There’s no way around it, Hollywood has an uneven record when it comes to portraying rural people and places on the big and small screens. Yes, there are plenty of films and shows that get rural right, but there are also many examples that fall into the trap of relying on tired clichés and stereotypes. Even those that are lauded by fans and critics often present rural life as either grim, scary and full of dark secrets or perfectly pastoral and idyllic.
In isolation, each of these individual stories isn’t necessarily doing any harm. Exaggerating reality can be part of the process for crafting compelling fiction after all. Where problems crop up is when certain ideas or concepts become widespread, when common tropes are perceived to reflect reality or some deeper truth.
Fortunately, 2021 so far has been a good year for turning back some of the pernicious tropes that dog rural storytelling. Recent weeks have seen the release of Minari and Nomadland, two films that have complex, nuanced things to say about rural America. Furthermore, they are crafted with care and center the voices and experiences of actual rural people.
Already racking up awards and critical acclaim, both Minari and Nomadland show the potential for a new vision of rural moviemaking, and they hopefully offer a path for more great stories to follow.
In my review of Minari, I celebrated the film for its authenticity and called it “rural moviemaking magic.” Last week, just a couple days before Minari picked up an award at the 2021 Golden Globes, I had the opportunity to catch up with Christina Oh, one of the producers behind the film. We talked about what made that magic possible. She told me about how the production team was deeply committed to telling a human story above all.
Oh has worked on a number of high-profile projects in addition to Minari, recently serving as a producer on films like Irresistible, Ad Astra, Okja, and Vice. Digging into that list a bit, we also discussed the storytelling potential of rural settings and the prospects for more high-quality rural-minded filmmaking in the future.
Check out the full conversation below. It has been lightly edited for length and clarity. Photos are courtesy of A24.
Adam B. Giorgi, The Daily Yonder: The film was deeply shaped by [writer and director] Lee Isaac Chung’s childhood in rural Arkansas, so I’m curious, one, if you have any background or personal experience with rural life and rural people and places? And beyond that, what excited you about working on this film? What connections or experiences really drew you to it and informed your contributions?
Christina Oh, Producer, Minari: I don’t have a particularly rural background. I grew up in a very small town in Massachusetts, but it was more of a suburb. I did grow up about maybe a mile or so from a farm that I visited frequently in my childhood that holds a very special place in my heart. So that’s probably as rural as my childhood would have been. You got me thinking about it. I loved this place. It was called Brooksby Farms.
What drew me to the project is, I think, around the time that I read Isaac’s script, or was sent Issac’s script, I had looked at a bunch of things that were sent … that had a lot of immigrant storylines, Asian-American storylines, Asian storylines. None of them really hit on quite the same emotional level as Minari did. And I think that’s a testament to Lee Isaac’s writing, in how human he made the story. Even though it’s super specific, it feels really, really universal. So at the time, I myself not being from Arkansas, not having grown up in a trailer, not having grown up in a rural area of middle America, still emotionally connected to the family and everything that they were going through.
DY: Yeah, [at the Daily Yonder], we talk a lot about just the need to present rural places with nuance. So when we were engaging with the film, we talked about both how it’s a nuanced portrayal, but there is also a universality to it. That, even if you’re not coming from an Asian-American background, there’s these universal themes that you can grapple with, or even if you’re not coming from a rural background, there are. And so that really came through for us.
I’m curious, as a production team, was there anything about the rural setting and the rural people and places that felt really important to get right? Or that you really took efforts to get right? And how did you want to represent the rural experience overall?
CO: Yeah, well, one, we wanted every aspect of the film to be as authentic as possible, as [much] as we could in an autobiographical yet fictionalized story. One of the biggest things, I think one of those moments that actually, when I first heard about the script, that I discussed with Steven was this moment where, I don’t know if you remember this, but it’s at the church. And this little girl asks Noel, the girl who plays Anne, “Oh, stop me if I say something in your language,” and she says a bunch of random syllables.
And to me, I loved that moment, because, we were saying something about race without having to say anything super… we didn’t want the story to be about racism. It’s just people in rural areas, not having met people of a certain background and a certain level of… of course there’s an ignorance behind it, but there’s also just curiosity. And with kids, that’s just how they deal. And we wanted it to be this moment that… it was a moment that I think I hadn’t really seen in any script before, where it’s just people being humans, and there isn’t any maliciousness behind it. It’s just a question and she answers and they move on.
We wanted to make sure that everyone was, even in these rural areas, portrayed as people. Because we all are human beings after all. And we all come from different backgrounds and there’s no right way to human. Instead, we wanted to showcase just different areas of America where humans exist. And Isaac is very fond of the area that he’s from in Arkansas and wanted to pay homage to that era of his upbringing.
