Oldboy Set Visit: Josh Brolin and Director Spike Lee Talks Reinventing a Classic, in theaters soon

(From contributing writer Bo Bory)

I startled awake into a pitch-black room. It was morning, I think... and my immediate thought was: where am I? The thick heavy curtains of my undoing were drawn down tight as I scrambled blindly in the dark for an explanation. I took quick inventory of my surroundings... a non-descript hotel room, the pungent smell of stale booze and cigarettes, a scattering of plastic cups and gaudy beads strewn carelessly across the floor. Oh yeah, now I remember...

New Orleans. Oldboy.

It was a chilly day in early November-2012, and I was sent on assignment to the Big Easy to cover the set of Spike Lee's new film, Oldboy. The movie was a remake...Scratch that, a reinterpretation (as Spike and crew would later insist) of Chan-wook Park's 2003 controversial revenge cult classic by the same name. And all semantics aside, Spike's "reimagining", which stars Josh Brolin in the tortured lead role, was already not without its own controversy. So beloved was Chan-wook Park's gory tale of mystery and vengeance, that just the mere notion of another director remaking the film, even one of Spike Lee's caliber, was enough to push the blogosphere into a supernova-sized outburst of heresy and sacrilege. But of course, anyone who knows even a little bit about Spike Lee knows that he is not one to shy away from controversy.

Oldboy, originally written as a Japanese manga, or comic book, is the story of a man awoken to captivity. He knows not where he is, how he got there, or why he is being imprisoned; much less, who is holding him captive. All he knows is that he is being held prisoner in a door-less, windowless room with no contact from any other human, save for a nameless, faceless guard that shoves the same tray of food through a slot in the wall everyday. The man is eventually released after twenty years of captivity without a single explanation, leaving him to solve the mystery of his imprisonment, and seek revenge for the torment he had endured. It's a brutal, tragic story that unfolds with as many twists and turns as questions, culminating in a shocking and much talked about finale that left moviegoers speechless and gasping for breath. Of course, this only underscores the level of anxiety that many fans of the original film have regarding the planned remake, as they nervously wait to see how {PENWiQOPlPiISN||Spike Lee and company will handle such edgy material.

Spike Lee's Oldboy takes place in a "non-descript" city in America. And like many production sets these days, the crew had chosen to film in New Orleans in order to take advantage of the large tax incentives available, something that was not only good for the film's bottom-line, but the city as well; which was still noticeably recovering from the 2005 devastation of Hurricane Katrina.

It was a crisp, chilly morning when we drove out to Algiers Point, a quiet, sleepy time warp of a town just across the river from the blaring, neon decadence of the French quarter. This little burrow had remained remarkably unchanged by the passing of time and progress, with its quant rows of tiny, weatherworn, French style cottages, rusted metal storefronts, and no frills juke joints. The lack of modern time stamps, such as billboards and fast food chains, only added to the rustic charm of the town, which, luckily, was undamaged during the storm.

We arrived on set around 10am, just in time to watch the crew film an exterior scene in which the shadowy antagonist, played ever convincingly by District 9's Sharlto Copley, exits a neighborhood bar with an "unusual" package in hand. Accompanying him is an even more mysterious female assistant, played by French newcomer, Pom Klementieff. The movie also stars Elizabeth Olsen as a young woman tangled up in Josh Brolin's quest for revenge, as well as Spike Lee film veteran, Michael Imperioli, as his childhood friend. The script, which was penned by Mark Protosevich, was shrouded in as much mystery as the main character's mission to find the truth, with very little details being revealed in order to keep the story's intrigue in tact.

Luckily for us, FilmDistrict, the distributors of the new movie, was gracious enough to arrange a question and answer session with the cast and crew in hopes of shedding some light on the project. And believe me, questions we had. After all, anyone who has even seen Chan-wook Park's 2003 original knows why the movie skyrocketed instantly to cult classic status. From its ultra gory, hyper-realized fight scene in which the main character battles a seemingly never-ending line of attackers down a long, narrow hallway with only a hammer and his bare fist (shot in one, long, breathlessly choreographed take, no less), to the stomach churning, nausea-inducing "octopus scene", in which Korean actor, Min-sik Choi, infamously eats a live octopus on film. Yes, LIVE... its tentacles writhing and squirming in futile resistance across the actor's face as he ruthlessly chews deadpan into the camera. I'm still traumatized! Throw in a jaw dropping twist at the fevered peak of the climax, and you'll understand why so many people initially bristled at even the thought of a remake. And so as Spike Lee, Josh Brolin, Elizabeth Olsen, Sharlto Copley, Michael Imperioli, Pom Klementieff, and screenwriter, Mark Protosevich, all cozied up with us into the back of the Old Point Saloon, the elephant of a question squeezed its way into the back room with us as well; shuffling and huffing loudly as not to be ignored.

