Translations, Meticulous Set Design and Those Opening Titles: ‘Pachinko’s’ Soo Hugh Talks Season One
Nearly four years after development formally began on Pachinko, Soo Hugh’s sweeping adaptation of Min Jin Lee’s best-selling novel of the same name, the final episode of its first season bows April 29 on Apple TV+.
Evidence of the painstaking approach to making Pachinko — a pricy, time-hopping, multilingual exploration of family — is apparent in almost every frame, and Hugh knows that pain as well as anyone. While not divulging any spoilers for those who’ve yet to tune into the new drama, the showrunner spoke with The Hollywood Reporter about her approach to adapting the novel, what she learned from the translation process and her adamance about kicking off every episode with those invigorating opening titles.
People often praise a series or a film for feeling “lived in,” which sounds like some ineffable quality — but it’s one usually achieved through a lot of work. What kind of conversations did you have about giving that feeling to Pachinko?
What I thought was very important for a show like this was that it feel extremely subjective. We have to absolutely believe in the characters in the show and the world that’s created around them. That’s made up of all the components… not just the shot choices, but the set design, the music. You want to suck the audience in, as psychically as possible, to our characters’ world. It’s really a sleight of hand that we’re doing. In order for that sleight of hand to work, you cannot believe that you’re watching is a TV show. You just have to be completely invested in that world. How do we make this feel as lived-in as possible? How do you believe that kitchen that you see has been used by that character for years and years and years?
Or the living room, which you see so completely when Yuh-Jung Youn’s version of Sunja is looking for a place to put an urn.
We talked a lot about that room. If you ever want to freeze frame —because you have tons of time in your life, right? — look at the titles on those bookshelves. That’s something that most audiences will never do. But because we thought it was really crucial that we make sure that we build this world as authentically and believably as possible. We always said, “Mozasu [Soji Arai] is not going to be a great reader.” He is not going to have War and Peace. Who are the people that he has on his bookshelves? And so we went through and looked at all the bestsellers in Japan during those years — Tom Clancy, Jeffrey Archer, these writers were translated and huge megastars in Japan at that time. That bookshelf is all paperback bestsellers, which totally fits his character. I think it’s not just for the audience, but it’s for the actors as well. When our actors step into that space, they fall into their own characters. It really helps them become those characters. That felt important.
What did you learn from the rigorous translation process — moving scripts from English to Korean and Japanese and then back to English again for the subtitles? And how do you think the learning curve will be different in future seasons?
The biggest lesson I learned was just how to trust people in this respect. I’m so protective over the script, and I had to make a leap of faith on this one that I’ve never done before. It’s interesting. When you’re in America, because so much of the content has been in English for so long, we take for granted what it’s like when the dominant language is not English. We had many translators who did different things, various dialects, various aspects of the translation, but our dialogue translator is this gentleman named Hwang Seok-hee. He’s almost a celebrity in Korea. Well, why would a translator be a celebrity? Because so much of English-language content has been translated into Korean, that they’re so in-tune to what a good translation is. In America, we never even think about it, right?
Not at all.
I think that’s fascinating. And, just terms of phrases that I take for granted that don’t exist in those other languages… it was constantly trying to figure out, “Ah, you’re right. That’s an idiom. It makes no sense to you.” How do we figure out a different way for that character to say something while still being true to that character’s voice?
I heard somewhere that you studied poetry.
I mentioned poetry classes. [laughs] I am, by far, not a poet in any way. But when my brain hurts, I like to read poetry and it sort of takes me into a different energy space. And I bring poetry into the writer’s room because I really do ask the writers to think about how words sound on page. I’m one of those people that believe that script is an art form and I would defend it to the death. There’s so many amazing screenwriters who understand that and make sure that language is used rigorously and deliberately in their script. They’re the people I most admire.
Outside of the actual translation process, what was the biggest challenge language posed here? Because you’re a showrunner, but you’re delegating to people and working with a lot of collaborators who speak a number of languages.
