Geri Cole: Hi. I’m Geri Cole, and you’re listening to OnWriting, a podcast from the Writers Guild of America, East. In each episode, you’re going to hear from the people behind your favorite films and television series talking about their writing process, how they got their project from the page to the screen, and so much more. Today, I’m thrilled to talk with Soo Hugh, writer, producer and showrunner of Pachinko, now streaming on Apple TV. Based on the acclaimed novel by author Min Jin Lee, Pachinko chronicles the hopes and dreams of four generations of a Korean immigrant family.
The story begins with a forbidden love, and crescendos into a sweeping saga that journeys between Korea, Japan, and America to tell an unforgettable story of war, peace, love and loss, triumph and reckoning. I talked with Soo about how the writers adapted this story to keep it focused on family over colonialism, the process of crafting a complex, authentic story that couldn’t have been told this way a decade ago, and the power in telling the extraordinary stories of ordinary people.
Hi, Soo. I’m so excited to talk with you about this show, because it’s incredible, but I also want to start by telling our listeners, or giving them a spoiler warning to please go watch the full series, because I would like to talk about everything, including the end, so spoiler alert. If you have not watched the full series, I urge you to go do so now before listening to the podcast. Let’s start with talking about how this project came together, how you ended up with the book, and what the process was like of when you were first starting to adapt it.
Soo Hugh: I got the book now over four years ago, and at that time, my agent, Theresa, gave me the book and said, “You should read this.” I had heard of the book. The book was becoming very popular, and I’d heard amazing things about it, but when I looked at what it was about, and I saw Korea and Japan, it sounded daunting, I’ll be honest, for a lot of reasons, but because I was also finishing another show that we shot overseas. Just in terms of a logistical, and doing another big international production, worried me.
Then, obviously, I’d never done a show that really tackled my origin story or my homeland story, and that was emotionally terrifying. But then I opened the book. And it was this transportive experience, because the book is so beautifully done, the characters are so rich, and the story is something I’d never seen before, and yet emotionally, the textures of the book spoke to a universal language. I knew that there was something so appealing and intriguing about bringing this to screen. I didn’t know how to do it right away.
It took me a little bit to figure out, “Huh, am I the right person for this?” I mean, that’s really the question you always ask yourself when you take on a new project. You’re like, “Am I the person for this? Why am I the person who should be a steward of this?” Then, it wasn’t until, and it’s always those eureka moments. I was probably in the shower or driving or something, where I realized, “Wait a minute, what if I didn’t tell it chronologically? What if I did a conversation between past and present?” That was when I got very excited, because I understood how to tell that story, and I felt there’s a reason why I, Soo Hugh, was the right person to do it.
Geri Cole: Oh man. We’re going to get into that structure, because I’ve got some questions about that, yeah. Was Min Jin Lee a part of that process? Did she have any input as you were developing the show?
Soo Hugh: She wasn’t creatively involved. The extraordinary book she wrote was very much the foundation for us.
Geri Cole: Did you have to do a ton of additional research then, or did you just pull just what was already in the book?
Soo Hugh: We did, because every time you bring something to visual and audio medium, it takes a life of its own, so there were years of research. We worked with about 20 to 40 different consultants, historians in all walks of life. Food historians, Zainichi historians, Japanese historians, Korean historians, but even kimono historians, fashion historians. We really did work with this army of experts.
Geri Cole: Man, I feel like, even without seeing any of that effort, you see all that on the screen, because it’s like everything is so rich, that it’s like you-
Soo Hugh: Oh, good.
Geri Cole: Of course, it’s like everything was historically accurate. We consulted. Yeah, I feel like that comes across on screen. Also, I’d like to talk a little bit about, did you hold a writers’ room for this series? Because you did co-write with some folks, and deciding who you wanted to pull into that room, what you looked for in potential collaborators and how that process worked.
Soo Hugh: Yes. I had such a dream room. I had a room of such generous, amazing writers who were also emotionally, extremely rigorous and sophisticated. I run rooms a little bit differently than the traditional room model, and so we worked together for about, I believe, 12 weeks. We did many, many deep thinking conversations about who these characters are, what world they lived in, how do you make this as visceral and subjective as possible. It was a room full of many different writers from all walks of life.
