Working Quietly: Jon Ronson on Okja
Jon Ronson discusses setting the tone, putting aesthetics above ideology, and the perfect budget for a film.
Okja’s reputation precedes it.
A Netflix-distributed film from the acclaimed director Joon-ho Bong (Snowpiercer, Mother), it was booed at Cannes due to technical difficulties, before going on to receive a standing ovation.
A $55 million movie from a predominantly low-budget platform mixing both Korean and English dialogue, a fantasy genre feature about factory farming, and with Jake Gyllenhaal as an outlandish nutty professor – Okja, on paper alone, is a “must see it to believe it” film.
Journalist and screenwriter Jon Ronson (Men Who Stare At Goats, Frank) collaborated with director Bong on the Okja screenplay. Creative Screenwriting spoke with him about this weird and wonderful project.
Okja is a powerful film. I love Snowpiercer, and I feel like the tone is very similar.
I just today discovered something new about Okja, I have to tell you – In an interview Bong did with the Guardian they asked him why he chose New Jersey as the location for the slaughterhouse. He said, “that’s where Harvey Weinstein first screened Snowpiercer and then went on to try to make a half an hour’s worth of cuts.”
So, in a way, Okja is a metaphor for Snowpiercer. (laughs)
You front-load much of the exposition and set-up in Okja so that we get all the background we need in the first scene. Was this specifically structured to grab the attention of a Netflix, home-watching audience, liable to switch through several films before deciding on what to watch?
No, because Netflix didn’t get involved until the screenplay was finished. The almost final draft went to the studios and then to Netflix. So, that scene was conceived without us knowing that Netflix would be involved.
I love that opening scene, partly because it’s a tour de force for Tilda Swinton who has this long, fabulous monologue. I think you need a lot of exposition anyway at the beginning of the film to make it work.
I love the line in that first scene where Lucy says, “and most importantly of all, they have to taste fucking good.” That’s a really audacious line because it is giving away the twist of the movie, that these super pigs are going to end up being eaten.
I asked Bong if Lucy ought to be that open and if she would, as a character, be that open about her intentions or if she would try to muddle it up with the consumer, like, “let’s try to forget we’re going to eat these things.” But Bong really wanted that line in there and I think he was right.
I love that there’s a number of occasions in the film that we signpost that it’s going to end up in the slaughterhouse. Three or four times it’s signposted. But you still don’t believe it is going to happen until you end up in the slaughterhouse.
That’s such a smart idea as it’s so resonant to how we feel about slaughterhouses, we just refuse to believe they exist however often someone tells us that they do.
If you didn’t start the film that way, but instead with Okja frolicking in the mountains, the film could have begun with a real Pete’s Dragon or even Disney feel to it.
There’s an argument that it could have worked that way, too. In a sense, the opening scene is like the beginning of a Broadway musical, when they play little bits of the songs as part of the overture so you know what’s to come. It’s so tonally different to what happens next, with Okja in the mountains. We’re already giving the viewer these clashing tones, which is something that happens throughout the film.
You wrote in the Guardian about how you learnt the ropes of screenwriting on the set of Frank, with Peter Straughan. You also compared screenwriting and journalism. Can you tell us more about that experience, and how these parts of your writing career differ or are similar?
I think it’s the reason I like collaborating so much on screenplays. I loved getting notes from Bong and Tilda. I loved collaborating with Peter on Frank.
This is going to sound really pretentious, but in journalism you kind of collaborate with the truth. Whatever is happening right in front of you is your collaborator. I’m so used to writing that way, to collaborating with the facts or whatever adventure I have. So when I move into screenwriting it really benefits me to get others’ thoughts.
The other way it feels like journalism to write a screenplay is when you start to create a character. For example, Maggie Gyllenhaal’s character Clara in Frank – well, she was like an outline in the fog, then finally she started to take shape.
The aim is to make a character so real that they’re like holograms in your computer waiting to be told what to do. That happens in the process, when you give characters something to do that feels authentic, and those past decisions inform their future decisions. So, like, I know Clara did that 20 minutes ago, so now I know how she would act in other situations.
When your character starts to have boundaries – they would act this way, they wouldn’t act that way – then it feels more like journalism. To a professional screenwriter it might sound like “well, duh!” but to me, as a journalist turned screenwriter, it was very revelatory.
You mentioned in your piece for the Guardian that you learned from Peter that screenwriting had rules. Do you feel Okja adheres to those rules, or do you think there were times when you decided to ignore them?
Much of my job on Okja was to be of service to Bong. I knew he loved the tonal shifts. I knew he wanted Mija to be naturalistic, but Jake and Tilda’s characters to be much more ostentatious. So a lot of the rules were created by Bong and I followed them.
With the Animal Liberation Front, Bong let me do whatever I wanted with those characters. They were just outlines when I received the screenplay. I had to decide if I should make them big like Jake and Tilda’s characters, or if I should underplay them.
I decided to underplay them, and I worried about that a bit. But actually I think it works really well. It’s a lesson in it being OK to not make the dialogue too mannered or too smart.
