Squid Game Creator Hwang Dong-Hyuk On Breaking Hollywoods Rules To Ignite A Global Phenomenon

Back in 2008, Hwang Dong-hyuk never imagined that his feature script, about a group of desperate people playing a game of life or death, would see the light of day. But a decade later, his idea for Squid Game was pitched as a series to Netflix, and much to his surprise, the thriller quickly turned into a global phenomenon with 1.65 billion views only four weeks after its launch. The milestones continue as Squid Game has crossed over successfully into awards season, culminating with a record 14 Emmy nominations, making it the first non-English language series up for Outstanding Drama Series.

DEADLINE: Congratulations on all the Emmy nominations. They celebrate both the actors and the team behind the scenes, like production designer Chae Kyoung-sun, art director Gim En-jee, set decorator Kim Jeong-gon and editor Nam Na-young.

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HWANG DONG-HYUK: Yes, I’m very happy that, not only the show and the actors, but as you said, our behind-the-scenes crew members got nominations. I understand that we’re probably the first show of our kind to get a nomination in most of the categories, so it’s very, very exciting. I think all of these nominations prove what a good job we did and how much love and support we received all over the world. But at the same time, I’m a bit sad to hear that our costume designer, Jo Sang-gyeong, who I admire very much, didn’t get a nomination. But in every sense, I think we’re making history and we’re writing a new chapter in history.

DEADLINE: Bong Joon-ho’s Parasite opened the doors for international cinema to break through the Oscars Best Picture ceiling. You’re now creating a pathway for non-English titles to have a place at the Emmys. How does that feel?

HWANG: When Parasite was not only nominated for the Oscars, but also won four trophies, I was so surprised. Those wins gave me a lot of confidence and motivation to go forward. And it made me realize that, from now on, if we make really good shows, we can be acknowledged in Hollywood and in other parts of the world. I thought that more opportunities would be opened and waiting for us in the future, but I never expected that it would happen to me.

I hope that the new history that Squid Game is writing will provide inspiration and motivation to my fellow international creators of non-English shows. I think if we tear down these barriers and walls, one by one, we’ll be living in a world with no barriers at all, where an international audience can completely and fully exchange their culture.

DEADLINE: The concept of watching foreign content with subtitles might be less foreign for those who grew up in places like Asia, where everyone grew up reading subtitles to their favorite non-local-language movie. In the end, a good story is a good story no matter what the language.

HWANG: For those of us who were born in non-English speaking countries, we really grow up watching foreign films, mostly American films, but also Hong Kong and Chinese films in subtitled versions, even TV series. We are very used to watching these shows in foreign languages. For us, it was just something that’s very natural.

But only later did we realize that people who were born in English-speaking countries are not so used to watching non-English content. I hope that our show will help make people in English-speaking countries enjoy more non-English content, just like we did in subtitled versions. I do really feel that we’re gradually sparking more interests in other parts of the world to non-English TV series. I think this really goes to show what a global and international world we’re living in, where people have no barriers in terms of language and culture.

DEADLINE: You got your Master of Fine Arts at USC. What do you think your studies in the U.S. taught you as a filmmaker back then and do you still agree with what you learned?

HWANG: Twenty years ago, when I went to study in the United States, people really thought that in order to become a famous director and a creator, you had to make a show in English for people around the world to be able to watch it. And that was the golden rule of sorts. I personally believed that was true, but I no longer think that. No matter which language a show is in, as long as it is centered on a theme and a message that everybody around the world can resonate with, everyone can have access to that.

DEADLINE: Before you even started writing Squid Game, was there an idea or vision that you used as your kick-off point?

HWANG: The thing that always kept me curious to bring that to screen was the very first game that came to mind, Red Light, Green Light. I thought of this very large, gigantic barren field or playground and a giant doll standing at the very end and this massive group of people trying to escape the eyes of this giant doll while they’re trying to get closer. However, when they’re caught, they’d be shot to death and it’d be a massacre. I thought if this kind of thing appeared on the screen, how would it strike the viewers? Would they feel surprised or blown away? I think that was the starting point of my ideation for the production.

Because I had been picturing the scene in my head for more than 10 years, when we finally pulled it off, it brought back a lot of memories and emotions to me because of the fact that I had finally realized this vision that I had in my head.

