Chris Martin Invites You to Enter Dramaworld, Where Fandom Makes You Special

dramaworld. viki. web series. k-dramas. 2016.

After watching the preview episodes of Dramaworld we were sent, and having discussed it with Angel and Ardo, I was keen to talk to director and co-writer Chris Martin. Happily, despite the eight hour time difference, I got the chance! We talked about culture, media representation, fandom, and how connections are formed (or prevented from forming) via stories.

Watching your body of work, I noticed you work with Koreans or Korean-Americans, as well as other Asian Americans, a lot, and seem to have some fluency with the language. What’s your connection with Korea?

Back in college, I fell in love with Korean cinema, and I just… I fell in love with Park Chan Wook, Bong Joon Ho, and all these guys. Kim Ji Woon. I just started to love the movies so I watched a bunch of movies, really got into it, and right after I finished college I actually moved out to Korea. And so, I always tell people it’s funny because I moved to Busan. And it’s in the south, right, and they have this film festival there? The Busan International Film Festival. And I went thinking that like the whole… the whole film industry would be in Busan. Cos you know in the states there’s like New York, and LA, there’s stuff all over right? You can find all that kind of stuff. But when I got to Busan there’s NO film industry there! So then I ended up going to Seoul, I started doing short films, I started studying, studying Korean as well. Yonsei has a Korean language programme, so I did that for a year. And I just kept making films and doing stuff in Korea. And then I actually ended up going to film school in Singapore, uh, NYU had a programme in Singapore, and then I kept coming back… coming back and forth, back and forth. Cos I just kinda fell in love, you know? I fell in love with culture, and the films and dramas, and just… there’s just something really special about it.

Your personal education in filmmaking… How much of that would you say is informed by the Korean filmmaking industry, or perhaps, the Korean filmmaking tradition?

I mean, that’s where I made my first short film ever. If that tells you anything! So, the first time I make a short film, I make it with an all-Korean cast, in Korean, and to be completely honest there’s a lot of hard things when you do that, right? I speak Korean but it’s still… English is always gonna be easier, no matter what. But there’s something fun—I met a lot of people in the film industry, and I meat a lot, people that just wanted to help me, you know what I mean? And so I found this, this, this love when I was there too, with a lot of collaborators, there’s a lot of close friends, and suddenly… I felt more at home making stuff over there than I did making stuff in the States. So even with this project too, I felt I just wanted to make something in Korea again. And that was when we started to write, my partner and I, started to do this project.

What would you personally say is the specific draw of kdramas? Because Dramaworld is about Korean dramas, not Korean film, or anything else; it’s kdramas. What is it about kdramas that appeals to you and what is it that you think does (or will) appeal to a wider international audience?

I guess a couple things. The first thing—one of the reasons we started to do this project and one of the things I think is the strength of kdrama is that if you watch American shows now they’re so dark. Everything is about an anti-hero, everything is about… and that’s great, I think there are some amazing shows, but I love… With American stuff, I love, like Back to the Future, I love Roger Rabbit. KDrama has this lightness to it? Something really, like, it doesn’t have to be ironic. Do you know what I mean?

I do.

People, if they, if they’re excited about something they’re actually excited about it, they don’t have to pretend they’re not actually excited about it. You know? There’s that. And then, the other funny thing I think is that—there’s a lot of people that don’t like kdramas that don’t—

[The interview is interrupted by Sean Dulake, who plays the role of “Perfect Fictional Romantic Lead”. Indeed —he is very dashing. He is snapchatting]

But I think the power of kdrama really lies in the fact that even if people don’t like ’em, and they can look at it and be like “oh this is cheesy, what is this, what is this” and then three episodes later they’re crying and they’re like “I can’t stop watching, what the hell is wrong with me?!” And so I think there’s just this real power to it, and I think it gets back to the fact that we all wanna experience, like, these emotions. In America we pretend that that’s not cool, that being cool is sitting back and acting like nothing matters, ah, but I think… I think there’s something to be said for that [emotional content]. I think they do have this weird power.

dramaworld. viki. web series. k-dramas. 2016.
Dramaworld. Sean Dulake

I’ve been thinking about this—I would say that the thing that draws me personally to kdramas and jdramas is that there are so many, so many easy to find, that validate a romance plot as the A plot. Which is very rare, I think, in drama series in English language countries. And you chose romance, a romance drama, to put your protagonist into. Is that purposeful, or is that just bechance?

It’s funny, I always joke that—we do a lot of romcom stuff, my partner and I? But I hate romcoms. Like I love and hate romcoms. Do you know what I mean?

I do!

