'Oldboy' Screenwriter Mark Protosevich Reveals How He Reshaped a Masterpiece


Scripting the English-language remake of a modern classic may be the easiest screenwriting gig there is, but actually doing it well is almost impossible. It's not much of a challenge if the assignment is to cleave so close to the original film that the job is more translation than adaptation, but even Hollywood's most acclaimed scribes have struggled to use the American context as a means of revealingly enriching a pre-existing story. When it comes to screenwriting tasks, remaking "Oldboy" is the closest you can get to tilting at windmills without having to quit Final Draft.

A twisted morality play which Korean filmmaker Park Chan-wook iconically adapted from a manga of the same name 10 years ago, "Oldboy" is the kind of story that screenwriters dream of making their own, in part because of how staunchly the story resists being retold. The sordid tale of an unexceptional man who's abducted and held prisoner for almost two decades in a cell outfitted to look like a motel room, the plot really starts cooking when the protagonist is suddenly released back into the world without any explanation and an epic lust for revenge. It's a premise that begins at a universal level and whittles away at its hero until both he and the film alike have arrived at a hyper-specific place. Park's take on the material was effectively steeped in Korean culture and narrative tropes, a particular narrative tradition informing the film's most pivotal twists, shocking developments that American audiences were quick to enjoy but unprepared to fully appreciate.

Of course, "I Am Legend" and "Poseidon" screenwriter Mark Protosevich has some high-profile experience with taming beloved stories for contemporary crowds. A big guy with a buzzing mind, it's as easy to picture Protosevich starring in "Thor" as it is to imagine him sitting at a laptop and tapping out the film's story. He's been attached to the "Oldboy" remake for years, sticking through it as the project was passed between some of Hollywood's biggest names, and holding tight to his personal reinterpretation regardless as to which legendary director was slated to helm the movie. A few weeks ago I had the pleasure of chatting with Protosevich somewhere in the labyrinthine corridors of a swanky Tribeca hotel, where the writer generously explained what it's like to saddle up with Spike Lee on a quixotic quest in an industry that only cares about the bottom-line.


FILM.COM: When you sit down to begin the script for a remake like this, how do you make use of the original text? Do you pull it apart beat by beat, or do you just sort of put the movie aside and start from scratch? What's the plan of attack?

MARK PROTOSEVICH: For me, I mean certainly there are some intellectual processes you go through, of "Well, we'll want to keep that," "I don't think that will work," etc. But, when you really get down to it, it's almost like I have to put blinders on and just focus on it as if it's being written for the first time, so that it makes the experience, you know, exciting for me, and feeling kind of free. So, certainly, you have all that information, but-

But you don't have the DVD right there for reference.

Exactly, exactly. It's trying to write it as naturally and organically as possible. At least, that's the way I approach it.

Sure. And right from the outset of the film you can see that Joe Doucette is much more of an asshole than Oh Dae-su was. It's a crucial deviation from the original right off the top. I mean, he's not just drunk that one time, he's an alcoholic. He hates himself, he spits at his reflection in the mirror. Can you talk about the decision to make him a much nastier protagonist?

Well, I very much like stories that are about transformation, about a character going through some kind of intense experience or a traumatic incident that sort of strips away the bullshit about themselves and forces them to really confront who they are. So, on the other side of whatever that experience is, we end up with a very clearly different person. And so I wanted to definitely spend a little more time with him at the beginning, to show that he's at a very bad place in his life. I was always intrigued by the idea that, in its own weird way, the time he spends inside that room helps him. That, if it wasn't for his incarceration, he would have been on a downward spiral and probably would have just kept spiraling further down, because there wouldn't have been anything that would have forced him to confront his inner demons. And also, that's why I think we spend a little more time inside that room than even in the original film, I think we're quite a bit longer in there because I think those moments of change for him that you see are really important, and really kind of affecting.

Can you speak to how that pertains to the ending? Your conclusion here is markedly different from the original film, but it's very interesting to me that he ultimately chooses to go back into that room. I'm wondering if you think that it's a show of weakness or a show of strength, relative to the character in the original.

You know, that ending was actually one of the first sort of "A-ha!" moments that I had when I first became involved in the project. I liked the idea of- I think what he's doing is not only, you know, making a sacrifice, he's also punishing himself. And so, I think, in a way, it's a more Western than Eastern approach to what one might do making that discovery. I mean, it was really more of a personal thing for me. It was like, if I found that out, there's no way I could attempt to have some type of relationship [with my daughter] then. And I think, in some ways, he feels that this is what he deserves. But, in a way, I didn't want it to be a sad. In a weird way, it's like a transcendent moment. He finally accepts who he is.

To that end, this film taps into very American notions of forgiveness, or the lack thereof, which your version presents as being starkly different than the mechanics of forgiveness as they might exist in a Korean film. Can you talk about just adapting the details of this particular story for an American context? Were there any major elements of the original that jumped out at you, where you were like, "This could never happen in America!"?

I mean, there were definitely some specific things, like, I never thought the hypnosis aspect would work with a contemporary American audience. I think it would be asking for too much of a suspension of disbelief. And even if it was a severe form of brainwashing, it wouldn't really explain what was going on with her, so I definitely wanted to try and find- I think, in the original film, it's, of course, visually speaking, a highly stylized film, but even the storytelling is highly stylized. And I felt our version needed to be grounded more in a reality that people who are seeing it for the first time, or are seeing this version, that it feels like a world that's real to them. And there are certain aspects of the film that are, from a social and cultural perspective, very Asian, or very Korean, very Eastern. And I definitely was conscious of trying to make this, in a way, more Westernized. Especially in terms of what he decides to do at the very end. I mean, I think that the idea of taking responsibility and accepting punishment... you know, there's a line in the film that the villain, he actually quotes Elizabeth Kubler Ross, and it's a quote about taking responsibility about every deed, word, action, and thought in your life. And that was really important for me, that he reaches this point where he realizes he's responsible.

