Last Thursday, the hottest Korean drama, “Descendants of the Sun” on KBS2, reached a viewership rating of 30.4 percent, breaking the record for a weekday drama of 30 percent set four years ago by MBC’s “The Moon Embracing the Sun.”
The new drama, which adopted the “early filming” method of completing all its shooting and editing before airing, was able to gain censorship clearance and air simultaneously in China via the online video platform iQiyi. As of Friday, it had garnered more than 1.1 billion views on iQiyi.
Riding on the show’s success in both Korea and China, the rights have been sold to distributors in 32 countries, including France, Italy, Germany, the United States and United Kingdom, with requests pouring in from foreign producers to make local remakes of the drama, according to the show’s production company, NEW.
The drama is film distribution company NEW’s first attempt at making a drama series. Kim Woo-taek, 52, the director of NEW, says he didn’t anticipate their first try to be such a jackpot. To hear more about how a film distribution company decided to spend 13 billion won ($11 million) on creating its first drama, the JoongAng Ilbo sat down with Kim at his office in Nonhyeon-dong, southern Seoul. Here are some excerpts from the interview.
Q. What made you decide to make this drama?
A. It was completely coincidental. Early last year, an acquaintance of mine in the film industry talked about producing a drama, and I judged that it included universal values such as love, philanthropy, sacrifice and so on. That’s what made me decide to produce the drama.
I heard that the original screenplay did not feature soldiers. How did it change?
The original screenplay that Kim Won-seok wrote was centered on medical doctors doing their best to save the lives of people in disaster zones. When NEW decided to produce the drama, we asked famous drama writer Kim Eun-sook to dramatize the original story. While she was doing some tweaks, she decided to add the military characters and disasters taking place abroad. The whole story became very abundant. When I read the screenplay up to the fourth episode, I began to have the feeling that this drama may turn out to be a big hit.
How was the casting? Was it difficult?
As for the male protagonist role now taken by actor Song Joong-ki, we had other top stars on the list of possible candidates. But as the drama adopted the early filming method, which a lot of actors and actresses avoid when it requires long stays abroad to film, the possible candidates were quite hesitant. Then actor Song, who only had a few more weeks until his discharge, forcefully showed interest, saying it’s too good of a drama to miss. It was hard to imagine Song, who has a somewhat delicate image, taking the role of a soldier. But when I saw him wearing the military uniform for the dress fitting, I slapped my knees saying that the drama is going to be a success. To cast actress Song Hye-kyo for the female doctor role, we were eager to have her on board as she’s one of the most popular Korean stars in China. Casting both of them was, I must say, a stroke of luck.
How did you decide to do early filming?
As we are a latecomer in drama producing, we wanted to enter by adopting an unfamiliar method of filming. Moreover, to allow simultaneous airing in China, we needed to get necessary censorship approval, and that’s impossible if we film as we go. Some parts were edited out during the censorship process for the Chinese version, such as the fight scene between South and North Korean soldiers near the border, as it is politically sensitive. Moreover, because we adopted the early filming method, we were able to raise the degree of completion of the disaster scenes that required a lot of computer graphics. For that, we got a lot of help from our movie filming team members.
Wasn’t it a burden to foot all the production costs?
It was certain that no one would want to invest in a film distribution company that’s trying out a 130 billion won-scale drama series for the first time. Moreover, we were adopting the early filming method, not to mention allowing televising rights only to terrestrial broadcasting companies. Everyone said we were crazy. But I had confidence in our content and managed to make up the production cost as soon as we aired the first episode, thanks to profit made from selling rights to foreign broadcasters and from product placement. After that, we managed to readjust our contract with KBS to not just selling the broadcasting rights but also receive part of the investment. The immense profit that KBS is making from advertisements during our time slot is the result of their long-term endurance and trust in us. As we didn’t know much about producing a drama series, we were brave, and that courage, I believe, created unprecedented success.
There is some criticism of the drama as well, saying that it’s inspiring patriotism while portraying the Korean military unrealistically. What’s your opinion of this?
As drama writer Kim said in an interview, it’s just a fantasy drama. No one would make a commercial drama only to inspire patriotism.
There are many predictions concerning the ending of the drama. What can you tell us about it?
My wife told me that she predicts that one of the characters will die in the end, asking me who’s going to die, but I did not respond. Obviously, toward the end, the story will develop faster than before, and it will become more dynamic. The love story between the two couples in the drama becomes more ardent amid disasters and terror.
BY JUNG HYUN-MOK [firstname.lastname@example.org]