The best film I saw at this year’s New York Asian Film Festival (our recap of which will be up late next week) was director Lee Won-Suk’s film How to Use Guys with Secret Tips. About halfway through the film, I knew that I had to meet the man responsible. So I made that happen, and it was probably one of the most enjoyable interviews I’ve ever done. Unlike the other people I interviewed at this year’s festival, Wok-Suk speaks English, so our 30 minute interview was actually a 30 minute interview. Which made it hell to transcribe but meant there was a lot more time to just talk and much less miscommunication. And honestly, he’s the kind of guy I just wanted to talk to.
So below you can find a transcript of our discussion, where we hit on how he became a filmmaker, what kinds of movies he likes, his upcoming projects, and whether or not his crazy-looking glasses are real (spoiler: they’re not). So check it out.
[For the next few weeks, we will be covering the 2013 New York Asian Film Festival and the 2013 Japan Cuts Film Festival, which together form one of the largest showcases of Asian cinema in the world. For our NYAFF 2013 coverage, click here. For Japan Cuts 2013 coverage, click here.]
Before you were a filmmaker, I know you studied at Boston University. What did you study there?
Mass communications was my major.
Where did you go from there? How did you get to here.
Then I went to Korea and worked at an ad agency and went to a production company, and after working there for a while, the economy crisis and IMF happened, so everyone was getting laid off. So they needed to lay off somebody, and I was the youngest. So I said that I would just quit, because I wasn’t having fun with it. [laughs] So, I quit and luckily I went to the States and my parents asked me to go to grad school. They wanted me to get an MBA. But I suck at studying, so… [laughs]
People were telling me that there was a film school, and I went and applied. I thought it was pretty cool, you know, so I applied there as a producing fellow, but I went to the interview and didn’t make it. They were asking for five years experience and everyone’s all professional and I didn’t know anything about film. Then luckily two of the guys who were supposed to come didn’t show up and I was on the waiting list, so I got into the school. From there, I started it, but after one semester I got kicked out from the school. [laughs] It was too hard. I didn’t know anything about it and producing wasn’t my cup of tea. I wanted to direct, so I started going ditching class and going to directing classes, and one my professors got really angry about it and I got kicked out.
So I went to this art school called Art Center, and there I learned a lot, saw a lot of movies. I think I saw almost the whole library. Because I don’t know anything about films. I just started watching all of these films from the AFI at the Art Center and watched a lot of experimental films. I think that’s how I started.
So were you influenced by a lot of experimental films?
Those and B-rated films, like 60s and 70s films like Russ Meyer. You know. Cheesy, weird movies. Fellini’s movies. At the Art Center I watched a lot of Experimental film and Buñuel films. Those kinds of films.
When did you come up with the idea for How to Use Guys with Secret Tips?
Seven years ago. It took me seven years.
Was the conception of the idea or when you started writing the script?
Seven years ago I started writing. In the beginning, I wanted to make a very different movie. I wantedto make people come to the theater and you’re watching this manual instead of a movie, and all ofa sudden it’s turned into a film. These models start trying to get out of this video, and in the end, the set crumbles which is very symbolic and that’s how they get out of the manual. That was the original start of this long journey. I don’t know, but no one got the concept. And I understand… nobody got it. [laughs] I’m the only one who was like, “Oh yeah!” because I didn’t know anything about the Korean film industry. It’s really hard for people who study film in the States to come back to Korea to make films, because the industry demands very Korean topics and themes. ButI don’t know what that is [laughs], so it was really hard for me. I think a lot of my friends are dealing with the same thing. They did the same thing and went to Korea. I tell students who want to study film abroad not to. Go to a Korean National school or whatever.
Does this idea not translate to Korea? Is How to Use Guys an American idea in Korea, or?
I don’t know. The production company I was with told me it was too American, too Hollywood. But I didn’t know it was too Hollywood. They wanted more of a romantic comedy with easy stories and a guy who loves girls and those kinds of things.
You’ve said you don’t like romantic comedies. Why?
I think they’re always the same. I love Love Actually, but aside from that, I just like weird films.
Do you tend to be more interested in Korean film or American film (or some other type of film)?
I mean, I think that it doesn’t matter. Anything that I want to make if I get to make it, whether Hollywood or Korean.
Have you thought aboutgoing to Hollywood?
Of course. I think it’s everybody’s dream to come into Hollywood.
