Director Bong Joon-ho, Tilda Swinton, and Jake Gyllenhaal reveal ‘Okja’

The director and stars of ‘Okja’ reflect on one of the biggest films (and monsters) of the summer.
By  · Published on June 30th, 2017

The director and stars of ‘Okja’ reflect on one of the biggest films (and monsters) of the summer.

Bong Joon-ho’s latest is one of the most anticipated films of the summer. Okja marks the director’s first English-language film where he was given full creative control. With the film out on Netflix this week, viewers can prepare themselves for something massive. No simple monster movie, Okja tackles the meat industry using Bong’s celebrated take on dark comedy. Along for the ride is Tilda Swinton in another shape-shifting performance as Lucy Miranda, the figurehead of the latest venture in meat products: the super pig. Under Lucy’s control is Jake Gyllenhaal‘s Doctor Johnny Wilcox, who must put on a smiling face for the unenlightened public.

Following the film’s premiere at the Cannes Film Festival last month, I talked with the director and the two stars. Here is our conversation:

Tilda, what was it about your experience working on Snowpiercer that made you want to work with Bong Joon-ho again so soon?

Tilda Swinton: I’ll be with Bong ’till the end. He’s now one of my favorite playmates, and anything that he comes up with, I’ll rock and roll with him. I met him in Cannes a few years ago when I was here with We Need To Talk About Kevin and he was on a jury. We had breakfast in a hotel and we became friends. That was it.

How much of your character’s appearance came from you and how much of it came from Bong?

TS: That’s an interesting question because it’s almost impossible to answer. It makes it clear to me how collaboratively we work. We just dream it up together. I realize I didn’t properly answer your last question. I would say it’s this quality of playfulness is something after my own heart. So when we’re putting together any element, even in terms of story arc or anything, it’s just a conversation. It’s a suggestion, it’s a counter-suggestion, and it’s additional suggestion. You just introduce, extend, pull back, and go further together.

With the looks, it’s very easy to find examples. It’s not extreme, as we know. Someone like Lucy is around us and very dominantly in our face quite a lot. So it wasn’t hard to put together the idea of someone so into brand goodness, brand wholeness. We went out to make her part Vestal Virgin, part Barbie doll, part spa manager. That sense of her being super wholesome. She’s even wearing, I don’t know if you noticed, this pink rose quartz for clearing her energy. It’s all nonsense — I mean, it’s not nonsense, of course, but for her to do it is a complete facade. She’s just a clown.

Can you talk about Lucy’s relationship with her sister Nancy (also played by Swinton)? They’re so radically different, yet similar, of course.

TS: The thing is that when we worked together on Mason in Snowpiercer, we looked at a construct, a way in which these politicians are really grotesque. With this film we wanted to unpack it a little further. Lucy is a reaction to something; she’s a reaction to her father. We get the impression that Nancy is really a continuation of her father’s style. So we needed to see two sides. In a way, I think it’s the portrait of one schizophrenic person. Who knows if Nancy really exists? Let’s face it, Lucy kind of disappears at a certain point. This was about setting up oppositions because Lucy creates herself to be as different as she can from Nancy. It was fun.

Did making the film change the way you think about eating meat?

TS: I don’t really eat meat. I’ve never really eaten meat, so it’s not an issue for me. But fortunately, I’m in a place where to find wild meat is quite easy. I think it’s very different in cities to find meat that you are able to find information about where and how it’s killed.

What is it that attracts you about these roles that allow you to change your appearance?

TS: For me, it’s very simple, it’s very childlike, it’s just dressing up and playing, that’s what amuses me. I’ve believed that if you’re going to have to be in a film, the best thing is to be in one film and then never be in another one. Having broken that rule for myself, I would rather try and be new. Partly for myself, because I don’t want to see myself. So it’s quite nice trying to present something fresh and unseen. But it’s really just to do with dressing up and playing, trying to layer identity.

It’s no secret that you had trouble releasing Snowpiercer because the producers wouldn’t give you final cut. Now, with Netflix, you have complete creative control. How does that feel?

Bong Joon-ho: When I was making films in Korea, I always had final cut. This thing with Harvey Weinstein was something different. Nevertheless, it was a good experience for me. That was how The Weinstein Company did their thing. For me, I always had final cut. In retrospect, I guess it was a good experience. From the beginning, Netflix said I would have final cut.  I was free to do whatever I wanted. Even in the script stage, there was no interference, no force of change. The studios that liked the script were very concerned about how big the budget was. The studios that could handle the budget were very concerned about how dangerous the script sounded. We couldn’t find a good middle ground, but then Netflix came in and saved the day.

