Scott: How hard is it to juggle multiple genres and have them gel into a cohesive whole?
Bong Joon-ho: To mix all those elements is not exactly like a bartender making cocktails. I don't say "I need 20% of this, 30% of that," but I try to stay faithful to the story, and hopefully the elements come out naturally. Just like my previous film, Memories of Murder, is a story about a serial killer investigation, the humor or the satire just comes out naturally.
As I was working on the screenplay and shooting The Host, I never thought I was "mixing up" those elements, but after the movie came out, people came to me and said "Oh, you mixed together all these different genres." I think the secret regarding this film lies with our actors. Whether they're doing the comedy, the tragedy, or the suspense, they do their best within the reality of the movie. They never overdo it.
That's definitely a testament to your actors. It's certainly not easy to balance broad comedy followed by horror scenes and heroic stuff and moments of sadness. So what monster movies did you love growing up, and which ones inspired you on The Host?
It wasn't a specific inspiration, but M. Night Shyamalan's Signs focuses on the family as opposed to the aliens. So the core narrative of the film is focused on Mel Gibson's family, and that gave me some inspiration there. John Carpenter's The Thing, while not a specific influence on The Host, is a classic monster movie. Also Ridley Scott's Alien.
Often in foreign horror movies, you'll find that the special effects are fun or kitschy, but not what you'd call "excellent." But The Host is packed with really strong FX work. How involved were you with the design of the creature, and how satisfied are you with how the effects turned out?
I really wanted to have well-made special effects, but the budget was such that it would only allow me the "kitschy" effects. So there was a lot of pre-planning on how we could do excellent effects with a limited budget. The creature design was done by a very talented Korean newcomer named Chin Wei Chen, the modeling was done by Weta Workshop in New Zealand, the animatronics were done by John Cox's workshop in Australia, the CG was done by The Orphanage, and the similarities between these artists are that they're young, and advance-minded, which allowed us to get very good effects on a limited budget. The Orphanage, in particular, is a very "chipper" collection of artists. Very talented and open-minded, not afraid to show the monster in broad daylight.
That was one of my next questions: Was it your goal to show the monster early, often, and very clearly? Not to "hide" it for dramatic effect?
I really hate the creature film convention that says you have to wait until the end to see the monster. One hour and all you've seen is just the tip of the creature's tail. I really wanted to break that convention, so I show the entire creature early in the film.
And I can assure you that that approach works. I saw the film in a packed house, and the audience members were clapping and cheering as the monster comes leaping out of the river and across the field. I mean, if your movie is about a family and a monster, why not show the family and the monster? Now, as far as the design of the creature, did you devise that yourself, or did you just give your collaborators a general idea of what "The Host" should look like?
Most of the creature was designed by Chin Wei Chen, but when we were designing at the beginning, I gave him the idea of the basic size, that he shouldn't be as big as a building -- so he could hide behind a truck. And rather than being a fantasy-type creature, he should look like he belongs in the real world. Like an actual mutated creature. It should look somewhat like a fish, since it comes from the river. It should also run fast on the land, do back-flips, move from front paws to back paws, and show some complicated acrobatic movements. Those are the concepts I wanted the designers to start with.
One of my favorite little touches in the movie is that the man who kick-starts all the insanity is a rather ignorant American military doctor. He basically creates the monster by ordering a worker to dump dozens of chemicals into a normal sink drain. Why an American doctor?
That section is actually based on real events. It happened about six years ago. Even the dialogue was inspired by the actual event. When I was reading the paper about this incident, I thought "Oh, that could be the starting point for my film!" It's also very genre-conventional, because it starts off in the morgue, and the officer is dumping chemicals into the river, so it can be a piece of political satire. I also used the "agent yellow" idea as a way to keep the satire going on the U.S. military.
Another thing that stands out about the movie is that the main characters, while colorful and funny, also come across as "real people." How important is it that the audience actually care about these characters?
Unlike most monster movies in which the main characters are like superheroes, I chose to use "somewhat loser" characters who are quite ordinary. I think that's the reason people can sympathize with them. There's also the universal theme of "family," not only in Korea, but in other countries. So I think that's why the viewers may actually care about these characters. They are not just "the simple victims." The core of the film is the little girl, Hyuen-so, because while her entire family tries to rescue her, inside the sewer she discovers an even weaker child, and she does her best to save him. So the "weak" family wants to save the "weak" girl, but by protecting the more vulnerable child, she grows in strength, which I think is the main point of the film.
I know that Magnolia Pictures will be releasing The Host in the U.S. early next year. The early buzz on the film is very high, so what are your hopes and expectations for its American release?
I hope many people watch it! Even though it will have subtitles, it's a movie about a family, the weak "losers" or "lower-class" characters, so I hope audiences can sympathize with and relate to these characters. And I hope that they enjoy it!
For more on The Host, see James' TIFF review of the film.