I love 500 Days of Summer. I love certain romcoms. But romcoms have a really bad reputation, when it comes to US romcoms, cos they’re usually really bad! What we wanted to do is we wanted to—like, we love love. We love love stories. There’s a moment—if you can get somebody to feel goosebumps, and stuff, and people are falling in love on screen and you just really feel it, it’s really powerful. Josh Billings and I, that’s my co-writer co-creator, we get really excited about when people feel that kind of stuff. And so… we hope that people can fall in love with this, too, with this show, and we hope they really enjoy it.

The drama in the drama does not appear to be comedic, whereas Dramaworld as a series kind of turns it all into a romcom. Would you say that’s an American element of the whole?

I would say… there’s a lot of genres [in Dramaworld]. Once you get into it, I think you’re gonna be kind of excited. One of the other things I love about Korean cinema, and Korean stuff in general, is the genre mashup. It’s one of the only countries that can do these genre mashups and it actually works. You think “this is stupid” but then you watch it and you’re like “holy crap, how did they pull all that stuff all together?” With us, yeah. Taste of Love [the drama our protaonist is watching] is more like a [name], right? More like that sort of drama. And then when Claire comes in, it gets twisted and turned on its head. So then that’s when a lot of the comedic elements and the lightness come about? We have a little bit of both. We wanted to keep a little bit of that mellow stuff. And so, what happens when a person from the real world lands in a melodrama. And all these characters, the way they act and who they are, is one thing, right? But what happens when all of a sudden they butt heads and everything changes? We also just really like comedy. So I’m not sure if it’s an American thing versus a Korean thing… we just like to laugh, we like to feel… we like the feels, too. We have some love scenes.

You’re unlucky, perhaps, launching this week. Ghost in the Shell casting is causing some upset at the moment, and your show takes a white girl and puts her in a Korean drama. Why did you choose specifically a white actress to represent the American side of things?

It was when I saw Liv’s audition. It was her.

Was it an open call for actresses of any race?

Yeah. We had looked at a lot of different people, black, white… To be completely honest it was more like black or white. Because if we had an Asian girl, a Korean-American girl, it’s a little bit less of a culture clash, because she already knows about Korean stuff. I think it’s really exciting that [in Dramaworld] we have these different cultures all together. I think with Ghost in the Shell too it’s a difference because that’s supposed to be an Asian character. So, one of the problems of Hollywood, and I have a real issue too, is that there’s all these Asian roles that don’t go to Asian actors. Because… “there’s seven white people and we cast’em… you get your movie made.” You know what I mean? That was never really our thing [that it would be an Asian role], it was more like an American girl falls into the show. For us, [Dramaworld]’s exciting. We have a female protagonist, we have Asian-American actors, we have Asian actors. We have a big mix. I know diversity’s a huge thing right now, and it’s something we actually pay attention to a lot.

dramaworld. viki. web series. k-dramas. 2016.

I noticed your earlier videos, adverts for Viki, the service, showcase fans of various colours.

Yeah. Because at the end of the day… not everybody’s a white man. [laughs] Not everbody’s a white woman. But at the same time, just because she’s a white woman I don’t think it’s bad either. Do you know what I mean? Everybody still needs roles. It’s just that everybody still needs MORE roles. It needs to be more diverse. That’s also, too—Josh and I, we just finished our new show, which hopefully we can talk about in a year or so, we’ll see! But that was actually one of the things we were really aiming to do—we want female characters, we want diverse characters, we want… Everybody has a story. You know? It would be really great if some of those can get onscreen.

We kind of split the coverage of Dramaworld between us, on WWAC, because we had three established drama viewers. There’s me, white British, Angel, Filipino-Canadian, and Ardo, Somali-Canadian. And Angel, I think, found it hard to get into the series for this reason, especially because of the climate this week, with Doctor Strange, Ghost in the Shell, Death Note

Sure. Death Note I have a big issue with too. I love the series. I wish, just, why… just… Ugh. Never mind. I hope the best for all of those shows, but it’s just like… I have a lot of Asian-American actor friends, and you just wanna see… them get stuff. You know? I think there’s a real smart way to do remakes, where we can include everybody. Like… There can definitely still be white actors in things! [laughs] You know?

Watching the first two episodes—we’ve only seen the first two episodes—I could kind of see things that were causing Angel pause. Having Seth tell Claire she was special, and the fact that she needs to “save” the story, I think she was seeing a white saviour narrative there?

Mmm.

And I could see her point, and I wonder if that—

Seth is also there for that! Seth is also a facilitator—

—Yes. So I’m wondering if you’re going to go into how her role, or their roles, as facilitators, reflects, like is that about fan engagement? Because in, technically, real life, I think that a lot of watchers would have the same awareness that Claire does, the same knowledge of “the rules”, which is symbolised by the book that she’s given, and the same fluency with mechanics and structure of, not to say stock stories, but… how stories work. And I wonder if in the episodes that I haven’t seen, if that becomes more of a feature. If her knowledge is integral to how the plot of Dramaworld progresses, or if it’s just sort of there as… a nod towards… what you’re aware of what fans are aware of. Like is that—

Sorry, one more time? I got a little lost…

Sorry, I’m getting high concept.

