ABOUT THE PRODUCTION The contemporary film world is rife with fanatical tales of vengeance – but none has ever been quite like Oldboy, a story at once provocatively emotional and brutal that twists together all the themes of isolation, repression, vendetta, conscience, guilt and redemption at the dark heart of modern pop culture.
While paying homage to the original Korean film, this Oldboy heads into its own shock-filled, shadowy territory. Based both on the graphic novel by Garon Tsuchiya and Nobuaki Minegishi and the highly acclaimed Korean film by Park Chan Wook (which won the Grand Prix at the Cannes Film Festival while also becoming one of the most popular foreign film thrillers of all time), comes a new take on the legendary tale by two-time Academy Award® nominee Spike Lee.
Spike Lee’s Oldboy kicks off with the unfathomable experience of Joe Doucett (JOSH BROLIN) a downward-spiraling advertising executive and absent father who, one drunken night, is kidnapped out of the blue and placed into a mind-numbing solitary confinement within a bizarre, hotel-like prison for the next 20 years – 20 years full of torment that pass without any indication of his captor’s identity or motive.
Inexplicably released from his nightmare, Joe emerges into the world with a single obsession: to uncover the person who orchestrated his punishment – and to more urgently understand why. But even though he is now physically free, he is still being manipulated, still caught up in a twisted web of conspiracy and payback that threatens to engulf him. His quest for answers leads him to a, young social worker (ELIZABETH OLSEN), and ultimately to an elusive man (SHARLTO COPLEY) who allegedly holds the key to his liberation.
FilmDistrict and Good Universe present a Vertigo Entertainment/40 Acres and a Mule Production of a Spike Lee Film, starring Josh Brolin, Elizabeth Olsen, Sharlto Copley, Michael Imperioli, Linda Emond, James Ransone and Pom Klementieff.
The film is directed by Spike Lee from a screenplay by Mark Protosevich (I Am Legend, The Cell). The producers are Roy Lee, Doug Davison and Nathan Kahane and the executive producers are Joe Drake, John Powers Middleton and Peter Schlessel.
Oldboy Seen Anew
The story of Oldboy is already a lurid legend among comic book lovers and cult film followers for its epic, mystery-filled vendetta. The fascination with it began in the late 90s, when Garon Tsuchiya and Nobuaki Minegishi created an eight-volume manga about a man who was mysteriously locked away in a private prison with only a television set as a companion for years on end – only, upon his release, to set out to hunt down those who had stolen his life away and finally figure out what he had done to deserve this unthinkable punishment.
That unsettling premise then inspired master director Park Chan Wook’s 2003 film starring Choi Min-Sok in an experience that shocked, unnerved and moved audiences around the world. The film was so stylishly explosive in its construction -- rife with choreographed martial arts battles, Hitchcockian suspense, and a primal kind of poetry -- that Park was dubbed “the Quentin Tarantino of the East.” But he also brought to the story a surprising humanism amidst the moral whirlpool. In exploring the many ways in which a man may be imprisoned – physically, by circumstances and perhaps most terrifyingly, in his mind – the film had many comparing the story of this man who doesn’t understand his fate, whose TV is his only friend, whose physical freedom doesn’t only continues to haunt him, to life in the modern world.
Among the many fans of the film was Spike Lee. Lee may be best known in Hollywood for his hard-hitting social commentary films—among them, the Oscar®-nominated Do The Right Thing, She’s Gotta Have It,Malcolm X, 25th Hour and the landmark Hurricane Katrina documentary When The Levees Broke -- but he has always been fascinated by the allure of the thriller and human behavoir. He recently made his own mark on the genre with the smart, sly Inside Man, starring Denzel Washington in the story of an ingenious bank heist.
As it did for so many others, Oldboy consumed Lee the first time he saw it, years ago. “I was just blown away by it,” he recalls. “It was a completely unique story with all the best elements of mystery and revenge, portrayed in the grittiest possible of ways. People had never seen anything like it -- I hadn’t either.”
It was only later, however, when Lee read Mark Protosevich’s screenplay for an American revision of Oldboy that he began daring to imagine how he might approach the story in his own way. He was not at all interested in trying to somehow one-up Park Chan Wook; instead, he was stepped back from the original and trusted his own personal response to the material.
“I never thought of Oldboy as a remake,” the director explains. “I saw it more as an interpretation of a great story that can be represented in many different ways. Park Chan Wook made a great film, but even before that, the original source was the Japanese manga -- and this was an opportunity to explore a new form of story-telling for the material.”
