Nicole Kidman, Matthew Goode, Mia Wasikowska, and Park Chan-wook
Mar 25, 2013
Stoker, the first English-language film from South Korean director Park Chan-wook, is not a vampire film. It would be easy to make that assumption, given that its title is a nod to Dracula author Bram Stoker, and that Park's last film, Thirst, dealt with vampires. Stoker is a macabre, gothic film, but there is no blood-sucking, and no fangs are shown. The connection to vampires is metaphoric.
Mia Wasikowska plays India Stoker, a withdrawn high-school student who is highly attuned to the sensory world. On her 18th birthday, her father, Richard (Dermot Mulroney), dies in a car crash, and the funeral brings his estranged brother, Charlie (Matthew Goode), to the Stoker family estate. India and her mother, Evie, live together in a secluded house but have a distant relationship. The arrival of the dapper and mysterious Charlie distracts Evie from her grief, and she initiates flirtations with him. But, day by day, Charlie makes it more evident that his interest is in India, setting off a tense, passive-aggressive battle for his attention. Only, Charlie's intentions are unbeknownst to either of them.
Kidman remembers a particular conversation she had with her director (who asks to be addressed as Director Park) about the unusual relationship between these family members.
"He said this is a movie about bad blood, which I thought was an interesting way of describing it," she says.
"I would like the story to be interpreted as many ways as possible, and of course the bad blood aspect is included," Park says. "You could always say that evil is contagious, and we have this mentor, Uncle Charlie, that comes into your life."
"She's not evil," Kidman says of Evie, laughing.
"Neither is India," Wasikowska says.
The script, written by actor Wentworth Miller (Prison Break), who doesn't appear in the film but is a co-producer, allowed for stretches without dialogue. This appealed to Park not only because he was working with English-speaking actors for the first time, it also gave him better opportunities to build the tension and mystery visually.
"I think the strength of Director Park is his atmosphere," Kidman says. "The script relies heavily on the language of the images, because there's not a lot of dialogue, so the cinematic language of it has to be very, very strong. When we had a meeting with him, we talked about all that, and it was extraordinary how precise and detailed what he wanted to say was. Also, his use of color and sound is all very specific, and that is something that really fills in a script like this."
The film was shot in Nashville, with much of the action taking place in a 1920s mansion. For Park, best known for his film, Oldboy, which won the Grand Prix award at Cannes in 2004, the biggest challenge was adjusting to the pace of production in the U.S.
"I had to shoot twice as fast as I was used to," he says. "In Korea, I would watch the playback of each take with all of the actors and spend time discussing each take. I always storyboard each scene, even before pre-production begins, so my vision is already laid out on the storyboard for everyone to see. This enables on-set assembly, so it makes each take into a sequence, and this would enable a steady work flow. I would also look back at the on-set assembly sequences with my actors, and that is why it takes me longer to shoot when I'm in Korea. Looking back on my first film in Korea, I never used any playback or on-set assembly, so I just told myself this film was just like shooting my first film. Then I felt right at home."
"Wouldn't it have been amazing if we had twice as much time to make this film?," Goode asks. "Why don't we make more films in Korea?"
The opportunity to work with Park and to explore his role with cast mates Kidman and Wasikowska drew Goode to the film.
"The role is so psychologically interesting, it was confusing and brilliant and wonderful, and all those sorts of things you would like to be involved in," he says.
"I had to read it a couple of times to understand it," Kidman says of the script, "because it has a lot of subtext and layers, so I just wanted to absorb the overall feel of it."
Kidman had to understand and empathize with a character that's continually at odds with her daughter.
"Director Park, when we first met, said to me, 'Ever since you've held this baby, this baby never wanted to be held.' And that's an amazing way to build the relationship of a mother and child, because that's horrifying as a mother," Kidman explains. "I think that's the thrust of her, this child that she had just doesn't connect with her, and she's always trying in some way to connect. Obviously, that has gotten broken down in years and years, and India had a much stronger connection to her father. Then, I just came up with my own thing, that she's just very starved for love, and that creates a particular personality after a while."
At one point in the film, Evie tells India, "I can't wait to watch life tear you apart."
"I love the scene because it's so unusual," Kidman says. "From where it starts to where it ends, that's an amazing monologue. But to make it, because of the way Director Park shoots, which is really intense and close, we did it a number of different ways, but we shot it in one shot, which is fantastic as an actor to not be cut up and edited. It just gets to play out that way. So, I just was very, very grateful that he had the vote of confidence in me to be able to do it because it's a really weird, weird scene. But then to ask that, to say to your own child, "Who are you?" that's interesting to me. That's a fascinating sort of dynamic."
Wasikowska came in with a healthy approach to making sure that the dark characteristics of the film, and her contentious scenes with Kidman, didn't weigh on her.
"I've often found on the films that have a more serious nature, the more goofy and lighthearted and silly it becomes in between scenes, almost out of necessity to counter the intensity of the scene and material," she says. "I felt that we were pretty good at that."
The actors also weren't fazed by working with a director that doesn't speak English.
"One of my first films that I did was in Spanish, and I didn't speak Spanish, and that's as hard as it's going to get, but boy, do you listen," says Goode. "After the Skype chat I had with Director Park, which lasted an hour, you realized the only thing you should worry about is who you should be looking at. Once you got on set, you really didn't think about it at all."
"There were times when you had to clarify words, because particular words mean certain things," Kidman says. "A lot of the times, I would be asking 'is this exactly what he wants?,' because in translation things can get lost. I was just very specific with him."
"Actors are professionals who deal with people's emotions. Working with this very intelligent and smart cast meant that sometimes you would only have to speak a word, and they would immediately catch on to what I wanted," Park says. "I really felt that it wasn't an issue."
Kidman saw Stoker for the first time at its Sundance premiere in January and was struck by Park's imagery, visual touches that either weren't apparent in the script or that he brought to the scenes in which she didn't appear. One edit employs a dissolve that transitions from a shot of Evie's hair to an image of blades of grass.
"You don't see that kind of filmmaking that often," she says. "It's very, very layered, and the metaphor that he uses. The hair scene, I had no idea. He just said we're going to shoot brushing your hair, then I see the film and I thought, 'Aw, that's amazing.' That sort of detailed filmmaking is really hard to do and not have it be pretentious. And then, also to have it tell the story, which is what you're taught, that cinema is the language of images. You should be able to make a film with no dialogue and be able to tell a story, and I really think Director Park should do that next."