How ‘Parasite’ Director Bong Joon Ho Built That Amazing House
Art and Experience: Learn how Bong Joon Ho and his production crew were able to construct the house at the center of his new hit film, Parasite.
Parasite won the Palme d’Or at the Cannes Film Festival and has been the talk of Film Twitter ever since. An early front-runner for Best Foreign-language Film at the Oscars, this slow-burn, intense drama is about a poor family that talks their way into a rich community — and some, uh, interesting things go down.
This upgrade allows them to live in a spectacular mansion, and it is in this mansion where the majority of the film takes place and you might be surprised to know that it didn’t exist until the production created it. That’s right, it’s nothing more than just an elaborate set.
So how did they construct the set? And did they envision it or the story first? Lucky for us, IndieWire caught up with Bong Joon Ho and asked him these questions.
It’s hard to remember an elaborate set that’s been so valuable to a film in recent memory. While writing the screenplay, Bong thought about the house as a metaphor. Bong had this to say:
Bong: “I think what’s really unique about this film is this idea of infiltration and that’s something that came from my [early career] experience as a tutor. When I was tutoring, I really felt like I was infiltrating this family, and that’s where my inspiration came from, but ultimately I wanted to tell a story about people around me, who aren’t criminals, infiltrating a particular home. So this is a spoiler, but in the story, and no one says there should only be one parasite in a host, so the story is about discovering that there are already parasites that settled down in the host, much before them. But I like the audience to go in without knowing the second half, so I can’t go into more detail.”
When it finally came time to shoot, creating the house was another story. That’s when Bong had to get more hands-on.
Bong: “I had to really meticulously design the house itself. It’s like its own universe inside this film. Each character and each team has spaces that they take over that they can infiltrate, and also secret spaces that they don’t know. So the dynamic between these three teams and the dynamic of space, they were very much intertwined and I think that combination really created an interesting element to this film.”
But everyone knows directors cannot do it all. At the end of the day, the actual task of creating the house came from production designer Lee Ha Jun.
Lee: “Since Mr. Park’s house is built by an architect in the story, it wasn’t easy finding the right approach to designing the house,” Lee explained in a translated email interview with IndieWire. “I’m not an architect, and I think there’s a difference in how an architect envisions a space and how a production designer does. We prioritize blocking and camera angles while architects build spaces for people to actually live in and thus design around people. So I think the approach is very different.”
Imagine being a production designer tasked with building a house like this. It sort of strikes fear into your heart but then you remember that you can build a house AND tackle potential production problems like lights, blocking, shadows, and angles in the actual design for the build.
He even took the aspect ratio into account. This unique task changed the way Lee approached the build.
Lee: It was important to design a space that met these blocking requirements. Of course, they were up for change depending on the camera angle, but we determined the camera position while designing the space to reflect them in the overall design. I designed a structure that’s wide and has depth rather than height so that the house suits the 2.35:1 aspect ratio.
Lee: “Mr. Park’s house is an outdoor set built in consideration of the sun’s direction. The sun’s direction was a crucial point of consideration while we were searching for outdoor lots. We had to remember the sun’s position during our desired time frame and determine the positions and sizes of the windows accordingly. In terms of practical lighting, the DP [Hong Kyung Pyo] had specific requests regarding the color. He wanted sophisticated indirect lighting and the warmth from tungsten light sources. Before building the set, the DP and I visited the lot several times to check the sun’s movement at each time, and we decided on the set’s location together.”
Honestly, I have been on enough sets in enough rented houses to know that you might save enough time and money being able to accurately predict these things to make building a whole house worth it. Also, it speaks to the level of attention to detail the Parasite team put into each frame.
Bong appreciates the classics and used them to inform his work.
Bong: “Cinephiles may be reminded of Akira Kurosawa’s “High and Low.” In that case, the structure is simpler and stronger. The Japanese title is “Heaven and Hell.” On the top of the hill is a rich guy and in the bottom, there is the criminal kind of structure. It’s basically the same in “Parasite,” but with more layers. Because the story is about the rich and poor, that’s obviously the approach we had to take in terms of designing the sound and lighting. The poorer you are, the less sunlight you have access to, and that’s just how it is in real life as well: You have a limited access to windows. For example, in “Snowpiercer,” the tail cars didn’t have any windows and with semi-basement homes, you have a very limited of sunlight you get during the day — maybe 15 or 30 minutes — and that’s where the film opens. We actually used natural lighting for those scenes in “Parasite.” All of our sets, the rich house and the poor house, were built on outdoor lots.”
With all these spectacular maneuvers, I certainly hope the Academy pays attention to this film and that it also sweeps come technical awards.
What are some of your favorite sets built for a movie? Let us know in the comments! And make sure you check out Parasite, in select theaters now.
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