A Public Conversation with Hong Sangsoo on The Novelist’s Film

By Mark Peranson

Gartenbaukino, Vienna, Austria, November 1, 2022

Mark Peranson (MP): You are not really a filmmaker who likes to interpret your films, but talks about them more in terms of process, about how the films are made. The Novelist’s Film (2022) is your 27th film. Your 28th film, Walk Up (2022), is showing at 9:00 p.m., today. You’ve already shot your 29th and 30th films. Looking at your filmography, we might have reached the point where we look at one film and it’s hard to not see it as separate from all the others, because there are a lot of similarities between the films and a lot of repetition between films, and sometimes inside the films themselves. In The Novelist’s Film, as is common in your filmmaking, the main character is a filmmaker, but this time it’s a filmmaker who’s a novelist—so, same but different. But this filmmaker has a film theory which in a way is very close to your film theory, that is to say the way you make films and the reason you make films. To start, do you agree that The Novelist’s Film theory is your film theory? And why did you want a novelist to be a filmmaker in this film?

Hong Sangsoo (HS): I wrote that dialogue of hers, talking about her material. I cannot say it’s a theory.

MP: It is a theory.

HS: Anyway. So, when I wrote her dialogue for the part, I didn’t think about representing my filmmaking theory with the dialogue. It’s just that I always accept whatever comes out in the process. I agree that the result, in some parts, are similar to how I make films. So somehow little different…As for why she’s a novelist, that also I cannot explain. I met this actress and I made a film with her called In Front of Your Face (2011). This was my second film with her. The first thing I thought about for this film was that I had footage of a film that I shot for personal use—I have many pieces like that. And then I decided to shoot something else. And then I thought about Lee Hye-young as a novelist. With her and this piece I had already I came up with the idea of a novelist making her own first film. My curiosity or interest was, even though no matter how hard I try with a script or performance, there is a limitation in terms of how natural you can become. I had this footage which you saw in the very end of Kim Minhee which was shot without any intention. And by combining it with other scripted parts of the film, I want to see how they could be perceived. So that was my first interest in making this film. I wanted try to write dialogue as natural as possible. But I was sure that there must be some difference between this footage I shot beforehand and the film I was going to make. And I wanted to see myself how they have a different texture. That was the first thing I had in my mind. To do that, I needed to have a character who makes her own film. And then I just thought about this novelist making her own film because this footage was, in a way, very naïve. So all this process toward the end of the film was preparation for the audience to accept this last short film as convincingly as possible.

MP: I guess that leads to the question: What is your attitude towards reality when you’re making films? In another interview, you talked about how your goal is to get as close as possible to reality and at the end just sort of veer away. But here it seems to me that the film within the film is the closest you’ve gotten to reality in shooting. And it is reality. I mean, you can’t argue with that. So, did you find that or is that scene still something which is fictional when it’s placed in the context of another structure.

HS: Yes, maybe it’s as close as possible in terms of showing something real with the medium for me. But of course reality is much more complex. It is filtered through your perception and you can go on and deepening and deepening and forever widening. And so reality is something you can never grasp and fix.

MP: Maybe it’s emotion that’s being grasped there.

HS: Oh, yes, but reality is not just emotion. So for perception of the environment and myself included, it’s always moving, changing. So I don’t think, with any medium, human beings can be grasped.

MP: The film was shot during COVID and it was interesting for me to think of the film from that perspective, because with this structure, that you’ve used before, there is a main character who goes from location to location and has chance meetings with different people. To me it felt like something that we all missed during COVID: this ability to walk outside and run into somebody and then go in a different, unpredictable direction. Life was very structured during the pandemic. One reason why I think there’s appeal to this film more so than others, is because it comes at a good time. You feel like the possibilities of the world are exposed in a way that maybe they weren’t if you made the film five years ago.

HS: The way I am, I try not to analyze this, as I said. So whatever comes out in the process…

MP: I’m asking you to analyze my analysis, so…

HS: Um, it’s your analysis, and I accept it. I really tried to respect this process itself. This process, it’s always bigger than any kind of a generalization or intention. So when I am in the right attitude in the process, something comes out and I usually prefer that to the things I made with the intention.

