I had the opportunity to sit down with Nicole Kidman, Mia Wasikowska, Matthew Goode and director Park Chan-Wook to discuss the chilling psychological thriller “Stoker,” which is set to release early March.
Director Park, How has your Hollywood experience been compared to working in Korea?
Park: The fact that I had to shoot twice as fast as I’m used to in Korea was the most challenging thing about my Hollywood experience. In Korea, I watch the playback of the take with all the of the actors and spend a lot of time to discuss each take. Also, I use the process called on-set assembly, even before pre-production ever begins, I’ve storyboarded the entire story. So all of the cuts and the vision is already laid out in the story for everyone to share. It enables an on-set assembly person, we call them, to cut together each take into a sequence. So, this enables the director with his actors to review the take within context of the scene. Also, I would not only get the playback with the actors, but get this on-set assembly footage with sequences. These are the reasons it takes twice as long to shoot a film in Korea. Thinking back, I remember that on my first ever Korean film, I never used any playback or on-set assembly. So all I had to do was tell myself, well, it’s just like making my first ever Korean language film. So, after that I felt right at home.
When you have a cast that speaks a different language from their director, can you tell me how maybe the universal language of film and storytelling manifests itself or creates any more interesting performances or experiences while shooting?
Matthew: One of the first films I ever did was in Spanish and I don’t speak Spanish. That’s as hard as you’re going to get, doing a film in a different language. You really listen but as far as this, it was really easy, after the Skype chat I had with director Parks, it lasted about an hour. All you’re worrying about in the beginning is who you should be looking at, for me anyways. Is it rude to constantly be looking at the translator, it’s this weird tennis match. Once I got on set though, I didn’t think about it at all.
Mia: Yeah, very quickly, you don’t even think about it.
Nicole: There are times when you have to clarify words because obviously, a lot of the time I would just be going, is this exactly what he wants? Because in translation, things can get lost, so I was just very specific with him.
Parker: Working with these very intelligent, smart cast meant that sometimes he would only have to start speaking a word and these actors would immediately catch onto what I wanted them to portray. So I really felt communication wasn’t an issue.
Can you talk about your first reaction to the script written by Wentworth Miller and if there was a difference with a script written by an actor opposed to a screenwriter? Or is a good script just a good script?
Mia: I don’t know, I think a good script is just a good script. I thought it was amazing the first time I read it and was instantly drawn into this world and these really complex characters and the mystery within all of them.
Nicole: I had to read it a couple of times to understand it just because it has a lot of subtext and layers. So, I just wanted to absorb what the overall feeling of it was and I think the strength of director Park is his atmosphere. He creates incredible atmosphere and the script relies heavily on the language of the images because there’s not a lot of dialogue. So, the cinematic language of it has to be very, very strong. When I had a meeting with him, we talked about all of that and it was extraordinary how detailed and how precise, and how he knew what he wanted to say. His use of color and sound, it’s all very specific and it’s not by chance and that’s something that really fills in a lot in a script like this.
Was there a memorable moment for you throughout the entire filming process?
Nicole: I loved the dinner scenes, because I just found them, there’s humor in them as well,
Matthew: It was all a joy, but one thing that really sticks out in my mind is there’s a scene that became compromised due to lack of finance, it was meant to be by the lake, where we see the burial of my younger brother and director Parks really, rather brilliantly didn’t flap about it and got on with it and created it in the backward of the house around the sandpit and I thought it was very quick and more chilling because of the setup of it and because of the nature of play. It was just so dark and he did it so quickly. Weirdly, I wasn’t in the scene, although I watched it because mini-me was in it, and my daughter was with me, and it was just a profound moment, of he’s (Park) a genius and I want to protect you as long as I can.
Nicole: What’s interesting was to talk with director Park, he says this is a movie about bad blood, which I thought was a sort of interesting way of describing it and what bad blood is in a way.
Parks: I want the story to be interpreted in as many ways as possible, of course the bad blood thought included. Perhaps this is a story not about the hereditary nature of evil but rather you could interpret it from a different perspective too. You could say that evil is contagious in that we have this mesmerizing mentor in Uncle Charlie who would come into your life and every person has a seed of evil inside and when you come across such a mesmerizing mentor, he’s able to successfully turn that into a flower of evil.
Matthew, it seems your character is symbolically linked to a spider, and you’re watching predators on television, when watching, it felt as though you choose when to blink very carefully,
Matthew: There was an element of the predator and stuff, I think it was more than just thinking, I’m going to do it like a penguin, (laughs) I think the animal thing is really important, I didn’t mean to be facetious or thanks for laughing, but I wanted his movements to be- he dances for me really. As far as the blinking, it’s funny because some things are automatic when you’re doing it and I try to get out of my own ways. Some of it is just what happens when someone captures you with a camera.
