‘Oldboy’ Screenwriter Mark Protosevich on Remaking a Movie No One In His Town Had Heard Of

By  · Published on November 27th, 2013

For many years now a potential remake of Park Chan-wook’s Oldboy has been striking fear into the hearts of fans. No matter the level of talent involved, scoffs were heard loud and clear around the Internet. Why remake such a recent classic?

Probably because, outside of cinephiles, it’s not exactly well known. But that’s beside the point. Even when Steven Spielberg flirted with the project, fan interest remained low, which is a shame because when Spielberg really likes to get cruel as a filmmaker, it’s pretty spectacular.

Like Justin Lin and others, Spielberg eventually moved on, as did one-time potential star Will Smith. However, someone who stayed with the project through the years is screenwriter/co-producer Mark Protosevich.

Protosevich, who scripted The Cell and chunks of I Am Legend, has always been a serious cheerleader for this remake. I say remake, because, despite what Spike Lee and others tell you, Oldboy is definitely a remake, not a reinterpretation.

There’s nothing wrong with that, and Protosevich, he doesn’t treat “remake” as a dirty word either.

Your name has been attached to Oldboy since 2008.

Yeah. I remember my very first meeting on Oldboy was October 2008.

And that was with Steven Spielberg.

What happened was I got a call from Will [Smith] saying, “I want you to write my next movie.” That’s always nice to hear, but he said I just had to come out and meet the director, Steven Spielberg, who had I met briefly on the set briefly for I Am Legend. All the sudden Will told me it was for the remake of Oldboy, and you don’t get that kind of phone call often [Laughs].

I flew out to Los Angeles and met with Steven, and it was a general sort of “getting to know you” meeting. I had started writing down a bunch of thoughts and ideas of how to approach it around that time. We met a few times, but it was a very long period where a lot of the rights and deals were getting negotiated. During that time I wrote a 30 page treatment of my own.

Almost a year after that, I turned the treatment in, despite not even having been hired yet. I found out the Dreamswork deal had completely fallen apart and the project was off. The thing is, during the writing of the treatment I became passionately involved in the project, so when I found out it was off, I was really devastated; it was one of the worst days of my professional career.

When the producers got together and wanted to move forward with the project, I said I wanted to continue with the process. It became a much more independent venture. We didn’t have a star or director, so it was different. They couldn’t pay me a lot of money upfront, but I didn’t care. Finally, we ended up getting the script we were excited over. After that we looked for a director and actor, which took a while, but ultimately Josh [Brolin] and Spike [Lee] came onboard.

It’s refreshing to hear you say “remake,” because most writers and directors shy away from that word.

People react to certain words. They’ll say, “Oh, don’t refer to it as a remake. Say it’s a ‘reimagining’.” To me, it’s going to be called a remake. The label doesn’t change what it is. I refer to it as an English language version of the original film.

How do you go about Americanizing the story?

That was one of our concerns. The original film has an Asian feel to it. There’s certain cultural aspects to that film’s DNA. I just don’t think some of that would work with a Western audience. I love it in the original film, but I think it would have been a mistake for us to try to duplicate that. I don’t think it necessarily would work, because then it’d just be an imitation.

A big concern on my part was to approach the characters and the story from a more Western cultural perspective, because there are differences. There just are, with references, attitude, concepts, and beliefs. It was important for me to make it more of an American story.

Would you say removing the hypnosis is a part of that?

I think that’s one of those elements. I am by no mean criticizing those elements of the original film, because I love it and have tremendous respect for it. From a writer’s standpoint and narrative standpoint, I didn’t feel the need to incorporate that in this version. On a pure gut level I didn’t want to do it, so I wanted to find another way where we didn’t have to rely on that. I do think Western audiences would roll their eyes at that idea.

During the writing process, did you have to consider someone who’s seen the original and knows what to expect or did you aim for audiences unfamiliar with the original?

I didn’t think about that too much. This was a different and intense writing process for me. I wanted to tell a version of this story that really meant something to me, using elements or concerns I have interest in. I do certainly think there were tips of the hat while writing it for people who have seen the original.

Right now I live in a very small town with few people in the business, and when I bring up Oldboy, nobody has ever heard of it. There are some people who have seen it, and for those people, it’s an obsessive devotion [Laughs]. They have an inherent skepticism for our version. I think what will happen is that the people who hopefully see our version will be inspired to go track down the original. I think that would be a wonderful thing.

Oldboy is now in theaters.

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Longtime FSR contributor Jack Giroux likes movies. He thinks they're swell.