Interview: Spike Lee On OLDBOY - Don't Call It A Remake

Don't call it a remake: writer, director, online provocateur, and recent Kickstarter entrepreneur asks that audiences consider his Oldboy a "reinterpratation" of the source material. "John Coltrane did not perform the same song that Julie Andrews sang in The Sound of Music," he told a group of journalists in a roundtable assembled at the W Hotel. "Many people have sung 'My Funny Valentine,' but when Miles Davis plays it, it's different."

Lee's entered yet another new phase in his career, which began with smaller, socially-conscious dramas like She's Gotta Have It, interspersed in recent years with documentaries (he was also promoting his Mike Tyson: Undisputed Truth), and flirtations with mainstream fare like Inside Man. The director sees Oldboy as yet another reinvention of his personal brand: "The challenge of reinterpretation - I've never done this before."

The director behind Do the Right Thing and Malcolm X would like you to know that even if it's the same song, his Oldboy might have a few different notes, carry a different rhythm than the 2003 adaptation by director Park Chan-Wook, based on the award-winning manga by Garon Tsuchiya. "That was our approach, to know that we had something great, and then in full respect of that source, to make it [our] own." He adds, "Let's get rid of the word 'remake,' at least with this film."

Lee's take on the material moves the action from from the streets of Busan to New Orleans, with star Josh Brolin taking on the role of Joe Doucett, a self-destructive ad man kidnapped and imprisoned for 20 years and framed for the murder of his estranged wife. The broad strokes will be familiar to fans of the 2003 film, but Lee would prefer those who haven't seen his version to focus on the particulars: from a cast that includes Elizabeth Olsen, Samuel L. Jackson, and Sharlto Copely, to minor shifts in the film's approach to its lead (details of which journalists are prevented from divulging thanks to a lengthy NDA from distributor FilmDistrict).

Lee, who's a professor at NYU Graduate Film School as well as its artistic director, says that the closest he came to speaking with Mr. Park was via the director's assistant when Park was in New York screening Stoker the same night Lee was teaching. "We just couldn't make it happen - meeting each other. But I did receive an e-mail from him translated by his assistant. He enjoyed the trailers and looked forward to seeing the film - I don't think he's seen it yet."

For a while now, Brolin's efforts to get Park Chan-Wook's blessing for another take on arguably the director's signature film have been making the rounds. The filmmaker told the actor that he only hoped Lee and Brolin would not try to replicate Oldboy '03. "That was my thinking from the beginning," Lee says. "I mean, I love Gus Van Sant, but why do that," he laughs, alluding to Van Sant's nearly shot-for-shot remake of Psycho back in 1998.

Lee says he was nonetheless moved by the challenge and opportunity to make something in spite of the naysayers who didn't want another Oldboy. But then, who could blame them? Before he began making piles of money for Universal with the Fast and Furious franchise, director Justin Lin was preparing Oldboy, with Will Smith coming onboard later with an all-new creative team touting a direct adaptation of the manga. Writer Mark Protosevich would be the only holdover from the project's lengthy journey through Hollywood, his script providing the basis for the film.

Oldboy seemed like one of those projects - like the on again, off again live-action Akira - which excites the imagination of filmmakers, but instantaneously earn the ire of film geek audiences familiar with the earlier takes on the material. "The cult fans are fanatical, and it was like we were messing with their mom or something," Lee jokes. But he understands where the reaction comes from. "We knew that it was gonna be hard, but we don't run away from hard stuff," Lee says about a project fans of Park's film might consider "heresy" or "sacrilegious."

Still, he defends his take as serving a new audience beyond the hardcore Oldboy faithful: "Not many people saw [Park's] film. First of all, most Americans don't go see foreign films - especially Korean foreign films. Americans aren't reading subtitles." Lee gets a little twinkle in his eye imagining those same audiences stumbling into theaters after their Thanksgiving glut next weekend and following Joe on his twisted, violent path of revenge.

For Lee, taking Oldboy up against a weekend's worth of football and family gatherings is a brilliant move on FilmDistrict's part, what he sees as a brilliant piece of counterprogramming, something that's brought him success in the past. "People forget that Do the Right Thing opened the same day - June 30th, 1989 - as Batman. Same day."

