FilmDistrict will release Spike Lee’s Oldboy, starring Josh Brolin, Samuel Jackson, Elizabeth Olsen, Sharlto Copley, and James Ransone on Thanksgiving weekend this year. And I can’t wait to see unsuspecting families walk into this twisted tale.
In theaters November 27th, “The pic is a provocative, visceral thriller that follows the story of an advertising executive (Josh Brolin) who is abruptly kidnapped and held hostage for 20 years in solitary confinement. When he is inexplicably released, he embarks on an obsessive mission to discover who orchestrated his bizarre and torturous punishment only to find he is still trapped in a web of conspiracy and torment.”
Last year I spent some time on the New Orleans set of the film. While I wasn’t there for the infamous “fight” scene, I did see plenty of cool stuff and had a nice long chat with the cast and crew of this new “reinterpretation.”
A Phantom Rolls Royce idles on a street nearing the outskirts or New Orleans, Louisiana. It’s parked in front of a bar ensconced in a faded green building – the sign reads “Chucky’s: Open Damn Near 48 Hours.” The car pulls away, heading towards the semi-deserted neighborhood beyond the bar’s enclave. On the sidewalk outside of Chucky’s lays a man, deposited there by whomever was in the car. He’s beaten, bloody and bruised. A broken heap dressed all in black. That man is Josh Brolin.
No, it’s not the aftermath of a bad night out for the actor. It’s the set of Spike Lee’s reinterpretation of Oldboy and the Rolls Royce belongs to Sharlto Copley’s villainous character. Michael Imperioli, the “Sopranos” actor who is clearly the Chucky mentioned on the sign above, rushes out to the curb to help his fallen friend.
As Brolin gets up, it’s immediately clear what fantastic shape he’s in (bruises and blood aside). I’ve never seen the actor this lean, muscular and chiseled. It’s a far cry from how he appears in the opening minutes of the film, out of shape and designed to look bloated from alcohol. Brolin comments on the shift between his weight in the film, “I gained some weight and I lost some weight. Some people think it’s impossible. I would never do it again, but yeah I gained a lot of water weight.” How did you do it? Can you tell us? ‘No. It was a difficult thing. I came in good shape, then I put on a lot of weight and lost it again.”
While there’s still an active setup outside Chucky’s bar, the crew quickly preps another shot which has Brolin and his co-star Elizabeth Olsen (Martha Marcy May Marlene) getting into a cab. The camera pushes in on the passenger side window and Brolin tosses of an intentionally goofy glare that has most of the crew erupting in laughter. After that, they nail the shot with a more appropriately serious take.
During a break from shooting, myself and a few other journalists pile into a room in the back of the bar to speak with some of the film’s cast and crew, including legendary director Spike Lee. It was my first time speaking with him and, even though he was extremely guarded about the film’s secrets, I found him to be warm and genial with a surprising sense of humor. I had heard that the new script by writer Mark Protosevich (I Am Legend, The Cell) was even more intense than the original 2003 film. Lee replied with a simple, “True.”
Josh Brolin explains how the film got off the ground in the first place, “I called up Chan wook-Park. I tried to get him for ‘Jonah Hex.’ And I almost had him! And then I let him go at the last second, ‘you know if you’re heart’s not in this we can do something else.’ But we became good friends and talked once every couple of months. And Spike and I have been friends for a few years. So when this came up, it sounded good but I needed to get his blessing first. So I called him and asked what he thought about us doing this. And he said, ‘Absolutely. Just don’t do it the same.’” Brolin adds, “It’s become its own very original film.” We noticed the production sign (the yellow signage leading us to set) said ‘Octopus.’ Is that scene still in there? We’re creating our own iconic moments. There are some homages to original movie and then there’s some new stuff.”
Lee adds that he and Brolin had been circling each other for a while, trying to find the right project to work on. “For me it started with two parties. One for ‘American Gangster’ and the other one for ‘W.’ [Brolin and I] talked and I told him I was a big fan of his work. And it was mutual. And we just said, ‘let’s work together.’ But even if you want to work together you still need material, something both people feel passionate about. We were at the same agency and the script came in and we called each other up and said, ‘let’s do it.’ The script was great.”
