2013 stands to potentially bring three South Korean filmmakers' names into the mainstream American fold; a move notable not just because of the three auteurs' common land, but also for placing their distinctive visions in an entirely new realm. With Kim Ji-Woon already delivering his Arnie action throwback, “The Last Stand,” and Bong Joon-Ho's “Snowpiercer” dropping later this year, the strange middle child is up next, in the twisted, baroque form of Park Chan-Wook's “Stoker.”
Carrying over the intensity from “Oldboy” and his other revenge trilogy entries (“Sympathy For Mr. Vengeance,” “Sympathy For Lady Vengeance"), Park has also gathered a stellar cast for his English-language debut: Mia Wasikowska, Nicole Kidman, and Matthew Goode, delivering unusual turns to the tune of Hitchcock's “Shadow of a Doubt.” They make up the truly twisted family at the center of the film — steeped in Park's themes of murder and gallows humor — with an American landscape and Gothic approach, and as Park and the cast recently attested during the film's Los Angeles press conference, those aspects have created both new and familiar elements in Park's filmography.
1. The Actors Were Emphatic Fans of Park, But Noticed the Black List Script First
Park's filmic output is rare enough that when a project finds his name attached, actors take notice, and uniformly the cast of "Stoker" was no different. In particular, Kidman held a strong affection for the director, and thought he'd be a great fit for the sparse, haunting story. “[The] real strength of director Park is his atmosphere, and this script relies heavily on the language of the images," she said. "His use of color and sound and everything, it's very specific and not by chance. And that's something that really fills in a lot in a script like this."
That script comes courtesy of "Prison Break" star Wentworth Miller, but in fact, the pseudonym of Ted Foulkes was the one garnering all the attention. Under the perceptive belief that Hollywood might scoff at his first screenwriting attempt, he became Foulkes and promptly landed on The Black List of unproduced screenplays. He may have been right all along.
Identity issues were never an issue for Park or the cast, as Wasikowska acknowledged. “A good script is just a good script. I thought it was amazing the first time I read it and was instantly drawn into this world and these really complex characters.”
Kidman added, “I had to read it a couple of times just to understand it, just because it's got a lot of subtext and layers and just wanted to absorb what the overall feeling of it was.”
In the film, India Stoker (Wasikowska) and her mother Evie (Kidman) are mourning the loss of their father and husband, Richard (Dermot Mulroney). Coming from wealth, their expansive mansion grounds suddenly grow much lonelier with his auto accident death, but that all changes with the arrival of Uncle Charlie (Goode).
"Park said this is a movie about bad blood," Kidman described, and in Charlie's slow ensnarement of India's emotions and dangerous impulses, Goode inhabits that theme wholesale, a process he found “so psychologically interesting” in Park's “confusing, brilliant and wonderful” take on him.
2. The Cast and Crew's Working Relationship Knocked Down Any Communication Barriers
While the decision for the cast to jump into Park's world was near instantaneous, the unknown variable of communication still loomed large. Park retains a decent grasp on English, but his precise cinematic vision might've found trouble with an American cast and crew.
However, Park was absolutely prepared, starting from the first moments of pre-production with a detailed “story-bible” that laid out every shot, camera move, and instance of visual symmetry. As for the cast, which includes Jacki Weaver, Alden Ehrenreich, and Lucas Till, Park says, “They are professionals who deal exclusively with people's emotions and their thoughts. Working with this smart cast, sometimes I would only have to start speaking a word, and they would immediately catch on to what I wanted to portray. So it was not much of an issue.”
Kidman explained her side, saying, “There are times when you have to clarify words, obviously because different words mean certain things, so a lot of times it would just be me going, 'Is this exactly what he wants?' because in translation things can get lost. So I was just very specific with him.”
Having already learned Spanish for the 2003 film “South of Grenada,” Goode was well-suited to the intuitive levels of communication, a process he found “as hard as you're gonna get, but boy, do you listen.” He added, “We just want it to make sense. [The characters] are all detached, so much so that we don't really know where it's set or what time period it is. Charlie's very good on his own; he's like a chrysalis; a fucked up Peter Pan in the middle of Mia's coming of age story.”
