Jewel in the Palace (MBC 2004) was an international hit for director Lee Byun Hoon. In his book, Build a Kingdom of Dreams, he talks about his career as a director. Here I’ve picked up the points that he makes about the drama Jewel in the Palace.
WORKING WITH WRITER KIM YOUNG HYUN
Jewel in the Palace (Dae Jang Geum) was aired on MBC in 2003 /4. Director Lee Byung Hoon already had two popular dramas under his belt after his comeback to directing: Sangdo (the Merchant), and before that Heojun, one of the most successful Korean dramas of all time. He collaborated on both of these dramas with the same writer, Choi Wan Kyu.
But Sangdo was only scheduled to run for 40 episodes and was extended by 10 episodes. This caused a problem for writer Choi Wan Kyu as he was contracted to work with SBS on the drama All In (starring Lee Byung Hun) or be sued for breach of contract. So he asked fellow writer Kim Young Hyun to write episodes 41 and 42 for him.
Director Lee was happy with the scripts and didn’t find out until later that it was Kim Young Hyun who had written these episodes! Thanks to this collaboration Director Lee was happy to work with Kim Young Hyun on his next project. But this project was yet to be decided…
Kim Young Hyun graduated from Yonsei University with a degree in economics and then worked as a economics journalist before moving to MBC. Here she worked on several dramas and TV shows, but she was still a young and unknown writer and so MBC wasn’t keen to give her the big job of writing a long sageuk! But Lee Byung Hoon wanted to work with her.
Now the director and writer set about choosing a story. Lee Byung Hoon prefers using commoners as the main characters in his dramas which allows for more creativity as there is little information about them in the history books. The idea of basing a drama on Dae Jang Geum, the first female doctor to a Joseon king, was suggested, (there are about 10 references to Dae Jang Geum in the Sillok, Annals of Joseon) but they worried that the story would be too similar to Heojun which was also based in the royal hospital and about the king’s doctor!
So they searched for other ideas, but after several months came back to this same idea. Still, they needed to make it different, so Kim Young Hyun suggested that instead of making the drama about doctors, they could base it around food and the royal kitchen. The idea was that food can also be medicine. There had already been a couple of popular dramas based on food. And in Japan, food dramas and mangas were popular, so Lee Byung Hoon thought the idea would work.
But MBC were concerned about basing a drama around royal cuisine. Firstly, getting the ingredients to make all the court food would add to expenses and there was a concern that the viewers wouldn’t be interested in palace food since they wouldn’t be able to make or eat this themselves. But Director Lee persuaded them that the idea would work.
The director wonders if viewers think that since there was always lots of food on set, the actors and staff could eat to their heart’s content. Because that wasn’t the case. Filming took a long time, meanwhile the food was getting cold or going off. Also he says that palace food looks good but it doesn’t have much seasoning and is pretty bland.
CASTING THE LEAD ACTORS
Still concerned about viewers wanting to compare Jewel in the Palace to Heojun, it was decided that to make this drama even more different, Jang Geum’s story should start from her childhood. And that meant finding a child actor as well as an adult to play the lead.
But before the child actor could be chosen, they had to find the adult lead. However, casting for sageuk is harder than for modern drama, because the acting is more demanding and lots of the filming is done outdoors in extreme weather during summer or winter. Read more about that here in general notes from Lee Byung Hoon’s book.
Lee Byung Hoon had had an obsession with casting Song Yun Ah as his leading actor but she had already turned him down twice, first for Heojun and then for Sangdo. Still he didn’t give up and thought she would make a perfect Dae Jang Geum. But she turned him down again! So he had to have a rethink…
Lee Young Ae was the 7th actress to be invited to play the role. This was not because they didn’t want her to do it, but because she was already a big star in Korea and Lee Byung Hoon hadn’t thought to ask her. He assumed that someone in her position would not consider doing sageuk. And at first she too said no, but then later to everyone’s surprise she changed her mind.
Now that the lead actor had been chosen, the director was keen to choose the right colours for her wardrobe of hanboks that would suit her. Up to this point in sageuk dramas, palace maids wore pink or jade chogori hanbok tops and navy skirts. But these colour schemes were all changed in this drama to suit Lee Young Ae.
The director spent several hours with her in the MBC grounds while she tried on many different hanboks to decide which colours suited her best. The colours worn by supporting and minor characters would now also have to change, and if the colours didn’t suit the minor actors then that was just too bad!
It was decided that a shade of green suited her best, followed by ‘twilight’ and ‘sunset’ and ivory. So she wears various colour combinations including a green hanbok chogori top and navy skirt, a pumpkin top and navy skirt, and when she became a doctor she wears an ivory top and navy skirt.
CHOOSING THE CHILD ACTOR
As the first 4 episodes of the drama were going to be about Dae Jang Geum’s childhood, a child actor around 8 years old had to be found. But when casting child actors there are two requirements – the child has to resemble the adult actor and, ideally, the child should be able to act. Inevitably it’s difficult to meet both of these requirement. So which is better, a good actor who doesn’t really physically resemble the adult actor or a pretty actor who can’t act very well? This was the problem faced by the director when casting for the young Dae Jang Geum.
