How do you take on a period spy story and huge action set pieces as a first-time director?
After sweeping the world into Netflix's hit series Squid Game, actor Lee Jung-jae decided to undertake a new challenge—directing his first feature film. A 30-year veteran of acting and one of South Korea's biggest stars, Lee used everything he's learned in front of the camera to take audiences on a two-hour espionage thriller in Hunt, which premiered at the 2022 Cannes Film Festival.
The film follows KCIA Foreign Unit chief Park Pyong-ho (Lee) and Domestic Unit chief Kim Jung-do (Jung Woo-sung), rival agents tasked with finding a mole in their midst before the South Korean president is assassinated. It's a complex tale of double-crosses and pulse-pounding shootouts, truly stunning for a debut feature from a first-time director.
And Lee was hands-on at every level of the production, from the screenplay to cinematography to the edit to the color correction to the accuracy of the subtitles, soaking up knowledge every step of the way. He rewrote the script, prepped the film for four years, and is credited as a co-producer.
Director Lee spoke with No Film School via Zoom (and interpreter) to tell us about the biggest lessons from the film. Go undercover with us below.
Editor's note: This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
No Film School: How did your experience as an actor help you in this directorial debut?
Lee Jung-Jae: What I really enjoyed about having to direct this time is that I got to experience every process of filmmaking firsthand. As an actor, you don't get to experience the pre-production or the post-production process. But directing and producing this film, I actually got to have a firsthand experience of all of those. The processes of pre-production, what to prepare, and how much to prepare of them, looking at the sources we found, we received from principal photography and how much to keep in post-production. Watching all of that and overseeing it has been a very educational experience for me.
"That spirit of collaboration is really what's important in filmmaking."
NFS: I know that you also rewrote the script yourself with a focus on the characters. What's important to you when you're writing strong characters?
Director Lee: I've worked a very long time as an actor, so naturally I've had experience with many different scripts before. I found that my performance becomes more natural and livelier if the situation is explained well and if the dialogue between the characters within that situation, it makes more sense. For me, while I was writing the script, first of all, I made sure that the crew could have a good understanding of how to portray this particular scene and this situation. Second of all, to help actors concentrate into the character and put their best into the character as well, I made sure that the dialogue is more realistic and that the emotion naturally seeps out of the dialogue.
Especially for Hunt, since this is more of a suspense/spy film, if there is anything in the script that only the director can understand, then it's risky for the entire production. I made sure that every crew member and every cast member could understand everything perfectly just as I did.
NFS: The action sequences are very impressive. That finale is mind-blowing. How did you take on these complicated action sequences as far as planning and making sure your vision was realized?
Director Lee: I believed that the traditional espionage genre might feel a little boring for a wider range of audiences, so I purposefully placed different action sequences throughout the film to keep the film entertaining.
As for the first action sequence, it had to be both impactful but also introduce the relationship between the two characters. For the final action sequence, it of course had to have that large action element, but I really need to drive that emotional arc between the character's home.
We worked on the first action sequence and the final sequence first, and then we worked on the other action sequences in between to make sure that the action does not feel repetitive and it's enjoyable for the audience.
NFS: Well, I think that you were successful because the action is incredible throughout.
Director Lee: Thank you so much.
NFS: The film also looks beautiful visually. How did you develop the film's visual language?
Director Lee: From the beginning of production, I've been very particular about color. We've had extensive conversations with my DP, trying to decide that particular shade of white that I wanted or to focus on the skin tone that I was rooting for. We also wanted to make sure that the color palette represents the particular time periods that this film is portraying.
But despite all these extensive conversations, I still took part in every process of the color correction process as well, deciding on the details of the color and the depth and the exposure level of lighting as well.
For background and for lighting, the main purpose was for it to bring out the character more. Anything visual in terms of the color, visual elements, PD [production design], all of that were to first bring out the actor's emotions even more and second to immerse the audience into the situation better.
NFS: Is there one big lesson that you're going to take away from the film?
Director Lee: I think the biggest takeaway is the importance of conversations, to hear everybody's ideas and to reflect their ideas onto the project.
In short, that spirit of collaboration is really what's important in filmmaking. You need to make sure that all the crew members are working on the same page and that it's more important to listen to their ideas first and to hear them properly before you digress onto your ideas.
NFS: Is there anything that you wanted to mention I didn't ask?
Director Lee: I hope a lot of audiences get to enjoy the film.