a long talk

Squid Game Creator Hwang Dong-hyuk Answers All Our Lingering Questions

On “Gganbu,” Ali, and how he lost six teeth during production.

Photo: Netflix
Photo: Netflix

The internet has been abuzz in recent weeks with reports that Squid Game will return for a second season. The coverage has been misleading, however; the confusion possibly stems from a slight mistranslation of an Associated Press interview with the show’s mastermind, writer-director Hwang Dong-hyuk. In the video, the subtitles note Hwang as stating, “But I will say there will indeed be a second season.” What he actually said was, “I think there will indeed be a season 2.” According to a Netflix spokesperson, a second season is “in discussions but not confirmed yet.”

“I have somewhat of a framework for the next season,” Hwang tells Vulture. “But I also have to admit that I feel increasingly more pressure about season two as the series has gotten so much more love and attention than I could have expected. I also have a film I’ve been planning to shoot after Squid Game, and I haven’t made up my mind about which one I should do first.”

No one can blame Hwang for feeling enormous pressure. Squid Game has become Netflix’s most-watched show ever with a whopping 142 million households tuning in to the series, surpassing Bridgerton as the streamer’s most successful series launch to date. The show is now widely considered to mark the beginning of a new chapter in the rise of international storytelling with its global success already opening doors for more foreign-language productions — though some South Korean creators have voiced concerns that the series sets an expectation for Korean stories to have a similar shock factor in order to appeal to a global audience.

Indeed, Squid Game has pushed the envelope of K-dramas, which traditionally feature little to no violence or sex partly because the Korea Communications Standards Commission reviews series for inappropriate content. However, with the rise of Squid Game and other similarly violent shows such as My Name, the rules and boundaries of what can appear in K-dramas may already be changing. “We’re seeing increasingly more genre series with a higher level of violence and other restricted content airing during nighttime on cable TV channels,” says Hwang. “I expect this trend to only grow with the increasing popularity of streaming services.”

The genius behind Squid Game is a celebrated director and screenwriter in South Korea, known for making films that are both critically acclaimed and commercially successful including My Father, Silenced, Miss Granny, and The Fortress. Squid Game — a dystopian survival thriller in which 456 debt-ridden contestants participate in a series of deadly children’s games for a chance to win 45.6 billion won (approximately $38.5 million) — is his first attempt at creating a series. In an email interview with Vulture following the series’ debut, Hwang shared the ins and outs of crafting his latest masterpiece, including an in-depth look at the memorable marbles episode, how his script evolved over time, and why he lost six teeth while filming the show.

In a Korea Times interview, you said you weren’t surprised your show has become so popular worldwide. What do you think makes it globally appealing?
From the time I decided to create this story with Netflix, I had the goal of having it recognized by global audiences, so I somewhat expected the series would be well received. But I never imagined it would become the global sensation it is now. I think the reason it resonated with viewers around the world is its premise: adults playing children’s games with their lives and a large amount of cash at stake. It’s something we haven’t seen in other films or series of the death-game genre. The premise is ironic and fascinating. I also think viewers around the world deeply relate to the theme of economic inequality and the problems of modern capitalism, especially in times of a global pandemic.

Did you have that global audience in mind when you wrote the script back in 2008, or did you start thinking about it when Netflix showed interest in 2018?
I didn’t have the global market in mind back in 2008. The story was a screenplay for a film, and my aim for the story was commercial success. I started considering the global market when I decided to work with Netflix. As we turned the story into a series, I had more freedom in terms of length and the scope of expression. Whereas the initial screenplay focused more on the games, the series allowed room for backstories of individual characters as well as richer and more detailed explorations of their emotional arcs. Joon-ho didn’t exist in the original screenplay, and the addition of this character made it possible to show the world of the workers and the Front Man.

If Squid Game had been released a decade ago, how do you think the reception would’ve been different? Were there certain political themes, for example, that came to the fore over the years?
I added the part where the contestants vote to leave the game and end up returning. As the story explored why they end up coming back, it unveiled their individual backstories. The addition of majority voting, which suggests that a formal democratic process exists in the game, was a big change. In reality, we also get a chance to change the direction of our society every few years through an election, but we often feel the change of an administration doesn’t make our lives any better. The same goes for people in Squid Game — they try to change their fate through the vote, but their realities don’t change much. I ask myself if the modern institution of democracy can really improve our lives.

Another change over the years was the addition of female characters: Ji-yeong was a male character ten years ago; Han Mi-nyeo was also added more recently.

In addition to Lee Jung-jae, there are a couple of Hallyu stars in the drama, namely Lee Byung-hun and Gong Yoo. What made you decide to cast them in their respective roles?
I worked with Gong Yoo for Silenced, and that’s why I asked him to play a cameo role in Squid Game; I thought his neat image would be perfect for the role of the salesman who secretly lures participants to Squid Game — and in the most absurd way, to boot.

As for Lee Byung-hun, I was able to get him on board after working with him on The Fortress, the predecessor to Squid Game. I couldn’t think of anyone but Byung-hun to be the face behind the mask and explain the Front Man’s mysterious backstory just by his facial expressions. His voice was perfect for the role.

