Before Hwang Dong-Hyuk was the “Squid Game director,” i.e. the man behind what’s set to become Netflix’s biggest TV series this year, he was a student at a university that boasts the who’s who in filmmaking today: the University of Southern California.
USC’s famous graduates include the creator of “Star Wars” and “Indiana Jones” franchises George Lucas, one-eyed assassin Elle Driver in Quentin Tarantino’s “Kill Bill” films Daryl Hannah, director of films “A Beautiful Mind” and “How the Grinch Stole Christmas” Ron Howard, and director of the film “Grease” Randal Kleiser.
Hwang joined this illustrious group when he enrolled in an MFA in Film Production at USC’s School of the Cinematic Arts. By then, the Seoul native already held a BA in Communications from Seoul National University — the most prestigious uni in the country — and had credits for writing and directing short films such as “Our Sad Life” and “A Puff of Smoke.”
“I was greatly interested in social issues as an undergraduate so I would often take part in demonstrations,” Hwang told The Chosun Ilbo. “I took up filmmaking because I was so frustrated by all these unresolved social issues I saw.”
The Squid Game director presented the short film “Miracle Mile” — a story about a South Korean woman in search of her long-lost brother in LA — as a degree project at USC. But USC is no mere film school — and Hwang would go on to be no mere director.
Squid Game director alma mater: Home of the greats
USC is known as an “academic stronghold” in cinematic arts. Its film school is not just the oldest in the country but is one of the best too.
From 1973 until 2006, at least one USC graduate has been nominated for an Academy Award.
“We would like to see every student who leaves here have an employable skill,” said Elizabeth M. Daley, dean of the school to the New York Times.
The Squid Game director’s programme is a reflection of this. Modules cover projects shot using digital cameras and edited on non-linear systems, cinematic ethics, and postproduction of an original episodic drama, shot on original sets on stage and on location, to name a few. It’s a combination of theory and practical, from how to use a camera, light a set and learning about film or television theory.
One seminar, for example, contains a “detailed investigation and discussion of various aspects of television, including genre, textual analysis, production and distribution systems and audience studies.”
Ask graduates, however, and some would argue that the most valuable part of their film school is the projects they get to make. As a graduate student, Hwang would have to make several films to complete his degree. The Squid Game director’s student project short film “Miracle Mile” reportedly presented in more than 40 film festivals and won the DGA Student Film Award by the Directors Guild of the US.
Lucas made multiple short films during his USC stint too. These include “Electronic Labyrinth: THX-1138: 4EB,” winner of the 1967-68 National Student Film Festival.