When they said that a Hollywood remake of the cult-classic Korean film OldBoy was in the works, fans were sent into a (very vocal) uproar. Screenwriter Mark Protosevich has had the unfortunate fate of shepherding this hated remake through years and years of development – starting with a version Will Smith and Steven Spielberg were attached to – only to watch that dream crumble and eventually get rebuilt into the current version starring Josh Brolin.
However, it was when director Spike Lee came onboard that the fans’ outrage kicked into high-gear. It’s one thing to give a beloved foreign film a Hollywood polish; it’s another thing entirely to place that beloved film in the hands of a director whose personality and flare for controversy often overshadow his considerable accomplishments as a filmmaker.
In the eye of that controversy storm stands Lee, where we met him for a roundtable interview touching on questions of his version of OldBoy, comparisons to the original, and a whole lot in between. Don’t let his unimposing stature fool you; Spike Lee is probably one of the more intimidating directors to speak to, with a suffer-no-foolishness approach to answering questions. You’ll see what we mean in the interview below:
What was it about this project that appealed to you and made you want to direct it?
Spike Lee: The film, the original film and also the original source, the Japanese illustrated novel and then the third thing was a chance to work with the great Josh Brolin.
What was your recollection watching the original movie?
Spike Lee: I thought, “I’ve never seen anything like this in my life!”
Did you actually see this film in the cinema?
Spike Lee: Yes
Did you find a challenge in juggling audiences expectations – not only with the original comic and the original film, but also your fans and your built-in audience? Did you feel a need to please all three groups?
Spike Lee: That never came up.
How did you choose to speak to American audiences differently than the original?
Spike Lee: Josh and I never thought about this as far as nationality. We never said, ‘oh this worked in Korea but it’s not gonna work in America,’ we never thought that. It never came up. It always was story, how we make this work. It never came down to nationality. We never had a thought like we have to translate an Asian film to American audiences. That did not come up with us. Now some OTHER people may have thought about that, but not us.
Is Manga helpful to you visually as a director?
Spike Lee: as storyboards?
Spike Lee: I don’t really do storyboarding but it was helpful because that was the original source of the Korean film, so you can’t go wrong going to the original source.
I talked to Michael a few weeks back–
Spike Lee: Imperioli?
Yeah. And in some ways he felt that this – because of the heightened reality – this was your, Spike Lee’s, comic book movie. Would you agree with that sentiment?
Spike Lee: I would have to think about that! Me and Michael have to have a conversation why he thought that, but I never thought of that. That might be a good analogy, maybe, but that never crossed my mind.
Would you ever want to save that [marker] for an actual comic book movie in the more traditional sense?
Spike Lee: I’m never gonna say never but it has not happened yet.
What are you most proud of when you see this film? That you know you did that’s going to surprise people – what are you most proud of?
Spike Lee: I don’t know if I can pick something out, it’s just this film in its entirety.
You mentioned before you wanted to work with Josh Brolin; now that you’ve done this what can you say about him as an actor?
Spike Lee: We’re going to work together again. We get along great, we have similar sensibilities, we both have great work ethic, total commitment to what we’re doing and we collaborate very well together.
Can I ask you a similar question about Elizabeth Olsen? She mentioned that you would ask for input even in scenes that she wasn’t in–
Spike Lee: I don’t know about that (laughs)! That’s another [person] I gotta speak to! Whoa, whoa; I asked for input from her for scenes she wasn’t even in? Like what?
She didn’t say any specifics, but she said you would ask her for input and she was very impressed by that.
Spike Lee: I don’t remember that, but any scene she’s in I’m definitely going to ask for something. Especially when we were rehearsing.
But what was it when you saw her that you thought, “I want her in one of my movies.”?
Spike Lee: What’s the film with her Masi–what’s it called?
Spike Lee: Yeah that one! Well that was a very tricky role, verrrrry tricky. So if we cast the wrong person in [Oldboy], it doesn’t matter how everyone else is, it might make the whole thing tumble. So I’m very happy and fortunate and gracious that we were able to get her in that role [as Marie], key role, key, key, key. She doesn’t appear till halfway through the film, but it’s a key ingredient.
Was it important for you for her to come up with such a strong character that almost feels like a victim of circumstance rather than a victim of her own lack of will?