What were the most difficult parts of filming? How did you end up losing six teeth?
I had to write and direct all nine episodes by myself. It was a physically long process, and mentally and emotionally, I felt immense pressure and a huge responsibility. While we were filming, I checked the parts of the scenario to be filmed the following day to make it that much closer to being perfect; I had to cut down on sleep as well.

The six teeth I lost had already been problematic when I was working on The Fortress, but I didn’t have time to have the teeth properly treated. I moved on to Squid Game without fixing the teeth, which got worse, and when I saw the dentist after Squid Game production was over, the doctor said I had to have all six removed. It would have been better if I had not lost my teeth, but I would have been very sad if the show had flopped. The love it’s been receiving around the world makes up for the pain of losing my teeth.

Were you concerned some things would be lost in translation? Did that drive you to adapt parts of the drama to fit for a more global audience?
I focused more on the visual aspects of the games and their simplicity. For instance, back in 2009, the fourth game was not marbles but something else. But I figured international viewers would be unfamiliar with the game, and the rule was more complex, which would require more time and effort to explain. I prioritized games that are the simplest to play, that have simple rules and are easy for anyone in the world to understand; the simpler the game was, the bigger the contrast against what’s at stake — which would create more irony and greater tension. I chose marbles because of their strange beauty, the simplicity of the rules, and most important, the fact that the game would pair the contestants and pit two people against each other, which was perfect for a twist.

That episode, “Gganbu,” is the most talked-about of the nine episodes. Could you explain the process that went into creating it? How did you go about building emotional tension without sacrificing the series’ overall fast pace?
The key focus when filming this episode was to capture, without compromising the pace of the story, the details of the emotional changes of the characters and the events that happen after the contestants learn their partner must be killed. Intercutting scenes of each pair at a precise time was critical. From the scriptwriting phase, I put the greatest effort into deciding where each scene with a pair of contestants starts and where to intercut to another pair in order to portray their emotional changes at a precise moment. On set, I constantly checked to make sure this was properly translated. Most of what was planned in the script was brought to life, although some of the intercuts were shifted around on set.

Can you talk about directing the actors in that episode? What sort of notes did you give, especially for the close-ups?
Episode six, in essence, is centered on the faces of the characters. The core focus of the episode was to capture the emotions and changes you see in the characters from the moment they learn they must have the person they most care about killed. How do the emotions of the characters betray their effort to suppress their feelings? I had to explain this to the actors: You are in a situation where you cannot let the other person catch onto your emotions whether it be anger, joy, confusion, or a sense of betrayal. At some point, your emotions will become so intense that it would be impossible to keep them under control. What would you do? Would you let your emotions explode? I tried to capture what the actors expressed through their bodies and eyes by staying as close to them as possible.

In “Gganbu,” we see a different side of Seong Gi-hun’s character. When faced with the prospect of imminent death, he deviates from his usual selfless, kindhearted demeanor and tricks Oh Il-nam multiple times in order to survive, resulting in the latter’s apparent death. Was there a certain message you were trying to convey here?
Gi-hun is the most kindhearted person in the series. He feels sympathy and pity for people like Il-nam who are marginalized. But he, too, is only human. If he was someone who sacrificed himself for Il-nam, Squid Game would have become an entirely different story: a cliché of a hero’s tale where an ordinary man becomes a hero. But Gi-hun is not meant to be such a character. He is your ordinary neighbor who has no particular abilities to boast nor the herolike willingness to sacrifice himself.

I wanted to depict society as it is from a realistic and cool-headed point of view. Squid Game is not intended to be a story of hope for society with some wishy-washy portrayal of a hero. We cannot expect such self-sacrifice of ourselves nor each other. I wanted to ask viewers how we can navigate this cold world of vicious competition together when each of us are merely weak and ordinary individuals.

Can you talk about the creation of Ali’s character?
Ali represents migrant workers, who have become a crucial, indispensable part of Korean society. Even though they play such an important role in Korea that the country would not be able to function properly without them, some of us in Korea still keep our distance or even shun them. To this day, some do not receive the fair treatment due to them: We read news about a migrant worker who died from cold exposure in a vinyl greenhouse in the middle of winter. Some of us may still look down on migrant workers because of the difference in the color of our skin or because the workers came from a country economically behind Korea.

Through Ali, I wanted to show viewers that migrant workers are just like any of us. They might even be working more desperately to be recognized and survive in Korea. Every advanced country in the world today is sustained by the sacrifice and dedication of migrant workers. In addition, the influx of refugees is a huge social issue in Europe and North America. I created Ali to point viewers to issues we all need to reflect upon.

How involved were you in the aesthetic choices of the series — the costumes, set design, props? Did they look the way you envisioned them when you wrote the script?
For the production design, there were parts that were decided from the scriptwriting stage and others that started out vague but were crystalized throughout the preproduction process. The basic principle was to create a space where it’s difficult to distinguish what’s real from what’s fake and reality from fantasy. My aim was to recreate the impression I had of the large casinos in Las Vegas: Even the sky is fake with no clocks or windows. Every part of the set was designed like a maze that was difficult to escape.

