Wylie Writes’ One-On-One with Sook-Yin Lee

Photographer: Yuula BenivolskiPhotographer: Yuula Benivolski

Sook-Yin Lee is currently mystifying Toronto movie goers with her long-awaited return to feature-length filmmaking.  Octavio is Dead! gradually reels us in with a dream-like allure as we observe Tyler (Sarah Gadon) rediscover herself through the death of her absent father (Raoul Max Trujillo).  From there, Lee strings her audience on a winding narrative that consistently maintains a personal intimacy throughout its run.

As I decompressed from this unpredictable film, I was fortunate to chat with Sook-Yin Lee about her unforgettable film, as well as ask her about her creative process as an artist.

Addison Wylie: Octavio is Dead! marks your directorial return to feature-length films, however you’ve been busy directing short films.  What made you pursue a longer form of storytelling for your latest film?

Soon-Yin Lee: I’m always making things in various forms, in short and long formats: from 24-hour durational performances to quickie Instagram art.  Feature films take a long time to get right on the page and then to find funding, casting…finally putting all the pieces together.  I’m always developing feature film stories while making other things.  Octavio is Dead! was a story I wrote originally transplanting it from Barcelona, to Mexico City, and finally to the fictional city of Stelton City, Canada.

AW: From screenwriting to picture wrap, how long did it take you to make Octavio is Dead!?

SYL: I’d say it took seven years from writing the first draft to picture wrap, but ideas can stick with me and take years or even decades to bring to their finished form.  If they’re important enough, they’ll stay with me until the end.  The actual shooting time was super fast: a 17 day shoot.

AW: Are you the type of artist who is constantly spitballing ideas internally, and wanting to instantly run with them and make another film?  Or, do you have to let an idea breathe in order to figure out how it’s going to fit in an upcoming project?

SYL: I have stories that I’m excited to tell that develop step-by-step, often taking breaks for other projects.  Brian de Palma wisely advised me to keep many pots on the stove ’cause you never know which one cooks up next.  Feature films need to breathe and grow through transformations.

AW: Tyler, the character Sarah Gadon portrays, is very unique.  Your script also takes her on a very twisty path in order for her to find herself.  What about Tyler appeals to you in particular?

SYL: I’m attracted to stories of love and identity confusion.  There are no easy answers for Tyler as she pursues love and self-actualization, but she takes bold steps, and deals with the impositions and boundaries of family, society, and sexuality, to eventually find a difficult peace with herself.

AW: Do you consider yourself a spiritual person?  My apologies if that’s imposing, but the frequent sequences starring unseen presences piqued my curiosity.

SYL: I was raised Catholic in a Chinese-Canadian family, so ghosts were always present.  They were just there, not something beyond, but always with us.  I’m definitely spiritual in my own way, even if I don’t practice any religion.  Last night I was praying.

AW: What I really appreciated about Octavio is Dead! is that whenever the story stepped outside Tyler’s perception of reality, you kept your film grounded.  What advice could you give an aspiring filmmaker who wanted to pull off a similar tonal maneuver?

SYL: The actors I worked with fearlessly threw themselves into vulnerable situations and big feelings.  The unreality of the film is grounded because it’s still Tyler’s specific journey.  The “unreal” is real, the real is “unreal”.  I’m guided by an authentic response drawn from a lived experience.  I think this helps greatly to root the movie in a relatable, unique experience.

Read my review of Octavio is Dead! here!


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