Most modest films cost $9 million and up to make, but for less than the price of a new Corvette, this 23-year-old USC film grad made his first movie— overseas at that—and is winning accolades.
The storyteller who loves the way film brings people together shot his first movie,
a detective story, at 15. Eight years later, the San Clemente native is in distribution talks for “The Drop Box,” a documentary about a South Korean pastor who takes in unwanted and abandoned babies. “I wanted to seek out a story that had nothing to do with Orange County,” he says. “I needed to find people that had experiences and struggles I have never had.” The result is a 75-minute film that won top honors at a Texas cinema festival—and a cash award that exceeded his movie’s budget.
Why “Drop Box”?
In June 2011, I read a Los Angeles Times article, “South Korean pastor tends an unwanted flock.” I wanted to know why Pastor Lee Jong-rak built a box for people to put unwanted children in, and why in Korean culture any human could be disposable. Pastor Lee [and his church] told me that they didn’t know what a documentary was, but I could stay with them for two weeks. We raised $20,000 online through Kickstarter, then anonymous donors matched that.
When did you make it?
That December. In two weeks. Ten others came with me to Seoul, but they weren’t necessarily film people—just other students and friends.
What is the drop box?
These kids—some blind, others missing limbs—are being dropped off through something that looks like a mailbox that’s attached to the side of the pastor’s home. And this man takes in these broken kids and loves them the way God loves his children. It’s about adoption and the social issue of abandoned children with special needs, but it’s also about love.
The project sounds daunting.
I had no experience making a documentary, and people can’t stop their lives so you can film them. You can’t ask them to set aside time to be interviewed in the park because it looks better. This was a man with 14 kids, and we were at the mercy of his schedule.
I don’t speak Korean. Having a translator was hard for interviews, because you don’t know the tone it comes across as, or the tone and mood of their responses. It’s really scary.
What has the experience taught you?
There’s enough story in ordinary people. I thought I had to interview important people, but there are ordinary people doing extraordinary things. There was a time I never wanted to help anyone … . It’s been a total heart change for me.
Tell us about your award.
It was the San Antonio Independent Christian Film Festival. I thought a big-budget film would win, so I arrived late and missed all of the screenings. There were more than 20 films in the documentary category alone. And then we won best of festival—an endorsement from heaven. We’re giving half of the money, $50,000, to Pastor Lee; the other half helped form a nonprofit to get the story out into the world.
This project deeply moved you.
I’d felt spiritually broken. Then I saw Pastor Lee take in broken kids and love them. I felt like one of them, broken and abandoned, but God loved me and held me on his shoulders. At the time, I had no idea why I made the movie, but God led me into a new life through it.
Where is “The Drop Box” headed?
We went to the festival as a networking opportunity to find a distributor, and after winning we had some good options. We’re in talks now and a release date is coming soon.
A far cry from your first movie, right?
“Sierra Street.” I made it with my dad and younger brother. It’s based on “The Three Investigators” series my dad read to me—kids that have a detective agency and solve crimes. It was more fun to make than to watch.
Advice for aspiring directors?
It seems magical, but it’s not all fun, and it’s not your everything. It’s always worth it at the end of the day, but it’s hard work and you have to have the grit for it. But if you want to be a director, then do it.
This article originally appeared in the November 2013 issue.