Particularly for the marbles, I wrote in the script that the scenes were set in an alley with a sunset from the neighborhood I grew up in. We started from that basic idea and made slight changes to the space along the way. If you look closely, you can see only the gates of the houses and walls but no yards or interiors of the houses; we used only gates, walls, and roofs to make the entire set feel like a maze. The house that Il-nam enters at the end is the only house with a proper yard — I imagined that Il-nam actually requested the organizers re-create his childhood home where he used to live in poverty.

For the track-suit costumes, I wanted something similar to the uniforms we used to wear for PE class in school. I wanted the contestants to seem like people who are gathered to participate in a school sports day. We put different shapes on the face masks according to ranks, while the Front Man was given a face mask with slightly more personality and the VIPs were assigned animal-shaped face masks in gold to symbolize their power and authority. The pink jumpsuit was designed to conceal as much of the workers’ identity as possible and still allow enough room for movements. We used the color pink to remove signs of hostility and match the colors of the fairy-tale-like set.

What was your approach to the violence and gore? Did you deliberately try to make it less realistic — by using fake-looking blood, for example — so Squid Game would be more palatable to more viewers?
The series inevitably involves a lot of killings and blood, but I didn’t deliberately try to make it more violent. I chose to take an unemotional approach to portraying people who are killed as if they were pawns of a game that are knocked over. I didn’t show any guts spilled or limbs cut off all over the place. I portrayed the executions from the most objective and neutral perspective so the events are depicted in a matter-of-fact way. I don’t enjoy watching violent films. I don’t like doing violent depictions either. I tried to keep violence at a level I felt was absolutely necessary.

Is there any significance to Gi-hun being No. 456 and Il-nam being No. 1?
Il-nam is both the organizer and a contestant of Squid Game. Naturally, he was the first contestant to sign up for the game. The numbers given to the contestants are in the order of when they give their consent to join the game. Gi-hun was the last one to sign up for the game, which is why he was given the last number, 456. It’s also a symbolic contrast: Gi-hun and Il-nam represent opposite values.

Is there a particular reason there are only nine episodes in Squid Game since most K-dramas have more episodes than that?
It was initially written in eight episodes, but the last episode turned out to be longer than I envisioned after editing, so I had to divide it into two. While most Korean dramas consist of 16 episodes, Netflix series generally consist of six to eight episodes, which I think is the right length for a story that maintains its tension to the end.

*Disclaimer: Regina Kim became a Netflix editorial contributor on December 1, but she was not employed or working with the company at the time this feature was assigned, conducted or written.

Joon-ho, played by Wi Ha-joon, is a police officer who goes undercover in the games to search for his missing brother. Ji-yeong, played by Lee Yoo-mi, is a contestant in the games who joins Seong Gi-hun’s (Lee Jung-jae) team and befriends the North Korean participant Kang Sae-byeok (Jung Ho-yeon). In episode six, “Gganbu,” Ji-yeong reveals to Sae-byeok that she murdered her abusive father for killing her mother. She sacrifices her life for Sae-byeok, telling her that while she has no one left, Sae-byeok still has a family with whom she must reunite. Han Mi-nyeo, played by Kim Joo-ryeong, is a cunning and foul-mouthed contestant in the games who initially allies herself with Jang Deok-su (Heo Sung-tae) before switching over to Gi-hun’s team. Feeling betrayed by Deok-su, she wraps her arms around him during the glass stepping stones game and jumps to her death, taking him with her. Episode six, titled “Gganbu” — a Korean term used in marbles and other children’s games to denote a person on the same team — sees contestants split up into pairs. Naturally, many of the players choose their favorite person in the game as their partner, only to learn they must face off against them in a deadly game of marbles. To reflect the high-stakes tension of the game of marbles, the camera gets close to the characters’ faces to depict their ranges of emotions and reactions. The close-up shots focus on each pair of players interacting with each other: Gi-hun and Oh Il-nam (Oh Yeong-su), Ali Abdul (Anupam Tripathi) and Cho Sang-woo (Park Hae-soo), Ji-yeong and Sae-byeok, and Deok-su and Player 278 (Kwak Ja-hyoung). Gi-hun is the show’s protagonist and the last contestant to join the deadly games. A divorced father and gambling addict who mooches off his mother and struggles to maintain a relationship with his daughter, he decides to enter the games for a chance to pay off his debt and provide for himself and his daughter. Il-nam is an elderly man with a brain tumor with whom Gi-hun develops a close bond during the games. Toward the end of the show, Il-nam reveals he is the sadistic mastermind behind the games, explaining that he created them as a form of entertainment to stave off the boredom he and many other Über-rich people felt. Ali is a Pakistani migrant worker who joins the games in order to support his family after his boss withholds his salary for six months. Kindhearted, noble and perhaps a bit naïve, Ali is a symbol of the discrimination, exploitation, and struggles that many migrant workers face in South Korea.
Hwang Dong-hyuk Answers All Our Lingering Squid Game Q’s