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Writer-director Hwang Dong-hyuk first came up with the idea for Netflix’s limited series Squid Game in 2008, but it would take him 10 years to see it come to fruition. Thirteen years ago, the South Korean filmmaker was told his script (at the time feature-length) was too unrealistic and violent to be commercially viable.
Putting all his efforts into his script left him broke, so he had to lay it to rest to focus on other projects. But in 2018, he picked up the story for the first time in a decade and reconfigured the feature into a series after seeing the boom of webtoons in Korea. He took it to Netflix, which had just started business in the country, and company executives felt the idea had become timely enough to give it the green light.
“The response that I got after 10 years was that it was, in fact, very realistic — that there are probably people playing this game somewhere in the world,” Hwang tells The Hollywood Reporter through an interpreter. “And I think the pandemic also accelerated the situation a bit as well. And so the fact that this story was no longer not realistic, that it was no longer absurd, but that it was something that was very in touch with reality after a decade, it saddened me a little bit as a person, but it also brought me joy as a creator.”
The filmmaker, who can count 2011’s crime film Silenced and 2017’s The Fortress among his credits, says his concept has become more realistic over time as the “gap between the wealthy and the poor has become greater” over the past decade. He also says climate change and the appearance of crypto- and virtual currency have made the idea of Squid Game more authentic.
“[It’s] almost like a lottery now — almost like a gamble where people in reality have actually doubled or really increased their wealth overnight,” he explains. “And I feel like the world is gradually moving toward dystopia. There are more and more people who really don’t dream about the future, and that drives people to want to gamble, to really take it all and put it all on the line and hope for the best. And I think these changes have created an environment where the idea of people putting their life on the line playing children’s games is no longer something that is too absurd.”
The show, which stars Lee Jung-jae, Park Hae-soo and Jung Ho-yeon, is rather violent, as contestants fight for their lives through various games — with the sole survivor winning big prize money. But Hwang never intended to exhibit violence just for sensationalism. To him, the brutality of the show — and the use of guns — is much more symbolic.
“When we were depicting the eliminations of the games, I wanted to express that elimination equals death,” he says. “In Korea, we don’t use guns, so the gun is actually a very unrealistic weapon in Korea. I personally thought that having the people be eliminated using a gun was in fact very unrealistic in a way, meaning that it was not as violent because it was more symbolic than realistic. It’s a simple and symbolic expression of the elimination equaling death.” A subplot involving Squid Game guards mining organs from the challenge’s eliminated players called for a more grounded realism. “There’s news about this happening in the real world,” notes Hwang. “I included it because it was something that was in our reality. I did not deliberately intend to exhibit violence or gore for the sake of it, but I also didn’t intentionally try to control the level of expression for the sake of the viewers or for it being a Netflix series. I just wanted to show it as organically as possible.”
In 2008, Hwang sent the script to a few famous Korean actors at the time, who declined. This time around, he specifically had Lee and Park — who respectively play Seong Gi-hun and Cho Sang-woo, two childhood acquaintances who are surprised to find themselves reconnected in the deadly challenges — in mind for the show. For the other roles, he wanted to cast relatively unknown actors, and the crew went through the audition process to find them.
Meanwhile, Jung, who plays a North Korean defector named Kang Sae-byeok, was one of the actors who auditioned. Squid Game marks her acting debut: Jung is a South Korean model who recently became Louis Vuitton’s global ambassador.
When viewers think of Squid Game, they might not only think of the games and the violence but also about the production design. Most of the show, which became Netflix’s most watched series, was shot on soundstages with some added CG. Hwang explains that the game in the series’ first episode (“Red Light, Green Light”) was shot in a large, open space with bluescreens, enabling the filmmakers to replace the backgrounds in postproduction.
“We drew some inspiration from hotels in Las Vegas. … You know those hotels that have fake skies drawn on the ceiling? I wanted to create a space that made people wonder, ‘Is that fake or real?’ ” says Hwang. “So you’ll see in the first game, we actually mixed a fake sky with a real one. And as for the stairs, we drew inspiration from works like Relativity by M.C. Escher for the structure.” In total, there are six games that the contestants have to compete in, based on games the candidates might have played as children, like red light, green light and tug of war. Hwang says it was actually the former that was hardest to execute because of the sheer number of actors involved at the beginning of the games, before the carnage of losing set in: 300 extras, 20 martial arts actors and 10 members of the cast.
“It was the first game, and also one of the first days on set, and it had to go well because it was what’s going to be a first impression for the audience,” says Hwang. “It was really challenging both physically and psychologically. It had to have the impact big enough for people to want to watch the rest of the series. I had only imagined it for over 10 years, and to bring that to life … It was just the most challenging scene on so many levels.”
This story first appeared in a November stand-alone issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. To receive the magazine, click here to subscribe.
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