Bong Joon Ho's 7 Keys to Greatness Give Us a Reason to Relax
The biggest lesson we took away from the director's master class? Don't force the issue.
The Toronto International Film Festival continued today, with plenty of talks, panels, and premieres to be seen around the city. One filmmaker who doesn't have a film at this year's festival is the South Korean auteur, Bong Joon Ho.
His film Okja made waves all over Cannes and subsequently the homes of millions of people across the world earlier this year, however, inspiring many viewers to actually turn vegan. The film follows a young girl on a quest to save her genetically mutated pig from the hands of greedy capitalists who would turn her into lots of bacon.
The director/screenwriter is known for his satirical, yet heartfelt and gripping films like The Host, Mother, and Snowpiercer. Bong sat down for a master class with moderator Richie Metha to discuss his life in movies, his free-wheeling directing style and more in an hour long conversation. Watch the full talk here or read our most important takeaways below.
“The idea expands from that personal experience, as if a boulder rolling down a steep hill.”
Watch a film every morning
“Why do you wake up in the morning?” was one of the first questions Director Bong was asked in today’s Master class. To which he gleefully replied, “Because I’m hungry.” After he gets his meal, however, his day starts with a simple discipline we all could enjoy, watching a movie.
“As I grow older, I believe that the morning is a good time for his mind state to watch films. When I watch movies in the night, I doze off, maybe because I lack the stamina nowadays. I try to concentrate and focus on the film when I watch it.” Bong remarks.
Write in coffee shops or cafes
When asked by the moderator if there’s a specific time of day at which he prefers to write, Bong pretty much answered that he’s, in fact, always writing. Yes, it's usually during the day, but he prefers writing while traveling and is a big advocate of working at cafes.
“I usually hop from cafe to cafe with my laptop or iPad,” he admits. “I don’t prefer isolated or secluded rooms, begins I’m prone to fall asleep. You can’t really fall asleep in a cafe.” Apparently, JJ Abrams is also a big fan of writing in cafes and the two directors have bonded on the fact many a time.
“To be honest I’m never really conscious of the tone shifts or the comedy that I apply.”
Don’t be too precious with your research
Often during these Q+A’s, the moderator will ask about how a director or a screenwriter comes up with an idea. For Bong, as for many others, the seed of an idea always begins from a personal experience. Generally, this experience takes the form of a certain image or a certain person which then triggers the larger thematic idea.
“The idea expands from that personal experience, as if a boulder rolling down a steep hill.” Bong explains. “Whether that be research or observation from books. I do believe that research and interviews are important, but it’s important to be bound by the research or too precious about it.”
A drizzle drenches the cloth
Okja had an easily identifiable issue (animal rights/veganism), which made it easy for audiences to assume Bong had based the movie on that principle. For Bong, however, the idea simply started from an image of a man riding a large, sour faced, yet tame, monster. From there he got to thinking about excess and how humans place value on large animals in terms of how much food they can produce. The point is, when Bong set out to make Okja, he didn’t set out to make a movie that encouraged people to take up veganism.
“There is no specific moment or turning point where I spot the theme or subject that I want to make into a film. It’s a progress or an accumulation of these day of thinking about the film,” Bong states. “There is a Korean saying, ‘A drizzle drenches the cloth.’ Like this, it was a natural and gradual discovery.”
Be open to mystery
Some directors run a very strict set. Bong’s own ideals are very different. Much of the whimsical nature of his films come from spontaneity and the openness to possibility. “When I look back on the film,” Bong remembers of Okja, “the days were very mysterious and it was a mixture of coincidence and mystery and you don’t really know. It sounds organized now when you say it to the crowd, but the whole day to day process is a very mysterious one.”
Let the tone shifts happen naturally
Bong is often praised for his spry ability to shift from heartbreaking to hilarious, often within a single beat. Some may think that this is the result of tightly structured or heavily notated screenplay, when in fact Bong reveals its the opposite. “To be honest I’m never really conscious of the tone shifts or the comedy that I apply,” he says, “I never think ‘oh, the tone shifts at this point or it’s funny at this point.’ I’m never conscious of it during the filmmaking or screenwriting process.”
Instead, he leaves the window open for the audience to make an interpretation for themselves on how the scene should be taken. “I believe it’s managing the distance between the audience’s perception and the event taking place within the film. Sometimes I don’t set the distance, sometimes the audience members themselves set the distance. So when they look at a certain scene, some audience members feel very sad while others find it funny.”
What worries Bong Joon Ho?
The same thing as all the rest of us, thankfully. For a man who seems so relaxed and open on his sets, its comforting to know that he deals with many of the same self doubts that many of us deal with. “I’m worried that what I expect might not happen. Even in filmmaking, what I imagine might not be captured within the frame. It’s the case every time I make a film, a very frequent emotion,” he admits. ”I’m also very nervous that if we compile all these terrible shots that we shot now, it’ll be a terrible film and I will cry in the editing room.” Us too, Bong. Us too.