• Interview


SON Jae-gon, Director of SECRET ZOO

Feb 04, 2020
  • Writerby KIM Su-bin
  • View2697
“I strived to translate the unique premise of the webtoon in a way that feels natural”

A zoo on the brink of closure, with only four employees and not a single animal left. The newly appointed director and the remaining workers set out to save the zoo with the help of costumes, by posing as the resident animals. SECRET ZOO’s unique premise originates from HUN’s webtoon of the same name. What better story for SON Jae-gon to come back than this, after he built a solid fan base through the inventive comedies My Scary Girl (2006) and Villain & Widow (2010)? We sit down with SON to talk about his new movie. 

Your new film is an adaptation of a webtoon. What was it that drew you to this story?
The issue was how to make so that the audience would accept this premise. The setting of the webtoon had already been accepted just like that. Webtoons can presuppose the existence of ghosts, spirits or aliens, yet it was the first time I heard about premise like this – people running a zoo wearing animal suits. From a screenwriting perspective, it’s not every day you come across such an original idea. This was the aspect that intrigued me.

What were the parts you decided to leave out, or on the contrary, to accentuate with the film adaptation?
Considering the scope of the webtoon, this story would have actually been better suited for a TV series or miniseries rather than a movie. While there are some funny moments among the sequences from the webtoon that sadly didn’t make the cut, having to trim down the story is inevitable if you adapt it to film form. Also, there are many instances in webtoons where a scene of a specific genre, in term of characteristics, is directly followed by a scene of a totally different genre. For example, it’s in this way that some serious dramatic event in sports can be followed directly with a funny scene. In many cases, asking real actors to play out these scenes would break their spontaneity. That doesn’t mean this movie totally avoided that flaw. We usually call this “comic-like directing”, and I’m not saying that this is wrong. I think that even among the audience, there are people who would be fine with that and others who would find it awkward. I’m leaning toward the latter, so it was necessary for me to rework the script. In order to make a good comedy, we had to revise what comes after these scenes. It was of the utmost important that carrying over these funny sequences from the webtoon into a movie doesn’t leave a feeling of dissonance.

The most important part during production must have been the quality of the animal costumes.
Exactly. There is a company specialized in special effects named Cell that can often be seen credited for special costumes in Korean movies of a certain standard. They spent four to five months producing the animal disguises. Cell is a studio that accomplishes what you think wouldn’t be possible. They spared no effort to create these costumes. It took a very long time to deliberate how to produce these costumes.

Animal characteristics is where the comedy comes from. How did you come up with these five specific animals?
To begin with, we narrowed down the animals from the webtoon to those that would be possible in a live-action film. I carefully weighed up which of these animals could be rendered on screen with current filming techniques. We came up with animals that are to some extent similar to the shape of a human body. The gorilla, since it belongs to the hominoid branch, was the first to come in mind. We also had the intention of keeping the polar bear that was already in the webtoon, but that proved to be a bit more difficult than for the gorilla. It felt somewhat clumsy, since the lower body of a polar bear has different proportions to that of a human when it stands upright. The giraffe in the webtoon was so interesting that I was determined to keep it, but this was technologically impossible. I was told this would require that two people wear the costume together. That’s why we eventually went for the solution you can see in the final movie (Editor’s Note: a fake giraffe head fixed to a crane that can only be seen by the visitors through a window). As for the sloth, it’s the funniest animal in the webtoon. While there is a size difference between our costume and the actual animal, we figured it could still work for the film since the common man doesn’t really know how big they are. And there were parts of the lion’s body that we couldn’t reproduce, so we settled on showing only some parts of the animal, as you can see in the film.

I was told that when you were shooting a comical scene, you would specifically ask from the actors that they do not try to play it funny. So, could you please tell us more about your philosophy of comedy acting?
With our movie not being completely realistic, I was only tolerating a lightness of tone in the acting up to a certain point, but the style we commonly refer to as comedy acting requires some restraint. Of course, there are no such things as right and wrong methods here. Jim CARREY’s acting style consists in turning it up to 11, but isn’t it excellent? Back when I was making short movies, I tried to film some scenes like that, but then I watched them and it seemed to me that this was breaking character consistency. It’s just me who prefer some restraint in comedy acting because I’m not confident enough in that kind of technique.

It appears that all your previous films belong to a subgenre of comedy. My Scary Girl (2006) was a thriller and Villain & Widow (2010) bears all the hallmarks of a caper movie. In that respect, this film seems to be of a slightly different style.
I don’t want my films to be bound to a specific style. That said, now that I think of it, my two previous features and a lot of the films I made when I was an amateur take a subject that wouldn’t look out of place in a crime story but turn it into comedy material. The common thread between all these movies is that the story unravels from a villain’s point of view. Your typical thriller usually proceeds from the victim’s perspective, but if you trade it with the villain’s point of view, then it becomes easier to turn it into a comedy. Another reason for this film to be different in style is that it is the adaption of another work. Reading the webtoon, I was impressed by its quality. I thought I was being driven to the webtoon side by a competent storyteller. I think that this film, because it is set in a world already established by the webtoon, had to conform to the emotions already present in the webtoon, rather than verging to a specific style. 
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