“What is it we are questing for? It is the fulfillment of that which is potential in each of us. Questing for it is not an ego trip; it is an adventure to bring into fulfillment your gift to the world, which is yourself.” -Joseph Campbell, Pathways to Bliss
Writers and filmmakers create stories that trace the inner lives of their characters. In common storytelling parlance we call this the character arc. In Campbellian mythography we call it the Hero’s Journey or the Monomyth.
In creating works of art, however, artists can often find themselves on quasi-mythical journeys of their own. For Raoul Dyssell and William “Sonny” Sonbuchner, co-directors of the independent film Amiss, the struggle to get their film made in some ways follows the trajectory of the Hero’s Journey, though they themselves may have never thought of it that way. (Remember that the heartbeat of myth pulses within every fiber of even the most mundane life, and it is depth of inner experience, not the surface size and scale of something, that is the substance of myth).
In seeing how a specific artist’s personal quest mirrors the archetypal Hero’s Journey, we can start to see how our own experiences, as diverse as they are, also translate into a form of the Hero’s Journey. And superimposing the template of myth onto our personal experience is a tremendously empowering way to invoke the courage, endurance and patience necessary for the herculean task of birthing a project, any project, into being.
THE BIRTH OF A NEW MOVEMENT
In recent years, with the job market being what it is, and with more people in their 20s and 30s feeling uncertain of what to do with their lives, there has been a growing flight of young, talented people leaving their native countries (the Ordinary World in mythic language) and migrating to the ESL job market. And with South Korea’s ESL industry offering some of the most attractive job packages in the world, it’s no surprise that native English speakers from every corner of the globe would flock here (the Special World).
As with any community, individuals within Korea’s growing expatriate community, especially in Seoul, have been clustering into their own sub-communities. Of these, one of the most interesting and promising sub-communities has been Seoul’s expatriate filmmaking community which is now on the cusp of morphing into a bona fide artistic and cultural movement.
One of the most representative stories from this germinating movement is that of Dyssell and Sonbuchner and their indie film Amiss which has been steadily generating buzz and anticipation through its presence on social networks and crowd-funding platforms like Kickstarter and Indiegogo.
Before embarking on their shared quest, Dyssell and Sonbuchner did not even know each other. Each had been living out the early stages of their own private Hero’s Journey before meeting the other, each having fled from their Ordinary Worlds – Dysell from Cape Town, South Africa, Sonbuchner from St. Cloud, Minnesota – due to feeling frustrated and trapped in their previous lives. The Call to Adventure, or the catalyst that merged their paths onto a shared quest, was meeting at the Seoul Filmmakers’ Workshop which Sonbuchner himself started in 2011 in response to his own internal call to resume pursuing an old high school passion, film and video-making.
Meeting Allies is a critical step in the early stages of the Hero’s Journey and both Dyssell and Sonbuchner were ecstatic to discover a vibrant and growing, if somewhat disconnected, community of writers, directors, actors and producers passionate about the craft and business of filmmaking. They both like to think that the workshop helped this previously scattered community to find some solidarity and grow to new heights.
The act of traveling and living abroad has always been a source of creative inspiration for artists, but the reason the Korean expat filmmaking community is on the verge of becoming such a genuine movement is that there is a whole web of social, cultural and economic factors converging on this particular place at this particular time.
“There is no other expat film community in the world that is the size of Korea’s,” says producer and co-director Dyssell. “What is going on here, I can say for a fact, is not happening anywhere else in the world.”
Part of this has to do with the abundance of stable, well-paying jobs in the Korean ESL industry. In a debilitated global job market, aspiring creatives around the world with English fluency have been flocking to this place where they can ponder how to pursue their passions without the fear of going broke.
On top of the pull factors, there are push factors as well. Many of the members of this community felt that their film-related dreams and ambitions were being smothered in their native countries. Dyssell, for instance, tried to break into the film business in South Africa but felt trapped in an underpaid, overworked editing job at a video production company.
Actor Allan Choi, who plays the lead in the film, also felt frustrated in his native L.A. in which he had dreams of working in film but didn’t know how to go about getting his foot in the door.
“I would meet all these people who were doing something in film…but it always kind of felt distant. In the film world, in just the little that I dabbled in, I always felt like an outsider. I never really felt like I had a way in.”
