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Scenes from the Director’s Chair

Korean woman directing a film

Minji Kang on the set of The Loyalist

Still shot from The Loyalist

Still shot from Imitation Girl

James Herron ’06

Celestial, a documentary of SSV Tabor Boy in the 2019 Marion-Bermuda Race

Behind the scenes on Celestial

Filming Outside Line (2023)

  • Alumni
Scenes from the Director’s Chair
Eliott Grover ’06

Minji Kang ’04

“I’ve always followed my curiosity,” says Minji Kang ’04. This inclination has guided her work as a filmmaker and influenced many major life decisions. It’s how she ended up at Tabor. Growing up in South Korea, Kang had older relatives who studied abroad. Whenever they came home, she listened eagerly as they shared stories about their schools overseas.

“They sparked my imagination,” Kang says. “I wondered how far those places might be and what kind of people they encountered. As a child, I was curious about the world outside [South Korea] and the possibilities that I could experience. I was really trying to find a place where I could not just study, but also pursue my interests. Music was the big thing.”

Tabor proved an ideal setting to accomplish these goals. A gifted violinist, Kang thrived as a member of the String Ensemble. She also enjoyed trying new sports like soccer and hockey, which taught her useful life lessons.

“Team sports are really great,” Kang says. “Sometimes we’d win and sometimes we’d lose. But we’d learn, losing is not the end of the world. The next day would come and we’d get ready for another round. In filmmaking, a project can fall apart all the time. It’s not the end of the world. That’s helped me a lot.”

Kang’s interest in filmmaking blossomed during college. After Tabor, she was going through a difficult time and started painting as a way of expressing her emotions. A mentor saw her work and encouraged her to apply to art school. While Kang enjoyed the creative freedom that painting allowed, she felt limited by the medium. “I felt like I was locking my imagination on a piece of paper or canvas,” she says. “It wasn’t moving.”

At Savannah College of Art and Design, Kang studied filmmaking. Her timing coincided with a significant evolutionary moment for the art form.

“Film was transitioning from traditional 35 millimeter film to digital,” she says. “I learned a lot of technical aspects of filmmaking, like a child learning grammar to speak through visual images.”

Halfway through college, Kang transferred to the School of the Art Institute of Chicago (SAIC) in order to work with Sharon Couzin, an accomplished artist and filmmaker. “I’ve been fortunate to have many great mentors,” Kang says. Her time in Chicago was formative. In addition to studying SAIC’s avant-garde approach to filmmaking, she independently wrote and directed her own feature-length experimental film. “My goal was to learn something by doing something real beyond the classroom,” she says. The experience taught her many important lessons about her craft and sparked an urge to study narrative filmmaking at the next level.

After graduating from SAIC, Kang enrolled in an MFA program at Columbia University’s School of the Arts. “I applied for the directing program, but that wasn’t the only reason I applied,” she says. “They have a very strong screenwriting program, so as a director I could explore writing because Columbia fostered director-writer filmmaking.”

Confident in the technical education she received as an undergrad, Kang devoted her five years at Columbia to mastering the art of storytelling. In writing, she discovered a medium that nurtured her curiosity and unlocked her creativity. “Writing is a process of questioning,” she says. “I try to write consistently and I try to find answers for my questions every time I write.”

Her thesis film reflects this approach. The Loyalist (2015), a taut political drama with an emotionally charged script, centers on a North Korean general and his teenage daughter who is attending a Swiss boarding school. Fearing that his daughter is becoming westernized, the father flies to Switzerland to test her loyalty. The daughter is a talented musician, a trait that appears in several of Kang’s films and reflects her own lived experience.

“I find myself in all the characters in my films,” says Kang, who still practices violin regularly. “It’s almost like music opens a door for me to be connected to all the personas living in my unconscious mind. Creating something or making films or writing, that’s a ritual. It’s practiced. And a lot of music involves rituals. I guess that’s why a lot of my characters are also musicians.”

The Loyalist was inspired by a speech Kang gave during her junior year at Tabor. She had spent Thanksgiving in Germany as part of an exchange program, and visiting the Berlin Wall stirred strong feelings. She was particularly moved by the graffiti that visualized the turmoil of a divided country, which heightened her hopes of unification for her own divided country. When she returned to Tabor, she shared these feelings in a talk with the community. Sitting down to work on her MFA thesis film nearly ten years later, these ideas still resonated.

