Interviews, South Korea

Lee Sang-geun interview: “Climbing centres said their registration rates spiked!”

Debut director Lee Sang-geun reveals more about disaster-comedy EXIT 엑시트 at the LEAFF 2019 opening night…

A toxic gas cloud sweeps through Seoul, the fallout of a deadly terrorist attack. Civilians are airlifted to safety, leaving few a behind, and Exit follows the escape of two millennials with rock-climbing hobbies, as they flee over rooftops to safety.

This public interview with director Lee Sang-geun was hosted after the screening of his directorial debut Exit, a disaster-comedy movie that was the opening film of the London East Asia Film Festival. The interview was conducted as an on-stage audience Q&A, and has been transcribed by easternKicks.

Questions – Interviewer: “Director Lee, welcome to London and thank you for this film. It was a perfect opening film for a festival, such a great blend of comedy and suspense.”

Answers – Director Lee Sang-geun:  “Thank you for watching the film, I was worried what the audience reaction would be.”

Q: Huge congratulations upon the film too, as it broke the mark of 9 million admissions in a month, which is big news for a Korean film that’s not a top tier blockbuster. Was this beyond your wildest dreams?

A: A lot of Korean films did well last year, but despite that, this film did a lot better than I expected. So I was really shocked, and I’m happy that it’s remembered as one of the films that stood out in the latter half of 2018. I was very grateful to the audience for coming to see the film, and also to everyone on the production crew who helped to make the film.

Q: So this is your first film, your first feature, working with some very established actors on a very logistically difficult film, a lot of difficult sequences and extra, helicopters and explosions…. This is your first film; it must be a crazy assignment to do as your first film. How much pressure did you feel under?

A: Like you said, it’s a huge film to be doing as a debut feature with a huge budget, so there was tremendous pressure on my part. It’s like, the amount of pressure I got in one day was the amount that I’d get in one year, so it wasn’t easy at all. But as time passed, it got, well I wouldn’t say easier but I managed to handle it better. There were so many tough decisions to be made, but filmmaking isn’t made alone so I had a lot of help from a lot of great people.

Q: You wrote the film too; so how long did it take to bring it to the screen?

A: It was in 2012 when I was listening to the radio in a taxi, and that’s when the initial idea came up. I started working with it, kept developing it, so I wrote a script and submitted it to a script contest in 2013 and it was picked. I developed it even further and I’d say it took about 6 or 7 years to make the film.

Q: A lot of the tone in your film hangs on your two leads, who are both fantastic together and very funny, can you talk about casting those two and working out their chemistry on screen?

A: The cast was phenomenal and there was a lot of synergy between all the cast members. It was a great experience for every one of them; they had a lot of great ideas and a lot of back and forth. The two lead actors had really good chemistry and it was a great ensemble, and I would go as far as to say that if it hadn’t been for these two and the special chemistry between them, Exit would maybe not have been as great or funny, or enjoyable as it turned out. And maybe because it was a success, that’s why I can say this with a little more confidence, that I don’t think anyone else could have pulled it off this way.

Q: I love the comedy you managed to get from the insane family.

A: That’s a typical Korean family. This family you said they’re crazy, and yes, but there’s also a lot of characteristics that the average Korean family would also identify with and say “yes that’s my family”. I’d say that the average Korean family are not this loud or noisy, so you can’t really stereotype the average family, but I’m sure a lot of people were also nodding their heads when they watched this.

Q: I’m imagining that the film set off a craze for bouldering in Korea, but is it already a really popular sport?

A: This kind of climbing isn’t considered a major sport, but it’s not a minor sport either, so there’s a fair amount of interest in it. I was interested myself so went and learned, and that was put into the movie. It is true, a lot of people who own gyms or climbing centres said their registration rates spiked after this movie, so they thanked me. Membership registration did spike up, but they quit after about a week.

Q: I loved your music score when it starts kicking in during suspense; it really propels the movie ahead and was very cool.  Can you tell us about working with the composer?

A: The music director, this was the first time I worked with him. He’s very famous in Korea and if you’re interested in Korean movies then you’ll have heard a lot of his work. I didn’t want the scenes and actions to be buried in the music, or the music to lead the scenes, so I tried to make it as natural as possible using sounds like the heartbeat and other stuff so the audience could experience what these people are.

Q: This was your first feature film; did you make a similar concept before as a short film?

A: I did make a lot of shorts before this, but I’ve never made anything with this kind of budget obviously. The sentimentality, the feelings between people, those elements of short films do have something in common with what you saw in this film. Although it would be very difficult to get a chance to see my shorts, they do have similar themes running through them. I think for any director, we all have preferences and tendencies with what we do in films, and it’s all reflected in our art. But I have not made any shorts about disasters or action-packed shorts.

Q: After this film was released in Korea, the issue of keeping the doors leading to the rooftops open became a big issue. A bill was actually put in place, but it’s not in effect yet, can you tell us about that?

A: It is a dilemma whether to keep the doors locked or open, but in times of disaster or emergencies like this it’s very important that you do have a way out somewhere. The bill is going to be voted on and it’ll be decided in the near future, and I feel really good about my film having had this kind of positive impact on society, and I hope that the end result is good.

Q: What was your favourite scene to do, and what was really important to the film?

A: The party scene was really important as I wanted to show culturally what Korean families do when it’s the 70thbirthday of your mother or father, and I paid a lot of attention to detail so it would look as realistic as possible. The scenes that were difficult were the climbing or running scenes as it was so physically exhausting. We also had to work on the extra effects so it looked realistic.

Q: Did the two leads have any experience as climbers?

A: The two actors didn’t have any experience climbing so they trained for about 3 months, and they ended up doing most of the action scenes themselves. Of course, they had some help with wires, but they did most of it.

Q: Does the film take any inspiration from video games?

A: A lot of people have mentioned Uncharted to me, but I’ve never played it. After the film was made and people commented, I checked it out on youtube and realized there are a lot of similarities. I think it’s more that I wanted to make the film look more like a game, where it’s scrolling or one-directional, and you have to go through several stages or levels and clear them to move on.

Q: What is your next project?

A: I don’t have anything concrete in mind, but I’m always thinking of ideas and I’m thinking of something now. Especially here as this is the first time I’ve travelled outside of the country with this film.

Exit screened as the opening film of the London East Asia Film Festival 2019, which runs from 23rd October to 3rd November 2019.

About the author

Andrew Daley
News Editor for easternKicks, and a Video Producer for Cycling Weekly based in London, with a passion for East Asian cinema, photography, and the outdoors. Read reviews/articles »

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