A meteoric rise isn’t easy, but once in a while a Robert Downey Jr. type story arrives in the zeitgeist. While this story doesn’t superheroes or 200 million dollar budgets, it does contain a strikingly endearing narrative of a young prodigy studying among his adult peers as he finds his way to scoring cinema.
A frontrunner for Emmy consideration, composer Jung Jae-il first gained acclaim when he scored the Oscar winning Best Picture film Parasite. What became an even bigger sensation was his work on Hwang Dong-hyuk’s Squid Game, which caught fire once it was acquired by Netflix. Squid Game has become Netflix’s number one streamed series with 1.65 billion hours streamed in its first four weeks alone.
The series centers on desperate Korean citizens that are in deep financial debt. So much so that 456 of the citizens become players who risk their lives in a series of deadly children’s games for the chance to win wealth beyond their wildest dreams.
Netflix has already commissioned a second season of Hwang Dong-hyuk’s series and they’ve also just announced a reality show version of the show where 456 real life contestants compete for a $4.56 million dollar prize… no doubt a great conversation starter as Emmy voting begins this weekend.
Awards Focus spoke to Jung Jae-il about his experience on Squid Game, his early days in the Seoul Jazz Academy, and his reaction to the show’s astronomical success.
Awards Focus: I’d like to start with your time at the Seoul Jazz Academy, how was your experience there and what challenges did you face as a budding artist?
Jung Jae-il: Well, I was thirteen at the time and I was fortunate enough to have support from the people around me, so in that way it wasn’t a competitive environment. I didn’t know much at the time, I was just completely mesmerized by all the experiences that I had there. I was basically a boy in an adult’s world.
AF: I’d love to know how you transitioned from school to actually composing film music as a career.
Jae il: After completing my education at the academy, I joined a punk band known as “Gigs.” I was able to learn a lot by being in a band because the experience was comparable to school for me. One day I was given the opportunity to meet someone who introduced me to the world of film. I then worked in the film industry as an assistant for some time. One opportunity led to more opportunities and my path unfolded before me. The first time that I found a gig that was exciting to me was when I worked on Okcha… that was the moment that I knew I needed to pursue this as a career.
AF: What skills do you think enabled you to break through, and what makes you a good collaborator with your directors and producers?
Jae il: I am a good listener, partly because I am not the most eloquent speaker. My job is to interpret the vision of the director and translate that to the music, that is how I approach my work. I am not saying any approach should be universal for all composers, everyone has a different style and process.
AF: With Squid Game, several notable classical pieces are present in addition to your own original score. How did those needle drop choices affect the sound palette of your score? Was there a temp score in it?
Jae il: That is music that the director has chosen already. We thought about what pieces should be placed in the show. We made many adaptations of the music and the final decisions were made around “Fly Me To The Moon”, “The Blue Danube”, and Tchaikovsky’s “Serenade for Strings.” The director felt that the music should be something that feels familiar to everyone.
AF: In the beginning of the series your track “Way Back Then” is being played during a flashback. What inspired the melody of the recorder?
Jae-il: While composing this cue, I thought of the instrument we learned in elementary school and I was inspired to create a serious score using those simple childlike instruments. I thought that the dissonance created due to the players not playing well, was my way of foreshadowing what would be told in the storyline.
AF: In addition to a classical orchestra, you used the guitar brilliantly throughout the series. I understand you play multiple instruments, how many players did you work with on the score and how much did you play yourself?
Jae-il: The ones that I created were the ones that I played on my own, programming the piano, guitar, and the orchestration. In terms of the jazz band and orchestra, it was done in Budapest and featured around 50 to 60 musicians.
AF: Your rhythmic sequences of ethnic drums are played during intense scenes of the games such as “The Rope Is Tied.” What was the inspiration in creating these types of rhythmic scores and how did you capture that sound?
Jae-il: That was the game where everyone thought that all the players would die. However, in the end, they competed with all their strength and eventually won. I initially thought of using heavy metal sounds for that game but the director didn’t feel that it was appropriate.
With that I created a percussive score and the director suggested I remove the melody. This led me to think of the percussive instruments of Brazil and Senegal. I was then able to create a terrifying carnival-like sound for that score.
AF: What inspired the catchy vocalization for the “Pink Soldiers” theme? What was your reaction to the theme exploding on social media?
Jae-il: The pink soldiers theme was not entirely created by me. It was mostly done by composer 23, and as a music composer I was the one who thought of using that score to portray the pink soldiers. Thankfully, it drew a lot of attention worldwide and I was completely blown away when David Guetta created a mix of it.
AF: What new opportunities have you had since the show exploded on netflix, and how does it feel to be in the awards conversation with your cast and crew?
Jae-il: So I am the person working behind the scenes so I didn’t really feel that explosion as much. I spoke to the director directly, however I did not have much interaction with the other creatives and the cast. However, whenever I hear good news regarding the actors and cast members I think, “Is this really happening to us?” When the show was originally released there were not many decent reviews in Korea but then it suddenly exploded. It felt as if I were daydreaming in the best possible way.