By Danny Peary
Spike Lee’s highly-anticipated English-language reworking of Park Chan Wook’s 2003 cult classic slips into theaters in New York this Wednesday. Yes, this alternate-reality film about an amoral alcoholic (Josh Brolin as Joe Doucett) who is kidnapped and kept in solitary confinement for twenty years without explanation and then seeks revenge, is just as lurid, violent, and twisted as the original. But not drowned by the overflowing testosterone is the delicate flower played by Elizabeth Olsen. Nothing was expected of the younger sister of the Olsen twins when she came upon the scene, but since turning in an award-worthy performance as the star of Martha Marcy May Marlene, she has been in demand. In Oldboy, she gets a choice part, Marie, a kind young woman who helps and grows close to Joe as he searches for the grown daughter he hasn’t seen since she was three. Olsen was recently in New York to promote the film’s opening, and I participated in this roundtable with her. Following the Q&A are my exchanges with Michael Imperioli (who plays bartender Chucky, Joe’s friend since high school), a tight-lipped Spike Lee, and screenwriter Mark Protosevich. I will be posting a roundtable with Pom Klementieff (who plays Haeng-Bok, the villain’s henchwoman) in December.
Q: What attracted you to working with Spike Lee on this remake of a popular Korean film?
Elizabeth Olsen: If you get the opportunity to work with Spike Lee, it’s not something you think twice about. Especially on this film. People have seen and are aware of the Korean version, so if there is going to be an English-language, Americanized version, you need to have a director who has his own style. I think that’s important for this remake—or reimagining. The moment this movie begins—and I’m thinking of the way it’s colored and the camera angles–it’s Spike Lee film..
Q: Had you seen Park Chan Wook’s 2003 movie before you were offered the role?
EO: I wasn’t offered it. I was captivated by the story and especially the script, which gives us an amazing shock. Then within a few hours I saw the original movie and it was even more traumatic. It was amazing how different they were in telling the story but they had the same heart. Then I tried to get the job, I wasn’t offered it.
Q: So what was it like to work with Spike Lee?
EO: Spike’s amazing to work with. It’s a process and it’s an experience. He collaborates with every single person that is around him. And from that, he always knows what he needs and what he wants. The first time I met him, he pointed at the script and said, “What do you think about this scene?” I said, “But I’m not in this scene. What do you mean?” And he said, “Well, do you like it?” And I said, “Am I allowed to say something about it?” Then I said, I don’t really think the scene needs that part of it.” And he made a little note. He just really cares about everybody’s opinion. He and [Director of Photography] Sean Bobbitt really just played around with ideas. It was like a playground for them.
Q: How surprised were you that this is an American film but didn’t change many of the most shocking elements of the Korean movie?
EO: There’s no reason to make the film it if you’re not going to do the story. Nathan Kahane, the producer, said, “I’m not going to make this movie unless I do it right.” There’s no point to remake it if you’re not going to try to make it as edgy as the other one.
Q: I won’t say what it is, but there is something just as shocking but different at the end of your film.
EO: In the Korean film, there’s hypnosis used to magically erase memories. Ding! For some reason it works so well in the original but an American audience would kind of be, “Are you serious?”
Q: You’re breakthrough film was Martha Marcy May Marlene, in which your character escapes from a cult, and you starred a psychotic victim of child abuse in Silent House. And now you’re in Oldboy. What do you find appealing about dark films and appearing in them?
EO: My dad likes to call it “the bottomless pit of sadness.” I think Jessica Lange said that once, and my dad took it as his own. Honestly, the first five or six films that I did, I did because I wanted a job and wanted to be a working actor. I’d audition and I’d be offered the part, so why would I say no? The concept of ‘no’ wasn’t there. Silent House was just “Okay, cool, you’re giving me a part.” But I don’t find playing such roles harmful to me. They’re accessible to me. I love horror movies and audiences. There’s something really fun about the group experience. Even on something like this, when something grotesque happens or something scary pops out, people have some group reaction, and then everyone laughs because they feel so stupid for getting scared in the first place. I think there’s something really fun watching movies like this in a community setting. Movies with dark themes are fun, no matter what the movie is, if you can be shocked or surprised. I think there’s something about the brutality and the violence in Oldboy that’s imaginative. It’s bizarre and weird and a little heightened from reality. No one’s shooting at each other and there’s nothing about it that would remind you of what you see on the news.
Q: What is it that makes some dark films fail while others become classics?
EO: I think it has to do with it being something new. You can remake Carrie, for instance, but the reason why [Brian de Palma's] Carrie was Carrie was because it was groundbreaking. It could still be a great new story to tell people who haven’t seen it, with great actors and actresses, but the reason the original was a classic was because there was nothing like it before.
