“Careful!” Spike Lee shouts with a smile every time a member of his cast is asked a plot-related question on the New Orleans set of Oldboy, “Be very, very careful.”
If you’ve seen Chan-wook Park’s 2003 film version, in turn based on Garon Tsuchiya and Nobuaki Minegishi’s manga series, you likely understand Lee’s desire for secrecy. Riddled with twists and turns, the earlier adaptation shares several key details with the new film, which stars Josh Brolin as a man mysteriously imprisoned in a single room, only to be set free exactly 20 years later. As to exactly what elements are sticking around for the new take remains to be seen when the film hits theaters on November 27, but Lee is quick to point out that he doesn’t consider his version to be a remake.
“I call it a reinterpretation,” he says. “You could have Rodgers and Hammerstein’s ‘My Favorite Things,’ but when John Coltrane played that, that sh*t sounded different. It’s different, you know? It’s different. The original is a great film and this a reinterpretation of it. It’s not Julie Andrews singing ‘My Favorite Things.’ It’s John Coltrane playing it. That’s the way I look at it.”
It’s actually screenwriter Mark Protosevich who has been on board the new version the longest. He originally wrote the screenplay five years back with Steven Spielberg planning to direct with Will Smith in the lead.
“For me, I loved the source material,” says Protosevich. “I love the original. This really was an opportunity to really challenge myself as a writer. I became incredibly obsessed with it and became very passionate about it. I feel that it’s the best thing that I’ve done. I feel that everybody here, to a certain degree, is really putting their heart and soul into this project. It’s kind of rare to have this opportunity in this business. But this one feels different. It just feels right. It feels like the reason you got into this business in the first place. Hopefully that comes through in the writing.”
Nevertheless, it was very important for Brolin to get Chan-wook Park’s blessing before signing on to play the lead.
“I had tried to get him for ‘Jonah Hex,'” says Brolin, “and he almost did it. I had him. I really had him. Then I let him go at the last second. I said, ‘Look, if your heart is not in this, we’ll work on something else together.’ That was a mistake. But we became good friends and we’d talk every couple of months. Spike and I have been friends for a few years now. When this came up, it sounded like a good idea but I felt like I needed to get the blessing of Chan-wook Park. I called him and said, ‘What do you think about us doing this?’ He said, ‘Absolutely. I f–ing love remakes.’ He said, ‘Just don’t do it the same.’ I think that was a kind of paranoia we all had.”
“I like to do stuff I’ve never done before,” Lee adds. “There’s got to be more to it. If you’re gonna do a remake, it’s got to be at least as good as the source material. Otherwise, why waste a year on it? This is a year. A year of my life, doing a film. Pre-production, production and post. And after post, you’ve got to do publicity. That’s a year. It’s a great investment. Like Josh said, ‘Oldboy’ is a phenomenal film but, at the same time, I think there’s room in the universe for this one, too.”
“What we’re doing has its own life,” Brolin continues. “You have no idea until the first day of filming. Once the first day of filming happened, something happened, I don’t know what, but some kind of exorcism started. It has become its own, very original film We’re creating our own iconic moments. There are some that are homages to the original movie and there’s some that aren’t.”
“I don’t know who said it,” adds Elizabeth Olsen, who plays Marie, a nurse who teams with Joe to help him learn the reason for his imprisonment, “but sometime during rehearsal someone said that good stories should just be retold. Something as simple as that. This is a good story and you can adapt it for whenever it’s made and for whatever culture it’s made for. It’s a great story, so you might as well make it for a different audience and a different time.”
“Here’s the thing,” Lee points out. “People don’t’ realize that the original source is Japanese. The film is Korean. The original source got reinterpreted into Korea and now we’re reinterpreting to the United States of America. I still think that it’s going to work globally, but it still takes place in a nondescript United States city.”
Although the city isn’t named in the film, the production took place in New Orleans with a rather unusual approach to shooting. Brolin and Lee mutually decided that it would benefit the film to shoot, as much as possible, in sequence.
“It’s a hard role,” says Lee of Brolin’s take as the film’s protagonist, Joe. “It was about doing the schedule based on what would give the best performance from Josh. As much as possible, it’s been chronological order.”
“It’s a necessity,” says Brolin. “We did ‘W’ the same way. I went from 21 to 56 years old. Popping all over the place will drive you absolutely insane and the performance can’t be as good. It just can’t It’s a very different feeling than if you just got out and that was the first scene you filmed.”
The shooting schedule did call for a substantial physical transformation on the part of Brolin so that he could play Joe both before and after his 20 years of captivity. You can take a visual look at what the film’s leading man went through in the newly-released featurette in the player at the bottom of this page.
“I would never do it again. That’s for sure,” he says with a grimace. “I gained quite a bit of weight. It was mostly water weight, but I gained quite a bit of weight and lost quite a bit of weight It was a tough, tough thing. I had to lose it really quick because Spike and I decided to do it in sequence I had two and half days to lose it. But we did it. Honestly, it wasn’t so bad to lose it. It was just a lot of salt intake. I came in good shape and I put on a lot of water weight and then I lost it.”
Brolin also spoke with individuals who have experienced the brutal effects of prolonged captivity in real life and borrowed insight from the likes of Damien Echols, who spent more than 18 years in jail as one of the “West Memphis Three.”
“You can’t really prepare,” says Brolin. “I mean, I don’t want to put down anybody else, but you can’t put yourself in solitary confinement for three days and think you know. That’s bulls–t. I did talk to people That brought up some great ideas that I did and that are all on film Like, Damien Echols said publicly, the first thing he did when he got out was touch grass and cry. I love that idea of touching grass and having not seen grass outside of those gates.”
“When you have great actors like this, they’re not robots,” Lee explains. “They didn’t get to be great actors just by reciting lines. They know characters. They know dialogue You may think of writing something good but, once you cast great actors, they’re not going to just come to work, recite the lines and leave. They’re invested in it and they do research. Homework. They become the characters. They know how that character will speak. They know what words will best serve their character.”
“We spend time in the motel room,” Brolin continues. “[Lee] would let takes go on for six, eight, nine, sometimes ten minutes. He’d say, ‘Go, man.’ I’d say, ‘Where do you want me to go?’ He’d say, ‘Just go.’ And he’d talk me through scenes and if I’d start to run out, he’d throw me ideas. He’d hit me with something that would spark something else. We created these relationships in the motel room. I saw these inanimate objects that you’d never see otherwise without spending that kind of time in there. I’d create a relationship with a box of cereal.”
“Cuckoo for Coco Puffs!” Lee laughs.
Included in the cast are a number of familiar faces for fans of Lee’s past films. Oldboy marks Michael Imperioli’s sixth collaboration with Lee. He plays Chucky, a lifelong friend of Joe’s, who tries to help him figure out his terrifying situation.
“I didn’t even look at the material,” Imperioli says. “Spike called me and I had worked with him five times before. I said yes before I looked at it. We go way back. If he’s got something, I’m in. It doesn’t really matter what.”
Also appearing is Spike’s brother, Cinqué Lee, who starred in the 1988 comedy School Daze and who has worked with his sibling behind the scenes on more than a dozen other projects. Although he’s credited as “Bellhop,” Spike says there’s no specific connection to the bellhop role that Cinqué played in Jim Jarmusch’s Mystery Train.
“You know,” says Spike, “I didn’t even realize he was reprising his role as a bellboy until after it happened, but it’s Jim Jarmusch and now me. He’s a bellhop. The first one was with Screaming Jay Hawkins and now Josh Brolin, so he’s in great company.”
Rounding out the cast is District 9 and Elysium star Sharlto Copley as Adrian Pryce, the film’s mysterious antagonist.
“For me, as an actor,” says Copley, “it’s a bit darker than something I would have maybe thought of doing naturally, but I did feel that the original film was so good in the story, specifically, that, if you’re going to do something dark, you might as well go all the way and do something really dark.”
As dark as Oldboy gets, it’s all in service of greater theme.
“What better theme to deal with than being confronted by yourself?” says Brolin. “Take an awful, kind of bloated ego-driven narcissist and put him in a room by himself for 20 years. At what point will he crack and what will that cracking look like? And once he cracks, what comes out of that egg? Are we innately good people or not? It starts to bring up those themes.”
“A lot of my films have a similar theme about the decisions people make and the ramifications of those decisions,” adds Lee. “This is the biggest example of that, which Mark wrote so skillfully… [but] sir, I am out of the game of predicting or trying to dictate to audiences what they should feel I don’t do that anymore. They may read it from someone else, but they’re not going to hear from me what they should feel coming out of the theater. Anymore.”
Oldboy hits theaters November 27.