[Interview] Lee Wonsuk with The Lady Miz Diva

There must be something really special about your movies when you've only made two and you find yourself the subject of a retrospective at the legendary Smithsonian Museum. Our dear friend, Lee Wonsuk, director of the brilliant and hilarious "How to Use Guys with Secret Tips", and the award-winning feast for the eyes, "The Royal Tailor", gave us his thoughts on the honor, looks back on the making of those films and reveals his future projects, including a live-action adaptation of the popular webtoon, "LOOKISM".

Lee Wonsuk

Korean Film Festival

Freer and Sackler Galleries, Smithsonian Institution 


The Lady Miz Diva: Wonsuk, you're about to come back to the US for a very special occasion: The legendary Smithsonian Museum in Washington DC is devoting the weekend to discussing your films, "How to Use Guys with Secret Tips" and "The Royal Tailor". How do you feel being the subject of such a big retrospective having made only two features?

Lee Wonsuk: I'm so honored because I've only made two films and they invited me, one of the most prestigious institutions. I'm so happy and honored, but at the same time nervous because as soon as I get there I have to go to George Washington University and I have a showcase with {Textile Museum curator} Dr. Talbot Lee, who is really famous. He sent me a question about hanbok, and I was like, "Whoa, what is this?" It was so deep and so specific that I called my wardrobe designer, Jo Sang-kyung {"The Royal Tailor"}, I said, "Hey, check this out, look at all his questions. I don't have answers to it". And she goes, "Oh, I don't have an answer to it, either". So all my people were doing research, right?  Some of the words that Dr. Lee sent me are really professional hanbok terms that hanbok people only know. So, I'm learning.  Maybe they should've invited the hanbok designer? 


The Lady Miz Diva: The festival organisers were kind enough to invite me and I really wanted to go just to see what your answers were going to be.

Lee Wonsuk: But I'm studying it; I bought the hanbok book. When I made "The Royal Tailor", I didn't realize they made a book like this. I should've read it before I made the movie. I regret that. It's very interesting.

The Lady Miz Diva: It's been a year since we spoke about "The Royal Tailor", which has played international festivals and won awards at the New York Asian Film Festival and at the Udine Far East Film Festival. You were kind of down on it back then, because you felt it didn't do well and had a lot of criticism in Korea. Has the distance from it and the international reception softened your view of making the film at all?

Lee Wonsuk: Just now, I'm at the company where we made "The Royal Tailor", and we're still talking about it just today, what we should have done better.

The Lady Miz Diva: What do you think you should have done better?

Lee Wonsuk: The story should have been focused on two persons, Dol-seok and Gong-jin, as it was originally, not four people. And everybody thinks now, seeing the movie, that it should've been very historic and very serious, because we were looking at all these patterns of successful period pieces, and they all turn out to be very serious.

But because of this movie, I'm still getting a lot of period piece films; like last week, I got a script from a major company that was a period piece. I told him I'm not going to do a period piece. A period piece will never end, it goes on and on.

The Lady Miz Diva: When you first told me about your ideas for "The Royal Tailor" back in 2013, what was so exciting was that you described such a different take on the usual period piece. It was sad to hear about all the compromises that you had made while in production.  The thing is, it seems like the movie is loved everywhere but in South Korea. What do you think the Western audiences reacted to in "The Royal Tailor" that Korean audiences might have missed?

Lee Wonsuk: Western audiences think it's really exotic and the hanbok is very beautiful and the story itself is very classic, kind of. I think that's why it worked for a western audience.  I mean, like in Udine, I had a standing ovation for like 10 minutes. I never experienced anything like that; I was overwhelmed.  I was like, "Are they kidding me?"  

But in Korea, the audiences look at the attitude of a movie - on the history.  There are some people who loved the movie, but other people thought I was playing with the history, joking around with the history. People take it very seriously. 

If I wanted to make it silly, if I wanted to make a fantasy out of it, I should've gone all the way.  But there's a pattern to all the failed Korean period pieces recently; they're all fantasy, like "The Joseon Magician with Yoo Seung-ho.

The Lady Miz Diva: I wonder if looking back on "The Royal Tailor" might have made you think differently about how to regard advice or suggested changes to your film? You said that people did not like some of the comedy aspect; you changed your idea about using a modern soundtrack, they hated the CGI bunnies on the moon, and in the end, you weren't as happy with the final product as you could've been.  Do you think that with the next project you're going to stick more strictly to your own idea?

Lee Wonsuk: I think with the future movie that I'm doing, I will have more control over because it's a subject matter that I know better. The period piece was something that I wasn't familiar with, and there were certain rules of period pieces that I had to follow, which I couldn't ignore. I wanted to break that, but if I wanted to break that, I should've gone all the way. It's all my fault, I chickened out.

There's a moment where you start doubting yourself. I think everyone gets that; every director gets to that point.  There are a couple of moments where I was shooting the film and I knew I made the wrong decision.  And also at the editing bay with all these people, all these politics, everything, it was another big time where I doubted myself.  At that point, I made a mistake, I took the wrong turn and that I regret.

"The Royal Tailor", I'm happy with what it is.  There was something that I wanted to do more, that I couldn't, and that is the part that I regret.  I'm not saying that my film is bad, or that I'm bad; but this was one of my big experiences. A very expensive learning experience.

The Lady Miz Diva: Have you considered making films overseas?  I think your style and sensibilities would do really well in Europe.

