Interview with the Writer and a Star of Spike Lee’s Oldboy

Screenwriter Mark Protosevich and star Pom Klementieff sit down at New York Comic-Con to discuss their upcoming film: Oldboy. The discussion includes what Spike Lee and a Western eye can bring to this remake of a Korean classic, as well as the new tone's noir and genre influences for a new audience.

Remaking any respected foreign film comes with a certain burden. But remaking a cult classic with an international legion of devoted fans like Oldboy can be terrifying. Yet, screenwriter Mark Protosevich (The Cell, I Am Legend) has been working for that opportunity for over five years. First approached by Steven Spielberg to adapt the beloved Korean film from Chan-wook Park, which is also based on a more obscure Japanese manga, the film has gone through many hands in the intervening time, morphing from an intended Will Smith vehicle to a stylish Spike Lee genre piece starring Josh Brolin and Elizabeth Olsen. Thus, we were excited to get the chance to sit down with Protosevich, as well as Pom Klementieff, a French actress of Russian and Korean descent, who stars in the picture as the villainous bodyguard Haeng-Bok. Our discussion ranged from the task of adapting a beloved piece of cinema for a Western audience, as well as fan resistance, to just how do you make it your own. Literally having to go adapt the original film now, how much did you feel like you had to stick to certain things, and how much did you want to try to break away so that it was different? Mark Protosevich: It’s funny, one of the things when I first met with Spike [Lee] on the project, one of the things we talked about was cover versions of songs. It’s not a direct comparison, but I love Neil Young’s “Like a Hurricane,” but Roxy Music does this great cover of it. And we started talking about that. You want to be faithful and honor the original, because I have nothing but tremendous respect for the original, but from a creative standpoint, you want to make it something for yourself, something of your own. But you don’t want to tear away the fabric of what made the original appealing in the first place. So, there is some thinking that goes into it. Some analytical thought process, but then at a certain point, it becomes very emotional. At least for me, you get into this frame of mind where it’s like, “Okay, I’m telling this story.” And you’re not really thinking about what people are going to think about the decisions I’m making creatively. You just have to go with them. You just have to move forward and create something hopefully that’s exciting for me and exciting for other people. There certainly are iconic aspects of the original that we wanted to include. Others that we felt might be too culturally different, culturally unusual for a Western audience, and so we hesitated about that. Does that also fit into the classic Chan-wook Park gore, if we can call it that? Protosevich: There is definitely some violence in this, and one of the things we didn’t want to do, which I think when we first started talking about this way back when, the assumption was that we were going to wimp out. And I can assure you that we didn’t wimp out. Could you tell me about the choreography we saw in a clip earlier of [Pom Klementieff] fighting? Pom Klementieff: Yeah, I had to train for two months with amazing stuntmen on the movie [with J.J. Perry, David Wald]. So, the choreography is not in the script actually. Protosevich: The thing is you can write an action scene, and you can write them fairly detailed (at least I like to), but when they’re on the set and the stunt coordinator is working with the actors and the stunt people, it becomes this whole other thing. With Spike working with them, it begins to take on a life on its own. I can have a vision of it in my head, but when you get to the set and work with the actors, it becomes this whole other thing. Klementieff: Yeah, we had to do more Asian style like really Asian or Taekwondo or more like street style, so we worked on it with a stuntman. One thing I noticed on the clips we saw was that there is a bit of a noir-ish vibe to it, which is a Western influence to the story. Could you talk about not just what you changed, but what setting it in the West added to this narrative? Protosevich: I was definitely aware of making this a more culturally Western story. Our version, and also if you focus on the word “western,” [I also thought] about the western genre western elements to it as well, in terms of what our iconic American image is. I’m glad actually you picked up on the noir-ish elements of it too, which is also a uniquely American genre. Can you tell I’m a big film nerd [Laughs]? I definitely consider myself a cinephile. But that idea of a troubled, lone protagonist trying to figure out a mystery—that’s a part of this story; it’s a large part of this story.  I think constructing that mystery so you’re keeping the audience engaged, keeping the audience interested, but also that you’re with that character psychologically. There’s an interesting balance in this movie in that you have a protagonist who like a western hero is this tough, stoic, determined guy ready to commit violence to achieve vengeance. But at the same time, which is similar to the noir heroes, he’s troubled. There’s aspects of him that are unstable, that he’s being forced to confront aspects of himself, decisions he made in the past, changes in his personality that he wants to make for the future. So, all those things combine into one character.  