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SXSW '05 Interview: 'Seoul Train' Co-Directors Jim Butterworth & Lisa Sleeth

by Scott Weinberg

The 'Seoul Train' Pitch: With its riveting footage of a secretive “underground railroad,” SEOUL TRAIN is the gripping documen­tary exposé into the life and death of North Koreans as they try to escape their homeland and China.

"North Korean refugees try to escape."

Will this be your first time at SXSW? Any other film festival experience?
Yes, first time at SXSW! Since premiering in November at AFI FEST, we’ve traveled with SEOUL TRAIN to the Bahamas, Santa Fe, Palm Springs, Boulder, Durango, Big Sky, Milan, Geneva and Amsterdam.

When you were 14 years old, if someone asked you what you wanted to be when you grew up, what would your answer have been?
Jim: an astronaut.
Lisa: a ballerina.

How did you get started in filmmaking?
In July 2003, when we (Lisa Sleeth & I) heard about the crisis, we just wanted to help make a difference. We knew that films are powerful tools to create awareness, so we set about making a documentary on the subject.

How have things changed for you since your film was accepted into the festival?
Well, SXSW really legitimizes the film’s potential to reach a widespread audience, and especially an audience that’s predisposed to activism. We try to reach two audiences with the film: policymakers worldwide and their constituents. SXSW is a great step toward the latter!

When you were shooting the film, did you have SXSW (or film festivals in general) in mind?
No way...we had NO idea the film would be in even one festival, much less a festival like SXSW! We were so naïve about the whole filmmaking process!!

How did you get your film started? How did you go from script to finished product?
We found out about the crisis in July 2003 and decided then to make the film. In August, we bought 3 books from on how to make a documentary. In September, we bought some camera equipment, practiced for 10 days then hopped a plane for Korea!

What’s the one glaring lesson you learned while making this film?
It was 10 times more expensive; 50 times more difficult; but far more effective than we ever dreamed.

When you were in pre-production, did you find yourself watching other great movies in preparation?
Absolutely. We loved Chernobyl Heart and Children Underground, and we also watched Frontline and 60 Minutes to study lighting and framing for our talking head interviews.

If a studio said ‘we love this, we love you, you can remake anything in our back catalogue for $40m’ – what film, if any, would you want to remake?
Wouldn’t do it. We love the guerilla feel and naïveté that come through in Seoul Train, and $40mm would ruin it.

The festival circuit: what could be improved? What's been your favorite part of the ride?
The “festival” part works just fine, but they really need to facilitate better the business end; i.e., pairing and networking between filmmakers and distributors. Our favorite part has been meeting other filmmakers with whom we share a common vision and passion.

Have you ‘made it’ yet? If not, at what point will you be able to say ‘yes’?
When the North Korean refugee crisis has been addressed one way or another by the international community.

A film is made by many people, including the director (of course), but you'll often see movies that open with a credit that says “a film by…” – Did you use that credit in your film? If so, defend yourself! If not, what do you think of those who do?
No. Some films are the complete embodiments of one (or more) person(s) that can be identified with this credit, but not ours. It would’ve put too much focus on us and not the film or subject matter.


Seoul Train, directed by Jim Butterworth, Aaron Lubarsky & Lisa Sleeth, will premiere at the 2005 South By Southwest Film Festival. Click here for more information, and be sure to check out the official Seoul Train website!.

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originally posted: 02/21/05 19:18:54
last updated: 02/21/05 19:20:30
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