Disregard for Safety: Kim Jee-woon on The Last Stand

The director explains why Arnold Schwarzenegger never says 'I'll be back' in his big comeback movie.

William Bibbianiby William Bibbiani

Kim Jee-woon may be one of the most exciting directors working today, thanks to scary-as-hell ghost stories like A Tale of Two Sisters and crazy-as-hell action films like The Good, the Bad and the Weird. I suspect it's that second film, an exhilirating hybrid of classic western storytelling tropes and Korean zeal, that earned him the gig directing The Last Stand, the action film opening today that marks the return of Arnold Schwarzenegger to leading man status. In talking to Kim Jee-woon, through his translator, I discovered some of the ways the filmmaker was able to bring his anarchic Korean exhuberance to a Hollywood production (a preview: he doesn't think too highly of western safety guidelines), and while Schwarzenegger never says his famous catchphrase, "I'll be back," over the course of the film.

CraveOnline: I’ve been a big fan ever since Tale of Two Sisters. It’s been very interesting to see your career move into the action genre after that. Do you approach the two genres very differently?

Kim Jee-woon’s Translator: He says he actually did not know that he’d be moving into action as well, and even after The Last Stand he’s been getting a lot of offers for sort of these action genre films. He actually does not like to work in the same genre repeatedly, so for his next film there may be some action involved, but he wants to work on something totally different. The reason why he likes to work in different genres is because he wants to escape the pain and burden of working in one genre by jumping to another. So he says he most likely will move on to a different genre.

Do you see the American action mold, or genre, being fundamentally different from the Korean action genre?

He says the biggest difference is maybe in the capital, in the budget, and because in Korea the budget is very small, he is sort of forced into coming up with fresh ideas, or fresh ways to tackle a certain type of sequence. But here in Hollywood, there is a perfect technology, or a system, of shooting such sequences, and there is a well-beaten path in terms of the camerawork or the technology. So he feels that for these action sequences, there is a sort of estimate, or expectation of what the result would be in Hollywood. But in Korea everything’s sort of done by hand, on the spot, so it’s more raw, there’s more dynamic to it, and this comes at the sacrifice of the staff, of the camera crew and all that, but he feels that brings a certain freshness to the action sequences, and he feels that this is the biggest difference between action in Korea and in Hollywood. He says this sort of working condition in Korea, where things work more dynamically and things are done at the sacrifice of the crew, he feels that, at least for the director, this sort of working condition brings motivation and inspiring ideas, because it provides him with opportunities to be more creative.

What he tried to do in The Last Stand was combine these two aspects, of how he works in Korea and how they work in Hollywood. In Korea, they are allowed to point a gun straight at the camera, but here in Hollywood that’s not allowed because of safety issues. There was a big argument because of that, with the crew and with people responsible for safety, so what he ended up doing was he would ask, “So where is it safe to point the gun?” And they would tell him where to point the gun, and right when he calls “action” he would have the camera move, or move the gun, and the person in charge of safety regulations was like, “Oh, this guy’s crazy. I’m just going to let him be.”

And also, when the car passes by the camera at a very high speed, there was a certain place that the camera had to be, there was a certain amount of distance that the camera had to keep from the car, and for these too, he would just say "okay," and then when he was actually shooting he would just move the camera at that moment. Because in his mind, he thought that where he placed the camera was still a safe distance from the car, and there was no way of the car crashing into the camera, but he understands that people are responsible for the safety, and you need to care about certain things. But this certain disregard for safety was one way he was able to achieve more raw action sequences.

How aware are you of what American audiences expect from an Arnold Schwarzenegger movie, and did you adjust your script or the directing style to match that at all?

He certainly is not aware of everything, or all what Arnold means in America, but he sort of understands, and one thing that he really likes is Arnold’s English. He says it comes off a little bit rough, but that’s also part of his charm. And Jee-woon felt that the American audience probably expects the return of “The Terminator,” and you feel as that there are certain aspects that show that, but also what he tried to achieve in The Last Stand is to show Arnold at his age right now, the return of an age-old hero. He feels that that’s what you will find in The Last Stand, a combination of Arnold in The Terminator, but also aspects that are more akin to his human side.

One of the things that American audiences very specifically, I think, expect from an Arnold Schwarzenegger movie is that he will at some point say, “I’ll be back.” I was wondering if that was in the film at some point, or if you wanted to avoid that consciously, because I didn’t notice it in the film at all.

It wasn’t his conscious decision to not include the line “I’ll be back,” but he also feels that if that line is used in the wrong way, or put in the wrong place, he felt that it would bring in certain external, alien aspects into this film, and he feels that that would have had a negative effect to the character. And also he feels that The Last Stand, the film itself, is sort of the “I’ll be back” statement for Arnold, so he didn’t feel the need to include that line. So, like Arnold’s famous catchphrases, he wants The Last Stand to be Arnold’s new “I’ll be back.” 

William Bibbiani is the editor of CraveOnline's Film Channel, the co-host of The B-Movies Podcast and the co-star of The Trailer Hitch. Follow him on Twitter at @WilliamBibbiani.