Korea's Park Chan-wook on Making His Hollywood Debut 'Stoker' (Q&A)
The director discusses his first film in English, the universal vulnerability of movie stars and recruiting Philip Glass to write a musical metaphor for sex.
ROTTERDAM -- Ever since his international breakthrough, Oldboy -- which won the Jury Prize at Cannes in 2004, and is now being given a U.S. makeover by Spike Lee -- Park Chan-wook has been a regular on the global festival circuit. But touring with Stoker, which finally opens in the U.S. on March 1, represents a new adventure, as he's been presenting his first English-language film, and one based on material he didn't write.
The first script written by British actor Wentworth Miller, the story revolves around the change in 18-year-old India (Mia Wasikowska) as she comes to terms with her father’s death, the reaction of his widowed mother (Nicole Kidman) and then the arrival of a mysterious uncle Charlie (Matthew Goode).
Stoker premiered at Sundance, and then screened as the closing film to the International Film Festival Rotterdam. Before the curtain came up in Rotterdam, Park spoke with The Hollywood Reporter about discovering the soft spots in even the most seasoned Hollywood A-lister, commissioning Philip Glass to write a piano duet that serves as a musical metaphor for sex, and getting pleasure from audiences’ misguided reception of the film as a horror movie.
The Hollywood Reporter: What was it like for you working on your first U.S. production, with American actors?
Park Chan-wook: Actors, I think, are all the same. Both Korean actors and American actors are all very sensitive people, and they are all curious to know what the director thinks of them and how they are evaluated, and they try to satisfy the director. And they like it if you listen carefully to their opinions and accept them. I’m used to working with those kinds of actors. It was just that I was working within the boundary of Korea, but the actors I was working with there are the hugest stars there. So I felt all actors are similar, especially excellent ones, who are intelligent. It’s not because they are from good colleges or anything, but they are very bright in their thinking. They think a lot about human emotion. As for the system, in a word, the biggest difference is that there were too few shooting days. I had to shoot twice the speed as I shot in Korea; I had only 40 days, and there wasn’t enough time for additional shooting.
THR: How did you work with Wentworth Miller on his screenplay?
Park: Wentworth I had just one long conversation, and after that I just worked on it. I worked with Erin Cressida Wilson, an excellent screenwriter who helped me. We didn’t get writing credits, but from the beginning to end we had a lot of small and tiny revisions. Let me put it this way: If we’re talking about food, the ingredients are the same, but the cooking method is a little bit different. So the taste in the end is probably a bit different. But once it’s in your stomach it’s all the same.
THR: But you certainly brought your trademark visual style and musical choices.
Park: Visual elements are, of course, the director’s job. As for the music, there’s a bit where the two of them are playing the piano together. In Wentworth’s screenplay, I believe it’s described as Eric Satie-esque. But I changed that to Philip Glass, and so it is newly composed.
So if a different director had worked with Wentworth’s script, visually or aurally what kind of result would come out of it? It would be an interesting thing to imagine that. It would have been a very different result. But that has something to do with why I chose the script -- there’s a lot of space in there, there’s not a lot of dialogue, and any director taking it on could breathe their own style into the film.
THR: And there’s a lot of sexually-charged symbolism in the film, such as the piano duet you mentioned.
Park: The piano duet wasn’t in the script, and it wasn’t even my idea! When I first went to New York to meet with Philip Glass I asked him to create a song [India and Charlie] could play together for that scene. And he said, “Well, I got to know what kind of scene it is for me to write it.” So we’re saying, it’s a piano performance, but it’s actually sex. And he said, ‘Oh, I got it. I once made a piece called Four Hands, a married couple were playing it and one day the husband said, while we can play it like this, we can also play it like this' [mimes the man putting his arm around the woman to reach the other side of the keyboard]. Right away that night, I changed the script to have Charlie’s arm going around India.
Sex is part of the whole process of courting or being in love. And in this scene, it is expressed in stages: a A woman is alone and the man approaches quietly; she ignores him and plays the piece alone; he gets tired of waiting and suddenly boldly gets into it. At first she’s shy but then she reacts, and it escalates to more excitement and then climax. That’s the point of a woman feeling enough satisfaction and that the man, having taken care of her needs, just disappears. That’s what’s being shown in that scene.
THR: Is Stoker supposed to be the second installment of a trilogy about girls going through their rites of passage, with the first one being 2006’s I’m A Cyborg That’s OK?
Park: Before I got the script I hadn't been thinking any more about that sort of film. I looked through so many different scripts, but in the end I chose this one. And there's also the fact that I decided to focus on those themes more so than is in Wentworth’s original script. I think that must mean I hoped to make another film like I’m A Cyborg But That’s OK. I’m a father who’s raising a daughter, and it’s an interest I’ve naturally taken. As I grow older I spend more time with my wife and gradually my interest in the woman’s world is growing. I feel like there are comparatively less films that deal with this view. That’s why I became more interested in it.
THR: The film’s title reminds one of Bram Stoker, and there are quite a few visual devices common to horror films there. But the film doesn't exactly fit into that genre, does it?
Park: The title was Wentworth’s, so I can’t say anything about that. Idioms of horror films are there for sure. I didn’t have any idea of making a horror film. I think this kind of result is desirable -- me making a film with the presumption that I'm making a thriller, and the audience taking it as almost a horror film because they are so scared. Officially we define it as a psychological thriller, but in Sundance people just called it a horror film straight out. I find that an interesting outcome.