The Kloster Brothers on Christine Choy, Dirt-Cheap Cigarettes, and a Journey to Canada

Two years ago, while studying at NYU’s Tisch School of the Arts, Lewie Kloster enrolled in a documentary film class that would very soon launch his — and his younger brother, Noah’s — career. Legal Smuggling with Christine Choy is a vibrant, eccentric, brilliant little film, and his former film professor is its very willing protagonist.

The short premiered at the New York Film Festival this year, and has since screened at Sundance, Sheffield Doc Fest, Sydney Film Fest, and more. It’s being turned into a series, and the Kloster brothers are now: working on another animated series with First Look Media, collaborating with filmmaker Sam Pollard on a piece about Obama’s school days in Hawaii, and launching yet another series for Channel 4, in the UK. It’s changed their game. Note, Noah’s still in college, and Lewie just graduated. It’s an exciting time to be a filmmaker, especially when you and your brother are as talented and collaborative as these two are.

We chatted with Lewie about how all of this came to be.

SDR: Tell us more about Christine, and about that big aha moment when you decided to make a film together.

LK: Christine Choy is magic. She’s really seen it all. One the first day of her documentary filmmaking course at NYU, we had to go around the room, saying where we were from. “I’m from LA,” a student said. And she’d respond, “Oh yes, I filmed the ’92 Korean-American LA Riots.” “Beijing,” some else said. “I was at Tiananmen Square.” By my turn, with my “Minneapolis,” all she had to say about Minnesota was “fucking freezing.”

She’d begin each class with a new story. I mean, if she talked for hours and hours just about her past week, it would be gold. By the end of the semester, it was clear that she’d become fond of my work, and one day, after she apologized to the class for being late because she was “smuggling cigarettes from Toronto and making a video about it,” I begged her to edit the footage, and she agreed. It was all shaky and out of focus, though. The irony is that she’s an award-winning cinematographer; I suppose this was her first time using a DSLR. The first clip on the memory card she gave me revealed her frantically jamming the zoom wheel, thinking it was the focus ring. That’s when the idea came to me: let’s just animate it all.

SDR: How’d you hone the style of the animation? It’s quite unique.

LK: Well, this was our first-ever animation, and the style really came from experimenting a lot. On a budget of $0, we just used what we had laying around in our studio: cotton balls, q-tips, and cardboard, among other things.

My brother and I landed on a particular drawing style and color palette for each character. So, while Christine is a colorful, lively person — practically a cartoon character — in reality, we wanted to portray her in stark black and white pencil to juxtapose her character with the sometimes-silly rules and rule makers in this real world. Also, we also tried to imitate the look of ancient Chinese artwork and dipped paper in tea many times. We got quite impatient with this process, though, and by the end of production, were dipping our drawings in a tub of coffee instead.

SDR: Did Christine maintain any creative control, or just let you run with it?

LK: We recorded audio a few times together, and then her involvement was over. She graciously handed it over to Noah and me and said, “Take the summer. Can’t wait to see what you make.” After animating it, we looped in my good friend and very talented sound designer, David Britton. Christine’s wisdom and guidance in the beginning, and her showing confidence and trust in us for the rest of it, was all quite an unforgettable experience.

SDR: Working together, as brothers, must be an interesting dynamic.

LK: Indeed. We’re best friends, too, and we respect each others’ aesthetics a lot. We’re also, thankfully, 100% transparent with one another. Of course, this means that we piss each other off a bit, too, but hey — we move on. Sometimes we do have to get a third party involved: we call up our mom.

Noah (left) and Lewie Kloster

SDR: You’re both at the starting point of your careers. This film was the jumping-off point, no?

LK: Yes, it’s spawned everything that’s now happening in our professional life, but we had no intention of things turning out this way. The original plan was to release the film as soon as possible online, to ruffle the feathers of the NYU administration who, I’d say, don’t seem the most fond of Christine. We submitted to the New York Film Festival as a joke, knowing it’s a pretty difficult film festival to get into here in the States. When we got in, we thought to hell with it, and submitted to Sundance, and many others.

SDR: In looking back on this first leg of your professional journey, what’ve you discovered thus far?

LK: It’s been so fulfilling to realize that people like to watch what you like to make. We don’t take ourselves too seriously, but we’ve decided to take on the responsibility, through our work, of making people laugh and smile. And let’s face it: now, perhaps more than ever, the world needs more optimists. We just hope to do what films have always done: transport people to a happy, dazzling place.

SDR: And when can folks see the full film online?

LK: Whenever film festivals stop giving us fee waivers to enter their competitions. Maybe this October..? Stay tuned.

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