3. The Most Memorable Scenes Came From Both Improv and Detailed Scripted Monologues.
Throughout the film's moody narrative, Park enacts that cohesive vision via seamless transitions of visual and aural motifs, but that doesn't mean certain scenes aren't thrilling standouts. One of them — glimpsed in the trailers — depicts Kidman delivering a rancid monologue to her daughter after catching the first whiff of her betrayal. Kidman loves the scene “because it's so unusual, and when I first read it, I never expected it to end with that line: 'I can't wait to watch the world tear you apart.'”
She added, “Evie is not just an oppressive mother. I feel like she's just starved for love, and she's got a child that she doesn't connect with, and director Park – when we first met – said to me, ever since you've held this baby, this baby's not wanted to be held, and that's an amazing way to start building the relationship between a mother and a daughter.”
“We did it a number of different ways, but we shot it in one take, which is fantastic as an actor, so I was just very grateful that he had the vote of confidence of me to do it," she said.
Wasikowska added, “It's very scary to be on the receiving end of it though.”
Another scene that sticks out for Goode comes (**Spoilers**) near the film's climax, when the extent of Charlie's murderous backstory is revealed. “There was a scene that was meant to be by the lake — the burial of Richard and I's younger brother — but [it] became compromised due to financial matters, and director Park rather brilliantly didn't flap about it," he said. “He got on with it, and created it in the backyard with the sandpit; it was just very quick, and more chilling because of the nature of play in the scene.
Park added, “Certainly including [the burial], I want the story to be interpreted in as many ways possible, but it is not a story about hereditary nature of evil. Everyone has a seed inside, and when you come across such a mesmerizing mentor, they have the ability to blossom into a flower of evil.” (**End Spoilers**)
4. Philip Glass' Soundtrack Contribution Amounted to Wasikowska's Favorite Scene, and Goode's Most Challenging
As with its cast, “Stoker” features an amazing group of musicians for its soundtrack. Multi-instrumentalist Emily Wells supplies the end credit song, “Becomes The Color,” while composer Clint Mansell likewise contributes an evocative and on-form score. But the briefest and most memorable soundtrack moment comes from Philip Glass, who wrote an original piano piece that India and Charlie play together – an act drawing them closer in their devious ways.
“I really liked it because I didn't have to do much,” explained Wasikowska of the scene. “We had just playback going, and it's such an intense piece… the crew was sort of wilting around us but we were completely into it. When the music is there, all you have to do is surrender.”
The Stokers' piano plays a crucial role in India's arc over the course of the film, as it evokes the family's decaying grandeur, as well as India's solitary life. But the duet converges both aspects into an operatic display, as Park noted that Wasikowska and Goode deliver fantastic performances while actually playing the piano themselves. “They were trying to focus on getting the fingers right, but at the same time they perfectly encapsulated the emotions of the characters during those moments,” he said.
For the two actors in charge of playing the piece, it was a daunting but worthy prospect. Wasikowska explained, “I think with music, that's one more element that we don't have on set with us. Because we have such a blank canvas in a way — we're always in a room with 15 people in our faces holding booms — but when there's this music that's one more key to the tone of the scene. So it feels easy.”
“I don't play the piano, so the fact that they picked fucking Philip Glass is perfect,” Goode laughed. “We were able to play certain sections, so we were able to give Park options to shoot from behind. Because we all know the language of film, when you see someone playing something you say, 'I bet they're not playing that.' And then to show you that they are, in a way it's fucking with the audience. It's quite nice.”
5. Park's First Hollywood Experience Was Jarring, But Only Initially
Park's decision to transplant his aberrant vision to an American landscape has been one approached with both caution and excitement, and when Park himself came to shooting “Stoker” in Nashville, TN, he definitely found an altered experience waiting for him.
Having to “shoot twice as fast as [I am] used to in Korea was the most challenging thing” about the film's 40-day production in 2011; a marked difference for Park not only in speed but process as well.
“In Korea, I would watch the playback with all of the actors and spend a lot of time discussing each take, and also I would use the process we call on-set assembly," he explained. "Because I storyboard my entire film at the beginning — even before pre-production even begins — the scene is already laid out in the storyboards, so it allows the on-set assembly person to cut each take [for immediate review]."
However, once he thought back to the beginning of his career, he relented from arguing. “I remember on my first ever Korean film, I never actually used any playback or onset assembly, so all I had to do while making 'Stoker' was remember, 'Oh, this is just like I'm making my first film,' so after that it didn't feel very difficult.”
Park didn't reveal if he had any other American projects in the works, but you can see his first attempt when “Stoker” hits theatres March 1st.