Happy Cleaners – Interview with Filmmakers Julian Kim & Peter S. Lee

Interview with Happy Cleaners filmmakers Julian Kim and Peter S Lee

Happy Cleaners is a 2019 family drama film that follows the Choi family as they confront their struggles, cultural clashes, and generational divides while trying to keep their family business afloat.

The filmmakers of Happy Cleaners, Julian Kim and Peter S. Lee spoke with Borrowing Tape interviewer Nace DeSanders about writing and directing the film, which is available to watch via VOD and digital platforms now (Amazon + Apple TV).

Watch, listen or read the transcript — edited and condensed for clarity:
Hey fans, I'm Nace DeSanders of Borrowing Tape and I'm here with Julian Kim and Peter S. Lee, the writers, and directors of Happy Cleaners — an American drama about a family of Korean immigrants and their first and second-generation Korean American kids. Peter, Julian, thanks so much for being here!

P.L: Thanks so much for having us.

J.K: Thank you for having us. I'm excited to talk to you.

I'm so glad. So let's start with the fantastic news. Your film is currently at 100% on Rotten Tomatoes. Congratulations. How does that feel?

P.L: Thank you. We're just thankful. We're excited, but we're very thankful to be in that position.

J.K: Yeah, definitely, definitely a surreal cause as any artists or storyteller, when you put out your work out, there is always this lingering feeling of like, "Oh, what if people hate it? Or what if they bash on it?" But surprisingly, like so far people have been very supportive of it, and they're very positive reactions. And even like the negative ones there, they always end with the little like, yeah, it worth the good story. So very humbled and honored.

This is a story of first and second generation of Asian-Americans and their immigrant parents, which is a very familiar story to us in real life, but almost non-existent on the big screen. So, what made you want to commit this recognizable American story to the screen?

P.L: Well first, we just wanted to present experiences that are untold by mainstream media, and also it's to validate and celebrate our existence, as immigrants, but also as Asian Americans. And ultimately, I would hope that through telling a very humanized story of real people we are really hoping that we can seek some unity with everything that's happening in this country right now, and we want to create just some empathy and hopefully, it will be bridge-building.

Yeah, absolutely. Especially with the current climate in the States. So do you guys see any of your own lives or your friends' lives reflected in the characters of Happy Cleaners?

J.K: Oh, for sure. It's a very intentional decision — when we wrote the story to make it as authentic and true and real as possible, and a lot of the research wouldn't to first our own personal experiences, but also our friends or people we grew up with and stemming from those character traits and experiences, and really inputting that into the film. Ultimately that was our priority to make sure that we're telling an authentic and real story. So, yeah, I mean, from basic things on the surface, things like I grew up a cleaner's kid, Peter grew up with immigrant blue-collar working jobs and we had certain differences with our parents and pains growing up as in an immigrant household. So, all of that is reflected in the film in a very personal and very transparent matter.

So the film takes place in and it seems also been shot in flushing Queens. Was it important for you to shoot there?

P.L: Yeah, I mean, so yes, we were like absolutely dead set on making sure that the film is about our hometown Flushing.

J.K: Right.

P.L: Just because there are so many of these very real stories that happen there. But it's a way for us to pay homage to the community that shaped us. Really wanted to tell real stories. It's a very colorful and multi-dimensional place, and part of this, was also our own personal journey of finding our identity — what is it, the meanings of our hometown. And ultimately yeah, our place in this country. At the end of it, I think part of that journey to sort of come back was having pride in what you come from, and then we want to own it and wanna embrace it.

You both wrote directed and produced this film, so it sounds like a real passion project. Were there any hurdles to getting this film made?

J.K: I mean with any indie films, there's always a big hurdle and yes, we did write direct and produce it, but we also were the caterer, we were also the driver, we were also the PA — everything, but obviously like we had the big support from our community. A big shout out to KoreanAmericanstory.org for really supporting us in this film and connecting us to various people. So, what we had was the biggest hurdle definitely has been the financial hurdle, but also like booking and getting talents is a big thing when you come to filmmaking. So, when you're in New York, a lot of the thing is basically you have to shoot on-location. We don't build sets, we don't have that kind of manpower to do so. We have to work with what we have. And to find locations — like specifically dry cleaners or a two-bedroom house. That's definitely been a challenge, but the community really helped out. When we reached out to members of our community and be like, "Do you know anyone who has a dry cleaner, or do you know anyone with a two-bedroom house where we can film for 21 days?" They really came through, they're like, "We can hook you up. We can connect you" KoreanAmericanStory.org put out a campaign to obviously help with the production financing, but also with the food as well. So they had a "Feed the Crew" campaign where people could sign up to help feed our crew for one day or not. So a lot of people chipped in to that — they provided lunch to our crew. And we were so blessed to try all these different kinds of different food that you normally don't get on set. Not like pizza and chicken all the time. It was really cool. So, yeah, I mean there were some big hurdles, but I think there are a lot of blessings in those hurdles and the way we tackle them and we approached them. So yeah, we were really blessed.

That's great. Could you tell us a little bit about your — was it a Kickstarter campaign, or crowdsourcing? Do you guys have any tips for the other indie filmmakers out there who want to try that method?

J.K: Yeah, definitely. I think what the biggest thing and what we found surprising was people really connected to the story. And I think when you're putting a project out there especially a Kickstarter campaign, know the story you're telling and know who you want to reach out to. And I guess when we started a campaign, we definitely hit up all the Korean Americans and Asian Americans around the neighborhood and people who might be interested in chipping in. And surprisingly, when we saw the list of donors, like they're all names we didn't recognize, like they were just like, who are these people? Where are they coming from? How do they find out? But there are so driven by the story, they're driven by what we're trying to tell what Happy Cleaners that, I think they're motivated to support. So I think if you have a project in mind, definitely know who you want to reach out if your project could speak to them and connect with them in a personal way. And yeah, I think you'll be surprised at how much support you can get just by telling a good story.

