In 2011, University of Southern California’s School of Cinematic Arts student Brian Ivie was only 21 years old when he felt compelled to make a movie about Pastor Lee Jong-rak, a clergyman who fashioned an infant drop box into the side of his home to save babies from being abandoned on the streets of Seoul, South Korea.
It would take Ivie two-and-a-half years and three trips to Korea to make his multi-award-winning documentary feature film. Initially, he had planned to make a short documentary, but he soon learned that God had much grander plans for this film—and for him. Ivie talked with Catholic Digest about making The Drop Box and how the film changed him.
What’s the backstory behind making The Drop Box?
I found out about Pastor Lee in June 2011; there was an article in the Los Angles Times. The headline read: “South Korean Pastor Tends an Unwanted Flock,” and it was all about this pastor in Korea who had built a mailbox for abandoned babies. The article said these kids were the most disposable kids in the country. There was something in me that said, “This isn’t OK.… If I don’t do anything about this, everyone is going to forget.”
I decided to reach out to the correspondent in Korea. At the time, I was a junior at the University of Southern California Film School, so I had done a lot of short films. I felt like I had the wherewithal to do something about this.
The correspondent got back to me, and I immediately shot off an email to Pastor Lee in Korea saying, “I’d like to make a movie about your life; please send me your information.”
About a month later, when I considered it to be a lost cause, I heard a ding on my computer. It was a Google-translated email from Pastor Lee saying, “Dear Brian, this Pastor Lee. Don’t know what it mean to make documentary film on my life, but you can come live with me if you want.”
On December 15, 2011, we flew a crew of 11 people to Korea to make a documentary short film on the man who built a mailbox for abandoned babies. It’s a very strange thing to have read an article and looked at that photo and then eventually end up at that person’s house and become a part of his life.
Are you a Christian?
I like to say that I became a Christian while making this film. Before I met God while making this movie, movies were “god” to me. God spoke to me through the thing I worshipped the most.
How did this film go from being a short film to a feature film?
I had this sneaking suspicion that we were telling a story that God did not want to be told. On the first trip, I went in with an angle. My hope was that I was going to tell a story of a man who, within a perfectionistic society, was taking in children with deformities—which is a pretty interesting story and perfect for me as a humanitarian filmmaker. I had mixed intentions going into this project; I wanted to help this family, but I hoped their story might also help me go to the Sundance Film Festival so I could finally become the filmmaker I always wanted to be. That was the selfish ambition part.
Everywhere we went, it seemed like the story I wanted to tell was crumbling. Anyone I wanted to interview was either uninteresting or unwilling to be on camera. But every time we were at the orphanage and every time I stayed in Pastor Lee’s home, I thought, This is working.
When I went back the second time to Korea, we planned to make a totally different film. I went back without an agenda or a story outline. I just went back with faith, and God started putting something together that was way bigger and way more extraordinary, more compelling, more human, and more real than anything I had been trying to do.
Did you live at the orphanage with Pastor Lee?
We lived nearby on the first trip, but I spent a couple of nights in the orphanage. When I went back to the orphanage the second and third times, I slept on the floor with all these kids [Pastor Lee and wife have 20 children] just to remember who I was.
What was Pastor Lee like?
He’s gentle, but he’s the manliest guy I have ever known.
[On my first trip], I would wonder, Man, what is motivating him? Who is this man? He just seemed otherworldly, but it was attractive. I wanted to be like him. I wanted what he had.
What was it like staying there with Pastor Lee and his family?
I felt uncomfortable at first. I was very confused. I was taken aback.
There was a love that just didn’t compute with me on my first trip—this man was loving people who couldn’t love him back. It was a very confusing type of love to me. It was gritty, piercing, and relentless. It wasn’t this weak-at-the-knees Hollywood thing.
I wished I could smile while I was changing a grown man’s diaper like Pastor Lee did. I had pity for the kids. Pastor Lee didn’t pity them or endure them; he really liked them.
