At the 5th Terracotta Far East Film Festival, Director Ryoo Seung-wan, who’s been directing for over a decade now, shared his knowledge and wisdom at a masterclass focused on directing action. Giving out his insights into the film business as well as talking about his own career, the audience was treated to a unique experience as we learned from a master in the field.
Below is a full transcription by us of the masterclass, with Joey Leung (Terracotta Festival Director) as MC. So if you’d like to find out how to direct your own action film, read on!
Joey Leung: [I didn’t start recording in time to catch the exact wording, but it was a general question about how he started out in his career]
Ryoo Seung-wan: In my generation at the time, the popular trends for film were genre films from America and Hong Kong action films. I used to want to make martial arts action films, like with the actor Jackie Chan, so I even used to learn martial arts myself. During my teens I realised it wasn’t the actors that made the films, but the directors, and I saw a photo in a film magazine that changed my life. It was a photo of the director John Ford giving direction to the actor John Wayne, and John Ford looked much more impressive in the photo. Because the director was much more impressive I decided to become a film director.
In my teens I used to make short films using my friends, and I didn’t go to university, instead I went in as part of the film crew. At that time, when I was at the beginning of my 20s, I met Director Park Chan-wook, and I began working with him on his films. I also began assisting other directors in the making of their films, and at the same time I wrote my own film scenarios to make short films myself. But at the time there weren’t a lot of genre films and there wasn’t much interest for them, so when I said I’d like to make action films they used to look at me quite strangely. The short films I did used to make didn’t get much interest in the film festivals either so they weren’t selected to be shown. So at the point where I decided I was going to give up making films, alongside with my wife, we decided we’d make the one film that I’d like to make before I ended.
So for my debut film called Transmutated Head, because it was difficult to make a feature length film at the time, I split the film into four shorter films in order to make that. So the one short film is completely contained within itself and complete like that, but if you link the four short films together, that would also make a story and a feature length film and that’s how I devised the structure to make each four of them. So the first episode of the first short film I made didn’t make any of the competitive film festivals, so I was getting very disappointed, then the very last one that was remaining, that film won the award at that festival, and with the prize money I was able to make the next one. Then the next episode I filmed with the prize money won the biggest prize at Korea’s biggest short film festival competition at the time, so with that prize money I was able to make my third episode.
So in that manner, writing the scenarios and getting prize money, it took me seven years to complete the four first short films that I made. And that became incredibly successful in Korea and that provided me with the opportunity and enabled me to make films until today. And those films were released in the year 2000 and since then I’ve had some successes and I’ve also had some failures and it’s brought me here today, meeting you in London. So my example and my story can be an illustration that anyone can be a film director.
Joey Leung: So if there was no established crew or experience in the 90s for making action films, how did you learn the techniques used to create action scenes, like wire work or special effects, pyrotechnics etc. Did you learn that by yourself?
Ryoo Seung-wan: As I was working as an assistant for the other films, I’d never actually worked on a film that was an action film, so the biggest task for me in making films was just the film itself. So as I mentioned before, during the 60s to the 80s Hong Kong action films that were around at the time, and in the 70s the American genre films that were around, were very popular, alongside French Noir films, and in terms of editing I was influenced by the British director, John Bowman. So I repeatedly watched the films I loved in order to learn, and as I said before, I learnt martial arts when I was younger, so I think that helped me to create the actions and the movements when I was making my own.
But I think that honestly the biggest learning that took place was when I was on the set and learning how to make films on the scene itself. So in my head I would imagine what a scene would look like, then at the set itself I would create that situation and shoot it, then when I edited it, I would be able to see what was good and what was bad, then in consequent shooting I’d be able to change or experiment with something new and calculate what else I could do differently. I think that was the biggest learning that happened. So even now when I’m on set I don’t make a film in its completely polished form, but I would describe myself as someone who’s quite experimental and tries new things all the time. And honestly I don’t think of myself as a master at all, so it’s very awkward for me to be here giving a masterclass.
Joey Leung: Sure we all think you are a master though. In each successive film you make, how much involvement in pre-production is there in terms of location scouting, rehearsals with the one on one fighting scenes? Does that become less and less with each film and a bigger crew?
