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Director Sun Ho Donovan is the mind behind “Just One Life,” a film about how losing a loved one can uproot everything around you. The movie follows the protagonist, Renee, in her new life as she moves across the country following the death of her mother. In the film’s trailer, you might notice some recognizable local sights, especially if you’re from Louisville.
LEO sat down with Donovan over Zoom to discuss her new film, a majority of which was shot in the city. What we learned was that Donovan fell in love with Louisville when she arrived, and she realized it was perfect for a film that was inspired by her own life experiences.
This interview has been edited for space and clarity.
LEO: Tell me about how you came up with the story for “Just One Life,” since you are the writer, producer and director of the movie.
Sun Ho Donovan: I picked up this old script that I had and worked on it again, but what I came to realize was that even though that was sort of the original impetus for writing the script, that it was actually drawn from my own experience of losing my husband to cancer 12 years ago. And that was really hard for me, because I had three daughters. His death was really difficult. I was not prepared or equipped to handle it. And I got to the point where I thought somebody else would be a better parent for my daughters, and I tried to kill myself. Through that experience is where my faith was awakened. Because I realized it’s not just my life. It’s not just one life. It’s my husband’s life. My father passed. It’s his life. My sister passed. It’s her life. It’s all the people that I was connected with before all of their lives would also, in a sense, terminate with me. Because I wouldn’t be able to pass down stories of them and their influence and their values and what they were like to my daughters, and there wouldn’t be that connection to the history, to the future; that connection would be lost.
That’s when I realized there’s a bigger tie. There’s a bigger bond than just us. And it’s bigger than just family. It’s the people that I’ve loved that are friends or even strangers that have come into your life for that small short period of time that they just change your trajectory by two degrees. Then they have loved you or you have loved them for a small period of time, and the ex-girlfriend, an ex-boyfriend, or someone you were very close with or someone you work with or boss, it can be anybody. But their lives intersecting with you have improved it or changed it or created a direction that puts you where you are today. And all of that together, I don’t necessarily think it’s God’s plan. But I feel like it is a connection that’s all bound up, and I wanted to sort of create a story that would show that and that would make people who perhaps have gone through something, who are going through something, who have lost people, who don’t know how to handle a death or a tragedy of losing a loved one, a parent, a child, miscarriage, love, a breakup. There is still a connection in their life. There is still faith that they are still part of something that is larger than they are and that they’re not isolated, that none of us really are if we can just keep ourselves open and choose to embrace it — choose to embrace that idea that we are all connected and bound together, and that’s where faith lies.
I noticed that on Just One Life’s website that it is a “faith-based love story.” How did faith come in? How can these connections you mention restore or tarnish your faith from watching the movie?
I think the Christian community can be kind of closed off because they’re like, “OK, we have our hub. We have the center of our wheel, and we know what that is. And we are faith-based.” And then, the spiritual people are sort of like, “We’re kind of open and freeform and we don’t quite have a delineation.” I think both groups, by having conversations with each other, can learn from each other. That really was just the goal of the movie, was to spark a conversation. What do you believe and where does that come from and what does that mean to you? Somebody who believes in Jesus Christ and that he died for your sins — what does that mean? And can you accept that? I believe that there wasn’t that person, but I can love you and we can still share this relationship and this bond with each other. Can we be part of a bigger community even if we’re not on the same hub? Can it be universal?
In the movie, the main character [Renee] has a talk with God. She goes to church in the end, and she says, “I felt you in the river.” Then, she has a conversation with the pastor who says, “Whether we live or die, we belong to the Lord.” It’s like her understanding, in her late husband’s view [Christianity], they’re still together. That is something that she can draw strength from, but that is something that she can then accept and use to continue on. So, I didn’t want it to be a film where they’re [viewers] like “Aha. She’s converted.” You don’t have to necessarily be a believer in Jesus to believe in the things that Jesus teaches. So, we’ll have to see what the audience thinks.
One night, me and my partner were on the Walking Bridge [the Big Four Bridge] really late, and we actually saw your team filming the jumping-off-the-bridge part of the film. Can you tell me about that scene?
That’s actually the climax of the movie. So, the main character who’s agnostic, Renee, after she has fallen in love with Sam, the Christian astronomer, and they get married, they have some turbulence beforehand. But they get married. Things seem great. She’s getting an audition for violin, which has been her goal. He gets an invitation to present his theory that the Star of Bethlehem was an actual planetary alignment that was predicted in the Bible. So, it seems like they’re both about to get what they want until he gets hit by a car and dies. And we did a stunt where we rolled a minivan from a truck hitting it. And after the funeral, she is in such utter despair after months of grieving. And [Renee] is so angry that God would take him. She goes out onto the bridge and tries to kill herself. So that’s her jump into the river. And it is when she lets herself drown that she then has like a series of flashbacks of moments of her husband, her mother, pastor. They say these things that have really hit home for her. And that’s when she realizes in the river at the moment, she can choose literally life or death. As she decides to choose life, to choose faith and to carry on.
The website for the film says it is filmed 99% in Louisville. Why did you decide to film in Louisville? Are you from here?