For example, we had a lot of playwrights. We had a poet who’d never even written a screenplay before. Half the room were Korean or Korean American, but then there’s also a Chinese-American playwright. There was a Nigerian-American playwright. I always liked to call the writers’ room a think-tank. You bring together just a group of big minds from all walks of life, and we try to create a creative circuit amongst us, and it really does add to the depth of the show.
Geri Cole: Absolutely. I feel like a poet, especially, who’d never written for the screen, but I feel like that makes sense, because there is the emotion that comes across in all of the writing. It’s like, “Oh. I guess, yeah. The poet, yeah. That makes sense” and it’s in charge of a way to bring emotion to screen.
Soo Hugh: Especially because when you think of poetry, I’m in so awe of poets bring little things to life in such visceral ways, right?
Geri Cole: Mm-hmm (affirmative).
Soo Hugh: How to use language in such minute, powerful ways. It was a blessing to have her.
Geri Cole: Yeah. They’re, I feel like, in charge of giving words to things that don’t have words, so it’s such a beautiful way to think about creating a show. I also would like to talk a little bit about the tone of this show. I feel like the material of the book and of the series is obviously very difficult. The characters face a lot of different challenges, but somehow it never feels too heavy in like a, “Oh, I can’t watch this,” kind of way, and I feel like what it comes down to is sort of the resilience and spirit of the characters. Let’s talk about how you created that. How’d you do that?
Soo Hugh: One of the things that was very important was exactly, as you said, is this can’t be a bleak show. What we said is, “What this show tonally, and as generalized as this may be, is we said the tone of this show is life. It has to feel like this kaleidoscope of what living is like. If you think about all of our lives and the way we’ve lived, there’re ups and downs. There’re peaks and values. There’s joy and tears. There’re trials and tribulations, so we really wanted to make sure that this show was built upon that full spectrum of life’s experience. Birth and death. What happens is when you put that together in a show and you build it, it does feel like this kaleidoscope of life.
Geri Cole: Yeah. There was, every episode, a moment that I was ugly crying. It was never like a, “I can’t watch.” It was like everything, you’re just sort of with the characters and rooting for them.” Speaking of characters, let’s talk about Sunja, who I feel like, again it feels like magic how did this, she somehow feels like a myth of a woman, but also the most grounded character. How did you create that dynamic?
Soo Hugh: I mean, I think what’s amazing about this character and resonates in the book as well, is you’re right, she is both a stand-in for our motherland, right? Sunja is mother with a capital M, and we have watched that mother come into being. At the same time, because we have watched her from childhood to older age, we also feel like we know her viscerally. I really think the cross-cutting of time periods helps build that tone with her.
And just Minha’s performance; when I think about her performance, little movements, little things, little gestures, and they feel so authentic, and it’s because it is authentic. It comes from her being that character. I think there’s a way you can turn this character and make her feel, like you said, a little bit like a fairytale character, someone we don’t know. That was the one thing we said, “We all have to know Sunja. She has to feel completely three dimensional to us,” and I think Minha did an amazing job with that.
Geri Cole: Yeah. It’s such a beautiful job. Speaking of the cutting across timelines, let’s talk about that structure. You somehow managed to cut us across at least two different timelines, three different languages. Were there any rules that you came up with to help sort of manage? And it was all seamless and without cutting across time and language seamlessly. How did you manage that? Did you come up with any rules to sort of guide when you would move back and forth?
Soo Hugh: Not rules per se, but whenever we cut, it can’t feel like a gimmick, if that makes sense. We really tried to restrain the number of match cuts in this show. There’s a few, and when we have them, they work really well, but for the most part, that’s not what’s linking these stories together. It’s not what’s linking the time periods. Now, what’s interesting about doing this extensive cross-cutting of time is that you’re constantly rewriting, constantly rejiggering, so not only do you have the scripts, but then even on set, you do little micro changes.
