An Interview with Jo Sung-hee, the Director of Space Sweepers

Don’t Step Out Of The House, a short film that director Jo Sung-hee created when he was still a student, was nothing short of a sensational: Two young siblings under ten who live themselves are one day visited by shady grown-ups and the strange clash between mystery, anxiety, and violence creates oppressive tension. The film was truly a rising star of the year, winning the Grand Prize at the Mise-en-scène Short Film Festival and receiving the third prize of La Cinéfondation at the Cannes Film Festival, which awards films submitted by film school students.

From the distinct apocalyptic story of End of Animal, which was recognized for its originality by numerous overseas film festivals, including the International Film Festival Rotterdam, to A Werewolf Boy, which seared in the heart of over seven million viewers the pain and longing of the first love with the story of a feral boy, and Phantom Detective, which deals with the issue of religious cults and growth under the guise of a noir and detective genre, Jo Sung-hee has always took audiences to a time and a place that are unique to his films and provided them with opportunities to discover something new and
reflect.

Having created a new world for every project without ever resorting to repeating the same genre, Jo Sung-hee has worked on Space Sweepers even before his directorial debut. The vast universe that has never been explored by any Korean films before is about to unfold before us.

Featuring down-to-earth Korean characters strong personality travelling and going about their lives in space, Space Sweepers will once again demonstrate incredible imagination and gift of Jo Sung-hee, whose films have entertained audiences without being restricted by a particular genre, through the ensemble of characters that will resonate with viewers and the unique world that they live in.

INTERVIEW

Q : Please tell us what Space Sweepers is about and how you came up with the story.

Director Jo Sung-hee : The story for the film started around 2008 or 2009 from a conversation I had with a friend of mine, who told me about space junk. I learned that disposed industrial objects in space, or space debris, move extremely fast. I imagined that it would be very hazardous to collect and clean up the debris flying around faster than bullets. The story really began with two ideas: space debris and space workers who clean up the debris.

Q : Please tell us about the world in 2092 that Space Sweepers is set in.

Director Jo Sung-hee : It’s a world where the wealthy and powerful live in a paradise up in outer space while the poor and vulnerable are left behind on Earth. It’s a time when people live in a newly-built civilization in the satellite orbit located between Earth and the Moon. It’s a time when science and technology have advanced so far that gravity can be artificially created and a massive natural environment can be built within space facilities, but at the same time, some people still have to use wrenches to fix machines and carts to move objects.

The late 21st century that the film is set in, to me, was where highly advanced technologies, providing comfort to mankind and physically-demanding and hazardous labor are both required, and their coexistence made sense. Desertification on Earth is beyond irreversible, but the top 5% of mankind can still enjoy clean air and beautiful forests living a very comfortable life.

Basically, there is a social class divide between Earth and space. And between those two classes are the main characters. They are not citizens of space (or UTS), but they stay in the satellite orbit on a work visa, living from hand to mouth doing dangerous work.

Q : What sets Space Sweepers apart from other Hollywood sci-fi films set in space?

Director Jo Sung-hee : When preparing to work on Space Sweepers, I had a lot of conversations with my team on what kind of sci-fi film we set out to create. There are numerous sci-fi films set in space from Guardians of the Galaxy to The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, Gravity, and Interstellar. I thought a lot about where, among these films Space Sweepers would be positioned.

The production team and I decided that we would classify space films into two categories based on one criterion: Are people walking or floating in space? Most of the films where characters “walk” in space are set in the far future or in an extrasolar planet and made with cartoon-like imagination, while films where characters “float” around are generally set in the present or near future with realistic and serious approach to the story.

I wanted Space Sweepers to be somewhere in-between. It’s a film that is based mostly on imagination rather than scientifically accurate facts, but the characters in the film are similar to us in real life; They, too, worry about paying off bank loans and interests and taking care of utility bills and live on soybean paste soup and rice. I think the representation of ordinary Korean people in a space sci-fi film is what sets Space Sweepers apart from other films and makes it special.

Q : How did you prepare to create Korea’s first sci-fi film set in space?

