Alistair Harkness talks to Jon Ronson about his screenplay for Okja, a sci-fi blockbuster about corporate greed by Korean auteur Bong Joon-ho, screening as part of this year’s Edinburgh International Film Festival
Revolving around a young girl’s determination to rescue her giant pet “super pig” from the clutches of a big multinational company intent on sending it to the slaughterhouse, Bong Joon-ho’s new creature feature Okja is a wildly entertaining sci-fi blockbuster with a disturbing satirical streak about food manufacturing and the corporate skullduggery behind it. Which is to say, it’s exactly the sort of film fans of the director’s previous movies The Host and Snowpiercer will eat up.
But there’s also a moment early in the film – which gets its Scottish premiere at the Edinburgh International Film Festival next weekend – in which British viewers of a certain age might detect the specific influence of its co-writer Jon Ronson, best-selling author of The Psychopath Test.
The moment in question features Jake Gyllenhaal as a popular television zoologist who has been recruited by Tilda Swinton’s grinning CEO as the public face of the agrochemical company she’s desperately trying to rebrand. As the film cuts from a duplicitous press conference laying out the fake backstory of the eponymous pig, we see a montage of clips from of a TV show featuring Gyllenhaal’s character goofing around with turtles, llamas and bears. International audiences might think ‘Steve Irwin’, but naming the character ‘Johnny’ and the show Magical Animals, it’s clear who the real inspiration was…
“It was totally inspired by Johnny Morris,” confirms Ronson over the phone from New York. “I thought of him as Johnny Morris with a sprinkling of some of his darker contemporaries. During one of my first meetings with Bong I showed him some episodes of Animal Magic on YouTube and he loved it.”
If it sounds incongruous that one of South Korea’s most successful directors – a filmmaker Quentin Tarantino likens to Steven Spielberg in his prime – should be taking inspiration from a show that was a staple of British children’s television, it’s also a testament to the way Bong’s sensibilities synched with Ronson’s. It turns out Bong was a big fan of Ronson’s script for Frank, the surreal Michael Fassbender-starring comedy he’d based loosely on his experiences touring with Frank Sidebottom. Looking for someone to flesh out the film’s many English-speaking characters, which in addition to Gyllenhaal’s and Swintion’s, includes a fringe group of Animal Liberation Front radicals led by a depressed Paul Dano, he called Ronson up.
“I think he thought the melancholy comedy of Frank could work with the Animal Liberation Front stuff,” says Ronson, who also saw a link between the themes of Okja and the themes of his own books, especially So You’ve Been Publically Shamed, his recent investigation into the growing public appetite for shaming people online. “It was the idea of the slaughterhouse,” Ronson explains. “On social media we want to hurt people and not feel bad about it and one of the main themes of Okja is that animals are pets, but also we eat them. Nobody wants to hear this, but it’s true: pigs are adorable, like dogs, so we have to find a way to not feel bad about eating them. When Bong sent me the first draft I thought, ‘Wow, this is all of the stuff I’ve been writing about’.”
There are plenty of political resonances in the film as well. Ronson says he and Swinton talked a lot about Tony Blair and there’s another character (also played by Swinton) who’s very Trump-like. “We were filming these things in August, but the whole thing wrapped before the election,” says Ronson. “I actually got quite excited towards the end of the film thinking, ‘This is prophetic; this is like one of the first Trump-era films’.”
If all of this sounds potentially controversial, it’s nothing compared to the column inches the film’s backer, Netflix, has already inspired by funding a blockbuster of this magnitude for simultaneous release in cinemas and on its streaming service. The uproar in Cannes last month has continued with Korea’s major cinema chains refusing to book the film. Ronson thinks the controversy is stupid. “This isn’t a question of whether Okja should be for big screen or small screen. It’s a question of do you want Okja to exist or not exist?” As he points out, “It’s a big budget film that has these big tonal shifts and half of it is Korean, half of it is in English. You can get away with these things on a small budget film, but this is a 50-60 million dollar movie. I just can’t imagine who else would possibly have made it without subjecting it to massive compromises.”
That’s probably true. Just ask Bong. He ended up locked in a protracted battle with Harvey Weinstein to get his English language debut Snowpiercer released without cuts. “Netflix didn’t do anything like that,” says Ronson. “They gave him total control. This is exactly the film he wanted to make. Cineastes should be celebrating that.”
Okja is at the EIFF (www.edfilmfest.org.uk) on 25 and 28 June, and on Netflix from 28 June.