Ryoo Seung-wan: Firstly, I don’t think the scale of the film is an important matter. The reason for that is each film differs in how much scale it requires, with how big or how small it needs to be. So simply because I’m gaining experience doesn’t dictate whether the film scale gets bigger or smaller for my next film. I think the important thing is that the film I’ve selected to make is to obtain how big the production scale for that film is and that’s the important part.
So for example for the film that we’re showing tonight, The Berlin File, that film has a large scale and even compared to the recent Korean films it is one of the larger films in the Korean industry. I didn’t choose this film because of its large scale but simply because the story I wanted to tell demanded a large scale of that production. All my films, regardless of the scale of the production, what I focus on is whether I’m appropriately using the budget and whether I’m not wasting any money on it at all, and I calculate that meticulously.
So for example, with action films especially, you can have accidents or the production costs can spiral out of control quite easily, so I tend to do a lot of preparation work beforehand. So I accompany all my teams in the location hunting and when assessing the looks of the film, and then I would prepare all of the action scenes and movements before we go on set, and then while we’re on set I may try to alter that and improve it on the set. So the action team that works with me, they have a lot more work to do than if they were working on another film, so they find that quite burdensome when they’re working with me.
Joey Leung: Do you use the same action team all the time?
Ryoo Seung-wan: So apart from my first film, where I worked with another team, since my second film called No Blood, No Tears, I’ve been working with the martial arts director Jung Doo-hong and his team ever since. So the martial arts director Jung Doo-hong’s team is very competent and very conscientious, and I think the reason why I work with him is that he’s incredibly stubborn and he doesn’t give in easily and I think that at times that really helps me when I’m making films.
Joey Leung: In what way?
Ryoo Seung-wan: So truthfully in Korea it’s quite different from Hollywood, where it’s almost like the director is king. So if the director would want to do something, the team would acquiesce and completely follow whatever he wants to do. However, just because you are the director doesn’t mean you will always make the right decisions, so I think a good member of staff will try to catch those mistakes that a director might make, and that is what Jung Doo-hong does.
So honestly it’s incredibly difficult when we’re working together because our personalities and our preferences are so different, and we’ll be fighting quite often on set. So sometimes our incessant fighting can be bad but other times it does create a good outcome. We always think of it as a painful process that we have to engage in, in order to find a better outcome. I think paradoxically sometimes we enjoy the pain we inflict on each other and that painful process.
Joey Leung: With regards to The Berlin File, how much of the stunt work was done by stunt men and how much was done by the actors themselves?
Ryoo Seung-wan: So in the film you’ll watch tonight, you might be able to see when the actors are doing the action directly themselves, but given that I’ve been making action films for over ten years now, I think I’ve collected some knowledge on how to technically make those action scenes in an easier way. So in the past, I might have demanded that the actors do most of the action scenes themselves, but now that’s changed. However, it still remains that for the important action scenes, the actors themselves do that, and I believe that the Korean actors are very brilliant because even when they are shooting dangerous scenes, they will give it their all and try their best without thinking about themselves. So the wisdom I’ve collected over the years is that when I am shooting the very important and dangerous scenes, I would save it for the actors to do it themselves, and the not so important and less dangerous scenes, the stuntmen can do that. So the actors, when initially I would make all the stuntmen do all the work, believed that I cared for them, that I protect them on the set, but when I make them do the very dangerous scenes, like falling off somewhere, they’ll be quite confused about what’s going on and why they’re doing this.
Joey Leung: Do you prefer shooting in 35mm or digital? And what are the challenges of both when doing an action scene?
Ryoo Seung-wan: So for The Berlin File, this was the first time I shot a film in digital for the cinema screen and it was quite confusing. So truthfully I quite enjoy using different filming techniques when I am making films, and as we increasingly enter a digital age, the differences, for example the shutter speed or the frame speed, that threw me off initially. What threw me off the most was that the feeling of the light was different, so that was most difficult to adjust to. But for me, I still remain a person who loves the look of films, however using film to shoot is difficult for the budget, and also film is increasingly disappearing, so that’s something that I feel is quite unfortunate. So whilst making this film, I think part of the process was figuring out how can I continue to make films in this way.
