Park Chan-wook talks to Jean Noh about adapting to Hollywood and bringing his unique style to his first English-language film.
After directing films such as Oldboy and Sympathy For Lady Vengeance, Korean film-maker Park Chan-wook had been fielding offers from Hollywood for years. He finally took the leap with Stoker, his first English-language film. The thriller, starring Nicole Kidman, Mia Wasikowska and Matthew Goode, made its well-received world premiere at Sundance and screened as the closing film in Rotterdam.
Originally written by Prison Break star Wentworth Miller, Stoker was on the 2010 Black List of best unproduced Hollywood screenplays. Park says he initially favoured it for his first English-language film because of its approach to dialogue.
“It wasn’t a film centred on dialogue and there were a lot of parts that were expressed without words,” he says, noting he enjoys expressing things visually and with sounds other than words.
“Wentworth’s script was good because there was a lot of space a director could fill in. It was a script that had the potential to come out in different versions, depending on whether Ridley Scott or Bong Joon-ho had made it. There was plenty of room for me to breathe life into it,” says Park.
The film centres around India (Wasikowska) whose father dies as she turns 18. A mysterious uncle (Goode) returns for the funeral and a triangle fraught with tension forms between India, her uncle and her mother (Kidman).
Describing Stoker as a thriller with aspects of horror and romance, Park says: “I was interested in girls’ coming-of-age stories - as with I’m A Cyborg But That’s OK. I liked that the story had few characters so we could observe them more closely, not just superficially. I look for density in my films.”
Ridley Scott, the late Tony Scott and Michael Costigan produced the film for Fox Searchlight Pictures, Indian Paintbrush and Scott Free. Fox is distributing Stoker, which opens on February 28 in South Korea and March 1 in North America and the UK.
‘It was a script that had the potential to come out in different versions, depending on whether Ridley Scott or Bong Joon-ho had made it’
Scott Free sent the screenplay to Park’s manager Sara Bottfeld at Industry Entertainment, and the director immediately liked the script.
“I had a long session with Wentworth discussing the film, and then went and rewrote it several times,” says Park. He had the Stoker screenplay translated into Korean, worked on it and had it translated back into English with him editing the translation line by line with his producer Wonjo Jeong to make sure everything was accurate.
When it came to actual production, Park had to learn to shoot fast again for Hollywood. “Working as a well-known director in the Korean film industry, with increasingly abundant resources, I had started getting slower at shooting. It was good because I could do everything carefully and elaborately. I had nearly 100 shooting days on Thirst. And then I was faced with 40 days for Stoker. It was disconcerting at first, but then I remembered I shot my debut feature in 30 days,” he says.
Oldboy in a new town
Even though he adapted quickly, Park did worry about the results. “In Korea, I’d be able to watch playbacks of each take on the monitors and only give the OK when there was really no problem. I edited on set to make sure there wasn’t anything lacking and to make sure shot A connected smoothly to shot B. But in the US there wasn’t any time for playbacks, and certainly none for editing on location,” he says. “Fortunately, in the end we didn’t have any of the problems I worried about.”
What was it like working with Hollywood actors? “Nicole is a pro. She never gets fazed, no matter how extreme an interpretation I come out with. She’s worked on such a wide spectrum of films that she doesn’t get surprised by anything. And she’s done so much herself that she likes to do new things. There are two kinds of actors. One is the kind that does as they always have done, and the other is the kind that doesn’t like to do what they’ve done before. She probably would have been bored if I gave her a conventional take. In that sense, she keeps a director alert,” he says.
Wasikowska was a pleasant surprise for him. “Mia is unusually thoughtful for her age [23 years old] and has the ability to see the script as a whole. She doesn’t need to always express herself intensely or dominate each shot because she knows even if she stays still, that’s the right thing to do and she will naturally dominate in the flow of the script. She doesn’t overact and that’s something usually only seasoned veterans know,” he says.
Of Goode, he says: “I first saw Matthew in Match Point and always thought he never got the attention his capabilities deserved. I took to him right away on our first video call. He has sculpted features, acting skill, wit and humour - flawless as an actor. We worked together to make the character what it is.”
‘Nicole is a pro. She never gets fazed no matter how extreme an interpretation I come out with’
Park worked with the help of a translator and says rehearsals were essential to cut down time on the shoot. “I went over the screenplay line by line with the actors in pre-production and explained why I had written it the way I had. If we disagreed on something, we would go home and think about it and come back to it the next day. If we hadn’t done that, we wouldn’t have been able to finish on time. The script is the kind that could be open to interpretation and could be done this way or that, so it was important to get that settled in pre-production,” he says. Once that was done, he had little trouble communicating on set even with the language difference.
One sort of communication that came new to Park was the kind a director on a Hollywood production is required to have with the producers and studio. “Korea has its studios, but not as powerful as in Hollywood, and since I’m a well-known director they never interfered in my work. So I was nonplussed at first to get the studio’s opinion on everything from dialogue to costumes,” he confesses. “But they’re not doing it to obstruct the director, and it doesn’t mean the director doesn’t get to do what he wants. I just had to go through the additional process of explaining, arguing and convincing them. In the end, it wasn’t like I didn’t get to make the film I wanted. They listened, and our mutual confidence and respect grew through this process. When we all were satisfied with the result, I realised we were all on the same team,” says Park.
The director is currently working on a Korean script, but wants that to be the next film he shoots after another English-language film. “Shooting only once in the English-language market and then having a gap doesn’t seem like a good idea. I’d like to solidify my standing and make it easier for audiences to remember me,” he says.
While projects are being arranged, he is also producing Bong Joon-ho’s Snowpiercer, which is due out in August. “Snowpiercer is historic in that it has Korean film-makers and a Korean studio employing stars from the US and UK, shooting on location with a multinational crew. A lot is riding on it,” he says.
In addition, he is co-directing shorts with his brother Park Chan-kyong, an up-and-coming film-maker in his own right.