Will the remake turn down the [thematic elements] of the original? Protosevich: …The thing is, and everyone is being nicely polite, I know that there is a perception among a lot of people that the original shouldn’t have ever been remade. That’s out there. I understand that; I get that. There’s nothing I can do about that, and there is probably nothing I can say to change someone’s mind about that. They want nothing to do with this movie. They think it’s like the equivalent of blasphemy. If you have a fundamental belief about something, no one is going to convince you, “Well, maybe I shouldn’t have this fundamental belief.” It generally does not happen, and I get it. I respect that. If that’s what people are willing to feel, then great for them. I would hope, however, there is a part of them that [acknowledges] throughout film history there HAVE been some good remakes. There have been a few. Two of my favorite films are essentially the same story. There’s a French film, The Wages of Fear, and the William Friedkin remake, The Sorcerer.  They’re both great films, and I’m glad they both exist. The other thing I was thinking of, I just learned recently that there’s a Japanese remake of Unforgiven that’s been made. Yeah, there’s a Japanese remake of Clint Eastwood’s Unforgiven. My reaction is “I’m curious!” [Laughs] In that sense, I hope that’s the reaction here. I mean I love the original movie. It’s one of the great moviegoing experiences when you hit that ending of the original film and it knocks you out. But for people who haven’t seen the original…most people I run into, I’m talking about my dentist and the guy who fixed my car, they never heard of Oldboy. So, one of the things I hope is that if people have not seen the original and go see ours that it will spur them to seek out the original. And if that happens, that’s terrific. I think the thing is because our version exists, it doesn’t mean the original has somehow disappeared. It still exists, and it will always have that iconic status as a film. Everybody involved came at this from a place of passion and respect for the original. There was this one thing—I try not to read too much online in the Comment Section, because I’m not a masochist, but there was one comment: “Oh typical Hollywood. Exploiting someone else’s work just to make money.” I take issue with that, because I dare you to find anyone to watch that original film, and afterwards go, “Wow! We’re going to clean up at the box office on an American version of this!” [Laughs] I mean, it’s not Transformers! And so many of us, again for myself, this was an opportunity to do provocative, challenging, unsettling material. You don’t get a lot of those chances, so it was a great opportunity. This is for both of you. [Pom’s] role is quite different than in the original. In the original, I believe it was a male character. Klementieff: It’s a man, yeah. So were you able to talk before shooting or during production about why your character was changed and what it added to the story? Klementieff: It was your decision. Protosevich: Yeah, it was my idea— Klementieff: But I’m very happy with it! Thank you! Protosevich: Honestly, it was just one of those—I write these extensive treatments, and you get to the point in the treatment and you go, “Wow, wouldn’t it be interesting if that character were a female?” It just added another cool, sexy dimension to it. Klementieff: Thank you, thank you [Laughs]. Protosevich: There’s just something about seeing a woman kick serious ass that is entertaining! At least for me. [Laughs]. Pom, speaking of your French background, are there any specific differences you have noticed between shooting French films and American productions? Klementieff: Most of the time, the budgets are bigger here, I don’t know. I’m so happy to be here, actually. So, I moved to LA…The French mentality is different from the American mentality. I feel like everything is possible here. You’re raised with this idea if you work hard that you can succeed. In France, it’s like, “Yeah, but let’s drink of a glass of wine first.” I love France too! I’m always trying to adapt myself to everything. So, you’re going to stay in America and work on more American films? Klementieff: Yeah, we’ll see. Protosevich: I hope so!  Going back to film noir, what other films did you turn to for inspiration? Protosevich: When it all began, I of course had seen the original film before the project was offered to me. But I watched it a lot. I watched it again, and again, and again, and again, and again. Then I watched films that had similar themes in terms of its mystery. I watched Vertigo a lot. Vertigo is one of my favorite films, and I watched Vertigo a lot. I watched De Palma’s Obsession, Fincher’s The Game, the Dutch film The Vanishing…. Original and American remake? Protosevich: Yeah! Although, they wimped out on the ending in the American. But it’s otherwise the same movie. Protosevich: Yeah. But then I watched a lot of movies with this sort of hero hellbent on vengeance like Point Break and Get Carter. The original and the remake? Protosevich: Yeah [Laughs]! To stick back on the film noir thing, the great thing about Spike Lee is the first part of his career is it’s a Spike Lee movie, it’s a Spike Lee movie, it’s a Spike Lee movie. Then he broke off and was like “I’m just going to do different things.” And it’s his noir-ish movies that have become some of his most interesting, like 25th Hour or Inside Man Protsevich: I love 25th Hour and Inside Man! In terms of whether Spike Lee is the director who should have done this movie, you could argue about who’s the director who should have done it. But if you look at 25th Hour and Inside Man, and then you go, “That Spike is going to do Oldboy,” I think that’s exciting. That was exciting to me when I heard that! Like us on Facebook and follow us on Twitter for all news updates related to the world of geek. And Google+, if that’s your thing!