I always make this joke, but I so wish we had a documentary crew follow our set around because it would’ve made the best comedy. We had so many translators on set. Every department, be it the camera team of the makeup team, had their own translators, Korean translators, Japanese translators. Once you get to set, all these translators would swarm together and you’re just listening to all these languages being spoken at once. The first few weeks of shooting I just remember thinking, “This is insane.” I thought it was really heartwarming because we figured out how to get past miscommunication and misinterpretation and we really became a family. But it was nutty.
Have you followed how it’s been received abroad?
It’s airing wherever Apple TV airs. In Korea, because I have probably most intel there, it’s become a phenomenon. It’s something that I just would never have imagined. You look at Korean content, it’s amazing. I was very worried about whether or not this show would be successful or interesting there. The reviews and that welcome from people probably means the most to me. This is a hard show, because of the languages and the time periods, but for people to embrace the show as warm as they have, I just hope it speaks to this craving that the audience has for shows like this. They don’t have to just be Korean. I hope it opens the flood gate.
At what point in this process did you decide that this should be a multi-season story?
From the very beginning, I never thought it was possible to do this as a limited series. It was always conceived and sold as an ongoing four seasons. The book is 500 pages. You can’t do it in one season. But then, when you live with the show, the character’s grow and grow and you fall in love with them and you start to see their past, present and future. The timelines multiply. And there’s all these characters that I love from the book that we don’t even meet in the first season — not because they’re not important, it’s because their time has not come.
Did that play into your departure from the linear timeline, like the one in the book?
It just felt so intuitive to me. When I finished that book, the four generations in my head became a conversation. And it’s the conversation that I’ve been having with my own family history, that so many have with their own family history. If you told it linearly, the way the narrative unfolds is completely different. It would’ve made a beautiful adaptation, but I think it would’ve made a simpler adaptation. I really was interested in the bigger questions, running concurrently within the story. Adaptations are such an interesting art form.
This was also quite laborious. You spent four years doing the first season.
It did take a bit of time, didn’t it?
How are you looking at the coming seasons?
As soon as I finished post-production, which was also a long process, the Apple team was like, “So you don’t think it’s going to take another four years do you?” I could hear the fear in their voices. I know the responsibility. Once you present a show, you have to be on a cycle or else you’ve lost your audience. And I think so much heavy lifting was done in conceiving of the show that the second season will hopefully go much faster.
Can you walk me through the choices that you made with the opening titles? They’re quite unexpected, in juxtaposition to the narrative of the show, and they really beg viewers to not hit a “skip intro” button.
I wrote the title sequence into the script. I wanted, from day one, people to know that we were going to have a title sequence. Period. I love title sequences, because I think they really set up that feeling that you are about to experience something. And I don’t think of this show as bleak at all. I think of this as life. You have ups and down, trials and tribulations, laughter and tears. But the title sequence for me was that gift to the audience. What I love about that title sequence is that it’s the only time in our show that past and present will ever meet.
Yes, it creates a dialogue between the different generations.
We are being non-diegetic. We’re stepping outside of the fictional world for a minute. And in title sequence, there’s photographs from our actors of their own real life family. We try to incorporate as much of our lives into that title sequence. I would say this for myself, for the actors and for so many of the crew, this show is more than just a TV show for us. It’s the culmination of what we’ve been working so hard for, for so long. It felt like a reclaiming of our identity. So that title sequence is not just for the audience. It’s for us. We wanted to celebrate the show.
For anyone who says it’s jarring and different, I do think it starts to take on a very different mood and feel as the episodes continue. And, in episode eight, we do something different with the title sequence. But in order for that to work on episode eight, you have to have lived with the title sequence in the previous episodes.
Last question: what’s the best thing you ate during the Korean portion of the shoot?
That’s a really important question. I’m partial to my hometown Busan. This is a terrible, terrible comparison, but I’m just going to make it anyway. Think of Seoul like New York and Busan like L.A. New Yorkers are going to get very mad at me, because I’m a New Yorker, but I still think L.A. has the best food. Because I really like the street food, that everyday cuisine. Busan has this rich variety of cuisines, and I really like seafood. The best thing I probably ate… actually, it’s in the show. Dongnae pajeon. I love pajeon, but in Busan they make it with just every seafood imaginable and we get all the condiments. It’s just hot and fatty and crispy and amazing.