You’re rewriting on the set, but then in edit, you’re rewriting, and editing is really where this show was built. Whenever you have a structure like that, this show is built in the edit room. What we did, for our early cuts, it would be conversations with the editor being like, “Why is this not working? Why is this storyline not working, or why is this sequence not working? I’m not feeling it.” It would be like, “You know what? The transitions are wrong.” We had to rerecorded so many lines of ADR on this show to try to link the time period together. I also rewrote some dialogue. For example, at the end of the pilot, when after Sunja’s father has died and little Sunja goes into the water, we have a voiceover that her father has this speech.
Originally, in the script and originally in the edit, for a very long time it was a different speech. I always loved that speech, but in the edit, watching it, it just didn’t feel right. It worked. I’m not saying it didn’t work, but it didn’t land as powerfully as I wanted to. It came pretty late, I have to say. We were getting down to the wire of like, “We have to deliver these episodes,” and we said, “You know what? Let’s just try something different.” I scrapped that whole speech, rewrote it. I had [inaudible 00:12:15] record the speech. “Let’s just try to see if it works,” and the minute we put it in, it was like, “Wow.” This scene became totally different.
Geri Cole: That was it.
Soo Hugh: That was it.
Geri Cole: Wait. What did you change? Was it just a different cocktail of emotion?
Soo Hugh: I mean, so the original speech was the speech he gives her that talks about these horses that used to run around the island, the [inaudible 00:12:41], but there are no more horses on that island anymore. He asked Sunja, “Where did the horses go? When did they become separated from their shadows, and will we ever be able to find them?” I loved that speech.
I thought it worked really well, but it was too metaphorical, right? You realize, after watching Hoonie die, you just wanted Hoonie to be as simple and as honest in his words with Sunja as possible. We stripped all that out, and when you read the speech, it’s funny. The [inaudible 00:13:13] speech, on paper, it feels more impressive. It feels more like it’s a speech, and when you look at the speech that’s in there, it’s just a father talking to his daughter, saying, “One day, you will find the strength,” and it works because it’s so honest.
Geri Cole: Wow. Wow, wow, wow, wow. I love so much of that, but also the idea that it’s like, the thing that looked beautiful on paper, and is still beautiful on paper, it was beautiful, but it wasn’t right because it felt too metaphorical, but what you needed in that moment was something more personal.
Soo Hugh: Yeah. I mean, something we always said in the writer’s room was there’s, and I’m sure someone is going to coin a much better phrase than me, but I always ask the writer’s room like, “Why does this feel too writerly?” There’s points in TV shows that I feel like I can feel the writer’s room, do you know what I mean? When I was like, “This is great, but I can totally feel when the writer’s room came up with this idea.” It was really important that we gut check moment in this show and make sure that we saw none of those scenes. The audience cannot know that there are a group of writers sitting around a table, eating snacks, pulling the strings.
Geri Cole: That’s a good lens to filter everything through, where it’s like, “Does this feel too writerly? Can we feel the writer’s room in any of this?”
Soo Hugh: Yeah. Exactly.
Geri Cole: Wow. That’s awesome. Also, you made some changes from the book, slight changes to the story, as I understand. Unfortunately, I plan to now read the book, but did not read the book first, but what I’ve read and understood is that there are some slight tweaks to the story. I’m curious about why you chose to make those tweaks, and a part of, again, if I understand, there are some characters that we didn’t get to see as much. Does that mean we’re getting a season two? Am I allowed to ask that?
Soo Hugh: I can’t answer that question, but the show was always conceived to be four seasons long. There’s no way you can take a book like that and just do one season, unless you’re going to do 20 episodes for one season. There’s just quite a lot of story, and so many characters that come in and out. I think in terms of just changes, I think every adaptation makes changes out of necessity, because that leap from words in a book to the cinematic form is not one to one.
I always say, I read the book a few times, and I like adaptations. I prefer to do adaptations, but you read a book a few times, and then I say, “You have to push it away,” and from there, you just have to do what’s intuitive to the story that you want to tell, the story that you have. From where I am sitting now, and if you ask me, “Is this from the book, or is this from the room, or is this from you?”, I wouldn’t be able to tell you, because it’s all now just so mixed up in my head. I feel like that’s pretty normal for the adaptation process. I feel like most writers would say that’s the process.
