AMG.COM: Reading your biography, you have already achieved so much, graduating from Harvard with a degree in chemistry, but also performing on Broadway, but now you are doing big things as a director. Do you feel you can do anything you are putting your mind to?
SHAWN KU: Ha, I think that's everybody's goal. Yeah, maybe it is just somebody who can't find what they are meant to do and it just took me a while to get there? You just don't know where your life is going to lead you. As a kid growing up in New Jersey, I never thought about making movies. I think if you grew up in L.A. or now a days, where everyone can make a movie on their phone, but as a kid, I never thought about where things come from. TV just happened. You turn on the switch and there it is or you go to a movie theater and thats the movie. I didn't think about the elements that it took to make them. It's certainly interesting to find myself here, but it is an exciting journey to have arrived upon.
AMG.COM: Your first film Beautiful Boy was an emotional family drama. Are those the types of stories you like to tell, because those themes are also in A Score to Settle.
SHAWN KU: I'm definitely interested in human connection and family bonds. Maybe I am healing the relationships with my parents in some way or exploring the scary future for me and my new young children? I think about these things, relationships are an important part in our lives and family is important in whatever form it takes. And regret, that's a big part of it all. I don't think there's anyone who doesn’t wish they could go back and redo something.
AMG.COM: The writer for A Score to Settle is John Stuart Newman. Can you tell me how the two of you collaborated on the script together?
SHAWN KU: John wrote the script along with input from one of the producers that I worked with on Beautiful Boy. The two of them had been working on the film for a few years, so somehow they decided to give it to me and I read it. I was instantly inspired by it. It had amazing bones. John and I talked, I pitched him my ideas, and some of them he was reinvigorated by. We both stayed in the same lane, but I wanted to focus more on the father-son relationship. I felt it was a really important element for why this man would go to the lengths that his character goes through to heal this relationship. I said, “there needed to be a reason for all of it, and if he's going to get revenge, he needs to focus more time on the act.” We refocused the energy in the film and I think that was a big thing that attracted Nic to become a part of it. The father-son relationship was something he related to.
AMG.COM: Tell me about bringing Nicolas Cage onto the film, was he your first choice for the role and did you know what kind of process he would go through to get into character?
SHAWN KU: I didn't know his process, but definitely Nic was our first choice. We went to him, and it is like tossing spaghetti on the wall, you just hope he reads it, hope he is interested. You want to make your big pitch to him, so when I got that first call that he wanted to meet me, it was crazy, just crazy to get that call. To go and meet him was just, wow, he's a legend. It was scary, intimidating, but we talked about the script. He was enthusiastic, so inspired by things I had to say, and I think we connected right away. He was signed on by the time I walked out that door.
AMG.COM: What about his acting process?
SHAWN KU: I had never been on set with him before, so I had no idea about his process. It's not like someone says, “okay this is how I work.” There was definitely a learning period, I guess it is like dating in a way. In the months before we even arrived on set, he called me a lot. We talked about these things, like playing piano, he never played before, he had to learn; to really deep things like father & son relationships. The beautiful thing about Nic is that he is an open book. He just shares all parts of his life, which I do as well. I feel it is easier to communicate things if I can relate it to something in my life, which the actor can relate it back in their own. He puts so much of his life into a role, it's brave, it really is.
AMG.COM: You also have a savvy veteran in Benjamin Bratt. Were there any notes you needed to give him and Cage while working with their scenes?
SHAWN KU: Sadly on our budget and with time constraints, we didn't have the money to bring them together sooner. There's not enough time to establish a friendship, you have to trust that actors of this caliber can just do that. Nic's role is heavy. He's dwelling in heavy stuff for a long time. And it was nice to bring Benjamin in, because Benjamin Bratt is like a breath of fresh air. He brought this lightness to the set and to his role. Also, to the movies tone, but as well to Nic's performance, his character. That was great, and oddly enough, very fitting to the story. This guy, who has been trapped, away from life for so long, and only has the turning wheels in his mind. That can eat someone away. You crank out thoughts of who can I trust or who did what to me? I think you can get lost in that, but when you come back into life, meeting someone from your past, that was your buddy, you are pulled out of this dark hole. The first time we got to the scene, Nic was not expecting Benjamin to be so bright, jovial, and welcoming. It disarmed him, in a way that was so right for the scene. To a certain extent it was fitting.
AMG.COM: Some of my favorite moments in the A Score to Settle is when Frank and Joey are joy riding around in a fancy sports car. Did you worry about anything going wrong in those scenes or any of the other action sequences?
SHAWN KU: Nic drove the hell out of the car didn't he? It was back to Gone in 60 Seconds Nic for a while. Nic loves cars, he was excited and it was always written as a corvette. I'm thinking, guy's it does not have to be a corvette, and Nic says, “No, no, no...I want a corvette.” We got him a fancy one and its funny because in the script it's just one line, “they go for a joy ride.” We shot for a few hours, just driving around the parking lot, leaving tread marks, smoking up the tires. It was the most fun we had on set and Nic can drive so it was easy to trust him. I just say, “let's try to do some donuts, burn smoke out of these tires.” He's making up for lost time with his son, so he has to get him a car, teach him to drive, do things he never got to do before. It was a fun day for sure, you just cross your fingers nothing goes wrong.
AMG.COM: Tell me about your inspirations for A Score to Settle, do you go back and study any films prior to directing it?
SHAWN KU: When you start off on a movie with a vision of what it is going to be. It's funny, because I went and got some Nicolas Cage movies, thought I would go back and study Nic, but I stopped myself and told myself that I shouldn't be doing that. I'm not trying to redo a Nicolas Cage performance. This is a new Nicolas Cage movie. In the same way that Mandy was totally different from all the stuff he'd done before. Nic is on this redefining journey of who he is as an actor, so I think that's really exciting. I feel privileged to be a stepping stone in that. As fun as it is to watch his old movies that we love, I don't want to re-do Nic. In process of going forward, a lot of it is just what we wanted it to be, Nic is incredibly generous, trusting me to guide the film.
AMG.COM: Do you have any personal favorite Nicolas Cage films, besides A Score to Settle? Face Off?
SHAWN KU: Oh, I love Face Off, it's hard...I love Raising Arizona, when an actor is as skilled comically as he is and also a great dramatic actor, I think that's rare. You take him seriously on both sides. He's kind of not one of those comedians that you try to take seriously in a dramatic role or one of the serious actors that is somewhat funny. He's great at both, which is a rare thing. That's why I love Raising Arizona, it's understated. You mention Face Off, I always have to watch it when it is on TV, there's just so many great movies. He's done it all. You cannot act like a fan when you are on set and that is hard thing to do, even though you grow up watching these movies every day. It was a pleasure.
I was extremely happy with myself that I agreed to interview director Shawn Ku. I originally was excited to talk because Ku's new film- A Score to Settle, stars the man, the myth, the legend- Nicolas Cage. What I ended up discovering, is that Shawn Ku is a fascinating person. One thing, he is a genius, born in New Jersey, with a degree in chemistry from Harvard. On top of that, Ku won the AFI Fest acting award back in 2002 for his performance in Samsara, he was a successful choreographer for multiple Broadway shows, and has now directed his second feature length film. A Score to Settle is Shawn Ku's first venture into the deep end of a Nicolas Cage movie, but this is a director that deserves every opportunity that comes his way. Read my interview with the talented Shawn Ku right here::