Since its debut in September, Netflix’s South Korean survival drama Squid Game took the world by storm. It’s the streamer’s most watched show ever, and its castmembers have been showered with awards and critical acclaim, with Emmys in sight.
It’s hard to fathom, then, that writer-director Hwang Dong-hyuk first had the idea for the series 14 years ago, based on his own economic struggles and the class disparity in South Korea, and was told it was “too unrealistic and too violent.” But despite the initial pushback and doubts, the show debuted at a time that mirrored a reality we face: The economic gap has been worsening and people were looking for thought-provoking yet entertaining content while stuck in their homes.
Hwang and star Lee Jung-jae, who plays Gi-hun in the series, talked to THR, through an interpreter, about how the series ended up at Netflix and why “Red Light, Green Light” was the most challenging game to execute.
Director Hwang, tell me about how this idea came to be and how it ended up at Netflix.
HWANG DONG-HYUK It was back in about 2008 or 2009. My film had just failed, and I was struggling financially. I had a lot of time, so I was reading a lot of the Japanese manga such as Kaiji, Liar Game and Battle Royale, all survival mangas. I started imagining, “What if there was a game like this that had a huge cash prize that I could participate in?” I got to thinking, “I’m not a genius. I don’t think I’m going to make it too far in these games.” Then I thought, “What if it was a really easy game, like a children’s game that had a huge cash prize? Maybe I could do quite well in something like that.” In 2009, I started writing it as a feature film script. At the time, a lot of the response was that it was too unrealistic and too violent and, because of those reasons, it wouldn’t be commercially successful. I wasn’t able to get any financing and failed in casting the main actors. I had to put it away and think that maybe one day, times would be different.
In 2018, I brought the script up again on my laptop, and I was thinking of creating it as a webtoon or a cartoon. But revisiting the scripts, I thought that rather than making it into a webtoon series — and I was reminded that Netflix had just started its business in Korea — a series might be a better fit, and so I pitched the idea to Netflix. They loved it and wanted to do it right away.
Jung-jae, how and why did you become involved?
LEE JUNG-JAE I heard that it was director Hwang who had wanted me to read the script. I had always wanted to work with him. I had known him to be someone who was a creator of very entertaining and meaningful creative works. It was truly intriguing, and I knew that it would be something that would do really well in Korea — but I did not expect it to be the huge global hit that it is today.
Why do you think it became such a worldwide sensation?
LEE When we look at the economic gap that’s only continuing to worsen all around the world, I believe that many people have either been feeling or have felt that this was a very real and huge issue. And because of that, I believe Squid Game‘s message resonated with so many people around the world. The series is not only entertaining, but after you’ve watched it, it’s something that provokes a lot of thought and conversation among its audiences. I believe that all these phenomena combined are very timely to the days that we are living in right now.
HWANG I was actually more concerned about how it was going to be received [by] Korean audiences. There are multiple reasons for that, one of them being that I felt like the Korean audiences tend to be not as responsive to genres they’re not familiar with. I’ve seen many cases where new attempts and new genres were not well received, especially the survival game genre. It was something that was more popular overseas. I did have hopes that maybe people overseas are going to like this more, but obviously, I did not expect it to be to this scale.
As for the reasons why it was so successful, I agree with JJ. On top of that, what made it exceed and go beyond the language, cultural and generational barriers — because I’ve heard many times that kids love the show and the story so much in a lot of different countries — has to do with the design and the visuals. The way it is is very simple and really provokes curiosity, such as the use of very simple signals like the circle, square and triangle. These visual codes, if you will, were able to provoke people’s curiosity without using any kind of [spoken] language, which meant that there weren’t any barriers. There was some intention in [the design] to make it that way, where you wouldn’t need a particular language — it would just be very intuitive and simple.
What scenes were most challenging to execute?
LEE The very first game, “Red Light, Green Light.” It was quite nerve-wracking because it had to be convincing since it was the very first game. There were some parts where I had to make sure that the acting and the performance were a little over-the-top. And then there were some areas where I had to make it very realistic. That’s something I paid a lot of attention to.
HWANG “Red Light, Green Light” was toward the very beginning of our production. That particular scene was something that existed only in my mind for more than a decade. I had to fight with that thought of, “When I bring it into a live-action scene, is it going to be absurd? Is it going to be convincing enough?” I was worried [whether it would] capture that sense of fear and something being horrific as well as entertaining. I just didn’t know if it was going to work. There was also the pressure that this first game has to turn out right in order for the series to be successful.
JJ, how did you prepare for the role?
LEE I definitely had to tap into my childhood memories of having played 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 those hidden meanings in between. I had to spend my time reading into his intentions.
What did the recognition of the show tell you about what audiences want to see?
LEE I look forward to more Korean films and TV shows and content meeting global audiences. On a personal note, I truly hope that even more interest would be sent my way as I plan for what comes next for me. I’ve always been a hard worker, but now I’m more aware of the global audience, which makes the work even harder.
HWANG This is something that a lot of industry insiders and people in Hollywood have said about Squid Game, with the arrival of [streamers] and how they’re such huge game-changers. I believe Squid Game is the very first proven case where a non-English-language show was able to meet so many global audiences worldwide and be such a huge success through the platform. Squid Game shows it doesn’t have [to have a] huge Hollywood budget and a Hollywood star cast. We’ve shown that when you have great creators working with a great cast and a great team, great stories can be successful and can come from anywhere. It’s meaningful that we were able to send this message to the [world]. Squid Game has presented a new opportunity, new possibility, new confidence to the global entertainment industry.
Interview edited for length and clarity.
This story first appeared in a June stand-alone issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. To receive the magazine, click here to subscribe.