You got like, too meta, on this meta show, for me!

Haha! I guess I’m asking… In the words of Angel, what is it that you hope Dramaworld will achieve? Is it “saying something” or is it “a story… and that’s it”?

OK. OK. Let me jump back real quick to something right before?

OK.

So, when you talk about like the whole, the whole white saviour complex, you know… Last Samurai. We don’t wanna be Tom Cruise in Last Samurai. That’s definitely not something we’re aiming to be. For us, we didn’t see [Captain Algren], we see a fan. We’re actually talking about doing some other seasons of Dramaworld where we bring in, like a Chinese girl falls into Dramaworld; we can do the Latin-American version. There’s a lot of really exciting potential things that we could do, because for us, it’s about the fans coming in. It is one of those things where we have to be careful and make sure that we recognise as we make it, but at the same time I don’t want us to stop making a story that… We’re making it for the right reasons, or at least we think we are. There’s always gonna be this question, and this dialogue is really important, so that things change, and it gets… it gets better. But why is she special? Because she’s a fan. Why is Justin’s character special? He’s special because he’s a fan. We have an Asian-American man and a White American girl both being facilitators, and for us, it’s because they’re fans.

dramaworld. viki. web series. k-dramas. 2016.
Dramaworld. Justin Chon, Bae Noo Ri, and Sean Dulake.

Obviously I’ve only seen these two episodes so far and this may become clear in later ones, but since you’re here it seems silly not to ask. Do you have a big idea of what is… I guess, what is going on in Claire’s life to make her need dramas so much?

Because of the format, it’s a shorter format, and so it’s harder to—we don’t have a lot of time to get into real-world so much. Honestly it comes down to budget restraints and all that kind of stuff. There’s so many things we wanted to do! We actually had to cut some scenes from the real world, but… I mean [laughs] I know her backstory but I don’t know how much I want to get into it!

Just because I found her very sympathetic. The passion that is evident in the character made me feel that there’s more than just enjoyment of the subject matter that’s driving her to watch her shows—

There’s a real reason. There’s a reason why she found it. For us… you don’t really see it but her mom has passed away and so there’s this moment where—she needed something in her life and kdrama happened to come into it. And there’s something about kdrama, I think, that really fulfills that, that void—when you need love, when you really need something to really make you happy.

I think that’s really evident. I think that the emotions and the feeling of why fandom happens, almost, rather than just “something’s on, so I’ll watch it.”

There are! There’s always those reasons, right? And that’s, yeah, and that’s also due to Liv’s being an amazing, amazing actress, and I think she’s gonna continue to really big things in future. But the fact that she got all that across without even having any scenes about that is fantastic.

 Yeah!

I’ll tell her! I’ll give her the compliment later.

Please do!

Sorry, I didn’t answer the second part of that question, though. Liv is this, she’s becoming this facilitator with Justin. And the idea’s that they both know about kdrama, right? That’s their initial thing into it. But at the end of the day, what happens is, they have to be people and figure out things… not just knowing rules, but through living. So that’s one of the things, too, where we wanted to… It’s not just about “okay, if I just do this, if I just do this, I fix everything.” Because that’s not how life works either. So we send them on this adventure, to fix the world.

So… who’s it for?

[in the gentlest voice] It’s for you guys. [laugh] Claire, I made it for you! [laughing]

Ah! So you expect your audience already to be into kdramas, or—

This is my big dream: I think honestly, our initial target is you guys. It’s [English-speaking] people that like kdrama, it’s people that that, that understand this. Because there’s something really exciting that you guys are going to give us, right away. [snaps fingers] I mean, you understand—there’s all these little tropes, little things, like in the trailer, the flashback, all this kind of stuff. You’ve seen episode two, you know what I’m talking about. My biggest hope is that then Koreans see it. Koreans know kdrama! So then they’re like, “oh, this is really cool,” and all my team that I’ve worked with so far, they’re really excited about it. They saw it and they’re like “woah, this is really fresh! This is wild.” And then, my BIGGER hope, is that then people who have never seen kdrama see this, and they’re like “woah kdrama’s cool, what is this thing that I have missed?” Because, unlike kdrama, we have English and we have Korean [speech and subtitles], and hopefully we’re bringing new fans into something because maybe the language barrier’s broken down just a little bit. Or the sense of.. There’s a little bit of American flair, a little bit of Korean flair to the whole show. That’s what I was going for, anyway. So hopefully we can bring more people in through that. And reach an audience who has never seen kdrama. But that’s the long goal. At first, it’s just for you guys, honestly.

