Tze Chun is a talented young filmmaker who first gained attention with his indie drama Children of Invention. Indiewire describes his latest movie Cold Comes the Night, starring Alice Eve and Bryan Cranston, as a “tightly wound noir thriller.” Having screened the movie myself, I concur wholeheartedly. It opens in theaters and on VOD on January 10.
I caught up with Tze as he was driving from LA to San Diego for a screening of Cold Comes the Night. We had a great conversation covering how he wound his way into filmmaking, three of his movies, and his thoughts on the craft of screenwriting.
In Part 3, we wrap up our conversation about Children of Innocence, then dig into Tze’s new movie Cold Comes the Night:
Scott: I’d like to talk about the ending of Children of Innocence. I thought it was so poignant. You have a set‑up earlier where the mother, amidst the family’s financial struggle, she takes the kids to the mall. She calls it family day. I’m gathering you were conscious of this idea of the American dream. That, in some ways the mall represents the fantasy life of making it. But after the family is separated, when she returns in the end and they are reunited, she says it’s family day tomorrow, mommy will make everything better.
The last image is of Raymond’s face. It’s ambiguous. Does he really believe she’s learned a lesson? Does he really believe that his mother can make everything better? I’m curious about that ending. Was that always what you had in mind? What were you going for in terms of what you wanted to leave with us emotionally?
Chun: There was never really a different ending. I think the type of family problems portrayed in the film very rarely get resolved in a short period of time. The difficulties that the family is going through will probably follow them around for a good amount of time. I thought, that in order to say that, I wanted to make the ending more ambiguous. At least they are together again, and at least they’ve gained an understanding about themselves, at least they have each other, but it’s still going to be a longer struggle ahead. I didn’t want to tie the story off with a tidy ending, or as my producers liked to say “with a bow.”
There were some questions about the ending. Some people really liked it. Some people feel that they wanted something more. I don’t know if I was telling the story now, if I would end the movie the same way. But at the time it felt like the most emotionally honest way to tell the story.
Scott: Children of Invention debuted at the 2009 Sundance film festival. It has screened at over fifty other festivals. It has won seventeen festival awards. It received some great reviews from the New York Times, the L.A. Times, and especially a look at USA Today, who wrote, “I can’t remember when I loved a movie quite as much as this one. What’s your sense of why these hardened film critics responded so positively to Children of Invention?
Chun: It’s always tough to say why critics respond a certain way to certain movies. I have no idea really. I’m glad that they liked it, but I’m not sure why. I think so many great movies don’t even get reviewed. We were lucky that we got reviewed from these top critics, actually.
Scott: Let’s shift to Cold Comes to Night. That’s being released on January 10, 2014. A plot summary: “A struggling motel owner and her daughter are taken hostage by a nearly‑blind career criminal to be his eyes as he attempts to retrieve his cash package from a crooked cop.”
Children of Invention you could say is a straight ahead drama. Cold Comes to Night is a crime‑drama with a thriller dynamic. What was the genesis of this project, and how did it evolve?
Chun: As a filmmaker, I just want to be working as much as possible. I looked around and saw that, you know, with small dramas, there’s a limit to the number of them that get made. There’s a limit of size of the audience, even if it does get good reviews. It’s hard to get people to come and watch the movies and for the movies to be profitable and for the filmmakers to make a living. It’s sad, but there’s a glass ceiling for these smaller quiet indie movies that I always wanted to make. I’m sure there’s an American Kiaorostami making beautiful movies right at this moment, but I’m also sure that he’s working at a coffee shop to make ends meet.
So, I started thinking back to the movies I loved growing up. A lot of those were crime‑dramas. Movies like Mean Streets or The Godfather or Blood Simple. I decided that I wanted to make a crime‑drama next, and I wanted to make my version of it. To me, Children of Invention had a little bit of a crime angle. Both Children of Invention and Cold Comes the Night take place in a world where everyone is opportunistic, and where people are willing to skirt the law to get ahead. My manager put me in touch with these two guys, Osgood Perkins, and Nick Simon, who ended up being my co‑writers on Cold Comes the Night. I pitched them a few ideas, and they pitched me a few ideas. I think the one that spoke to all of us was the story of this woman, this single mother, who ran a motel and who has a bad man come into her life.
