INTERVIEW BY WHITNEY MALLETT
Sebastian Choe’s The Prince of Love chronicles the mundane day-to-day of the punk kids he grew up with in Seattle. The real-life couple at the film’s heart Jeff and Erica spend their days drinking, smoking, playing music in basements, and hooking up in ice caves in Washington State. The couple fights about their future and Jeff butts heads with authority figures. The film begins with Jeff’s step dad kicking him out because of a house party he had. And over the course of the movie, we’re reminded of Jeff’s impending court date from a noise complaint he got due to that party.
Choe captures the beauty of the Pacific Northwest as well as a certain post-high school angst. Just like Jeff and Erica are not quite teens but not quite grownups, the film is not exactly fiction or documentary. The flatness of the melodramatic acting in certain scenes is unsettlingly juxtaposed with the unfakable intimacy of others. Choe posits the film is somewhere between surveillance and performance. Throughout, conventions and expectations are pandered to and then turned inside out. A few times, Jeff breaks the fourth wall. At one point, he’s walking along the train tracks in a leather jacket with a guitar case in hand, talking to Choe behind the camera, “I wish you had done this film with preppy high school kids, dressed them up, and have them walk down the train tracks. Made some edgy teen flick.” Choe answers without missing a beat, “That’s what I did.”
Choe and I caught up to talk about the film in New York, where he’s studying at Columbia. Considering the project’s preoccupation with liminality, no wonder we ended up talking about Britney Spears whose song “I’m Not a Girl, Not Yet a Woman” is maybe our generation’s best anthem for in-between angst.
So for this film you’re returning back to Seattle where you grew up, filming the kids you used to hang out with. Does spending time away give you a different perspective?
Maybe. In some context, this film The Prince of Love, is kind of a sequel to this film I did right out of high school called Skinship which also featured Jeff. It was kind of similar themes of looking at a very specific kind of lifestyle that was very precise for us—a mix between urban living and suburban living kind of. For that movie I was thinking of the image of getting stoned in a bedroom with a iPod Nano and listening to some boring indie rock and then going out for a show in Seattle sometime later that night.
Definitely going back to Seattle, I didn’t feel any different, I just wanted to capture this specific moment before it was gone. It’s kinda gone now because Jeff moved out of the house he grew up in and that was a very special space for these films. His folks just moved out to California and he’s in his own space in Seattle now. So that phase is gone.
It seems like it’s not just about this space between urban and suburban but also this moment of being not quite a teenager but not quite a adult either.
Especially in Seattle there’s this big contingency in their 20s and early 30s—people who just tour all year or work in coffee shops. It’s very hard to distinguish when the transition to adult happens because the lifestyle now is pretty much the same as when they were in high school doing shows, smoking cigarettes, and talking cool.
Then one day they’re 30.
Yeah, not to say it’s a dark thing it’s just very real. I felt like it was really important to include Jeff’s dad in the move. I think he was the only character in the movie to not play himself. His dad is the very first character who is kicking him out of the house. It’s Jeff’s real dad but in the movie he plays his step dad. We were into the cliche of the stepdad and the son rebelling. We kind of had everyone in the movie play a exaggerated version of themselves.
You just mentioned you were playing with cliches a lot. What was your thinking?
It was a fetishisation of punk and independent short films where people are just smoking cigarettes and going to shows—talking about gentrification and stuff which is pretty annoying but also real. I was being aware of that whilst also acknowledging that you’re playing into a truth.
I like the montage scenes. They were so cliche and melodramatic.
Something I’ve been really interesting in for a long time is when a film starts to feel cliche or extra-staged rather than like a documentary. The moment in a serious scene when the actor breaks out of character and accidentally looks at the camera is always a really big moment for me. Or bloopers in movies always felt more real to me more than the actual movie. I guess because it is. And especially because I’ve been working more in documentary lately. This is my first narrative in a while.
In documentary, there’s always this weird authenticity. You have to navigate with people and put them in weird spots when documentary companies that are expecting something. There’s always weird power dynamics whenever cameras are introduced. Especially when you don’t acknowledge who’s holding the camera or the conditions of filming. It’s supposed to be objective which is so weird to me.
Yeah it’s like when documentary crews really want or prize the shot of someone crying on camera.
