A serial killer falls in love with a suicidal woman. Sounds like this could be the opening line of a bad joke. In fact, when writer/director Max Sobol originally conceived of the idea for his BIFF Flash Forward contender, You (Us) Me, he envisioned it as an out and out comedy. However, as he continued to develop the script, he began to realize that properly exploring depression and the inner workings of a man who is driven to murder meant tackling the subject matter from a more serious angle. The result: A damn fine first film.
I entered the room of Haeundae’s Grand Hotel on opening night with a singular purpose – to engage a few filmmakers in conversation as to ascertain whose films would round out my screening schedule. Within moments of arriving, I was introduced to Max Sobol, who, as we spoke, looked around the room with wide-eyed awe at BIFF’s grandiosity. I could tell that he was having one of those ‘holy shit – this is MY life’ moments. As the night wore on and the Jameson flowed, I mentally added You (Us) Me to my must-see list. Despite his self-effacing humor, it was obvious that this jovial, articulate thirty-year-old is really passionate about his craft.
It’s not an uncommon dilemma. You meet someone who makes art, whether it be film or writing or visual art, and you discover that you genuinely like them before you’ve actually seen their art. Thus is created this pressure… this question, ‘What if it’s shit?’ When I see films with the intention of writing about them, there’s also the flip side of the conundrum. If I like the film, has forming an affinity for the person who made it robbed me of my objectivity? I entered the screening having made the promise to Max (and to myself) that, no matter what, I’d be honest.
The first fifteen or so minutes of the film crosscuts between brutal, albeit reluctant, serial killer, Edward (Chris Wilde) and the profoundly depressed Vivian (Hannah Kew), each struggling with their quite opposite, yet equally dark, demons. It becomes clear early on that Edward’s relationship with his overbearing mother, who is constantly phoning to interrogate him, has a psycho-esque quality, a homage that Sobol fully owned during the Q&A that followed the screening. “I actually named her Norma as a tribute,” he acknowledged.
After a series of failed suicide attempts, Vivian, bombed out of her skull, stumbles down to the river on a mission to finally off herself, unaware that she is being stalked by Edward. But in the moment of truth, Edward opts to save as opposed to slay. When Vivan awakens at Edwards home and accidentally wanders into his gruesome chamber of secrets, she flees in horror, only to realize soon after that she may just have stumbled onto the solution to all of her problems.
What follows is a most twisted, often hilarious, and largely one-sided love story. Edward believes that, in Vivian, he has finally found the ‘cure’ for his blood lust. Vivian, on the other hand, remains resolute in her desire to put an end to her suffering, and wants Edward to complete the task that, thus far, she has failed to pull off, herself. Because of budget constraints, Sobol stayed focused on creating compelling characters – characters whose needs are each other’s obstacles.
The idea of dual protagonists whose stories embrace each other was Sobol’s reason for using a parenthetical title. “The title was originally Parentheses,” Max told audience members during his Q&A, inspired by lyrics of a song of the same title by The Blow, a song that he confessed had been significant to his own failed relationship. “But people said it sounded too pretentious… and that it sounded too much like Prometheus.”
I had the good fortune to sit down over lunch with Max to discuss both this film and his career. As we hunkered down over galmegi-sal and dwaenjang jjigae, I asked Max about the beginnings of his filmmaking career. Max always knew that he wanted to make films, and focused his studies accordingly.
I went on to study film production at university, but I got kicked out. To be honest, I never really gelled with school. After years of studying film on my own, the film theory at uni was so basic, and I wanted to be challenged. So I got kicked out. I guess, in my youthful arrogance, it was good to have that kick in the nuts. It taught me not to mess around.
Sobol continued to make short films, and was working in advertising while developing the script for You (Us) Me. I asked him about how funding came into place.
It was a very hand to mouth filming process. I would work for a few months to save money, and then shoot for eight days. Then I’d work to save up some more money, then shoot some more. It was about a year between the time we shot the first scene and the last. There was one day when we left one of the locations and we moved all of equipment and our props onto the street. I was with our DP, Maeve O’Connell, and I realized that I had zero dollars in my bank account to pay for a taxi. Maeve didn’t have any money either, and so we had no way to move our equipment. It was pretty embarrassing.
One of things I found most intriguing about the film was that rare, conflicted moral tug of war you feel when you’re rooting for characters who are, essentially, bad people. I shared this with Max and he nodded.
One of the most ‘fun’ things we’re playing with in this film is that the things that are good for the characters are actually very bad things, and the audience is left to wrestle with that. As for the humor, laughter is a release of tension. There were a lot of scenes where, if you push a bit in either direction, it can be either very funny or very dark.
I had intended to ask Max about how the characters’ emotional arcs had effected the shooting schedule, as the film makes some really significant shifts in mood during the course of the story. However, when I learned about the length of the shoot, our conversation turned, instead, to the how the performances themselves were affected.
Because there were long gaps between shooting, it was a challenge to keep the creative continuity. For me, I was in the editing suite, constantly seeing the footage. For the actors, they would just turn up, and there’d be the question of, ‘did I make the right choices a year ago?’ But Hannah and Chris stayed really truthful to what’s at the center of the film. Their performances are so strong, and they really went beyond the budget constraints that we had.
As we moved onto the yangnyum galbi, Sobol talked a bit about the casting process.
I had cast Hannah in a short I shot in Cannes in 2006. I had cast her off the internet and she turned out to be just amazing. She asked all the right questions and really challenged me as a director. I wrote You (Us) Me with her in mind. For the character of Edward, I held two auditions. When you have a fixed actor, it changes the audition process, because you need to gauge the chemistry. When Chris came in and spoke the lines I had written he seemed to really understand what was behind the character. And there was this perfect sort of awkwardness between them, which really fit.
Sitting at the table with us was Amy Thornton, who met Max when they were locked in an editing room together for six weeks during an advertising project. They discovered that they had very similar world views and personal interests, most importantly their mutual passion for film making. After viewing an early screening of You (Us) Me, Amy came on board to help get the film out there. The pair have decided to team up, and are in early development on several projects. If You (Us) Me is any indication of what’s in store, Max Sobol certainly has a bright career ahead.