To create that form, Lee says he was commited to respecting the Korean film, but not to copying it. “Whenwe first started talking about Oldboy, Josh Brolin sought the blessing of Park Chan Wook and his words to us were ‘Whatever you do, make your own film,’” he recalls.
That is precisely what Lee set out to do. He says that he did not worry about shifting the story from its Japanese origins and equally famed Korean landscape to American terrain. “The story is so great it would work wherever you placed it. But the one thing I knew is that we could not shy away from any of the subject matter or themes,” he says.
On the contrary, Lee wanted to take a more primal approach to the story. He notes that at the heart of his interpretation of the material is the idea of a man being reduced to his most animalistic instincts, which became part and parcel of Josh Brolin’s intense performance as Joe Doucett.
“When Joe is locked up, he reverts back to those animal instincts which are in all of us, but we do the best we can to suppress them,” Lee explains. “In most civilizations we’re schooled to keep that stuff in check or at least, don’t let it out until you’re behind closed doors. But we’re still instinctual animals inside.”
Even as he’s overtaken by these primitive urges for sheer retribution, Lee sees Joe as a man also seeking salvation, seeking to make amends for a grim fate he increasingly believes he himself set in motion. “This is a revenge film,” Lee concludes, “but it’s also at its heart a story about a men’s search for redemption. Joe starts out an alcoholic, a substance abuser, not a very good person and it takes the act of being locked up for 20 years to begin to see the light.”
Most of all, says Lee, fans of the original film should expect “something different – but still at the same time paying homage to what has come before.”
Into The Primal Mind
The impetus to revisit Oldboy began for Spike Lee with Mark Protosevich’s writing. Earlier, producers Roy Lee and Doug Davison of Vertigo Entertainment and Nathan Kahane of Good Universe had engaged Protosevich to take a crack at the juggernaut of adapting Oldboy into an English-language movie. Protosevich, too, was a devoted fan of the Park Chan Wook film – but he was excited to go both back to the original manga story and into the recesses of his imagination to take on the themes in a distinctive new way.
“Oldboy is about a lot of things,” observes the screenwriter. “I think it's about the struggle to find inner peace, it's about making amends for past misdeeds, it’s about family, it’s about cruelty and of course it is about that drive for revenge to make someone pay for our pain – and the costs of that revenge.”
He adds, “It makes you wonder about things you have done in your own past that may have caused someone else extreme pain that you were completely unaware of and yet they are living with that for the rest of their lives.”
As Protosevich began writing, he wanted to dive completely into Joe Doucett’s surreal experience – the experience of suddenly becoming a prisoner accused of no specific crime, judged by no jury, but simply held in confinement, forced to confront his whole being and his own shattering mind, watching the world pass by only through the peculiar view of a TV screen.
“I did a lot of research on individuals who've spent time in solitary confinement, such as hostages held by terrorists, and I also researched the experiments done in the 1950s with baby monkeys who were taken away from their mothers to see what losing all human contact did to them,” he says. “And I also began to imagine the myriad emotions and feelings that you would go through in this kind place -- what it would do to your psyche, what it would do to your soul, and whether it might actually alter you into someone different.”
Protosevich was heavily influenced by the manga’s depiction of the main character transforming while in prison into something as steely and lethal as a wild animal. He also brought back a character only seen in the manga: the headmistress from Joe Doucett’s boyhood school, who has her own tale to tell. “Edwina Burke provides an interesting perspective on the past – the perspective of someone who knows things about you that you were never really aware of yourself,” he says.
While he kept to the basic themes of both the manga and the Korean film, Protosevich added new characters and revised others to entwine them into the fabric of 21st Century American culture. Then, once Spike Lee came aboard, they collaborated together to hone the script more tightly to Lee’s vision. “The overall structure was a real challenge for me, because it's such a complex puzzle, and each piece is so specific. That structure pretty much remained intact as we began working together, but each of these individual pieces began to have a little touch of Spike in them,” Protosevich explains.
The producers were thrilled with the direction that Lee and Protosevich headed in. “Spike Lee’s relentless re-imagining of the story delves deeper into the darkness, while retaining many of the elements that make the original such a classic,” says Roy Lee.