We notice that Brolin has a tattoo indicating that he’s been counting down 20 years of imprisonment as opposed to 15 (depicted with notches similar to the imagery featured on the film’s teaser poster). Protosevich acknowledges that his script changes the time from 15 to 20 years. “In terms of childhood development, anything prior to 3 years old can be pretty much forgotten. I should be careful here… ” Lee interjects, “You should.” Protosevich continues, “It seemed proper to me.” Brolin offers a final thought on the subject before we move on, “The original Manga was 10 years. Chan wook-Park’s film was 15 years. This is 20 years. The sequel will be 25 years.”
Lee latches on to Brolin’s mention of the Manga. For him, this new retelling of Oldboy is a continuation of the story’s journey through different cultures, and this new version has a decidedly American sensibility. “Here’s the thing. People don’t realize that the original source is Japanese. It’s not Korean. It was reinterpreted in Korea and now we’re doing it in the United States of America.” He continues, perhaps the most animated we’ve seen him thus far, “I don’t call this a remake. I call it a reinterpretation. You can have Oscar Hammerstein’s “My Favorite Things” but when John Coltrane plays it, that sh*t sounds different. It’s a great film, and this is a reinterpretation of it. It’s not Julie Andrews singing “My Favorite Things,” it’s John Coltrane. That’s the way I look at it. And that’s gonna happen anyway, because we’re shooting in the United States of America. A very diverse United States of America as evidenced by this last election.” He adds, “‘Oldboy’ is a phenomenal film, and there’s room in the universe for this one.”
Elisabeth Olsen, who has been sitting quietly with Brolin and Lee up until now, agrees with the concept of reinterpretation. Olsen, “Good stories should be re-told. And this is a good story. So [it makes sense] to remake it for a different audience at a different time.” She also feels like there was a lot to chew on in regard to the updated version of the character she’s playing, “I think that it’s a completely different character than the original story. She has a before and after in her life outside of the context of what happens in the film.”
But will this American version latch on with American audiences? We’re notably more concerned with sexual taboos. Protosevich grabs the ball on this with a brief, “I think sometimes it’s okay to disturb people.” If he seems confident in his work, he has every right to be. He’s been attached to the project for “a minute” as Lee puts it, and has had years to refine his draft. “I’ve been involved with this now for four years. So for me it’s been a ling process to get to this great point. I love the source material, but it really was an opportunity for me to really challenge myself as a writer. I became incredibly obsessed with it and passionate about it. And I think it’s the best thing I’ve done. It feels right, it feels like the reason I got into the business in the first place.”
Was it that script that brought Michael Imperioli on board? Not quite (but it couldn’t have hurt) “I didn’t look at the material. But Spike called me and I’d worked with him five times before so I said ‘yes.’ If he’s got something, I’m in. It doesn’t matter what it is.” Sharlto Copley, who was a bit late joining us due to a last minute trip to the dentist, suggests that the intensity is why he took the gig in the first place, “For me it was a little bit darker than something I would have done. But I felt that the first film was so good, in the story specifically, that I figured if you’re going to do something dark you might as well go all the way.”
Speaking of darkness, the original film is full of hardcore violence. And if this one pushes the envelope even further, is Lee nervous about the MPAA? Lee, “I’m not nervous but I know that historically they’ve been much more lenient with violence than with sex. They do what they do. We might have to have some resubmissions on various things. But we’re going for a hard “R”, that’s what we want.” Brolin adds that there’s also, “a lot more emotional violence in this movie.”
After we disperse from the chat we head back into the front of Chucky’s. Our plane leaves in a few hours, but we’re able to see one more simple shot. Michael Imperioli sits at the bar, sipping a whiskey and typing on his MacBook. Suddenly he stops and grabs the phone, his mouth agape. “It’s Chucky. It’s not about him, it’s about her. The whore. Remember? Jesus, call me!” Lee guides him through this a few more times until we depart, getting it just right. For those of you who have seen the original, you may know the pivotal nature of this moment. Or perhaps not… because not everything is the same in this retelling.
Brolin approaches us before we leave and we quickly grill him on the fight scene. You know… THE fight scene. Has anything changed? How did Spike Lee approach it? He can’t give us any real details but smiles, “I guarantee this will be the most intense fight sequence you ever see.”
Is he right? You’ll just have to go see Oldboy on November 27th. Remember, that’s over the Thanksgiving holiday. If you know what you’re doing you’ll take the whole family just to watch the look on their faces.