Back in 2006-11 Phil’s Quick Review editor in chief Phil Hobden was the Film & TV editor and chief writer for the legendary martial arts focused Combat Magazine. The Combat Magazine Series takes look back at some of the best interviews, conversations and articles that Phil wrote or edited during that time.
Next up: Filmmaker Kim-Jee Woon. Interview by Phil Hobden
Starting out directing theater, the South Korean Kim Ji-woon quickly graduated to making a series of well respected films such as I Saw The Devil and The Good, The Bad & The Weird. A visually stylist filmmaker, he recently made his Hollywood debut with The Last Stand, which marked the return to cinema of one of movies most recognisable faces – Arnold Schwarzenegger. We caught up with Kim Jee Woon to talk about his eclectic career so far and what it was like bring one of the icons of modern cinema back to the big screen…
Combat Magazine: Can you tell us how you got involved in the project?
Kim Jee Woon: Lionsgate and Lorenzo di Bonaventura saw my Korean Western-style film the Good, the Bad, the Weird, and probably felt that I would be right for the Last Stand, which could be classified as a modern Western. The two films are similar in the sense that Good, Bad, Weird is about outlaws racing through the great plains to reach a goal, while the Last Stand is about a sheriff trying to stop an outlaw in a supercar racing to a destination.
Combat Magazine: Was there a particular reason behind choosing now as the time to make your Hollywood debut?
KGW: Ever since the Tale of Two Sisters (which has been remade in the US), I have been receiving many offers from Hollywood. Unfortunately, most of the projects I was offered were horror films or already packaged projects that were ready to go, and I was not interested in these. On top of that, timing was not opportune due to the projects I was working on in Korea. Then right after the Good, the Bad, the Weird, I received the offer for the Last Stand. I felt that the timing was perfect, and also I was given the opportunity to work with the writer from the beginning of development, so I decided that the Last Stand would be my Hollywood debut.
Combat Magazine: Did you notice any major differences between shooting a film in the US as opposed to Korea?
KGW: The whole system in itself is very different. In Korea, when a director makes a decision, that decision is immediately put into action. A director has that much power in Korea. In Hollywood however, the studio and the producer have as much authority as the director does, so the three must work together in the decision-making process. Also, an assistant director in Korea is someone who supports the director and makes sure that the director’s thoughts and artistic vision is reflected within the film. Basically, the AD is the director’s closest ally, and also has the ability to make decisions on behalf of the director. However, it seems to me that the main role of the assistant director in Hollywood is to maintain the efficiency of the production. I felt more lonesome as a director here because of that fact. At the same time though, I have learned to make more prudent decisions in this new environment. Another difference would be the existence of strong unions and their strict rules, especially regarding time. There were so many more rules to follow compared to Korea, and now I have new found respect for the US based directors who are able to create excellent films despite the constant burden and pressure of following these rules. In the end, a victory is only meaningful when all the rules of the game have been followed. I must admit that initially, I was shaken a bit from being in a totally unfamiliar environment, but I’ve began to understand the system in the process and feel more comfortable in it now. By the end of the film, I was able to use my ability to the fullest.
Combat Magazine: The Last Stand looks like a very American film. How are you putting your own stamp on it?
KGW: I don’t know. I never make films thinking “This is my film. This right here is undoubtedly Kim Jee-Woon style.” I am not even sure what “Kim Jee-Woon style” is. When I make films I never allow myself to make hard-set decisions ahead of time.
This might be shocking from Hollywood’s perspective. In the Hollywood system, everything must be under absolute control. If something is not logically acceptable, then the whole process comes to a halt. However, even when I write a script I always leave about 15% of it unfinished. Actually, it might be more accurate to say that I start working on a film not knowing what that 15% would look like.
After preproduction and storyboarding, 1/3 of the missing 5% is completed. Meeting with the cast brings about another 5%. As for the remaining 5%, I discover it on set.
On the day of, I like to walk around set by myself and take in the area to discover what that location is offering, to understand how it speaks to me personally.
After the lights go on and the cameras are set up, I watch the actors go through one or two camera rehearsals, and there are times when a bright light bulb suddenly blinks in my head. This is that magical moment in which the remaining 5% is completed.
Perhaps this sort of directing is what could be considered my style. I believe that leaving 15% to be filled in later is the key factor that drives me to bring my film to completion.
I believe that within this 15% is where you will find the emotion, nuance, rhythm and every beat of the film at their purest state.
