Back in 2013, South Korean director Bong Joon-ho showed his “Snowpiercer” star Tilda Swinton a simple sketch he’d drawn of a girl and a pig. That drawing went on to spawn the zany “Okja,” with Swinton on board for another collaboration. At its core, the South Korean-American film is a love story — between a girl and her pig — but also a commentary on modern corporations and the meat industry.
The Netflix original film has unintentionally become a commentary on the state of the film industry, as well. When “Okja” premiered last month during the Cannes Film Festival, its placement in the Palme d’Or competition — alongside movies that would be released via the traditional theater model — became a topic of heated debate. (Another Netflix film, Noah Baumbach’s “The Meyerowitz Stories,” also competed and found itself in the heart of the conversation.) Since Cannes, many major South Korean theater operators said that they would boycott screening “Okja” because of its simultaneous streaming release today.
But the titular star of the film has no idea about the controversy. Giant CGI superpig Okja is snatched from a young girl’s South Korean mountain abode — by a deranged zoologist played by Jake Gyllenhaal — and brought to New York, where Mirando Corporation chief executive officer Lucy Mirando plans to make it the company mascot and then turn it into extra-tasty pork products. The statuesque Swinton, who also coproduced the film, stars in the antagonistic roles of Lucy and her more corporate-sinister twin, Nancy.
“They are the kind of twins who have gone out of their way to be as different as possible from each other,” said Swinton, herself a mother to twins, during the film’s New York premiere earlier this month. “Lucy’s a different kind of monster, she’s trying so hard to be all woke and eco-friendly and switched on and groovy and loved — she’s desperate to be loved,” she continued. “But she ends up messing up just as royally as she would have done if she hadn’t made the effort, because she’s still attached to making a lot of money.”
Here, Swinton talks more about the film, her admiration for Bong Joon-ho and why she prefers country to city life.
WWD: What qualities make your creative partnership with Bong Joon-ho successful and why were you interested in working with him again after “Snowpiercer”? What is the actor-director dynamic with him like?
Tilda Swinton: I think that being as precise as he is, having such a fully realized landscape of the film in his head before shooting means that he is genuinely grateful to performers for bringing their energy and contributions to keep him company in building the story. For myself, I fell for his cinema long before I met him, but when we met, we very quickly became friends, inside and outside of making work together. It is this, naturally, that makes cooking things up together so enjoyable for me: to be specific, I think we share a glee in amusing each other which makes for a very light working atmosphere.
WWD: Bong showed you an early sketch of Okja — what about that very early vision was exciting for you? What interested you in portraying Lucy and Nancy Mirando?
T.S.: Director Bong and I share a mutual love for the work of the great Japanese master Hayao Miyazaki, in particular the divine “My Neighbor Totoro.” The instant I saw the drawing of the girl and the pig, I knew this was our chance to fill an homage to that masterpiece and its maker. And Lucy [Mirando] felt like a chance to nod to the dreadful twin sisters in [Miyazaki’s film] “Spirited Away”…but something less fantastical, in fact: a proper faker with a veneer of public relations polish and a charlatan’s love of her own voice…
WWD: You commented on how acting within Bong’s very specific vision is a freeing place to work as an actor, rather than restrictive. Can you elaborate on the benefits of working with a director who has such a clear idea of what they want their film to look like, what creative liberties that allows you as an actor? Under other circumstances, is this setup ever restrictive?
T.S.: Working with the editor on the set, as Bong does, means that it is possible to keep track, at every moment, of the exact temperature of the trajectory of the scene — and know precisely what is required to continue, or precede, the action already shot. Like building a giant jigsaw puzzle. This is a freeing procedure because one is divested of all the options that might otherwise hamper one’s choices. Clarity is possible. And that means one can relax into each shot, knowing the clear boundaries of where it might end or begin. And with relaxation, comes play.
WWD: Why did you decide to take on a producer role? Why was that level of involvement important or meaningful for you?
T.S.: I am honored to serve as producer, from time to time, on the work of a few treasured friends: Lynne Ramsay (“We Need to Talk About Kevin”), Luca Guadagnino (“I Am Love”) and the films I have made with the Derek Jarman Lab (“Derek,” “The Seasons in Quincy”). I was privileged to be able to support Bong Joon-ho in any way I could when he began to embark on getting “Okja” made. It is a project very dear to my heart, I am entirely devoted to his work as a filmmaker and would be happy to assist in any way to support and help to protect his vision in the future.
WWD: This film is described ultimately as a story about the relationship between animals and humans. Did your personal relationship to animals change over the course of filming this movie? What new conclusions or observations did you make about the human relationship with nonhuman animals and nature? I read that you live with dogs; what lessons have they taught you?
T.S.: Okja herself has one of her inspirations in my son’s Springer spaniel, Rosy. Many a conversation was had over Skype with the magical visual effects team — Method in Vancouver — about the exact expressions in her eyes and the turn of her head when high or low-spirited…as anybody knows who lives with animals, they teach you more about what it is to be a good human than most people: patience, goodheartedness, enthusiasm, presence, forgiveness, focus, restfulness, honesty.
WWD: How do you think your physical environment (Scottish Highlands/coastal) has shaped your relationship to animals/nature, versus people such as Lucy, who reside and work within the framework of a large urban corporate center?
T.S.: My sense about Lucy is that she doesn’t really have any direct relationships with animals — human or otherwise. She is pretty much entirely caught up in herself. For myself, I find that daily absorption in the physical actualities of nature is life as I need it to be: it means I am connected to such large things — sky, sea, hill, the vagaries of weather, the undeniable needs of animals — that I can disappear as a subject of interest, I can exist without self-consciousness. The city is a challenge for me, however thrilling a few days prove, for its insatiable overstimulation and the rarity of quiet. The city makes people bigger than they need to be, in my opinion…
WWD: Okja is a film made in two languages — Korean and English — but also two languages in the sense of it dealing with the common language of cinema, and also with Bong’s very specific personal language that he is trying to translate from his mind to the screen. Can you describe what influence language had on the making of this film — did the various language influences add layers to the film that you wouldn’t get with a film made dealing with one primary language?
T.S.: I would say that the language you describe — Bong’s personal language — is the language of a master filmmaker fluent in cinema. This is something many aspire to, but few speak well: it is something beyond common language: it is of much less import in his cinema what languages are spoken. It is the camera that tells his tale. As Hitchcock prescribed, he lets the camera tell the story and the words lend atmosphere…for those of us who work with him, this is certainly the case. We all forgot what differences there might be between those of us speaking English and those speaking Korean.