Three years ago, because he knew his chances of becoming an actor in London equaled to the same chance as an ajumma giving up her seat for anyone on the metro, indie producer and actor Paul Stafford packed his bags and moved to the ROK.
Since then, he has created his own production company, was admitted into Equity (the UK’s actors union), and will be featuring two films this winter at the KOFIC Theatre.
Over two rounds of beer and a permitted bottle of soju at Craftworks Taphouse, Stafford and I chatted about the trials and tribulations of a creative mind living in Korea who refused to get sucked into the ESL world. (Except for that one week in Jeju Island singing songs and playing the acoustic guitar.)
We chatted about how he landed free accommodation in hostels, being tricked into a Craigslist hoax, and “spending other people’s money” when he didn’t have any of his own.
Chincha: When did you realize you wanted to do film?
Stafford: I watched Fievel Goes West, produced by Steven Spielberg. It’s about a little mouse, a bunch of Jewish mice actually. It was the first time I had ever been to the cinema; my father took me. All of a sudden all the names pass during the credits. I was only five or six and I realized oh my gosh, someone makes those mice have a life. I have to do this.
Chincha: So you were quite involved since you were a young boy?
Stafford: In my whole youth I was living in a very small town, so I really kind of just had a passing interest in acting. The closest I got to film in my hometown was this tiny cinema. It was a one screen theatre, and I learned how to be the projectionist. I was the guy in the backroom making the film run, looking out in a tiny little window. I just did that until I went into university
Chincha: What was your first big gig?
Stafford: I auditioned for Animal Farm with my friend while I was in uni. It was more for him, to give moral support. It was in a big, group audition. It was quite unusual, a very physical theatre piece. I just didn’t care going in because I wasn’t looking to get a role, so there was no nervousness. I just wanted to have fun with it, and I got it. My friend didn’t land a role, so it was one of those awkward moments. But that didn’t stop me from being excited for my first big role.
Chincha: Why did you choose Korea, one of the most popular countries to teach English knowing that you didn’t want to be a part of the ESL world?
Stafford: I’m not afraid to take a gamble if I know it’ll pay off. London wasn’t going to work for me. I looked at countries that had a preeminent and merging film industry. Korea was one of them.
Chincha: How did you make a living?
Stafford: I spent other people’s money that wasn’t mine. In other words, I opened up a credit card. [Laughs] That’s what I did. And it was hard, you know, to just live off of that. But I figured I’d be cheating myself if I didn’t. Like I said, money is not a big issue to me right now because I feel like if you do what you want to do you’ll be rewarded with money in the end. If you want to take the quick money fix, well that’s fine too. But hey, you may just risk doing that job for the rest of your life.
I wasn’t doing what I wanted to do in London. And I thought, you know what, I have a choice right now. I have to make it. Do I want to waste my time or do I want to focus? Now, when I get paid, I feel like I’m cheating the system somehow. It feels great.
Chincha: Ok so you decided on Korea and you didn’t know anyone when you arrived. How did you know how to get started exactly?
Stafford: [Laughs] I didn’t!
Chincha: So what did you do?
Stafford: I didn’t know where to look. I was really heavily in debt. I spent all my savings. Everything was gone, so I needed a free place. I eventually got a job offer at a hostel. If I worked a couple hours everyday there, they offered me free accommodation. Then I looked on Craigslist and at that time there was no foreign film community, so it was tough.
But I finally got an e-mail saying “Ok you got the job, we just need to meet you, please come to Hongdae.” It was too good to be true. I’ve always known if it’s too good to be true, it probably is, but I turned up anyway because I had nothing better to do. Fifty people showed up and we all had the same idea, and we all realized it was a hoax. Whoever did it never even turned up.
Some people were angry, I was just amused by it all. While I was there I met this one guy who did a gig and I begged him for the contact. He said he didn’t want to give it to me because the quality and pay was really low. I said “you know what man? I don’t care about money. I’m not here to make money. Any experience is good experience.” So eventually he gave me the number and that led me to my first job in Korea. From there I slowly built up contacts and my network, and eventually paid off all my debts.
Chincha: What do you think your personal philosophy behind your work and film is?
Stafford: Right now it’s just really exploring the human character. I’m fascinated with what drives us and the choices that we make. I think there’s a lot of misunderstanding in the world and I think it just comes from not understanding people’s motivations. I want to just bring out the truth.
Chincha: When you started Erebus Films where did you find people to build a crew?
Stafford: Well there’s a guy named William Sonbuchner, everyone calls him Sonny Side. He’s a filmmaker here in Korea. He quit his job and now he’s working full time as a director. He made that leap. He set up the Seoul Filmmakers Workshop and a lot of us tried to get people involved. There are people here who want to make films and be involved, and everybody helps everybody out. So when I’m making a film, with Erebus for example, I’ll find actors and actresses who are a part of the theatre network . People I’ve seen and liked their work. There’s an entire inter-collaborative atmosphere in the Korean indie film industry.
Chincha: So you’ll be flying off to London soon, what do you hope to accomplish when you return?
Stafford: I want to create a place where filmmakers and actors can come and be a part of a community that’s established, just like what I found in Korea. I want them to make their stuff, show it, and have it be critiqued by a group of other people who can potentially be people they can share ideas and build projects together. I’m an advocate for free education in film. There’s so many people out there charging 400 dollars to teach people how to press record on a camera. I think that’s a heinous crime to do that to people who want to be creative. It’s robbing them of their desire. You might as well just put out their flame.
Chincha: What do you think your biggest achievement is as a rising actor/producer?
Stafford: Getting A Cold Soul made. We made A Cold Soul for less than a thousand dollars. There’s more than five thousand dollars on the screen. It was flawless; we didn’t have a single problem all the way through. Even though it was tricky, including a chase scene through a market place at night, it couldn’t have gone smoother. Now I can take that and go back to London and be ahead of most people that I felt like I was struggling to climb over.
Chincha: I’m sorry, but I really have to ask. What are your three favorite movies of all time?
Stafford: Ahh, that’s a good question because they rotate all the time! Ok, three?
- My first one has to be Apocalypse Now Redux. It just blew my mind. It was one of the best things I’ve ever seen. It was one of the first films I watched when I was suddenly conscience that I had to make films for the rest of my life. My production company, Erebus Films, is named after the boat they travel up the river on.
- My second choice….Inception. Blockbuster movies deserve more merit. Inception was a beautiful and well designed film. I liked Leo a lot in that film and Tom Hardy was a revelation for me.
- And for my third film…can I pick two? It’s a tie. These are two films that inspired me to keep working and keep creating. The Tree of Life for a lot of different reasons, I know so many people would disagree with me on that. [Laughs] And Take Shelter. Take Shelter is a film of our time, it couldn’t have been made in any other time. I really love art as an explanation of the times we live in. And if they could explain it in a timeless way, then even better. The best art is the art that has longevity, art that we can appreciate today and in twenty, thirty, forty years from now because it gives us insight of the mind of people of that live in that particular time. I believe Take Shelter is one of those films.
Chincha: What would be your advice for our Chincha readers who have a dream that’s on hold, especially in the creative field?
Stafford: If you know what you want to do, start doing it more. Consider quitting your job, but only when you know you’re ready and willing to take a chance. It’s a gamble you have to make. If you want to move forward in a big way you have to take a big risk.
Paul Stafford is starring in two short films, The Inside and A Cold Soul. The Inside is directed by Raoul Dyssell and written and produced by Raoul Dyssell & Paul Stafford. A Cold Soul is directed by Edward Burgos, produced by and starring Paul Stafford. Both will show at the KOFIC theatre in Seoul – we’ll keep you updated on when.