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[This story contains spoilers for Squid Game.]
At this point, Squid Game requires no introduction. The smash-hit Korean thriller series is currently sitting atop Netflix’s list of most watched shows in 94 countries around the globe. But even more astounding: Netflix says Squid Game will soon become its most viewed piece of content, in any language, ever.
For Netflix, the Korean show’s phenomenal success is both a pleasant surprise and a vindication of a long-held belief that distinctive, culturally authentic content travels farthest. For Squid Game‘s creator-writer-director, Hwang Dong-hyuk, the experience has been altogether dumbfounding.
Hwang has previously enjoyed considerable success within South Korea’s domestic entertainment industry, where he is known for a string of feature films displaying an improbable degree of creative versatility. But Squid Game is, naturally, his first taste of Bong Joon Ho-level global adoration and acclaim. And it’s all come crashing down on him over a period of just a few weeks — Squid Game only premiered on Netflix on Sept. 17.
Hwang’s second feature, Silenced, from 2011, gave him his first taste of viral attention. The film explored real-life incidents at South Korea’s Gwangju Inhwa School for the deaf, where young students were sexually abused by their teachers in the early 2000s. The film became both a box office sensation and a catalyst for fervent social activism, eventually resulting in local lawmakers passing a bill that eliminated Korea’s statute of limitations for sex crimes against minors and the disabled. His next feature, Miss Granny (2014), could scarcely have been more different: A lighthearted comedy, the film follows a woman in her 70s who magically finds herself in the body of her 20-year-old self. Another hit, the film was later remade by producer CJ Entertainment in more than a half dozen other countries and languages. And for his most recent feature effort, The Fortress (2017), Hwang again jumped in an entirely different direction, mounting a grand period drama set during the Second Manchu invasion of Korea in 1636 — yet another critical and commercial winner.
So, it’s perhaps less surprising than it might initially seem that Hwang executed Squid Game‘s candy-colored, high-concept dystopian material with such hit-making aplomb. The director famously wrote the initial script for Squid Game — then envisioned as a feature film — in 2009, whereupon it was roundly rejected by Korean studios as altogether too violent and conceptually improbable. Netflix stepped in with the green light in 2018, and the rest is now history.
Starring Lee Jung-jae, Park Hae-soo, Wi Ha-jun, Jung Ho-yeon and several other established Korean names and newcomers, Squid Game follows a group of social outcasts who are lured by a mysterious organization into playing children’s games for a cash prize — with deadly high stakes. The ongoing global fascination with the show is minting fortunes and making mega-stars of the cast, such as fan favorite Jung, a model turned actress who has seen her Instagram following grow from a few hundred thousand several weeks ago to nearly 20 million and counting today.
The Hollywood Reporter connected with Hwang this week via Zoom from Seoul to talk about the painful personal origins of Squid Game‘s concept, his thoughts on the story’s deeper meanings and where he’d like to take his blockbuster series next (spoilers ahead).
What was the very beginning of Squid Game‘s creation? How did the concept come to you?
So back in 2008, I had a script that I had written, which I was running around with trying to get investment, but it didn’t work out and it wasn’t made into a movie. So that actually put me into a really difficult financial situation — I was broke. So I spent a lot of time killing time in comic book cafes, reading. And I read a lot of comic books revolving around surviving death games — manga like Liar Game, Kaiji and Battle Royale. And well, I read some stories about these indebted people entering into these life-and-death games, and that became really immersive for me because I was struggling financially myself. I was even thinking that I would love to join a game like that, if it existed, to make a bunch of cash and get out of this terrible situation. And then that got me thinking, “Well, I’m a director. Why don’t I just make a movie with this kind of storyline?” So that’s how it all got started. I decided that I wanted to create a Korean survival game piece in my own way. That’s how Squid Game was initially conceived in 2008, and then I wrote a script for a feature-length film version throughout 2009.
It’s interesting how rooted in your personal struggles the concept actually is. Were there other ways you drew on your own life in fleshing out the story and the characters?
Oh yeah, in fact, the names of the characters Seong Gi-hun (Squid Game‘s lead, played by Lee Jung-jae), Cho Sang-woo (the lead’s childhood friend who left the neighborhood to study at the acclaimed Seoul National University, played by Park Hae-soo) and Il-nam (the elderly competitor at the heart of the story, played by O Yeong-su), are all the names of my friends. Cho Sang-woo is a childhood friend of mine, who I used to play with in the alleyways. There are several more too — Hwang Jun-ho (the police officer, played by Wi Ha-jun, who sneaks into Squid Game to search for his brother) and Hwang In-ho (the missing brother, aka The Front Man, played by Korean superstar Lee Byung-hun) — these are the names of real people from my life too. Hwang Jun-ho is my friend and Hwang In-ho is his actual older brother, just like in the movie.
