The American version of OldBoy has had a rough time of things. Reviled by fans of Chan-wook Park's 2003 Korean adaption since the moment it was even considered, the new OlbBoy got a promising start when it was backed by Steven Spielberg and Will Smith - only to have those two heavyweights drop it before a green light was given. The project was revitalized when it snagged big names like Josh Brolin, Samuel L. Jackson and Sharlto Copley, but the choice of Spike Lee as a director has been as divisive as it has been intriguing.
Despite a pretty solid red-band trailer evidencing the same grittiness, gore, and twisted vision that made the original a hit, the new OldBoy still isn't getting a lot of love. We talked to some of the cast and the much beleaguered writer of the film about what they have done to distinguish their version as something worthwhile and unique; you can also check out a clip from the film above and new images throughout the post.
We caught up with OldBoy remake writer Mark Protosevich (I Am Legend) at the 2013 New York Comic Con. Accompanying him were cast members Michael Imperioli (The Sopranos) and Pom Klementieff, who play Chucky, an old friend of Josh Brolin's Joe Doucett and the female bodyguard of the man tormenting Joe, respectively. Although the trio tried to get discuss the art of making the film and deeper explorations of its meaning and craftsmanship, talk inevitably kept turning to why this remake of a cult-favorite film needed to exist in the first place:
Mark Protosevich: When I first go involved in this which that is an interesting story in itself because I got involved with this because I got a call from Will Smith. Originally Will Smith I had worked with Will Smith in "I Am Legend" and he told me, 'I want you to write my next movie it's a remake of OldBoy and Steven Spielberg is going to direct it' So two days later I was on a plane to LA and meeting Spielberg for a year that was going to be the package and then that completely fell apart. That may have been the initial interesting hook for me it would be working with them on this as opposed to saying, 'are you interested in writing a remake of OldBoy?' But when that fell apart I had become so passionate about the material and had worked out a thirty page treatment and had the movie clear in my head the producer still wanted to go forward so I said, "I'm in." This one really meant something to me.
You can get into the whole issue of-- I know there are some fundamentalist out there that feels the original movie should have never been remade, and I respect their feeling and there's probably nothing I can say to change that, but there are in the course of film history some fairly good English-language versions of some foreign films or remakes of classics. I'm glad David Cronenberg remade "The Fly." There's a Japanese version of "Unforgiven" that's coming out and I'm curious about that. I'm not saying, 'how dare they remake 'Unforgiven!' I'm curious about that. I think there's something good about keeping an open mind and being open to new experiences.
Mark Protosevich: When you're faced with an adaptation - whether it's a book or an existing film or a graphic novel or a video - a lot of it is purely analytical, where it's going, 'ok there's only so much of this material we can take or this might not work' but a lot of it becomes just this sort of emotional, gut, creative feeling. A lot of times you're just going on instinct so they're a definitely things in terms of the film that I wanted to follow that we all wanted to be in there. But there are variations.
Spike and I talked about at the very beginning were, just in terms of intent, like cover versions of songs. I love Neil Young's "Like A Hurricane" but Roxy Music does this awesome cover of it. So it's that kind [of thing] where you're honoring the original but trying to make it your own as much as possible. One thing that I find boring even in a cover version is if the song sounds exactly the same as the original but then I've also heard covers where you barely recognize the original song so it's finding that balance. In between of honoring the original and believe me I have nothing but respect for the original and that was one of the intents was to go into this from a place of honor and respect, but also as a creative person you want to make it your own. You want to bring something of yourself to it. Perhaps boost up themes that are a little more interesting to me and to Spike.
Of course an audience being open to new experiences requires a director who is able to sell them on a new vision and new ideas, and Spike Lee has so many detractors - more for his off-screen persona than onscreen work - that selling people on this new OldBoy has almost become doubly impossible.
