Having already made such celebrated and controversial movies as Oldboy and Sympathy for Lady Vengeance, Korean director Park Chan-wook just saw the release of his first Hollywood film, Stoker. The filmmaker sat down with TIME, and speaking through a translator, discussed his new movie, Oldboy, and the challenges of working in a foreign country.
You’ve had other opportunities to make American films. What were your reservations about making this transition?
When I say that I am going to do an American film, I didn’t want to suddenly go off into a completely different world that which bears no relation to the style of filmmaking that I’m used to.
So finding the right script was very important…
What I liked about [Wentworth Miller's] script was that it wasn’t full of car chases or things blowing up, it wasn’t full of people chattering away. The remarkable thing about the script was that it was very quiet. There are opportunities to use sounds other than dialogue, and opportunities to bring in a lot of visual elements. There was a lot of room for me to breathe in a lot of my own into the script, and while being quiet, it was still full of palpable tension and fright.
(MORE: Stoker: Gloom with a View)
What kind of steps did you take in sharing — and maintaining — your artistic vision of the movie?
Maybe it was in my selection of people that I was working with in Stoker. Even during the interviews with the cast and crew, there were a lot of long conversations held to talk about the film that I was going to create. This continued throughout the entire process, after the interviews and going into pre production.
A number of people involved in this film have mentioned that you are the most prepared director that they have ever worked with. How did your preparation for Stoker compare with the process in your previous films?
The pre-production for Stoker was about ten weeks long, and that, compared with pre-production for my Korean films, is actually shorter. I have always meticulously storyboarded my films from beginning to end. Everything is always shot with the editing already in mind. Having time to talk to the actors about the film during the pre-production stage, certainly helped going into production on Stoker. But back in Korea, I spend even more time talking to the actors. All of the arguments and discussions that need to be had are already done during the pre-production, and we are all on the same page heading into the shoot.
This is how I’ve always worked. I can’t imagine any other director making less preparation, and being able to make a film. But what I am really most thankful for is how the cast and crew were so dedicated that they would give their time to engage in these conversations with me.
What other challenges in making a Hollywood film did you encounter?
Really, there is only one thing that I can think of, and it has nothing to do with the fact that this is an American film. Back in Korea, I would work with the same group of cast and crew, time and time again. They understand what I want, even with me having to say anything, but here I had to work with a group of people that I worked with for the first time. I had to spend a lot of time explaining what I wanted.
Going back to the film, I found it difficult to root for anyone in this film until the very last scene. Was that deliberate? And were you worried about engaging an audience with such ambiguous and elusive characters?
This is not the kind of film where you root for anybody. This is more the kind of film where it makes you curious about these people constantly. India is a teenage girl, and we never get to understand her completely in the film. But what I found at least, and what I believe people will identify with is the kind of chaos that she goes through as a teenager, and the kind of things she is seduced by. When I was going through puberty, I had all these feelings of being unstable through those years, and being uncontrollably drawn to things of beauty and things that are bad. The outcome of such seductions we don’t know as teenagers, and that’s why it makes us scared. And this is something I thought anyone could identify with. With Eve, towards the end of the film we realize that she’s the only normal person in this film.
The trailer features a very chilling monologue by Eve, but when you actually see it in the movie, her words take on a very different meaning.
I wanted add another layer to Eve than what was originally written in the script. Eve would be someone who has love for her daughter, and also she yearns to be loved by her daughter as well. With this great monologue, this terrible vitriol that she throws, this most strong curse that she throws at her own daughter, right at the heels of it, I suggested we add a few lines of dialogue to show that she’s scared of herself.
I asked Nicole [Kidman] during the rehearsals to please say whatever comes to your mind after this monologue. Nicole gave me dozens of sentences, not calculated lines, but speaking purely out of her motherly emotion. From those I selected, ‘Who are you? Aren’t you supposed to love me?”
It’s been 10 years since the release of Oldboy. For better or worse, the success of this film has linked you with a particular kind of stylized gore and violence. How do you feel about this reputation? Are you interested in breaking away from it, or do you embrace it?
All of the characters in my films, they share one commonality. It doesn’t matter whether they are good or bad, it doesn’t matter whether they are smart or stupid, these characters all take responsibility for their own behavior. I’m much the same. Depending on what project I’m working on, for each film, I would build scenes that are most appropriate for that film, and that’s how I would make films. Whatever reputation ensues, I take full responsibility. The funny thing is, people who have actually seen my films, they imagine they saw something that in fact wasn’t presented on screen. For example, in Oldboy, when the protagonist cuts his tongue. Now this could be a function of the audience member closing their eyes to avoid seeing something horrible, but it is actually never shown onscreen. There are so many people that actually think they’ve seen the tongue being cut off by the pair of scissors. With Stoker, its not that somehow I wanted to change my reputation, but its because the subject matter has to do with a coming of age of a teenage girl, and in order to create a film that speaks very much to that, I didn’t want to create something that goes against it.
How involved are you in the Spike Lee remake?
I am involved in the remake as much as I would want the original filmmaker involved in a remake I would do myself. In other words, I’m not involved at all. For a foreign film to approach an American audience in its subtitled form, I know there are limitations. So, with this new Oldboy, which is in English, I hope it is introduced to a great number of new people through a new interpretation of this story.