In creating his action-fantasy film about a disgraced assassin who flees to the American West, The Warrior’s Way writer/director Sngmoo Lee kept the blend of East and West foremost in his mind.
“The first time I thought about this story was when I studied in New York,” Lee told Spinoff Online. “Most of the laundry franchises were run by Korean men. They’re just ‘Mr. Lee, the laundry guy,’ but they also happen to be somebody’s professor, somebody’s philosopher, somebody’s former minister. But for [most people], he’s just ‘Mr. Lee.’ So, what do you know about this guy? I think that was the beginning: What if that laundry man was the deadliest assassin?”
Upon returning to South Korea, the director continued to develop the concept, setting it in the mythical Old West. “I believe by telling the most archetypal story I could cover that issue very well,” Lee said. “The Western is the core myth of the Western culture, and martial-arts tradition is one of the fundamental aspects of Asian culture. So what if I just combine these together, maybe we can tell the audience something interesting which they’ve never seen before.”
His initial script was written 11 years ago, at a time when he envisioned a more contained, low-budget film. “I knew the budget limitations and that I was a first-time director, so there was a limit of the imagination,” Lee said. “You’re not a filmmaker anymore if you’re not thinking about the budget. It was a very small budget; like a $2-million budget.”
Producer Jooick Lee brought the script to the attention of Barry Osborne, one of the producers of The Lord of the Rings trilogy, who recalls, “It was this fable about a cross-cultural encounter and it was told in a real colorful, imaginative manner.”
With Osborne on board, the production grew, and director Lee expanded on his ideas. “At that moment, you just have to tell whatever you believe in and then discuss what is achievable or not. In this case, I didn’t limit my imagination according to the budget,” he said. “Luckily the size of my imagination matched the size of the budget.”
“Well, to go green screen, we had to add some money to it,” Osborne chuckled.
The Warrior’s Way marks the American debut of popular South Korean actor Dong-gun Jang, who views the U.S. release as the result of growing interest in Korean films. “Korean films have gained a wide audience and wide fan base and because they’re so well liked within Asia, Hollywood started taking an interest,” he explained through an interpreter. “I think that’s probably because of the Korean wave called ‘Hallyu,’ and I think it is a great time for Korean actors or actresses to cross over into Hollywood.” Growing out of the popularity of Korean television dramas, “Hallyu” refers to the interest in Korean culture across Asia in the past decade. Jang appeared in a TV series earlier in his career, becoming a teen heartthrob across the Pacific.
Whether Jang make more films for U.S. audiences will depend on the scripts he sees in the coming years. “It’s not a matter of where the film is made, it’s a matter of is it a good film and do I want to be in it?” he said. “So, if I get an opportunity to be in another great film, then, of course, I’d work very hard.”
While both Jang and Lee are Korean, the film’s international cast — Kate Bosworth, Danny Huston and Geoffrey Rush — and New Zealand location meant the director had to run the entire shoot and the actor had to learn his lines in English. Despite the challenge, both say language was not a barrier. “There are many occasions where I cannot find the right word,” Lee said. “If I directed it in Korean, it would be much easier, but the actors and the crew members were extremely tolerant about it and they were very supportive.”
For Jang, his English lines were more an issue of performance. “I had to learn how to say things in a way that a warrior from the East would speak,” he said. “So, I had to focus on the accent and the pronunciation.”
Language, however, wasn’t a primary concern for Lee – tone was. “This film is a fable, but also you need to have some real sense of the reality because the emotion we’re going through is real,” he said. Those emotions are at the center of the movie’s CGI-heightened reality, which is reminiscent of such films as 300 and Sin City. Lee understands the audience must buy the concept and the look of the film. “Defining that level of fantasy and reality visually and action wise was the most difficult for me,” he recalled.
As for the performances, Lee encouraged his actors to live it up. “Forget about your realistic acting, I don’t mind cartoonish acting, just go over the top. I will tell you when to stop,” he remembered instructing his cast. “But, honestly, I didn’t know when to stop. I just had to watch them and when my gut says, ‘Oh, that’s too much,’ then I step in and say, ‘Maybe a little bit less.’ He also mentioned that style of directing aided him when it came time to use the green screen. “Actors assume the director knows everything and I can say, ‘That’s right, because I’m the only one who knows.’ It’s a relatively easier situation to direct actors,” he laughed.
In addition to the green screen, Jang faced the challenge of working with a baby named Analin Rudd. To handle her, he took parenting classes that inadvertently prepared him for his own child, born just two months ago. He notes having his own at the time would have made him much better at working with Rudd. However, he appreciates the time he took to learn valuable abilities, including how to change diapers. “Those skills that I learned then served me a lot better now for my kid than when I was actually shooting.”
“Analin’s mom said she used to come to the set all excited to see [what was] like her family,” Osborne interjected. “It became her family and, on film, in one of the scenes, she takes her very first steps and it’s captured on screen.”
“When I first met the baby, I was in my ninja-like outfit and I was wearing very scary make-up, so she started crying,” Jang recalled. “It took a long while to get to know her and for her to get used to me. I think it was almost in the middle of filming that she finally warmed up to me. It was a reminder that first impressions are very important.”
The Warrior’s Way opens Friday.