Squid Game Director, Lee Jung-jae on Lasting Impact of Show

Since its September premiere, Netflix’s Korean survival drama Squid game took the world by storm. It is the most-watched show ever by streamers and its members and has received numerous awards and critical acclaim, featuring appearances from the Emmys.

It’s hard to understand that screenwriter and director Hwang Dong-hyuk first got the idea for the series 14 years ago, based on his own economic struggles and class disparities in Korea, and was said to be “too unrealistic and too violent.” But despite initial objections and suspicions, the show’s debut at a time reflects a reality we must face: The economic gap getting worse and worse and people are looking for thought-provoking yet entertaining content while stuck in their homes.

Hwang and star Lee Jung-jae, who plays Gi-hun in the film, spoke with CHEAPthrough an interpreter, about how the series ended at Netflix and why “Red Light, Green Light” was the most challenging game to make.

Director Hwang, tell me how this idea came to be and how it came to Netflix.

HWANG DONG-HYUK It goes back to circa 2008 or 2009. My movie just flopped, and I’m struggling financially. I have a lot of time, so I read a lot of Japanese manga, such as Kaiji, Lie game and Royal War, all survival comics. I started to imagine, “What if there was a game like this that had a big cash prize that I could participate in?” I had to think, “I’m not a genius. I don’t think I’ll go too far in these games. ” Then I thought, ‘What if it’s a really easy game, like a kid’s game with a big cash prize? Maybe I can do pretty well at some things. like that.” In 2009, I started writing it as a feature film screenplay.At the time, a lot of the feedback was that it was too unrealistic and too violent, and for those reasons, it wouldn’t. commercial success I couldn’t get any financing and failed to cast the main actors I had to brush it off and think maybe one day, times will be different.

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In 2018 I put the script up again on my laptop and I am thinking of making it as a webtoon or a cartoon. But looking back at the scripts, I thought that instead of turning it into a webtoon series – and I was reminded that Netflix was just starting out in Korea – a movie might be a better fit, and so I presented pitch ideas to Netflix. They love it and want to do it right away.

Jung-jae, how and why did you join?

LEE JUNG-JAE I heard that it was director Hwang who wanted me to read the script. I’ve always wanted to work with him. I have come to know him as someone who has produced very interesting and meaningful creative work. It was really catchy and I knew it was going to be something that was going to be really successful in Korea – but I didn’t expect it to be as big of a global hit as it is today.

Why do you think it became a worldwide craze?

LEE When we look at the growing economic gap around the world, I believe many people have either felt or have felt that this is a very real and huge problem. And for that, I believe Squid gameHer message resonated with many people around the world. The movie is not only entertaining, but after you’ve seen it, it’s something that sparks a lot of thought and conversation among the audience. I believe all of these phenomena combine very well with the days in which we live right now.

HWANG I really care more about how it will be received [by] Korean audience. There are many reasons for that, one of which is that I feel like Korean audiences tend not to react quickly to genres they are unfamiliar with. I have seen many cases where new endeavors and new genres are not well received, especially survival games. It’s something more common abroad. I was hoping that maybe people overseas would like this more, but obviously, I didn’t expect it to be on this scale.

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From left: Park Hae-soo, director Hwang Dong-hyuk and Lee Jung-jae on the set of Netflix Squid game.
Courtesy of Netflix

As for why it was so successful, I agree with JJ. Above all, what makes it transcend and transcend language, culture and generation barriers – because I’ve heard many times that the kids enjoy the show and the stories in different countries – involves to design and images. The implementation is very simple and really curious, such as the use of very simple signals such as circles, squares and triangles. These image codes, if you will, can pique everyone’s curiosity without using any kind of [spoken] language, which means there aren’t any barriers. There are several intentions in [the design] to do it that way, where you don’t need a specific language – it would be very intuitive and simple.

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Which scene was the hardest to do?

LEE The first game, “Red Light, Green Light”. It was quite stressful because it had to be convincing because it was the first match. There were some parts where I had to make sure the acting and performance were a bit over the top. And then there are some areas where I have to make it real. That’s what I pay attention to.

HWANG “Red Light, Green Light” was directed towards the early stages of our production. That particular scene was something that only stayed in my mind for over a decade. I struggled with that thought, “When I put it in a live-action scene, does it make no sense? Is it convincing enough? ” I was worried [whether it would] capture feelings of fear and something horrifying as well as entertaining. I just don’t know if it works or not. There was also pressure that this first game had to happen right away for the series to be a success.

JJ, how did you prepare for the role?

LEE I definitely have to keep my childhood memories in mind while playing these games. I also spent a lot of time studying the script. Director Hwang tends to write his lines in a very simple way, but he still has hidden meanings deep inside. I had to take my time to read his intentions.

What does the show’s recognition tell you about what audiences want to see?

LEE I look forward to having more Korean movies and TV shows and content meet with global audiences. On a personal note, I really hope that more interest will come my way as I plan what’s to come for me. I’ve always been a hard worker, but now I’m more aware of a global audience, which makes the job even harder.

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HWANG This is what a lot of people in the industry and people in Hollywood have been talking about Squid gamewith the appearance of [streamers] and how they are huge game changers. I believe Squid game is the first proven case that a non-English speaking program can meet so many global audiences all over the world and is such a huge success through this platform. Squid game shows it doesn’t have [to have a] Hollywood’s huge budget and Hollywood star cast. We’ve proven that when you have great creators working with a great cast and a great team, great stories can succeed and can come from anywhere. It’s meaningful that we can send this message to [world]. Squid game has brought a new opportunity, new possibilities, new confidence to the global entertainment industry.

The edited interview is long and clear.

This story first appeared in the June issue of The Hollywood Reporter. To receive the magazine, click here to subscribe.

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