If you get him talking about FilmDistrict, Lee's nothing but effusive in his praise, particularly in their deliberate rollout of Oldboy, which has seen most of the marketing concentrated almost exclusively in the last two months, without the usual glut of teasers (and teasers for teasers). Lee loves that, but gets the usual studio instinct to overwhelm audiences with their films well in advance of the theatrical release (he says modern studio comedies are the worst offenders). "[It] costs more now to make a film - the prints and ads - so they really can't take a lot of risks and say 'Fuck it, we're gonna show 'em everything. But I'm from a generation where you got teased. I remember seeing those Alfred Hitchcock trailers." Citing the smaller rollout of Oldboy (he says it'll be on 550 screens versus the 3,000 for a major studio film), Lee says FilmDistrict has been allowed to be more deliberate with the movie, whose first TV trailer didn't go out until three weeks before release.

Still, Lee would appear to be hedging his bets, working with what worked for him in the past.Lee reunites with the ubiquitous Sam Jackson for the first time since they worked together on Jungle Fever back in '91, along with longtime collaborators like costume designer Ruth Carter and regular editor Barry Alexander Brown, even as much of the talent in front of the camera is new to working with Lee.

In bringing Elizabeth Olsen onto the project, the director says he was attracted to the actress' talent, and ability to play the two sides of her troubled character Marie in Oldboy. Lee says that when the actress came onboard, she had her own notes on the script which expanded upon Marie's role in the story. "We all - Josh, Lizzie, and I - we all felt that we just needed to strengthen Lizzie's character."

Brolin and Lee spent over four years meeting and threatening to work with one another on a project before the actor came onboard for Oldboy. Lee boasts that Brolin put on a whopping 50 pounds for the role, dropping 25 over the span of a weekend to get Joe from his chunky, pre-imprisonment size down to his muscular revenge weight. "I can't imagine anybody else playing that role... Josh is a great, great actor - I love him, he loves me, we get along great and we want to work together many more times."

Mike Tyson: Undisputed Truth likewise sees the filmmaker working with a longtime friend, focusing on a complicated, difficult, and hard to ignore man. Iron Mike is Joe Doucett is Monty Brogan is Bleek Gilliam is Brother Malcolm. Lee had to think about it for a minute when I drew a line between the very real Tyson and the character of Joe Doucett: two men who've alienated the people in their lives, and even in their best moments represent complex, difficult human beings to cast in one single role.

Tyson and Lee have known each other since 1986, early in the former boxer's brief but incredible heavyweight career. Undisputed Truth captures one of Tyson's performances over the summer of Tyson's 90-minute one-man show/confessional in front of a live audience, detailing his career, his problems with women, drugs, and fame. "It was just great to do this piece with him because finally, he gets to talk about himself... Most human beings wouldn't stand on stage and tell you about themselves like that."

Lee describes Tyson as one of the most complicated human beings he's ever met - and one of the most honest people he's ever met. When a journalist noted that some of Tyson's comments in Undisputed Truth "might be construed as misogynistic," Lee's quick to say if it sounds misogynistic in the doc, then it likely is. "Mike is who he is," Lee says, adding that's part of the boxer's unique charm and fascination. "Mike is a very intelligent individual, but he grew up on the streets of Brooklyn," but Lee says that people love Mike Tyson in spite of (or maybe because of) the man's rough edges and dangerous, violent past.

For the record, Lee waves off comparisons between Joe and Mike, likening the character instead to Chuck Tatum, the disgraced newspaperman played by Kirk Douglas in Wilder's Ace in the Hole.

Undisputed Truth made its debut on HBO (as did his Katrina multi-part Katrina doc, When the Levees Broke, as the filmmaker continues to find new avenues to get his work seen. He's always been cognizant of the challenges of getting his film in front of audiences (John Pierson documented the director's efforts to get She's Gotta Have It shot and distributed in his book Spike Mike Slackers and Dykes), but it seems the challenge is something he's even more aware of in this market of dwindling funds for the kinds of smaller movies Lee tends to make (and the shuttering of boutique studios like Focus' international arm last month).

