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Paul Dano says working with Netflix was the best way to make 'Okja'

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The actor discusses his role in "Okja" and how the streaming service was the only place for director Bong Joon-Ho to create the film he had in mind.

The new film, "Okja," opens on June 28 amidst controversy surrounding its financier and distributor, Netflix.

Directed by South Korean filmmaker Bong Joon-Ho ("Snowpiercer," "Mother"), "Okja" follows the adventures of a young girl named Mija (An Seo Hyun) as she attempts to save her best friend, Okja — a genetically engineered giant pig — from the clutches of a multi-national Monsanto-like corporation headed by Tilda Swinton.

"Okja" is a science fiction parable about environmentalism and the food industry with a cast that includes Paul Dano, Jake Gyllenhaal, Steven Yeun, Giancarlo Esposito and Lily Collins.

Controversy surrounding "Okja" began when the Netflix title card was booed at the film's world premiere at the Cannes Film Festival. Technical glitches during the screening didn't help as the historic film festival received backlash for premiering a film that is available on the streaming service on the same day as its theatrical release.

Meanwhile, major South Korean distributors refuse to screen "Okja" due to its day-and-date release in the U.S., the U.K. and South Korea. The film is only screening in select theaters in the U.S., with most large theater chains refusing to screen the movie. 

Despite these issues, actor Paul Dano, who plays an animal rights activist in the film, says that "Okja" has a lot to offer audiences no matter where or how they watch the movie. He recently spoke with The Frame's John Horn about how he got involved with the project:

Many, many, many years ago, when I used to play in a band, we were playing a show in Brooklyn and I saw a large Korean man dancing in the audience ... It turned out to be Bong Joon-Ho and I was so excited. We got to know each other and had a good time and then we just started keeping in touch. A few years ago he said he was writing a film about a girl and a giant pig. And that was all I needed to hear ... because the image of that just made my heart leap.

Actor Paul Dano in "Okja."
Jae Hyuk Lee / Netflix
Actor Paul Dano in "Okja."

Though there are several characters and themes addressed in the film, Dano says at the core is a story of a young girl coming of age:

Some people are really grabbed by this theme of business and capitalism and consumerism that's in there. I think most important is really the story of this girl entering the adult world and, through her innocence, seeing these parts of our lives in this sort of comic book, anime, graphic novel-heightened way. To me, that's what makes the ideas interesting.

In the film, Dano plays a member of the Animal Liberation Front, which is based on a real-life activist organization of the same name. In preparation for his role, Dano researched the group, but acknowledged that his portrayal is specific to the film:

I read and watched quite a bit and did some [research] online. And I talked to a couple of people. You know, the ALF is a secret sort of shadow [organization]. I felt like Bong's world is slightly heightened. This was not an instance of trying to be so true to the real thing. This was an interpretation. So the research was super important to see people so convicted to this cause and the lengths that they go to and really what it means to be really active.

Director Bong Joon Ho behind the scenes in "Okja."
Jae Hyuk Lee / Netflix
Director Bong Joon Ho behind the scenes in "Okja."

The story revolves around the character of Okja, a giant pig. Despite its computer-animated origin, Dano found it easy to relate to the character:

I thought Okja was so beautiful and stunning and silly and clumsy and loving and smart and dumb, and I was so happy to see her fully realized. And they did such a beautiful job. One of the images I keep thinking of is when Mija [Hyun's character] is cleaning the fruit in the little stream and Okja's [is] walking up to her, just stumbling in the puddle. And it's such a simple moment and image and she feels so real to me.

We had a big plaster head the size of what Okja would be and we had some of the artists in the body or in a suit or kind of holding it up. And it was so easy to project onto this sort of plaster, stuffed animal face, because it was so easy to care about ... this girl and her giant pig that's her best friend. And it was really pleasant to go to work everyday knowing that you are fighting for them.

Actor An Seo Hyun with the character Okja in "Okja."
Actor An Seo Hyun with the character Okja in "Okja."

Dano, who is a film fan, says the recent controversies surrounding "Okja" shouldn’t stop people from watching it, and that producing it with Netflix was the best way to get it made:

At Cannes I thought it was a bit silly, just because the film was invited to be in competition and Bong is a great filmmaker ... The truth is I don't think this film would have been made any other way and I would so much rather get to see a Bong Joon-Ho film than not ... This was the way to make the film. Studios wouldn't let the slaughterhouse scene be what it is. Netflix was the only place that said, We will let you make the exact film that you want to make — and that is a great gift to an artist.

[This film is] going to get out there and I hope that a lot of people get to see it in their home. I hope people who can go to the theater will go because it is truly cinematic. But I am on all sides of this argument. I want to see things in all ways, but I think what's most important is that the people who really have something to offer get the chance to offer it. And for "Okja," this was the best way to make this film, without question. And I think it's a bummer that people would turn on that because, again, I think we need to support the good filmmakers in the world.

To hear John Horn's interview with Paul Dano, click on the player above.

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