Lee Wonsuk: I've actually had a couple offers from Singapore and other countries, and India, too, and Japan, but I'm under contract at the time being. You know this industry so well; I mean, it never happens until you sign a contract. Everybody just talks and talks. The Singapore project is a very serious project, and I met the producers from Singapore, but it's a period piece and that's the part I'm unsure about.

The Lady Miz Diva: But you do have other projects lined up?

Lee Wonsuk: Yes, I have a Chinese comedy with Chinese stars and I don't think I could ever do this kind of comedy in Korea.  It's just going really slow right now, I don't know what's gonna happen.  

The other project I'm working on is an adaptation of a Korean manhwa, called Lookism by Park Tae-jun. I'm just getting started writing that.

The Lady Miz Diva:  I want to talk about you as director. Last time we spoke you mentioned how you and Yoo Yeon-seok had to be stopped from laughing too much on the set because you were disturbing the work.

Lee Wonsuk: {Laughs} Our set, still, our staff, when I visit other film shoots, I meet my staff and they always say, "Oh, I miss the set on "The Royal Tailor"". It was a fun set, we had a bunch of laughs.

The Lady Miz Diva: Why did you think Go Soo was right for that character in "The Royal Tailor"?

Lee Wonsuk: See, people were very conservative back then, and everybody has to follow rules, and there were noblemen's rules, bla, bla, bla, but probably back in the day, they probably had a crazy guy.  Somebody who was very open, somebody who didn't give a shit about anything. And Go Soo had been playing all these very serious roles. Then I saw him in Haunters with Gang Dong-won, and I thought, 'Oh, that guy looks like he could be really crazy.' Then I met Go Soo and we had a drink together and I felt that this guy's not serious at all.  He was casual and a very fun-loving kind of guy. I always felt he was very protective of himself because there's a lot of mystery about him that not many people know; he's not really open in media. But when I had a drink with him, he was totally different, more down to earth, kinda.  So this was the person that I want; people like him probably existed in Joseon two or three hundred years ago. So I asked him to do it and that's how we joined.

The Lady Miz Diva: You decided after having drinks with him that he was the right guy.  Do you feel happier to know a person and get a sense of them in that way before you cast them in a film?

Lee Wonsuk: Yeah, you have to live with these people for three or four months when you're shooting or in preproduction.  When I meet people, I can just feel their energy; whether this guy's good, or whether this guy's evil.  I really want to work with good, fun-loving people.  They're actors, they could play the character, but they themselves have to be really good and really open and that's really important for me.  Probably a lot of other directors do the same thing, but I ask the actors to come out and we talk about all this stupid stuff, and you know, Diva, when you talk, you start clicking, but there are some people that never click.  But, if you feel comfortable with people, you could talk all the time, about the characters, and when you run into trouble, you can talk it out.  But with somebody that is very hard to communicate with, it's really, really hard; they just shut it down.  They just want to do their stuff.

The Lady Miz Diva: That goes back to what you were saying about the set, there being a level of comfort.  Is that something that you consciously cultivate; an easy-going, comfortable set?

Lee Wonsuk: Yeah, because I'm with these hundred people every day.  I'm not a serious person and I always make a mistake, but if there's a serious kind of environment, I'm not comfortable, so I can't be myself. But when the environment is very free and fun, then I can be myself and enjoy it.  And the crew too, they have every right to enjoy it, they're not slaves.  If they're happier, they do better and they give you more.  I'm being very much a fox, kind of, because I know what I have. I know my limits; I'm a person who knows my limits, what I can do, what I can't do - but with these good people bringing all these ideas and how they think just adds on and makes it bigger and bigger and bigger.  

That's what I love about filmmaking, I mean, if the set is good and the environment is good, everybody is talking and commenting and throwing at you all these ideas, and as a director, you just have to choose. You have to choose within the boundaries of your blueprint you made, so it's fun.

You're spending half a year of your life with these people; it's one of your memories that you're always gonna have.  I've only made two films, but with the last film, when I look at the film, I don't look at it like 'Oh, the stupid mistakes that I made.' Every time I see a scene, I remember what happened on the set. There's all these memories that come up.  That's the fun part as a director watching the movie.  

With "The Royal Tailor", it was the same thing.  I think that everybody probably has the same thing; that one day we'll probably think, 'Oh yeah, "The Royal Tailor", we had so much fun. We made a good film with good people.' I think that's really important, and I think it's really important for my crew to feel that.  

Movies are movies, the person is more important than the movie. It's just a movie, one day it's in the theater, people watch it, it could disappear next week, but the memories of these people goes on forever.

People from the set, they still meet! They made a group and they still meet. And there are two couples who are pregnant who met on the set and one couple that is dating. 

The Lady Miz Diva: It sounds like they went to camp!

Lee Wonsuk: I know! {Laughs} Maybe it was too much, I dunno.  Everybody says the director has to be charismatic and take control of the set, but charisma and controlling the set, I take it differently.  You don't have to get like, 'Oh yeah, I'm the freaking director. I have the answers, you do whatever.'  That doesn't work, anyway.  I mean, I'm not that talented; I don't have the answer for everything.  I need help from these people and if I want to get help from these people…  You know you do something nice before you ask someone for a favor.  The least I could do is make the set, the shooting production enjoyable.


~ The Lady Miz Diva

June 2nd, 2016

Original article on The Diva Review

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