To the surprise and delight of expat filmmakers, notwithstanding linguistic barriers and the occasional cultural misunderstanding, making film in Seoul has, in some ways, turned out to be even easier than in their homelands. The buying and renting of equipment is cheaper. There is a wealth of transplanted talent starving for a chance to be part of something creative and larger than themselves. There is less of an infrastructure of stringent rules and regulations, unlike in more established film industries, such that the kind of guerrilla filmmaking that guys like Robert Rodriguez turned into the stuff of legend is more feasible here. And the local populace is less jaded than in cities like L.A. or New York so that if they were to discover an uninvited film crew shooting in their company warehouse, for instance, they are less inclined to call the police and more inclined to listen to the crew’s pleas for just one more hour of filming.
“I think people come here thinking ‘I’m gonna put aside my interests and hobbies and go check out something new,'” says the soft-spoken Sonbuchner, co-director and cinematographer. “And then they get here and they’re like, ‘Oh, I can still do that here.'” But while, up to now, most of Seoul’s expat artists may not have come with the express intent to make films, as word of this proto-movement spreads that may soon very well come to be the case.
“It was mind-boggling to me,” Choi remembers. “Before I met these guys, I had only met English teachers who just liked to party and I was also one of those guys who just liked to party, travel and hang out. It made me think, ‘Why are these [filmmakers] in Korea? Why aren’t they in L.A. [making films]?”
The answer, as Choi found out, is that they prefer to be making films here for all the reasons mentioned above.
A DARK BUT REDEMPTIVE FILM
The plot of Amiss revolves around a father’s quest to unearth the secret to his daughter’s suicide by kidnapping those who orbited her world and brutally interrogating them. At surface glance, it’s a revenge film in the mold of Ingmar Bergman’s The Virgin Spring or Park Chan Wook’s revenge trilogy, though the directors say that the biggest influence, structurally, is Akira Kurosawa’s Rashomon in which different witnesses relate entirely different perspectives of an event.
Though dark in tone and subject matter, at heart the film is a redemptive one.
First, it’s about going beyond the deceptive nature of surface appearances.
According to Dyssell, “Those that you thought were ‘bad’ were just doing what anyone would have done, and those you thought were ‘good’ might have been responsible for all the evil in the film… People did things that they didn’t really mean to do but they’re not bad people. They just haven’t got enough experience and know-how and they act on impulse.”
Sonbuchner adds, “It’s also about how your actions can affect other people even if you don’t realize it. Your daily simple interactions with somebody, things that you could blow off, may end up impacting that person.”
Finally, it’s about remorse.
“Every character in the film regrets what they have done,” says Dyssell, thoughtfully. “Not all characters, I would say, make up for what they have done but they are aware that their actions had affected others.”
WHEN THINGS GO ‘AMISS’
While bringing to life this story of people who come to realize the importance of being conscientious of their actions, the directors found themselves going through their own character arcs – somewhat similar, ironically, to that of their characters. And, as usual, this growth came about by way of pain and difficulties. To express it in mythic terms again, they traveled the Road of Trials and, by encountering Trials, Tests and Thresholds, they emerged with inner Treasures.
For one thing, just as Obiwan dies in Star Wars right when Luke’s mythic journey is getting started and right when he needs his Mentor most, so too did Dyssell’s own Mentor figure, his grandfather, the man who raised him, pass away two weeks before production on Amiss was to begin. With no time to mourn or process the loss, Dyssell found that his grief began expressing itself in ways rather abrasive to the rest of the cast and crew during the inevitable bumps, conflicts and setbacks of the collaborative process.
Then there were the unforeseen challenges of working with another director. While they shared a vision, Sonbuchner and Dyssell had two very different styles of directing and of communicating. The usual surprises and contingencies of filmmaking combined with the non-stop, grueling schedule of principal photography (while still holding down full-time jobs) led to some heavy collisions both with each other and with others on the team.
For Sonbuchner this reached its lowest point (the Supreme Ordeal) on a particularly exhausting, marathon shoot when everything that could possibly go wrong did and he and Dyssell were at each other’s throats. To be at such odds with his closest comrade-in-arms broke his heart and, for a moment, Sonbuchner wasn’t sure if the film would get done.