The child actor who was finally chosen – Jo Chong Un – didn’t resemble the elegant Lee Young Ae and so there were concerns that viewers would not accept her as the younger version of Lee Young Ae. Another child actor was being considered too, but her acting and her attitude weren’t great. So in the end they went with Jo Chong Un.
The director was impressed by her acting and professionalism. Even though she was just a young girl, she always knew her lines and didn’t make mistakes. Just once during a late night shoot the director had to call ‘cut’ because he could hear snoring. But it was the young actor’s mum, who always came with her to the set, who had fallen asleep!
Unfortunately, after the first episode was aired, as predicted, netizens took to the online message boards to complain about the young Dae Jang Geum saying she wasn’t pretty enough and how could they, the viewers, possibly be expected to believe that she was the young Lee Young Ae? But gradually (also as predicted) the young actor’s charm and acting skills won the viewers over. Ratings went up and so the child character’s storyline, which was only scheduled to run until episode 4, was extended to episode 5.
As the series progressed, ratings rose. But even though the ratings were over 50% the director would make writer Kim Young Hyun rewrite scripts up to 6 times to the point where she became ill with stress. Filming took its toll on everyone…
It takes round 8 months to film one sageuk. And as there are a lot of outdoor scenes, the actors either have to suffer in the heat or in the cold. Lee Young Ae was also always professional on set. She was never late and never grumbled about the cold or hunger or being tired.
Filming went on late into the night and so the crew would gather in the canteen to eat ramyeon. Most female actors don’t eat at night because they are worried about getting fat. But Lee Young Ae always went to eat together. She said if she didn’t eat she had no energy. But when she wore a blue hanbok one day, the director noticed that she was putting on weight. Lee Young Ae was also aware of this but with the long working hours and late nights it was hard to do anything about it. So the director got around this by making sure the wardrobe department dressed her in more slimming colours and he filmed her from flattering angles.
There is always a shortage of time when filming sageuk especially since the outdoor scenes take a long time to shoot. (read more notes about shooting sageuk) Often during the filming of Jewel in the Palace they had to film late into the night. This meant that everyone was tired.
Tiredness even got the better of the director one evening. It was the scene when Jang Geum and Lord Min leave the palace, where they have to walk down a snowy mountain path. They walked and walked, but the director never said ‘cut’. Finally someone realised that the director had fallen asleep!
CHOOSING LOCATIONS THE FUNERAL OF COURT LADY JEONG
For the very important scenes in any drama, it’s important to choose the right location. There are different mountains in Korea which will create a different atmosphere to a scene. There are small mountains in the city or there are high mountains like Jirisan and Soraksan. One of the most important scenes in Jewel in the Crown is the funeral scene of Court Lady Jeong (episode 22).
Her death is very sad as she was a good and fair character and the viewers also loved her. So the director wanted to find a mountain with enough mystique to give the scene the impact that it deserved. Finally he decided on Jirisan, in Gyeongsando in the south of Korea. The scene would only be 2 or 3 minutes long but the making of it took 10 hours – from travelling down to Gyeongsando, to the 5 hours walking up and down the mountain, and the 1 hour for filming the scene. But still, nobody complained because it would be worth it.
The weather on Jirisan is famously changeable – when they were going up the mountain it was clear and bright and the director was worried that they would not be able to capture the atmospheric sombre mood that he wanted. But when they got to the location it was already misty. Then 2 minutes after the filming was completed the weather changed again to a thick fog. It would have been impossible to film in this condition as the fog was so thick they could hardly see anything. So he felt very lucky with the weather, because if they had set off ten minutes later, they may not have been able to film the scene at all!
DEATH OF COURT LADY CHOI
There’s a funny story about the filming of this scene. The area in a local small mountain where Jang Geum’s mother was killed was chosen as the location for Court Lady Choi’s death (episode 48). And the director said he knew the way, so he led the way up the mountain with the crew carrying all equipment right behind him. But as he was walking he began to doubt that this was the right place, so he started to speed up – since the crew were behind him carrying equipment, he didn’t want to make them go all the way up the mountain if he’d made a mistake. He thought if he hurried on ahead then he could come back down if it was the wrong place.
But as he sped up, the others sped up behind him too, so in the end they were all hurrying up the mountain together! Everyone was tired and sweaty and then shocked when the director had to admit that he couldn’t find the location he was looking for. So they went back down and looked around somewhere else.
Why do the mountains in Korea look so similar, he wonders! By the end of that day, everyone was exhausted!
These are some of the things that Director Lee Byung Hoon talks about in his book Build a Kingdom of Dreams. See here for a review on how this book is great for Korean language study, or a general overview of the director’s career in the drama and his approach to making dramas or how he made fusion drama with the successful drama Heojun