The film dramatizes an ideological conflict, but it hinges on a family tragedy. Many of Kang’s films deal with heavy themes. Her willingness to tell dark stories set amid current events fits into her broader aesthetic philosophy.

“It’s important for us to talk about the things that are happening in the world,” she says. “Art has the power to transform the negative into something positive. I think it’s all about exercising this darkness that’s within our own minds and getting that dark energy out. Fear creates more fear. If we exercise our own personal fear, even if it’s a small thing, it will not grow and infect other people. I think art is great therapy. Everyone can be an artist.”

James Herron ’06

Even though James Herron ’06 grew up loving movies, it wasn’t until his freshman year at Tabor that he realized he could actually make them.

“I vividly remember the moment I decided to go to film school,” he says. “I was in the musical with this senior and he had just gotten into NYU’s film school and he was telling people about it. I looked at him and I was like, ‘You can study film? That’s a thing you can go to college for?’”

The upperclassman assured him it was. Herron thought that sounded pretty good, so he decided to pursue a similar path. During his junior and senior years, he studied independently with Photography Teacher Chris Cunningham ’69. The end game was to produce a short film that Herron could use to apply to film schools. 

“Junior year was a lot of theory,” he says. “Studying, reading, and watching movies. My senior year rolled around and that’s when we started to make the short.” When college acceptances were sent out that spring, Herron was admitted to NYU Tisch School of the Arts.

Film school equipped him with a technical education. He learned the ins and outs of camera operation, cinematography, lighting, and the various physical production aspects of the craft. After graduating, he worked as a lighting technician and electrician on several television shows, including Person of Interest and Boardwalk Empire. While the industry experience was exciting, the endless onslaught of 16-hour days started to wear Herron down.

“It was a real grind,” he says. “After a couple of years I was like, man, I can’t do this my whole life. I was 23 and my knees were falling apart already.”

In 2012, he co-founded Illium Pictures, a small production company, with a few of his NYU classmates. Digital video had just started to take off and they were able to carve out a niche creating branded content for media companies like Vox, Condé Nast, and Time Inc. “You know when you’re watching a YouTube video and they force you to watch a video before you can watch the video you want to watch?” Herron asks. “We used to make those.”

Looking to expand beyond branded content, Illium Pictures made its first feature film in 2015. Imitation Girl, which Herron produced, was written and directed by one of his partners. Shot on location in New Mexico, the film is an unsettling science-fiction drama that earned strong critical reviews and performed well in festivals.

“It cemented for us that we’re people who can make a movie,” Herron says. “Making a movie is really hard. When you’re making a micro-budget feature film, every day is a battle. You have a big vision of what you want your movie to be and basically a day on set is making as few compromises as possible but still finishing the shooting schedule.”

Being on set is Herron’s favorite part of what he does. He particularly loves directing. “I love having to be a decision maker,” he says. “It scratches an itch that I probably don’t feel in other places. I feel so powerless in the world in 2023, but if I can be on set and get to make some decisions and things go well, it feels good.”

Directing, which Herron refers to as “improvisational problem solving,” requires savvy instincts and quick thinking. Humility is also essential. “You have to be able to hear the other people on set who might know better than you and be able to recognize when you’re wrong,” Herron says. “Filmmaking is a deeply collaborative process. The director gets so much credit when things go right, but the reality is that it’s 100 people all working together to try and make that right decision as often as possible. I love being wrong on set because it means that somebody else had a great idea and made a great decision.”

Four years ago, Herron left his longtime home of Brooklyn and moved to Los Angeles. His ultimate goal is to write and direct his own feature films. With the recent writer’s strike and a fickle media landscape, show business is in an uncertain place.

“I’m not really confident about what the film industry is going to look like, so as it shakes out and figures itself out, I’m just kind of making cool videos for the internet,” Herron says. “It beats working.”

Despite his deflection, Herron works very hard. He’s currently busy directing and producing two shows, one for Outsports, a platform that increases the visibility of LGBTQ+ athletes, and another for PBS Terra. When he finishes these projects, he hopes to catch his breath by taking some time to make his own short film.

“I’ve got a little five-page short that I want to make,” he says. “We have a whole bunch of cameras and equipment, and we have a really deep roster of crew who I’ve got great relationships with and can cash in a lot of favors from being in production for so long.”

A lot of filmmakers use short films to showcase their abilities before getting the chance to make a feature. While Herron plans to use the film for that purpose, it’s not his primary motivation.

“I think I can make something cool that can just exist on its own and be a fun short without really thinking of it as that kind of calling-card tool,” he says. “I just want to make something.”

