Working under the combined moniker of Bruce/Lee, Cullan Bruce and Chris Lee today unleash their kinetic Korean comedy short Lost Dogs – a delightfully bizarre tale of a put upon daughter, her feckless brother, and the ruthless gangsters who want their pound of flesh, literally! I caught up with Cullan and Chris to discuss the allure of making films about good people doing bad things for good reasons.
What first brought the pair of you together as collaborative partners, aside for a desire to work under the fantastic name of Bruce/Lee of course?
Cullan Bruce: Chris and I worked together briefly and she always had a very mean sense of humor which I related to. She told me some awful stories of growing up Korean and they were so dreadful they made me laugh harder than any stand up bit. I wrote a short called Senior Flowers stitching together little stories and making up others.
Chris Lee: At the time, I was an aspiring actress and Cullan an aspiring illustrator. I was so surprised when he brought me the script for Senior Flowers… it was too good for someone not pursuing screenwriting. Then we shot it and it turned out even better, way better than a first time director should do. I think that sort of organically changed our paths and determined we work together.
Lost Dogs is a direct successor to what you did together in Senior Flowers, what were the core themes of that show that you wanted to further explore in this new short?
CB: I like transformative stories. A character in a weak position struggles to grow stronger. But I believe that transformation comes with trauma and darkness and I wanted to touch on that more in this short. Watching someone commit to doing terrible things for good reasons is really compelling and I want to cultivate that in my career as much as possible.
Watching someone commit to doing terrible things for good reasons is really compelling.
CL: There’s a theme we were playing around with in Senior Flowers, and it was the idea that a ‘good’ person could do something that goes against their moral code for good reasons but it would cost them… Hollywood likes to leave their heroes unbroken or altered for the better, but we thought it was interesting to see a character lose their innocence or grow hardened.
The combative Korean mother/daughter relationship remains but with the added complication of a much beloved wastrel son, what inspired you to add this inciting character to the story dynamic?
CB: In the original concept, we wanted to make it about Jeong-Eun (the main character) bringing her mother and father together. Her father was going to be this no-good gambling sort. Chris thought that was a pretty tired concept and instead suggested the story revolve around a wayward brother. It’s not uncommon for sons to be babied and pampered by single mothers, so the contrast between the mother’s treatment of both the brother and sister made for a much more interesting relationship and ripe for comedy.
Chris, in what ways did your deep perspective of the project as co-writer and producer inform your portrayal of Jeong-Eun?
CL: This project has spoiled me completely. Being part of the creative process from day 1 meant I got to share the director’s brain and understand his vision. I think actors rarely get to do that. We do our work and hope for adjustments. But with Lost Dogs, I had a hand in story, deciding costumes & props, finding locations… and when it came time to shoot I found I had such a deep understanding of how my character viewed the world, because I’d helped build it. This definitely came in handy on set, since I had to seamlessly switch back and forth from acting to producer duties.
How did Cinematographer Lucas D. Miller join the production and then work with you to develop the film’s aesthetic?
CB: Lucas approached us after seeing a show we made at Channel101 called POP-IT. He liked the concept but thought the camera work was lacking, which I admitted to since I shot it all myself with no real experience. I’m used to doing everything myself though, so having a DP didn’t seem necessary. We kept in touch and when it came time to make Lost Dogs, Chris and I were on such a tight deadline I thought it’d be good to have someone behind camera.
Lucas was always very prepared and very involved. We met the day before I started building sets to discuss lighting and shot compositions I had in mind, going through every location both in my house and on site. Still, we had to make up a lot of shots on the spot, because we didn’t have access to most locations or even know where we’d be shooting till the last minute. He really elevated the material and required me to get out of my head and express my ideas, which in turn made me rethink or confirm choices I made. It was invaluable to the project.
There’s a playful feel to the film’s tempo and structure which accentuates the siblings’ bizarre journey, could you tell us your process of building that in the edit?
CB: The edit is usually in my head even before the first draft is finished. I’m very interested in visuals so I often have most of the project built in my head, and the pacing is a result of that. More so than the script, typically. I’m really bad at getting coverage shots, I usually only get the shots I need or want and ignore getting the shots you’re supposed to get. It can be problematic because sometimes I’m shooting based on an edit I see in my head, since that’s such a nebulous concept things can be hard to interpret. Occasionally we’ll forget to get a shot and I’ll have to cut around that in post but that’s kind of the fun part.
People definitely seemed more affected by dog murder than say, people murder. What a time to be alive!
You’ve described Lost Dogs as “a Korean film made in America”, have audience reactions to the film varied between Korean and non-Korean audiences?
CL: People definitely seemed more affected by dog murder than say, people murder. What a time to be alive! I think native Koreans had some issues with the theme of Lost Dogs. It’s definitely not uplifting and can be considered disparaging to Koreans and Korea. To that, I just say that all stories are valid if they come from an honest place. It’s not only happy stories that deserve to be told. We had a terrific festival run though, with audiences very reactive to the jokes and emotional beats. We even won Best Drama and Outstanding Actor at the NBCUniversal Shorts Fest, to which Cullan proclaimed as he accepted, “I didn’t know we made a drama!”
What future projects does Bruce/Lee have in the works?
CB: Making another short, something in English this time. I like working with other languages, so I’d be interested in doing another Korean project, but I’d need more time to work on the language barrier.
CL: Making more things, trying to stay active while we try to meet investors. Lost Dogs was funded by myself and Cullan and while the budget was incredibly low, it still hit us. Self-funding isn’t sustainable, especially if we want to make a feature, which we really do.