Adapting Oldboy into an American narrative was a challenge on so many levels. On one hand, the fanbase for the original is passionate, while also a very small minority. Screenwriter Mark Protosevich was on the project for five years, and he feels that the script he wrote for Spike Lee delivered what it should to make it their own while also still covering much of the same terrain. Protosevich has proved himself to be a smart and talented writer who worked on a number of big titles, but often found his work part of the factory approach of modern cinema. The great thing for him with Oldboy is that he worked on it alone.
I’m assuming you’re a man of good taste and are a fan of Do the Right Thing, perhaps Malcolm X, and The 25th Hour, how was it working with Spike Lee, someone who’s directed a couple of masterpieces beforehand?
Mark Protosevich: It was great. When he came on board, well I live in Cape Cod, in Massachusetts, and Spike is in New York, so I took the train down and we went out for breakfast at NYU, and we watched the original movie together. And we talked about the script and one thing I’ll thank him for is that the script that he read is close to what’s on screen.
He didn’t want to Spike it up?
Mark Protosevich: No, I would say the most Spiked up moments are some of Sam Jackson’s improvisations. We sat and talked about the movie, and that it would be silly not to acknowledge the hesitations of the devoted fans of the original about a new version, and so we talked about that and cover versions of songs. Some of my favorite songs, I’ll like both versions. Neil Young’s “Like a Hurricane,” Roxy Music does a version, U2’s cover of Patti Smith’s “Dancing Barefoot.’ Great, you can love both.
“Take Me to the River”
Mark Protosevich: Exactly. So we talked about “how are we going to interpret this?” Him from a stylistic standpoint. It’s been a five year journey.
So short in the scheme of things.
Mark Protosevich: True, I Am Legend was about twelve years. We both respect the original tremendously, I’ve always loved it and always will, and there were certain elements we wanted to keep, but I wanted to make it a story that I cared about. It wasn’t just a translation.
It’s funny that you mention covers, because so much of what we see now is Karaoke culture. Stevie Wonder covered The Doors and The Beatles, and when he did it, it sounds like Stevie Wonder, when he did “Light My Fire” he made it his own. You’re trying to thread that needle, but what’s interesting is that you’re dealing with a fanbase that is very vocal about a great movie, but you’re also dealing with less than one percent of the American population, so how faithful did you feel you needed to be?
Mark Protosevich: I think there are aspects of the original film that are very Korean or very Asian, certain concepts, attitudes, perceptions that are culturally unique to that movie and that society. I think to duplicate that would be a mistake, so I definitely wanted this to be more Western, I wanted this to be an America story. The Lizzie Olsen character, and approaching Josh’s character, where is he from, what is his work situation? That are definitely American cultural perceptions and experiences.
How then does that work with Sharlto Copley’s character then, who’s definitely European?
Mark Protosevich: The character spent most of his adult life in Europe amassing even more money, so the idea was he was someone you weren’t entirely sure where he was from, what his story is, and Sharlto brought even more to that in terms of a theatrical presence, even stranger on the page.
Was he always vaguely European?
Mark Protosevich: Yes. It was always someone who is not really part of any world. I’ve met people who were born in Australia, but raised in America, who then moved to Switzerland, so you can’t pinpoint the accent, and they’ve got certain family traits, but then traits from where they grew up.
How did you get involved?
Mark Protosevich: The reason I got involved with it is because Will Smith approached me to write it, and we had worked together on I Am Legend, and Steven Spielberg was talking about directing. That’s how my involvement with this project began, that was five years ago. That version fell apart, but I had done so much research and wrote a thirty page spec on it, and had become emotionally involved. But I had gotten to the point where, even though there’d be less money, where I was in.
Mark Protosevich: The Will Smith/Steven Spielberg never really got close. Steven’s son was a big fan of the original and said “you can’t cop out on this. It has to be raw and disturbing, and he was on board with that.” I don’t know if that ever got to Will, but needless to say it became a moot point. There was never a script written for that version. They never read the treatment I wrote and I never wrote it specifically for them.
How much did you look at the original Manga?
Mark Protosevich: The first thing I did when I got the call about this, was to go back to the original Manga, which I had not read. The film was my first exposure to the material. But I thought “if I’m going to do this I have to go back to the source.” It’s weird, the revelation at the end is really esoteric.
Was there much you took from it?
Mark Protosevich: I would say there are little influences here and there. In the Manga there’s a character who’s a former teacher, so that was potentially interesting to me, so there’s the Edwina Burke, and the friend Chucky, who owns a bar, I thought that would be a more natural fit for him to go to him as a home base, that felt a little more plausible to me. There was some strange stuff about the villain in the Manga. So there were little things, but what I realized was that the creators of the original film brought a lot to it.
Watching this version, you have moments like the hammer fight where if you’ve seen the original you think “oh they’re doing this” and then you put a spin on it. There’s a bunch of moments like that in the film, was that in the script?
Mark Protosevich: A lot of that was on the page. That was part of my thinking when I started, let’s not just recreate, let’s put a spin on it, let the things he encountered feel more western. Because the hammer fight in the original was a horizontal progression, in the script it was a vertical descent, so it was in a stairwell, but it proved a little difficult to shoot. But that was something from the beginning, trying to approach it a little differently.
I’ve seen your name a lot, obviously, you’ve got I Am Legend, Poseidon, you’ve got story credit on Thor, but this is one of the ones that actually gets made with your script. You’re the sole credited English language writer.
Mark Protosevich: Well, every movie’s different. I was on the set almost all the time with this movie, so I was very involved with this one, and luckily had support from the studio and the producers and Spike to be around so that was great. The only other time that happened to me was The Cell, which was an original script. Tarsem on The Cell brought a whole new level to that film visually. It was exactly what I wrote, but it was very different than what was in my head. And then I went through a long process of working but not getting anything made. And then getting presented with Poseidon, and there I said to myself “This is going to get made I should do this.” And I learned that’s not a good reason to do a movie. And I love Wolfgang Peterson, I adore him, but that was the worst professional experience of my life. And I was one of a half-dozen other writers on that movie, but nobody sought credit, and not a single line of dialogue was written by me, but I get the credit. I was involved with I Am Legend for over ten years, and when it goes into production the third act gets reworked. So I’m happy that the film got made, but you feel like “that’s not exactly how I would have done it.” But people love that movie, and I don’t know if it would have been successful if it was a darker, more troubling third act. Because it ends more positive, I think it reached a bigger audience, so it’s neither here nor there. But this movie I was passionate about from day one, and it’s satisfying to see that what’s up there I that it’s something I wrote.
Oldboy hits theaters November 27.