Adds producer Doug Davison, who has shepherded the project since it came to Vertigo, the production shingle he co-founded with Roy Lee: “The film taps into the reasons that revenge is such fertile cinematic ground. There is something very primal about it; it stirs something deep in the human brain that people can really identify with. And since a common thread throughout all Spike’s films is the emotionally powerful and raw performances of his actors, we knew he would bring a fresh and original take.”
An Imprisoned Soul: Joe Doucett
One thing was always clear about this new production of Oldboy: it would take its lead actor to the very brink, requiring someone capable of maneuvering at the steepest edges of the human psyche. One person capable of that, the filmmakers all agreed, would be Josh Brolin, who has come to the fore with unpredictable roles in No Country For Old Men, W. (as President George W. Bush), Milk, Wall Street: Money Never Sleeps and True Grit, among others. He will also be seen this year in Jason Reitman’s Labor Day.
“Josh is not one of those actors who only does one thing – he’s very flexible,” says Spike Lee. “And I always love actors who never hit the same note twice. What he does in this film is a tour de force, because he finds a way to play someone who is locked away for a long, long, long time and then is just thrust out to deal with a world that is not the same as the one he left behind. He really went there fully.”
Brolin came to the role with total commitment, ready and willing to manipulate his weight from bloated to brawny and to stretch his mind to undertake all the emotions of Joe Doucett’s strange and harrowing journey. He, too, had been a fan of the first film and was surprised by his initial reaction to Protosevich’s script.
“When I read Mark’s script, I had the same reaction that I had when I first saw Chan-Wook Park’s film. It was an organic, visceral reaction to this horrendous climax, where I literally threw the script down, just thinking ‘oh my God that’s awful. It's awful but it’s brilliant.’ I’m not really interested in spending two hours in a seat unless I’m going to be moved in some way, and that's why I did Oldboy - it packs a punch.”
Brolin admits he was full of questions and fears as he began to contemplate being on screen solo in extreme states of anguish and dismay throughout the entire first part of the film, but he says working with Spike Lee helped to keep him on course. “Spike is very hands-on and yet he's very compassionate. I mean, during the hotel room scenes we would do seven minute, eight minute takes. As an actor, you're making stuff up, you're hoping some of it works, and you’re in the moment – and what Spike did is create an ambiance where anything truly goes,” Brolin comments. “It could be something dangerous, silly, embarrassing, frustrating, angry, sad -- it was all just wide open. Spike has a major interest in the art of behavior, and he pushes people to want to do better and better, which is a great thing to be around.”
To better understand the nature of Joe’s experience, Brolin talked candidly with former Death Row inmates who had been wrongly convicted. At the same time, he went into physical training for the fight sequences. While preparing both mind and body, he also began pondering the deeper reasons why human beings have always found tales of revenge so cathartic.
“I think we go see movies about revenge so we can live it out through out people,” he observes. “What also makes this particular revenge story so interesting is that what happens to Joe – being pulled out of society for 20 years, was in some ways the best thing that ever happened to him. He wants revenge but whether he sees it at first or not, his story is also very much about atonement, about making amends and confronting the truth about yourself.”
The Girl, The Stranger and The Keeper
Once Joe Doucett is released, two people become central to his quest for closure: a young woman who evolves into his only real confidante in this strange new world; and an enigmatic stranger who might hold the clues to the truth behind his cruel confinement.
Taking the role of Marie Sebastian -- which takes off in a different direction from the leading female role of the Park Chan Wook film, yet still with a gut-wrenching twist -- is Elizabeth Olsen, who has garnered attention for a string of breakout dramatic roles in the last three years, including her award-winning turn as an escaping cult member in Martha Marcy May Marlene.
Marie is working as a volunteer nurse at a mobile medical unit when she first encounters Joe Doucett, shortly after his release. “Marie brings to Joe Doucett a reconnection to the human world, and to his own basic humanity,” says screenwriter Mark Protosevich. “Liz came to the role with some very exciting ideas about Marie being a very strong young woman who is also very much a part of modern American society.”
Despite the risks of the role, Olsen was swept up by the screenplay. “I had never seen a script that played so much with a heightened reality,” she comments. “Oldboy’s story has so much momentum and is so specifically bizarre – yet you believe everything, you’re totally in it.”
She also says she could understand right away why Marie is initially drawn to Joe, despite his bizarre behavior and even more bizarre story of persecution. “Marie has an instinctual desire to take care of people, partly because of her own self neglect,” she says. “And there is a mystery to who this creature is, and what could have happened to make him so off.”