Ok, then... Why? Why remake Oldboy?

To understand the answer to this question, according to Spike Lee, one has to go back to Oldboy's origins.

"People don't realize the original source is Japanese, it's not Korean. So we have the original source is Japanese, got re-interpreted in Korean, and now we are doing it in the United States of America."

The "original source" is a Japanese comic series written by Garon Tsuchiya and Nobuaki Mingeishi, and follows roughly the same plot lines as the 2003 film adaptation, save for a few creative differences. And it is in these little differences that screenwriter, Mark Protosevich, and Spike Lee find their breathing room. Because for them, it's not so much about Chan-wook Park's take on the story... but the story itself.

"For me, I don't call this a remake-- I call it a reinterpretation. Now you could have Oscar Hammerstein II's My Favorite Things, but when John Coltrane played that... that shit sounded different. It's different, you know?"

When pressed on how his film would differ from Chan-wook Park's movie, Mr. Lee returned to the analogy.

"It was a great film but this is going to be a reinterpretation of it. It is not Julie Andrews singing My Favorite Things, its John Coltrane playing it. That's the way I look at it, where you can have great material and give a reinterpretation of it."
Josh Brolin recreates the iconic hammer scene from the original OldboyOk, so we all acknowledged the elephant-whew. But that still didn't explain why {35} would even subject himself to such inevitable comparisons with the original film; which at this point, still hung around the neck of said elephant like an albatross.
"Oldboy is a phenomenal film... but at the same time, I feel there is room in the universe for this one too. And the guy gave him his blessing. Josh wasn't going to do the film if we didn't get the blessing."

The guy, of course, was Chan-wook Park himself. Mr. Brolin, who still had special effects make-up on and looked like his face had found the hard end of someone's boot, was friends with the Korean director, and related his conversation with Mr. Park regarding the planned remake:

"Spike and I, we'd been friends for a few years now, and this came up... it sounded like a good idea, but I felt like I needed to get the blessing of Chan-wook Park before I did it. So I called him and asked what do you think about us doing this, um, and he said, 'absolutely, just don't do it the same. That was kind of a paranoia that we all had."

Yet if the cast and crew were worried about comparisons to the original, they surely didn't show it. Theirs was a unified front on the idea of this being a "reinterpretation" rather than a remake.

"But you know there is one thing when you have this script and then you have this idea of remaking a film as apposed to doing another interpretation of the original comic book, and it seems that its evolved into what that is. What we are doing has its own life, you know... and you have no idea until the first day of filming. And then once the first day of filming happened something happens, I don't know what, but some kind of exorcism started... and it's become its own very original film."

When asked if the original version weighed on his mind while filming, the actor had this to say:

"It's not one of those things that, oh I don't know how to do this scene so I go back to the original film and see how he did it and how should I do it differently... It hasn't really germinated as that kind of a project. That's why we call it a reinterpretation and not a remake."

There's that word again- reinterpretation. And yet miraculously, with each utterance of the word, with each emphasis on its meaning, the once imposing elephant now seemed much tamer, smaller even... less menacing.

Brolin continued,

"it sounds so highfaluting... but it's really taken on its own life. It's just a very different project. I don't really feel a connection to the original project other than the connection with the manga. Even though there were a lot of similarities, we aren't thinking in those terms."
Elizabeth Olsen joins in the search for clues in Oldboy{43} seemed to become animated by this, and quickly chimed in:
"I'm glad you said that, because the only time I'm reminded is when I see "Oldboy" on the back of a chair. Again, I'm not trying to denigrate the original, the original is fantastic... it's a film classic. But this is something else. And saying something else is not trying to make a comparison of the two. But we know people will. But there is nothing you can do about that."

And perhaps it was Elizabeth Olsen, the youngest member of the cast, who offered the easiest, most direct reason for retelling Oldboy.

"Good stories should just be retold. Something as simple as that. And this is a good story and you can adapt it depending on when it's made, and for whatever culture it's made for. It's a great story, so might as well make it for a different audience, at a different time."

There, that's a good elephant... here's another peanut.