Have you considered making multi-language films in Korea?
I don’t want to be stuck with one thing. I want to always move on and try different things. That’s why the next one I’m doing is a period piece. It’s not a comedy. It’s very serious. You know Kim Jee-woon, the Korean director? I respect him a lot, because every movie he does, he tries a different genre and different stuff.
He’s my favorite director. How does it feel to have his newest short film play right before How to Use Guys at NYAFF this year?[laughs] Yeah. Yesterday. I’m really close with him. He had a birthday party on Saturday. I was here, so I couldn’t go, but I took a picture and sent it to him.
Are those glasses real?
No, there’s no prescription. They used to be real, but I had lasik surgery.
So you just like the glasses?
No, I tried not to wear glasses, but people told me to wear them because my face is very offending. That’s what they said. “I want to smack your face.” So I wear the glasses.
What are some of the things that got cut from the film?
I wanted to make a B-Movie. The story goes this way, that way, and all of a sudden they talk about this character. The director in the film plays guitar and there’s a story about why he plays, and there’s a scene where he finishes playing it. There are scenes like that. They got cut out.
Did you shoot them?
Yeah, we shot them.
Is there any chance of a director’s cut?
Yeah, probably? I don’t know when we’re gonna make the DVD. [At this point he looked to the distribution woman in the room]
[So did I, to her, whispering:] Release a director’s cut.[laughs] I don’t think… people are gonna be like, “It’s so long!” [laughs]
Are there any actors you’d like to work with?
I love Ben Stiller. He’s my favorite actor, and Will Ferrel. My two favorite actors.
Any Korean actors?
I dunno. I’ve never thought about it.
Can you tell about the period piece you’re doing?
It’s about 400 years ago, the king’s clothesmaker who was a slave and worked for life as the king’s clothesmaker, and if he works for one more year he’s going to be in the gentleman class. Then all of a sudden this genius guy who was a designer for Geisha girls comes to the castle and everyone wants to wear his clothes. Even the King wants to wear his clothes. So there’s jealousy, and it’s a story about the jealousy.
Does the designer coming impact whether or not the slave can move to the gentleman class?
Yeah. Everyone wants to wear the new guy’s clothes so he’s losing his ground and he’s afraid. And the King’s afraid that’s he’s changing women.
Is it going to be violent?
Very violent. Very dark. That’s why I wanted to do this. It has really deep… everyone has that jealousy. That jealousy could go overboard. I love it.
A lot of Korean period pieces lately have been really sexual. Will this be?
Nooo. The script is already out, and it is very sexual. I don’t know why all the Korean period pieces are becoming so sexual. I’m gonna cut it out and try to make it rated 15. I’m not into it! It’s going to be a very beautiful movie. I mean, people always wondered… Korean traditional dress is very Chinese-like but it became what it is right now and nobody knows who made the change, so we’re trying to make the story to explain that.
So someone else wrote the script?
Are you going to change it?
I already did. They didn’t like it. [laughs]
After this, are you going back to original stuff?
Yeah, of course.
Do you have any ideas?
Yeah. I want to go very visually crazy. I have all these music ideas too. Opera music and electronic music in this period piece. It’s like Marie Antionette by Sofia Coppola and how she has this cool music.
So that’s for the period piece?
So like Baz Luhrmann sort of?[laughs] No, that’s too much. Way overboard. With this I have to be very serious. I even signed a contract, because they were worried I might go overboard, so I’m going to stick with a straight drama. So I have to go with that, but with a twist of music and style.
After that, are you going to go back to crazy?
Yeah. There’s a comedy movie I want to do, but it’s really high budget, so in order to do that I have to prove that I can make a big blockbuster and get funding people.
So what’s the idea you want to make?
It’s a stupid superhero movie, like Stephen Chow’s Kung Fu Hustle, these five… it’s like Mystery Men. It’s like five guys with stupid powers and they think they’re superheroes. Something like that.
Do you like superheroes?
I mean, I love superheroes that don’t have any powers. I like superhero movies, but…
So more like Batman or Kick-Ass?
I love Kick-Ass. It’s one of my favorites.
Yeah, it’s good. Looking forward to the sequel?
Changing gears, when the set comes down at the end it doesn’t have the same meaning that it did.