“I felt like, ‘Oh, man, this is maybe not gonna happen,'” he says, admitting that he secretly walked away from the set to cry.
But, in myth, pain is simply a ladder toward realization, and both directors had personal epiphanies of sorts.
Sonbucher says, “I realized how I can be very coarse…swearing too freely, throwing opinions out too freely… I learned that I need to be a little more sensitive, tone it down, not be so coarse and try to be more professional.”
Dyssell adds, “I could have been nice with the way I delegated tasks and asked people to do things. Instead, I was like: This needs to be done and if it wasn’t getting done on time instead of trying to find out the reason or being encouraging, I’d just go ahead and call that person incompetent. And that’s not how you should talk to people.”
As with the characters they’d created, the co-directors came to realize just how much their words and actions affected the people around them, and, again like their characters, express remorse and resolve to be more sensitive, patient and understanding with each other and everyone around them.
Such personal growth has been one of the mythic Treasures or Rewards that they’ve emerged from their Road of Trials with. But there is still one final Treasure – the Holy Grail, the Elixir – that they’ve yet to attain.
ANOTHER MOUNTAIN TO CLIMB
Despite completing principal photography, the final stretch of the directors’ journey yet lies before them and the problem, as always in independent filmmaking, is money.
The bulk of Amiss’s budget has so far been covered with the filmmakers’ own money which they saved through their day jobs. An initial $4000 raised on Kickstarter helped cover some of the production costs, but now, with post-production, there is an array of important tasks – editing, sound, coloring, music – that need completing. For this, the team launched a campaign on Indiegogo.com for a relatively modest goal of $5,000. But modest goal or not, the donations have plateaued and with less than a month to go in the campaign, the directors are worried.
“I think we’ve reached our limit of friends and family,” Dyssell chuckles while going on to admit that the stall in incoming donations “keeps me up at night.” If their Indiegogo goal is not reached, the completion and release of the film will be postponed significantly, which would be a big setback given that one of the greatest challenges has been to maintain consistent buzz for the film over a long term. A delay could mean that the public interest the team has worked hard to maintain could taper off or, worse, flicker out entirely.
What the Amiss team is praying for at this point is what Campbell would call the Rescue From Without in which the heroes are rescued from a climactic plight by an outside source, as when Frodo and Sam are rescued by the Eagles from the burning mountains of Mordor. But whether the public is willing to fill the Eagles’ shoes (or wings, as it were) remains an open question.
When asked bluntly why, with so many indie films out there seeking support, people should donate their hard-earned money to this particular film, Sonbuchner says, matter-of-factly, “With our film their money will go a lot farther than it would with others. We’re very organized and our budget’s very tight. That’s one of the reasons we’re not asking for ten or twenty thousand dollars. We know exactly what we can do, what we have to outsource and what is the smallest budget we can get away with and still get maximum return [in quality].”
The Seoul Expat Filmmaking movement presents a new paradigm of possibilities for international creative collaboration and Amiss, at the present moment, seems to stand the best chance of catapulting this community into the global media spotlight. While there have been other well-received films from the community (such as N.J. Calder’s Fear Eats the Seoul) there hasn’t, as of yet, been that one breakaway success that draws the eyes of the entire film world to this spot on the map. If that happens, we could very well see aspiring filmmakers from all over the world come here and build a viable, alternative industry from the ground up.
“For me, this film represents the culmination of postmodern independent filmmaking brought upon by globalization,” says Dyssell, referring to the set of circumstances that has brought his international team of talent from more than six different countries together. “We want to share this film with the world. We want to share what’s going on here in Korea [with expat filmmaking]. We want this film to be the end of the struggle of the expat film community in Seoul.”
To draw one last parallel with Campbellian myth, what Dyssell, Sonbuchner and the cast and crew of Amiss are essentially hoping is that the completion and success of their film will serve as an archetypal Elixir (the final and greatest reward of a mythic journey) which, like the Grail in Arthurian legend, will inspire, rejuvenate and bring bountiful harvest to their beloved community.
Support ‘Amiss’ on Indiegogo.com
Take an exclusive look at a scene from ‘Amiss’: