Korean filmmaker (Hong Sang-soo) has risen to somewhat of a cult figure among cinefiles in recent years, and for good reason.
Over the past 26 years, Hong has directed no fewer than 27 feature films, and shows no signs of slowing down. About half of the movies he’s directed were in the past decade alone, and he will regularly premiere 2 movies in a single year.
Hong is known for making unconventional films with very low budget / DIY tactics. But that hasn’t stopped his movies from premiering at major festivals like Cannes, Berlin, Venice, and many others.
So what’s Hong’s secret? Let’s explore…
1. Unconventional production tactics
While most filmmakers take on fewer production roles as they become more established, Hong has done the exact opposite. On his last 5 movies, he served as: Director, Producer, Writer, Cinematographer, Editor, and Composer among other roles.
This undoubtably gives him the control he wants over his films, but also affords him the freedom to work extremely quickly and with very limited means. This aspect of his process resonates with me personally, especially after just making a feature as a one person crew.
2. Embracing spontaneity
Hong is also a master at harnessing the power of spontaneity and improvisation. He waits to write his scripts until he has already found locations and actors (a traditional micro-budget tactic).
But these scripts are seemingly written very loosely, as he is known for arriving on set without any script pages at all, aiming to develop scenes and dialogue day by day with the actors.
He’s also said that he “loves when weather changes on a shoot”. He sees opportunity in situations that other filmmakers would be devastated by. This attitude is at the heart of every great DIY movie.
3. Speed of production & post
Hong’s feature film “Grass” which premiered at the Berlin film festival, was shot in just 3 days. Many other features he’s made have been shot on similar timelines, and that has clearly been a huge key to his success.
By working quickly (and improvising), Hong has to use the majority of the footage he shoots in his finished films. This means his films are sometimes fully edited in as little as 1 – 3 days.
That is pretty astounding, considering many features take months if not upwards of a year to finish in post.
4. Short runtimes
Some of Hong Sang-soo’s films have more traditional 90 minute feature film runtimes, but he is not scared of making a shorter feature film when the project calls for it.
The feature film “Grass” that I mentioned above, has a runtime of just 66 minutes. By being open to making films that are under the traditional 90 minute length, he is able to work faster, more cost effectively, and embrace stories that might not otherwise be told.
5. Self Financing
Despite his success, Hong Sang-soo self finances all of his films. They range in budget, but on average are produced for about $50K – $100K.
While conventional wisdom tells you not to invest in your own films (something I completely disagree with), Hong Sang-soo makes the ultimate counterpoint. Self-financing has allowed him to be prolific with his work, while also imposing constraints on his projects that have ultimately benefited his career immensely.
Hong has developed a unique approach that works brilliantly for him. While his exact model might not apply to more traditionally minded filmmakers, I do think everyone can learn something from his approach.
Personally, it underscores a lot of choices I’ve benefitted from on my latest feature (“Disappearing Boy”) which is about to hit festivals. Particularly his use of improvisation and the many hats that he embraces during production and post.
Ultimately it’s up to every filmmaker to carve their own path and find the right method for themselves.
But if nothing else, this is more evidence that there is no wrong way to make a movie, and you can find success under so many different circumstances.