DY: We wrote about the through-line of starting with that scene in the church, but then also later in the movie you have the children spending time with one of the boys at the church who had said insensitive things. And so there was just this notion of coexistence and people learning how to be people.
My next question… the country obviously is in a very fraught place. The country is very divided across lines of identity and ideology, and geography of course. I’m curious what you think a film like Minari can offer to audiences at this moment. And just broadly, what would you want people to take away from the film above all?
CO: I’m just going to touch on what I already spoke about in a way that, I hope what people take away from this is this certain newfound understanding of humanity and the importance of family and those around you. I think, especially now during these divided times, I think the thing that we often forget is behind the division is a human being and that person has feelings and thoughts and traumas and whatever in their background. And I think, when we humanize people, we can actually learn to communicate better. And I hope, I wish people see the film and see beyond any racial, political, whatever divide and see each other as human beings … to further conversations about just bettering humanity, in a way. That’s my answer at the risk of sounding very, I don’t know.
DY: No, that’s the power of stories, right?
CO: Yeah, yeah. I think for us, especially, we just set out to make this moving story and never in our lives did we think it would be garnering the attention it is today. And for that we’re immensely grateful.
DY: I imagine it’s been rewarding seeing how the response to the film has been so positive and so powerful. But tell me a little bit more just what that feeling has been like.
CO: It’s been incredibly, incredibly moving. I get texts and emails very frequently, from people that I know, people that I’ve never met, people that I haven’t spoken to in decades, reaching out and saying how they’ve never felt like they’ve been seen so much by a film. And for me, that’s been incredibly moving, being in the position that I am. And also, I think sometimes you read something and you want to make a piece of art, you just pour yourself into it. And that’s kind of what we did for this. I felt very, this kismet feeling around this whole thing the minute I spoke, the minute I met Isaac over Skype. And since then, it’s been just this incredible thing.
And I think there was a purity to it as well, where, we just worked really hard and fought for the things that we thought were important. And we had a very, very supportive team around us. When you make these sorts of smaller films, it’s like a really intense summer camp. You all go up and you meet and you hang out and work together for several weeks. And then you all go back home. For me, just having shared this experience with a bunch of people and being in a position where I could tell a very personal story, and also just build a creative team that I felt like from behind the camera, that also was representative of everyone in the script. I wanted to put as many Korean Americans department heads as I could. And then for the result to be this film that has been received so warmly has been incredibly, incredibly humbling and moving.
It’s super exciting for me. It makes me excited to do what I do.
DY: My last couple of questions are about the notion of rural-centric filmmaking in general. I was looking at your filmography and a number of your projects focus on rural places or rural people. So you have ‘Irresistible,’ set in a small Midwestern town. Then there’s our deeper relationships with nature and the land in movies like ‘Okja.’ Was that planned at all or has that been largely serendipitous?
CO: I have never thought about it in that sort of sense until now, so I guess it’s been serendipitous. I think there’s just an intrinsic viewpoint to tell stories that maybe haven’t been told yet or from places that haven’t been seen yet. And I think Okja especially was one… it was a very cool experience, an incredible experience. We shot in some of the [most] remote places that I’ve probably ever been in, where there’s nobody there. It was in the middle of a beautiful forest that I don’t think had been touched by many humans. And showcasing the lives of people that maybe we don’t see every day. And so that was really exciting.
DY: Do you think there’s anything unique or just especially compelling about those remote settings, those rural settings? And do you think rural-centric movies like ‘Minari’ are something we’ll continue to see more of? Are there projects and pitches that you see, or audience interest, or studio support for more things like that?
CO: Well, I think a part of the human condition is curiosity, right? And with these far-reaching new outlets, whether it’s streaming or just social media, there is a lot more access to areas, and people, and faces that we’ve never seen before. I think that’s really exciting. And I think a lot of studios are excited by that opportunity, because humans are very communal. I think everyone wants to feel like they belong to something. And so in that sense, I do think, in these modern times, there’s a great opportunity for more rural stories to be told. And I look forward to reading, and seeing, and watching them.
DY: That’s great. Is there anything else you’d like to share? Anything else you think our readers might like to know about the film or any of the things we’ve talked about?
CO: No, I’m just grateful to have this opportunity to tell this story. And I am deeply moved by the response I’ve been getting, especially from people in these sorts of rural communities. And I hope they feel seen and I hope they feel excited to tell their own story someday.
DY: Thank you, we really appreciate your time.
CO: Of course.
Minari is now playing in theaters nationwide and at home via digital video on demand (VOD). On Sunday, February 28, the film won the Golden Globe award for Best Foreign Language Film from the Hollywood Foreign Press Association (HFPA).