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Film Producer Lee Jong-suk: The Invisible but Most Important Hand that Makes Films

  • [등록일]2019-12-30
  • [조회] 225

Box office hit Extreme Job (2019) attracted 16 million moviegoers. Behind the success of this film were people doing actual extreme jobs round the clock to weave details for the perfect mise-en-scene. I met with film producer Lee Jong-suk, who made this movie an “extreme” success, to hear about the intricate world of film production.

 

Lee Jong-suk, a film producer (Source: About Film)

 

Ssireum wrestler becomes ‘Hollywood kid’


While accepting an award for best actor, Hwang Jung-min once said: “All I did was eat on the table set by the crew.” His acceptance speech made many people solemn. Lee Jong-suk was one of them.
“If the actor is the swan, a film producer is the furious paddling under the surface that helps the swan float gracefully on water,” Lee said.
Film projects require relatively large amounts of capital. It is important to attract investors, and that is what a producer does. A producer finds investors, makes sure the production stays within the budget, and handles all kinds of problems that may arise. Before production begins, a producer takes care of copyright issues and leads the pre-production process. Then he or she checks and advises on the director’s filmmaking process, engages in post-production work, marketing, and distribution. Thanks to Lee’s meticulous handling of work and sincerity in keeping his word, he now tops the list of producers that directors and actors would like to work with. Surprisingly, however, Lee did not major in theater or film. He was a ssireum wrestler.
“Everyone is surprised when they hear what I used to do. There are all sorts of people in this trade since it has no entry barriers, but I am the only former ssireum wrestler,” he said.
Lee wrestled since he was young. He was quiet and reserved as an adolescent. His only entertainment was watching movies at home on video tape. He went to study physical education in college, thinking he would become a professional ssireum wrestler. At one point he started to have doubts about his future as a wrestler and an acquaintance suggested working in a film production team. Lee did all kinds of miscellaneous work as the youngest member of a film production support team, and the first movie he helped produce was The Perfect Couple (2007) starring Hyun Young and Lee Dong-wook. Lee Jong-suk was 23 years old at the time. 

 

Seeing his path with 2011 film Sunny


“I knew nothing about film, so I just did what I was told to do. I went out to find props, and cleaned the sites,” he said. He didn’t know what was what, but being a part of the filmmaking process amazed him and gave him a great deal of satisfaction. A staff member of the production team who observed Lee’s diligence called him for the next project. He joined without hesitation. Scandal Makers (2008), which he helped with production support, was a huge box office hit. “I think that was when film production really began to fascinate me,” he said.
In addition to being a member of the production crew, Lee played a bit part in No Mercy (2009) starring Sol Kyung-gu. He did both jobs in Troubleshooter (2010) as well. He worked hard despite the low salary. Through film, he felt like he was discovering his inner passion for the first time in his life. In 2011, he worked on the movie of his lifetime?Sunny, directed by Kang Hyeong-cheol, which sold 7.36 million tickets and stirred up feelings of nostalgia in its throngs of viewers.

“For the first time, I took a heavy responsibility as the production manager. I helped the senior production manager with all the basic work necessary for production as well as investments in production, budget execution, and finding theaters to screen the film,” he said.
If what he had seen until then were just trees, Sunny allowed Lee to see the forest that is film production. The movie, a growing up story of high school friends, made him grow as a producer. With the success of Sunny, Lee’s position in the industry moved up to the next level. Lee went on to lead production as the senior production manager in Love 911 (2012), As One (2012), and Horror Stories 2 (2013).
“Many producers have long gaps in between films, but I was very lucky. Above all, I met good crew members, and could produce many movies without a break. Now that I look back, it was an important period that made me who I am now,” he said.

 

Film producer, leading from conception to production


Starting with Tazza: The Hidden Card (2014), Lee was established as a film producer in the scene. When he produced Reset (2016) and Snatch Up (2017), Lee put together a manual for greater work efficiency.
“First, I review novels and screenplays, and select works that can be box office hits. Then I pick the director and production crew suitable for the screenplay, discuss the cast and production schedule, review the daily production situation, and go over the filmed images with the director. Once the production is completed, we hold a preview, set the opening date and screening schedule, and arrange the media publicity plans. We provide the expenses for film production, publicity, and screening, and get funding from investors as well. As the scope of a producer’s job is sometimes unclear, I leave it to the director when necessary. Setting a minimum outline helps me do my job better,” he said.
As a producer, Lee is in charge of not only project planning and the budget, but also crew selection, marketing, contracts, legal matters, schedules, and management. Whereas the director heads up the making of a film as chief of the creative team on site, the producer oversees the entire production process based on the budget. In terms of a professional sports team, they can be compared to the head coach and general manager. The producer often has editing rights. In the early days of filmmaking, producers often doubled as directors, but as the industry matured, a distinction was made between producers and directors. This is why there is a “director’s cut.” In the end, it is the producer who has the final say on the movie’s creation.
“The relationship between a producer and a director varies. There are cases where the producer hires a director to shoot the film. Sometimes a producer takes part in a movie conceived by a director. Whichever way it is, I usually listen to the director. Harmony is important in filmmaking. My role is to coordinate the needs of the director, actors, and crew as reasonably as possible. Simply put, I’m like an arbitrator doubling as a finance manager,” he said.

 

Dreaming to be a versatile ‘movie source utilizer’


The role of a producer is becoming ever more important in the film industry as he or she is greatly involved in editing and the overall production, often changing the movie’s theme or degree of completion. Extreme Job demonstrates Lee’s strong attention to detail.
“We went around the country looking at dozens of locations for the opening scene in which vehicles collide. Magok Station was our final choice. We also did more takes than planned. The initial plan was to shoot the scene in one day, but we ended up filming for four days. We filmed it last, after shooting all the other scenes, as it was an important scene,” he said.
While Extreme Job was being filmed, Lee’s wife became pregnant. He nicknamed the unborn child “Daebak,” meaning jackpot, as the director and crew congratulated him. In contrast to the hardships before production, the atmosphere on the filming location continued to be cheerful, perhaps thanks to the baby, and the movie was a huge success.
“Gone are the days when Korean movies had only Korean actors and were consumed only by Koreans. The production environment has improved a lot, too. I have taken part in joint film productions with Japanese, Chinese, and American companies. Keeping in step with diversified screening platforms and globalization, I want to be a producer who can utilize the right film sources in the right places,” he said.
Lee is slated to complete shooting the movie Cha In-pyo starring Cha In-pyo, and start shooting the thriller Anchor in November. His mobile calendar is packed. Being a film producer may be an “extreme job” requiring self-sacrifice and passion. But Lee Jong-suk has an infinite amount of energy in his heart to create a better production environment and better movies.

 

Written by Lim Ji-young, guest editor
Photos courtesy of About Film


Source: Hallyu Story, Issue October+November 2019