We knew from the very beginning that we wanted to do a thriller with an atypical protagonist. We wanted to turn the “woman in peril” genre-trope on its head. We introduce Chloe as a hard working single mom who is down on her luck, but by the end, as the adventure peels off layers, we come to find she’s also opportunistic and cunning and at times downright evil.
I wanted to create a female character where people would leave the theater with conflicting thoughts about her. I think that there are very few female characters that are given that chance to be morally ambiguous. It’s nice, actually. I’ve had a couple experiences where people have come up to me after a screening and one person will tell me “I really felt for Chloe. I was on her side the entire time. She was trying to do the best thing for her daughter…” and the person’s date will say “Whoa, how evil was that Chloe lady?”
Scott: Let’s pick up on that. There are three main characters. Chloe, that’s the mother, and she’s played by Alice Eve. There’s her ostensible boyfriend Billy, and he’s a policeman, played by Logan Marshall Greene. She’s a manager of a motel, where there’s a prostitution thing going on, and he gets some kick‑backs on that.
Then we meet Topo, who is this criminal bag man, played by Brian Cranston from “Breaking Bad”. So, you’ve got these three characters at the center of the story. They’re all living on the fringes of the law in this morally ambiguous universe. What interested you to explore these three characters.
Chun: I think part of it is the world that I grew up. As you can probably tell from Children of Invention, my sister and I grew up working class, and the people that I would come into contact with, in my family life, were, to some degree or another, on the outskirts of society. There was something about the motel, about the world of all these people who are, like you said, on the outskirts of society, doing these things that are criminal, or on the gray line of criminality. That just kind of interested me.
Scott: It’s even to the extent of where you set it, in Greene County, New York. I did a little research on that, and found the per capital annual income there is less than $20,000 per family. And so it has a feel of that zero economic opportunity for locals, at least legally.
Chun: Yeah. We shot in Greene County, New York. We shot in a town of 1500 or 1600 to maybe 1800 people, and yeah, there are limited jobs, limited economic resources. There are towns that you drive through that are essentially dead, that only have money coming in a few months every year, for hunting season. But the people are tough and they’re survivors.
There is something interesting about being away from urban life. There’s not a lot of oversight, and for me, there’s this feeling that you could get away with illegal activity, and that if you were living there, illegal activity might be the only way to provide for the people that you love.
Scott: You mentioned Blood Simple as a reference point. Were you thinking at all of this being sort of like a modern film noir type thing, or maybe even an influence of some of those early movies by John Dahl in the nineties?
Chun: I don’t think I’ve seen any John Dahl movies except for Red Rock West, but I remember liking it a lot. Blood Simple will always be one of my favorite movies. But I see what you’re saying though – both movies have a modern film noir quality, but the other thing they have is a real sense of place.
When we were prepping Cold Comes the Night, in all my conversations with the department heads and actors, we kept on saying “yes, this is a genre movie, but we don’t want it to lose its link with reality. Yes, they’ll market this as a genre movie, and they’ll cut a trailer out of it that will look like a genre movie, but the questions we need to keep asking ourselves is, ‘does this feel real to us?’”
When you make a movie that has a genre, like a crime drama, you have to stop yourself from going onto autopilot, to adhere to genre conventions. Wherever possible, we tried to wake ourselves up out of that, and to create a movie that took place in our real world. Part of that was shooting on location and trying to take as much of that atmosphere, and getting that into to the movie.
Tomorrow in Part 4, Tze discusses how he worked with Bryan Cranston in shaping his character in Cold Comes the Night and what it’s like to have a movie just about to open in theaters.
For Part 1 of our interview, go here.
For Part 2, go here.
Here is the trailer for Cold Comes the Night:
Tze is represented by WME.
You may check out the Facebook page for Cold Comes the Night here.