An Interview with Short Film Fund Winner Joseph Lee

In the winter of the Korean War, a North Korean family on the run escapes to the seaside, where they must quietly sneak across the water on a fisherman’s boat to reach freedom.

The journey in creating Other Homes started three years ago when the COVID pandemic had just begun. Coming from a low-income family, I was forced to delay my studies as a film student at Harvard College, so I worked for two years in Hollywood as an executive assistant and as a freelance editor. I rented a walk-in closet for $300 a month and ate one Chipotle bowl a day to make ends meet. I saved every penny so that I could support my family while still working towards my goal of making a high-production short film.

The story I wanted to tell was that of my grandmother, who escaped from North Korea by boat in order to find freedom for her family. As she approached 80 years of life, I wanted to create something that honored her legacy, a testament to her life and experience. This film for me was a retracing of my grandmother’s footsteps, and in a world seemingly filled with constant refugee crises, this film highlights immigrant sacrifices and the shared pain of displaced families. She purchased her freedom through exile, trauma, and inconsolable loss, and I hoped to bear witness to her sacrifices by filming her story.

Unfortunately, everyone I spoke to about her story told me that the logistics of the shoot were impossible. It involved three boats, child actors, shooting at night, period pieces, and international travel. Several estimates I received from potential producers declared that the film would take a six-figure budget to produce – not at all in my budget range. I gave up on filming the project and spent my days writing other, more “producible” screenplays. But something gnawed in the back of my mind, telling me that this story was one worth telling, even if it seemed impossible.

After two years of saving money and quarantine, I found my opportunity to film when the pandemic rules relaxed, and I returned to school. Over my college’s winter break, I flew over to Korea to start pre-production on my film. While I was quarantining for ten days, I received the help of one of the first actresses I had cast, Anastasia Ha-Mheen Kim, who reached out to me about a North Korean dialect coach she was working with. This dialect coach (who I will lovingly refer to as Baek Teacher), heard about my screenplay and wanted to help because as a defector, the story was close to her heart. She told me, “Think of me as your grandmother – make this short film for me.” Armed with her help and passion, I was finally able to connect with accomplished collaborators in the Korean film industry who were eager to tell a story about North Korea. Around this time, I had applied to the Shore Scripts Short Film Fund, and to my pleasant surprise won the grand prize.

As we got closer and closer to the shooting dates, there were still numerous obstacles to overcome. Where would we find a baby? Where would we find the necessary boats? Would there be a production designer interested in taking on this project? Each question was always met with another question, but slowly and surely, we found our plan of action. We would shoot in Gangwon-Do, a province in South Korea because one of the actors was a former member of the Marines and a scuba diver, so he had connections to the boats there. We found a newborn baby through an online posting, and in order to ensure the safety of all participants of the film shoot, the whole crew took PCR tests before shooting. We found a production designer able to create a historical replica of a boat from the 1950s. My director of photography, ByongHoon-Jo, recommended we film on a soundstage and then on the water, which would be safer for the actors and the crew. All in all, we concluded that we would shoot for four days: one day in a safe harbor with the replica boat, two days on land after that boat was delivered by crane to a warehouse and one final day on the boat in the winter ocean.

The first day, things were hectic as we had to juggle communications between a bilingual crew and a logistically complicated shoot. Though we had set out with a plan, those plans were constantly changing based on the weather and the safety of our crew. We filmed the easiest scenes first, but we quickly realized that we were falling behind schedule. The sun sets early in Korea (around 4:30 pm), and every extra take meant less time for later scenes. That meant we were constantly racing the sun in order to get the shots we needed, but we successfully managed to capture everything before the sunset. After the completion of shooting the first day, we lifted the boat into the warehouse.

The second day, at the start of the film shoot, we discovered that there were still workers in the warehouse, further delaying our schedule. Because we were shooting in such a remote location in the countryside, those workers had to work according to their schedule – which was entirely unpredictable and meant that we had no idea when shooting could start. I realized then that the only way to complete shooting would be to prioritize efficiency, so we took numerous shortcuts to ensure a successful shoot. For instance, the cast would rehearse in the boat while the workers would complete their job of moving the necessary cargo. In between the forklift noises and engines rattles, we would film whatever we could, adapting our schedule to the industrial environment. When talking to some of the workers, we learned that our third day of shooting would be similarly busy, so we shot as much as we could that night after the workers had left. Later, I roughly edited the footage on my laptop because I knew the following day, we would only have time to get the bare minimum necessary shots. Thankfully though, we were finally on schedule.

On the third day, we found out that the workers would be working throughout our film shoot, so we delayed our call time until the warehouse was finally free. When we finally did film, we were ready for the delays because we had adapted our schedule to make sure we got every necessary scene. After shooting a few scenes, the boat was moved back to the harbor.

On the fourth and final day, we had planned for a long and extended shooting day filming the boat on the water from day until the night. However, because of the winter seas and the rapidly deteriorating weather, I learned that we might not be able to film some of the most important scenes – the boat being on the water. The wind was strong enough to turn boats overboard, and the local fishermen were warning that the weather would only worsen. We had to find a way to shoot a full day’s worth of scenes in half the time. Worse of all, we would only have an hour of time for our actors to film out on the water.

After considering all the different scheduling possibilities, I realized that I was going to have to make difficult decisions. Additionally, I was going to have to cut shots that were not necessary, focusing on scenes that were essential to the film’s story. Over the entire film shoot, I had spoken in broken Korean and relied on a translator, but my heart and soul were so anxious that I learned to speak fluent Korean that day. By recruiting local fishermen and listening to their wisdom, we were able to film all the scenes on time and ahead of schedule, using filmmaking tricks like day-for-night and VFX to cheat the setting sun.

After we wrapped the production, I looked over the footage and realized that despite how difficult the journey in shooting this production was, I was so grateful for the opportunity to work with such a passionate and perseverant crew. Through the help of my family; Baek Teacher; Ha-Mheen Kim; my girlfriend, Jamie JiMin Lee; and my girlfriend’s family, I was able to show my grandmother some of the footage based on her story. She told me that it was exactly like her lived experience, and while crying, told me that she wishes this story was told so others would not have to experience what she went through ever again. Though there are many things I hope to accomplish with this film, I am glad I have already completed what I set out to do – telling my grandmother’s story. Everything I do afterward is just extra steps in continuing to honor her legacy.

Joseph Lee is a filmmaker based in Los Angeles who has worked with Jubilee Media, Janet Yang Productions, and Hearst News. He studied Art, Film, and Visual Studies at Harvard College and works to advocate for greater representation and diversity in the film industry. In his free time, he has sold typewriters, represented the United States in archery, and published a children’s book.

Each year our Short Film Fund commissions four films from emerging screenwriters and filmmakers; offering support from pre-production to distribution and marketing. Find out more about the opportunities to tell your story in this year’s SHORT FILM FUND.