Well, one thing was certain, regardless of whether the cast and crew will be able to create something that can truly rival, if not surpass, the original, still remains to be seen. But what couldn't be questioned was the amount of passion and excitement that was generated on the set each and everyday. From just the short time we were allowed on set, one immediately got the sense that everyone involved was deeply committed to the project. From the actors on the panel, to Sean Bobbitt, the director of photography, to Sharon Seymour, production designer, to Ruth Carter, costumes, to the grips and P.A.s, every person truly believed that what they are creating was something special, and yes, even original, and worthy of putting their heart and soul into.

Comparisons be damned.

When asked why they wanted to be a part of this film, the cast each took turns explaining what it was that drew them to the project, and why it meant so much to them to get it right.

For Spike, it was all about the timing:

"I said lets work together. I believe timing is everything. And just because you want to work with somebody you still need material. You need something that both parties want to do, something both people feel passionate about."
Sharlto Copley plays mysterious villain Adrian Pryce in OldboyFor {49}, it was all about pushing his limits as an actor:
"It's just a crazy film. I mean it really has its own life. And there's a lot going on and it's really exciting. It's a true pleasure."

Elizabeth Olsen described what struck her about her role and how it compared to the first film.

"I think that it's a completely different character than the original story and she has a before and after life besides what happens in the context of the film, which was one of the draws to Mark's script."

For South African actor, Sharlto Copley, it was simply a chance to play a different type of character than he was used to.

"For me as an actor, it was a little darker than something that I would have thought that I would have done naturally. I did feel that the original film was so good in the story, specifically, that I figured if you're going to do something dark, you might as well go all the way and do something really dark."

He also spoke about his initial hesitation and what eventually won him over.

"When I read this version of it as well, I was quite, you know, concerned if it would be a good reimagining. But I felt that the script was very, very solid. And when you see the rest of these guys, it made it an easy decision to make when they offered it to me. But it was really that opportunity to do something that has a very, very powerful story in it and such an unbelievable ending."

According to Michael Imperioli, who had starred in at least five previous Spike Lee films, the decision to be a part of the project was a no brainer.

"I said yes before I even looked at it. If [Spike's] got something, I'm in. Didn't really matter."

French actress, Pom Klementieff, also agreed that it was the chance to work with Spike Lee that initially drew her to the film. Also adding,

"Of course I loved the first version of Oldboy and I'm half Korean, so that means something too."
Isolation has taken its toll on the soul of Joe DoucettFor {57}, the script was years in the making. Originally slated as a {58} vehicle featuring {59} as the lead, {PEoNHtrplU6jrx
"I've been involved with this now for four years. For me, it's been a long process to get to this great point. I loved the source material, I loved the original... but it really was an opportunity for me to challenge myself as a writer and I became incredibly obsessed with it and was very passionate about it. I really do feel it was the best thing that I had done."

He also spoke of the dedication and commitment of the cast and crew:

"I think everybody here is really putting their heart and soul into this project, and its rare to have this opportunity in this business, but this one feels different. It feels right, it feels like the reason you go into the business in the first place. So hopefully that came through in the writing."

What definitely does come through is the tight bond and closeness of everyone on the project. There was a familial air about the set, and judging by the amount of laughter and inside jokes coming from the panel, it was safe to say that everyone was having great time making the film as well.

Josh Brolin expanded on this notion of levity, even though they were filming such a dark movie.

"Just the nature of the story is disturbing enough. The great thing about doing drama though, is you have fun. With this kind of stuff, you have to counter act it so we end up having a really good time."

Sharlto Copley also agreed emphatically.

"That was one of the big surprises for me... was like, how fun everyone was. I was like, 'wow... how am I doing such a dark film with so many fun people?"

And so it was at this point in the conversation that we had learned "how" and "why" the film came about, but now it was time to cut to the chase and find out "what" was in the film. Namely, with so many dark themes of violence, revenge, captivity, and taboos running through the story, we were all still curious to see how this reinterpretation would handle such heavy topics, especially when it was aimed at a more conservative, American audience.

For this, all eyes fell to the screenwriter, Mark Protosevich.

"Well, I think sometimes its OK to disturb people."

He quipped, to a chorus of laughter.

Samuel L. Jackson's hotel manager has a lot of explaining to do in OldboyWhen asked point blank about the rumor that the new movie didn't back down from the intensity and violence of the original, {63} simply answered,

Mr. Brolin had a little more to offer when discussing the story's violence and his much-anticipated scenes of isolation and captivity, in which he had to dig deep, go out on a limb, and ultimately, have complete trust and faith in his director in order to pull it off.

"I think I can go as far as to say that there is a lot more emotional violence in this movie. And we spend time in the motel room, in prison... and [Spike Lee] would let takes go on for 6,8, 9, sometimes10 minutes and just say, 'go man'... Go where?" And he would talk me through scenes, and say I start to wind down and run out of ideas...Then he would pound me with something and spark something else and create these relationships in the motel room with inanimate objects that you would never see otherwise without spending that kind of time in there. Suddenly you create relationships. You can create relationships with a box of cereal... you know what I mean? It gets weird man."

To which Spike Lee jokingly yells out,

"Cuckoo for Coco-Puffs!"

Causing the cast to rumble with laughter once again.

Josh Brolin also spoke of the mental toll isolation can cause on a person and some of the themes that came up during the preparation and filming of those scenes.

"What better theme is there to deal with than being confronted with yourself? Take an awful, kind of bloated, ego driven narcissist and put him in a room by himself for twenty years. At what point will he crack? And what will that cracking look like, and once it cracks...What comes out of that egg? Are we innately good people or not? And it starts to bring up those themes. That's what interests me, at least for the role."

For authenticity and perspective, Mr. Brolin also turned to some famous people that had to endure long bouts of isolation in real life. He related a story about one of the West Memphis 3 inmates and what it was like when they were finally released from prison:

"Well you know, Damien Wayne Echols said that the first time he got out, the first thing he did was touch the grass and cry, you know... I love that idea."

However, it wasn't just the mental work that Josh Brolin had to prepare for. Because the movie spans two decades and was shot in sequential order, Josh had to go through the physical transformation of a man enduring twenty years of captivity in just a couple of days.

"I gained some weight and lost some weight. Some people think it's impossible, and I would never do it again, that's for sure. But I gained quite a bit of weight and lost quite a bit of weight; mostly water weight. I don't want to remember it. It was a tough thing. And we had to lose it quickly. And because Spike and I decided to do it in sequence, it wasn't an easy thing. But we did it. There were a lot of other things in this film that was harder than the weight."
Will a live octopus be consumed on screen by Josh Brolin?Speaking of things that were hard to do...There was one final matter that had not been addressed yet. It was a question with eight legs, you could say, and was very much alive and squirming on everyone's mind. In fact, even the production title on the set paid homage to perhaps the most famous scene from the original movie. It was a white sign that simply read, OCTOPUS.

When asked whether or not Josh would be eating anything still breathing in this reinterpretation, Mr. Brolin just smiled coyly and replied,

"I'm eating a lot of things in this movie, man...We are creating our own iconic moments."

And judging by his grin, you'd best bring some Pepto Bismol with you to the theater. This one won't be for the faint of heart.

We wrapped up the question and answer portion of the day and returned to the set to watch the crew film a few more scenes. I noticed that after meeting with the cast and hearing the dedication and conviction in their voices, that I was genuinely excited for this movie. Sure there were still some lingering questions in my mind. Who was the mysterious assistant that accompanied Sharlto Copley's character and what role did she play? Where did Samuel L. Jackson fit into the story? How will they handle the shocking ending and will they pull any punches? But in the end, I guess I would just have to wait and watch the movie in the theater like the rest of public.

After all, Oldboy at heart is a story about a mystery, and that's what a good mystery does...Keeps you guessing. And a good reinterpretation is just that...Someone else's vision of an already known material done with originality. And when the vision comes from someone as bold and innovative as Spike Lee, and features Josh Brolin, one of the most honest and talented actors working today, then you simply must give them the benefit of the doubt.

There was a motto on the set that Spike and Josh had...A mantra of sorts, and that was: Tough Business.

It worked for everything, they joked. When things got hard and the hours grew long, it was Tough Business. When they did a good take and nailed a scene, "that's tough business!" And so when they rolled the dice and took a chance on a reinterpretation of a classic, you best believe they understood it was "tough business". Because don't think for a moment that they don't know what's at stake. They know the bar has been set very high, and that comparisons will be made, and that it will be an uphill battle winning over fans of the original movie. But as Spike said earlier in the day,

"If you're gonna do a remake... it has to be at least as good as the original source is, or why waste a year on it."

And as we watched them film a gut wrenching scene in which Josh Brolin was helped up on his feet after being found beaten, and bloodied, and left for dead on the sidewalk, I was reminded of something my driver said to me upon picking me up at the airport:

"Welcome to New Orleans, where the bars are open 24 hours and so are the churches...Either way you'll end up on your knees begging for mercy!"

Tough business, indeed.