The first time I spoke to Choi Dong-hoon, a South Korean filmmaker, was in 2015 when he promoted his espionage action film, Assassination, at the BFI London Film Festival. It took another few years for the director to complete the script for Alienoid, a sci-fi, fantasy action film.

One of Korea’s most renowned actresses, Kim Hye-soo, once said that Choi Dong-hoon is “a genius who also works extremely hard. I think he knows who he is, the exact kind of films that he wants to make, and how to make them”. Undeniably, Choi Dong-hoon is one of the most successful filmmakers of modern Korean cinema whose films always guarantee a good time.

Starring a top-notch assemble of actors, including Kim Tae-ri, Kim Woo-bin, Ryu Jun-yeol, Lee Hanee, and So Ji-sub, to name a few, Alienoid “offers an enjoyable ride”. And prior to the film’s premiere at the 17th London Korean Film Festival, I got a chance to catch up with director Choi and chat about the film in great detail, including the casting process for Kim Tae-ri, Kim Woo-bin, Ryu Jun-yeol, So Ji-sub, and the child actor, Choi Yu-ri.

Image © CJ E&M

Director Choi, the last time we spoke was back in 2015 when you promoted Assassination at the BFI London Film Festival. Seven years have passed, how have you been?

Choi Dong-hoon: Hi Maggie, yes, it’s been a long time. Since we last spoke, I thought I would get to work on a film called Wiretap, an economic crime story. Unfortunately, the main actor had some serious health issues and we had to delay the production. So, while this was happening, I started to write the script for Alienoid.

Your latest production, Alienoid, is a visual feast. The story itself involves aliens, Taoist wizards, and time travelling robots. Five years in the making, and here we are, the film is finally out. What went through your mind when you came up with the first draft of the screenplay? And how many drafts did you go through before locking the final edit of the screenplay?

Choi Dong-hoon: When I first started writing the screenplay, it took a really long time as it wasn’t based on any particular ideas. I tried to put all kinds of different ideas onto paper, and I think it took about a year to finish the first draft. Initially, I wanted to have a lot of characters who time travel and I wanted to make an adventure drama, too. 

I think I did three or four drafts, and then as I was going through these different drafts, I would have different characters become the protagonist. In one draft, Guard appeared once, in another draft, the Guard [played by Kim Wo-bin] appeared a lot more often, so I did different variations and in the process of doing that I was able to hammer out something that I wanted. But at the same time, the process of writing got longer and longer. At first, I wasn’t thinking of making two parts, but because the story became longer, I decided that the screenplay needed to be split into two films. 

Since you wrote and directed this film, how rigorously did you stick to the screenplay while shooting?

Choi Dong-hoon: When I am writing a screenplay, I fully focus on the story. However, when I am shooting, I concentrate more on the actors than the story. I don’t really change the story, however, in terms of how the characters should be portrayed and the lines that they say, the way they say it, I allow to make room for changes on set. I am known for doing that. I talked a lot with the actors and I changed the script on set a lot. [laughs] The main reason for that is that I didn’t want the actors to feel like there was something set in stone to follow no matter what, and I didn’t want to give them that impression either.

Image © CJ E&M

So, who was improvising the most on set then? Who was the lucky actor? Who got the free card when it came to improvising while shooting the film?

Choi Dong-hoon: [laughs] I would say, it was probably Ryu Jun-yeol. We changed a lot of lines and I also came up with new ones on the spot for him as well. We made adjustments depending on what we were doing on that day.

As it’s a huge production, what sort of challenges did you have to face while making Alienoid? You have a modern timeline blended with period scenes, then we have robots, aliens etc. What part did you find the most challenging to film?

Choi Dong-hoon: In the modern timeline, there were a lot of visual effects, so that was really hard to put into effect and it took a long time. In terms of period scenes, that was more complex. We were shooting many scenes during an awful monsoon and it was very hard to find the right location that was historically meaningful. And, in a lot of cases, when we did find the right place, and we were allowed to shot there, it was hard to film action scenes. Because of the monsoon, we had many issues with the set and the shooting itself. Some scenes had to be filmed in the summer and winter, and then we put those scenes together. 

In Alienoid, your cast is filled with great character actors like Kim Woo-bin, Ryu Jun-yeol, Kim Tae-ri, So Ji-sub, Kim Eui-sung, Lee Hanee – the list goes on and on. What was the casting process like for you? Did you write the script with the aforementioned actors in mind? 

Choi Dong-hoon: In most cases, I like to think of an actor or an actress while I am writing as it makes me write better. In the case of Mureuk, it’s someone that is curious about everything; if he sets his mind on something, he has to do it no matter what time of the day it might be. For that character, I wanted somebody who could be very expressive and portray an inquisitive character that has a lot of energy. There was no contest for this role, really, I thought of Ryu Jun-yeol straight away. 

In terms of Kim Tae-ri’s character of Lee Ahn, this is someone who has a strong sense of duty. I also wanted the character to be graceful and elegant, and I wanted people to feel that she had an inner strength. [In addition] I wanted her facial expressions to be able to draw people in, so I thought of Kim Tae-ri. 

