Director Boon Joon-Ho on bringing Okja to life, and the creative freedoms of Netflix

Netflix’s new film Okja hits the streaming service this Thursday, a film whose director Bong Joon-Ho has citied George Miller’s Babe: Pig in the City amongst its influences. With the acclaimed Korean director in Sydney for the Sydney Film Festival, where Okja sat as the closing film, I caught up with the man himself (and his translator) to talk about bringing the film – and its larger-than-life namesake. A super pig like no other.

Can you talk a little about how you brought Okja the super pig to life?

The design was very important, I really wanted to make the animal feel like it actually existed in real life. I made a lot of images of real life animals like the pig, hippo and the manatee, which lives in Florida.

However, to bring life to this animal it was important to have the appropriate and the right VFX team to do it. I was very happy and relieved to bring in Erik-Jan de Boer’s team, who was in charge of the Tiger in The Life of Pi.

Okja, she has such a huge body, she’s such a big animal, but at the same time we needed some subtlety of emotion, and nuance of movements, so we had to show a subtle intimacy, so that was very challenging. But they did a great job.

There’s a performance there as well.

Yes. The animation supervisor and the VFX supervisor they had a very good sense of acting, of the performance, so for me, my team, they are the actors (for Okja).

What was used as a reference point for the performance? Were there any other characters in film you looked to?

Maybe not in film, but puppies, dogs – they are the closest in relationship to humans, so many movements and characteristics of Okja were inspired by puppies.

So look out for the sad puppy dog eyes

Yes, you can feel it when you watch the movie.

You have assembled a phenomenal cast as with all of your films here. Do you enter the production with a bucket list so to speak of people you want to be a part of the project?

Definitely. Tilda Swinton, Paul Dano and Hee-Bong Byun, the actor who played the grandfather of Mija, they were already in my mind while I was writing the film. Particularly with Tilda, we had a lot of discussions on certain lines and certain ideas for the character during the screenwriting process.

The most important casting element though was Mija, our lead protagonist. There were a lot of auditions for her. I wanted a very peculiar and unique sense of person to play this role, someone who was unlike any sort of conventional child actor. We were so lucky we found her. She was very small but very strong.

There’s been a lot of talk about the freedom that you were given with this film by Netflix. How important is that freedom to you as a director?

If anyone interferes with me, I don’t think I can make the film. I have a lot of respect for the people who finance my films, but I also feel like my creative freedom and imagination should be respected as well.

No freedom, no film!

Yes, exactly *smiles wryly*

Okja hits Netflix worldwide this Thursday, June 29th.

Interview conducted with partial live translation.