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Hal MacDermot [Film Festival 07.29.09] movie interview

Our very own Hal was at a roundtable interview event in LA the other morning, and while we didn't get to ask all the questions we wanted like: "Will Smith sucks.. what do you think of him being in a remake of Oldboy?" he still got in a few good ones. Thirst premiered at Cannes and our limey loved it.. you can read his review here.

Check out the full interview after the break!

How did you balance the humor and seriousness in Thirst?

Ten years ago I couldn’t dream that I’d end up with a film like this, because at the time my plan was to make the most serious film in the history of cinema. But, a filmmaker’s tendency or personality isn’t something that can be changed, because even though I’d decided to make something serious, I came up with something like this.

With a given character in a film, the more they struggle or the more they jump around full of rage, or whether they become the subject of violence, or if they are gripped with extreme sorrow, in these situations, if you just shift the angle a little, if you change the POV or the zoom, you are able to capture humor in that situation. There’s not much difference between something that is dark and serious and something that is hilarious.

Why at this point in your career do you find yourself dealing with the supernatural in your work? There’s always been a surreal quality, but here it seems there’s a clear supernatural element.

This film is something I’ve been thinking about for a long time. For a vampire film, I think this is the most realistic approach. By downplaying the amount of supernaturalism contained in this film, I was able to meet in the middle point, because as you point out there has always been a supernatural element in my films, so I was bringing the supernaturalism down to meet with the surrealism. If you think back to JSA, fantastical elements have been on the increase from Sympathy for Lady Vengeance, to I’m a Cyborg, but that’s Okay, and so with these increasing fantastical elements on the one hand, you could almost say this is a part of that progression to reach Thirst.

When they are playing Mah –jong at the house, Sang-hyun (the Priest) comes downstairs for a secret rendezvous with Tae-ju, the female lead, although their act of lovemaking is stopped, Sang-hyun walks out of the traditional costume shop, he jumps up to grab at a window ledge, and this is seen through a very high angle, this is achieved by a wire action, but in your usual vampire film, this would be done in a very fluid motion, his movements would be graceful, but in this film the way he holds onto the ledge there’s soemthign awkward about it, he doesn’t quite get the timing of it and his body swerves to one side. So this is how, although there is supernatural in this film, I differentiated it.

What attracts you to vampires and the vampire mythology?

Of course this film started by being a story about a Catholic priest and vampires were something that was bought in, in order to put this Catholic priest though the most heinous trail imaginable, but if you ask what elements of vampires I find interesting, unlike other films it’s not that they can be immortal or have superpowers, or are beautiful, it’s that they can only consume blood and that they can only move about during the night, so this is a being that’s very limited in what they can do. So almost something that you can sympathize with, these are poor creatures that have all these limitations placed on them, these limitations that they did not seek or ask for.

Most of the time in movies, the men are the ones going crazy and the women reel them in, but in this movie you have a woman that gets to be completely crazy and insane, for just the sake of it. That was one of my favorite parts of the movie and I was wondering if you could speak about that.

Maybe it’s because all the women around me are like that (laughter). I would like to bring female characters more to the fore and treat them as the main character, compared with how women are traditionally described in films, and compared with female characters in my previous films. But when I say this, I don’t necessarily mean that I want to create good role models. Sometimes I will give them personalities that are crazy or just bad, or they would do foolish things, and by doing that I feel that I do justice to the characters.

How do you choose your leading ladies? I know that many times you’ve surprised the audience with your choice of female lead.

Compared with everything else, all the process of film making for me, I make decisions based on reason, calculation and logic. However, when it comes to choosing the leading ladies, I seem to rely more on my instincts and gut feeling. Because these decisions are based on gut feeling, it’s very hard to explain, but if I am pushed to try, in this instance what drew me to Kim Ok-vin is that she’s a very unsettled person. Looking back on I’m a Cyborg but That’s Okay, this may not have been a good thing, but for Thirst and the requirements of the role I think it’s an important quality. And I had the same feeling when I was casting Old Boy and first saw Kang Hye-jeong.

Have you ever read Dracula.

Yes, ten years ago.

The movie reminds me of film noir. As a director, what movies informed you as you were making Thirst?

Not having gone through film school, and as someone who studied film on their own, it not like this now, but when I was young, in Korea there was not cinematheque, and the only films I had access to were films that were released at the cinema or on video, and they were all the latest Hollywood films, I didn’t really have the chance to watch the classic films, the only way I could access them was though books. My study of films was not really systematic; I would get people going abroad to bring videos back for me. For instance before I saw any of the classic film noir movies, I saw the Coen brothers. If I consider who most influenced my work, and as I get older, I come to the realization that the Korean director Kim Ki-young has been the figure who’s had the most influence on me. This was a director who was most prolific during the 50s and 60s and he’s much older than me, he’s part of the previous generation. He in turn would have been influenced by his peers, and those influences were filtered by Kim Ki-young and passed on to me.

This is in part related to the previous question, on how I choose my leading ladies. One of things that I was attracted to in Kim Ok-vin was this great contrast between her beautiful face and her hands, these tough looking very thick and, long and lengthy, with sturdy looking joints, it’s very scary imagining this hand grasping hold of young man and manipulate and controlling him, so much so that I included a shot of this in the film, of her hand grasping and gripping onto the man’s shoulder. But this image of a beautiful female character grasping or gripping on to the male character is a classic Kim Ki-young moment. Also you can view this film as part of the film noir tradition in the vein of Obsession or the Postman Always Rings Twice, in the sense that this is a story about a woman who plots to murder her husband with her lover. Actually all these story elements are already contained in Emile Zola’s novel Thérèse Raquin. Somebody pointed out to me that the lake sequence is reminiscent of A Place in the Sun, but again this is based on Theodore Dreiser’s novel. If you try and look at all the many different elements and influences in Thirst, it’s a great mix and fusion of East and West. It’s like the quest of an archeologist to dig for treasure under the ground.

The film deals with the relationship in a family that ultimately proves more destructive than the forces without, and this shares something with your past work, and with great American horror movies like Rosemary’s baby. Does the family hold the greatest potential for violence in society?

If you look at the family dynamics from Tae-ju’s perspective you could make that observation, when she says she was “raised as a dog,” or that this family’s definition of marriage was that she was sleeping with the mother and then the next day after marriage she was sleeping on the bed of the son. For this character, marriage is like a prison or a hell. But if you look at it from Sang-hyun’s point of view, the argument is more religious, and has to do with the existential condition of a human being. Now, Sang-hyun, just like the notions of Catholicism and vampires which both come from the West, Sang-hyun is an outside element, that infiltrates, penetrates into this very closed family, just like a virus, or the way vampires blood would reaching into your system, and changes you into something else entirely. One of the main themes of this film is to look at external elements entering into an internal environment and to see the reaction.

An interesting result of these 2 characters meeting is to look at how the mother in law changes, from her a very typical bad character, and how she changes after her paralysis. After her paralysis, when Sang-hyun kills Tae-ju and is drinking her blood, she observes the two characters with those two eyes that are reminiscent of the eyes of God. Before her paralysis she was very active, energetic, she would be talkative, she would be slapping her around, but after her paralysis all she can do is observe and look at these two characters, and in her eyes you feel almost the omnipotent powers of a God, she becomes almost a Godly being, and through that observation affects them, those eyes that are always looking at them right up to the end of the film.

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Anonymous (12 years ago) Reply

Can't wait to see this. How many people were at this "round table discussion." Seems to me you threw some good questions out there.

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