The only member of the ALF who speaks in a mannered way is Paul Dano’s character, and that is his character, he has a formal way of speaking. The other members talk like ordinary people.
A bit of me worried about that, about if it would work, about if I should be giving them smarter and snappier things to say. I’m glad I didn’t. I learned from that, that sometimes it’s OK to be naturalistic.
You’ve previously worked a lot in the documentary format. Okja is a fantasy genre film, but it’s also a film that has a message, and is riffing off a real-life situation (the factory farming industry) that has been explored in documentaries. How did the process differ, and how do you think the impact of a narrative film is different from that of a documentary about a similar topic?
Bong wanted Okja to be a peaceful film, like a magical realist fable in the style of Spirited Away. Right from the beginning it wasn’t a message film. Bong’s vision was to make it a beautiful, moving, funny, entertaining film.
We never talked about the messages of the film, they were just there.
The slaughterhouse scene is one of the most important of the film. It was an incredible achievement of Bong to set a scene inside a slaughterhouse and not make it so grotesque that people would turn away from it, not make it so difficult people would feel they were being preached to, and not make it so repulsive that it would be unpleasant to watch.
Instead he made it heartbreaking and beautiful and haunting. It’s a testament to putting aesthetics above ideology. Both Bong and I were on the same page about not making an ideological film, but wanting to make a beautiful film.
One of the reasons we got on so well, I think, is because ideology and its impact is one of my favorite topics. My book on public shaming (So, You’ve Been Publicly Shamed On The Internet) is critical of people relying too heavily on ideology.
I love the fact that the ALF aren’t impeccable, awesome heroes. They’re heroic in the film, they’re cool and we’re supposed to like them, but they’re also silly and they do some hypocritical things. That’s for people who are suspicious of people who are too ideological, like me and Bong. It was great to be able to portray the ALF in that way and still make them heroes in the film.
I can’t watch a slaughterhouse scene in a documentary. I even found Richard Linklater’s Fast Food Nation difficult to watch, in a different way to Okja.
Okja is profound, heartbreaking, in a deeply emotional way. I remember saying to Tilda, when we got talking about the slaughterhouse scene, “I hope it’s not too graphic.” She said, “Because you want as many people as possible to see the movie?” and I said, “yes.”
Bong turned what could have been the most problematic scene in the movie into the most extraordinary scene in the movie.
You mostly collaborated with Bong mostly over Skype sessions at a distance. What were the benefits or drawbacks of this?
Well, I’m very introverted. When we were writing Frank, Peter Straughan, the director Lenny Abrahamson, and me went off on a retreat – to a disused railway station in the town of Alton – for a few days. And I just didn’t say a word. Lenny and Peter are both happy to be talk loud and fast, and I’m not. I would listen and then go home and quietly write.
I love collaborating, but I really love collaborating at a distance. I love to meet people and say almost nothing. I can’t believe many good decisions can be made when you’re having a big conversation with somebody. I think the best decisions are made when you’re back home reflecting on it.
I had some Skypes and lunches and dinners with Bong and Tilda. I must have met Bong five or six times in person, and I probably said very little during those meetings. I listened, made notes, offered the odd thought, showed him YouTube videos I thought might be relevant. Then I went home and did the work.
How was the experience of working with Netflix?
Netflix was just brilliant. If the film had been made by someone else, the slaughterhouse scene would be totally different and maybe wouldn’t exist at all. There are so many wonderful moments in Okja that I cannot image a studio would have allowed Bong to do.
And, of course, it’s a really expensive movie. You can get away with some of that stuff when it’s a $5 million dollar film, but not with a bigger budget.
The costume designer on Okja said to me, “this is the perfect budget, because if it was a $2 million dollar film no one would be breathing down your neck but you’d have no money to do anything well, and if it was a $100 million dollar film the executives would be in panic at every decision you made.”
Instead, there was no interference at all, it was a dream. Netflix told Bong they’d give him the money he needed and let him do what he wanted, and that’s exactly what happened.
When you look back on the films that you love, those were films that managed to get made because they were given freedom.
I wonder if this attitude and approach will end up impacting on the studios? And I wonder how this will affect screenwriters in terms of the freedom they have.
I’ve been thinking exactly the same thing – are the studios going to have to become more like Netflix or Amazon? It feels inevitable. I hope Okja will herald a change in studio culture.
I think your readers will enjoy this story: I talked to a friend of mine who was really badly burned by a director, someone that took all her credit, and she went through all those awful clichés you hear about the studio culture…And she said to me, amidst all this horror she was going through, “When a director says he couldn’t have made his movie without his brilliant screenwriter, nobody thinks, ‘he must be such a terrible director he had to rely on his screenwriter!’ Instead, everybody thinks, ‘what a great director, and so nice too!’”
Directors can have this habit of wanting to take all the glory, and I love working with people who don’t want to do that. Bong doesn’t do that, he is incredibly respectful, and he goes out of his way to collaborate with everyone working on his movies.
Okja is available to watch now on Netflix.
Featured image: An Seo Hyun as Mija in Okja. Credit: Jae Hyuk Lee / Netflix