DEADLINE: What was it like to see your imagination come true in front of you?

HWANG: Well, a million thoughts and emotions crossed my mind because this was a scene that I had percolating in my mind for such a long time. We filmed it in four days with so many actors and the giant doll, of course. When we were editing the scene to “Fly Me to the Moon”, which is also a piece of music that I had in my mind for a long time, it made me so emotional and overwhelmed. I was very happy that it turned out to be so spectacular. I think it gave me a sense of the fact that this show could really become something big.

DEADLINE: You initially wrote this as a feature film, how was it to expand the story and characters into an eight-hour series?

HWANG: This was my first time doing a series, so I wasn’t really sure if I could pull this off. But as you said, I had to make a two-hour film into an eight-hour series, and new characters that didn’t exist in the two-hour version were added, and of course that was a very tough process. At the same time, two hours was simply not enough to tell each and every story that I wanted to deliver, and I’d be remiss not to tell those stories. In a way, it gave me more freedom and more room to tell these other stories, so in that sense, I was happy.

DEADLINE: You created the character of Ji-yeong, played by the nominated guest actress, Lee Yoo-mi. How pivotal was she as a character for the larger picture of Squid Game?

HWANG: When I first wrote the script in 2009, that character was a handsome man who fell in love with Sae-byeok [Supporting Actress nominee, HoYeon Jung] at first sight and decided to sacrifice himself to help her. But when I took another look at the script in 2019, after 10 years, I just felt that the whole thing was really old, because those days — when a man who would arrive in shining armor to save the girl — have passed.

So, I changed the name, which was originally Ji-yong — that’s a man’s name in Korea — to Ji-yeong, and that simple change in the name seemed like the character was really brought to life, and all of a sudden, the scene felt completely new and now.

By that change of gender, it also wasn’t about romance, just solidarity and that bond that they were forming in a very brutal situation. It seemed beautiful to me, and it made the Sae-byeok character even more fascinating as well.

DEADLINE: O Yeong-su is also recognized for his role as Oh Il-nam (Number 001). Why did you choose a revered theater actor with very few film or TV credits to play this key role? 

HWANG: O Yeong-su has been doing theater for almost his whole life and I had watched a film that he appeared in 10-plus years ago titled, Spring, Summer, Autumn, Winter… and Spring, by director Kim Ki-duk. He played a monk, and his performance and presence really left a big impression on me. When I came up with the character Oh Il-nam, I instantly thought of him. More than anything, he was an unknown actor, even in Korea. So, I think he really embodied that new and mysterious vibe that Il-nam had. And this would also go a long way in highlighting that surprise reveal at the very end of the series.

The fact that he had little to no experience in television and film helped him become really free of those cliches in his way of speech, his voice, and his bodily gestures. He had that aura and that vibe of seeming to hide a secret, and yet he looked vulnerable and pitiful at the same time.

DEADLINE: Will you expand the Squid Game universe to other countries?

HWANG: That was actually part of my intentions from the outset. I wrote the script in a way to hint that the Squid Game was happening in other parts of the world. As you can see from the conversations that the VIPs are having, they say the Korean game this year is spectacular, which means that there are other games as well. So this was also intended, because I thought that if the show did well, I wanted to expand the universe further, so that other countries could have their own version of the Squid Game.

Talks regarding this are ongoing and not only that, I heard that they were doing a reality show, even
receiving applications right now. So as a creator who makes original series, the fact that my story is going global and that people are making different interpretations of it, it’s very exciting and I’m honored to see this happening.

DEADLINE: During this awards season, have you encountered any of your own idols yet?

HWANG: Steven Spielberg was my idol filmmaker growing up. Who doesn’t admire his work? We all grew up watching E.T. and Jaws. And he was also the director of the board of directors at USC that I went to. So meeting him and sharing a conversation was the most memorable moment for me in this entire promotions and the awards season. And he said that he watched Squid Game and finished it in three days and enjoyed it very much. So, I was really happy to hear that.

DEADLINE: I heard Young-hee (the doll) will have a boyfriend in Season 2. Who manages to kill more people, Young-hee or Cheol-su?

HWANG: Young-hee. She’s the killer. Cheol-su is only a sidekick [laughs].

DEADLINE: How will you bring him into Season 2?

HWANG: I’m still writing… [laughs].

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