As the creator behind the global phenomenon Squid Game, Hwang Dong-hyuk has had quite a year (or decade, if you count when he actually conceived of the story). Netflix released the Korean thriller Sept. 17 — two days before the 2021 Emmy Awards, to give you an idea of anyone’s expectations that the show was an awards contender. But after the series became an instant worldwide sensation, Hwang and his cast and crew hit the campaign trail, picking up a string of nominations and wins from awards bodies like the Screen Actors Guild and the Golden Globes en route to making history as the first non-Western, non-English-language production to earn major-category Emmy nominations, including best drama and best actor, for a total of 14. Along the way, Hwang — who received individual nominations for directing and writing — also has been furiously preparing the second season (which Netflix commissioned soon after the show started streaming). He spoke with THR, with the assistance of a translator, about how he’s been handling it all.
The Emmy nominations were announced just after midnight in Korea. When and how did you learn the good news?
It was about 12:30 a.m. and I was watching it live from Jeju Island in the south of the peninsula, where I was writing the script for season two. Although I was looking forward to hearing some nominations, I was very nervous, too, because we might not be nominated.
Out of the 14 noms the show received, were there any in particular that you are especially proud of?
Of course I am proud of all 14 nominations, but if I had to choose one I’d definitely say [Park] Hae-soo for supporting actor. He’s been campaigning with us for a very long time, but this is the first time he got a solo nomination. I was so happy that such a prestigious awards organization recognized his great work.
Are there any words to express how it feels to receive these nominations, whether it’s about being Netflix’s most nominated show this year or the historic nature of this recognition?
This long journey that Squid Game has been on is like a dream. Nobody wanted to make it back in 2009 when I was first writing the script and there was no investor, but now we have 14 nominations at the Emmy Awards, which is the most prestigious award in the U.S., and I am nominated for both writing and directing. For me, this is more dramatic than [protagonist] Gi-hun winning the Squid Game. It’s like a miracle.
There’s maybe only one other person who knows how you feel: Bong Joon Ho, who also made history with the Oscar-winning Parasite. Have the two of you ever talked about what this experience is like?
I actually met up with director Bong a few times and got some advice from him. He told me how draining the process of Oscar campaigning was. He was actually sick at that time — he thinks it might have been COVID — but he had to do all the campaigning. Director Bong was preparing for his next project, and he told me that working on his script and getting away from the Oscars campaign was how he healed himself. He told me, “You’re going to get healing by preparing for the next [project].”
How much do you think the relevance of Squid Game‘s themes has changed since you conceived the idea back in 2009?
A decade ago, when I showed the script around, a lot of people told me that while it was creative and original, it wasn’t realistic. Now, I think a lot of people don’t feel that I went overboard with the story. That’s the biggest difference. There’s so much inflation now, and together with the war, the poor are becoming even poorer because the interest rates are higher, it’s more difficult to pay back their debt and gas prices are so high. Ten years ago, people thought nobody would join a Squid Game, but now people maybe do want to because it’s so hard to get by.
In fact, Netflix is making a literal Squid Game reality show (minus the fatal stakes, obviously). What conversations have you had with the creators of that series?
The creators are trying to stay true to the show, so they’re asking us for the diagrams for the set design or the attire to make sure it really resembles the actual Squid Game.
Given your show’s critique of socioeconomic inequality, how do you feel about all these different business opportunities that have spun off of Squid Game‘s massive success?
I guess this show is a critique of capitalism to some extent, but let’s say Gi-hun represents 90 percent of all people, taking out the 10 percent who are really rich. He’s trying to ask us, “Is this world fair for the 90 percent of us? And if it’s not fair, who makes this world unfair and who benefits from this unfairness that we witness?” I wanted to make this show for people to realize that the world is unfair, and ask themselves why and where we can start to make changes. I’m not trying to say that capitalism is bad in and of itself — I just wanted to raise this question about what we can do to change our system to a fairer one.
The reason I created the show was to convey this message, but at the same time, I also wanted to be successful; I wanted to make money. I think it’s just normal that we have this business happening around Squid Game, because we live in a capitalistic society. There has been a lot of investment put into this show, and the reason is to make money out of it. So, in a competitive and capitalistic world, I think these businesses happening is just natural.
What has your schedule for the past year been like, with having to promote the first season while working on the second season at the same time?
We started campaigning last October. I had to work on my next project and also have meetings with lawyers, managers, agents and studios. I also am working on a feature film, and I have a deadline to finish writing season two of Squid Game by the end of this year or early next year. So for the past nine months, I really didn’t have any time to spare. This is pretty much the busiest I’ve ever been in my life, and I think I’ll be busy for quite some time going forward.
What’s your mental or emotional state having to write while multitasking? Does Squid Game‘s massive success help or hinder you?
It would be a total lie if I say that I don’t feel any pressure, because so many people are waiting for season two, and season one was just too successful not to feel pressured by it. When I am actually writing the script, I really immerse myself in that world I created, and it feels less daunting to me. Once I sit in front of my laptop, I become part of the world that I created and I totally forget about the real world that I’m in.
What theme or message are you planning to convey in season two, and will it be a response in any way to the reception of the first season, or to more recent developments in the state of the world?
I’ve seen many reactions from people about the show, but I don’t want to make season two as a response to those reactions. The philosophies I put in season one all naturally extend to season two. Instead of trying to meet the expectations of viewers, I just thought about the last moment when Gi-hun turned away from boarding the plane, and I thought about what he will do next. There will naturally be a flow of events that will lead all the way to the end of the season. I can’t share any details yet, but you know that Seong Gi-hun has become a totally new person by the end of season one, so season two is going to be about what that new Gi-hun is going to do and how things will unfold with this new kind of character.
Interview edited for length and clarity.
This story first appeared in an August stand-alone issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine.