Squid Game Director Lee Jung-jae on the show’s lasting impact – The Hollywood Reporter
Since debuting in September, Netflix’s South Korean survival drama squid game took the world by storm. It’s the streamer’s most-watched show of all time, and its cast has been showered with awards and rave reviews, with Emmys in sight.
It’s hard to fathom, then, that writer-director Hwang Dong-hyuk came up with the idea for the series 14 years ago, based on his own economic struggles and class disparity in South Korea, and is told said it was “too unrealistic and too violent.” But despite initial pushback and doubts, the show debuted at a time that reflected a reality we face: the economic gap has widened. aggravated and people were looking for stimulating yet entertaining content while they were stuck at home.
Hwang and star Lee Jung-jae, who plays Gi-hun on the show, spoke to THRthrough an interpreter, on how the series ended up on Netflix and why “Red Light, Green Light” was the hardest game to run.
Director Hwang, tell me how this idea came about and how it ended up at Netflix.
HWANG DONG-HYUK It was around 2008 or 2009. My film had just failed and I was having financial difficulties. I had a lot of time, so I read a lot of Japanese manga like Kaiji, liar game and battle royale, all survival manga. I started imagining, “What if there was a game like this that had a huge cash prize that I could take part in?” I started thinking, “I’m not a genius. I don’t think I’m going to go too far in these games. Then I thought, “What if it was a really easy game, like a kid’s game with a huge cash prize?” Maybe I could very well do something like that. In 2009, I started writing it as a feature film script. At the time, much of the answer was that it was too unrealistic and too violent, and for those reasons it wouldn’t be a commercial success. I couldn’t get funding and failed in casting the main actors. I must have put it away and thought that maybe one day times would be different.
In 2018, I re-ran the script on my laptop and thought I’d make it as a webtoon or cartoon. But while revisiting the scripts, I thought that rather than making it a webtoon series – and I was reminded that Netflix had just started operations in Korea – a series might be better suited, so I presented the idea to Netflix. They loved it and wanted to do it right away.
Jung-jae, how and why did you get involved?
LEE JUNG-JAE I heard it was director Hwang who wanted me to read the script. I had always wanted to work with him. I had known him as someone who was a creator of very entertaining and meaningful creative works. It was really intriguing, and I knew it would be something that would do very well in Korea – but I didn’t expect it to be the massive global hit it is today.
Why do you think it became such a worldwide sensation?
LEE When we look at the economic gap that is only getting worse all over the world, I think a lot of people have felt or have felt that this is a very real and huge problem. And because of that, I believe squid gameThe message of resonated with so many people around the world. The series is not only entertaining but after watching it is something that causes a lot of thought and conversation among its audience. I believe that all of these phenomena combined are very timely for the days we are living in right now.
HANG I was actually more concerned with how it was going to be received [by] Korean audience. There are several reasons for this, one of them being that I feel that Korean audiences tend not to be as sensitive to genres they don’t know. I have seen many instances where new attempts and new genres have not been well received, especially the genre of survival games. It was something that was more popular overseas. I was hoping that maybe people overseas would like it more, but obviously I didn’t expect it to be on this scale.
As for the reasons for its success, I agree with JJ. On top of that, what made it cross and go beyond language, cultural and generational barriers – because I’ve heard many times that kids love the series and the story so much in so many different countries – has to do with design and visuals. The way it is is very simple and really arouses curiosity, like using very simple signals like circle, square and triangle. These visual codes, if you will, were able to arouse people’s curiosity without using any kind of [spoken] language, which meant that there were no barriers. There was an intention in [the design] to do it this way, where you wouldn’t need a particular language – it would just be very intuitive and simple.
Which scenes were the hardest to execute?
LEE The very first game, “Red Light, Green Light”. It was quite nerve-wracking as you had to be convincing since it was the very first game. There were some parts where I had to make sure the acting and performance was a bit over the top. And then there were areas where I had to make it very realistic. This is something I paid a lot of attention to.
HANG “Red Light, Green Light” was near the very beginning of our production. This particular scene was something that had only existed in my mind for over a decade. I had to wrestle with this thought, “When I bring it into a live-action scene, is it going to be absurd? Will it be convincing enough? I was worried [whether it would] capture that feeling of fear and something horrifying and entertaining. I just didn’t know if it was going to work. There was also the pressure that this first game had to go well for the series to be a success.
JJ, how did you prepare for the role?
LEE I absolutely had to tap into my childhood memories of playing these games. I also spent a lot of time studying the script. Director Hwang tends to write his lines very simply, but he still has those hidden meanings in between. I must have spent my time reading his intentions.
What has the show’s recognition told you about what audiences want to see?
LEE I look forward to more Korean movies and TV shows and content reaching global audiences. On a personal note, I really hope that even more interest will be sent to me as I plan what’s next for me. I’ve always been a hard worker, but now I’m more aware of the global audience, which makes the job even harder.
HANG It’s something that a lot of industry insiders and people in Hollywood have said about squid gamewith the arrival of [streamers] and how they are such a game changer. I believe squid game is the very first proven case where a non-English speaking show was able to meet so many global audiences around the world and experience such success thanks to the platform. squid game show that he does not have [to have a] huge Hollywood budget and a cast of Hollywood stars. We’ve shown that when you have great creators working with a great cast and crew, great stories can be successful and can come from anywhere. It is significant that we were able to send this message to the [world]. squid game presented a new opportunity, a new possibility, a new confidence to the global entertainment industry.
Interview edited for length and clarity.
This story first appeared in a standalone June issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. To receive the magazine, Click here to subscribe.