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Interview: Director Ryoo Seung-wan On Plotting the ‘Escape from Mogadishu’

Korean politics isn’t the first thing that comes to mind from the title Escape from Mogadishu, but indeed, the histories of Somalia and North and South Korea converge in this thriller based on a true story. Directed by Ryoo Seung-wan, the film recounts the events surrounding the 1991 struggle between rival North and South Korean diplomats to garner support from Somalia to confirm United Nations membership. Meanwhile, the African nation is embroiled in a civil war which puts Somalians and Koreans alike in grave danger. In honor of the film’s selection as the official Oscar contender for South Korea, Awards Radar talked with Ryoo Seung-wan to learn about the making of this ambition, which he describes as a war in itself.

Shane Slater: This is such a fascinating piece of history. What inspired you to make it into a film, and was there a lot of information available for the screenplay?

Ryoo Seung-wan: I heard about this story from a younger colleague in the film industry who talked about this project that would probably get made into a movie. And so I was interested in this story and the project. But I didn’t know about the historical facts of what actually happened. And then, because I heard that somebody else was working on this project, I figured “Okay, it’s not my film, it’s not my project. But I hope that it will be made into a great film.” And then a few years later, the project was presented to me. And then I based the script on a novel that was written by the ambassador himself based on his own experiences. But there wasn’t enough information with just the book alone. So we got information from the US Embassy and various other sources to make the film.

SS: It must have been a challenging production. You shot in Morocco, with a huge cast of actors from different countries.What was that experience like in getting the film made and dealing with this huge ensemble?

RS: Being unable to visit the actual place where this happened was a huge setback for someone like me as a creator, because we couldn’t get the inspiration that we can get from the venue. So it was a huge task to find a location that would be the closest to the actual location and history. And so we took a look at some of the candidates within the African continent. And we were thinking that Morocco has been used for Black Hawk Down, and for an era that was similar to when this story actually took place. What we didn’t expect to find was that for Black Hawk Down, Hollywood worked its magic and they literally created a city, which was done by a fantastic set team.

We didn’t have that much money. But what we did have was two strong legs and feet to walk around and find what we needed. So we walked around a lot and came across a place that looks really similar to Mogadishu. So that’s the place that you see in the film. And then the next task was to find the right actors. Because there are a lot of experienced crew members who have worked on various great films within Morocco, we weren’t that worried about finding the right crew to work with us.

But the greatest issue was to find actors that could look like the Somalis of that time, because there’s a travel ban for Somalia for South Koreans. It was literally impossible for us to contact anyone there. So we were able to contact some actors in Kenya who looked similar to people in Somalia. So within the film you’ll see a lot of actors not just from Kenya, but also Nigeria and other African countries. As you can imagine, it wasn’t easy to be able to control or direct all these actors from all these different countries who speak different languages.

Then there are a lot of mob scenes within the film. So for the mob scenes, all the extras were cast locally. Most of the the actors in the mob scenes were amateur actors. Our crew went two or three months before we started the actual filming to cast them. And also our stunt coordinator went there one month in advance to teach these actors the stunts that they would be required to do. Obviously, it was not so easy to do this. And because we had so much adversity and so many obstacles every time, if I was able to give the OK sign for a scene, the exhilaration was high.

SS: What’s interesting about this story is that even though it’s a historical film, a lot of the underlying tensions are still existing today, like North versus South Korea and the civil unrest in Somalia. Did that put any more pressure on you to get it right when you’re telling all these different perspectives, or were you able to just trust the research material?

RS: When you’re making a film like this, where you deal with something that happened in history, I believe that your attitude towards what happened is more important than simply doing a representation or reproduction of what happened. Because if you look at a historical factor, an incident that happened in history, depending on whose points of view or perspective you’re looking at it from, the significance of that event can appear different.

What was really difficult for me was that this story takes place against the backdrop of civil war within Somalia. So one thing that I felt was the most sensitive thing to keep in mind, was that from my perspective, I felt that one slip or one little mistake and it could appear as if I’m just exploiting a tragedy that happened in another country. So, one thing that gave me a huge headache was to try and determine where the focus should be. That was really important for me to not make assumptions.

