On Bong Joon-Ho’s Parasite, production designer Lee Ha-jun took great care, while crafting two extremely different South Korean homes, which spoke to the director’s thoughtful dissection of class divisions.
The centerpiece of the film is the home of the extremely affluent Parks—a space that evokes the family’s cold disconnection from the experience of the country’s lower class. Then, there is the home of the Kims, the family that infiltrates the Park household to feed off their wealth. A smelly, gritty sub-basement home, down the hill from the Parks’, this space proves equally memorable, particularly as it’s flooded by torrential rains, leaving the Kims to head for a shelter.
A director who approaches his films with a remarkable eye for detail, Joon Ho gave his production designer an extremely specific brief, with regard to the design of both of these homes. Providing Ha-jun with sketches of each space, which he created while penning the script, as well as floor plans, the director prioritized the specific choreography he had in mind for his actors, in his overall brief for the film.
Conceiving each environment and each shot with specific dichotomies in mind—between high and low, rich and poor—Joon Ho had the Park house interiors built on a sound stage, with Ha-jun starting at ceiling level and working his way down. “The reason we made it this way is because there was a steadicam shot that goes down the entire space, and Director Bong requested that he wanted to shoot it without cutting. It did become an enormous set, to the point of seeming a bit imprudent. But from a general point of view, I think it was the right choice for the efficiency of shooting and the spatial immersion of the actors,” the production designer says. “It’s a space that everyone is seeing for the first time, so when you go down the actual stairs, it makes you catch your breath. I think that it might have been helpful for the actors to act in a set like this.”
Below, the Parasite production designer breaks down the process he went through to create sets that were characters in themselves, also describing what it is about Director Bong that inspires his below-the-line collaborators.
DEADLINE: What were your first impressions when you read Bong Joon-ho’s script for Parasite? What excited you about the idea of working on this film?
LEE HA-JUN: Even before he had given me the script, I had already met with Director Bong several times to talk about the synopsis. We had already spoken about space as well. When I read the script, I could picture it vividly. However, a lot of the locations needed precise blocking.The director and I both decided that it would be wiser to use a set rather than shoot on location in order to do that.
The script is extremely elaborate. All the thoughts and things Director Bong wants to express are seeped into the writing. When you cook, the ingredients are very important. Director Bong brings those ingredients that he’s been growing in his world to the table. Our job is to take those ingredients, add a great chef, good tools, and cool decoration, to create a completed dish. I was honored to do a third project with a director like him.
DEADLINE: Could you describe your early conversations with Director Bong when you came aboard the project? What did he describe, in terms of what was crucial to him with the design of this film?
HA-JUN: First of all, Director Bong said precisely…The movement has to continuously go from top to bottom. Including the semi-basement home, everything had to have contrast. As you come down from the rich family’s home, the look of the neighborhood has to slowly change. There has to be more rain and more water, in order to create a sense of space and nuance for the entire film. Because he clearly set that very important element early on, there was no difficulty in working. However, on location, we had to battle all those stairs as we came down—all those electric wires and stairs you see. Whether it was Mr. Park’s house or Ki-taek’s semi-basement home, there are stairs within the home that differ in size. So, we went up, we went down. I have never made so many stairs in my filmmaking career.
Another thing Director Bong especially asked for was the blocking of the actors. In Snowpiercer, they move from left to right, in order to travel from the end cart to the front cart of the train. In Parasite, you go from right to left, or from the rich neighborhood down to the semi-basement neighborhood, endlessly right to left. We all made sure that the location scout and the camera angles, as well as other things we had to prepare all matched the choreography when we were creating the set and doing the set dressing.
DEADLINE: What was the thinking when it came to Parasite’s color palette?
HA-JUN: Director Bong wanted the higher class to have monotonous and luxurious colors. For the lower class, he wanted the combination of complicated and diverse colors and textures. I remember we talked about this a lot.
In fact, I tried not to use a lot of color in Mr. Park’s house. I tried to match the general tone and color to gray. In order to highlight the concrete in the exterior and interior, we tried to keep the interior colors dark. We used warm-toned practical lights in order to give the impression of luxury and warmth. We built the set in a way that we could use practical lights with adjustable color temperature and hue.
Contrary to the rich family’s house, Ki-taek’s semi-basement neighborhood has a lot of color. However, we tried to make the colors as simple as possible so that no single color would pop. These colors do have a rougher texture and higher saturation.
We wanted to express the increasing saturation as the look changes between classes that live in lower elevation vs. higher elevation, or in rich neighborhoods vs. semi-basement neighborhoods.
DEADLINE: What were the first steps you took in creating your designs for the Park family’s home? Was its look inspired by the work of any particular architects?
HA-JUN: To my knowledge, Director Bong had an architect in mind when he was writing the script. However, this did not affect the design of Mr. Park’s house.
Mr. Park’s house was set in the narrative to be a house built by an architect, so it was not easy to approach its design. I’m not an architect, and I think the type of space that an architect and a production designer would draw up are different. While for us, the blocking of the actors and the camera angle are important, in architecture, real people have to live there, so it is focused on people and the space is designed as such.
We started the interior design, looking at the floor plan that Director Bong thought of when he was writing the script. The movement of the actors from living room to garden, the movement from the second floor stairs to the kitchen table, from second floor stairs to peeping into the kitchen, from kitchen down to the basement storage, from the basement storage to another secret basement (the space where Geun-se lives), from the garage up to the living room…these were all routes that Director Bong thought were important.
It was important to create a design to satisfy these movements when we planned the space. We also looked at many references from architects, pondering the exterior look of the building. We took into account that we couldn’t create an exterior too different from the interior because we couldn’t shoot the interior separately. It just had to be a perfect house. So I got Director Bong’s opinion through references and started to design one by one. A house that was minimal and wasn’t superfluous, a large and upright house, a house that contrasted with the semi-basement neighborhood, with muted colors and materials rather than charming elements, one with a large garden…This is Mr. Park’s house.
DEADLINE: To clarify, was the exterior of the home a real location, or was it also built for the film?
HA-JUN: In order to improve the efficiency of shooting and minimize the budget and set building time, Mr. Park’s house largely consisted of 4 sets. First, the rich family’s outer wall set that has the parking garage, main gate, and high wall. Second, the main exterior set, where when you go through the main gate and up the stairs, you see the garden, and when you go in there is the first floor living room, kitchen, table, stairs to the second floor, stairs to the basement storage, and stairs to come up to the living room from the parking garage. Third, [there was] the second floor set with Mr. Park’s bedroom, bathroom, sauna, dressing room, powder room, Da-song’s room, Da-hye’s room, and the soundstage set with the second floor living area. Fourth, the soundstage set, with stairs that go from the first floor kitchen to the basement storage and secret basement space.
DEADLINE: What do you enjoy most about working with Director Bong?
HA-JUN: Considering Director Bong allows me to use about 98% of my abilities, he also encourages me to use the leftover 2% of latent abilities. He is really able to pull that out of me.
Sometimes, I feel that he is all-knowing. I think that is his talent. He starts conversations with the crew often without a sense of distance, often exchanges text messages, shares nice images. He is like an agile captain, steering a very large ship. He knows how to compromise between the possible and impossible, and knows how to handle variables that arise. More than anything, he doesn’t raise his voice on set. He is a very ideal director.
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