A City With No Name
For this new version of Oldboy, Spike Lee set out to create a fresh new world
for the story to unfold in - a nameless American city from which Joe Doucett is
snatched into a surreal captivity and then returned 20 years later. He was
supported by an unrivaled creative team including: director of photography Sean
Bobbitt, editor Barry Alexander Brown, production designer Sharon Seymour and
costume designer Ruth Carter.
Lee pursued Bobbitt as his cinematographer because he was drawn to the
visceral, intensely immediate style he has established collaborating with Steve
McQueen (including on this year's 12 Years a Slave). "I first became aware of
Sean's work in Hunger, and then Shame, which I show in my film class at New York
University," explains Lee. "I respected his work, he respected my work, and we
both knew we wanted to do something different with this film. He's a phenomenal
cinematographer. Sean understands that the camera must serve the actors."
"Spike is one of the few true auteur directors in America, and he brings his
own genius to everything," counters Bobbitt, who believes his background in news
and documentaries, where speed is of the essence, served him well on this shoot.
"Spike is very much of the moment and in the moment, and his work is always
unexpected and usually shocking."
Lee and Bobbitt decided to use multiple film formats to give distinctive
textures to each part of Joe Doucett's story, bringing 35mm, Super 16 and Super
8 cameras to the mix. "Spike was very keen to shoot Oldboy on film, and to use
2-perf, rather than normal 4-perforation - which results in a widescreen image
with a grain that gives a lot of character and texture," explains Bobbitt, who
has shot five films using this method.
Oldboy filmed entirely in New Orleans - but unlike most filmmakers who shoot
in that atmospheric city, Lee did not want its environs to be recognizable. "The
film was written to be set in a big but non-descript U.S. city, yet New Orleans
is so unique," notes Lee. "It was a real challenge to find just the right
That task fell to production designer Sharon Seymour, who most recently
designed Ben Affleck's Argo and George Clooney's The Ides of March. She says
part of the fun was ferreting out just the right tone to match Lee's vision for
"There's a fantasy element to the story but that is juxtaposed with a
relatively grounded architectural world, and we play the two off each other,"
she explains. "Spike brought an enormous number of artistic references to the
table when preparing for the film. He had really strong visual ideas - wanting
to play with contrasting patterns, with light and dark, with ideas of
claustrophobia and openness, freedom and confinement. It went well beyond just
fulfilling the need for a room that's got a bed and a chair."
At the heart of her work is the hellish hotel room where Joe awakens
hung-over one hazy morning - only to have it sink in hard that this will be his
prison for who knows how many mind-numbing years. Seymour wanted the room
simultaneously mundane enough to be maddening to Joe yet visually compelling
enough to keep audiences intrigued. She also needed to design a space that
accounted for all the different angles Lee and Bobbitt would employ to make
these one-man, one-room scenes dynamic on screen.
"It's a space that never changes over Joe's 20 years of captivity; you recede
into numbness in this room. So the wallpaper, architectural detail, windows,
flooring -- everything we had the opportunity to control -- had to be
interesting," says Seymour.
Bobbitt, too, embraced the raw claustrophobia of the set. "We really wanted
to amplify it and make it visually interesting," he says. "My job was really
helped by having an actor like Josh Brolin; sometimes all I had to do was keep
him in the frame and let him go."
The exterior of the secret prison and the bowels of its interior were all
shot at the former U.S. Navy site in the Bywater neighborhood in the Ninth Ward
of New Orleans. Its WWI-era, blast-proof cement buildings provided the perfect
mix of practical and macabre. The halls of the Bywater facility also hosted one
of the production's most complicated sequences: the asymmetrical battle between
a hammer-armed Joe and a 35-man army of henchmen ready to eliminate him.
Lee knew from the start he wanted to bring his own conception to the infamous
"Spike's original idea was to do the main fight on a circular staircase so
that instead of being a flat line battle just backwards and forwards, it would
become a battle that goes around and up and down," explains Bobbitt. "Sharon
Seymour proposed that we use this series of huge ramps at the naval yard, and
then she devised a schematic that linked together the four different levels."
Lee and Bobbitt filmed the sequence in a single, three-and-a-half minute shot
utilizing a 73-foot hydroscope -- a telescoping crane on a mobile base that
required 10 grips to operate.
"I always wanted to do it in one take," explains Lee. "Fortunately, my fight
coordinator, JJ Perry, and stunt coordinator, Mark Norby, are visionaries when
it comes to stunt work."
"Spike called and said 'I need a big sequence, I need a big shot, make it
happen,'" recalls Perry. "A lot of work went into it. We spent six weeks
rehearsing with Josh and all the stunt performers, and there are not many actors
who can retain this much choreography, so Josh was just a gem. He trained not
just endurance and choreography, but all the little things like hitting up the
batting cages, which resulted in his moves all being authentic."
"I've waited 22 years for an opportunity to do a one-shot sequence like this.
I'll spend the next five years trying to outdo it," concludes Perry.
For the costumes, Lee recruited two-time Oscar nominee Ruth Carter, who
recently received notoriety on her work for Lee Daniels' The Butler and with
whom he has worked many times, to create a wardrobe that walks the same thin
line between realism and the darkly fantastic that the film balances upon.
"Ruth's first film was my second film, School Daze," recalls Lee. "I really
trust her visual sense. She understand the way patterns form and the way colors
work on screen in a way that a lot of people don't."
Yet, even as all the design elements of Oldboy elevated the storytelling, Lee
was always looking to get down in it, to descend along with his lead character
into the murk of the desperate dilemmas that, no matter what he tries, seem to
offer no mental escape. Asked if he could imagine emerging from the shoebox
confines of a single room after 20 years, Lee says: "I couldn't make it. I mean,
I don't really like to entertain hypothetical questions but I would I would
definitely go insane if I was locked in a room and never let out. Even with the
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