In Korea, the director has absolute authority and control on set. In Hollywood, however, the director does not, so using this process and style of directing is not an easy task.
In Hollywood, everything must be set in stone beforehand. Never in Hollywood can one move on to the next stage with a vague picture in mind.
So how did I utilize my style in Hollywood? First of all, make no mistake. I tried my best to work within the Hollywood system. I planned everything in advance, and never caused confusion for the crew or the cast because of a director’s indecisiveness.
The only thing I constantly reminded everyone of was the fact that there would be moments that go beyond our plan, that there would be something more to show. This was because it was extremely crucial to not cause confusion or uproar among the crew and cast when I gave out of the blue direction, a totally unexpected setting, or just any new idea.
That does not mean I was able to utilize this style as freely as I have in Korea. Each and every decision was an uphill battle, so it was emotionally and physically draining.
I find 85% of the film within my organized, conscious mind, and 15% in the chaos of the subconscious.
Combat Magazine: How was it directing Arnold Schwarzenegger?! Was it nerve-wracking or exciting, and how did he take direction, being an icon!?
KGW: I’m not an outgoing person. Compared to an average person, I am quite skeptical and pessimistic. This is different from being nervous.
Anyways, because of who I am it was neither nerve-wracking nor exciting for me at first. I analyzed the situation in a very cold, calm manner – like a true skeptic and a pessimist.
When I found out that Arnold was going to star in this film, I thought to myself, “I’m done for”. Arnold is a man who dominated the world as a bodybuilder, rose to the top in Hollywood, and served as a governor of the state much larger than Korea. The only thought on my mind was “I don’t want to mess up his biography. Why me?”
Even when I was flying from Korea to the US to meet Arnold, I just thought it would be nice to meet him as a fan, even if I were to quit.
I was invited to Arnold’s home and met him for the first time, and we talked about his character Sheriff Ray Owens (the protagonist in the Last Stand). During this conversation, I came to the realization that the Owens I pictured and the Owens Arnold was thinking of were similar in many ways, and after further explanation it was evident that Arnold and I were imagining a completely identical character.
I found courage and hope at that moment, and realized that this film is going to be my Hollywood debut.
He was very smart just as people have described him to be, and also he played a huge role in bringing positive energy to the set by always being playful and bright.
All of my directions had to go through a translation but he was always able to understand exactly what I wanted, and expressed that through his performance. He never even frowned once even after numerous takes.
Towards the beginning of production when I was not too familiar with the Hollywood system, things were progressing a bit slowly. The 1st AD and the producer would yell out something to someone, or tap their watches while I was watching playback in an attempt to rush me. At these times, Arnold would tell them to wait and give the director time to think and make decisions. The fact that Arnold took my side and encouraged me is what gave me the strength to adapt to the Hollywood system in the beginning. He always respected my ideas, and from time to time when he would express his ideas, he was very firm. He is a very smart man. There is definitely a reason why he has earned so many crowns in so many fields.
Combat Magazine: Was it daunting to be handling the film that marks Arnold Schwarzenegger’s solo return to the big screen?
KGW: Arnold is an action star icon of this generation. As an icon, there is a certain image associated with him, and the audience expects to see that iconic image in the film. I felt that I wouldn’t be able to create a realistic film with just that image, so the difficult task for me was to strike the perfect balance between that iconic image and a side of Arnold that was never seen before. For instance, if Arnold were to be only introduced as a mellow father figure for the town and the deputies, I was worried that no one would want to see Arnold playing that type of character. Exhibiting these two sides appropriately within one character was very difficult.
Combat Magazine: The trailer makes it look very action heavy, but will there also be plenty of character moments, relationship arcs, etc?
KGW: Yes. If the Last Stand were just an action-heavy film, I would’ve never even worked on it.
I am neither an action director nor ambitious when it comes to action sequences.
I am simply interested in portraying characters in violent situations, and give much thought as to how to portray this visually in a certain genre.
In that regard, this film is about fear, rage, and sorrow that the characters feel in a violent situation, and how they overcome such emotions with certain calmness. As the story unfolds we see the characters grow emotionally, and I relied heavily on such character growth to design the action sequences. My hope is that the characters in this film will be loved as much as the action scenes.
Combat Magazine: You proved you could do amazing, inventive action in The Good, The Bad, The Weird. Is there anything in The Last Stand to rival the ghost market sequence?