However, if there is one person who can judge what Lee has done with Oldboy it is Michael Imperioli; before his fame-making turn on The Sopranos, the actor has worked with Lee on five films (Jungle Fever, Malcolm X, Clockers, Girl 6, Summer of Sam), so he knows all about the director's visual prowess and how to judge his work on OldBoy against his other films.
When asked what Lee has done, visually, with the remake, Imperioli stated that this is, in many ways, Spike Lee's 'comic book movie':
Michael Imperioli: I think it’s a departure for him because it’s based on, originally, a graphic novel and I think there’s kind of that heightened sense of reality and there’s a certain tone visually - colors that pop in that kind of graphic novel kind of way - which is really exciting. I think he really embraced it as, ‘we’re not just making a gritty reality driven movie, it’s almost taking place in this alternate universe’ from what I saw, I was really excited.
In addition to some visual splendor, Imperioli said that the character aspects of the work were just as important to Lee:
Michael Imperioli: I mean with Spike he’s a very much a character driven director, he loves actors, so you’re going to get that combination. I think that’s really excited cause Spike Lee is not the name you first think about redoing “OldBoy” - apparently at one time it was Steven Spielberg that wanted to remake this movie with Will Smith. That would have been a pretty different situation, and I think that’s what’s really exciting. I think what’s amazing about Spike is that he’s willing [to do different things] now he’s doing something that he raised [funds] for on Kickstarter and the one before ‘Red Hook Summer’ he did for 10 million dollars he’s willing to play in very different arenas. That’s what makes him a great artist.
But if you're a fan of the original, no need to worry: you'll still be getting plenty of brutal violence:
Michael Imperioli: Oh yeah it’s violent. I mean I think that is part of the of the story, part of the theme, unfortunately. It's part of the world we live in. Because of technology - the first thing that pops to my head was the bikers that attacked the guy - I mean twenty or thirty years ago you would have never seen images of that. So those kinds of things we live with on a much more regular basis. You see beheadings and terrorist confessions - we’re much more aware of that in this society and we’re immune to it to a certain degree or we're gradually getting immune to a lot of that stuff. I think that’s why this plays such a role in this film, it’s an element to the story... I’d say it’s like Karma, cause and effect. That’s my take. I’m sure Mark has a much different one and more articulate, probably.
Mark Protosevich: I had three meeting with Steven and in one of the first meetings he said, 'my son will kill me if we don't make this as intense as the original' so in his mind we were going to go there. Now I don't think he ever had that conversation with Will [Smith], so who knows what might have happened, but even in those early stages there was encouragement to go for it.
The other assumption was that we were somehow going to wimp out and make it a little more palpable to a mass audience, and I can assure you we did not. I still hope it has an audience and that they enjoy it, but the intention from the very beginning....I think we were all like, 'let's just jump into the pool with a hammer and a razor and see what happens!'
Well apparently it got TOO violent, because one of the actors ended up really feeling the pain:
Pom Klementieff: I'm the bodyguard of the villain kind of, and thanks to him [Mark Protosevich] I'm a girl... I had to train in martial arts, like Taekwondo inspired training for two months like three hours a day. I lost a toenail... I lost it after the movie because I'm really professional so after I put a Band-Aid on it with Angry Birds cause they're cute and anyway...
Finally, we asked Protosevich about a producer's claim that the ending to the US OldBoy is even darker than the Korean one:
Mark Protosevich: That's the way he felt. That's actually the way some other people have felt. So you'll have to see, you can be the judge. You tell me after you see the movie.
At this point, at Protosevich pointed out, it's nearly impossible for any fan of the original who hates the idea of this new film to be turned around in his/her opinion. However, we saw the footage screened during the OldBoy NYCC panel, we've see the red-band trailer, and we've heard that poor guy that wrote the film pour his heart out to the ruthless 'Con crowd. All we're saying is, this film might not be THE worst remake to come along, and maybe (just maybe) it deserves a chance to stand on its own.
We'll all know for sure when OldBoy hits theaters on November 27th.