Geri Cole: Actually, I feel like even the experience in the audience, there’s been times where I’ve read a book and then watched the film, and then it’s like, “Now I can’t remember which ones which,” where it’s just sort of like the story starts to blend together in a way. I also want to get into, speaking of overlapping, there’s a very specific history that this story is dealing with, which was honestly a history that I was ignorant to, so I was very glad. I was like, “Oh. I should know this,” which is specifically about, and I hope this is a fair way to phrase it, but sort of like the Japanese imperial campaign in Korea and sort of like the subsequent discrimination against Koreans, which again was a history that I was completely ignorant of. What did you want to make sure that you got across from and about that period?
Soo Hugh: Well, it’s really interesting the way, so we always said that we didn’t want the first line of the synopsis of this show to say the story of Japanese colonialism. That is not what this show is about. This show is about one Zainichi family specifically, who lived through, first, colonization, and then migration to Japan, and the fallout from that generation to generation.
The only reason I think that’s an important distinction is because we wanted to make sure that the headline of this show was not historical events, but people, because I think if you tell this story from the lens of history with a capital H, it’s distancing. I don’t have the qualifications to tell that story. I’m not a historian, but I do have the qualifications of telling the story about this one family, because I’m a writer. These are characters, and they’re fictional characters, but the experience of them is true. These people did exist. They lived a very specific experience in Japan and continue to live so, so there’s also a responsibility to that storytelling as well.
Geri Cole: Speaking of, I feel like actually you just beautifully led me into my next question, which was, I feel like the show is for everyone. I have been recommending it to young, hip folks, and then also old, conservative folks who have probably never read a subtitle, because I feel like ultimately it’s a story about family, but I imagine there’s a very specific audience that you were looking to honor in creating this series. Can we talk a little bit about sort of, I guess, that responsibility and/or honor?
Soo Hugh: It’s a great question, and I’m going to answer it as honestly as possible, which is I only know how to make shows for me, because I don’t know what making shows for everyone else means, because I’m not everyone else. This show, in particular, if I had to add someone else, I would say I made this show for my mother, right? This show is very much an ode to my family and to my mother, but it in terms of who I make shows for, and I feel like most people would say this, because I can’t step into the feet of all everyone who watches this show, I just have to make the show that I’m like, “I get this show. I understand this show. I can defend this show. I would watch this show.” For me, that’s the litmus test of what my job is.
Geri Cole: Yeah. That’s, I think, probably a good, because the other way can be maybe a little bit too overwhelming, I would think, to think that you have to serve.
Soo Hugh: Yeah. I would totally feel completely, I don’t know how I would even make a show, because I thought about, “Well, how is so and so from Alaska going to feel about the scene?” or “How is so and so from Germany going to feel about the scene?” I think if I thought about how an audience reacts to a scene, then I would feel completely helpless.
Geri Cole: Also, which maybe I had mentioned, or I was talking about with Jason beforehand, but I feel like this show is, every aspect of bit is so beautifully done, from the sets, the costumes, the music direction, the performances, everything feels like a game. I’m wondering, what was your sort of guiding principles as the show runner to sort of help everyone rise to the occasion?
Soo Hugh: Well, first of all, my partners in this show were also a game, starting from Kogonada and Justin, our directors, to all of our HODs. One of the things we were looking for is, whenever I meet people for positions, I like to ask them like, “What are you afraid of?” Because I find that people who come into meetings so confident about like, “I get this show. I know this show,” I get worried about that, because that means they already have a show in their head.
Do you know what I mean? That means they’re not going to build it with me. That means they already see something too concrete, and it’s the people who say, “You know what. I’m actually sort of terrified,” that humility of knowing that something is going to be created, and you’re a little bit scared of it, then I was like, “Ah. I can understand you. I know how you think. That’s how I think,” and that’s much more reassuring for me.
I think the reason why this all came together so well is because then, only when you start off from a place of like, “I know I have a lot of work to do, and I’m nervous about it,” can you then allow that trust to build with one another. Also, I always feel like, for me, the really exciting challenge of making any shows, the challenge I give everyone, is if you took one frame from this show, any frame, will they know this is Pachinko? It can’t look and feel like any other show out there, and I think that should be the bar for everything, because we want to do something distinct.