When it comes to Kim Woo-bin, I’ve always wanted to work with him. I wanted him to play two roles, so I did that. But of course, while I was writing the script none of the actors had any idea that I was thinking of them. So, once the script was finished, we contacted them and we talked to them about the possibility of being in this film. I was very lucky to get all three of them. 

After I wrote the script, I wanted an actor who has never portrayed a villain before to play the role of Moon Do-seok. I thought of So Ji-sub, and because he hadn’t played a villain before, nobody expected for him to be one – it made [the whole thing] more intriguing. On top of that, I wanted the character to show the kind of solitude that the villain would feel, and So Ji-sub was a very solitary villain. 

Image © CJ E&M

I would like to know how you found Choi Yu-ri? She is absolutely brilliant in her role and she is just 13 years old. Working with a child actor in a very demanding environment must have been hard. How did you approach that casting? And how was Yu-ri during the filming? 

Choi Dong-hoon: When I first met her at the audition, she was only 11 [at that time]. After she did her audition, she strangely didn’t go home, she just stuck around in our office. We had a persimmon tree in the office and she told us that she’d like to pick some of the persimmons. She also asked us how she could take some of the fruits without hurting the tree. Someone explained to her that she needs to use a stick so she doesn’t damage the tree, but then she answered that “even if I use the stick, I can’t get the persimmons on my side”. She was just talking on and on about this tree and that’s when I realised that she was the right person for this character. 

When working with a child actor, I thought that I needed to treat her the same way I treat an adult actor. That’s what I tried to do. And what I thought would be the most important decision regarding her character was to decide what she was going to look at, what direction she was going to look, and how she would look. We talked a lot about that, and by the third day [of shooting], she already knew what to do and she was fine doing it by herself. And if you get to see the film again, you ought to pay attention to what she does and how she does it – her gaze is really powerful. 

I found her performance incredible. The way she interacts with Kim Woo-bin is very engaging, too. Both of them built this natural and believable father-daughter relationship. Could you tell me more about Kim Woo-bin and Choi Yu-ri working together?

Choi Dong-hoon: Kim Woo-bin was very curious about who would play his daughter in the film. When I told him that I think Choi Yu-ri will be cast for the role and that I would meet her at the office, Kim Woo-bin showed up with a gift for her and I said to him “wait, wait we haven’t even confirmed her casting yet”. He left the gift and he just took off [laughs]. And then he came back on the day that we were going to confirm that she got the role, and Kim Woo-bin gave her the gift. 

At first, they actually looked like uncle and niece rather than father and daughter. They would often hang out and they would have meals together. I think Woo-bin talked to her and spent way more time than I did. Because of the time and interest that he put in, and by the time we wrapped up the shooting, they actually looked like father and daughter. That was really interesting to see and I believe they developed that relationship based on their warmth towards each other. 

Image © CJ E&M

As you split Alienoid into two parts, with the second one already filmed, what can we expect from it? You left us hanging with many unanswered questions while watching the first part. Who can we expect to return in the next film? Could you at least name one character?

Choi Dong-hoon: Just before this interview, I actually came from the editing studio for Part 2 and we are planning to release the film next year. So, for the first half of the next year, I will be very busy. 

To give you some information about the second part of the film [laughs], Part 1 is about all the characters meeting in the past. Part 2 is about those characters coming back to the present to fight each other. I know you have a lot of questions, [for instance] what happened to Guard and Thunder from Part 1? How does Thunder look now, what is his shape or form? What’s going to happen to the alien that went into Mureuk? How will the destinies of the characters who met play out? [Not to spoil Part 2 for anyone] the next film will be about that and what happened to the characters after coming back to the present. 

Films evolve through a creative process and, at times, also through the tough process of editing. Have you encountered this while making Alienoid? How much did you keep and how much did you actually cut from the film before the final version hit the cinema? 

Choi Dong-hoon: I consider editing as the most important process, and it’s the most difficult part as well. Hemingway once said something like “If you want to create a masterpiece, take out what you like and love”. So, when I was thinking of cutting out certain scenes, I had to tell myself that it was for the sake of making a better film. In the editing suit, I did a lot of editing, and I used different edits to get the best one. And for this story, the editing was very important as we had the past overlapping the present, so how the audience would react to that was very important.

For example, the scene in the water involving young Mureuk and adult Mureuk combines reality with elements of fantasy. That scene was a key moment in the film, that was the most important scene, and you can say that the editing worked its way out to that point.

Did the editing give you any nightmares?

Choi Dong-hoon: [laughs] I wasn’t really a smoker before, but when I started editing, I became a full-blown smoker.

Are you working on your next project already or are you taking some time off now? 

Choi Dong-hoon: Before I start writing a script, I always talk about my ideas first and if I can tell a story for more than 5 minutes, I am confident I can write a script for the next film. So far, I haven’t gotten to that point. I don’t have anything ready yet. For the time being, I will focus all my attention and energy on the post-production of Part 2. And then, I want to make my next project right away.

Written and interviewed by Maggie Gogler

Interpreter – Roc Lee

* We would like to thank CJ E&M for their assistance with the interview

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