KGW: There are a few sequences that I like. Two of my favourites would have to be the fierce town battle between the escaped cartel boss’s mercenaries and the sheriff and the cornfield car chase. I don’t think I am highly skilled in directing actions sequences, but in the town battle I was able to bring out all the different small town characters along with a lot of neat action beats to my satisfaction.
The cornfield chase sequence actually did not exist in the original script, but I fought for it until the end. In this sequence, cartel boss Cortez drives his specially modified monster of a supercar, Sherriff Owens desperately goes after him in the Mayor’s precious Camaro, and this turns into a sort of a cornfield car race. There are many special moments within this sequence, and I was really satisfied with the dynamics we were able to portray with the vast cornfield and the cars that drive through it.
The dried corn and cornstalks frantically crashing into the windshield and the cars driving through the cornfield is very powerful, dynamic and unique at the same time. In the midst of this chaotic car chase there are two quiet moments: once in the middle and once at the end, and I have to say these I am quite fond of these two cinematic moments. My hope is that the audience would enjoy these moments as much as the cornfield chase.
Combat Magazine: One of the most pleasing aspects was the use of practical stunts, especially in the car chases, how difficult was it to shoot those sequences? Were there any major problems?
KGW: We have a car chase scene that takes place inside a vast cornfield. A snowstorm hit Albuquerque few weeks before the cornfield shoot, completely covering our cornfield with heavy snow. We were concerned that we wouldn’t be able to shoot this scene at all, and actually looked into cornfields in other areas. Fortunately, the snow melted away just in time, and the cornfield had a nice golden hue to it. Not only that, the cornstalks had become flimsier which made it a bit easier for the cars to drive over. We did lose some parts of the field, so we had to be very frugal with the use of corn. It was almost as if we were giving the cornfield a nice shave using our cars as razor blades. In the end, we had to replant some parts of the cornfield because we had finally run out of corn. The least of our worries was actually driving the cars through the cornfield, which in itself was not an easy task at all.
Combat Magazine: Did you choose the cast? It’s an odd-but-very-exciting mix? Why these people?
KGW: I may not know much about American film, but I have never seen such strong characters like Arnold Schwarzenegger, Johnny Knoxville, Forest Whitaker, Luis Guzman, and Peter Stormare all together in one screen. Has there been such film? Maybe, but I have not seen it.
I really enjoyed the strange ensemble and incredible synergy created by these seemingly mismatching cast with such different temperament and characters.
On top of that, actors of various nationalities like Eduardo Noriega, Jaimie Alexander, Rodrigo Santoro, Zach Gilford, Genesis Rodriguez, and Daniel Henney all brought their own unique colors to create one ensemble, and directing this ensemble was exciting for me.
Spending time with the Hollywood actors was what I felt was most enjoyable and meaningful during my time in Hollywood.
Their professionalism, well-honed acting, respectful and devoted attitude, their liveliness which brings about a positive aura to the set – actors are actors, whether they are from the East or the West. Just like their Korean counterparts, the actors in America were sensitive to whether they were being loved by the director, and when they felt that love they returned it through their acting.
Actors are the flowers of the film, of the set, and of the director. The term “Flowers of the Screen” holds a deep meaning.
Combat Magazine: How important was it to have someone you’d already worked with, in Ji-Yong Kim, on set while you were making this film?
KGW: It was my first film in Hollywood, so I absolutely needed a few people who I have worked with before. I had Ji Yong Kim as the director of photography during production and Mowg as the composer during post-production. The two have helped me out tremendously through the process. I was especially encouraged by their confidence and fearlessness in this foreign environment.
Combat Magazine: Were you influenced by any other movies? Rio Bravo, perhaps?
KGW: High Noon comes to my mind, in the sense that it’s about finding value in something small and fighting to protect it, and justice being materialized in protecting that something even in the most difficult and dangerous situation. Also, the idea of risking one’s life to desperately and fiercely stop something might be similar to Die Hard.
After watching the film, however, maybe other movies might come to mind. Or maybe one might think that the Last Stand is an Hollywood action film that is totally different.
I guess we will find out once the lid is uncovered.
Combat Magazine: Can you see yourself doing solely Hollywood films now, or will you still be making films in Korea? What’s next for you?
KGW: Making films in both Korea and the US would be most ideal for me. My next project is most likely going to be a Korean film – a remake of Mamoru Oshii’s Jin-Roh that takes place in Korea. I have a couple of US projects that I’m considering – a sci-fi noir and an elevated action thriller. Nothing is set in stone yet, however.
THE LAST STAND is out on Blu-ray and DVD from Lions Gate Home Entertainment.