In his book, Build a Kingdom of Dreams, Lee Byung Hoon, the director of the Korean historical drama blockbuster hit Jewel in the Palace (MBC 2004) writes about his approach to directing dramas – from choosing a writer, to working with cast, filming and editing. Not to mention the dreaded challenge of tackling viewer ratings! Here are some of the points that I found interesting in the book including how he revamped historical dramas and anecdotes from drama sets. The book is also great for studying Korean reading which I wrote about here.
Lee Byung Hoon joined MBC in 1970 as an assistant director. After working on several dramas he directed documentaries on historical figures and the popular series 500 years of Joseon Kings where he developed an interest in historical programmes.
He became famous internationally when he directed Jewel in the Palace 2004 (Dae Jang Geum) starring Lee Young Ae. But he had already had several successes in Korea, the biggest success was Heo Jun 2000, which he directed at the age of 55 after a 10 year break from directing. Heojun is still one of the most successful Korean dramas ever. Read what Director Lee says about Heojun in his book here.
In the 1990s he observed that sageuk was very popular in Japan and had high ratings because it was watched by all ages and gave the Japanese viewers a sense of pride in their country. But Sageuk in Korea was only watched by the over 40s. For several years he had been overseeing drama production at MBC, but then decided to go back to directing. He told his family that he wanted to do sageuk. But his daughter was against it because she and her friends thought that sageuk was boring and dull. He decided that he would change sageuk to make it more appealing to younger people.
When he made Heojun, his first drama after his comeback to directing, he made many changes to the form including finding a writer who could write gripping stories with a faster pace, making the language more modern, brightening up the costumes, and changing the music from classical to new age. His vision worked and during the filming of Heojun, fans young and old came to the film locations. And for the first time in 30 years in the business, he too was asked for his autograph. Usually TV drama directors are not household names but Lee Byung Hoon had become well known.
Lee Byung Hoon was born in a small village in Chungcheong namdo west Korea. When he was a child his family moved to Seoul but when he was 6 the Korean War broke out and the family moved back to their hometown. One day during the war his dad said he was going outside ‘to take a look around’ but he never came back and the family never heard what happened to him. So his mother had to bring up the family alone.
They were very poor and without a scholarship the chidlren couldn’t go to school so he had to work hard although he didn’t like studying. His older sister gave up any dreams of higher education to help support the family. And due to his mother and sister’s efforts, he was able to complete his education and he has never forgotten that. This is the reason he says that he tries to have strong female leads in his dramas whenever he can. (see Dae Jang Geum and Dong Yi for example).
He studied Forestry at Seoul National University. But he didn’t think too much about his major and finally chose Forestry with the idea of growing an orchard in the future. But he soon realised that this major was not going to help him with this dream so he lost interest in his subject and concentrated on studying other subjects he thought would be more useful, like English. He stumbled into directing. He had always had a keen interest in reading and was a bit of a bookworm. He used to skip school to go to the cinema to watch films too which annoyed his mum when she found out. It was only when his friend said he was going to take the test to get into the broadcasting company that Lee Byung Hoon decided to tag along with him and took the test. He passed.
He says that the director is like the conductor of an orchestra because he has to oversee everything – the casting, lighting, props, makeup, wardrobe etc. He can’t do everything alone so it’s important to have good assistants. Work can go smoothly or with difficulty depending on the assistants. He spent most of his career working with MBC, first as a full time employee and then as a freelancer. At MBC he had a team that he regularly worked with who knew his ways. He didn’t appreciate the importance if this until he did a project with SBS and stumbled into some communication problems…
He turned up for one shoot to discover that there were no extras on set. He had assumed that his assistants would know to hire them. Then in another case he had a problem with props. He asked the props department to make a ladder which would be used to climb over the city walls. He thought no more about it until the filming day. But when the ladder was brought on set it only reached half way up the wall…
WORKING WITH WRITERS
When starting a new drama project, he likes to choose a writer to work with first, so that they can choose the subject matter together. He looks for writers who can write exciting, fast paced stories. The writers don’t need to have experience in writing sageuk. (read about working with Choi Wan Kyu on Heojun here) Script writing is a tough job because unlike movies, drama scripts are not written and completed before shooting begins. Only the general storyline is done in advance. Episode scripts are written every week and so writers have to follow tight deadlines otherwise filming stops. Stories can be changed depending on viewers ratings and reactions. For Soap operas the importance of a good writer is very high – 70% of success depends on the story.
And if the director is not happy with the script, the writer will have to revise it. For the first episode of Heojun he made Choi Wan Kyu rewrite the script 5 times. After this, Choi Wan Kyu wasn’t keen to work with Lee Byung Hoon again, but they did work together on the next project – Sangdo, The Merchant, which was also very successful but didn’t get as high ratings as Heojun. (One reason was that there was a lot of competition from other popular dramas on other channels. KBS was showing 겨울연가 Winter Sonata. And SBS was showing 여인천하 Ladies of the Palace.)
Writers got stressed having to rewrite scrips and shooting could go on late into the night until the director was satisfied with the scene. In Yi San, the extras were kept up in freezing winter until 6am to get the scene just right. It wasn’t until Lee Byung Hoon read comments on internet forums about himself that he realised what the extras really thought of him!