Spike Lee: Oh yes, we definitely had to make her character as strong as possible, as strong that made sense within the framework of the screenplay and I think that Lizzy conveys that.
You mentioned the rehearsal process; how important is that process for you?
Spike Lee: very important, I’m not gonna shoot a film if I don’t have rehearsal time. That’s built into the budget.
And how much rehearsal time do you usually allot?
Spike Lee: Two weeks but here’s the thing: because rehearsal time – a lot of people don’t understand this – rehearsal time is not just actors doing lines, it’s having meals, talking, watching other films, going to events together… So it’s not just going over lines, it’s a whole thing, spending time together and vibing and throwing ideas around. That’s what we do.
One thing that was very interesting for me in the film – particularly this version – is Josh’s character sitting in this room and watching these key events of American history over twenty years, and I was wondering about the metaphor between what’s happening to this character and what’s happening in those twenty years and maybe if you could speak a little bit about that?
Spike Lee: We weren’t really looking for any metamorphic stuff, all we’re trying to do is help the movie-going audience understand that time is passing by, so we have to pick seminal moments where people know exactly what year that was. The Twin Towers?
Spike Lee: Yeah, Katrina?
Spike Lee: Clinton’s first inauguration?
1992 [Ed: Whoops, that’s 1993!]
Spike Lee: Bush’s speech mission accomplished?
Spike Lee: Obama’s first election?
Spike Lee: But anyway, yeah you get the idea. They can just look at the screen and say “I know what year that was,” so we really weren’t trying to be metaphorical. We have 20 years that have to go by, using this TV, how do we let the audience know that time is passing by? That’s all that was.
I think that women are going to like the fact that this movie actually also says that if you disrespect women there are consequences, that’s an empowering aspect.
Spike Lee: You’re going to write that?
How much of that (female empowerment) did you [intend]? Because that’s more in your movie than in the original film.
Spike Lee: Well what you say is true, but also makes for a better film if the character is as strong as possible and not weak. Plus with the exception of the character played by Pom [Klementieff] [Marie is] basically the lead in the film, so we had to have that, and also it plays to Josh’s character to play up against a character that isn’t a pushover.
But it’s his disrespect of a woman that begins the movie, that actually sets a tone.
Spike Lee: Yeah, no it’s true. You got the tone and when you’re in prison for 20 years you have a lot of time on your hands, so [Joe] has a lot of time to think about “What have I done? What choice have I made that I ended up in this spot for 20 years?” and in 20 years of self-analysis he discovered that he was not a nice person. That he was not a nice human being.
You’re going to have problems with your wife, but with children you’re gonna want to have a great relationship with your children. What’s the divorce rate today? 50%? It’s even higher than when he got locked up, but his one regret is “I have a daughter and so that’s one of his things coming out I have to reconnect.”
Is it more about redemption or revenge for [Joe]?
Spike Lee: Both, the same coin but two sides and he’s passionate about both.
WARNING – SPOILERS about the Ending of Oldboy Follow (The US and Korean Versions)
Your ending is different than the original: [Joe] locks himself back up?
Spike Lee: You’ve seen the original?
Spike Lee: So what’s the question?
Why is it different?
Spike Lee: Now this is something you’re going to have to ask [screenwriter] Mark [Protosevich] but I agree with the decision; the whole thing with the self hypnosis at the end [shakes his head “no”]. We just chose to go a different route.
Can you please confirm that Sam [Jackson] chooses his hairstyles?
Spike Lee: I was the one that suggested the [Yellow] Mohawk – because you cast Sam in a film, the first thing he thinks about is how his hair is going to be – so I said, “Sam have you ever, ever, ever had a Mohawk in a film?” He said no so I said we should do it with this one. He said ok.
Screenwriter Mark Protosevich had mentioned there are films that you shouldn’t remake…. I was wondering if you agreed with that sentiment and if there are any films that are sacred to you that you wouldn’t remake?
Spike Lee: All I could say is there are a ton of people that felt this film shouldn’t have been remade too.
How about YOU? Do you think Spike Lee should’ve remade Oldboy? Let us know in the comments.
Oldboy is now in theaters. Stay tuned for more of our interviews with the cast.