Jason Yu – Sleep (Interview in Paris, 1/29/2024)

This is the english version of the interview with director Jason Yu (Sleep). A group interview with Mélanie from website The Spectators, Evan from podcast Le fil d’Ariane, Andrea (Sandreas on Instagram) and William from website Les Chroniques de Cliffhanger & Co. Sleep opens in French theaters on February 21st, 2024. Pour lire cette interview en français, cliquer ici.

Mélanie (The Spectators) – Congratulations for winning the Grand Prize at Gerardmer Film Festival. How does that make you feel, such recognition for your first feature film?

Jason Yu – I was very shocked at winning the prize. How does it make me feel? Great! It feels like a dream, I’m very grateful, I’m very honored. My film, Sleep, as a debuting director, I think it’s a miracle just getting a film made, but having it premiere at Cannes Film Festival, and having it showing in competition at Gerardmer Film Festival, it was such a great honor because France is a nation of cinéma with so many film lovers. Just to watch the film with a French audience in Gerardmer, having them love the film so much, it was a great honor. I usually have very low self-esteem about myself, it really gave me confidence. Maybe I can make a second film and do better, maybe, next time.

Mélanie (The Spectators) – About your characters. You have a loving couple in this horror film. For once, we have a strong female character. How did your work with your actors? Did they have the freedom to improvise? Did they have the opportunity to contribute to their character’s development?

Jason Yu – Yes. I had the enormous privilege to work with two great actors in Korea, Lee Sun-kyun (Parasite, TV shows Payback and Dr. Brain) and Jung Yu-mi (Train to Busan, A bittersweet life). They have very interesting acting styles, quite the opposite actually. Jung Yu-mi is very free and like a blank canvas. On the first day on set, she approached me and said “Director Yu, you can just tell me what to do from A to Z and I will do exactly what you tell me to do.“ She’s a genius, if I tell her to do something, she does it exactly. But there was some point during filming where I thought that she really grasped her character, the importance of her character. And from that point onwards, I didn’t really have to say much to her, she understood her character so well that she ran free with it. I was always open to improvisation. I think there were many scenes where Jung Yu-mi veered off the screenplay that made it into the film that I think made it even better. Those were very memorable moments for me.

As for Lee Sun-kyun, I think he was very gracious because usually he plays a main role in a film, and this time, it was two roles. But he was very intelligent and gracious and passionate about the project. He saw early on that this film was not him as the main character, the main character is Soo-jin and his role is to support Michael Jordan if he’s Scottie Pippen maybe, and because of this selfless decision, we were able to really strengthen and emphasize the character of Soo-jin even further. He comes very prepared, somewhat overprepared, maybe. On the first day on set, he is fully aware of his character. He wears his character. Every day, he would come to me and he would open his scenario and it was full of notes. We would have discussions and he would say, “You know, Director Yu, I don’t think my character would say this, I don’t think he would feel anger in this moment, he would feel sadness, he would be more loving than skeptical or annoyed“. He would give these opinions about his character. Whenever we had arguments or whenever the was friction, it was never anything external, it was all about the character, whether he would do something like this or like that. Most of the times, he was always kind of right. I just realized I was being too precious about maybe the script or how it read or the pacing or the rhythm and what was truthful to the characters.

Sleep is the most unique horror film and a smart debut film in the past 10 years.

Bong Joon-Ho

Oncle Gilles (Place du Cinéma) – So you had trust in your actors to make the better decision?

Jason Yu – I never thought of it that way because what they suggested usually was always very good and very real to what they would do. The two actors were always very open about how they felt, what things worked and what didn’t, and how to make it better. I was very lucky in that the cast and crew were always full of ideas. They say, it’s a Korean expression in the Korean film industry, where there are two types of cast and crew: one, they are so unenthusiastic about it, that you have to put coal in their furnace just to get them to be passionate about the project; and on the other hand, they are a bit too passionate that you have to pour water over them just to get them to calm down. I was very lucky that everybody was like this, they were very passionate about this small project, they loved the story and everybody contributed with ideas on how to make it better. I was lucky enough just to pick and choose which ones I thought were very good and which ones I thought may be a bit too much.

William (Les Chroniques de Cliffhanger & Co) – Another main character of the movie is this main set, the appartment. You use minimalism with few characters, it almost feels like a play. How did you approach this kind of staging?