CHOOSING SUBJECT MATTER
After choosing a writer to work with, the director and writer look for a book to base their drama on. The key to a successful drama is a good story. But he writes that changes in literary trends in Korea have made it more difficult to find dramatic stories. Up to the 1970s Korean novels were story-driven. But then the trend turned towards more psychological work, which is difficult to interpret into drama! That means that when a book with a good story becomes popular, there is competition from the various broadcasting companies to get the copyright. And more than once Lee Byung Hoon has been pipped to the post by rival broadcasting station SBS for the rights to a book.
As well as a good story, he also considers who the main character should be. From previous experience he knows that creating dramas around famous, high status historical figures can cause problems as even if the famous person has died, remaining family members or supporters are likely to complain to the broadcasting company if they don’t like how that person is portrayed in the drama.
So he prefers using commoners for his main characters. Dae Jang Geum and Heo Jun were both commoners who worked their way up to high ranks in the royal court. But there is little information about them in history books which leaves plenty of room for creativity when writing their stories.
He also likes his dramas to be educational and so he introduces the audience to a different creative discipline in each one – heojun (medicine) Sangdo (economics) The Ballad of Seodong ( science) Jewel in the Palace ( cooking) Yi San (painting), and Dong Yi (music)
Lee Byung Hoon usually works with older lead actors (over 30 years old). Only in the drama Ballad of Seodong did he work with younger actors. He says that it’s harder to find lead actors for sageuk for several reasons.
First of all, since his dramas are over 50 episodes long, actors have to commit to almost a year of filming and many have already made commitments to other projects. Secondly it’s physically demanding and uncomfortable – many scenes are filmed outdoors so there is extreme hot weather or cold weather to deal with. And then finally, there’s the possibility of failure. Sageuk can be challenging to act. And if the drama is unsuccessful, the actors’ popularity can plummet leaving their career in ruins. This isn’t the case with movies. If a movie is a flop, the viewers soon forget about it and move on.
So it’s not really worth the risk for top stars to do sageuk. They might as well stick to doing lucrative commercials which are also easier, safer, and even help maintain their popularity. So many top stars simply refuse to do sageuk.
Lee Byung Hoon writes several pages about his experience with actor Song Yun Ah. He became fixated on having her star in his dramas. This fixation began with Heojun where he wanted her to play Yejin the nurse who falls in love with Dr Heojun. But after being offered the role she made him wait for months before refusing. Undeterred he offered her the female lead in his next drama – Sangdo, The Merchant. But again she turned the role down after much deliberation. Then the same thing happened again when she was his first choice for the role of Dae Jang Geum in Jewel in the Palace. After being refused 3 times he FINALLY decided to give up!
There’s one big difference between filming sageuk and modern drama: Modern dramas are mainly filmed in studios whereas outdoor locations are more important in sageuk. So in sageuk filming takes place at outdoor movie sets and also in indoor studios. For outdoor filming he only uses one camera so as to catch the delicate scenery without being restricted by fixed cameras.
But this method is also time consuming because when characters are being filmed, the camera must be focused on one character while they say their lines and then the action must stop while the camera is moved to film another character. Also, actors may have to repeat their lines several times so that they can be filmed from different angles. One benefit of using only one camera though is that there is no restriction on what angle to film the actors so they can be made to look more attractive.
For indoor scenes 3 cameras are used. One camera is fixed on each main character and another which has both of them in the frame. So for a 5 minutes scene, only 5 minutes are needed for filming. But for a 70 minute episode filmed outdoors the filming can take a few days or even more than a month.
Because of the laborious nature of filming outdoor scenes, there is always a shortage of time when filming sageuk. And so sometimes filming can go on all night. Sometimes day scenes have to be filmed at night and vice versa. But due to the sophisticated technical equipment used, only the lighting director and the film director can tell that the scene was filmed at night. Viewers don’t notice. This is not ideal though, as using all that lighting increases expenses.
Jewel in the Palace was the drama that had the most nighttime filming. In one scene, Jang Geum and Lord Min have to walk down a snowy mountain path. They walked and walked waiting for the director to say ‘cut’. Finally, Lee Young Ah asked how much longer they would have to walk. That’s when everyone realised that Lee Byung Hoon had fallen asleep and they had to wake him up!
Another important point he considers when filming is how to make the female leads appear as attractive as possible. So he always uses flowers or mountains in the background as much as he can to achieve this. Minor actors complain that he only does this for the lead characters ….
Another part of the director’s job is to work with the editors after filming. The editing rooms in the broadcasting company are tiny – only just big enough for a desk and a couple of chairs. All shows have to be edited, from news to drama, so with around 50 editing rooms in all, each room is allocated little space.
He tells an anecdote from his early days as a director when they worked with film not video. He and the cinematographer (there were no editors at that time) stayed up all night editing the film as it had to be ready to be aired the following evening. In the morning they popped out to get something to eat. But when they came back, the cleaner had been into the room and ‘tidied up’ and thrown away all the film!
And the rubbish had already been collected from the broadcasting company that morning. So they had to go to the waste disposal site and sift through mountains of rubbish. Luckily they found the film in the end. But by this point it was 5pm and they had to race back to the editing room. The film was scratched and looked as though there was heavy rain all through the episode. But at least they got it back. It was an experience, he says, that he won’t forget.
Making a sageuk is clearly very intense process with everyone working on little sleep. So once a drama has been completed everyone wants to take a break. As a freelancer, Lee Byung Hoon can also take a break before starting the next project. His last drama was filmed in 2013 Horse Doctor. He’s now 71 years old and says his wife has been wanting him to retire for years. I wonder if we will see him in the director’s chair again?