I got very annoyed very quickly with the kids on my first trip because they were interfering at times. They weren’t doing what I wanted them to do. I thought, Gosh, they are in the way of this movie that I am trying to make.
On the second and third trip, I would pray on my knees with Pastor Lee, who got up every morning at 6:00 to pray. I don’t know if you have ever heard a Korean pray, but they are very loud. I would copy him. The coolest part was that I would come down after having this time with God and Pastor Lee, and suddenly I could love those kids and hug them.
Once you get touched by that kind of love, you can pour out love without losing a drop.
What do you hope people take away from the film?
The film is a love letter from God the Father to the world. I hope that people get a look at what God’s love is really like. More than anything I want people to plainly know that God’s love is not some corny thing. It’s a gritty, go-to-the-gutters-for-you love. That’s what I experienced.
Were you pro-life before making the film? After?
I was pro-my life. I would say that many people that are not involved in the issue have no conviction whatsoever.
Now I am vehemently pro-life. For me, it’s something that I had to be made into.
My third film will be a narrative about abortion. This is a story war just as much as it is a culture war. We need to tell the best stories about why life matters. That’s how we are going to change hearts and minds.
The documentary is being distributed and promoted by Focus on the Family. Why is The Drop Box only showing as a three-day event?
In the day and age we live, a lot of people don’t go to the movies the same way they used to unless it’s a big blockbuster movie. Making the film a three-day event encourages people to come out for something special. More than that, our film typically would never receive a release like this. Normally it would be available in several major cities for a few weeks, but this way we get to go to 650 places in the United States.
Through Fathom Events, The Drop Box will be in theaters nationwide on March 3–5, 2015. Visit TheDropBoxFilm.com for tickets.
The film left me wanting to know more about what happens to the drop-box babies after they leave Pastor Lee. Will you talk a little about that?
A lot of the kids are sent to different orphanages, and some are adopted. We are tracking the kids going to these different places and trying to make sure we can help them. Our company, Kindred Image, which we started in Korea, eventually will be offering adoption grants to families who adopt children who have been dropped off in the drop box or have disabilities. That’s how we are trying to address the problem. It’s a very difficult reality that some of these kids will still be in orphanages, but at least they are alive.
We realize that the drop box is not a long-term solution for anything, but it is saving lives. We want that to be the priority while we are working toward trying to create a better system. The reason Pastor Lee built this is that babies were dying. Many people say, “You should close this down because it’s not perfect, and there’s a better way.” But the alternatives are not in place yet.
Do some of the profits go to help your nonprofit, Kindred Image?
A portion of ticket sales goes directly to what we are doing in Korea. Obviously, Kindred Image exists to support the vision and legacy of Pastor Lee, which is to end abandonment in Korea.
Kindred Image (KindredImage.org) is a nonprofit with the goal of ending abandonment in Korea. “The plan isn’t to build more baby boxes, but to create a world that doesn’t need them.”
The Drop Box shows how every life matters
The Drop Box is a profound documentary that has great power to wake us up and show us that we can’t just sit back and do nothing in the fight against the culture of death. Pastor Lee is an example of how one person can make a difference, and The Drop Box is an example of how cinema can be a vehicle to change the tide.
In the opening scene of the movie, an alarm bell goes off and Pastor Lee races to open the box. He knows that an unwanted baby will be waiting for him. He picks up the infant, loosens the swaddling blanket, and thanks God for this adorable baby who opens her mouth in a silent cry.
Before 2009 when Pastor Lee built the drop box that goes into his laundry room, hundreds of babies every year were being left out in the cold to die in the streets, and no one heard their cries.
In this film we see how one man, through his great respect for life, his great love, and his industriousness—not unlike Mother Teresa—has been able to make a difference. We learn in the film that Pastor Lee possessed such immense love because of his son, who was severely disabled. While watching I couldn’t help but ask myself, “Would Pastor Lee have had the courage and the desire to take in the abandoned—many of whom are disabled—if his own son hadn’t been born severely disabled? Would he have built the drop box?”
This documentary affirms that each and every life is a gift, even if at first we cannot see it.