Making the Past Present

Driveways director Andrew Ahn processes the death of his grandmother and actor Brian Dennehy by revisiting their performances in his films.

Just weeks before the release of our film Driveways, I received the news that my actor Brian Dennehy had passed away. I immediately called my producer Joe Pirro and broke the news to him. We then called our writers Hannah Bos and Paul Thureen. We were all in shock, emotional and overwhelmed.

Brian Dennehy during the filming of Driveways. (Photo by Richard Hutchings.)

After the phone call, I sat in bed trying to process the news, preparing myself to make more phone calls. As if by compulsion, I grabbed my laptop, pulled up a link to Driveways, and started watching the film. I skipped ahead to Brian’s last scene, where his character, Del, reveals his life’s regrets to his new friend Cody (played by Lucas Jaye), the nine-year-old boy who moves in next door. It felt strange to watch Brian in this scene now, knowing he was no longer alive. I had already seen Brian in that scene hundreds of times, working with my editor Katie McQuerrey in the editing room and watching it with audiences at film festival screenings, but this time it felt different.

It reminded me of a similar moment just a few months ago, when I was revisiting a short film I made in 2011, Dol (First Birthday). While I was watching, I realized that this would be the first time I had seen my grandmother since she died late last year. In the film, she plays a small part, a great grandmother trying to console her great grandson at his first birthday party. She smiles and laughs in the way I remember. The image of her and the sound of her voice startled me. She felt so close. I cried for her for the first time since her passing.

Film makes the past present. Events unfold in front of us, as if they were happening right now. It’s not just a still photograph; we experience these moments and the people captured in them. It’s not uncommon for us to watch a film and know that someone in the film has passed. As a filmmaker, I imagine this experience with my grandmother and with Brian will happen many times throughout my career. I will have the strange honor of having captured these lives on film to be screened in the future, to serve as tributes. We are told these Hollywood stars and screen icons live forever in their work. This is the power of cinema – it brings people back to life.

Almost. Film memorializes, but I realize now that it will never immortalize, especially for the people we know, our colleagues, friends, and family. As much as we might want to see them as who they were, these representations feel like ghosts in costume with hair and make-up, even playing a different character. In Driveways, Kathy (Hong Chau) cleans her estranged sister’s house, a house she’s inherited because of her sister’s death. Kathy sorts through April’s hoarder home, trying to piece together her sister’s life from clues left behind: a mouse pad, a collection of dolls, notes on a mirror. In the film, she tells Del, “It’s trippy. April was my sister, but I didn’t know her at all as an adult. And now I’m in her house, going through all her stuff, like, ‘Who is this?’”

A very young Andrew Ahn with his grandmother.

We see evidence of the people we knew after they die, but the things they leave behind will never add up to fully represent them. For Kathy, these objects are poor substitutes for her sister. She realizes she will never get to know her through her things. Films are just that – simulacra of the people in front of the camera, never able to fully capture the experience of interacting with them. I cried for my grandmother that day while watching my short film not because she felt alive again, but because the film failed to represent her being. When I watch Dol (First Birthday), she will never be able to tell me her castella cake recipe. I will never be able to introduce her to my boyfriend. We will never be able to say “I love you” to each other again.

And yet, we turn to these representations because it’s all we have. We watch home videos or films, hoping that they will yield something more. Perhaps if we just look again, look a little harder, we’ll find something we didn’t notice before, another element of their humanity we were too distracted to see.

Hong Chau, Lucas Jaye and Brian Dennehy in Driveways.

While watching Brian’s last scene that morning, just minutes after I heard the news, I did see something different, something I hadn’t noticed before. I had always thought of the scene as a looking back at one’s life, a scene about a man coming to terms with his past. But for the first time, it felt like he was focused more on the future, excited for what’s to come. Brian’s performance in Driveways brings the past to the present and then goes one step further. The way he smiles, the tone of his voice, the look in his eyes – I found hope.

Andrew Ahn is a Korean-American filmmaker born and raised in Los Angeles. His latest film, the drama Driveways, starring Hong Chau, Lucas Jaye and Brian Dennehy, is available on VOD from May 7. His feature debut Spa Night premiered at the 2016 Sundance Film Festival, was released theatrically by Strand Releasing and won Ahn the John Cassavetes Award at the Independent Spirit Awards in 2017. The TV show This Close, which Ahn directed, premiered at the 2018 Sundance Film Festival and aired on Sundance Now. (Photo by Mitch Dao.)