Interview: OKJA Producer Dooho Choi Takes Us Behind the Scenes

Featured Contributor; New York City, New York (@TheDivaReview)
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Interview: OKJA Producer Dooho Choi Takes Us Behind the Scenes
Part collaborator, part many-armed mover and remover of obstacles, Dooho Choi jumped into the deep end as a producer with 2013’s SNOWPIERCER, Director Bong Joon-ho’s ambitious multinational sci-fi adventure.  As the founder of Kate Street Picture Company, Choi dives in again with Bong’s beautiful, bold OKJA, and spoke with me about wrangling locations across several countries, an international cast of top stars, a controversial new releasing platform, and a very large CGI pig. 
 
The Lady Miz Diva:  Both OKJA and SNOWPIERCER were international productions.  What was different producing OKJA, as opposed to SNOWPIERCER? 
 
Dooho Choi:  Well, SNOWPIERCER had its own complexities, but OKJA was a little different in that we shot in different countries.  It was shot all over South Korea, we shot a little bit in New York City and Brooklyn, and we shot in Vancouver, and we didn’t have the luxury of doing separate pre-productions in New York and Vancouver while we weren’t shooting.   We were sort of running prep more or less while we were shooting.  So, that had its own challenges.
 
We would go home after the day and then be skyping with the New York department heads, or the Vancouver department heads, just making sure that we had the crews in those cities, because once we wrapped Korea, we went straight to New York and had less than a week to jump back into the shooting, and that’s how it was for Vancouver, as well.
 
And because of the location-specific and character nationality-specific elements to the film, it was very important for Director Bong to have two production designers, two costume designers and two makeup departments.  So, that was an interesting puzzle to put together, because just because it took place in the US, doesn’t mean it was necessarily shot in the US, and vice versa.  That was interesting process; to combine all those elements, which is unique to this one compared to SNOWPIERCER.
 
LMD:  Please talk about the location shooting in New York City.  You have this big Superpig parade scene with the huge crowd of extras right in the heart of Wall Street.  What was that like to oversee?
 
DC:  New York was a lot of fun.  We lucked out; it’s a busy town, but a lot of really good people were waiting for the next big show and could do a couple of weeks on our show, so we had a really good team.  And as much as we wanted to shoot all of the New York stuff in New York, we just couldn’t afford to shoot, so as I pointed out, we isolated all the big exteriors to do in New York.  
 
We shot on Wall Street over two weekends with 500+ extras.  It was insanely hot: It was the middle of July last year, it was incredibly hot.  It was an interesting experience dealing with New York City paparazzi while we were trying to shoot the scene.  
 
Overall, it was a great experience to be in New York, shooting there, the location itself, the city itself was a very important part of the story for Director Bong.  It was important to actually physically shoot in New York, especially the parade sequence.  It was a tricky few days, but some great results, I think.
 
LMD:  Were the logistics of location shooting your biggest challenge for OKJA?
 
DC:  It was one of the elements, but I think with any film - especially with Director Bong - I think all of the elements pose its own challenges.  Casting wasn’t super straightforward or easy; just contemplating people’s schedules while we’re deciding where to shoot what when.  It’s challenging, especially with actors who have television commitments and whatnot.  These days it’s just hard to get everybody in the same place at the same time.
 
But of course the visual effects was one of the first things we tackled, even before we had a script and we knew going in that this would be a very challenging visual effects project; finding the team, and working with the team and getting that pipeline set up properly from prep production to post.  It was a major part of putting the production together.
 
LMD:  I didn’t know until researching for this interview that you’d actually worked on D-WAR {DRAGON WARS} which was quite successful in Korea.  Did working on that special effects-heavy film give you any insight about working on OKJA? 
 
DC:  Oh, sure, I mean, for those who remember the film, that was a project where all the visual effects was done in South Korea, and it had dragons.  On that film, I worked on postproduction, and I think I learned kind of the ins and outs and what to expect on a visual effects-heavy film.  That very much informs a lot of decision-making.
 
LMD:  Director Bong and I spoke about the controversy regarding Korean cinemas who don’t welcome OKJA due to the Netflix platform.  I’m glad to hear that South Korean cinemas will screen the film, but at the same time, this is not the first instance we’re hearing of the theatre industry protesting the movie being streamed simultaneous to a cinema run.  What is your take on the resistance from Korean theatre owners? 
 
DC:  Netflix represents a new way of doing things and it’s not always something that people unanimously embrace right away.  We knew what this model was getting into this project; it’s interesting to see the different reactions in different territories.  But for us, it’s important to have that opportunity for people to see it on a big screen and honestly, we didn’t expect the most resistance to us wanting to play in a movie theatre {Laughs}.
 
LMD:  You were present when Director Bong mentioned OKJA to me at the Jacob Burns Center in 2015.  How early do you come on to a project and how do you work with Director Bong in those primary stages?  Does he look to you to see what is possible? 
 
DC:  As early as when we were in preproduction on SNOWPIERCER, he told me about OKJA.  These types of stories usually sit inside Director Bong’s mind for a while before he’s ready to talk about them and then he starts to get into the writing mode.  
 
On this one, it really began with a few initial sketches drawn by Director Bong; the size comparison between Mija and Okja, and sort of what Okja looked like fresh from his imagination, before any other artist was involved, and he was showing us some pictures - Tilda Swinton and myself - the last day we were in Seoul for the SNOWPIERCER promotions, so that would’ve been the summer of 2013, and then it’s really just about getting the concept artist and the creature designer involved.
 