I infused myself into Gi-hun and Sang-woo’s characters quite significantly. Just like Gi-hun, after the failure of my movie, I had a time when I wasn’t able to make any money and I was supported financially by my mother. There was also a time when I was going to the horse races with the dream of winning a lot of money — although I didn’t steal from my mother like Gi-hun does. His character also has some bits of my uncle who used to be a real trouble to my grandmother. And like both of them, I grew up in Ssangmun-dong, [the lower-income area of Seoul’s Dobong-gu district], and my family wasn’t very well off when I was young. My grandmother used to go out to the market and set up a little street stall as a merchant, like Sang-woo’s mother in the show. And then, just like Sang-woo, I went to Seoul National University, the most prestigious university in Korea, and I was subject to a lot of big expectations from my family, and a lot of envy from those around me.
So yeah, my grandmother, my mother, myself, my friends, and the stories of my neighborhood are all in Squid Game.
Since the show’s enormous success, have you talked with your family and old friends about the fact that their names and their world are now part of this global phenomenon? What’s their reaction?
Yeah, they kept calling me like, “Oh my God, you used my name!” (Laughs.) Hwang Jun-ho said, “You even used my brother’s name!” His older brother is living in the States and he suddenly called him after seeing the show. Like the two characters, they were not really talking to each other that often, and his brother wasn’t coming home to visit their mother. So that is why I intentionally used those two names. It was like an inside joke between me and my friends — to get In-ho to finally call his brother and apologize for being out of touch. And it worked — it actually happened! When he called, In-ho apologized to his brother for being out of contact for so long.
That’s awesome. What a happy outcome. So the question everyone must be asking you: What’s your theory for why Squid Game has become so popular all around the world?
Well, when I began making Squid Game, I actually did target a global audience. The children’s games that are featured in the show are those that will bring out nostalgia from adults who actually played them as a kid; but they’re also games that are really easy to grasp. So anyone watching, from anywhere in the world, can understand the rules of the games very easily. And since the games are so simple, the viewers don’t need to focus on trying to understand the rules. They can instead focus on the inner feelings and the dynamics between the characters a lot more, and then they can get immersed into the whole experience, cheering for and empathizing with the characters.
And personally, I wanted to create a story that is very entertaining — something really fun to watch. I mean, it may be ironic for me to say that because there are some terrible atrocities that happen in the story, but I really wanted to create a story that will be immersive. And I wanted the viewers who watch Squid Game to start questioning themselves. How am I living my life? Who am I among these characters, and what kind of world am I living in? I wanted these questions to be asked. As you start watching, I want you to think, “What kind of story is this? This is all too surreal.” But then as you watch more, you will get attached to the characters and starting cheering for some of them, and hating others. And then eventually, you should have the experience of connecting it all to the real world that we’re living in. In that way, you’ll be able to draw some of the messages from the series.
Yeah, what about that? Do you think the way this particular show has caught on in such a profound way, globally, has anything to say about the state of the world?
Well, these days we are, in fact, living in a deeply unfair and economically challenging world. Especially after the pandemic. I mean, there is more inequality, more severe competition and more people are being pushed to the edge of their livelihoods. Currently, I would say that more than 90 percent of people across the world will be able to somehow connect and empathize with the plight of the characters that are portrayed in the series. More than anything else, that’s probably why the series was such a big success worldwide.
Squid Game’s premise often seems to entail a very dark view of human nature and how our capitalist societies are structured. But there are also glimmers of optimism and more positive hints about human nature. The show seems to revolve around the struggle between these two fundamental world views. Do you see yourself as ultimately an optimist?
That’s very difficult to answer. Personally, I’m not an optimist, and people around me often tell me that I’m more of a cynical type. So it’s true that the world of Squid Game is depicted in a very dark way, in a cynical way, with some very cold-eyed views on humanity.
Nevertheless, I believe that we cannot go on living without trust in other people — unless you choose to do wrong things and go down a dark path. This is very well depicted in the lines of Gi-hun. Right before the nighttime battle when he is approaching Sae-byeok (the female North Korean defector, played by breakout star Jung Ho-yeon) to come join his team. Sae-byeok says, “I don’t trust people.” But to that, Gi-hun says, “You don’t trust people because you can; you trust people because you have to” — meaning, we don’t have anything else to depend on. Those lines from Gi-hun are, in fact, exactly in line with my feelings. Many of us are put in situations where we cannot really trust other people. I mean, I have been put in that situation quite often. But even though that is the case, if you don’t trust other people, and if you don’t have trust in the humanity that is inside yourself, then there is really no answer for you as to how you are going to live.
So even though the overall situation in the world is quite grim, and even though some people will betray you, and even though you’re in a situation where it’s quite difficult for you to have trust in anyone, fundamentally, you have to strive to believe in that last glimmer of hope that is coming out of Pandora’s box. These were my thoughts. And it’s portrayed in that scene near the end, where Gi-hun is approaching the sleeping Sang-woo with a knife in his hand, and he’s preparing to stab him. This is the moment when Gi-hun was about to lose the last string of humanity left inside him. But then Sae-byeok stops him, by saying, “You’re not that kind of person.” This is the gift that Sae-byeok gave Gi-hun, by reminding him of his remaining humanity.