Q: Does your dad object to your being in dark films like this?
EO: I don’t think anyone in my family agrees with my role choices except maybe my brother, because he’s a big film guy and he’s a writer who sees a film from the perspective of the story. My dad and I have a very happy relationship and just laugh about it. I remember having a conversation with him when I made Martha, because he wanted to visit the set and I thought…well, that wouldn’t be such a good idea. I don’t remember what our conversation about this film was. Oh my god, did I even tell my dad? [Laughter]. I haven’t even thought about it. I don’t think I told my dad the plot of this story, or anything except for the fact that I don’t want him to see it because of…obvious reasons. He’d have to close his eyes for a long while, quite a few times.
Q: Did you object to the nudity or discuss it with Spike Lee?
EO: For Spike, it was pointing to a page and going, “What do you think about that?” I had read my contract and it gave me a lot of protection over certain things, and some not. For me, I’d rather do a scene in which my character is nude that will later make people feel terrible having seen it, than to do a scene where I’m jogging on a beach in a bathing suit, which, to me, is gratuitous titillation. The nude scene in Oldboy helps the movie move forward and manipulates the audience without them knowing it initially. I think that if the audience doesn’t watch Marie and Joe connect in a physical way, they won’t have the same reaction later. The impact won’t be the same.
Danny Peary: In the production notes it says that you “understand why Marie is initially drawn to Joe, despite his bizarre behavior and bizarre story.” Marie is drawn to him, but why does she fall in love with him? Or does she?
EO:. For the purpose of the story, there are innate connections between people without their realizing why. There’s something to be said of my character in general. Marie just knows there’s someone who’s too scared to ask for help, and she likes giving help.
DP: She reads the letters he wrote while in captivity, written by a loving father to a daughter, so do you think that is why she is so drawn to him?
EO: Yeah, she reads the letters and becomes invested in his story. I think once you know someone’s history, you’re able to excuse them for things they do in the present. You can justify it for them and you want to help them more, because you care about them in that way. That’s how I thought about their relationship. It was important, especially in comparison to the Korean film, that Marie have psychological reasons to find something hopeful in this man. It’s for her own sake, too.
DP: If Joe tell Marie the big secret, will she be devastated or take it well?
EO: It’s a really scary thing, it’s really dangerous territory. When I’m asked how I prepared to play Marie, I say, “I didn’t have to prepare much of anything because it’s one linear trajectory.” She does deal with traumatic things, obviously, but it’s different. To me, if she had that information, it will be hurtful.
DP: In the original, the girl does share that information.
EO: But then she takes him to a witch to make him forget. I don’t think it’s something Marie is capable of accepting. It doesn’t seem right.
END SPOILER ALERT
Q: If you could travel back in time to the Golden Age of American cinema, what are some roles that you would love to say yes to?
EO: My goal as a little girl was to dance and sing and act, all three, because my dream was to be to be one of Frank Sinatra’s leading ladies. I didn’t realize that the musicals I was watching were old, made at a different time. So when I then saw Frank Sinatra as an old man, I was literally heartbroken. I was so upset that my parents didn’t explain that to me.
Q: You have said your role model as a young girl was Michelle Pfeiffer.
EO: She was an inspiration. I saw all these movies with her, and I thought, oh my god, she can do anything. I thought it was so cool that she was Catwoman [in Batman Returns], and gets a pink leather jacket, and is a teacher, and is a great mom. And there was something about her beauty that I was just drawn to. But I could never imagine myself having the career she has had. Mine has been nothing like that.
Q: How different an experience was making Godzilla than making Oldboy and smaller films?
EO: Not that different. I thought it was going to be, but it wasn’t. I just had a very obnoxious-looking trailer that I never really hung out it in because I don’t like hanging out in trailers. I thought the crew was going to be obscenely big. And the crew was very large, and there were a lot of trucks parked in various places, but I knew all the cameramen, I knew the staff, it was the same group of people I’ve worked with before. You deal with the actors, you deal with the camera, and it is the same. The only difference was that I was that at some point I was on a really tall building. But it’s always all just make believe.
Q: How hard is it to find a complex role for a woman, in Hollywood?
EO: I don’t know. The roles that I’m chasing right now aren’t necessarily so complex. Honestly, I’m getting excited about playing the Scarlet Witch [in The Avengers: Age of Ultron] because she’s really complicated. It’s really fun stuff. I’m kind of tired of playing versions of myself. Doing something like that seems a lot cooler!
Danny Peary: Your character’s kind of neutral in the entire film, but then all of the sudden, you see Chucky as a young man and he was a total jerk. Did that surprise you?
