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BUSAN, South Korea — Born in Seoul, writer-director John H. Lee moved to suburban Maryland at 12. After graduating from the NYU film school in 1995, Lee’s directorial debut — “The Cut Runs Deep,” a noir tale of struggling immigrants — showed at the then-fledgling Pusan International Film Festival, now in its 12th year. Lee’s second film, “A Moment to Remember,” about a man’s undying love for his Alzheimer’s-stricken wife, earned $70 million internationally and stands as Korea’s most successful drama ever in Japan, where it sold 2.6 million tickets. Lee sat with The Hollywood Reporter’s Asia Editor Jonathan Landreth over coffee and cigarettes to talk about remaking John Woo’s superviolent Hong Kong hit man classic “The Killer” in time for its 20th anniversary in 2009.
The Hollywood Reporter: What’s that message on your cell phone?
John H. Lee: It’s my friend texting me telling me not to fuck up the remake.
THR: Will you be involved in the writing?
Lee: I want to be. Of all the stages of filmmaking, screenwriting requires the most solitude. I have three cell phones. One is my screenwriting phone. Only a handful of people have the number, including my mom.
THR: Do you write in Korean or English?
Lee: Sometimes I wake up in the night and make notes in Korean and move them to English in the morning. Sometimes it’s the other way around. It’s part of being a bilingual person. I draw lots of arrows and lines. I wanted to be an architect. We’ll have a decent budget I really want to invest in the writing.
THR: When did you last see “The Killer”?
Lee: A month ago with my mom. She loved it. The essence of this remake is … it’s not just an action movie, but an existential movie. The script must keep the same opening line: “Do you believe in God?”
THR: How might you change it?
Lee: I gave (producer) Terence Chang a lengthy treatment, and I think he liked it. I met John Woo, and we talked about what he wasn’t able to do with the original, such as address the love triangle (between the killer, the cop who hunts him and the singer who loves them both). I asked Mr. Woo, “What kind of film would you like me to make?” and he said, “It’s your film.” Oh my God, he’s such a humble person.
THR: Any ideas about cast?
Lee: The singer should be an African-American woman. The cop is a Mexican, somebody with edginess. The killer is an Asian guy. Either Chinese or Korean.
THR: Chang says Los Angeles will be a character in the film. What is the texture of L.A.?
Lee: There’s a duality about L.A. Heaven and hell. You can go to a beautiful beach and then a dangerous ghetto in the same day. It’s a dynamic city, and the highways loan themselves to car chases.
THR: How will you switch gears from melodrama to action?
Lee: I haven’t really shown the action side of me. I don’t want to trash all action movies these days, but I think that they need a little more class. As you grow older you start accumulating a set of values that dictate your actions in life. As a director, those values define how you see characters behave, whether it’s taking a bullet or getting a kiss. Like a lot of people, I like extremes. I like blood and gore, and at the same time, with my Christian background, I love things with dignity and austerity. I like to treat things with respect and with class. I think John Woo liked my set of values.
THR: What do you expect of working in Hollywood?
Lee: I’ve spent a day or two there now and again. Getting projects off the ground can be a bone-grinding process. But it’s tough making movies in Korea, too. You have to learn when to push for something and when to let it go. I love that David Fincher saying that directing is not about putting a pretty picture in front of a cameraman. The job of directing starts when the sun is going down and you’ve got five shots to do and you know you’re only going to get two.
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