Jason Yu – That’s very interesting because I think, to some extent, I did approach it as a play. Like many plays, it’s divided in acts. The setting remains the same, yet with each act, whether there’s an intermission somewhere, you go out and you come back and you realize it’s the same place, but it’s very different. A lot of time has passed, maybe, and something, the ambiance or the setting has just changed drastically. And I really like that about plays, how effective they were in showing blocks of time where the relationship of these characters changed, most drastically and effectively. I thought doing that for my film kind of would be a good solution to the mundaneness of the setting, just having it in the house. So, me and production designer Shin Yu-Jin and cinematographer Kim Tae-soo, we really tried to make best of the chapters. And really tried to make the cinematography and the production design portray how the characters are feeling in that particular chapter. For example, in chapter one, we wanted to emphasize the love and the relationship between Soo-jin and Hyun-su, the wife and the husband. So, we tried to make it as warm and cozy as possible just with the setting, maybe more props and more warm lighting. In chapter two, just to emphasize what Soo-jin has been going through, the stress and the terror that she has to face every day, we tried to make the setting of the house more cold and claustrophobic. We might have gone a bit overboard in chapter three, but we wanted to amplify how the characters were feeling at that moment.

Evan (Le fil d’Ariane) – You were the assistant of Bong Joon-Ho (iconic director of Oscar and Golden Palm winner Parasite, Okja, Snowpiercer, The Host, Memories of murder). How did that improve you as a director?

Jason Yu – When I graduated from the university, my first job was being one of the assistant directors to director Bong Joon-Ho’s Okja (2020, 2h01, a Netflix film). It was a very long period, two and a half years. I was with him from pre-production to production shooting, post-production and even promotion. I had the immense luck of being by his side and observing how he directs in every step of the way. That being said, when I was working on his film, I never thought that I was really learning anything. I was just so busy trying to do my own work, not to ruin his film, that I didn’t really think about it. But when I did begin to make my own film, I realized I was consciously and unconsciously trying to mimic how he directed in Okja in every step of Sleep. So, I think it’s safe to say that everything I know about filmmaking, I learned from that period and from director Bong. I had the great luck of witnessing and observing and learning how one of the great directors did it. Externally, I think it also had its perks. I think the Korean marketing team or any international marketing team was able to use this realtionship to further promote the film and director Bong Joon-Ho was very gracious enough to say very nice things about the film, which I think garnered a lot of attention for the general audience. It made them look forward to the film a lot. So I think that helped tremendously. I’m very thankful for him for that.

Lee Sun-kyun saw early on that the main character was Soo-jin, the wife, and his role was to support her. And because of this selfless decision, we were able to really strengthen and emphasize the character of Soo-jin even further.

Jason Yu

Andrea (Sandreas) – Why did you choose to make a horror movie instead of any other genre?

Jason Yu – As a film audience, as a lover of film-watching, horror is not my favorite genre. I was actually very scared of horror films. Not that horror films are bad, there are a lot of great horror films. But just me, I’m very scared easily, so I remember in my youth, my friends dragging me to see a horror film and being traumatized for weeks after watching it. So I think it was that experience that made me distance myself from horror films for a long time. That being said, I realized early on when I was creating Sleep that just the subject matter itself had to be a horror film. So I realized I had a lot of catching up to do and I spent a lot of time just watching and studying the great horror films from the great directors. It was then that I realized that I really loved the genre. It’s one of my favorite genres now. It made me realize what masterful craft goes into such films. It made me appreciate the genre even more. And it made me excited about creating a horror film. I think, because my favorite genre to watch, it might be unexpected but it’s my guilty pleasure, is romantic comedies, that even though I was creating a horror film, I think my love for love and relationships, they kind of melted in the story and it created this weird hybrid of a film and the marketing team had trouble figuring out the genre. My love of both genres has created this weird mix.

Oncle Gilles (Place du Cinéma) – Jordan Peele, a former comedian who directs genre films (Get outUsCandymanNope) recently said, because he’s a comedian who now makes genre films, that the only difference between comedy and genre films is the music at the edit. What do you think about that?

