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10 to Watch Filmmakers in 2018: Christina Choe

Christina Choes Makes Our 10 to Watch List for Nancy

Christina Choe makes our 2018 10 to Watch list with her debut feature film, Nancy, a psychodrama about a woman who blurs the lines between reality and fiction, a line that has become difficult to distinguish at times. “I was interested in writing a female character that was morally ambiguous and duplicitous, and kind of an anti-hero, but also had an emotional inner life,” Choe mused. “Because there’s just not enough of them.”

Choe both wrote and directed Nancy—which premiered to strong reviews at Sundance in January—and it involves thematic issues she has been interested in her whole life. “That line between truth and fiction is something I’ve been obsessed with for as long as I can remember,” she says. “I was obsessed with different imposter characters in real life, like the whole JT LeRoy scandal. You don’t get the sense of why they did it, and it’s usually not the money. There’s some deeper reason. And I was always fascinated in wanting to know more about why.”

Christina Choe, filmmaker
Photo credit: Zoe White

But these interests took on an even deeper relevance around the time Nancy’s screenplay was first completed—Choe found out her favorite college writing professor was actually an imposter. “He was one of the most inspiring writing teachers that I had. It was like Dead Poets Society; he was very charismatic and everyone worshipped him. He would say things that were very profound and teach us how to write from the heart.” But then it came out that all of his credentials had been fabricated. “Some people really felt betrayed,” Choe says, “but I was thinking about it and I questioned whether it really mattered that he lied if my experience was genuine, authentic, and inspired. Did it change the fact that he was an amazing teacher?”

These questions and emotions undoubtedly found their way into the finished film, wherein the titular Nancy is a socially awkward failed writer whose fictions sometimes take on a life of their own. After her mother dies, Nancy begins to think she could be the long-lost daughter of a couple she hears about on the news—whose own child went missing 30 years ago—and that prompts a journey to find out if she really is their missing daughter. Andrea Riseborough stars as Nancy, and she’s poised for quite a breakout year herself. After playing Emma Stone’s love interest in 2017’s Battle of the Sexes, Riseborough starred in four films that played at this year’s Sundance, including the current theatrical hit The Death of Stalin.

One of the things sure to get Nancy noticed in such a crowded film landscape is Choe’s inspired idea for the film to widen the aspect ratio when Nancy leaves her home. The film opens in 4:3, which Choe thought was more appealing for the section of the film that featured a dominant main character in a more confined space. But when Nancy’s journey of self-discovery begins, and the lighting sources become more natural, the aspect ratio seamlessly widens to 16:9. It’s an exciting filmmaking trick that’s rarely deployed, and was perhaps most famously used in Xavier Dolan’s acclaimed 2014 film, Mommy. But Choe wasn’t looking for a change that audiences would immediately recognize. ”Dolan’s change was very expressive and big, but for Nancy I wanted it more hidden. It’s a compliment to the editor, David Gutnik, that it’s seamless.”

Still from Nancy, a film by Christina Choe Photo credit: Pip Cowley

Both Choe and Riseborough had been warned that films named after female characters don’t make any money, but Nancy proved a tricky film to title because Choe didn’t want audiences to have any preconceived notions about the character. (And ironically, one of Riseborough’s other Sundance breakouts is a horror/thriller called Mandy, which will be released later in the year.) Fortunately, that conventional Hollywood wisdom didn’t keep distributors at bay. After Nancy won Sundance’s prestigious Waldo Salt Screenwriting Award (previous winners include such modern classics as Memento and Winter’s Bone) it was bought by Samuel Goldwyn Films, who opened the film in select theaters on June 8. And June could be a big month for Choe, as she also directed an episode of Queen Sugar—the Oprah Winfrey Network series created by Ava DuVernay—that is scheduled to air on June 27.

With a lead character that evokes, as Choe puts it, “the slippery nature of truth,” Nancy is certainly landing in a world even more poised for this kind of story than the world it was written in. “The truth is something that’s supposed to be very objective but now has become very malleable,” Choe says. “And maybe this kind of character can only be birthed into the society that we’re currently navigating through.”

Nancy is currently playing in New York and Los Angeles, with a wider release beginning June 15.

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