His latest joint, the bloodsucking thriller Da Blood of Jesus, follows "people who are addicted to blood, but who aren't vampires" according to the director. The project - shot in New York and Martha's Vineyard over 16 days - saw Lee attempting to get outside of the studio system, appealing to fans via Kickstarter. The addiction metaphor-as-film stars Broadway performer Stephen Tyrone Williams and Zarah Abrahams a black British actress Lee discovered in one of his student's thesis films.

Lee's first attempt at a straight-up horror film was met with some suspicion when he launched the Kickstarter campaign back in July. Why, the argument goes, should successful Hollywood types like Lee, Rob Thomas, and Zach Braff have their hands out when other, smaller projects struggled on Kickstarter? In an infinitely rebloggable interview with Bloomberg News, Lee struck out at critics (including his interviewer) for making assumptions about what his finances were and precisely how much he was personally worth. "I've been doing Kickstarter before there was Kickstarter," he said at the time, adding that "Crowdfunding is the new way to get financing - where you go directly to the people who loved She's Gotta Have It, School Daze, Do the Right Thing, Malcolm X, He Got Game..."

Looking back at the experience, Lee says "I was being attacked for being on Kickstarter and I just had to break it down. The principles of Kickstarter are how we got She's Gotta Have It made. The final cost was $175,000 - I didn't have that money. Friends, grants, donations, we saved our bottles for our nickel deposits." Lee says the difference now is the social media reach of Kickstarter via Twitter whereas back in the day he relied on pen, paper, and postcards to appeal for funds.

Still, don't go thinking a Kickstarter campaign is a guaranteed path to getting your project made. "That was one of the hardest things I had to do," Lee says. "That 30 days was a 30-day campaign. If you called 40 Acres and a Mule at that time, you were lucky if someone picked up the phone. Because we all worked on that and failure was not an option."

Da Blood of Jesus is currently in the editing stage. Oldboy will be in U.S. theaters on November 27th. Mike Tyson: Undisputed Truth can be seen on HBO.

Around the Internet:
  • Zeto

    "Let's get rid of the word 'remake,' at least with this film." Well, it IS a remake.

  • BtoFu

    I think Lee's impression of just how far-reaching Park's original is, is a little naive if not just willfully ignorant. Pretty much all my friends have seen it, even those who don't share much - if any - of my enthusiasm for international cinema. I'd argue it's one of if not the most iconic Korean film thats seen off the dip of the Hallyu boom and has held on strong as a landmark picture. Still I suppose I might delude myself as well into believing America really doesn't like to read if I had set myself the task of remaking such a picture.

    All the same I genuinely hope it delivers something worthwhile and I'm pretty excited to see it after what feels like waiting an eon.

  • Hiroaki Johnson

    I believe it grossed under a million during it's entire theatrical run in the US.

    Depressingly, I think he's right on the money.

  • You are correct. $700k theatrical, which means it played to about seventy thousand people. Which is utterly nothing by studio standards. And this is the case for pretty much any foreign film the moment you look at the VideoScan sales numbers. If you're not in English you're looking at an immediate drop of at least an order of magnitude (i.e. minimum 10x) when contrasted with a comparable title (even a bad one) in English. And that's when looking at the absolute cream of the crop of foreign language films.

    We're a false ecosystem here, and in the online press in general, and don't at all represent the tastes of the general public. And, sadly, there aren't enough of us to be statistically significant in a business sense for the major companies.

  • Mr. Cavin

    Everything you say is true, but it is also a self-perpetuating problem. Because there is likely to be less turnout for subtitled foreign films, movie theaters--consistently operating at the red line--do not work too hard to book them--which is quite understandable. I don't remember Oldboy playing anywhere near me in North Carolina. Nor do I remember it being advertised. My friends and I had to be "in the know" to even have a shot at supporting it. But me and my friends, and the people who we were going to reach through word-of-mouth, as interested as we were, were unable to influence that box-office statistic at all. We all had to wait for the DVD release.

    I don't know whether box office is all that useful when it comes to the cultural reach of a title. Or at least, I'm not sure it's a much better yardstick than the other ways in which we can measure the attention of the people in the modern age (like internet chatter, DVD rentals and sales, downloads, trailer views, etc.). I mean, it may be true that Oldboy is barely on the North American radar, but box office returns are losing ground in their ability to persuade me of that fact by themselves.