However, the advantage of shooting in digital is that the scenes on the set are captured slightly more quickly than they are on film. So for example, when shooting for a film using film, it took time to load the films etc, but digitally that’s not required, so on the set we’d be working slightly quicker. So personally I feel that entering a digital era and making films in digital is a bit more convenient, but it feels almost too easy and there’s some fun lost in that process, and basically I’m not a fan of the digital method, I don’t like it.
Joey Leung: So will your next film be on film?
Ryoo Seung-wan: In Korea there are almost no films that are made on film any more and I think that the last film that was shot on film was Director Bong Joon-ho’s, and the title of that film is Snowpiercer.
Joey Leung: Why don’t you tell us a bit more about your next project?
Ryoo Seung-wan: So for my next film, as I’m slightly exhausted from making such a large scale film production previously, probably the next one will be on the medium scale, and I think that the main character will be a detective. So the detective will be quite humourous, and of course there’ll be action. It’s difficult for me to give you any more details than that at the moment, but I think it will be a very humorous and delightful action film. The main story will be reminiscent of a true event that’s happening in Korea at the moment.
Joey Leung: What’s the most challenging thing you’ve faced as an action director? For aspiring action directors making their first film, what would be a tip you could give them?
Ryoo Seung-wan: I’d like to say don’t expect success. So in order to make an action film, you would of course need technical skill, but also a good understanding of emotionality, so the more you expect your first film to be a success, the more you’ll despair when it’s not. It’s better for your mental health to think your first film will be a flop. In terms of the techniques needed in making an action film, that will improve the more you make films, so that’s not so important in the beginning.
What is important is the character that is in the story, and their emotionality, is as closely matched to reality as possible. So as long as the intensity of the emotions are honest and full of impact, rather than having lots of explosions and lots of shooting with guns, sometimes it might make more of an impact if that character was just slapping someone. For me the definition of a real action film is something that is rich with emotions. When you are making an action film, although the action scenes are important as well, the state where the action does unfold, and the emotions of the characters involved, if you focus on those more, I think you’ll be much better. Despite me saying all of this, I’m not so good at this myself, so I will always contemplate these issues when I’m making a film too.
Joey Leung: Going back to focus more on action scenes and preparation, we talk about action but action films fall into a lot of different categories, and you have teams that look after pyrotechnics, ballistics, you got the stunt team, wire-work team and a lot of editing that goes into post-production. Out of all those that you manage, which is the most demanding?
Ryoo Seung-wan: I think it’s most difficult to answer your question, because I believe that for the director the most important task is to make decisions. In one day, a director is faced with 10s of 100s of questions. So when you are shooting one scene for example, you would have the special effects team, or the stunts team, or the arts team, and for some teams it might be easier to do it one way, which will make it more difficult for another team, and that’s quite a common occurrence. In the past, I think I tried to provide all the answers knowing them in my head already, however as I increasingly gained more experience, I think in terms of that respect, I’ve become less conscientious about that. So I will say this is what I want for this scene you guys are the experts, you deal with it, and I’ll run away, then all the teams will be fighting with each other [laughs]. Then I will hear on the radio that all the conflicts and decisions have been resolved and made and that’s when I’ll return to the set. And honestly, in the past I felt if I wasn’t able to provide all of those answers, that I would be seen as incompetent, but now that’s not the case.
And, this is my personal opinion, good films come from professionals, but great films come from amateurs. The director doesn’t need to know everything, if the director knew everything, there would be no point in hiring other experts to work on the film. I believe that the reason why we do have a team and other members of staff is that they complement what the director doesn’t know. So on the set, if there was a problem, I would often say ‘I don’t how to solve that, but this is what I want to shoot’.
Masterclass audience member: When you made City of Violence, at that time they were among the most ambitious action scenes you’ve ever done. I was interested to know how much time did they take to shoot and how much preparation was involved in that?
