There has been little to match the popularity of the Netflix survival thriller, Squid Game. The show is estimated to generate more than $900 million for Netflix on the back of a $24.1 million budget. Developing the world’s most popular show in South Korea may seem like a stretch, but director Hwang Dong-hyuk has created a cultural phenomenon a decade in the making.
The Director’s early career
Hwang Dong-hyuk has been a popular director since graduating from the University of Southern California. He was born in South Korea in 1971 and dreamed of becoming a filmmaker throughout his adolescence. Initially graduating from the Seoul National University, Dong-hyuk made several shorts and features showing little sign of the narrative prowess he displayed in Squid Game.
The works from his early adulthood showed the young filmmaker growing into his powers, as Dong-hyuk became more known for the high-quality movies he wrote and directed. Among these are included My Father and Miracle Mile, both of which dealt with the social and mental issues caused by adoption. In his works, he tended to explore themes that dealt with the moral fiber underpinning social conscience. Films such as The Crucible and The Fortress fall into this category and in some ways foreshadowed his creation of Squid Game.
Where did the Idea for Squid Game Come From?
After finishing his studies in the U.S. and directing his first feature film (My Father), Dong-hyuk found himself broke and unemployed. During his time as an unemployed artist, Dong-hyuk spent his time searching for the right movie script to direct. For inspiration, he spent much of 2008 frequenting South Korea’s manga cafes to read survival story comics. The narrative style of this genre had a big influence on him conceiving Squid Game, and he has often cited Battle Royale and Liar Game as two manga series he drew on for inspiration.
The characters in the story are grounded in real-life, with the writer describing his series as a story about losers. Drawing inspiration from his own time in debt and struggling to make ends meet, Hwang Dong-hyuk wanted his characters to feel real to viewers.
Netflix and the Development of Squid Game
One of the often-asked questions is why no production company chose to pick up the title until Netflix became involved. Despite Dong-Hyuk’s efforts, the story failed to get off the ground in its earliest forms due in part to a lack of faith in its story and the conservative nature of local production companies unwilling to risk their money on an untested genre format. Survival thrillers are typically produced as full feature films but it was quite rare to have it in an episodic series format. Without much luck getting it off the ground, Dong-Hyuk went on to create three movies in the decade between the origination of the idea and the development of the series.
His fortunes turned around in 2018 when Netflix decided to search for global content in the hopes of driving up subscriptions outside the U.S. The streaming giant made a public call for overseas artists to contact them for funding, with a focus on high-growth markets such as Asia. Ever since Squid Game’s launch, Netflix has seen the series knock Bridgerton off its podium as the most viewed series in its history.
Filming the Show and Developing Characters
The development of Squid Game was not a walk in the park for its writer-director. In the six months it took for Dong-hyuk to write the first two episodes, he lost six teeth due to severe stress. Netflix appears to have been quite supportive through the filming process, extending production timelines to accommodate development.
The character development work is one of the most discussed aspects of Squid Game. Dong-hyuk believed it was important for the show to humanize the characters and feed their backstories with as much empathy as our emotions would allow. The way the past trauma of the characters influenced their actions as the plot matured, echoed similarities to Dong-hyuk’s personal life when he struggled through years of debt. Through the show’s story arc, Dong-hyuk sought to reconcile two seemingly opposed narratives; the sense of hopelessness that drove many of the characters to join the game show, and the self-determination they showed in voluntarily risking their lives to claw their way out of their own misery.
Despite the success of Squid Game and the clamor for more episodes, Dong-hyuk has no concrete plans for a second season. After writing and planning the series for more than a decade, the director explained he has yet to finalize any deals for a sequel.
Last modified: June 1, 2022