Last year, writer-director Lee Isaac Chung was the toast of the Sundance Film Festival — as his immigrant drama “Minari” won both the Grand Jury Prize and the Audience Award, its first steps toward becoming an Academy Award contender.
Nearly two decades earlier, Chung had just graduated from Yale University with a biology degree and a desire to become a filmmaker.
“I applied to, I don’t know, maybe 10 or 15 film schools, and they all rejected me,” Chung said in an interview this week, ahead of “Minari’s” theatrical release on Friday, Feb. 12.
A year after those first rejections, Chung said, he applied to three more schools. One of them was the University of Utah.
Chung sent an “incredibly sincere and eloquent letter of application,” said Kevin Hanson, associate professor of film at the University of Utah — and, back then, director of graduate studies for what was the Film Studies Division of the U.’s College of Fine Arts.
Hansen said he called Chung after getting that letter. “Isaac told me that he believed filmmaking, properly done, might allow him to do more good for other people than anything else he could do,” Hansen said. Hansen has heard that kind of hyperbole before, but “Isaac was so obviously exceptional that I listened hard,” he said. “From that moment on he never disappointed.”
The respect is mutual. “I thought, ‘OK, I’m going to go here because I know somebody here and he seems great,’” Chung said.
Arriving in Salt Lake City, Chung said, “I loved how close the mountains were and just the life there was pretty quiet and nice, a good place to focus on film.”
Chung was also the only grad student in the U.’s film program that year, he said, “so the program was really small and I had a lot of independence.”
While Chung’s student film didn’t work out — a short marital drama “that will never be released because I’m too embarrassed about it,” he said — his time in Salt Lake City did allow him to attend Sundance, and it connected him back to his father, who inspired the story of “Minari.”
A family story
Chung was born in Denver, where his father, a first-generation Korean immigrant, worked as a chicken sexer — one of the people in a chicken-processing plant who sorts baby chicks by their sex, with the females saved for egg production and the males sent to the shredder.
Sometimes, Chung said, his dad’s employers would send him to Salt Lake City to work under contract. When Chung started film school, he said, his father “started to tell me excitedly, ‘I’ve been to Salt Lake before.’ … I would drive the canyons and go to various vistas, and I would think, ‘I think my dad did this. I think this is where my dad came, because he has all kinds of pictures from those days.’”
When Chung was about 5, the family moved to Arkansas, so his dad could continue to work in chicken processing while his parents also started their own farm. That’s the story Chung tells, in fictionalized form, in “Minari,” with Steven Yeun from “The Walking Dead” playing a version of Chung’s father.
Chung had thought about telling his family’s story for years, but didn’t start in earnest until 2018.
“I just didn’t feel ready to tell the story ‘til I grew older and could understand his perspective more,” Chung said. “And I myself had to become a father, I feel, before I could approach this subject in this story.”
By waiting, Chung said, “I felt like I no longer was just simply lionizing my father and thinking that everything he did was deserving of worship for his sacrifice. … I felt like I could see the human side of him, in the way that he was working out why he wanted to go to a farm, why he wanted to pursue a dream, why that mattered to him.”
Chung relied on his childhood memories for some details of growing up in Arkansas, where his family struggled financially. “My dad thinks that maybe I remember too much, and I would be a much happier person if I didn’t remember too much,” Chung said.
Watching his daughter, at age 5, while he was writing the screenplay, Chung said, “it made remember things. She would do things, and I would think, ‘I remember being a kid and thinking this way, or looking at the world this way.’”
Chung didn’t ask his parents for their memories, he said, “because I so scared of them knowing what I was doing and then telling me, ‘You cannot tell this story.’ So I kind of kept it secret and worked on it on my own.”
‘Echoes of Steinbeck’
Chung showed “Minari” to his parents around Thanksgiving 2019, a couple of months before its Sundance premiere. “They were very moved by it, and very haunted by it, I would say, They said they couldn’t sleep at night. When they dreamed, they dreamt about the movie,” Chung said.
“It just floored me. My sister and I were preparing for a way to talk them down after the film. I thought they would be furious that I had done this,” he said. “It’s just a shocking sort of thing, and something that’s really affected our whole relationship. We have different conversations now, and I’m just so grateful for that.”
When “Minari” premiered at Sundance, Chung heard his first bit of pre-Oscar hype from one of his own producers, Jeremy Kleiner, co-president of Brad Pitt’s production company, Plan B Entertainment.
“He said, ‘I see echoes of Steinbeck,’ and all this stuff,” Chung said. “I was still trying to get to know Jeremy, and I thought, ‘Is he pulling my chain?’”
This year’s awards season has been delayed, because of the COVID-19 pandemic, but “Minari” has done well in the early contests. It received a Golden Globe nomination in the foreign-language category, and three Screen Actors Guild Award nominations: for ensemble (the equivalent of a Best Picture nod); Best Male Lead for Steven Yeun, who plays the character based on Chung’s father; and Best Supporting Female for Youn Yuh-jung, who plays the family’s crusty grandma.
There’s speculation that “Minari” will be mentioned a few times when Academy Award nominations are announced on March 15. Chung isn’t so sure yet.
“I still don’t trust the idea that we’re an Oscar contender, if that makes sense,” Chung said. “It’s such a hard thing to wrap your head around. Whatever happens, happens. I’ll be grateful that we’re even being talked about in this way.”
‘Minari’ in theaters, physical and virtual
Lee Isaac Chung’s immigrant drama “Minari” will open Friday, Feb. 12, in these theaters:
• Century 16, South Salt Lake City.
• Megaplex Jordan Commons, Sandy.
• Cinemark 24 Jordan Landing, West Jordan.
• Megaplex at The District, South Jordan.
• Megaplex Thanksgiving Point, Lehi.
• Cinemark 16, Provo.
• Cinemark Farmington at Station Park, Farmington.
• Cinemark Tinseltown 14, Ogden.
The movie also is available as a video-on-demand rental, through the Utah Film Center. Go to UtahFilmCenter.org for details.
The movie’s distributor, A24, also has set up a virtual screening site, at screeningroom.a24films.com, running Feb. 12-25. Several dates are already sold out.