Yet the more she discovers about Joe, the more the mystery deepens. Olsen says one of the thrills was working so closely with Brolin as he took on this man so unhinged by lingering questions. “Josh and I get along great but when he was Joe, he would suddenly become a lot more fragile and instinctual without any type of societal boundaries. It was really exciting for me, as Marie, to constantly be reactive to that. Then, at a certain point, Marie stops being so reactive and starts getting tougher with him, which was equally interesting,” she muses.
Brolin, in turn, was highly impressed with Olsen. “What Lizzie brought was amazing,” he says. “I mean she makes every word she says believable. She just has this intrinsic talent that is really fun to watch in action.”
As Marie gets to know Joe, both are increasingly aware of the unknown, unsettling stranger who keeps calling Joe on the phone. Taking the key but veiled role of Adrian is Sharlto Copley, the South African actor who garnered worldwide notice with his debut in the sci-fi hit District 9 and was most recently seen in Elysium with Matt Damon and Jodie Foster. “I was introduced, like a lot of people in this world, to Sharlto with his great performance in District 9,” explains Spike Lee, “and he’s a wonderful actor.”
Copley says coyly of his character: “He is Joe’s nemesis and you hear him before you ever get to see him. Interestingly enough, when Joe comes face to face with Adrian, he doesn't even recognize him, which is another fascinating plot twist. I love that Oldboy combines this very strong theme of revenge with these clever twists. The end is so powerful that you don't want to reveal it and spoil the movie.”
He was especially exhilarated to have the chance to work with Lee. “I think Spike is a real artist,” he says. “While making this film you never felt like you were working on something that is a remake because he brings his own parameters. As a director, he allowed spontaneous moments to happen on camera within the structure of this very powerful revenge tale. He hones in on moments that he likes, but if he trusts you and feels that you're going the right way he will let you do your thing, which from an acting point of view is fantastic.”
Also joining the main cast is Michael Imperioli (The Sopranos) as Joe’s loyal friend, the local bar-owner Chucky; and French newcomer Pom Klementieff as Haeng-Bok, the woman whose unusual umbrella snaps Joe into the realization that he is actually back in the real world.
Imperioli, who has worked multiple times with Spike Lee, was intrigued by his angle on the story. “It's a very stylized story with a certain artifice about it, but Spike really brings out the character-driven realism by infusing it with all these subtle details, humor and life moments,” the actor observes.
Klementieff was compelled by a role that serves as a kind of bookend to Joe Doucett’s imprisonment. “I’m the last person Joe sees before being kidnapped, and then the first person he sees when he’s released,” she muses.
But she too could not resist jumping into the deep, dark abyss of questions that Oldboy raises. She concludes: "It’s like a punch in your face when you see a movie like Oldboy that brings up these questions of morality and forces you to ask what is good and what is bad, and if something this horrible happened to me, how would I react?”
A City With No Name, A Hotel You Can’t Check Out Of
For this new version of Oldboy, Spike Lee set out to create a fresh new world for the story to unfold in – a nameless American city from which Joe Doucett is snatched into a surreal captivity and then returned 20 years later. He was supported by an unrivaled creative team including: director of photography Sean Bobbitt, editor Barry Alexander Brown, production designer Sharon Seymour and costume designer Ruth Carter.
Lee pursued Bobbitt as his cinematographer because he was drawn to the visceral, intensely immediate style he has established collaborating with Steve McQueen (including on this year’s 12 Years a Slave). “I first became aware of Sean’s work in Hunger, and then Shame, which I show in my film class at New York University,” explains Lee. “I respected his work, he respected my work, and we both knew we wanted to do something different with this film. He’s a phenomenal cinematographer. Sean understands that the camera must serve the actors.”
“Spike is one of the few true auteur directors in America, and he brings his own genius to everything,” counters Bobbitt, who believes his background in news and documentaries, where speed is of the essence, served him well on this shoot. “Spike is very much of the moment and in the moment, and his work is always unexpected and usually shocking.”
Lee and Bobbitt decided to use multiple film formats to give distinctive textures to each part of Joe Doucett’s story, bringing 35mm, Super 16 and Super 8 cameras to the mix. “Spike was very keen to shoot Oldboy on film, and to use 2-perf, rather than normal 4-perforation – which results in a widescreen image with a grain that gives a lot of character and texture," explains Bobbitt, who has shot five films using this method.
