Spike Lee does not like the word remake. In fact, when we met him at the W Hotel in Hollywood to talk about his Oldboy, he made the best of points about when to use the word “remake” and when to refer to a film like his as a “reinterpretation.”
“I mean, I love Gus Van Sant, but why do that? Gus is a great filmmaker, but that’s just something I wouldn’t do,” Lee said of Van Sant’s shot-for-shot version of Alfred Hitchcock’s Psycho.
“Here’s the reason why you use reinterpretation instead of remake. John Coltrane did not play the same exact thing that Julie Andrews sang in The Sound of Music. How long is that now? Sixteen minutes? My Favorite Things… I mean, it’s a three-minute song. Many people sang My Funny Valentine but Miles Davis’ play is different. Who knows how many people have sung The Star-Spangled Banner, but when Jimi Hendrix did it, Whitney Houston or Marvin Gaye… So that was our approach. To know that you have something that’s great, and then, in full respect of that source, just make it your own. So that was the mindset.”
Oldboy is based on the 2003 Korean cult classic of the same name. Although Lee did not get to chat with the original film’s director, Chan-wook Park, his Oldboy star – Josh Brolin – sought out his blessing. And Lee was thrilled with what the helmer said.
“I never got to talk to Mr. Park. I’m a professor at NYU at the Graduate Film School. I’m also the artistic director of the school and he showed Stoker the same night I was teaching. We just couldn’t make it happen to meet each other,” Lee said.
“But I did receive an email from him translated by an assistant and he enjoyed the trailers and was looking forward to seeing the film. But Josh did go and meet with Park. Park said, ‘Look, you have my blessing. But don’t try to redo what we did. Make your own film.’ That was my thinking from the beginning!”
Lee is not one to back down from challenges and also is a filmmaker who never likes to repeat himself. The idea of bringing an American take to a cult classic that no one wanted done was among the biggest selling points. “The challenge of doing a reinterpretation -- I’ve never done this before. And also, knowing there are going to be people who didn’t want us to do it, that it was heresy, it was sacrilegious, I understand because cult fans are fanatical, and it was like we were messing with their mama or something,” Lee said and laughed.
Lee thinks that the audience will be there for Oldboy, since most Americans are not fans of subtitles. “[We] don’t go see foreign films, especially Korean foreign films. Most Americans aren’t reading subtitles,” he said. Lee is also getting a kick out of the fact that it is opening Thanksgiving weekend. And if you know anything about the story, it has some serious shock and awe.
“There are going to be a lot of people who had their stomachs filled with turkey, dressing, sweet potato pie. [Laughs] Little do they know!”
Oldboy is actually based on Japanese manga. “I always point that out, that the original source material was Japanese. We have three interpretations of it. The origin: The Japanese manga. The next manifestation: The Korean. And now it’s American,” Lee said.
And he is not concerned that his core audience that has followed him since She’s Got to Have It won’t follow him into the theaters this Thanksgiving. “They followed me with 25th Hour. They followed me with Summer of Sam. No, that’s not even a concern. Of course, I got Sam (Samuel L. Jackson) back, too. It’s the first time we worked together since Jungle Fever. They gonna ride this mule until the mule falls over,” Lee said and laughed.
One thing Lee was absolutely careful with is there is a twist in the film that is jaw-dropping. “We definitely don’t like to telegraph. That’s one of my pet peeves with trailers today. I just want to pop in when the movie starts because if you see the trailers, you see the whole movie,” Lee said.
He has been thrilled with the teasers for his film, especially that first Oldboy red band trailer, and with how the studio, FilmDistrict, has handled the promotion of the movie. “I understand that today with the studios it costs more now to make a film. The prints and ads cost more so they really can’t take a lot of risks, and they just say, ‘(Expletive) it! We’re going to show them everything.’ But I’m just of the generation where you’ve got to tease,” Lee said. “I understand it, but I just don’t agree with the mentality of showing the whole movie in the trailer.”
Brolin and Lee have talked about working together for years, and it seemed like every time Brolin had a premiere in New York, he approached Lee about making a movie. They finally have their film, and not only was it worth the wait for Lee, but it is the perfect part for Brolin and one he hopes is the beginning of a fruitful working relationship.
“I can’t imagine anybody else playing that role. Josh is a great, great actor. I love him. He loves me. We get along great. And we want to work together many more times,” Lee said. “It doesn’t really happen that often, but sometimes we didn’t have to speak because we were thinking the same thing.”
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