When he considered taking on an American remake of Park Chan Wook‘s “Oldboy,” screenwriter Mark Protosevich (“I Am Legend”) knew the score. Much of our time during a recent Los Angeles roundtable was spent on his reasons for adapting the new Spike Lee-directed film, having heard the many complaints and eye rolls when the project was announced. And surprisingly, he counts himself among that crowd. “I initially heard years ago the idea of Justin Lin directing a remake, and my first reaction was, ‘Oh, really?’ ” Protosevich said. “Which I think is the reaction of a lot of people: if you love the original, that instinctive, gut reaction part of you says, ‘Aw, what’s wrong with leaving the original alone?’ ”
It’s not an off-base assessment, but one thing Protosevich does discard completely is the outside claim that they remade Park’s film for purely financial reasons. “Show me someone who watches the original film and thinks, ‘Wow an English-language version of this is going to clean up at the box-office.’ ” He argues instead that some acclaimed films can offer an exciting alternate take, pointing to “The Wages of Fear” (later reinterpreted in William Friedkin‘s “Sorcerer”) and Howard Hawks‘ and John Carpenter‘s “The Thing” as examples.
“I love both of those movies,” he said. “So another part of me thinks it’s possible to proceed with a different version of an existing film, and hopefully do it with some integrity, honor and respect to the original.”
Actor Josh Brolin, the film’s leading man was also present at the press day, and like Protosevich he was a massive fan of Park’s “Oldboy,” but he foresaw a different path to its the twisted center of a film that explores a man’s layered revenge for his wrongful 20 years of imprisonment. The new version co-stars Elizabeth Olson, Sharlto Copley, and Samuel L. Jackson, and Brolin says of it “The original is very story-driven whereas this one is more on performance. It gets more into the guy in the makeshift prison, and gets more into the psychology of how selfish this guy is. It was written differently by Protosevich, and when I called director Park [to ask what he thought of the remake], he said, ‘I don’t give a fuck.’ ”
Brolin pauses before laughing, “He didn’t quite say that, but he said to just make our own ‘Oldboy’, and not his. I love different perspectives on the same film, and I went off on this riff about one day seeing one film done by five different directors. So that was the kind of mentality.”
In the beginning, Protosevich’s involvement started out with a failed incarnation which had two of cinema’s heavyweights attached. “I got approached by Will Smith because we had worked together on ‘I Am Legend’,” he explained, “Will wanted me to write this version that Steven Spielberg was interested in directing. That was five years ago.” He said the Spielberg/Smith version never amounted to anything more than some “initial meetings talking about it,” but the direction was still going to be very much in line with the original. “Steven’s son was a big fan of the original, and he said to his dad, ‘You can’t cop out on this, it has to be raw, disturbing and you have to keep the ending.’ And he was onboard with that. I don’t know if that ever got to Will, but needless to say a lot of times it just became a moot point.”
He added, “I had done so much research and on spec wrote a thirty-page treatment of what I wanted to do with a new version, and had become very passionate and emotionally involved about the project.” Protosevich decided to stay onboard, taking the script through three extra drafts until he and the producers got to a point where he says the film was “provocative, challenging, unsettling, and not your normal movie.”
Once Spike Lee came onboard in July of 2011, Brolin instantly clicked with him, promising a psychologically raw performance that would match Lee’s wish to experiment on-set in New Orleans. “There’s a lot of stuff somewhere on some drive that nobody should ever see—a lot of embarrassing moments, a lot of exposing moments, whether they be emotional or physical, and a lot of failures of my own which I’m happy about because that’s my job,” he said. “My job is to fail in the biggest way I possibly can and hopefully out of that will be one nugget that will be useable. If I’m doing theatre, you rehearse for five to six weeks in order to find that out so you can give a finished product when you get onstage. Then that morphs every performance. Here, you’re just going for it, and then it’s up to Spike to cut and make a solid narrative out of it.”
Aside from the emotional difficulties, there was also the case of the physical; one of the centerpieces of Park’s original is a one-take hallway fight that, in Lee’s version, involves just as many opponents and two floor levels. Brolin called the prospect of pulling the feat off “horrible,” but admitted that it was ultimately very satisfying to complete.
“I cried after we finished our last take, when we knew it was the right take—I think was the seventh,” he said. “I walked about five minutes away and started bawling, because I didn’t think I could pull it off. I panicked and was working out twice a day for four hours total, along with a 12-hour working day, and I was very, very tired. I’m 45 now, so it’s not like I’m 20 years old and bouncing around. I’m not like a rubber band; more like a board. I was really happy with [the fight]. I think it’s three times longer than the original’s, so it was really ambitious for me as an actor. As an actor, not an athlete.”
Brolin points to his “morbid curiosity of what makes people react to certain extreme situations” as an impetus for different roles, and aside from prepping for “Everest,” the survival drama co-starring John Hawkes and Jake Gyllenhaal, he also recently spent time with Paul Thomas Anderson on his Thomas Pynchon adaptation “Inherent Vice”. Calling the “There Will Be Blood” director’s film the “craziest most brilliant experience of my life,” the actor expanded upon his luck in working some of the top-tier directors working today.
“My dad said recently, and I really appreciated it, ‘There’s a lot of directors out there but there’s very few storytellers.’ And working with these extreme geeks like myself who are very much these film fanatics is so nice. You’re in this kind of iconic awe, and then you get to the set and you go, ‘Okay, I actually have to work, we actually want to make this as good as I can be.’ Like with Paul: he was taking stuff out of ‘Inherent Vice’, whittling away at what was in the book, and I was saying wouldn’t it be great if we could bring some of what was in the book back,” Brolin said. “Who the fuck am I to say that, you know what I mean?”
He added, “But then we start collaborating and putting stuff in there, and realizing, ‘Okay…let’s take it out, let’s colorize it even more with something else, and then how are we going do this on set?’ You realize all the work you’ve done around a table was meaningless, but it fed something. You don’t know what it was, but you’re always looking for that elusive thing.”
Audiences will soon see for themselves how the many elements of Lee’s “Oldboy” finally gel together apart from Park’s version, but Brolin believes the viewer unfamiliar with either has the greatest experience. “Some lady earlier said she was flanked by two people watching the film who hadn’t seen the original, and that their reaction was so visceral. I would never comment on whether the movie is good or bad, but if people are reacting, that’s the point. The people who get it to watch it free of the hype. Not only that, hopefully they’ll be interested enough by their reaction to go back and see the original which is I think—I don’t think it’s a flawless film, but I think it’s unbelievable.”
Spike Lee’s “Oldboy” hits theatres in wide release on November 27th.