Korean filmmaker Park Chan-wook has officially broken into Hollywood with his first English language film Stoker, a psychological thriller starring Nicole Kidman, Mia Wasikowska and Matthew Goode.
While on the surface it may seem like somewhat of a departure from his previous films like Old Boy, Lady Vengeance or the vampire film Thirst, fans of his visceral style of filmmaking should be thrilled by some of the amazing visuals he has produced to tell this creepy coming-of-age tale about a girl named India Stoker (Wasikowska) who loses her father but gains a creepy, seemingly disturbed uncle (Goode), whose obsession with her can’t be considered healthy.
ShockTillYouDrop.com got to speak briefly with Director Park while he was in New York City last week for a few last minute events to promote the movie before it opened.
Our first question involved the parallels between Stoker, his first English language film, and other Korean domestic thrillers like A Tale of Two Sisters and The Housemaid, since it feels very much like a film that could have been made in Korea.
“It wasn’t something that I was conscious of when I was reading the script or making the film,” he told us through his interpreter. “I’m a fan of domestic drama, both on stage and on film. It only occurred to me later, after having made the film when my Korean friends came up to me and congratulated me but one of the things they commented on was how Nicole’s appearance evoked the stepmother figure in ‘Tale of Two Sisters.’ I thought that was interesting, not only philosophically but also there is something stylistically that runs parallel to ‘Tale of Two Sisters.’ I thought that was an interesting point and I never thought of that.”
One of the most striking things about the film is it’s visual style and the way Park and his long-time cinematographer Chung-Hoon Chung uses the visuals to tell the story in a unique way, so he told us about how he collaborates with his DP.
“It starts fairly early on from the script development stage, the way it works with my DP, and as to how the visual concept comes together, it depends on what the film is and it’s a case by case thing. On certain films, the visual concept, we will figure it out earlier and other films, it might be later, but in either case, it’s always true that my DP works with me from the script development stage and engaging the DP in the conversation about what the film is about. We don’t actually sit down and say, ‘Okay, today we’re going to talk about the concept of how we’re going to visualize this film,’ but it’s just something organic that just happens. You can say this about the DP being involved at such an early stage is that rather than saying that it informs how the DP grapples with the visual style of the film. By having him involved earlier on, the DP actually informs and influences the script that I’m developing, so it’s one of those rare cases when that happens.”
Another strong distinction between Stoker to Park’s work is the use of the outdoors with most of the film being shot near Nashville, so we asked about finding these locations and how they were used to make a film that looks different than his past work. “I was hoping to have a new experience with this in terms of finding new locations whereas in Korea, I’m very familiar with the environment there so invariably, they look very similar to each other, the outdoor landscape, but coming to an unfamiliar land, I was hoping that with a fresh set of eyes, I might be able to find some interesting locations. At the same time, I didn’t want to make what you might call a tourist postcard, very conventional take on America. More effort was really put into making sure that the specific location that you see inside the film remains non-descript. I didn’t want this to be tied down to a specific location, but finding locations to me is always about finding the right setting for the story, so just being faithful to that is my process and that’s very much the case here.”
Our next question may have been somewhat cheeky because it was hard to ignore the visual and tonal influences of Alfred Hitchcock’s Psycho on the movie, especially in one scene outside a very familiar looking motel and another one in which India takes a shower, although that goes in a very different direction than Hitchcock’s most famous bit of filmmaking. “India isn’t taking a shower at a motel really,” he said with a smile trying to deflect the comparison. “You can’t say that every film one watches in which there is a motel or a young girl taking a shower, that it’s ‘Psycho,’ one wouldn’t, but because of the fact that this film written by Wentworth Miller is written under strong influence of ‘Shadow of a Doubt’ and that was the fundamental starting point, a lot of people seem to be having this preconceived idea. Because Wentworth took some heavy inspiration from Hitchcock as a writer, can one really say that as a director I didn’t draw inspiration from Hitchcock? I can’t say that, because Hitchcock is no longer just a name of a director; Hitchcock is a genre unto itself, so as an audience member, if you want to see the film that way and to find Hitchcockian references, you probably can do that—not just with ‘Stoker’ but with a lot of thriller films.”
Lastly, we asked Director Park about working with an American studio, whether he had to pull back or if they had the script and knew what they were getting into with Director Park on board as director. He gave a really long answer to this question and when the interpreter followed his long speech by just saying “no” as translation, we couldn’t help but laugh, remembering a funny scene in Sofia Coppola’s Lost in Translation. His response did involve talking about a very specific scene that might be deemed a SPOILER!
“I did have to go through a lot of discussions and really had to convince and persuade the studio on a lot of points, as you would expect though for any filmmaker making films in America,” he began. “The thing was that all these conversations that I had with Fox Searchlight felt productive. For instance, this scene where Uncle Charlie approaches Auntie Jean in the phone booth, I just wanted to cut out of the scene as Uncle Charlie undoes his belt. I wanted to finish scene there but the studio were interested in showing more, to make it more satisfying and terrifying. I was wondering whether exercising more restraint and not actually showing the moment that Uncle Charlie steps inside the phone booth and strangling Auntie Jean. I was thinking about this hard but then realized that cutting out of the scene as Uncle Charlie undoes the belt, some people might see that and get the notion that ‘What is he doing there?’ but in a certain sense that could be more terrifying than if he shows him jumping Auntie Jean with the belt. The thing is that it wasn’t my intention to portray Uncle Charlie as a rapist, it’s a completely wrong impression of Uncle Charlie and a different movie. When I realized that—although it wasn’t the studio’s intention to pose that sort of question—I thought there’s a point to showing a little more in that scene, in other words clarifying that Uncle Charlie is not a rapist. Although it does make for an interesting moment of making the audience wonder what is he doing with that belt but it needs to be clarified he’s not a rapist, so for me, that’s the kind of production that were had with the studio and I use that to illustrate my point that not only does it go to one side of the argument but it leads to a very productive and new way of thinking or something for me to think about a lot of elements in a fresh and different perspective.”