Jack Gordon ’17

In his short career as a documentary filmmaker, Jack Gordon ’17 has already chronicled a number of fascinating people and places. In The Ocean Knows No Borders (2019), he swam with humpback whales in Tonga while shadowing Aunofo Havea, the first licensed female captain in all of Polynesia. The Pins of Madeleine Albright (2021), a short film he produced and edited about the former Secretary of State, was nominated for a Capital Emmy Award. The same aptitude Gordon has shown for telling these global stories is present in his local films.

A Century of Tabor Rowing (2018), Gordon’s first film, is a heartfelt documentary. The four years Gordon spent on the crew team featured some of the most transformative moments of his life. As his time at Tabor wound down, his reflections were filled with gratitude for everything the rowing program had given him as well as an appreciation for its storied history.

These feelings motivated Gordon to make the film. He started working on it during his senior year. Its historical scope required laborious research, which Gordon conducted alongside school archivist Sophie Arnfield. He interviewed dozens of alumni, coaches, and supporters, weaving their testimonials into a lively and cohesive narrative. He finished the film during his freshman year at the University of California, Berkeley, where he was a coxswain on the crew team.

Like most filmmakers asked about their first film, Gordon is hard on himself. “Looking back, I’d love to have the opportunity to remake it,” he says. “It was a real learning experience. I made a lot of mistakes, things I cringe looking back at now, but were really formative in terms of learning how to make a proper documentary film.”

Gordon acknowledges that he is probably his harshest critic. For a debut film, A Century of Tabor Rowing showcases promising technical abilities and narrative instincts. Most importantly, it resonates with its target audience. After it debuted, Gordon heard from scores of alumni and coaches who reached out to say how much the film meant to them.

“This brought together a lot of memories for people,” Gordon says. “It gave them an opportunity to reconnect with some friends from Tabor, and just relive a part of their lives that they look really fondly on. In that, I think it was a big mission accomplished. I loved it then— the opportunity to do that for people—and I continue to love that in making any sort of film. But this one in particular hit home in a way that I was very fortunate to be able to do and not every film does.”

Celestial (2020) is another film that lands close to home. When Gordon learned that SSV Tabor Boy would be competing in the renowned Marion-Bermuda Race in a special celestial navigation class, he reached out to Captain Geil to see if he could tag along with his camera.

“It had been on my mind that I wanted to make a film about celestial navigation for a while,” he says. “I had taken Cap Geil’s course at Tabor and was really interested in the subject.”

With Cap’s blessing, Gordon was aboard the schooner when she departed the starting line in Buzzards Bay. The fact that he had overlapped with several of the student officers during his time at Tabor proved useful.

“It was a nice way to get the crew comfortable with being on camera and also get that personal connection that made the film better,” he says.

Filming at sea was a new experience. “You have to prepare yourself and your equipment for any conditions. Torrential downpours, anything,” Gordon says. “Also just being comfortable with the fact that this is a 24-hour operation and to capture it with one person is a challenge. You don’t know what’s going to happen. I’ve made a range of films in a range of styles and I still really love that style where you insert yourself in a space and let the camera roll and you see what you get.”

As he edited the film, he realized he had gotten something special. “The open ocean is so gorgeous,” Gordon says. “It feels like a cheat code when I look back at it. The incredible colors, the calmness we had out on the ocean, the stunning sequences in the film that are shot at dawn and dusk. There’s nothing I’ve ever shot that is as naturally beautiful as what I shot in Celestial.”

Although many of Gordon’s films have been related to the ocean, he says he’s open to exploring any subject.

“It’s hard to say exactly what type of projects I’m interested in. If I hear about a story, if the right opportunity comes for me to tell that story, I’m going to jump on it. I think character-driven stories are of particular interest. If there’s a really compelling person that speaks to bigger themes, that’s really interesting to me.”

His latest film embodies this ethos. Outside Line (2023) tells the story of Rajah Caruth, who achieved his dream of becoming a NASCAR driver by rising to the top of the virtual racing (i.e. video game) world. As a Black kid growing up in Washington, DC, Caruth had no connections and little representation in an industry that’s notoriously hard to crack. An inspired piece of storytelling, Outside Line is currently screening at film festivals across the country.

“I feel so lucky in what I do because I can be interested in something and then find a really cool story about it,” Gordon says. “To meet the people involved in that thing, to go to incredible places and do incredible things in the pursuit of telling stories, that’s what I love.”