Nobody wanted to make ‘Squid Game.’ Now it’s making history

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"Squid Game"  creator Hwang Dong-hyuk and actor Lee Jung-jae pose for a portrait.
“This is miraculous. I thought it was impossible to make the show and now we have 14 nominations. It feels strange and surreal,” says “Squid Game” creator Hwang Dong-hyuk, here with actor Lee Jung-jae at left.
(Angella Choe / For The Times)

For a very long time, no one wanted to make “Squid Game.” No one, that is, but creator-writer-director Hwang Dong-hyuk. Then one of Korea’s biggest stars, suave box-office champion Lee Jung-jae, signed on to play the show’s grubby, compromised hero, and the deeply symbolic, meticulously designed, bare-knuckle commentary on the chasm between Haves and Have-nots took off, becoming Netflix’s most popular series to date.

Now it has 14 Emmy nominations, including for Hwang’s writing and directing, Lee’s acting and for drama series. It’s the first foreign-language series to receive nods in any of those categories, as well as in many others.

“The Oscars are more global; the Emmys are very American. I’m very thankful for them opening the doors to non-English content for the first time,” says Hwang by Zoom.

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“I think the show resonated with the global audience because we have a lot of visual aspects besides the language — we have symbols, the design, the set, the wardrobe — I think that’s what drew the attention of the global audience that doesn’t know Korean. And also the theme, the gap between the rich and the poor and the competition, the conflict in our society, is very universal,” the director adds.

The brutal, buzzy Korean series set a new milestone with Tuesday’s Emmy nominations, the culmination of an already impressive awards haul.

The auteur with several successful features under his belt says he was on an island with the producers, writing Season 2, when the Emmy announcement broke; he immediately called “JJ” (Lee) and other nominated performers such as Park Hae-soo and HoYeon Jung. Next, he joins Lee for a chat with The Envelope.

Like Hwang, Lee beams over the video call’s camera, delighted by the many nominations spread among those who worked on the series: “I watched the announcement live and was so excited to share this happiness with the cast and crew. I was also excited to visit L.A. again and have those joyful moments with [them]. I think this is the finale of us celebrating Season 1 of ‘Squid Game.’ ”

Lee Jung jae
Lee Jung-Jae plays the main character “Gi-hun”
(Angella Choe / For The Times)

The likable antihero

Part of that celebration of the series’ first season took place at Netflix’s FYSee space on L.A.'s Melrose Avenue a few weeks before the nominations.

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Those who know Lee only as his Gi-hun character would barely recognize the dapper sophisticate sitting with excellent posture in a small greenroom. Although having recently just flown into America and back yet again on the eternally spinning hamster wheel of promotion for his series, he is gracious and put together. He looks like the guest of honor at a yacht club function in a vaguely naval blazer. Next to him (with an interpreter behind them), Hwang says with a bit of fatigue showing that “Squid Game” took about seven months to shoot and they’d been promoting it for nine months now.

Not that they’re complaining. Despite the long road, both are still enjoying the success of the show Hwang conceived more than a decade ago and couldn’t get made for years. And now, Season 2 is in the works.

“When I first sent the script to Jung-jae, rather than having questions for him, I was just excited to hear he was interested because back in 2009, so many actors had said ‘No,’” says Hwang with a laugh. “So I was just happy to hear what he had to say, and was focused on listening to him and his concerns.”

A man screams in frustration in an arcade in Korea.
Gi-hun in an arcade in episode 1.
(Noh Juhan / Netflix)

Among those concerns was down-on-his-luck protagonist Gi-hun’s sometimes ugly status as “an anti-hero. Jung-jae was concerned whether Gi-hun would be able to resonate with the audience. So there were different adjustments I made, such as a scene where Gi-hun shares his fish with a stray cat. No matter how broken, how flawed he is, he still has that goodwill at heart.”

Hwang cites another moment that convinced him the character would work. “There’s an early scene where you see Gi-hun when he has lost his money and he doesn’t have very much left to buy a gift for his daughter, so he goes to that place where you can pick the dolls in the machines,” the director said. “You see him being incredibly happy, holding and hugging the boy who does that for him. The minute I saw Jung-jae play that scene, I was completely convinced that people were, for sure, going to fall in love with this character. To see that pure, childlike joy in this middle-aged man, I could imagine Gi-hun being himself after joining the game as well. No matter how flawed he was — he would go on to steal his mother’s money — people would see that purity and beauty that he holds within himself.”