Director Jo Sung-hee : There were a lot of things that I hadn’t tried before. I had to study my way through creating this film with a series of trial and error. As the director, my main focus was the characters. I wanted to make sure that audiences don’t feel thrown off by Korean characters speaking Korean in an unfamiliar setting. I worked hard to create a film where the main characters, even though they are in space, could come across to audiences as ordinary Koreans who are just like them and that they can wholly relate to rather than some cartoon characters or superhuman beings seen in Hollywood films. Ensuring the characters fit naturally into the world the film is set in was the biggest focus for me.

Q : What did you focus on most for the space chase scene?

Director Jo Sung-hee : Victory is not a passenger plane, nor a fighter, but a debris collection spaceship. It’s the team that consists of Captain Jang, Tae-ho, Tiger Park, and Bubs itself and is an equivalent of a construction truck or a recovery vehicle. Victory has to chase after or run away from other spaceships in order to survive and to make a living, which is why it flies in a less controlled and desperate manner rather than gliding or drifting by. So, I think audiences will be able to enjoy the action scenes set in space that’s unique to Space Sweepers.

Q : What are some of the visual characteristics of spaceship Victory?

Director Jo Sung-hee : Victory’s crew members each have their hopes and dreams for which they need money. But the reality is that they are barely paying their utility bills, let alone making their dreams come true. The goal of these poor crew members is money. In order to make money, they illegally modified their spacecraft to make it faster to collect space debris before anyone else, but ended up owing a massive amount of money that they cannot afford to repay. The key themes when it comes to the design of Victory were “physical labor” and “poverty.” The crew members show big movements with their limbs in order to operate the spacecraft with a lot of physical labor such as throwing the harpoon or pumping up the engine manually. The interior of the spaceship is filled with miscellaneous scrap, invoking the image of a tiny room at a junk store, and everything is worn out.

You may think that it doesn’t make sense for the time period the film is set in, but think about what’s happening right now in 2021, when powerful particle accelerators can theoretically create a black hole on one hand, but on the other hand, people use strings to lay bricks and carry bags of cement on their back at construction sites. I don’t imagine that everything will be simply voice or gesture controlled in 2092.

Q : A lot of scenes in the film are based on imagination—how did you direct these scenes?

Director Jo Sung-hee : I tried my best to draw concrete mental pictures for the actors’ imagination. On site, I frequently showed the scenes and concept art to the cast and tried to describe the scenes that will be created on the screen in as much detail as possible to help the actors with their performance. Despite these efforts, there were moments when they would seem baffled about the scenes in green backdrops as if to say, “What on earth is there?” But as soon I gave the cue for action, they would start acting as if they could see everything around them.

Q : Please briefly share your thoughts on each character and actor

Director Jo Sung-hee : Tae-ho might come across materialistic, but he has a painful past. He is sometimes mean, but can be kind. He can be clumsy, but is a gifted pilot. Song Joong-ki perfectly captured all of that. As an actor, he completes the character himself with his imagination and creates his own version. To me, it’s not so much that I chose Joong-ki for this film, but it was Joong-ki who chose this story. He was just as diligent, cheerful, and humorous as when we worked on A Werewolf Boy, and it’s such a great pleasure to work with him because he always shares positive energy with everyone working with him and makes them laugh.

Captain Jang is the brains of the crew in spaceship Victory. She is the only one who has the willingness to get to the bottom of a problem and discover the truth. She has a lot of scientific knowledge and is highly capable of dealing with electronic technology. She is the only person on Victory who believes in “justice.” Unlike Tae-ho or Tiger Park, her goal is not personal, which is one of the qualities that she possesses to deserve to be the leader of the crew. Kim Tae-ri has incredible range as an actor and the way she performs with her instinct is remarkable. I can’t imagine anyone else playing Captain Jang.

While Captain Jang leads the crew with her intelligence, Tiger Park is the heart of the crew that upholds the moral standards. Befittingly for someone who has a strong heart and passionate blood, his job is to operate the engine of Victory, which is the heart of the spaceship. Tiger Park is the only one who has warmth among the crew. Without this character, I don’t think audiences would find it easy to support the crew of Victory. Jin Sun-kyu, much like his character, has such a kind heart and is an exceptional
actor.

Bubs, even though it’s a robot, is a character with distinct emotions and desires that can even feel bored. Yoo Hai-jin was the only actor who could breathe life into the character. It’s really a shame that we couldn’t bring all the facial expressions he created on set to the screen. Hai-jin also contributed so many ideas that made Bubs an indispensable member of Victory’s crew.

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