Parasite Director Bong Joon-ho Explains His Fixation With Shooting in Tight Spaces

When I arrived to interview Parasite director Bong Joon-ho at a hotel in Beverly Hills, a member of his team informed me he had been in a dark room for most of the day, and that he would like to talk outside, on the balcony, to bask for a bit in the sun.

It was a curious request, because his Palme d’Or-winning knockout, Parasite, follows a family’s journey from a dark basement to the sunnier comforts of a state-of-the-art residence equipped with luxury in every corner.

“I have no claustrophobia,” the director said. “I love being locked up in very tight spaces, and I love filming in those spaces.”

He clarified that rather than seeking more space and light, he wanted fresh air. The disadvantaged characters in Parasite, a caustically humorous social thriller, may also want to breathe in something new, outside of their financial constraints.

The evils of late capitalism have been on filmmakers’ minds for quite some time. Bong mentioned Lee Chang-dong’s Burning, Jordan Peele’s Us, and Hirokazu Koreeda’s Shoplifters as recent examples of films that pose the same questions as Parasite about those left behind as the wealthy grow wealthier. “It’s not as if we all gathered for a meeting and came up with this strategy,” he said. “It’s very natural that contemporary artists talk about capitalism, because we’re always influenced by the times that we currently live in. it’s very interesting that all these films with similar themes are coming out at the same time.”

Bong Joon-ho spoke to MovieMaker about how theater ignited his masterpiece, his obsessive love for spatial limitations, and the one person whose feedback during the screenwriting stage matters the most to him.

Carlos Aguilar, MovieMaker Magazine (MM): Conceptually, did Parasite arise from a specific case in real life of similar events you became aware of, or was the seed more related to your technical curiosity about difficult and limited settings?

Bong Joon-ho (BJ): At first, one of my close friends, who is a stage actor, asked me if I would be interested in directing a theater piece, and so it all began with this simple question of, what would be a good idea for theater? And because the stage is a limited space, I thought of two houses, one poor, one rich, and two families with four members each. And so I came up with this idea, trying to think of an ensemble piece set in a limited space, but drawing from my personal experience. When I was in college I worked as a tutor. I worked for a very rich family for about two months, and then I was fired after that. But I had a lot of fun, interesting memories from that time, which are reflected in the film, particularly when the protagonist first enters through the gates towards the rich house.

Sun-kyun Lee, Yeo-jeong Jo, and Ji-so Jung in Parasite. Image courtesy of NEON

MM: It’s often said that certain locations in films have qualities that nearly make them feel like characters, in this case, that rings even more true, with the home being as complex in design and surprising as the protagonists.

BJ: It was very necessary to have this rich house feel like one of the protagonists, because the plot is really based on that space, and more than any other character, that rich house actually carries the most secrets. So even from the scriptwriting stage, I sketched out the basic structure of the house and handed it to the production designer, but on the other hand, the house is also an expression of the rich characters. This rich couple, they’re young rich people with a lot of money, but they want to show off that they also have this sophisticated taste, and that they’re living in this amazing house built by a famous architect. So you can say that the house is also an extension of those characters.

MM: In your writing process, are there particular images or themes that drive the way you approach a screenplay? Or do you depart from the people you want to portray?

BJ: The first trigger or motif that really motivated me to develop this story is this idea of infiltration, infiltrating a family one-by-one, and that’s where everything began. I created four characters in each family that suited that unique situation of infiltration… Rather than the characters themselves, I usually start from situations and the actions of these characters. I observe the situation and actions, and then think about, “Well then, who are these characters? What happened in their past?” I actually figure that out later on in my process.

MM: While working on a script do you show it to anyone for feedback? If so, who is that trusted collaborator?

BJ: During screenwriting, I’m totally isolated, and the very first reader of my scripts is always my wife. She’s super harsh and so scary, but this time she thought it was quite okay. “Hmmm, not bad,” she said. And then I sent the script to my producer, and the actor Song Kang-Ho. They were the second and third people who read the script.

MM: With a film like Parasite, which operates with fantastic tonal nuance, were you concerned about the humor landing amidst the more gruesome or socially provocative elements?

BJ: Until the film had its first premiere, I had no idea if people would laugh or not. But thankfully I’m not specifically a comedy director… If they don’t laugh, I’m just like, “Okay, well, it’s fine.” And so, I try to enter humor as naturally as possible. It’s not as if I check beforehand, but I do sometimes think, “Oh they’ll probably laugh here, but if they don’t, it’s also okay.” But instead, I do have another fear. After I finish editing and I’m in the final stages of post-production, I worry that maybe there will probably be people in the audience who are dozing off at a certain point, so I remember telling the composer that we need to wake those people up. We need to put in some very strong music that’s somewhat different from the general tone of all of the score. In Parasite, when Mr. Park discovers the underwear in his car, you hear an excessive score entering the film.

Sun-kyun Lee and Yoe-jeong Jo in Parasite. Image courtesy of NEON

MM: Are basements comfortable places for you, artistically or emotionally?

BJ: The more limitations I have, the more motivated I feel to take on the challenging aspects of this project. If you think about Snowpiercer, it takes place in a very narrow and long train, and that’s incredibly limiting, but I was actually fascinated by those opportunities. And I do get quite obsessive over basements. It’s not because I experienced something in a basement when I was little, it’s nothing like that, it’s just that cinema is light and darkness, and I think there is an incredible sense of beauty when the camera is in a basement, in the dark, quietly gliding around. I think that’s very beautiful cinematically. I have a fear of squares and big public crowds. I feel much more peaceful when I’m in an isolated corner by myself.

MM: How was the set of the lavish home designed with these restrictions in mind to work alongside the needs of the camera and the crew?

BJ: We built it quite narrow and small. That’s the feeling that I wanted. But of course, the production design team created many detachable walls for shooting. Even in those cases, when we detached a wall, the camera lens always stayed at the edge of the wall. The camera was always where the wall would be. It would never be shot from afar. The body of the camera and the crewmembers are outside the wall, but even in that moment, the camera lens stayed inside the narrow area. That was the discipline we used to shoot this film. If the camera is far away from the space, we don’t achieve the effect that I want.

MM: Since you’ve always worked in the genre space, whether that means monsters or dystopian thrillers, have you ever felt like an outsider within the film industry in your country, even if it’s an industry that seems to embrace these types of stories?

BJ: In Korea, people respond well to my stories, and they do well in terms of box office. But I do always kind of feel lonely, because as a filmmaker, I’ve always taken on new challenges and new attempts. For example, in Memories of Murder, at the time, the Korean film industry really hated thriller films. They were telling me not to make it, not to create this film based on a really horrendous actual incident that happened. The producer tried to stop me, and it was difficult to get if financed. Of course, for The Host, people were like, “How are you going to pull off the visual effects? It’s going to be a disaster!” So that was a lonely process. And for Snowpiercer, it was the first time a Korean director created an English-language film with American and European actors, so for that as well, people said it was a huge risk. I don’t know if I can call myself an outsider, but I have always made people very anxious and have concerned people. Rarely have I felt blessed or have my projects been blessed by the industry, but for Parasite, it was actually a comfortable process, perhaps because it was relatively a low budget film with kind of a small story with Korean actors.

MM: With that in mind, do you think there a parasite in the film industry, destroying it or transforming it from the inside out, for better or worse?

BJ: I would like to be that parasite, although I haven’t succeeded yet.

Parasite is now in theaters.

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