Yeah, what it was was… the last chapter is called “Electric Kiss” and it’s when the guy and the girl kiss and the sparks go. So the two people are kissing and the set with the drawing of the people kissing fell down. We made a whole manual, and that was the last chapter. But the script changed and it didn’t have any meaning anymore.
But it looks cool?
I mean, it could have been done better. We wanted to have the most flamboyant set out there, that was the description of it, and all we got was the one set. That’s all we had. But it’s supposed to be like the whole world’s crumbling down.
You said in the Q&A Buster Keaton inspired part of it. Any other inspirations from way back?
The Three Stooges. The slapping and the stuff like that. I love the Three Stooges.
How much improvisation was there?
Everything was in the script, but it wasn’t very detailed. When Bo-Na is slapping the guy in the elevator, that was all the direction they had, and then they just went after each other. I didn’t expect that scene to be funny. I just thought it was a small scene that gets passed through, but they went after each other. We did three takes and we were having so much fun on that set. He’s getting his face slapped and everybody’s laughing and we forgot to cut. After two takes, I thought it was okay, but the actress wanted to do one more. She wasn’t happy.
Do you generally follow the actors?
Some. I think it’s a very political choice. As a first time director, you have to earn respect from your actors. I mean, first time directors are very insecure. Everybody’s more experienced than you and everybody’s looking at you to see if you know what you’re doing. It’s the hardest part, and when an actress asks… when a director gives a direction there’s always questions and sometimes I don’t agree with some of the choices, but I’ll let them do it once to make them happy and just won’t use it in the editing room.
Going way back, you said you worked in advertisements. How much of that translated to this film?
The thing about advertising is that it’s very short and has an impact. You have to have a punch line. You have to have a hook. And I learned that from advertising. This movie is like little stories put together, and somehow it got connected really well. For me, I think advertising helped a lot.
For the actual advertisements in the film, were those informed by your time with advertisers?
I didn’t want to make a movie about the advertising industry. My writer[, Noh Hye-Young,] brought that. I said I didn’t want it because I was in the industry and I just didn’t think it was interesting. But she brought it in and she made it really interesting.
How much of the script was you and how much was her?
I think the last script was entirely her storyline. The romance line was totally her. All these manuals and ideas I rewrote the whole thing, but without her this would have never happened. I really appreciated her. She’s a savior. And she told me, “If you keep going like this, you’re gonna sit for two more years. You’ve gotta listen to me.”
With the manual, how much of it was filmed and not used?
If there’s 100%, we probably used up like 60-70%, but it got really boring. There was a two-and-a-half-hour rough cut and it was really slow and lagging.
Watching it again, were there any things you wish you’d changed?
There were a few scenes where I wanted to put something in. Not change, just put in to explain, but I don’t think it mattered to anybody. They all got it.
Were you surprised by the reaction of an American audience?
Yeah, I thought they weren’t gonna laugh at all. It’s New York… and then there’s one person laughing, two people, and then it’s everyone.
You said that some of the translation was wrong?
Yeah… not wrong, but it’s really hard to explain. There’s a part where a girl that the guy’s trying to sign gets bumped into and he puts ink on her shirt. Her name means “nipple,” and that kind of thing is a funny line but it doesn’t translate. Also, when Dr. Suwalski never says “sex.” He says “bunga bunga” which is like “boom boom.” That kind of thing is funnier. Some wording was really hard to translate.
You wanted PSY [yeah, that PSY – Ed.] to be in it?
I mean, it wasn’t my choice, to be honest. It was a choice of the investor and production company, because we went to the same school. I’m not close with him, but my friends are really close, so we went to his concert to ask him, but he turned it down.
It would have been really interesting.
Yeah, but I think the Suwalski we had is the right person. If PSY did it, it would have been like… yeah.
Are you generally happy with how the casting came out?
When you see it again on the screen, is it basically how you envisioned it once you had the final script?
I mean, it could have been better. Every time I see it I say, “Ah, why didn’t I shoot it like…” It could have been better, but I think everything we portrayed in the script came out. And some things came out even better, like the slapping scene and the police seeing the naked man. Those were kind of made up. Even the police chase scene was almost cut out at the last minute, because the production company said we didn’t have time, so I had to make a compromise. What if I shoot it fast, and we did it. We had a 46 day plan to shoot and shot it in 39 days.
It was a pretty crazy shoot, but it was pretty fun.
Thank you very much.