Jason Yu – I remember that quote as well and I am in deep agreement with it. If I go further, I think it’s sound and music if you know what I mean, because when we were first editing Sleep with the footage that we had, without sound and without music, we thought this was the least scary thing ever and just maybe a romance drama between these two married couple. We were very devastated because we thought we failed as filmmakers, as a horror film. But then, when we began to add sound design and the music to it, I realized that’s really where the essence of suspense and horror comes from. It really elevated it to the current status of the film that it is now. Mostly we think it’s a great film, but before the sound and music, we really thought we made like a piece of merde. And we thought “Oh my God, we’re never making a film again.” But then, when the music and the sound were in, we could finally identify it as a horror film and so when I read Jordan Peele’s quote, I agreed to it very deeply. I don’t know why that is, it’s funny. It’s very contentious and it was a great learning experience. You think that it would be the visuals that would haunt you but it’s actually the sound and the music that create this atmosphere. I don’t know why. I’m sure there’s a scientific paper about it. It’s very interesting.

Mélanie (The Spectators) – How about your movie references for Sleep? The horror comes from the simplest things. Something as essential as sleep becomes terrifying. I was thinking of A nightmare on Elm Street (de Wes Craven, 1984, 1h31) and the fear of sleeping.

Jason Yu – I think A nightmare on Elm Street is a great reference. I’m not sure it directly influenced the film. I wasn’t consciously trying to reference that film or any film, but after the film released and I was talking with the audience, I realized I was referencing everything, it was an influence of everything. And I’m now just thinking about A nightmare on Elm Street and I think it’s a great reference. Just the potential of sleep in a horror film. Sleep is a state of complete surrender to your environment based on trust that you’re completely safe. It’s the safest place, you are with the safest person you know, you have a belief, you don’t even question it that you’ll be able to sleep safely and wake up to see the next day. It’s very fun to flip that and make sleep the danger, the threat, the thing you trust the most, the last resort, how difficult your life is outside your home, when you come and sleep, it should be the most peaceful, your last safe haven. But if you take even that away, how devastating would that be, how terrifying that would be. So I think A nightmare on Elm Street really emphasizes that. Even better than I think Sleep did, and maybe Sleep was trying to implement those sorts of terrors one can get when sleep itself becomes a point of terror and horror.

My love of both genres, romantic comedy and horror, has created this weird hybrid of a film.

Jason Yu

Evan (Le fil d’Ariane) – How did you balance tradition and modernity in your movie?

Jason Yu – You mean between medical science and the spirituality? I think it’s very specific to Korean society, maybe Asian society if I am broader. But Korean society is very peculiar in that we rely heavily on medical science even if we get a small cut or a light cough. Unlike the United States, we run straight to the hospital to get cured. We go to the pharmacy for medicine. So there’s a great belief and reliance on medicine and medical technology. That being said, if we group 10 Koreans in a room, I’m willing to bet at least seven of them have visited or consulted a shaman and maybe did certain rituals to shoo away bad ghosts or welcome positive ghosts, have these talisman tokens in their wallets just for good luck, just to bring positive spirituality and shooing negative ones. I really think that part of Korean society is quite contradictory and paradoxical. Yet, somehow, they seem to coexist without much friction. It’s very natural. I guess that part of Korean society is reflected in the film. I never really gave it much conscious thought. It was just me and a Korean person imagining what would take place in a Korean household if something like this happens.

William (Les Chroniques de Cliffhanger & Co) – Do you have any ideas about your next film?

Jason Yu – Yes, I do have a couple of ideas. One is a similar film to Sleep, in that it’s genre, it’s a mystery thriller, sort of film. And another one I’m interested in is at the opposite end of the spectrum. I mentioned that my guilty pleasure is romantic comedies and it has been my dream to maybe one day make my own romantic comedy. But we’ll just see. Nobody is really excited about the romantic comedy as of now, but who knows, if I come up with a good story and a good script, maybe it will get made. I’m passionate about both projects and whichever one I’m more excited about I’ll probably try and do first.

Sleep a Jason Yu film (2024, 1h35). With Lee Sun-kyun, Jung Yu-mi, Kim Kum-Soon, Kim Kuk-hee, Lee Kyong-jin, Yoon Kyung-Ho. A film produced by Lewis Pictures, distributed in France by The Jokers and worldwide by Lotte Entertainment. The film opens in French theaters on Feb. 21st, 2024.


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