It was important for me to make sure that the characters don’t get too involved in what’s happening with the civil war, so you can see that this is actually a situation where a catastrophe occurred around these characters. I felt that if the characters were to get themselves involved with what’s happening with the civil war in Somalia at the time, then everyone in the entire country would all become a victim. And so, if I approached it wrong and the characters did go in too deep not or get too involved with a civil war then it could evoke just simply pity or sympathy on the part of the viewer.

So in describing what was happening with the civil war in Somalia, I tried to make sure that the camera and the characters also took a step back, and we take a very objective view of what’s happening so that we just describe and show what’s happening, so that the viewers can decide for themselves what they think is going on.

What I did was to try and show the fear and the tension, the anxiety that people can feel, in general, when they’re faced with a situation like this. And you can see that through what the diplomats from both South Korea and North Korea are feeling. And I think that when you’re faced in a situation like this, it’s not just diplomats who feel this way. It’s pretty much everybody. I think this is universal, in that every average person or human being would feel the same kind of fear and anxiety that they experienced. So you could say that my strategy was to focus on showing the the perspective of the individuals who were experiencing this and try to maintain objectiveness or an objective point of view when showing what’s happening within the history.

SS: There’s a big chase scene at the end, which is such a memorable scene in the movie. Where did that scene come from, and how were you able to pull that off?

RS: That was actually based on fact, what happened was that the people from the both embassies split up into four cars. And they were heading for the Italian Embassy when they were attacked by both government forces and the rebel forces. Miraculously, they all survived and only one person died. So yes, that did happen. But even I couldn’t believe that could happen.

So I was thinking, “How on earth am I gonna be able to pull this off and make it believable to the audience?” So I came up with the idea to provide these characters with the minimum amount of protection that they could come up with. The fact was that both the rebel forces and the government forces weren’t trained properly. So they were nothing like professionals, which meant their aim sucked, and also the guns that they used weren’t very accurate. These guns were so bad that the bullets couldn’t even pierce a phone book. So I was thinking, “Okay, we could use books and sandbags as not quite bulletproof material, but it could do the job to be convincing enough for the audience.”

Of course, these thick books could stop the bullets but obviously they can’t protect these individuals from fire from Molotov cocktails. So I felt that would force them into an even bigger and more serious crisis. And so as my ideas grew, I became more and more satisfied with what I could see happening. What sets it apart from other car chase sequences and other action movies is that for these people, there is no clear enemy. These guys are just racing to get out of this situation.

So one thing I really had to work on to resolve was that unlike many car chase scenes where there’s a sense of excitement, this car chase wasn’t going to do that. So I had to figure out how to make it work. As the audience watches this car chase scene, I felt that what was important was to make sure that the audience also feel the extreme fear and tension that these characters felt in the situation. So I decided to do those two very long takes in order to show just how desperate these characters felt.

This was the first time that we were taking on such a scene. It was extremely difficult to do and very difficult to film, and the actors were equally confused. What actually happened was that the actors were stuck in the cars. They’re doing these fast-paced car scenes and we would stick them in the studio, take the roof off the car, put the actors in there and the cameras are going all over the place within the car and getting the the actors close up. Then we threw them outside again in the car, doing the chase scene again.

Because these were really old cards from the 80s, they weren’t that great performance-wise. We added a whole lot of weight with the books and the sandbags, so they weren’t able to go that fast. So actually, when we were filming, sometimes the cars were going so slow that I could outrun them. But fortunately, the DoP and also the whole stunt team are people that I’ve worked with for a very long time. So from the camera lens to the frames and controlling the speed and camera movements, we used a lot of things to make up for the lack of actual speed. And we use all of these methods to create a very rough and raw effect that would be equal to watching a car racing down this area. The three weeks that we spent working on the car chase scene, it was like we were at war.

[This interview has been edited for length and clarity]

Escape from Mogadishu is now playing on VOD.

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Written by Shane Slater

Shane Slater is a passionate cinephile whose love for cinema led him to creating his blog Film Actually in 2009. Since then, he has written for AwardsCircuit.com, ThatShelf.com and The Spool. Based in Kingston, Jamaica, he relishes the film festival experience, having covered TIFF, NYFF and Sundance among others. He is a proud member of the African-American Film Critics Association.

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