Along those lines, as I'm watching a film like this I'm naturally wondering what transposing this story to an American setting brings out of the narrative. For me - this might seem a little harebrained or contrived - but for me, the reading that I glommed onto was that Joe is vaguely representative of America itself, and the way that we impact or "liberate" other countries and then back away when the consequences begin to become apparent. We're hyper-attuned to the action, but do everything in our power to look away from the fallout.

And sometimes, we're unaware of the unforeseen events that occur because of the actions that we took. That's, yeah... I mean, I'm never really thinking of a broad "this is a statement about ____", but was I very conscious about trying to make this an American story? That there are aspects of it that are reflective of the culture that we exist in? Yeah.

It definitely comes across. Switching gears a bit, during the production of the film there's been so much talk, much of it unfounded, about whether or not the incest storyline would be dropped from the remake. You have a very interesting red herring for people familiar with the story in there, but was there any point where some studio suit came in and said, "We are not releasing a movie about incest!"?

It never came up. Even when this was a Steven Spielberg movie, for a brief time, his intention was to go to the dark places. I mean, I think it definitely affected the process when we were looking for distribution, I'm sure it affected the decision-making of some of the major studios, but it was- everybody who was involved in this was on-board with not compromising.

Yeah, I mean, how do you even tell the story without that?

Otherwise, it's really kind of pointless.

Speaking to the incest bit, one of the most compelling tweaks to the story in your version is that the infraction that has Joe being dragged through the mud for all these years, the nature of the gossip that gets him into this mess, it now perfectly mirrors the crime that he reported at school. Where once it was a brother having an incestuous relationship with his sister, now its their father having an incestuous relationship with them both.

I liked the idea of it, of using a parent-child relationship, that there was a parallel there between the past and the present. I liked that it was about a father and his child. I also think it's something that maybe echoes a little more in our society, as well. So, that type of abuse, so that was something that just, that felt right, to me.

As a screenwriter trying to imbue this project with your own vision, was the voice-over one of the first things you dropped? Was that a key for you that unlocked how to tell this story in a new way?

I think that I'm generally not fond of voiceover. Sometimes voiceover can be great, sometimes I feel like it can be a crutch. And I think that I found a compromise that appealed to me through him writing the letters to his daughter. I thought that could be a way to use a kind of voice-over, but it's in a different way because we're still learning new information. As opposed to- I didn't necessarily want him commenting on circumstances throughout the story. Now, I think it works well in the original film, I just wanted to see if I could do it without it.

And for whatever reason I feel as though the voice-over is somehow connected to the Eastern philosophies that permeate the original.

That could very well be true.

You mentioned that this was once going to be a Spielberg film, and I know there were a few director that became attached to the project once you were involved... But when you learned that this was going to be a Spike Lee movie, did you go back and tinker with anything to suit his particular voice as a filmmaker?

You know, the thing is that Spike liked the script. And, if you look at, you know, "25th Hour" and "Inside Man", he's doing other people's scripts and I think some people make the assumption that, "Oh, Spike's a writer, he probably wanted to do a draft of his own", and it's the opposite. I think he respects writers, and understands the writing process. He liked the script, and he liked me. I think the draft that he read, and the movie that exists, are pretty close. Certainly there were changes, and certainly he had ideas, but it was mostly a lot of fine-tuning. That's a sign, I think, of confidence on his part. I think sometimes there are certain directors who maybe aren't so good with story and script, and so they feel they have to make these changes, so then it'll smell like them. [laughs] To use the dog and the fire hydrant analogy. But, Spike, you know, knows what he wants, and if some things work, he'll stick with it. Like I said, certainly there was some fine tuning to be done, but it's very much, like I said, that draft that he read is pretty much what you see.

Got it. Well, my last question harkens back to the themes a bit, because something that has always gripped me about the story – in any version –  is the idea of victimization. The idea that people look at their circumstances and assume that they're the victim, and that they are the one who has been wronged. How do you avoid judging these characters as you're writing them? Do you have to do your best to abstain from judging them at all? 

I don't know when I had this, but I had the realization that one of the things I think the film is about is the innate, human desire to transcend one's personal pain. And I'm not talking about physical, I'm talking about the s**t we endure that we really don't talk about. Whatever, if it's family stuff, if it's addiction, if it's a failed marriage, or just more personal stuff, depression, all these things that people are woefully reluctant to share, but we have this desire to transcend that. You can do it through getting drunk, you can do it through going to the gym, you can do it through having sex, but it's never really dealing with the problem. So, I love this idea of getting to the core of the matter, and I think what we really don't realize sometimes is that we can think we're going through the worst s**t, but you don't realize that virtually everybody else you're meeting on the street is going through their own s**t, too. And I think that's one of my favorite moments in the movie, is when you sort of realize the tragedy of Adrian, as well. And, you know, the impact that we can have on people's lives that we're not even conscious of. That's interesting stuff.

Yeah, and if there's one thing that unites every screenwriter and filmmaker out there, from New York to Seoul, I suppose it's the power to impact people's lives without being conscious of it.

"Oldboy" opens in theaters on November 27th.