It’s a strange line between what is exploitation and what is observation in that kind of scenario, which I feel like we kind of tried to address in how we made The Prince of Love. From the beginning I said to Jeff and Erica I wanted it to be a collaborative process and we would write it together. A lot of it was improvised.
How much of it is really what’s going on in their relationship?
Some of it was maybe irresponsible on my part of how real some of the sequences were. The whole scene with him having a court case over of a noise complaint that was real and they were together at the time of filming. Then there’s those scenes where they are fighting. I mean they aren’t actors. So when something so sincere like that fight happens there’s a uncomfortable blend between what’s acting and what’s not because to deliver something that’s authentic you’re going to tap into something that’s actually about you and your relationship.
I liked the use of montage, especially how you used very Emo music in these scenes.
The music is all slowed-down pop songs. The first one is “Together” by Avril Lavigne and the second one is “Brightest Morning Star” by Britney Spears off the new Britney Spears record, and then the last one is “Stolen” by Dashboard Confessionals when they’re at the beach.
I found that after the fact that I chose those songs, their lyrics started informing the plot. They become these intense and emotional. It’s kind of like that scene in Spring Breakers where they are dancing to the song “Everytime” by Britney Spears. I guess I was thinking about Harmoney Korine a bit when I was making this film. I was thinking about how to turn something mundane or commonplace into something beautiful. Like when fraternity parties become a high-art object, when that moment of recognition happens. I’m really interested in pinpointing that moment.
And Britney Spears captures a certain something. What do you think she represents especially when her song is circulating in a movie like Spring Breakers?
I could talk for a longtime about Britney Spears. I guess there’s a tapping into nostalgia or cultural context that people immediately relate to. I think it’s this repeating thing that I really love of the young women, unsure of what her fears are, subverting these things and playing into these cultural stereotypes. At the end of it just a really pure triumphantness that comes with her music that people still really relate to that makers her prescient sill really pervasive. I don’t know it’s a really deep thing to decode. I just made my profile photo on Facebook had a gif of Britney Spears morphing into a icon of Jesus Christ. It’s this really uncanny thing but it’s almost hard to articulate.
Why did you choose the camera you chose to use? It feels fitting because it’s very “punk.”
I’d been using DSLRs a lot and it’s really tedious to get the sound. I needed to use something that was all-in-one. I needed to be able to just whip it out. And it had nearly infinite battery life and a built-in light.
And it was really cool working with 800mm tape because there was already a lyricism when you translate the tape because it’s already on a real. So some cuts already feel so perfect. It feels more authentic because you didn’t have your hands all over the editing. It’s also really nice using a camera like that because you can pass it off to someone else. In some scenes, I passed it off to Erica or my other friend and you didn’t have to worry about the shutter speed. It just recordeds. It’s really democratizing.
So when you say you were filming 800mm tape, what kind of camera was it?
It was the same kind of camera my home videos were shot off – it was a Sony Handycam.
Do you like the punk culture has more of a history or legacy in Seattle than other places?
Whenever I read writing about my friends bands and stuff in Seattle there’s always this talk of the precedence of grunge and how punk never died there or something, but I think it’s completely changed, in a really positive and amazing way. It’s still very much alive but it’s more that punk is a platform or a space for people to operate in a humble way, asking big interesting questions through their art. I feel like it’s really alive right now. The punks in this movie aren’t the punks of yesteryear. People are still living in this bohemian world but it’s been tooled to fit their new lifestyles. They’re on social media. They’re making jokes about instagram. But there’s still a strong community in Seattle really rooted in music.
I wanted to ask about the end. [SPOILER ALERT: Jeff dies…and then comes back to life to break the fourth wall and wink at the camera.] What were you going for?
I was going along with the whole thing being playful and not taking yourself too seriously. I like these moments of breaking character, of asking, “did you get the shot?” There’s also the cliche of death. I wanted to remind people too that this isn’t found footage because so much of the shots up until the end are very long takes without very many cuts. There’s something really funny about reveals, where if you pull it off in a sincere way that’s not too annoying, it can be powerful.
Watching it again, I knew that this whole thing could come off so hip and ironic. I knew it could maybe come off that way it could come off in a way other than this really sincere thing of me trying to be as honest as possible about this lifestyle. But, I kind of just took the risk.
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