I think one of these most powerful scenes is when Nicole, you confront Mia, your daughter, and she’s standing in the doorway-
Nicole: It’s really intense and I love the scene because it’s so unusual. When I first read it, I remember reading it because I never expected it to end with that line of ‘I can’t wait to watch life tear you apart.’ So, from where it starts to where it ends, it’s an amazing monologue. To make it, because of the way director Parks shoots, which is really intense and close, we did a number of different ways but we shot it in one shot, which is fantastic for an actor to not be cut-up and edited, it just gets played out that way. I was just very grateful that he had the vote of confidence in me to be able to do it because it’s a really weird scene.
Mia: It is a weird scene and very scary to be on the receiving end.
Parks: That scene is a very important scene for Evies character actually. In the original Wentworth Miller script, the monologue ends with ‘I can’t wait until life tears you apart’ but during the preparation period, Nicole and I agreed to bring some other aspect to this character and in that, Evie is not just an oppressive, pathetic mother but deep inside she actually loves her daughter very much and seeing this seed of evil flowering in her daughter, Evie feels this. So, after this long monologue of cursing her own daughter, at the end of it, she is actually surprised at how she can be so aggressive to her own daughter and after she is surprised she says to India ‘who are you, aren’t you supposed to love me?’ And this is something that came out of these conversations with Nicole during rehearsal and not only that but it was a line of dialogue that Nicole came up with.
Nicole: I think it goes back to what director Park said to me which is that her own child doesn’t love her and she doesn’t understand why or she doesn’t feel that she knows her own child and that’s a terrifying premise. To say to your own child ‘who are you’ is a very- that’s interesting to me, a fascinating sort of dynamic.
Mia and Matthew, when you’re playing characters like this, do you as an actor have to find a way to relate, understand or like these characters? If so, how do you do that?
Mia: I’ve always found that the films that have a more serious nature, the more goofy, light hearted and silly it becomes in between scenes, almost out of necessity to counter the intensity of the scenes and material. So, I feel like we were pretty good at that. In terms of understanding where they come from-
Matthew: It’s sort of like a psychological investigation. In some sense, they’re all detached and completely away from anywhere, so much that we don’t really know where it is or what time period it is really. I think Charlie is very good at being on his own but he’s like a Christmas that takes a very long time to hatch but he could’ve left la institution for a good deal of time, and I think I just wanted to make him like the fucked up Peter Pan that he is. It’s a coming of age story for her (Mia) but how held back is he, he’s sort of a man-child.
The atmosphere is so important in this film and the sound design and editing is so compelling that it made me pay more attention than I normally would. What were your impressions when you first saw the film?
Nicole: I was amazed at the filmmaking. You don’t see that kind of filmmaking that often and a lot of the stuff I hadn’t seen because I’m not in it. So even the scene in the playground, the way she climbed up the slide and it’s very, very layered and the hair scene, I had no idea. He said we are just going to shoot brushing your hair, and then I see the film and I’m like that’s amazing. That sort of detailed filmmaking is one: really hard to do and not have it be pretentious and two: have it really sort of tell the story, which is what your taught, which is cinema is the language of images and you really should just be able to make a film with no dialogue and tell a story. I really think director Parks should do that next.
Regarding the pivotal piano scene, Mia I read somewhere that it was your best day of filming, could elaborate on that and with Matthew how did you approach that particular day of shooting?
Mia: Yeah, I really liked it because I felt like I didn’t have to do much because we just had playback going and it’s just such an intense piece and such an amazing piece and I think we listened to it all day. The rest of the crew was sort of wilting each time we replayed it but I was just “yeah, again!” When the music is there you almost don’t have to do much, except surrender to it and then all the feeling and emotion I felt was in the piece.
Matthew: That’s one of the funny things about our job really is, see, I don’t play the piano, and then you’ve got someone who’s really great coming around to teach you and you say, ‘here we go, please forgive me for what you’re about to hear.’ And of course the fact that they choose Phillip Glass is perfect
Nicole: Yeah but you guys played it.
Matthew: Yeah, it went over a half of hers and were able to play good little sections and also able to give director Park options to be able to shoot from behind. But it’s always nice to just be able to see, when we see people playing, we say, it’s not them playing that, and then he’s able to show you that they are and it’s sort of fucking with the audience in a weird way, it’s kind of nice. People talk about chemistry but I just, I love Mia, and you never know how it’s going to work out no matter how good the script is or how much a genius the director is and I think that’s one of the reasons during the piano scene really worked because it was an element of trust and all of that really.
Mia: I think with music, it’s just one more element that we don’t have when we shoot a movie, because we shoot it on such a blank canvas in a way. We’re always in a room where twenty-five people are in our face, holding booms and cameras so it feels pretty unreal to us when we shoot something .When there’s music, one more element, it gives us more indication of the tone and the feelings. So, it feels easier.
Matthew: And we had that bit of music to do it for awhile, I loved that bit.
Mia: Me too.
Nicole: But and the good thing is we had the piano there on the set because we were shooting in the house, it wasn’t a set, it was a house. So, I would hear you guys practicing
Parks: When the DVD comes out, if you watch the film multiple times, you’ll be amazed to find two things. First is how much of the actual playing was done by Matthew and Mia. Secondly, not only that but how much acting was going on as well. They were trying to focus on getting the fingers right but at the same time, they perfectly encapsulated the emotion of the characters during those moments.