I am not. I’m originally from Detroit, then lived in New York, and then moved here to Cincinnati because my late husband grew up in Cincinnati and his family’s here. We filmed in Louisville because the story needed several components that were very important, and I didn’t want to compromise. It needed a beautiful bridge near a downtown area. So, that was one. It needed a planetarium because Sam was an astronomer. You had some hospital scenes, so we needed to have access to hospitals that would let us shoot there, and it needed a cemetery that would allow us to dig a grave for a critical scene. And I didn’t want to just do a cemetery scene where they’re just standing around with a grave that was already covered up, and I wanted to have an open grave with a casket being lowered. There were definitely images that I didn’t want to compromise, and we needed to find a location that would have all those elements. We actually scouted Cincinnati, Northern Kentucky, and then my boyfriend grew up in La Grange, and that’s where he raised his family. And he knows a lot about Louisville, and he was like, “Louisville has a bridge. Louisville has a planetarium.” We went down there and scouted, and I just fell in love. It was perfect. There’s a range of small towns and campuses, and the bridge was amazing. Emotionally, the Big Four Bridge being dark and large and looming, it was the perfect emotional setting for Renee’s point of despair; and then the skyline behind it, with the lit-up downtown area, it was just the perfect combination of elements in Louisville.
What were some other notable locations that, when we publish this, our readers will be like, ‘Oh my gosh, I know where that is?’
Aside from the planetarium and the Big Four Bridge, both Shelbyville and La Grange had the sweetest little downtown Main Street areas that you just can’t duplicate in a lot of places, and they were so easy to work with. So that was another plus. We wanted that Midwestern feel of being in a small town, but they’re on this campus. We wanted this to be a story that’s relatable to most Americans, not necessarily the people that live in the big urban areas, but the people that live in 80% of the country, which is in smaller suburban areas or places that have like these little Main Street areas.
The other thing it had was The Quarry in La Grange, and originally, we had tried to shoot the underwater drowning scenes in The Quarry. It didn’t work out because the way the temperatures worked, the water in The Quarry had too much algae. So, we ended up using the Natatorium at UofL, and that was another great reason to be in Louisville, because that diving pool had the width and the depth. So, what we did there is we blacked out an entire corner of the diving pool from top to bottom, across the floor, side to side, and we were able to shoot the continuation of the fall from the bridge. We had the actress, not a stunt person, but the actress, actually fall through the water in the pool, and we shot her struggle underwater there. That kind of a diving pool, you can’t find just anywhere.
That was another great reason to be at the University of Louisville. Everywhere we went to work with, people were so helpful. Anyone who we had told the synopsis of the story to, had opened up and told me about their tragedy. And many times, it was multiple tragedies, whether it’s a miscarriage of a child, taking care of an elderly parent who then died after long, languishing years, or taking care of a spouse who had debilitating disease or a sudden death of a young son or daughter. So many people have tragedies, and they just don’t really have ways of coping with it.
As Americans in our tradition, we don’t really have something that we can rely on consistently that says, “OK, this is the ritual that helps us process, that helps us deal with the mourning.” When my husband died, people would say, “Oh, time heals” or “This will pass,” and it’s absolutely not true. 12 years later, I will be driving down the street and I’ll pass a barber salon where he used to get his twelve-dollar haircut he was so proud of. And the emotion just overcomes me. It never goes away.
So, is this your first time directing a film?
Yeah, this is my directorial debut. I’ve produced lots of other movies. I’ve worked on crew for lots of other movies, but this is my first [time] directing.
Congratulations. What was your first experience like directing?
I really enjoyed it, and one of the nicest things that came out of it was that even though I’m 55 and I’ve been an entrepreneur for probably 30-35 years, I’ve held lots of leadership positions. Being a woman, you still have that impostor feeling — like, can I do this? I really know how to do this. I really felt validated that this is what I meant to do. It’s like I had the right instincts. It was a pleasure to do it. Once I got into it, it was like I could just see the fold unfolding, the nuances, the pauses, the brakes, the turns, how the movement should be, how the camera should be. So, it was a really empowering experience, and I would actually say I know a lot of females who are producers, and a part of me wonders if they actually want to be directors, but they take on the role of producer because it’s a very maternal role. It’s scheduling, it’s financing, it’s crewing up, it’s taking care of people and details. But women are so in tune with, like, the nuances of language, body, language, gestures. I just wonder if women would actually be better at directing, because we understand some of those things sort of intuitively.
I would love to see more women directing and just want to see the difference, but I love the experience [of directing]. I’m grateful that I came up through film doing every position except hair and makeup.
I think a big mistake some directors make is they just think directing is the most important thing and I don’t need to know anything else. Because I understood every department’s value and what they needed to get their job done, it added a whole layer of richness and detail and quality into the movie, and that’s just a respect thing. You hire people to do a really good job. You have to let them do it, and when they do it, I think the film is beautiful. The DP [director of photography] Brian Shanley, he shot “God’s Not Dead.” Lisa Lewis, she’s got an amazing resume. She did “Mission Impossible.” It is incredible. They just brought so much heart and soul into telling the story that you really see it.
Renee identifies as South Korean. Does that relate to your own background?
Well, I was born in South Korea, so I refer to myself as a Korean-American, actually. Most times I refer to myself as a “yellow American” because I’m trying to take that word back as a derogatory slang. But I came over when I was three. So, culturally, I have very little Korean references. My cultural references are Detroit, ‘70s-American, food-wise, and some of the holiday things my parents still imparted in me, et cetera. But they really wanted their kids to assimilate because they knew that was the path to success — education and assimilation to be accepted. I think it’s fantastic that there’s more of a focus on other voices, BIPOC voices, and stories being told, because all those filters are so rich. To be able to see the world through other lenses can only broaden our own experience. I’m really glad Hollywood studios and the media focus is all helping broaden that and bring those voices out into the light.
“Just One Life” will premiere in Louisville on Saturday, May 13.