So back to guys as writers. When you're in that writing headspace, what for you comes first: story or character, and then which approach was taken to writing, Happy Cleaners?

P.L: So, I guess I could start off with sort of the general thing and Julian can pick up on the specifics for Happy Cleaners. But generally, when we write, Julian and I — we just have long, long walks for a while pre-COVID. We both we're able to commute together. So that was a lot of just a lot of good conversations from the basis of the stories. But generally, you would have an overarching theme or general story arc, but then we really developed the characters because these characters have to be very real to us. And so, we go into heavy backstory writing, and then ultimately once that's sort of ready when these characters are presented with the situations about how are they gonna react and adjust to this, we watch their lives unfold. So that's kind of our general process, but Julian can go deeper on our Happy Cleaners process.

J.K: Oh yeah. I mean, for sure. Like before the character, during the long walks, we talk about, well, "What story do you want to tell?" I think when we first started off writing Happy Cleaners, we wanted to talk about, and empowering basically our experiences, and challenging what it means to be an American and the American narrative. So within that, we found characters first — who are the strong characters that really define what we turn to tell them the stories. I think that came down to Hyunny and Kevin. But also, it was really important for us to be a match to our parents, you know? They were a very crucial part in the story arc in the narrative. Once we had those set characters set in place, I think we were able to pan out and figure out all the moments in the scene that we wanted to tell in the whole narrative of Happy Cleaners. So, we would jot down like any experiences that we had personally that we felt was really good to share, and then stitch it together, and then obviously put in conflicts and resolutions and all that stuff within Happy Cleaners.

Lovely. Those long walks sound great.

J.K: Yeah, they were intimate walks.

Food is a big part of culture and it's given extra attention throughout the film. Can you tell us a little bit about that creative choice?

P.L: Well, first of all, food in the Asian culture is a way of saying, I love you. So, in this film, those words are never uttered, but it's been said so many times in the 96 minutes, and it's through food. And so that's why it's an integral character of the film. But we're very intentional about choosing dishes that are typically made and eaten at home, not the stuff that you would find at restaurants, or at least not as well-known as barbecues or the kimchis. And I want to present all this, there's more. There's so much more, and here's a lot of these home-cooked foods that we grew up with, and that's what we wanted to showcase in this film.

So which films or directors have influenced each of you as filmmakers, but also the film, Happy Cleaners?

J.K: Peter and I, we always have this saying that I think the biggest influence we had for Happy Cleaners was K Drama. It was K Dramas, but not like the new ones coming out, but more of like the nineties, kind of soap opera-ish, three cameras, studio Korean dramas, and like the various family-oriented style. I think that because we have very fond memories of watching that with our parents. It was like the only way we can see ourselves represented on screen — even though it takes place in our motherland, which, we don't have much memory of, but it was still great to see someone who looked like us and who talked like us and who behaved like us playing out on the TV. And it was a great time for us to sit down together with our parents and watch Korean traditional, historic dramas, and also family-oriented dramas. And that was a big influence on how we approach Happy Cleaners. If you look at it — I think it's hard to tell — it's not too funny to be a comedy, but it's not too dark to be a serious drama, like Happy Cleaners. But I think Korean dramas are kind of like that — you have a mix of humor and a mix of drama. You can laugh, you can cry and there's nothing like that. And I think that's probably one of the biggest influences that we had and we wanted to make an homage to working on Happy Cleaners.

That's awesome. I definitely felt like I saw that influence there. I was very into those older K dramas when I was younger.

J.K: Oh, really? That's awesome.

Yeah. So that's really cool. So are there any other cultural references, or moments in the film that you think non-Korean Americans might miss in the film? If so, let us in on the secret.

P.L: Hmm. Yeah, I think the biggest, most obvious one to us is there's a scene at the nail salon where [inaudible] and a coworker talks about dol, which is the first birthday for Korean babies. And it's a cultural thing where at the first birthday, traditionally, you set a baby on the floor and then there's various items, like thread and money.

J.K: Basketball. Stethoscope.

P.L: That's modern take, but traditionally it was to symbolize either, wealth, education, or long life, but then parents start to throw in whatever they want, like a stethoscope for basketball or whatever. That's the joke, but I think it's one of those things where if you know about that, the lines that are said there are funnier. But, yeah, it was interesting to see some folks seem to have still somehow make a connection and they got it.

J.K: Yeah.

Go ahead, if you have another one you want to share.

J.K: Oh, no, I don't think I do. I was thinking really hard about it. I was like, Oh, what is there? what is there? Finally, Peter found the right spot. Yeah.

Okay. So what is next for each of you? Any upcoming projects that you can let us in on?

P.L: Well, Julian's going to do this amazing Western. No, he and I have a Western that we've been writing for the longest time and it's a sci-fi as well. And it's just something that we've been developing all along — kind of like that one day when we have bigger budgets to do these things. So, so that's kind of always been in the works for years. And of course, yeah, we're currently writing again, so that we can come back with another feature film soon.

J.K: Yeah.

Awesome. That's super exciting. Alrighty, thank you so, so much for taking the time to speak with us today. It has been amazing.

J.K: Thank you. It's been an honor.

Watch Happy Cleaners now via Amazon or Apple TV

Get it on Apple TV