'Okja' Screenwriter Jon Ronson on Veganism, Heroism and Corporate Harm; Bong Joon-Ho's Upcoming Film, Starring Tilda Swinton, Paul Dano and Jake Gyllenhaal, Is a Bracing Corporate Satire with the Excitement of an Action Movie

By Schonfeld, Zach | Newsweek, June 30, 2017 | Go to article overview

'Okja' Screenwriter Jon Ronson on Veganism, Heroism and Corporate Harm; Bong Joon-Ho's Upcoming Film, Starring Tilda Swinton, Paul Dano and Jake Gyllenhaal, Is a Bracing Corporate Satire with the Excitement of an Action Movie


Schonfeld, Zach, Newsweek


Byline: Zach Schonfeld

It was February of 2012. The Welsh writer Jon Ronson had traveled to Long Beach, California, for the annual TED conference, where he was to deliver a talk about psychopaths. (Ronson's book The Psychopath Test had been published the previous year.) While there, he was unexpectedly captivated by a presentation from Regina Dugan, then then-director of the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA). "She comes on in a polo-neck jumper looking like Steve Jobs and gives this TED Talk about weaponry," Ronson recalls. While lecturing on the miraculous rise of flight, Dugan welcomed to the stage a hummingbird drone, which began zooming, eerily birdlike, above the crowd. Audience members gasped.

"I was gasping too," Ronson says. Though the hummingbird provoked delight, he suddenly realized that, given DARPA's military work, "bad things" could happen because of that robot bird. "It might go in through somebody's window and, you know, kill them. That's what DARPA does, right? There was a really interesting incongruity between the presentation of her message and the message itself."

Ronson had this strange moment in mind when he began work on the screenplay for Okja ( OAK-shah ), the captivating new film from South Korean director Bong Joon Ho. It's a dizzying, cross-continental flick that flirts with action-adventure and furious satire. A primped, blond Tilda Swinton plays the villain, Lucy Mirando, the domineering CEO of Mirando Corp., a multinational meat company. When we meet her, she's giving a charismatic public address in which--as with the TED Talk--cute animals obscure a more sinister reality. Mirando reveals that her corporation has sent a litter of enormous genetically modified "super pigs" to local farmers around the world. A South Korean farm girl named Mija (An Seo Hyun) cares for and adores one such pig, the CGI-fueled Okja. You can guess what happens when the corporation decides it's time for him to become dinner: Mija goes to absurd lengths to save her doomed hippo-like friend.

Ronson is a screenwriter and author best known for The Men Who Stare at Goats, a 2004 book about the U.S. military's interest in the paranormal that became a film starring Ewan McGregor. Later, he wrote The Psychopath Test and 2014's Frank, a quirky flick loosely based on Ronson's early misadventures with a band. Ronson, 50, has round glasses and a thick, charming accent. We're chatting in his Manhattan apartment's small office, with a framed image of Frank Sidebottom, the papier-mache-masked musician who inspired Frank, on the wall.

So: How did a Welsh-born journalist wind up co-writing a wildly original South Korean action movie?

Ronson's improbable involvement began with a phone call: Bong wanted to meet him. It was October of 2014, and Bong was fresh from the success of Snowpiercer, a harrowing, post-apocalyptic action film that takes place on board a train during a near-future ice age. (Bong's first primarily English-language film, it drew cross-continental raves.) Ronson was preparing to publish So You've Been Publicly Shamed, a book that examines the troubling phenomenon of shaming campaigns on social media. Not much overlap there.

Ronson trekked downtown to meet with Bong, Okja star Tilda Swinton and Swinton's partner, Sandro Kopp. …

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'Okja' Screenwriter Jon Ronson on Veganism, Heroism and Corporate Harm; Bong Joon-Ho's Upcoming Film, Starring Tilda Swinton, Paul Dano and Jake Gyllenhaal, Is a Bracing Corporate Satire with the Excitement of an Action Movie
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