By Rebecca Green
Winner of the the Producers Award at the 2021 Film Independent Spirit Awards, Gerry Kim has had success both as a documentary and fiction producer. His latest film, I’M NO LONGER HERE, was released on Netflix in 2020 and won 10 Ariel Awards, including Best Picture, and was chosen to represent Mexico at the 2021 Goyas and the Academy Awards. An alum of Columbia University’s Graduate Film Program, Gerry discusses how studying Human Development and Psychology has helped him become a better producer, how being a location scout supports his producing work, and the responsibility we have as filmmakers when it comes to shaping audiences’ perceptions on cultures and communities outside of our own.
You started your career in the documentary space, was that the plan coming out of film school or were you intending to work on fiction films?
My film career started even before Columbia. I was actually in grad school getting my masters in Human Development and Psychology. My intention was to become a child therapist. However, while I was in school, I took an interest in children’s television. I was at a program in Boston where a lot of alumni ended up working for SESAME STREET and WGBH, the local PBS affiliate there. I got an internship at WGBH for a show called POSTCARDS FROM BUSTER, which was a spinoff of ARTHUR. Unfortunately, within the first month, the program got defunded under the George W. Bush administration. There were complaints on an episode that featured a lesbian couple as well as another episode with a Muslim girl. It was unfortunate that the show was defunded as it tried to have inclusive and diverse storytelling.
The producer who hired me there was moving over to FRONTLINE, and she felt bad that I was left without a job, so she asked me to come in and interview. Luckily, I was able to join her and I was able to work on a documentary series on the social, cultural, and political impact of AIDS in the 1980s. While I was there, I really took a liking to the research aspect of the job. I was going through tapes and doing very fundamental assistant archival things, but it made me realize the power of documentary filmmaking.
After I graduated, I took a few odd jobs. I worked with Antiques Roadshow to get more production experience. I traveled the country that summer after graduation, and then moved to New York where I had met my now wife. I worked on another PBS production soon after, first as an assistant, but then got bumped up to associate producer as I ended up doing most of the archival research for the film. The documentary was about how race impacted capital punishment in America.
That further reinforced my interest in filmmaking, especially on social issue films. From there, I worked at Antidote Films, Jeffrey Kusama-Hinte’s company. He produced MYSTERIOUS SKIN, THIRTEEN, THE KIDS ARE ALL RIGHT, and a few other films. I was the Office Manager/Executive Assistant for a year, and it’s where I learned the most about independent filmmaking. It was an incredible experience because the people working there were so amazing and really giving with their knowledge. One project that Jeff had me work on was Marina Zenovich’s ROMAN POLANSKI: WANTED AND DESIRED, where I managed archival clearances. That experience helped me further my understanding of documentary producing, and the skills I developed on that film were crucial for me to get my first documentary, THE HOUSE OF SUH, off the ground.
The way that THE HOUSE OF SUH film came about was really out of sheer luck and circumstance. There was a friend of a friend in Chicago who was starting a documentary project about two Korean-American siblings that had committed murder back in the 1990s. It was a story that I had heard circulating within the Korean American community for many years, but there was never a full understanding of what exactly transpired. Iris Shim, the director, asked if I was interested in coming on board and I saw it as an opportunity to get my feet wet as a full producer.
The film went on to premiere at the Hot Docs film festival and sold to MSNBC shortly after. Then after a year at Antidote Films, I realized there were still a lot of things that I needed to learn on the filmmaking side, so I decided to go to film school.
After all that work you went to film school?
Yeah, film school was always something that I wanted to do in the back of my mind. At that point, I was figuring out how to enter the fiction space, but I never found the right opportunities since I was mainly working on documentaries. I applied to several schools on a whim, but after I was accepted to Columbia, I was actually hesitant to go. Eventually, after speaking to a few encouraging friends, I decided to do it. Even though tuition-wise it was a nightmare, I do feel fortunate that I was able to meet a lot of my closest collaborators there.