MP: And this process is not the way you made films throughout your career. At a certain point in your filmmaking, you changed. I think it’s with Oki’s Movie (2010) that you started to write the screenplays, the dialogues, the very morning or maybe one or two days before you’re shooting. So there’s that phase. But then, also recently, you’ve been doing mostly everything yourself. Your credits on this film are as writer, director, producer, editor, music, and camera. The only thing missing is sound, which we can get to in a minute. What led you to make films that way? Why do it all by yourself, which is essentially ending up in a place where a novelist resides, where you don’t really need anyone else to work, you can just work yourself. Or maybe a painter is more accurate. But what is the benefit of working that way and why did you decide to do that along with Kim Minhee, who’s now the production manager?

HS: My film school was oriented toward independent filmmaking, which means you shoot your own film with a small camera and maybe two or three people helping out. So that was the method. It felt very natural and easy and comfortable. But when I started making films, it was in the Korean industry, so I had to present my script first to get financed. And this company already had a production manager and they had their own way of doing things. And I was not so confident, so I had to wait. So, slowly I was able to—it’s not the right word, but anyway—eliminate persons. I wasn’t sure I could do it because it’s so much bigger than independent filmmaking, right? What I did in the school. So I was really scared and needed time to get more confidence. And one by one I eliminated the number of persons.

MP: So do you think this is the way you’ll keep making films, foreseeably, in the future?

HS:As I said, I think it’s just easier and comfortable and natural if I can do the things myself.

MP: But the only thing you need is somebody to record the sound. Why is that?

HS: So, I could use just a tripod to have some sort of a boom, on a little bit higher position. Then I can to do some recording myself too. Maybe someday I would. But presently I want to have a sound man, because then I have a freedom in movements. Once I have a position for the boom, I’m confined to a fixed angle. The benefit of a boom person is you can mix ambient sound and dialogue appropriately in a way I like. I can always change the height so that I can mix ambient sound and all the dialogue. I can check and decide to which fixed boom position. I think it is so hard because they sometimes have to move…

MP: How do you choose your actors? You don’t have a written script when you start the film. You have locations and you have actors. So maybe in this one in particular, how did you find locations and why did you choose these actors?

HS: It’s like a painter needs to have a model. I first need to have these two elements to start thinking about filming seriously. Of course, when I began filmmaking, I first wrote down the whole script, and then gradually reduced the amount of written script over time. And then for Oki’s Movie, I just had a few actors and locations. Once I decide on the locations and people I want to work with, then maybe for two weeks I really concentrate. And then I come up with a basic structure or storyline. Before I used to write in the early morning of the shooting day. But now I’m getting old and my eye condition is not so good. So I decided to write down scenes the day before. Then I shoot this footage, and I edit it in the nighttime, so I know exactly what I have. Then based on that, I write the next day of the script.

MP: So it’s always chronological. Are there usually scenes which are not used in the final cut or do you use every scene that you shoot?

HS: I don’t calculate, but probably 80 to 90% of the scenes I shot are included in the final film.

MP: So the editing process that must be very quick.

HS: Very quick. I like to shoot three or four scenes, and then I can edit them, like in 20 minutes.

MP: Claire’s Camera (2017) was shot during Cannes, and by the end of the festival, it was finished and edited. Is there a reason why you work so fast? Or is this a dumb question? Few painters paint one painting a year as it’s their vocation. This is why for me, what you’re doing is akin to painting. There’s a certain style. You see an image from a Hong Sangsoo film, you think, okay, this is a Hong Sangsoo film. Like if you see a Cézanne and you think, okay, this is a Cézanne—who, to note as an aside, also made multiple versions of the same painting. So, when people ask, “Why are you making films so fast?” does that seem like a strange thing to you? As long as you have the money—that’s the difference.

HS: I know, compared to other filmmakers, I’m fast. But I don’t feel fast. I have nothing else to do…I shoot this amount and I edit and then keep going until I feel the end of the film is there.

MP: You’re also teaching though, so you’re not only making films. With the students, do you show them films? Do you teach them your way of filmmaking?

