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STOKER

STOKER's Path to the Screen
Filmmaker Park Chan-Wook has created a singular body of work during his more than 20 years as a writer, director and producer of some of Korean cinema's most innovative and original movies, crafting feverish scenarios that combine lyrical beauty with shattering acts of violence and operatic emotion. STOKER is a dark and disturbing thriller about a mysterious and isolated American family. Even the film's title makes metaphorical allusion to evil, invoking the name of Dracula author Bram Stoker, whose groundbreaking novel is as much about an opportunist who preys on the innocent as it is the supernatural world of the vampire.

Fittingly, STOKER's path to the big screen began with a mystery of its own. Scott Free producer Michael Costigan received a phone call from a top Hollywood agent offering him a new script. "But she wouldn't tell me anything about the writer," he remembers. "And she wouldn't email it to me. I had to pick it up at her office. I was of course very intrigued, so after dinner that night I had to have a look. And as I read, I found I couldn't put it down."

Starting with the script's opening image of a young girl playing a piano as a spider creeps up her leg, Costigan was riveted, shocked and enthralled by the story as it unfolded to its inexorable conclusion. The producer found himself lost in the eerie, improbable and self- contained world of the Stoker family. "These people are completely pure," he explains. "If they have an emotion, they have to follow it through, but they don't fully understand the ramifications of what they're doing. They are brilliant in an overall sense. They're highly perceptive. They see things other people can't see. But they also are obsessed with their own self-preservation, and if someone gets in their way, they're going to do whatever it takes to protect themselves and their needs."

The story begins as India Stoker turns 18. India, played by Mia Wasikowska, is introspective and seemingly passive. "But she is about to come into her own," says Costigan. "She shows nothing on the surface, but clearly has an excess of emotion and perception on the inside. She actually sees and hears minute details that most of us miss, and it overwhelms her." Of course the producers wanted to know more about the screenwriter, but the agent who sent the script refused to give more information. "She wouldn't tell me anything," Costigan says.

"She said he was out of town. Finally I got a call from him and I thought the voice on the phone sounded very familiar. I was shocked when I realized that 'Ted' was Wentworth Miller, and that this was the first screenplay that he had ever written."

Miller, an actor perhaps best known for his work on the groundbreaking television series "Prison Break," worked on the script over a period of about eight years. Because he believed that no one would take an actor's first screenplay seriously, Miller convinced his agent to submit his work under a pseudonym. He decided to call himself Ted Foulke. (Foulke is Miller's dog's name.) The script eventually landed up on the 2010 Black List, the prestigious unofficial list of the best unproduced films available.

As the script's reputation built, a number of top directors expressed interest in signing on. First choice, though, was a Hollywood outsider: Park Chan-Wook. Winner of the Cannes Film Festival Grand Prix in 2003 for OLDBOY and the Jury Prize in 2009 for THIRST, "Director Park," as everyone involved with STOKER calls him, is celebrated around the world for his elegant depictions of cruelty, destruction and revenge, as well as for his radiant and jarring visuals. His recent short film, NIGHT FISHING, was shot entirely with Apple's iPhone and won the Golden Bear Award for best Short Film at the 2011 Berlin Film Festival.

The script was sent to Park, but Costigan doubted that the auteur filmmaker of some of his favorite movies would read an unsolicited screenplay. "I imagined that he wrote all his own material with a collaborator in Korea and that's just how it was. Then we got a phone call saying that Director Park wanted to speak with us."

During that first phone call, Park offered up unique ideas about the characters and some of the indelible visual metaphors that would come to define the film. "He started talking about the saddle shoes," says Costigan. "He had this idea that Uncle Charlie had been sending India a present every year for her birthday. The box would be left in some remote part of the house or in the garden or in the trees. On her 18th birthday, he arrives, and this time it's a pair of crocodile stilettoes. In his mind, she's ready to be who he believes she really is."

"At that point, I knew that we had to have him," says the producer. "Not only did he understand the script, he already had incredible ideas about the characters. It was his movie to direct from that first phone call."

Park, who has said his interest in directing began with Alfred Hitchcock's claustrophobic masterpiece, VERTIGO, was drawn to the film's unconventional and tautly woven love story, as well as its severely restricted physical world. "The locations are limited," he notes. "There are a small number of characters and it takes place over a short period of time. The constant tension almost suffocates. Something is about to explode, like a kettle of boiling water with the lid on tight. A story that takes place in a confined space becomes a small universe unto itself.

"I also liked the fact that it was not a story that revolves around dialogue," the director continues. "That was an advantage for my first English-language film. My Korean language films have not been dialogue-oriented either, so I was already comfortable with telling the story in a more visual way."

The script fits well into the director's existing oeuvre, according to co-producer Wonjo Jeong. "Director Park's films are very reflective," he says. "They deal with right and wrong, and where the line lies between them. His characters are torn between their choices. And every choice has consequences. He subverts the conventions of narrative, and in doing so, draws us into the questions about social class, ethics, morality and religion."

Park also cites the influences of filmmakers such as David Lynch, David Cronenberg and the sleek, sexy stylized world of Brian De Palma as well as writers Edgar Allen Poe, M. R. James, and Wilkie Collins.

"In STOKER, which is a microscopic observation of these people and their universe, he tells a bigger story about the world at large," continues Jeong. "The characters are flawed, much as we are all flawed. By putting them in such extreme circumstances, he's reflecting experiences that everyone goes through in life, but in such a vivid and dark mirror that we want to look more closely."

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