Michael Imperioli: A lot of people as young men are total jerks. I was a jerk as a young man. I can look back at some of the things that I did and my friends did. Being young sometimes is very difficult and you do things that you wouldn’t do anymore. Hopefully you can evolve and get past those things, though some people probably can’t.
DP: Is Chucky as an adult the same as he was back then, but we just don’t see it?
MI: No. I wouldn’t say that. You stand in a river, then you stand in a river a year later, it’s different. It’s the same river but it’s not the same. I would say he’s a little bit like that.
DP: I don’t agree with you about his being different. That he’s just like he was back then is apparent when he uses the word “whore” to describe the villain Adrian’s sister–when she did nothing to deserve being called that.
MI: Well, just because he uses that word, it doesn’t necessarily mean he’s the same person.
DP: I think he is. I think that when he uses that word we are no longer meant to care if anything bad happens to him.
MI: You don’t think he changed as an adult and is any nicer now?
DP: Before he was imprisoned, the adult Joe, his childhood friend, hadn’t gotten any nicer, so it make sense that Chucky is also unchanged.
MI: It’s a good argument. But for me his role was about how he was going to help Joe reconnect to his life. He’s thinking, “What can I do to help facilitate that?” He’s asking himself, “How has the world has changed in the twenty years Joe has been away? And how is Joe’s ability to navigate the world going to be impeded?” A lot of it is technological.
DP: In conceiving your character, did you ask Spike Lee questions?
MI: My questions were about what Chucky believes and does not believe about Joe’s story. Also does Chucky wonder what Joe did to deserve being locked up and tortured? Why did it happen? SPOILER ALERT Never in a million years would he think what they did in high school would add up to be the reason things happened later. END SPOILER ALERT
Danny Peary: This is a very stylized, very heightened film, but people involved with it did some serious research about prisoners in solitary confinement. What real stuff did you want to come out of this film–perhaps about morality?
Spike Lee: I’m way past telling people, journalists, what the take-away of a film is. I just want to serve the script the best way possible, using people’s skills as actors and filmmakers. Josh did research. He didn’t want to just imagine what it felt like to be locked up, so he talked to people who had been locked up. I know he talked to one of the “Memphis Three,” who was locked away for many years. Based on his performance, I think that research paid off.
DP: Revenge heroes are problematic to begin with, but when you talked about Joe while making the film, did you refer to him as a hero or as the protagonist?
SL: I never looked at it like that. That’s me. I was never a big fan of Deathwish or Dirty Harry. They’re good films but I never saw Joe as one of those cats. He wasn’t just going out and wiping out people indiscriminately. He’s had twenty years to think about it. That made a big difference to me.
Danny Peary: Journalists have been calling this–and the original Oldboy–a horror film, but is it one?
Mark Protosevich: I don’t think I’d refer to this or the original Oldboy as a horror film. I would definitely put it more in the “psychological thriller” category. The goal of horror films is to scare and unsettle people. I don’t think we’re trying to scare anyone. Horror films usually are violent and dark, and though this film is that, I wouldn’t classify it as horror.
DP: Joe is an immoral, amoral character who goes into a hotel room for twenty years and comes out wanting to do violent revenge on who imprisoned him and at the same time be tender to his daughter. Talk about his transformation from one person to another.
MP: When I first started writing the script, when it looked like I was going to do it with Steven Spielberg, I wrote down my thoughts on what I wanted the movie to be. The two key words that I wrote down were Redemption and Revenge, which in a lot of ways are contradictory. Redemption is this admirable pursuit that generally brings out the better aspects of one’s nature, whereas revenge generally leads to the satisfaction that one gets inevitably from bringing up the darker aspects of oneself. In my mind, I liked the idea of someone, after his release from the prison, struggling with darker and lighter pursuits. I think Joe is in some ways trying to be a better person, but in other ways he’s intent on punishing those who punished him.
DP: Did he read the Bible, the only book in his room for twenty years? You never see him actually reading it.
MP (laughing): I wonder if he did. It was never an overt aspect of the script. But I wonder if in Josh’s mind he did. I think that’s probably a question you’d have to ask him.
DP: I know you were inspired by film noir. But what about the book and movie, The Count of Monte Cristo, and Luis Bunuel’s The Adventures of Robinson Crusoe, before the lonely Crusoe meets Friday?
MP: The Count of Monte Cristo is a good comparison. I’ve actually never seen Robinson Crusoe. I definitely need to look for that.
DP: What did you change from Spielberg to Spike Lee?
MP: Nothing really changed from the original treatment that I wrote. If you looked at that treatment, I’d say 90% of what you see in the film was in that original idea. Even at that stage, my first draft, I was trying to write a version of the movie that I would want to see. They can always ask you to change what you give them, but it’s hard to put stuff back in that you held out originally. You’ve gotta go balls-out on the first draft!