Oldboy filmed entirely in New Orleans – but unlike most filmmakers who shoot in that atmospheric city, Lee did not want its environs to be recognizable. “The film was written to be set in a big but non-descript U.S. city, yet New Orleans is so unique,” notes Lee. “It was a real challenge to find just the right locations.”
That task fell to production designer Sharon Seymour, who most recently designed Ben Affleck’s Argo and George Clooney’s The Ides of March. She says part of the fun was ferreting out just the right tone to match Lee’s vision for the film.
“There's a fantasy element to the story but that is juxtaposed with a relatively grounded architectural world, and we play the two off each other,” she explains. “Spike brought an enormous number of artistic references to the table when preparing for the film. He had really strong visual ideas – wanting to play with contrasting patterns, with light and dark, with ideas of claustrophobia and openness, freedom and confinement. It went well beyond just fulfilling the need for a room that's got a bed and a chair.”
At the heart of her work is the hellish hotel room where Joe awakens hung-over one hazy morning – only to have it sink in hard that this will be his prison for who knows how many mind-numbing years. Seymour wanted the room simultaneously mundane enough to be maddening to Joe yet visually compelling enough to keep audiences intrigued. She also needed to design a space that accounted for all the different angles Lee and Bobbitt would employ to make these one-man, one-room scenes dynamic on screen.
“It’s a space that never changes over Joe’s 20 years of captivity; you recede into numbness in this room. So the wallpaper, architectural detail, windows, flooring -- everything we had the opportunity to control -- had to be interesting,” says Seymour.
Bobbitt, too, embraced the raw claustrophobia of the set. “We really wanted to amplify it and make it visually interesting,” he says. “My job was really helped by having an actor like Josh Brolin; sometimes all I had to do was keep him in the frame and let him go.”
The exterior of the secret prison and the bowels of its interior were all shot at the former U.S. Navy site in the Bywater neighborhood in the Ninth Ward of New Orleans. Its WWI-era, blast-proof cement buildings provided the perfect mix of practical and macabre. The halls of the Bywater facility also hosted one of the production’s most complicated sequences: the asymmetrical battle between a hammer-armed Joe and a 35-man army of henchmen ready to eliminate him.
Lee knew from the start he wanted to bring his own conception to the infamous scene.
“Spike's original idea was to do the main fight on a circular staircase so that instead of being a flat line battle just backwards and forwards, it would become a battle that goes around and up and down,” explains Bobbitt. “Sharon Seymour proposed that we use this series of huge ramps at the naval yard, and then she devised a schematic that linked together the four different levels.”
Lee and Bobbitt filmed the sequence in a single, three-and-a-half minute shot utilizing a 73-foot hydroscope -- a telescoping crane on a mobile base that required 10 grips to operate.
“I always wanted to do it in one take,” explains Lee. “Fortunately, my fight coordinator, JJ Perry, and stunt coordinator, Mark Norby, are visionaries when it comes to stunt work.”
“Spike called and said ‘I need a big sequence, I need a big shot, make it happen,’” recalls Perry. “A lot of work went into it. We spent six weeks rehearsing with Josh and all the stunt performers, and there are not many actors who can retain this much choreography, so Josh was just a gem. He trained not just endurance and choreography, but all the little things like hitting up the batting cages, which resulted in his moves all being authentic.”
“I’ve waited 22 years for an opportunity to do a one-shot sequence like this. I’ll spend the next five years trying to outdo it,” concludes Perry.
For the costumes, Lee recruited two-time Oscar® nominee Ruth Carter, who recently received notoriety on her work for Lee Daniels’ The Butler and with whom he has worked many times, to create a wardrobe that walks the same thin line between realism and the darkly fantastic that the film balances upon. “Ruth’s first film was my second film, School Daze,” recalls Lee. “I really trust her visual sense. She understand the way patterns form and the way colors work on screen in a way that a lot of people don’t.”
Yet, even as all the design elements of Oldboy elevated the storytelling, Lee was always looking to get down in it, to descend along with his lead character into the murk of the desperate dilemmas that, no matter what he tries, seem to offer no mental escape. Asked if he could imagine emerging from the shoebox confines of a single room after 20 years, Lee says: “I couldn't make it. I mean, I don't really like to entertain hypothetical questions but I would I would definitely go insane if I was locked in a room and never let out. Even with the TV there.”
About The Cast