is such a craft. It’s like, “If my vision isn’t met in this shot, then what’s the whole point?” Because you have to be invested from beginning to end.
JC: Absolutely. We’re in a really cool time because look at music, there’s the traditional recording artists like Drake, but now you have people like Chance. There’s all these SoundCloud artists, and it’s like YouTube in that the people get to vote. When you see somebody has millions and millions of plays, it’s undeniable that people like it, yet they’re operating independently of the industry. They have their fan base and make such a great living, but it’s dictated by the audience. There’s always capitalism trying to find a way to corporatize media or art, but I’m excited for the future and how people can create really innovative stuff without relying on corporatization.
“There’s always capitalism trying to find a way to corporatize media or art, but I’m excited for the future and how people can create really innovative stuff without relying on corporatization.”
— Justin Chon
DS: I mean, YouTube started as a platform without a monetary incentive. There wasn’t a working model because there wasn’t money involved. When money isn’t involved, you literally just create just to create. The creativity level on YouTube was the same because everybody’s channel was a little bit different. On a platform that becomes corporatized, like YouTube—Google owns it now, and there is a lot of money involved—everybody’s channels start looking exactly the same. Which was a little disheartening for me because not only was I a creator, I was also an avid watcher of YouTube.
JC: Watch Vimeo. Vimeo will help pay to get your short made, but most people are there because they love the huge artistic community supporting each other. But YouTube is great in its own way, which I guess is the argument. When you do a film through a studio, or you make an album through a label, they’ll put up they have resources for a real PNA budget and things that help you reach a wider audience. Those SoundCloud artists are still finding their audience. YouTube was once like that, but there will always be something else.
DS: There’s always creators and innovators.
JC: You just went to Paris, and I was in Amsterdam. I went to the Van Gogh Museum, and I was reading about him like, “This motherfucker’s just like me.” He had his art he wanted to do and all his homies that thought the same way. But he was trying to do portraits because that’s how people made money. How is now any different than a hundred years? I’ll do something that’s commercial because I need to make a living, and then I’ll do indie films because I love the art of it. I think it’ll be like this forever.
“When money isn’t involved, you literally just create just to create.”
— David So
DS: Mona Lisa, I just saw that shit. That shit was wack… As an actor and now as a director, what is your next project? What inspires you?
JC: This film had a lot of social issues, and I don’t just want to make social issues films. But this was a huge eye-opener that if you make a compelling piece of art, it affects people and has reach. So I created this platform where people might listen to me if I make something else. I’m thinking about how to utilize that to bring awareness to something I care about and can also be passionate about. Those are the type of projects I’m looking for. I’m inspired by people who just get it done and are artistic and have no boundaries, like those SoundCloud artist. They stay true to themselves, and that’s what I hope not to lose as I continue my career. How about you?
DS: I don’t know, man. The whole Sundance experience—it’s like one of those bucket list things. You don’t think the first film you create with your friend is going to go to Sundance, let alone win an award. For me it was like, “Okay this is my first thing. I don’t know where it’s going to go, but let’s see where it will take me.” And then Sundance happened, and that box got checked faster than I expected. I used to think that when I wanted something, there would be a progression. I wanted to be a great stand-up comedian, so I started when I was 16 and worked on it over and over, and I’m like, “Well, for the next 20-30 years maybe I can get to the point where I’m happy with it.” But with Sundance, things happened a lot quicker than I expected which caught me off guard. I like living by challenges, not expectation, so I’m trying to figure out what the next thing is that’s going to push me. Maybe I actually prefer creating than acting in someone else’s stuff. What is that goal that’s going to push me to hone this craft that I want to be a part of? When we were doing Gook, I hired a team to manage everything else while I worked on it. I made sacrifices because I had a very specific goal. I haven’t figured out what my next goal is, but I know it’s going to be somewhat in film.