Well, that’s nice.

[laughs] Can I add one thing? I spent eight… eight, almost nine years in Asia, and when I came back… I can’t make just American shows anymore. I don’t think I can make a purely Korean show either. So I’m in the middle. And that’s when this show really made sense to me. I was like, oh, this show is perfect to make, because it’s what I get. It’s what I understand. I’m not Korean. But no longer am I solely just… I’m based in America, so I feel like mashing these up really was just a fun idea that I got.

What would you say—this is a big question—

Oh my gosh. You are a hard hitter! [laughs]

Why bother otherwise? [laughs] What would you say is primarily the value of watching or interacting with media from cultures not your own?

I think that’s a really good question. I think it’s the same reason we read books. You know, it’s the same reason that we watch any movies. Things that aren’t about us. So we can understand somebody else. And that can be a man reading a book about a woman, it could be me reading a book about a Somali, something just to kind of, like… so we understand the world more. Because I think the more we understand each other, the better our world is. The reason that we have, like, Trump, and ignorance in America, is because those people don’t know anything else. If people get outside of themselves, and start to really see another person’s life, you start to understand, “oh, that’s why that person does this, oh that’s really interesting, oh, I really love this food.” There’s so many, this world is just like… there’s so much to see, there’s so much to eat, there are so many people to meet. And if we only live just this one thing, then I think we’re missing out on so much. I think we can be better human beings by seeing other cultures, and media’s a great way to get there. Maybe people can’t travel, maybe you can’t fly to Korea. What can you do? You can watch drama, or you can watch a documentary, you can read a book.

Have you interacted with western kdrama fandom?

Yeah, I’ve been at k-Con the past two years, I’ve seen a little bit of it… [laughs]

dramaworld. viki. web series. k-dramas. 2016.
Dramaworld. Liv Hewson

Because Angel was wondering… Because it’s about “a fangirl,”

That’s why I’m honestly worried, I hope you guys… I mean, you saw the first two episodes, are we doing okay?

I think so. But I mean I’m not American, so it could be different.

Sure, yeah.

But she was wondering, I think, specifically, the younger girl audience, is that… open to you?

I’m a thirty-two year old man, so I don’t hang out with a lot of the younger fans? But doing stuff for Viki, doing the commercials, I’ve been part of that… what would you call it? Atmosphere, for a while. Yeah, I’ve been around. I see fan comments, I read comments. I’m reading Dramaworld comments to see if people like it. I think it’s important to understand, like you’re talking about, why people like kdrama, so we can express that in the show. Making sure that that part’s in there. So as much as possible, you know, I read Koreaboo, I read Dramabeans, I’m checking all that stuff out… Because it’s important to me for work, but also because I’m interested. Staying up on culture, and stuff. My biggest interaction is going to events, going to k-Con, staying up with the blogs, and stuff like that, to see what people are into. What’s your favourite drama recently?

49 Days. [this is not a “recent” drama, but I am watching it, recently]

Oh, not a Descendants of the Sun fan, huh?

I haven’t seen that many! I’m new. I’ve only been watching since last year. But the ones I started with were so good, structured so well, I’m kind of worried? I feel like I went in at the top, and maybe it’s all downhill from here.

Came in too big! [laughs]

Alright, the last question. What do you wish you’d done?

So many things. Every time you do a production there are so many things you wish you’d done bigger and better. But I’m pretty happy. I got a great cast. For all the things I probably screwed up myself, I picked great actors. There’s some great locations; I’ve got great staff. I just had a lot of great people around me. I got really lucky—I got the people that I wanted. And that doesn’t always happen. Liv’s video came in, it was an audition for something, for some other movie that she was auditioning for in LA? My casting director sent it to me, and right away I said [snaps fingers] that’s her. It’s her. I got really lucky with a lot of that stuff. My Korean actors were phenomenal. We had a lot of cameos, we have a lot of cool cameos, and it’s like… those guys came out and did some weird, cool stuff for us! And it’s—that’s awesome! Siwon came out and Han Ji-min came out.. These guys come out and give their time to us, and so—I can’t complain about a lot. BUT. If we get a season two I definitely want to get bigger, and have a lot more fun.

Season two, huh? You’ve got ideas already?

[Confidently, as if at great peace] Yeah. [normal again] We got ideas. We gotta see if people like it first though! If people like it, then we can go into season two. You can call me at the end of season one and tell me if we should have a season two or not. [laughs]

Claire Napier

Claire Napier

Critic, ex-Editor in Chief at WWAC, independent comics editor; the rock that drops on your head. Find me at clairenapierclairenapier@gmail.com and give me lots of money
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