Interview: Chan-wook Park

Responsible for one of the greatest trilogies in cinematic history in his native South Korea, director Chan-Wook Park makes his English language debut with the no less trippy or creepy thriller Stoker (which opened in Toronto last weekend and continues to expand throughout select Canadian cities over the next coming weeks).

The thriller brings the auteur together for a different kind of story that still includes the strong undercurrents of revenge, incest, and deception that coloured his work in his iconic Vengeance Trilogy (consisting of Sympathy for Mr. Vengeance, Oldboy, and Sympathy for Lady Vengeance). This time, he’s given a larger budget, a script courtesy of actor Wentworth Miller, and a cast that includes A-list talents Mia Wasikowska and Nicole Kidman in the tale of a young woman (Wasikowska) that becomes intrigued by her creepy, mysterious, and previously unknown Uncle Charlie (Matthew Goode).

Dork Shelf talked to the famed director over the phone (and through a translator) to talk about where his desire to tell such dark stories springs from, why he selected Stoker for his North American debut, the casting process, his identifying with the work of Alfred Hitchcock, and his study of film criticism and philosophy.

Your film Stoker is being seen as being something on par with the works of the masterful Alfred Hitchcock.  How does that make you feel and has any of his work influence your work in your career or on the set of Stoker?

Chan-Wook Park: First and foremost the film that made me decide to become a filmmaker was Hitchcock’s Vertigo.  Vertigo to me is his most representative work.  When I first started to study film properly I drew a great deal of influence from Hitchcock.  Of course, when I became a filmmaker I went on my own path but certainly during his period of studying he was a big source of inspiration.

When in development did you come on board to the film and what was it in Wentworth Miller’s script that appealed to him to make Stoker it your English language debut?

CWP: Ultimately it was after Wentworth had completed his draft of the script and it just before the casting stage.  You probably already know this, but his script had been around for a while and the appeal that the script had for me was that it was actually a very quiet script that wasn’t too heavy on the dialogue, it had a small number of characters and could be done with limited locations.

Taking a script that someone else wrote didn’t feel like a fundamentally different process then developing a script from a novel or a graphic novel into a film.  I used Wentworth’s script as a starting point and went through the process of tailoring it into the final product.

How was your collaborative experience working with English language actors for the very first time?

CWP: I was really worried about the language barrier at the beginning, but after I started working with the actors it was ultimately overcome much easier than I ever would have thought.  Working with a good translator and being in a situation where the actors and I are attentively listening and focusing on each other’s words made it do it was almost like the translator wasn’t there after a while.

This was your first time working in the Hollywood studio system to make a film, how was it different from making a film in Korea and was it ultimately a positive experience for you?

CWP: I don’t think that’s a question that can really be answered since you can’t see it as being just positive or negative.  It’s just like a Korean coming to America and complaining that it’s raining and wondering why the weather is like that here.  It’s just something that one cannot do anything about.  Of course, the experience was different from making films in Korea, as the American studio would share a lot of opinions with me and require a lot of explanations as to what I was doing.  At first I found it hard to be able to express all my thoughts or ideas about every single directorial choice, as well as considering all the notes from the studio that I had been getting, but at the end of the day after experience the entire process felt like it was a productive one.  In short, it wasn’t very easy but it was very good.

Looking over your filmography with the Vengeance Trilogy and now Stoker it’s obvious that you get drawn to the darker types of stories.  What is it in those stories that appeals to you and talk about your visual style incorporating a lot of movement, colour and beautiful imagery in contrast with these darker stories?

CWP: Although I’ve led and am still leading quite a peaceful life without there being any problems or big issues to speak of, I find it quite interesting and bewildering to find that in my inner self there’s sometimes this desire for vengeance along with feelings of jealousy and other negative emotions.  This makes me interested in how this could be and perhaps this is why I’m making films that examine this phenomenon.  But when I suggest to the audience that we should examine the darker side of the human condition in this way I’m only making a film that is only ugly and disgusting because of the story. Who would be interested at taking a look at such a study?  It’s only when the film is beautiful that I’m able to attract attention to the subject in a serious way and that’s why I presents his films in this way.  When something so dark is depicted in such a beautiful way, that’s when you have irony and that’s when you’re able to reveal and deal with the complexities of the human nature or condition.

I’d like to ask about your studies in philosophy and how it influenced your work as a film critic and what have you managed to bring from that to your work as a filmmaker?

CWP: The answers to both parts of that question are truly one in the same: the effect of having majoring in philosophy and how it affected me as a film critic and a filmmaker they made me very thorough.  In studying or examining subject matters rather jumping from one to the other or just doing a shallow examination of many subjects, I’d rather take one subject matter and study it from all aspects.

With your other works, particularly Oldboy and Joint Security Area it seems that the mystery within each film remains that way until the very end of the film.  Was there a reason that the reveal happens much sooner at the beginning of the third act in Stoker?

CWP: Some the mysteries in Stoker are revealed at the beginning of the third act but some mysteries sill remain to the end.  The mystery of Uncle Charlie is ultimately unraveled at the beginning of the third act but the mystery about India ultimately remains until the end.  The mystery of India is really a question of “is evil something that is hereditary or is it something nurtured?” That brings up the question of nature vs. nurture, as well, as the question becomes “What is she going to do with the mother and what is in store for India from here on out?”  There’s a small clue that might help answer some of these questions and it is the last shot of the film.

One of the more memorable scenes in the film was the four handed piano duet between Mia Wasikowska and Matthew Goode.  How difficult was that to film and do you know if that piece of music was written for the one player to reach over the partner’s hand like that?

CWP: It was working with Philip Glass that really helped, and I went in thinking no matter how difficult it may be, I’m happy it’s Philip Glass.  In his first meeting with Philip Glass he asked me “What is the nature of this piano duet and of this scene?”  I answered that the scene is basically sex between the two characters and it prompted Philip to share a story.  There was a piece that Philip Glass had written before and his good friends played this piece who happened to be a married couple and afterwards the husband would put his arm around his wife and play it just like Uncle Charlie did in the movie. This prompted me to make a revision and play it this way in the movie, and it reflected Philip’s piece that he wrote specifically for Stoker.  I very much enjoyed the process of creating this piano scene and creating the music with Philip, it was one of the scenes where he had the most fun.

How much of role did you have in the casting process and were you familiar with Matthew Goode before meeting him?

CWP: In the casting process it, of course, it isn’t just me making the choices but I was playing an active role at every stage of casting. In fact, the three principle actor’s were my first choices.  I had seen A Single Man and Watchmen before the casting process but I didn’t really think of Matthew Goode initially when trying to cast Uncle Charlie. It actually wasn’t until I had seen Match Point that he felt he was the right choice for creating the complex character that is Uncle Charlie.