Ryoo Seung-wan: So in terms of pre-production, just preparing for the action scenes, I think it took about two months, and at the time I was set to appear in the films so it was incredibly difficult to build up my physicality. Also, the action scenes in that film are all slightly different, but it didn’t take a lot of time to shoot all of those. I can’t remember exactly, but for the last action scene, it took a total of two weeks to shoot. The space where the action scenes took place kept changing and for each action scene to shoot on average it was about two days. Where there was the most action in one space was the scene in the middle of the film where a lot of people are fighting in the alley and that took five days and nights.
Masterclass audience member: Have you ever watched an action scene from another film and wished you been able to shoot that scene or come up with that action scene idea yourself?
Ryoo Seung-wan: Whenever I’d see a good action film I’d always feel some sense of jealousy. Recently I had this thought about the Samurai films made by Miike Takashi. However, in the past I’d get very jealous when I used to watch those films, but now not as much at all. So somewhere out there there’s someone who makes action films like that and I make action films in my style, so I just think that they’re different.
Masterclass audience member: In The Berlin File you’ve got a number of non-Korean actors and I just wondered how you normally cast non-Korean actors and if there’s anything you look or specifically?
Ryoo Seung-wan: So I had an agent in Berlin and I received the agent’s recommendations. During the auditions, firstly their imagine was very important, and secondly I don’t speak English very well, so I wasn’t in a position to judge their acting. After image, the most important thing for me was their attitude, so for the actors, how much they’re willing to integrate with a team from a different culture and how much they were willing to work hard with a different team, that was quite important for me to judge. And of course it was important that they weren’t too expensive!
Masterclass audience member: This extends the last question, I was just wondering about casting, does the Director have a particular actor in mind when he’s actually developing his scripts?
Ryoo Seung-wan: So with Korean actors, whilst I’m writing the script I might naturally think of some actors. So on some occasions with some characters I might leave them completely open, however most of the time when I am writing the characters and imagining their speeches and their behaviours, I think naturally some of the actors’ images come into mind. Sometimes I wouldn’t think of actors whilst writing the script, but it would remind me of some people I know in real life who are around me, so when I finish the script I will try to find actors who most closely resemble those images.
In the films that I make, there’s a tendency for a lot of amateur actors to be cast. My preference, and this might not be so obvious if you don’t know Korean, is that I don’t like it when actors say their lines in too much of an actorish manner, I prefer it when it’s slightly awkward, like it’s talked as if how it would be done in real life, so sometimes I would cast people who aren’t professional actors. Nowadays, so many people are exposed to cameras in real and everyday life. Previously people used to be awkward when standing in front of a camera, but nowadays a lot more people are natural in front of cameras. When I’m shooting very short scenes, I might cast people in those real jobs in their real lives, rather than casting actors, who are not afraid of the camera, and I tend to prefer that method.
Masterclass audience member: When you’re writing scripts and casting, do you keep your mind open about your brother? Your brother’s in lots of your films; what’s the evolution like in your first film until now in regards to the relationship with your brother?
Ryoo Seung-wan: In my films, my brother, the actor Ryoo Seung-beom, has appeared quite frequently. For my debut film it was accidental he was cast. The original intended actor had a difficulty with his scheduling and that fell through, and at that time my brother was doing nothing at home so I said he should try this and that’s how it began. I saw my brother’s ability as an actor for the first time on the set and I was quite surprised actually. Since then for a few films, I would have him in mind when writing the script, that was for about three or four films that I made. Since then, after finishing the script, I would think about who would best fit that role and if it was the case that the actor Ryoo Seung-beom would best fit it, then naturally he would be cast.
For the first few years that we were working together, the boundaries between being director and actor and being brothers was quite blurred but actually more recently it’s become a lot clearer. Now the reason that I would work with him is that he understands most accurately the scene I have in my head and expresses that the best. As we were working for over ten years together, he very much understand my preferences and I’m also very aware of his acting spectrum. So whereas working as actor and director, it’s now evolved into something as working as partners on making a film together. However, the clear truth is, we don’t work together because we’re brothers.
And before we know it, we’re all out of time…
A MASSIVE thanks to Ryoo Seung-wan for passing on his knowledge and wisdom.