You probably know this, but Jang Hwi-cheol, who designed the creature in THE HOST, and also designed certain key set pieces in SNOWPIERCER, he was the artist who helped flesh out Okja.  Before we got to Erik De Boer, before we got to Method Studios; just on paper, Hwi-cheol would do some sketches based on Director Bong’s notes, and that’s a whole extensive process, designing Okja on paper.  And while that was happening, Director Bong and I would take trips to New York, London, or wherever, just to meet with actors or visual effects companies: We went to San Francisco and Los Angeles and met the major creature visual effects companies. 
 
So we met Erik De Boer and Method Studios way in advance of any actual work that they needed to start doing, but of course we knew Method from SNOWPIERCER; they did one of the key VFX sequences in the film, the aquarium – they did all the effects in that.  So we had a prior relationship with that company, and I’d learned from Dan Glass, the creative director, that they had started a creature pipeline in October, and they had just hired Eric De Boer who had won an Oscar for LIFE OF PI, and was coming from Rhythm and Hues, and he had hired some good people.  So we had a meeting with him and Dan in Los Angeles early on, and we knew that was the guy that we wanted to work with.  Then it was just about making the numbers work and making sure that we could get the number of shots that we needed, and the quality that we wanted.  
 
During this process, Director Bong would be writing the first draft, and that month that we spent up in Pleasantville was actually the tail end of this process, which he was just finishing up the screenplay and we had met Jon Ronson in New York, and Jon was just about to start writing doing his pass.  Spending that time in New York was very helpful:  As you saw, it’s very near the train station; to just take a train to Grand Central, and then we’d visit different buildings and see different New York City skyscraper views, and we’d go down to Wall Street just to inform the writing and to get a sense of what New Yorkers were really like.  We spent a lot of time there thinking about OKJA.  
 
So, I got involved quite early on in the process and helped him put his team together, so Ronson came out of our little obsession with FRANK, and it was a really, really good collaboration.
 
LMD:  When Director Bong and I spoke previously about HAEMOO in 2015, he said it was his last production project because it was a producer’s job to say no, and he didn’t like to say no.  You’ve worked with him for a while, now.  When and to what do you say no to Director Bong? 
 
DC:  Well, I don’t say no to Director Bong, ever, I must say.  But I wouldn’t say no to any director.  At least that’s not the type of conversation I want to have as a producer.  
 
There’s clearly things you can’t give your director on any given film, but I think it’s more about looking at different options.  As specific as Director Bong is and exacting in that he knows exactly what he wants, it’s not an easy process, but I think he’s also very open to hearing the practicalities of what a certain position may entail.  So we talk about it; we talk about what’s most important and what he absolutely must have, as opposed to things that he can be a little bit more flexible on, and we work things out that way.  
 
So I don’t say no to him, but I don’t say yes to him all the time, either.  It’s sort of a process of getting to understand what’s the most key aspects for him and making sure that we have that covered, and then figuring out the smartest way we can get done some of the other things, which posed some challenges.
 
LMD:  Ms. Swinton is listed as a co-producer on OKJA.  How did that come about and what was it like to work with her in that capacity?
 
DC:  We became really close friends during SNOWPIERCER, and like I said, Tilda was involved in the creative discussion, even before Director Bong start writing the script.  So in terms of Miranda world, Lucy and Nancy and that whole aspect to the story, which is sort of the central aspect of the story, she had been talking to Director Bong and myself and Jon Ronson from a very early stage, unlike SNOWPIERCER, where she basically came to work while we were shooting it.  We feel that her involvement is from the organic stage, and it was great to have that extra time with her.  She’s just a terrific collaborator.  We just love spending time together and cooking up new ideas for other projects.
 
LMD:  Will you be involved in Director Bong’s upcoming film, PARASITE?
 
DC:  No.  That’s the project when he did the deal to do MOTHER.  It was with a company called Berenson, and he did a two picture deal with that company, and he’s honoring the second film by doing PARASITE with that production entity.  So I am working with him on his next English-language film, which will be right after PARASITE.
 
LMD:  What will you be doing in the meantime while Bong is filming PARASITE?
 
DC:  Well, we’re doing the English-language adaptation of SEA FOG/HAEMOO, and there’s a few other things happening, you know the SNOWPIERCER TV series.
 
LMD:  So, you are involved with the SNOWPIERCER television series?
 
DC:  Yes, Director Bong and I are executive producers on the project.
 
LMD:  Does that mean Director Bong and yourself will have a say over anything that you think doesn’t look right, or doesn’t ring true to the feeling of the film?
 
DC:  Yeah, absolutely.  It’s important for us to be involved, because there’s certain Korean projects that we made in good faith and the results were a little bit mixed a lot of times, and we just want to make sure that things stay in the world that Bong created.
 
LMD:  I know that you’ve directed a short, but are you interested in directing a feature of your own one day, or is production where you make your home? 
 
DC:  Ah, well, it’s funny, I went to film school and I studied to be a director, and now I’m a producer, and I feel like maybe that’s the kind of producer I am, I suppose.  I feel like I work well with directors, because I know what it’s like to be in their situation, trying to figure out a project.  Yeah, I don’t know, I’m very happy to be producing, so that’s the future, really, for the moment.  {Laughs}
 
LMD:  What would you like OKJA to say to audiences?
 
DC:  I just hope people enjoy the film and get into Mija’s extraordinary adventure.   Just that they’ll enjoy the relationship between Okja and Mija.
 
OKJA opens in US cinemas and streams on Netflix on June 28th.
 
This interview is cross-posted on my own site, The Diva Review. Please enjoy additional content, including exclusive photos there.
 
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Ahn Seo-hyunBong Joon HoDooho ChoiOkjaPaul DanoTilda Swinton

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