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.