The Verge: Director Shawn Ku Breaks Through With Beautiful Boy

shawn_ku_bbstill630.jpgAs unlikely showbiz career tracks go, Shawn Ku has one of the funkiest: Harvard-educated scientist. Passes up Columbis Medical School to hoof it on Broadway. Dabbles in acting for the camera. Moves behind the camera. Directs a teen musical for MTV. Wins big at Toronto for his theatrical feature debut Beautiful Boy, a heavy drama starring Maria Bello and Michael Sheen and opening this week. What could possibly be next?

That's the question Movieline leveled at Ku, who is asking himself the same thing as Boy -- about a disarrayed married couple that plunges further into despair when their son goes on a murder-suicide spree at his college -- makes its way to theaters Friday in limited release.

I meet a lot of people with a lot of different backgrounds in the business, but I am virtually positive you're the only Harvard-educated chemist turned actor-choreographer turned writer-director in Hollywood. What do you think?

I don't know! Maybe so, maybe so.

What inspired you to get into entertainment?

That's a good question. I'd probably have to say it's my mom's fault, even though I broke her heart when I decided to dance on Broadway. But she raised me on Gene Kelly movies. We watched all those sort of old Hollywood musicals -- especially around the holidays. I was kind of a latchkey kid, so when I was done with kindergarten, I'd go up to the high school and hang around while my sister did play rehearsal -- musicals and choir and all that stuff. I was sort of the mascot for her group of theater people. I just grew up around it, oddly enough, even though my parents are hardcore into science. So it's all my mom's fault. [Laughs]

That's a big leap, though -- from an Ivy League lab to Broadway?

Yeah. I was supposed to go to Columbia Medical School, and in the back of my mind I knew I just didn't want to. I kept deferring for next year, then next year, and I started dancing. Eventually Columbia realized that I was never coming and said, "It's now or never. Stop dicking us around." And I broke the bad news to my parents, and they had heart attacks about it. And so after maybe six or seven years dancing professionally, I sort of realized I wanted more. Chorus boys are so disposable; they're really thought of as replaceable, breathing furniture. That's a little soul-crushing after a while, and that's when I realized I didn't love it anymore. I decided to go to film school.

You received some accolades 10 years ago for your role in Samsara. As far as I can tell, though, it's your only screen acting credit. What happened there?

It is. I was supposed to shoot it, I believe, in 2000, and there was some military unrest in the area and the movie got scrapped as far as I knew. By then I'd started film school and wasn't thinking of being a performer at all. Then they called me up and said, "We're thinking about going again this season. What do you think?" I said, "Sure, why not?" I think it helped me in film school just to ever-so-briefly come behind the camera and then go back in front of it -- just to understand what a director wants and needs. It was a great experience. I got to spend four, maybe five months in the Himalayas and India. It's a place I never would have gone to on my own -- living with the monks, pooping in a hole in the ground. It was incredible.

Before we get into Beautiful Boy, you directed a short romantic comedy and a youth-targeted TV musical (The American Mall) before this -- radically different stuff, tonally. Did you consciously want to break away into more serious territory, or was this just a story that happened to come up?

I think I did want to consciously break away. After having done Pretty Dead Girl and dancing in Hollywood, tweener-musical sort of fluff, those were the only scripts I was getting. It was a little mind-numbing after a while. They're fun, and I love those kinds of movies, but after a while, I wanted to aspire to something a little more important. That is sort of the impetus to deciding to do a film like this.

You actually mentioned an American Mall sequel was in the works at one point. Is that happening? Are you involved?

We were working on it at the time, but now a lead (Nina Dobrev) is a huge star on Vampire Diaries, and it just kind of fizzled out. The High School Musical producers are producing less and less. They have all their High School Musical money to retire on to a certain extent. They were also talking about doing an international version -- like in China or something. But I've moved on from that. Everyone sort of has now.

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