Interview: Producer Christina Oh talks about the making of ‘Minari’

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Producer Christina Oh [Courtesy photo]

Although the Oklahoma skies, farmland and woods fill in for Arkansas, achieving authenticity was a high priority for the filmmakers behind “Minari.”

“I feel like we were telling a unique story in a unique way but that still felt like it would resonate with people. I think we couldn’t be more thrilled and more appreciative of the Oklahoma film community. They were really, really welcoming, and we’re ever grateful,” said producer Christina Oh in a recent interview. 

Filmed in the Tulsa area in 2019, “Minari” has been has steadily winning over moviegoers and earning acclaim over the past year, starting with earning both the Grand Jury Prize and the Audience Award in the U.S. Dramatic Competition at the 2020 Sundance Film Festival. It has earned nominations for 10 Critics Choice Awards, six Film Independent Spirit Awards and three Screen Actors Guild Awards. The Oscar buzz continues to build ahead of next month’s nominations announcement for the April 25 Academy Awards.

“Of course, it feels good to receive a lot of accolades. I try not to look at it too much, just because that’s not why I made this – and I don’t think that’s the reason why any of us made this. I think it’s been kind of like a cherry on top,” said Oh, a producer for Brad Pitt’s company Plan B Entertainment. “It’s just been actually really moving to see how this film has resonated with people. Anything else, the accolades and stuff, that’s just a little icing on our cake that we don’t mind. I’m incredibly grateful … and everyone involved really, really, really just worked so hard to try and make this a reality.”

Writer-director Lee Isaac Chung, right, speaks with actors Steven Yeun and Will Patton on the set of “Minari.” [Joe Rushmore/A24]

Based on a true story

Writer-director Lee Isaac Chung’s powerful and poetic semi-autobiographical drama tells a story of the American dream not often seen in mainstream movies: “Minari” stars Yeun, who played fan-favorite Glenn Rhee on the hit series “The Walking Dad,” as the patriarch of a Korean immigrant family who relocates in the 1980s from Los Angeles to rural Arkansas to start a farm. He, his dubious wife Monica (Yeri Han), their two spirited children – Anne (Noel Kate Cho) and David (Alan Kim) – and his feisty mother-in-law Soonja (Yuh-jung Youn) weather tragedy and triumph in their quest to build a life in the Heartland.

Oh, whose other producing credits include “Okja,” “The Last Black Man in San Francisco” and “Ad Astra,” said “Minari” marked her her first time making a movie in Oklahoma, which boasts a burgeoning film and television industry.

“My uncle is from Oklahoma, so I did visit there when I was a kid and I think his family had a farm as well. … I never shot (a film) there, but I had visited there when I was 8. So, it was kind of cool to be back on a farm,” Oh said by phone from New Mexico, where she is working on a new project.

“Lee Isaac Chung, our director, grew up very similarly to to David’s character: They lived in a trailer as his dad tried to start this farm. So in that sense, we did have a great sort of historian to help make sure that a lot of elements were factual – or felt factually real – because that’s actually what happened when he was child.”

Named for a Korean water herb, “Minari” employed more than 170 Oklahoma industry members, used the services of a number of local businesses and utilized the state’s Film Enhancement Rebate. Along with Oklahoma’s rebate and resources, Oh said the filmmakers opted to make “Minari” in Tulsa rather than the ever-popular Atlanta because of the passage of Georgia’s controversial anti-abortion Heartbeat Bill, which was eventually deemed unconstitutional.

“We wanted to go someplace that was going to be able to support us and our creative sort of vision … and we wanted to go somewhere that was a little bit more accepting. So Oklahoma seemed like a great place, along with the incentives. … We just couldn’t shoot in Arkansas, for a myriad of reasons. It just wasn’t going to be able to support our production. We needed someplace that kind of still had that lush greenery of that sort of location and then still be able to support our sort of filmmaking endeavors,” Oh said.

“It was a tough shoot. I’m not gonna sugarcoat it. It was super hot. We had to move very quickly. A lot of the Oklahoma crew … we couldn’t have done it without them.”

To avoid storm season, the filmmakers opted to shoot from July into August.

“In the film, the family moves into a trailer (home). That’s a real trailer we found and sourced that was period appropriate, and I can tell you that the air conditioning system, in the ’80s, it’s not what it is today. So, shooting inside a pretty small trailer, during the height of summer, it did get pretty hot,” Oh recalled.

“We made do. It did add some challenges, just because we had kids and other people and we wanted to keep them safe. So, we had to come up with some strategic ways to keep things cool. But we figured it out.”

Yeri Han and Noel Cho star in “Minari.” [Melissa Lukenbaugh/A24]

Authentic storytelling

From the accuracy of the period details to the realistic depiction of farming, the producer said keeping the making of “Minari” authentic meant staying faithful to Chung’s vision, including keeping the language true-to-life. The all-American movie received a controversial Golden Globe nomination for best foreign language film becauce the Hollywood Foreign Press Association’s rules dictate that any movie with at least 51% non-English dialogue must compete in the best foreign language film category – and can’t compete for best drama or best musical/comedy.

“In the development phase, there was some concern about ‘Is there too much Korean?’ … I think when you tell something from a very honest place, it’s easier for people to relate to. People can sense sort of that authenticity through the story. Growing up, what was real for us was our parents spoke a ton of Korean, like my parents only communicated to me in Korean – whether I responded in Korean or English was another thing. … So, I was like, ‘Well, let’s not worry so much about the reception right now. Let’s just try and develop what is the most authentic story,'” Oh said.

The choice to focus on the truth of Chung’s intensely personal story seems to have paid off in the acclaim the film has earned.

“Especially now – and especially given the state of our country – I think people are hungry for just honest storytelling, in whatever form that may come, whatever medium, whether film or television. … In the film’s specificity, it is weirdly more universal,” Oh said. “The emotionality and a lot of the themes that we explore a fairly universal … and I’ve been incredibly moved by that reception from people from all walks of life, getting in touch with me and saying how it reminded them of a lot of things from their childhood. A lot of people were like, ‘I called my grandma’ or ‘I spoke to my parents, and I haven’t talked to them in a real way in a long time.'”

-BAM

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