As I’m sure you’ve read, The Wall Street Journal just published an expose on ivy league graduate programs, with a focus on Columbia, revealing how the cost of tuition is not supported by potential income post graduation. So I have to ask, was it worth it for you?
It depends on what day you ask me. One thing I forgot to mention, I initially went into Columbia wanting to write, and I had applied as a screenwriter, not as a producer. When I got there though, I quickly realized that I was one of a handful of students that had any modicum of production experience. I can’t say that I had a lot. I had just enough, and more importantly, I had a car which automatically threw me into the pool of producers in our class. I took a liking to producing at that point because I wasn’t really confident as a writer, and I was more confident in my producing skills relative to the other students in class. It made me feel that I had something to contribute.
It’s sad and says a lot about what film schools teach about producing when the thing that defines you as a producer is whether or not you have a car…
Yeah, but having access to a car made me think a lot about the importance of logistics in film production, which I took for granted before film school. And having a car was what really started my side career as a location scout. While I was finishing school at Columbia, I started freaking out about how I was going to pay off my student loans after graduation. I decided to intern for a friend who needed location research on a Sebastian Silva film. I ended up finding the main location as an intern, and I was quickly elevated to scout.
Soon afterwards, people started calling me to manage and scout, even though I had zero experience in locations. It became one of those ‘fake it till you make it’ situations where I said yes because I needed the money. I ended up getting deeper and deeper into scouting, and it became a way to subsidize my independent producing.
Even now at this stage in your career?
Even now, yes. Fortunately, I have been able to scout for bigger network shows and movies. Now that I’m in the Teamsters Union (817), I have a rate and if I work eight or nine months out of the year, it gives me comfortable financial footing, especially now that I have two kids.
When I first started producing, I was married with no kids, so I was able to live off of lower producer fees. The first film I produced, THE HOUSE OF SUH, was made for next to nothing and even with the sale to MSNBC, it was barely a salary that I could live off of. To make producing more sustainable, I tried my hand at commercial work, but I found myself getting burnt out a lot. I needed something that would give me time with my family and also more time on the projects that I actually wanted to work on.
A few years after THE HOUSE OF SUH, I took a step back to figure out how to piece together a financially sustainable career where I could commit myself to projects I was personally invested in, while also not overworking myself doing commercial jobs or a high volume of indie projects. Producing indies meant piecing together small paychecks across several projects, which was making me go a little insane. I had to recalibrate a lot of things in my life.
Sustainability as a producer exists for very few people so why continue down the producing path?
My passion for filmmaking comes from a strong desire to use the medium to highlight certain social issues and help amplify marginalized voices. It was the primary reason why I wanted to get into media in the first place, and I’ve been very lucky to have worked on projects that have sparked necessary conversations, whether it was mental health inside the Korean American community with THE HOUSE OF SUH, LGBTQ rights and Japanese American internment with TO BE TAKEI, or immigration and socio-economic disparity in Mexico with I’M NO LONGER HERE. That last project took nearly eight years to complete with writer/director Fernando Frias. We faced a lot of rejection, and there were many moments where getting to the finish line seemed nearly impossible. But, what motivated me was the frustration of watching the news and feeling helpless by what was going on in the country, especially the deeply cynical takes on immigration.
Working on INLH was very cathartic, and that experience really reinforced why I chose this career. Financially, filmmaking is not something that I would ever encourage anyone to go into, but if there’s a way to make it work by balancing other jobs, it’s an extraordinary way to help bring positive change to the world.
What has studying Human Development and Psychology taught you about working with filmmakers? Has that education helped you as a producer?
One of the most important things I learned in grad school was how to really listen. Becoming a therapist is all about listening, and I took semester long courses on how to effectively listen and communicate with patients. It may sound cliché, but these are essential skills for producers since virtually everyone comes to you to help sort out issues. Productions can be highly combustible work environments due to tight schedules and financial constraints, so clear and efficient communication is a necessity.
One of the other big takeaways from my time studying Human Development and Psychology was the impact that media has in shaping people’s perceptions about communities and cultures outside of their own bubble. It’s something that can be easily taken for granted, but it’s always important to remember what your impact is as a filmmaker. You are bringing out stories and characters that are going to be seen by potentially hundreds of thousands or even millions of people. That is going to shape the way people perceive certain cultures and social groups, especially if they don’t have any direct experiences with that specific group. I grew up in a very conservative, predominantly White suburb of Chicago, and at a certain point when I was more aware of my identity as a Korean American, I realized that most people I grew up with didn’t have much exposure to cultures outside of our suburban enclave. This was before the ubiquity of the Internet, so the only entry they had was through the news, movies, or television. Their perception of who Asian Americans, Black people, or gay people are, was primarily informed by what they saw on television or at the movies. This is something that I always take to heart when I produce a movie, that level of responsibility you have as a producer, as a filmmaker, in influencing perception. It’s impossible to get it right 100% of the time, but I do my best and push my directors to do their best in conveying certain ideas because this is going out into the world and you have to make sure that you take that seriously.
I don’t think that is something that’s talked about enough in the way you just described. There’s talk about representation in regard to who’s telling the story, but not the influence you have on shaping other people’s perception of the world. Our culture is shaped by what has been made in the past, which has been made through very narrow scope of points of views.
These were things that were reinforced to me when I was thinking about a career in educational television. Social learning was a big part of my media literacy courses. You can’t expect everyone to be from an urban center and be exposed to that level of diversity. Many people’s perception of the world will inevitably be informed by their direct environment, and anything outside their bubble will be filled in through news, film, or television, etc.
Growing up in an insulated suburb of Chicago, and never seeing any Asian Americans in films or TV, I grew accustomed to a certain invisibility. I remember Margaret Cho getting her sitcom, ALL AMERICAN GIRL, and how that was such a huge moment for me and my few Asian American friends, where witnessing someone who looked like me on television felt like a big, big thing. And now having kids myself, it has reinforced for me the importance of diversity on screen, because for them, it no longer limits ideas of beauty, success, or even normalcy to cis, hetero White people. In other words, I’m less worried about them struggling with their identities and having insecurity or shame about their Asianness, something that I definitely faced when I was growing up.
What places does indie film have in the current market right now? I get overwhelmed in feeling that everything has to be so big to get made. Big IP, big cast, big director, big money. Where do indie films fit in the market right now?
That’s another ‘It depends what day you ask me’ question. Diverse and representational storytelling has been a part of indie filmmaking for a while now, but it seems like that influence has finally reached a tipping point for studio filmmaking. However, studios remain so risk averse and overburdened by marketing algorithms that original, authentic storytelling on a feature film level still seems rare. The best independent filmmaking has always been about taking tremendous risks, and the result is a storytelling perspective that hasn’t been seen before. I strongly feel that there will always be a demand for that, and studios will continue to depend on indie filmmaking to mine for talent.
What are you most optimistic about in terms of independent film?
What really excites me about independent filmmaking right now is that people are more receptive to different stories. Societally, we seemed to have reached a boiling point where reasonable political discourse has become so unsustainable that it has resulted in violence. It has really caused people to look inward about what’s going on, why, and what things aren’t being discussed.
People are finally seeking out more of these unheard stories. After George Floyd was killed, people were looking more into the Black experience and the history of racism, taking a more earnest approach to self-education. And now, with the rise in Asian American hate crimes, people are more interested in why this kind of rage exists and what can be done to help alleviate this violence. It has been years and years where people have been repressing discussions on race and representation, but since everything now has boiled over, there’s a surge of interest in figuring out how we ended up this way. For me, that willingness to open up a dialogue means there are more opportunities for stories that may have been previously overlooked and dismissed. I strongly believe that as filmmakers, we can continue to tell stories that facilitate these necessary conversations.