Letter from a New York Filmmaker

Steven Hahn trades law for award-winning movies.

By Steven Hahn (Foreign Affairs ’95, Law ’00)
This is an image of Steven Hahn

Steven Hahn, far right, during filming of “Pretty to Think So”
Photo by Douglas McCafferty

“I hope to go in-house because of the better lifestyle,” is the common refrain of law firm associates in New York City. But I heard a different tune calling. As a mergers-and-acquisitions attorney working long hours at Cravath Swaine & Moore, I was dreaming of more creative pursuits. In the fall of 2003, I left the firm to start my own corporate practice, both to gain control over my career and to pursue my creative passions. Not long after, I met Francis Hsueh, a young lawyer from another law firm who had gone solo to start his own practice. While working on our first litigation case together, I soon learned that I had found my future creative partner, for Francis and I enjoyed talking about movies more than the law. It was clear we had to make a film together.

Our transition from “firm to film” officially started in September 2004, when we began shooting footage for what would become our first feature film. Party, a documentary chronicling the underground Asian-American party scene in New York City, was completed one year later. Eventually picked up for distribution by Pathfinder Pictures, Party was our “film school 101.” With a do-it-yourself attitude inspired by Robert Rodriguez, we wrote, directed, shot, edited and even scored that film, teaching ourselves from movies and directors whom we both admired, as well as books like How to Edit on Avid and Directing the Documentary.

During the subsequent college tour, including a screening at U.Va. hosted by the Asian Student Union, we began developing the story of Pretty to Think So. Set in October 2000, Pretty is a feature-length drama involving three Manhattan singles who are caught in a love triangle. Hanna, an unemployed financial analyst, falls for Jiwon, a corporate lawyer, and then discovers that his new client, a squeaky-clean youth minister with a secret gambling addiction, is her long-lost friend, Alex. With the dot-com bust and Gore-Bush elections as the backdrop, themes of fate, change and the sins of the past bring the stormy triangle to a violent head, heightened by a sense of foreboding unique to that pre-9/11 limbo period.

Financing the picture was the first major hurdle. With a few thousand dollars of seed money from two of my friends, we made a seven-minute preview on 16mm film that we used to pitch the project. Our effort to finance the film got the attention of an executive at Google who ended up financing the entire picture. By fall 2006, we had auditioned talent for the entire cast. By February 2007, the script was locked, a 20-person crew was enlisted and our final cast was in place. Ultimately, principal photography was completed in 22 days during March and April, and we arrived at a final cut in September 2007. For the two of us, it was an unforgettable experience. What had started as a dream was beginning to be realized. We had successfully completed our first narrative feature, and we were already dreaming about the next project.

The next project in development is Leo of St. George and the Air Galactic, an adventure story set in the American Southwest about an unemployed man who becomes obsessed with space tourism flights that have begun launching from the nearby desert spaceport. When a work accident thrusts his wife into a coma, desperation propels Leo on a quest for two Air Galactic tickets ($200,000 each) with the hope it will revive his wife and their long-lost dreams. We plan to release a graphic novel and full-length audio drama in conjunction with the film, whose engaging plot and sci-fi appeal are sure to resonate with audiences young and old.

Of course, aspiring to a career in film has been a struggle. The pressure of succeeding despite the odds and the naysayers can be overwhelming at times. But somehow I believe that it can happen. Look out for our next film at a theater near you.

PARTY (Pathfinder Pictures)
Official Selection 2007 Rotterdam Asiascope Overseas Asian Film Festival

Official Selection:
2008 San Francisco International Asian American Film Festival
2008 Chicago Asian American Showcase
2008 Los Angeles Asian Pacific Film Festival
2008 New York Asian American International Film Festival

Finalist, Beverly Hills Film Festival Screenplay Competition
Finalist, Korean Film Council Development Lab

Read about Steven Hahn in The New York Times: Lawyer/Filmmaker Buddies Share Two Jobs.