HS: I usually let them write. I try to encourage them to write as freely as possible. Maybe I give them some advice, asking them about “Why are you blocked? What is your wrong ambition or wrong idea? Or things like that.” I can tell them those things because I have experience. And then, I let them write. After they’ve written something, I let them present it in front of other students. I listen and tell them what I like in their writing and, “Please don’t ignore my comments.”

MP: Do you ever have writer’s block?

HS: No. One of the things I do in my class is I let them go into the restroom…as there’s some smell inside. So female students go to the women’s restroom and then I let them write on the wall for 20 minutes. And then I let them present their writing so they know that they can write any time they want. It is this connection with your brain and your heart and your hands: if you keep doing it, you have no problem writing.

MP: Regarding the actors, you mentioned Lee Hye-young. For people who don’t know her, she’s the daughter of very famous Korean filmmaker, Lee Man-hee, and she was acting when she was younger. Then she did a lot of television acting, but she didn’t act in films for a long time. She’s in The Novelist’s Film, and also stars in Walk Up and In Front of Your Face. How did you come to cast her in your films? Because she becomes a phase within a phase within a phase in a way.

HS: Lee Hye-young’s father was, as you said, a quite famous film director 40 or 50 years ago. He frequented my mom’s place, but I never met him. One day he left his winter jacket, a very old, worn out one. I really liked it. He left it there because he was drunk or whatever. And I have this memory of wearing his jacket, a long time ago. My mother passed away seven or eight years ago. Lee Hye-young came to the funeral because her friend knew my mother. So I met her for the first time at the funeral, maybe for ten minutes—a very short chat. And then I wanted to make this film In Front of Your Face. Her name just came up, and I called her, and she was very willing to work with me. It’s just memory and just a chance meeting.

MP: Your mother was a film producer, is that right?

HS: Yes, with my father.

MP: So you grew up in cinema and always wanted to be a filmmaker? Or, first, you wanted to reject your parents, and then…

HS: They quit film producing when I was quite young. Then they divorced and she started a publishing company for literature. I never thought about becoming a film person at all. I was 20 and a friend of my mother’s was a quite famous theatre director. There were many guests over and they all left but he was drunk and sitting on the sofa. I kind of liked him because he was a funny guy. I was sitting beside him and he asked me, “What are you doing?” And I said, “I’m not doing anything.” I didn’t take my internship exam or anything like that. And, just out of blue, he said, “Maybe you can become a theatre director.” After he left, I thought about it, and I thought maybe it’s a good idea. So I entered this theatre department, and I had a terrible fight with my senior. So, I was thinking about quitting that school but this school had both filmmaking and theatre departments. So I changed to filmmaking.

MP: The rest is history. When you finish a film, do you have a sense that it’s one of your better films or a lesser film? Does that matter to you? Or do you see the films as part of a long film, or maybe as one house which you are building one floor at a time?

HS: I don’t know why people keep asking me the same question: “Do you have a favourite film among your works?” I really cannot come up with one. I justify my reluctance: I just follow whatever comes out and I feel that I do my best. So after I finish the film, I just don’t think about it. For each film, some audiences like it a lot, some don’t like it. I cannot really make a hierarchy.

MP: The experience of making the film must also be different each time. You must have fond memories of certain films and not of others.

HS:That’s true.

MP: But you don’t want to say.

HS: The process of filmmaking is so important to me personally because, except loving someone truly, except that, nothing can beat this experience.

MP: Are there any questions from the audience?

Audience: While watching your films, I often anticipate the moment when they are going to eat. When are they going to drink? To me it’s always a climax. For The Novelist’s Film, did you actually see people in the park eating by chance and then the characters had the idea: “Okay, we’re going to get something to eat?” And how did you choose what they were going to eat?

HS: Yes. The place we went for shooting was a place I normally go. About these two people far away eating: that came from my experience. I didn’t have any food with me, but I was kind of, “Maybe next time, I should bring food.” I had this experience, so it came out. And for the food: I chose. I don’t know why, it just came out in the process of writing.

MP:The last part, the film within the film, was shot in the same park, right? Many things in your films are based on experience somehow. Maybe that’s one reason why you can write so quickly.