  • Very true in that VOD and DVD numbers are more important for foreign film but I have actually looked up the Videoscan numbers on this before and while they're significantly better in terms of units sold than tickets sold for the theatrical (it's one of the better selling foreign language titles of the past while and I don't currently have access to the account or I'd post the numbers) you're still looking at that order of magnitude gap when compared to English language.

    It's just a reality: If you're not in English, you're niche. There's not way around it. That's fine if you're a company that exists to capitalize on the niche but the niche audience is very definitely NOT what the studios are looking for, ever, and not what the intended audience for this film is.

    This movie - like all remakes - is not being made for people who have already seen the original. It's being made for the much, much, much larger mass of people who have never seen it and never will. I'm sure the studio (like with all remakes) would prefer if the audience for the original liked this one as well but, ultimately, that audience isn't big enough to make a significant difference either way. Even if people like us hate it and blow a gasket and write about it and make as much noise as we can, that'll only occur in forums like this which are occupied only by more people like us. Which means the noise will have little to no impact in the general market.

  • Ah ... found the article I looked it up for in the first place. And it's not as much better as I remembered it being. As of November 2011, all DVD and BluRay editions of Oldboy combined had logged roughly 90k sales in Videoscan. Now, Walmart doesn't report to Videoscan and they typically account for about half of all sales so you can double that to 180k and consider that reasonably fair. But still ... 180k units sold in the US represents roughly 0.06% of the general population. It's pretty crazy when you start doing the math ...

  • Mr. Cavin

    Oop, sorry to just let this conversation drop off--Discus decided to wait seventeen hours to let me know that anybody had responded.

    I have zero doubt that Oldboy failed to make any real splash in the US market, even beyond ticket sales (though I'm very interested in the new information you've posted here, thanks!). It's certainly nested in a couple of different niches that typically whittle-down North American audiences: It is subtitled, it is a gory revenge thriller, it's subjective and tonally quirky, it's Asian without being martial arts. Any of these things can cost numbers at the box office. That said, I am still interested in hearing your thoughts on my contention that part of the problem is self-perpetuating. Having no faith in the sleeping interest of moviegoers for off-the-beaten-path product like Oldboy translates directly into fulfilling that prediction by actually limiting advertising and access to the title. I know there's maybe not any way to measure it, and maybe no way to solve the problem either, but its certainly a factor beyond "[regional] audiences reject [X]" and it certainly limits brand penetration. As you say, forums like this are ultimately recursive, bouncing information about select products (or categories) back and forth between only those people who are already predisposed to seek out and care about this kind of thing. The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo was rather widely advertised, though--at least to general art house crowds--and it played in many more theaters than Oldboy. Did it do much better? Meanwhile, is there any information to support the notion that popular cultural- or language-shifted remakes bring any extra attention to the original titles?

    Sorry for all the questions.

  • I really don't think it is self perpetuating. During the indie boom of the 90s everybody from little indies to the big studios tried to replicate the success Miramax had in bringing some of these titles to the US and there was a big surge in distributors pumping money into releases to educate the audience in the belief that people would come out and support these films if they knew about them. The result? Artisan went under. October Films went under. ThinkFilm went under. Warner Independent went under. Paramount Vantage went under. New Line went under. Tartan went under. Miramax post-Weinsteins went under. Focus is now shutting down. Literally the last people standing in this area now are TWC, Sony Classic and Fox Searchlights, all of whom ground their businesses in primarily English language titles that allow them the financial stability to push out into foreign language stuff from time to time.

    Literally everyone I can think of that operated on the principal that 'good films will find an audience regardless of origin' has gone out of business. Every single one. It's not lack of effort or support, it's lack of audience.

  • Mr. Cavin

    Ha. Sounds to me like my optimism would lose me a lot of money if I was in the film distribution business. Noted.

  • Zeto

    So 99.94% of the US population are morons.

  • Which is why The Weinstein Company are currently testing alternate cuts of Snowpiercer.

  • Zeto

    Hahaha

  • arturo

    Oldboy looks good, i just hope the movie delivers like the original?

  • 60hz

    hmm on my mac, chrome is showing this article as one large block of text with no paragraph breaks - am i the only one?

  • Sorry about that - we've fixed it.

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