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Lee Jung-Jae On Taking The Directorial Turn And Balancing Action And Spycraft In Hunt - Exclusive Interview

After his turn as Seong Gi-hun in the international phenom series "Squid Game," seasoned performer Lee Jung-Jae is anything but resting on his laurels. Now, he's taken a turn in the director's chair for the new spy thriller "Hunt," a tale of political machinations and investigations set in the tense environment of 1980s South Korea. Lee Jung-Jae also wears a number of hats in the production, both as a co-writer and as the film's star. 

"Hunt" takes place four years after a real-life political crisis. In 1979, South Korean dictator Park Chung-hee was assassinated by his intelligence agency's own chief, and a military coup installed a new and equally dangerous president. Four years later in the film's timeline, a failed assassination attempt triggers another political crisis in an increasingly tense situation of inter-agency turmoil and distrust. 

Lee Jung-Jae plays Korean Central Intelligence Agency Foreign Unit chief Park Pyong-ho, an experienced and respected agent who comes to suspect a North Korean mole is behind the attack. He and KCIA Domestic Unit chief Kim Jung-do (Jung Woo-Sung) have to get to the bottom of the treachery despite mutual distrust.

In an exclusive interview, we discussed the new feature film with multi-hyphenate filmmaker Lee Jung-Jae. We talked about the leap into his directorial debut, how he shaped its extensive twists and turns, and the process of planning and choreographing top-tier action sequences with choreographer Heo Myeong-Haeng ("Train to Busan"). We also gained a little insight into Season 2 of the continuously popular "Squid Game."

Taking a hands-on directorial approach in Hunt

I was so excited to see your directorial debut for "Hunt," which I know you've been working on for four or so years. Why take this leap into the director's chair?

When we first bought the rights to the first draft of the script, I had initially searched for the right directors and writers to further develop the project, but that didn't work out because I had specific directions regarding how I wanted the revisions to be executed. I couldn't find the right people who share[d] that same vision that I had, so I ultimately decided that I could try doing this myself. 

I changed the theme from the first draft, and based off this change in theme, I changed the situations and change[d] the characters to match the theme as well, which is why it took a while to develop this material. Having worked on the script for so long, the next thought that naturally occurred was, "There probably isn't anyone else who knows the script better than I do," so I decided to take that leap of faith and try directing it as well.

Pitting Pyong-ho and Jung-do against each other, balancing the third-act twist — "Hunt" has a complex narrative. From a writing perspective, I imagine that adds challenges to your process of writing the script. What was that process like, and how did you work through that complex story?

First of all, I wanted to be faithful to the espionage genre, which of course requires this intricately set up structure of the story, so I kind of saw it as playing a game with the audience using twists. The movie and the director and the audience are all in on this big game that we play through these twists of the story. I did extensive research beforehand and, based off of that, decided when the action sequence should come in, when the twists should come in, and when the twists in the character's personality should come in. All these placements of when that should happen were so important in order to make sure that the audience does not lose their focus on the film for even a minute.

Keeping a balance between action and spycraft

The action choreography is so great in the blue cab chase sequence. I know your stunt coordinator, Heo Myeong-Haeng, worked in "Train to Busan" and others as well. What was it like to work with him on this?

Once I began my conversations with the stunt coordinator, the first thing I mentioned [was] that I want[ed] the action sequences to be short, because if the action sequences are too long, then it's no longer an espionage movie; it'll be an action film. I wanted to be faithful to that espionage genre but still include those action sequences. 

So initially, when we were writing the script, the action lines actually explained all of these action sequences in a lot of detail. For instance, regarding the Tokyo hotel scene, the action lines described where the agents were standing, where the car was starting from, where it's going to stop. All of this was described in a lot of detail in the script, and this came from the fact that I've already worked on set as an actor for 30-plus years, so I had an idea of whether all of this would be possible or not in a single location. 

After that, I had conversations with my action coordinator regarding the scale, because the scale of the action would directly influence the budget, and that's a big deal. We discussed a lot of that, and another thing that we discussed [was the need] for the action sequences to look dangerous but to actually not pose any threat to the crew and cast on set. Those are the conversations that we had.

In a recent interview, you were quoted as finding the international resonance of "Squid Game" a little bittersweet. I wanted to chat a little about your thoughts on that and ask, what effect would you like to see Season 2 have on audiences that would make it a little less bittersweet?

I actually don't quite remember the "bitter" of the "bittersweet" comment. The theme that we wanted to convey was perfectly well conveyed, and a lot of the international audiences seem to have sympathized with the theme as well, so I would say it was a big success, so I didn't really have any bitter sentiments. For this [next] season, as well, we will put a lot of effort into making sure that the theme we want to convey is a theme that the audience can sympathize with.

What's next for Seong Gi-hun in Season 2? Do you think he'll ever have to play a game against the mysterious Frontman?

I think Director Hwang already mentioned in a few interviews that the character Seong Gi-hun will go on this journey of revenge on the makers of this game, and that might perhaps involve the Frontman.

"Hunt" will be released in theaters and on VOD on December 2, 2022.

This interview has been lightly edited for clarity.