Why did you want to make a film on the meat industry?

BJH: There was one time when I actually visited a slaughterhouse in Colorado. I spent the whole day witnessing first hand how a living organism is turned into a product. It was overwhelming. It was like a factory. Usually, a factory assembles things, but that factory is disassembling from the beginning. They use very cold and hard metallic machinery to disassemble the organic being. If you get to witness that in person, it would be very shocking to you, too. I don’t think that people eating animals is necessarily a bad thing, because even animals eat animals. I don’t have a problem with people slaughtering animals to eat them. In the pre-capitalism era that’s what they did, and I’m fine with that kind of structure of people eating animals. The problem is, and the problem with the slaughterhouse system also, is that capitalism was introduced and it consumed the animal consumption business. That’s when the problems began to arise.

The slaughterhouse that you see in the film is based on my visit to that slaughterhouse. However, in the feed yard outside, where the pigs are waiting for their death, it is based on something further. I thought about the look of a Holocaust camp. I really wanted humans to understand what it felt like for those animals. At my visit to the slaughterhouse, I saw how animals are turned into products. After that was over I went outside and witnessed the animals lining up to enter the slaughterhouse. That was the moment where I experienced the most powerful impression. Maybe some of them already knew what was going to happen to them, maybe some did not know. It’s hard to describe that emotion I felt when I was watching them.

Jake, can you talk about the process of working with Bong and crafting the character of Johnny Wilcox together?

Jake Gyllenhaal: I’ve known Bong for a long time. We’ve talked many times over the years abut different things. When he first showed me the image of Okja it was just in passing. I asked if there was role in it for me and he suggested this part. Throughout the process it was always a really fun, interesting, creative conversation and inevitably ended up evolving into this strange exploration into this character who is desperate for attention and is a horrible performer. I love that. The set is like that on his movies. There’s a very structured frame, but within that he gives you total carte blanche. He kept pushing this character further and further into a certain kind of wonderful madness.

You really pushed the boundary here.

JG: More and more that is what I’m interested in, taking risks and things that are uncomfortable for other people and uncomfortable for me. This just happens to be one of them. They were so lovely to give me those socks and shorts which give a full expression of what I’ve always wanted to wear. I asked for them to be shorter but you have to respect the director’s choice, of course [laughs].

BJH: Although Johnny looks like a mad clown in initial viewings of the film, after repeated viewings you’ll see these gems of subtle moments where he’s acting in between those mad-clownish moments. In repeated viewings, that’s what I look for and cherish. Johnny, unlike what we see, is a very fragile character. He’s very prone to being hurt by other people, even by Tilda’s character as you see in the film. She scolds him and he’s hurt by it.

Did you base this character on anyone?

JG: Yeah, there are a number of different people. Particularly some zoologists and animal show hosts that Bong shared with me. It’s an interesting world. In order to speak particularly to children, there’s this strange kind of affectation that people seem to take, we all do it in one way or another. The bad performances we all give to children, which just becomes magnified when they’re on television and they’re a desperate child themselves that has never been loved or coddled. That was interesting to me as an idea. Also this somewhat Shakespearean storyline of this guy who has had to turn himself into something that he’s absolutely not. He’s desperate for this attention. It’s kind of lovely that the audience hates him, but he doesn’t even mean to be hated. I love that about the character. The scariest moment really was when I had to play with the bear. No stunt double there. It was a lovely Korean bear, though.

BJH: Very well-trained. What’s sad about Johnny is that he’s always in front of a camera. He’s always on the stage and doesn’t have much alone time in the film. Somebody is always spectating Johnny.

JG: It’s just really bad performing. Nothing about his performance is deep enough. Everything is an effort, and he’s trying too hard in this way that I really loved. Sometimes you get so deep in a character that you spend so much time trying to shape something. That’s not him. There’s no real depth to this guy, which is why he’s so broken.

Is Okja’s appearance based off of any real animals?

BJH: Yes. I thought of him as part elephant, part hippopotamus, and part manatee. We really refrained from making the character look like a Disney cartoon. We wanted to make it look like a realistic animal. Nevertheless, I do have a big respect for Disney cartoon characters. I’m not denouncing them in any shape or form.

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Toronto-based cinephile who especially enjoys French films.