Ask Shawn Ku about the inspiration behind his latest film, the gut-wrenching drama Beautiful Boy, and his response is as startling as it is clarifying: a good friend of his, a 40-year-old man in good health, fell asleep in Ku's guest room one night, and never woke up.
'I was the one that had to deliver the news to my friend's parents,' said Ku of the incident, which happened three years ago.
Now still visibly moved by what happened - the death was ultimately attributed to a heart attack - Ku embraced the sudden tragedy and channelled his emotions into Beautiful Boy, which opened in the US on June 3 to largely positive reviews.
The film, which he directed and co-wrote with Michael Armbruster, tells the story of a couple (played by Michael Sheen and Maria Bello, below) grappling with the news that not only has their only son died in a school shooting, but that he was the shooter.
Ku - a former dancer and choreographer who, to the dismay of his Chinese parents, dropped out of Columbia University's medical school to pursue a career in the arts - said he felt absolutely compelled to make the movie after the loss of his friend.
'[My friend's parents] had nothing to hold onto,' says Ku, dressed casually in shorts as we meet at a West Hollywood coffee shop. 'That sort of loss is an odd thing to comprehend when you can't see it. I was the last person to have seen their son alive. They clung to me for any sort of solace or understanding.'
The idea also began to coalesce in the aftermath of the 2007 massacre at the Virginia Polytechnic Institute and State University, where Seung-hui Cho, a son of Korean immigrants, gunned down 32 students and teachers before turning his gun on himself.
Ku's parents met there, and his sister went to school there, and the fact that the shooter was Asian brought the rampage closer to home.
Before Beautiful Boy, Ku made a short film called Pretty Dead Girl, about a morgue worker who falls in love with his corpses. The film got him noticed.
Although Ku has family in Hong Kong and Shanghai, he has spent almost no time in these cities since he was a child. And although he started his professional career as a performer, he says directing films is now his focus. 'I thought I wanted to be a performer until I realised that I didn't want to be in the spotlight. I much prefer being behind the scenes.'