Jesse Ung

Jesse Ung was a student at James Cook High School from 2011 and graduated in 2015. He grew up in Manurewa not far from the school and he is now attending Auckland University of Technology. He is now filming Grind: A Short Film on the James Cook High School campus which discusses themes of anxiety, male body image, and toxic masculinity and at the time of this interview, Grind has not been released yet. He is planning to submit the film to as many film festivals as possible, so watch for its release coming up in the future and like Grind‘s facebook page!

Q: How does James Cook High School inspire your theme on male body image?

A: When I was at school, there were guys of all different shapes and sizes, and when you’re a teenager, whether we like it or not, we get quite obsessed with the way we look. I wanted to try and pick that apart.

Q: Where in the school do you like to film to tell your story? Why is that?

A: We filmed in the Pavilion’s changing rooms to double as our gym changing room.

Q: How did you discover actors for your film?

A: Our lead actors all applied through Star Now. We auditioned a lot of guys, up to 30, until we chose our three leads.

Q: How do you keep your relationships with them strong?

A: Communication. It sounds cliché but I made sure to communicate with them as much as possible from the get-go. It’s very much a give and take kind of relationship – they give their best on camera and I give them whatever they need to support them and bring out their best. I am very fortunate in that our leads got on really well and I’m very close with them – even after the end of the shoot.

Q: What films have been inspiring or influential for you and why?

A: I took inspiration from a number of different films: Beach Rats directed by Eliza Hittman is I think a very powerful film about toxic masculinity among young men and their peers and Taekwondo directed by Marco Berger which is a very interesting film about attraction and sexuality.

Q: Tell me more about the story of your film. How did you come up with the idea for the plot?

A: I’d been sitting on the idea of making a film about anxiety and toxic masculinity for a while and in trying to find a story to tell in a short film, I came up with the idea of using a gym as the setting for the film. From there the story grew and the characters were born. Our protagonist, Kaleb, is an amalgamation of my own insecurities and anxieties, so this is also a very personal story.

Q: What was the most important lesson you had to learn that had a positive effect on your film?

A: Planning is essential, even if you know things are going to change. When we got onto set I realised that certain scenes would have to be re-evaluated and that what I had originally planned would have to be adapted to make it work better. Have a plan but be ready and open to change.

Q: Was it hard to get started on the film, or is it harder to continue filming?

A: The pre-production process was long and difficult – securing locations, casting actors, developing the script and scheduling the shoot. There is a lot of planning involved to ensure that the shoot runs well. That’s not to say our shoot wasn’t hard – on our second day we shot our most intense scene (both physically and emotionally) and it was definitely hard to watch, and hard to watch over and over again to film and cover from different angles. It’s an intense scene and our actors were terrific, but I would be lying if I said I wasn’t emotionally drained by the end of the day.

Q: What advice would you give James Cook High School students who are interested in film-making?

A: Find your voice. There are so many filmmakers out there, and some are hard to distinguish from each other because they don’t have a distinct voice in their filmmaking. Figure out what it is you want to say as a storyteller first and foremost.

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