Lee Jung-jae, the breakout lead of Squid Game and a marquee star in South Korea for nearly 30 years, didn’t particularly want to become a director, too. Nevertheless, his feature filmmaking debut, the period political thriller Hunt, is set to make its world premiere in a prestigious slot in Cannes.
Selected to screen in the festival’s Midnight section, which tends to favor slickly produced genre cinema, the film stars Lee as an agent of the Korean National Intelligence Service during the 1980s, when South Korea’s military dictatorship was at its zenith. When Lee’s character and a fellow ace agent are given the same assignment — to uncover a North Korean mole within the agency — they gradually come to discover dark truths about their own country.
Ahead of Cannes, The Hollywood Reporter connected with Lee in Seoul via Zoom to discuss the inspiration for Hunt, how he was seduced into the director’s chair, and his hopes for the wildly anticipated second season of Squid Game.
So, not too much is known about your film yet. What were its origins and inspiration?
I began with an initial draft of a scenario written by another writer. I was really inspired when I first read it and I liked the concept of the story a lot. I thought if we could develop it further, we could turn it into a really interesting film.
We live in a world where we are exposed to such an abundance of news and information, and this made me wonder what it would have been like in the past in Korea, when information moved much slower and was far more controlled. Although there are benefits to our abundance of information today, people are overwhelmed, and we have the problem of fake news and people not knowing what to trust. I often question how these problems affect my own values and thoughts — and how I discern the real and the factual. This problem is the source of so much conflict and confrontation between different groups today. So these ideas were what inspired me to write this screenplay. I had some concerns that it could become too much of a message-oriented film that gets too preachy, so I used the form of the action spy genre to make sure that it had a strong entertainment aspect to it.
What was involved in expanding upon that original treatment?
First, I wanted to make the film accessible and entertaining to all generations of the Korean audience, so I adjusted the story to make it more accessible in that way. But then because Korean content has gained such popularity around the whole world, I felt I should also make adjustments so that you don’t need to already know the social and political background of 1980s Korea to get it. So making the film relatable and understandable, enjoyable for this wider audience was my goal. To achieve all those changes, I introduced new characters and made all kinds of changes. Altogether, that took four years of writing.
And what was the benefit of setting the story in the 1980s?
The Korea of the early 1980s was very different from the Korea of today. Back then, all important information was strictly controlled and filtered by the government authorities. I thought that a film that deals with a time when information was strictly controlled by a few powerful people would provide an opportunity for viewers to reflect on our current times.
Was writing and directing something that you’ve always wanted to do?
To be honest, I really just wanted to be the producer of this project. In the Korean film scene, most directors write their own projects. So I wanted to just co-develop this story with another filmmaker who would write and direct it. So, initially, I set out to find the right director who shared my thoughts on the direction in which the story should go. So I met a lot of directors, loads of candidates. There were some I didn’t think were right and a few who turned me down. There were even a few who worked on it for a couple of months, but then gave up. Eventually, I got to the point where there were no more prominent directors for me to meet. At that point, I gave up and decided, okay, I’m going to have to write and direct this thing myself.
You’ve been involved in the filmmaking process for decades. How did the actual experience of writing and directing a film compare to your expectations of what it would be like?
Well, I had no prior experience of writing a screenplay. I tried to write from the point of view of the audience, thinking always about whether I would be enjoying myself if I were in the audience watching this film. But it was a very long process. Because I put so much effort into the writing, the directing wasn’t nearly as difficult, because I had planned everything out in my head. And the communication with the crew and the rest of the cast was really smooth, because I had all of my intentions very clear.
Was the creative control that comes with being the director instead of an actor something that you liked? Are you hooked on directing now?
Oh no, I much prefer being an actor rather than the director. (Laughs.) But if I come to another great story or interesting theme that I’d like to explore, then I’d be open to writing a screenplay again — hopefully with a part for me to perform.
You mentioned how the growing international popularity of Korean content inspired you to try to make the film more globally accessible. Did the firsthand experience of seeing Squid Game go global in such an amazing way help you in this respect?
Well, I don’t think the Squid Game experience affected the production of this film or my creative process, per se, but the success of the show definitely has made my name more globally recognizable, so more people seem to be paying attention to the film and have taken an interest in watching it — and that’s been tremendously helpful to everyone involved in it.
It’s been a little while since Squid Game exploded. How has that whole experience affected you?
It’s affected me tremendously. I think it’s also opened the door even further for Korean content to the international audience. Personally, it’s made me more cautious about the projects that I choose. I feel that I need to be a little more selective and work even harder to make the most of this opportunity.
But on a human level, I’ve been very active as an actor in Korea for the past 30 years. So when it comes to being recognized or whatever, I’m pretty used to that. But I guess it’s made me feel even more grateful. Whenever people approach me and ask for selfies, I have tried to respond as positively as I can, because this whole experience reminded me of just how lucky I am.
You walked the Cannes red carpet back in 2010 for Im Sang-soo’s acclaimed erotic thriller The Housemaid. How are you feeling about being back?
Cannes is the festival that anyone involved in the film industry dreams of being invited to maybe once in their career. So I was thrilled when we were selected for The Housmaid, and it was such a fabulous, glamorous experience. I have very fond memories of it, and I remember thinking how much I wished I’d be able to come back again someday. But I never dreamed I’d make it back as a director.
One more question for the Squid Game fans… The show’s creator, Hwang Dong-hyuk, has spoken a lot in the press about the toll writing and directing the first season took on him — he even said he was so stressed that he lost some teeth during the process. Now that the show has been renewed, have you been in touch with him much about his plans for season 2? How’s it all coming along?
I’m in constant and continuous talks with the production company about season 2, but I try not to talk to the director too much. Because like you said, the creative process is really intense for him, and now with the added pressure of the show’s global success, I know he must be going through such a hard time. So I don’t want to be another factor adding to the pain of the creative process, which I know so well from my own writing experience. But I have total faith that he will write a great story for season 2, and I wait in anticipation with everyone else.