For all the show’s rugged exterior — hundreds slaughtered, life-or-death decisions, betrayals and humiliations — the protagonist’s humanity anchors “Squid Game.” Lee says he sought Hwang’s guidance in fine-tuning the balance of Gi-hun’s dire circumstances and his optimism.

In low, quiet tones, Lee says, “I had to ask a lot of questions about his emotional state and what degree, in terms of his emotional spectrum, I needed to portray. Do I portray things in a serious manner or light, just brush them off? For instance, after literally seeing people die in front of him, Gi-hun has to come back to the sleeping quarters and enjoy the food. ‘To what extent can he really enjoy the food? What kind of character is he in that sense?’ ”

The answers were what most actors would hope for: Messy.

‘Squid Game’ creator Hwang Dong-hyuk and his collaborators put together the subliminal pieces of the hit show’s puzzle.

“If Gi-hun were only good, he would have been one-dimensional and shallow,” says Hwang. “In the game of marbles, he wanted to survive so badly he was willing to trick [elderly contestant] Il-nam and take advantage of his dementia. I feel like that could be any one of us.

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“What really differentiates him is that he regrets. He learns from it. I wanted the audience to see him in Episode 1 and Episode 9 and think they are completely different people because he had learned something.”

Although Hwang has outlined the show’s harsh critique of a socioeconomic system that sets up such ballyhooed winners and devastated losers, Lee sees the peeling away of some of the characters’ layers to the essential goodness within as the show’s true message.

A man examines a small prop on set while cast and crew look on.
Director Hwang examines a prop for one of “Squid Game’s” challenges as actor Lee Jung-jae as player No. 456 looks on.
(Noh Juhan / Netflix)

“While at times it’s violent, while at times it requires them to win over, literally, the bodies of others, in the most dire of situations there’s still something, as humans, we must not lose sight of,” says the actor. “Director Hwang did such a good job writing that so intricately into the script.”

While Lee is now inextricably woven into the “Squid Game” tapestry (both acknowledge Gi-hun will be back in Season 2), his casting was an even bigger longshot than one might assume from Hwang’s account that “so many actors” had turned the show down. Lee isn’t just some actor in Korea; he is a superstar who has starred in many of the country’s highest-grossing films. That’s like no one in Hollywood signing on to your brutal, capitalism-scorching TV show, then having Tom Cruise jumping on your couch at the thought of being in it.

Hwang says Lee “and I are about the same age, and ever since I was about 20, he was really the biggest, the hottest star Korea had ever seen. Many times, I’d think,” he says, sighing, “‘What must it be like to be born like him?’ For about three decades, while he shined onscreen in charismatic roles, there was something I saw in him when he played these flawed characters that really stood out, that I thought was extraordinary. That sense of humor. I thought it would be the perfect mix to bring Gi-hun to life.”

Hwang Dong-hyuk
Creator Hwang Dong-hyuk
(Angella Choe / For The Times)

A surreal delight

So where does Gi-hun go from here? “That is the biggest challenge in Season 2,” Hwang says. “He begins where we left him at the end of the first season. So, the fact that I can’t carry that level of character arc is a huge challenge. Without giving away any spoilers, there is that line that Gi-hun says in the last episode: ‘I’m not a horse and I’m curious to know who did this to us.’ It’s going to be about that journey and Gi-hun proving we are, indeed, not horses; we are all human. And the fact that we all hold goodness, the essence of humanity, at heart.”

Following the flood of Emmy laurels, Lee is characteristically sunny about the prospect of returning to Los Angeles for the ceremony with his fellow nominees — including one of his direct competitors.

By Zoom, he says, “Of course I watched a lot of the shows; I love them,” making specific mention of “Ozark” and “Succession.” “Especially Jeremy Strong — I’ve seen him, actually, at many awards. Not long ago, I visited Cannes, the film festival, and also saw him there. We were so happy to see each other again, we were handshaking. I think his performance is amazing. So grounded. You can really tell he pours his heart and soul into the work he does.”

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Hwang, meanwhile, still finds it hard to connect the awful struggles he had getting the show made to its standing now.

“Looking back at 2009, when nobody wanted to make the show, I did not expect this at all,” he says. “This is miraculous. I thought it was impossible to make the show and now we have 14 nominations. It feels strange and surreal. I think the journey of making ‘Squid Game’ is more dramatic than the show itself.”

Our panel of veteran TV journalists predicts the winners in 14 categories of the 2022 Emmys.