NYCC Interview: The screenwriter and stars of Oldboy

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Spike Lee’s upcoming remake of Oldboy has drawn many strong opinions from our staff. While it’s one of our most anticipated films of the holiday season, it’s also a movie that makes us question how a remake can negatively affect the original. Screenwriter Mark Protosevich understands why this is.

“I know there are fundamentalists out there who feel that the original movie should never have been remade,” he said during the New York Comic Con last weekend. “I respect their feelings and there’s probably nothing I can say to change that.” At the same time, Protosevich hopes people go in with an open mind given the history of good-to-great remakes. “I’m glad David Cronenberg remade The Fly, you know?” he said. “There’s a Japanese version of Unforgiven — I’m curious about that!”

Protosevich was in attendance at the NYCC to promote the film along with co-stars Pom Klementieff and Michael Imperioli. Near the beginning of the panel, Josh Brolin provided a video introduction to a pseudo-trailer. In his hand was a cardboard hammer. Whether you’re looking forward to it or simply loathe it out of principle, there’ll be a lot to discuss when Oldboy comes out on November 27th.

OLDBOY Trailer (Spike Lee - Movie Trailer HD)

Prior to speaking with the Oldboy talent at the convention, I was treated to two exclusive clips from the film that established the relationship between Brolin’s character Joe Doucett and Imperioli’s character Charlie. They speak with surprise and unease inside of a very-enclosed-feeling bar.

“It’s ironic because I own a bar and he has a drinking problem, so that’s kind of a tricky thing, right?” Imperioli said. During the actual panel for the film, Protosevich commented that the name “Joe Doucett” was his attempt to evoke Oh Dae-su, the name of main character in the Park Chan-wook film.

In one of these two exclusive clips, I also got a glimpse of Sharlto Copley’s character and his henchwoman played by Klementieff. She busts out some martial arts and brings Brolin to the ground. Klementieff didn’t have a fighting background prior to the shoot but trained diligently, three hours a day for two months. Now a purple belt in Taekwondo and continuing to improve, the regimen and physicality of the role was so intense that she lost a toenail. “It was really ugly. I lost it after the movie because I’m really professional. I put a bandaid on it with Angry Birds to make it more cute.”

As for Copley’s character in the clip, the thing that stuck out most to me was his voice. It’s so peculiar, grating, nasally, and probably in the way that Lee had intended. The way I described it to our own Alec Kubas-Meyer is that if the villain’s voice had a face, I’d punch right it in the nose.

Protosevich has been with the project the longest. After writing the 2007 adaptation of I Am Legend, Will Smith contacted him to do a remake of Oldboy with Steven Spielberg attached to direct. The project fell through, but after starting some work on it, Protosevich was hooked. “I’d worked out a 30-page treatment and had the movie clear in my head,” he said. “The producer still wanted to go forward and I’m like, ‘I’m in!’ This one really meant something to me.”

Even after Lee became involved, Protosevich’s screenplay has remained mostly intact. (During the panel, he noted that Lee respects writers.) He stressed that both he and Lee have nothing but respect for the original film, and they likened the remake process to doing a cover song. “I like Neil Young’s ‘Like a Hurricane,’ but Roxy Music does this awesome cover of it,” Protosevich said. “And so, you’re honoring the original, but you’re trying to make it your own as much as possible.”

There may be a similar sense of owning the material when it comes to the script itself. This is Imperioli’s sixth film with Lee, though his last role with him was in 1999’s Summer of Sam. He noted that Lee likes to let his actors improvise and revise their lines as part of the rehearsal process, allowing them to make the characters a bit more their own. “People are surprised when they hear that because they think he runs a very tight ship, which he does,” he said, “but you can be as creative as you want.”

Part of this creativity extended to the name of Klementieff’s character. After being cast in the role, Klementieff texted Lee from Paris trying to figure out just the right name. She went through an online dictionary of Asian names, picking some of her favorites letter by letter, texting suggestions to Lee. “I sent them to Spike and he was like ‘Keep them going,'” she said. “So I sent B [names], then C [names]. I’m professional, I’m very motivated, I’m going to do all of the alphabet!” An hour and the alphabet later, Lee asked, “How do you say ‘happiness’ [in Korean]?” And she became Haeng-Bok.

“In the original drafts of the script she was just referred to as ‘The Asian Woman,'” Protosevich laughed.

The obvious question with the Oldboy remake (other than the implied “why” applicable to most remakes) is if this film will get as dark and as the original. Prostosevich stressed that the film doesn’t wimp out. When he first got involved with the remake, Spielberg told him, “My son will kill me if we don’t make this movie as intense as the original.” There have been some stories circulating around the web that the ending of the remake is even darker than the Park Chan-wook film, though that remains to be seen.

It doesn’t seem as if they’ll shy away from violence. The infamous hallway tracking shot may be in the film — my hope is that they turn the tracking shot into the signature Spike Lee dolly shot, which would be audaciously nutty if paired with excessive violence. The clip they showed the audience at the NYCC panel featured Joe Doucett smashing a few faces in with a hammer. He then tortures Samuel L. Jackson’s character. Strapped down, Joe draws a dotted line along the man’s neck, cutting out little chucks of skin. He tells his captive that he’ll remove enough flesh to rip his head off with his bare hands.

While there’s a grimness and ugliness to Oldboy, Imperioli takes a philosophical approach to the material, even though he admits he still hasn’t seen the original. (“I’d rather go into it just completely open — no preconceptions.”)

“To me it’s about karma,” Imperioli explained. “This guy [Joe] was not a good guy — he was kind of an asshole. Does the crime deserve that kind of punishment? I don’t know, but I think you realize that you set certain things in motion through your actions in the world.”

Hubert Vigilla
Brooklyn-based fiction writer, film critic, and long-time editor and contributor for Flixist. A booster of all things passionate and idiosyncratic.