It’s well known by now that many Korean studios passed on Squid Game over the years, and you waited about a decade to get it made. So, I have to wonder what this moment has been like for you personally — seeing your long-gestating show suddenly become this global, blockbuster phenomenon, with all the media attention that entails.
Well, one thing I want to clarify quickly is that there seems to be this common misunderstanding emerging that I wasn’t doing anything else and just focusing on Squid Game for about 10 years, and this made us a blockbuster success somehow. But that wasn’t really the case. In 2009, when it didn’t work out for me to get the necessary investment for the initial feature film piece I was envisioning, I put Squid Game aside. And I went on to create three other movies, and all of those were successful. So, I mean, it’s not like I didn’t do anything else in between and then had this sudden blockbuster success. It’s kind of been misconceived that way in some places, so I just wanted to clarify that a bit.
But so, like I said, I initially thought of this piece at a time when I was really struggling — I would say it was the lowest point in my life. And all of Squid Game was written back then. So when I opened up the files again to rework it, and read through all of the scripts and the emails that I exchanged with all of the people around me back then, I actually had a moment where I broke down and cried by myself. The script itself was infused with a lot of hard memories, but then there were all of those emails where I was asking people to read the script, asking around trying to get investment, and going through a lot of personal pain.
A lot of hardship is ingrained in this show — but then it became a blockbuster worldwide success. So there have been a lot of different layers of feelings. Of course, I’m exhilarated about the success. And I’m dumbfounded that this could actually happen to a director like me. But then I am also reminded of the people that I was not able to pay attention to, or spend time with as much as I wanted to in the past. I had a girlfriend back then who I was not able to do very good things for, and we broke up right after I finished the original Squid Game script. So yeah, it’s been a really complex experience that I’ve had — emotionally and memory-wise — after the success of Squid Game.
The first season of Squid Game seems to conclude in a very open-ended way, with lots of further storytelling potential. If there is to be a season two, what are some of the threads you’d be excited to return to and explore further?
It’s true that season one ended in an open-ended way, but I actually thought that this could be good closure for the whole story, too. Season one ends with Gi-hun turning back and not getting on the plane to the States. And that was, in fact, my way of communicating the message that you should not be dragged along by the competitive flow of society, but that you should start thinking about who has created the whole system — and whether there is some potential for you to turn back and face it. So it’s not necessarily Gi-hun turning back to get revenge. It could actually be interpreted as him making a very on-the-spot eye contact with what is truly going on in the bigger picture. So I thought that might be a good, simple-but-ambiguous way to end the story for Gi-hun. But there are some other stories in the series that have not been addressed. For example, the story of the police officer and the story of his brother, the Front Man. So if I end up creating season two, I’d like to explore that storyline — what is going on between those two brothers? And then I could also go into the story of that recruiter in the suit who plays the game of ddakji with Gi-hun and gives him the card in the first episode. And, of course, we could go with Gi-hun’s story as he turns back, and explore more about how he’s going to navigate through his reckoning with the people who are designing the games. So, I don’t know yet, but I’ll just say there are a lot of possibilities out there for season two storylines.
You created, wrote and directed every episode of Squid Game yourself. That’s an enormous solo undertaking and pretty uncommon in high-end TV today. I imagine it’s rather daunting to think about doing it all over again — especially with the whole world watching now?
Yeah, I mean, as you said, this was a nine-episode series and I was the only one who was writing the scripts and directing the whole thing, so it was a really physically, mentally, emotionally challenging task. And the story doesn’t exactly have the simplest concept, so as we were going along, new ideas were coming to me, or I would see flaws that I felt needed to be corrected, so I was, in fact, revising the script as I was filming the whole series. So that’s partly why I had a huge amount of stress, which led to me losing six teeth during production, which I’ve mentioned in some other interviews.
And you’re right, the pressure on me is huge now, with such a big audience waiting for a season two. Because of all that pressure, I haven’t decided yet whether or not I should do another season. But if you look at it in a positive way, because so many people loved season one and are expecting good things for season two, there are people everywhere in the world offering their opinions about where the show should go. I could actually pull ideas from fans all around the world to create the next season. I think that’s what I’m wrestling with right now — that I shouldn’t just view it as a huge amount of pressure, but think of all of this love and support I’m receiving as a big box of inspiration that I can leverage for season two.
OK, last question: You mentioned earlier that when you were broke and bummed out 10 years ago, reading Battle Royale manga in cafes, you thought that if a real-life death game existed with a big cash prize, you would love to play it as a potential escape from your problems. At this point in your life, if Squid Game really existed, would you call the number on the card and sign up?
(Laughs.) Well, if I were in Il-nam’s shoes — the old man with the brain tumor who has only a year or two to live — I would probably seriously consider it.
Interview has been edited for length and clarity.
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