His production designer passed out matching red umbrellas, keeping morale high even as the clouds thickened. Kogonada’s gaze rested on a row of honey locust trees, their branches sagging in the downpour. It was less than six months until the Sundance Film Festival, the preeminent showcase for indie filmmakers. Columbus hadn’t yet wrapped shooting, much less begun editing. Maybe we won’t make it, he thought.
The architecture in Columbus (the town) has a reputation comparable to Chicago’s. A place that got its first Walmart not so long ago boasts work by St. Louis Arch mastermind Saarinen, Louvre Pyramid visionary I.M. Pei, and Pei protégé James Polshek. More than 70 churches, libraries, and public art installations by the mid-century’s most brilliant minds crowd the town, many of them closer to each other than a stroll from Monument Circle to Mass Ave. Columbus Area Visitors Center marketing director Erin Hawkins says it’s like growing up with the Statue of Liberty in your backyard—more than 70 Statues of Liberty, to be exact. “It’s really hard to have perspective on the things you see every day,” she says.
Columbus refreshes that perspective. Kogonada heard about the town on NPR in 2012, and it piqued his interest. After visiting, he was hooked. “I think by midday I said to my wife, ‘I definitely want to make the film here,’” he says.
The director saw a connection between his film’s promise-filled protagonists and the town’s buildings. “Modernism means moving forward and not clinging to the traditions of the past,” he says. “It’s exploring something fundamental to being human: What is the relationship between absence and presence; between absent parents and their children? That’s the question I’m exploring through the lens of cinema.”
Needless to say, Columbus isn’t your typical Sundance romance. Casey (Hayley Lu Richardson), a Columbus-born architecture aficionado, and Jin (John Cho), the estranged son of a famous architecture critic, meet when Jin’s father has a heart attack while visiting the town. Their discussions about architecture and visits to Columbus’s landmarks help them make sense of their complicated relationships with their absent and addiction-riddled parents.
Like the town’s eye-catching banks and fire stations, Columbus is an anomaly. Crews almost never finish movies in just 18 days of filming, and rookie directors rarely land stars such as Cho and Posey. What’s more, in an unusual move for a low-budget project, Kogonada enlisted Japanese illustrator Mihoko Takata to draw intricate black-and-white concept sketches for six of the film’s scenes—which she created without ever visiting Columbus.
If the Sundance reviews are any indication, the film will be a must-see when it premieres September 1 in Columbus and Indianapolis. The New Yorker praised Kogonada’s innovation and said, “Few performances—and few films—glow brightly with the gemlike fire of precocious genius.”
And that downpour at the Miller House? It’s now one of Kogonada’s favorite scenes. “I love that it rained,” he says. “It’s better than I could have imagined.”
Thanks to Takata’s illustrations, you don’t have to. In addition to a few film stills, here are some of Columbus’s landmarks in black and white, along with the stories behind the scenes shot there.