HS: I use my direct experience and things I read in books. For a five-minute dialogue scene, it’s maybe four or five sources mixed together. So in terms of the spirit of things, it is very personal, autobiographical. Material wise, it’s all mixed, mixed, mixed. If I have a model in real life, I’m more conscious of avoiding a direct presentation or replicating. Because I don’t want to be an enemy of someone because of any confusion. So, I always mix, mix and mix.

Audience: I was wondering about some lines from the characters, because they talk about documentary, and now I’ve learned that you’re a film teacher and your film theory was also addressed before. It sounds a bit like “documentary” is a bad word for you. Because being open to the things that come in is what you usually do in documentary film, and the film inside in the film, the part in colour, reminds me also of Jonas Mekas. I’m not saying that you would use the same word documentary as your characters do, but I was wondering what do you think about documentary or how do you use it in film now?

HS: Conventional documentary is usually very message oriented. So even though this seemingly very real-life material is used, the final product is very, how can I say, it’s interpreted work. I mean, if I can choose between conventional documentary form and fiction, I’d always choose fiction. I think I also have difficulty in making a final product into a concrete form. But, for example, if I work with people who are not actors and in their own settings there are limitations. First of all, I have to wait for a long time. And I don’t want to do that; it’s so boring. Keep following things like for two months, three months—it’s not my temperament. And also, I cannot make them do or say something because I want to. I’m supposed to respect what’s happening in front of me. I can edit, I can put some of my messages into it, but I cannot change that real material. Of course, with actors, or someone who’s trying to act, there’s some superficiality, but I can do something about that. I can always ask them to do things and say something, so it’s not perfect. But I like fiction. I feel freer. Real people in documentary: you cannot imitate that degree of naturalism.

Audience: Do you have a lot of films together with this close group or do you change actors? For instance, the scene with the sign language was perfect. You said that you write in the evening the day before. So that means the actors get this information in the morning and they have to act and to play it? Was this scene your idea, or did it come out of a process of working together?

HS: This person who does the sign language used to be my student and worked for me as a kind of production person for a while. She said she started learning sign language because she wanted to make some money as it’s hard to make money with acting. I had this information about her, so I wrote this sign language scene, and then I asked her to call her teacher and make sure the sign language is correct. That’s how I did it.

Audience: You said using the process is really important and you accept what comes out of it. Do you purely want to enjoy the process and the experience that comes along with it? Or after every film, do you also reflect on the process and then think about what is probably not so great for this one, what could be better? And then for the next film, you try to modify the process to make it suits you and your team better?

HS: Maybe I do regret a few things in terms of production efficiency, or something like that. Some staff member is not suitable for our kind of production. But 99% of the time, I don’t think about things after I finish a film. This process always brings something much bigger than what I can do with my intention. So, I’m always a little bit surprised by what happens in the process. And then the film is finished finally, and feels satisfactory. Then I just thank them and leave. I don’t regret anything except some technical things.

MP: But when you finish your film, are you conscious that your next film should be something different? Or you approach it as if you’re starting from fresh each time.

HS: The only thing I can I say is: when I finish a film, I say, maybe this is for me. Then also, maybe I will shoot something in September. That’s the only thing I know.

MP: But also you don’t work with the same actors each time. For example, Kim Minhee is not in Walk Up. Is there a reason for that?

HS: The desire is not to work with her continuously…If you keep working with the same person, there’s a limit. You just feel you need a pause. I just planned to shoot one film with Kim Minhee in the centre and maybe two films without her, or where she has a minor role. That way I can keep working with her with a certain amount of freshness.

Audience: In the scene where the actors were drinking makgeolli and soju, they seemed really drunk. Is it true?

HS: I just don’t like actors pretending they’re drunk. I just don’t like the feel of it. So, in the beginning, I actually made them drink and get drunk, but then it was impossible for them to memorize or remember the lines. Nowadays, I tell them: if you can drink five glasses without getting really drunk and forgetting your lines, you can distribute those five glasses over maybe ten takes. If you can only digest one glass, just have a taste of it and then drink water. And when the time of emergency comes, you can taste another one. So, it’s like control. But the reason I do that, it’s because it’s a very physical thing. If you have the smell of liquor in your mouth and your nostrils, I think it helps a lot.