How Joy Ride's production designer and cinematographer made Seoul in Vancouver

"[Being] 'All hands on deck' was the key to success."

By Gabriella Geisinger 17 Jul 2023

How Joy Ride's production designer and cinematographer made Seoul in Vancouver
Joy Ride; Cr: Lionsgate

Joy Ride has landed in US cinemas to the delight of moviegoers.

The story follows Audrey, a thirty-something adopted lawyer who goes on a business trip to Asia. When the trip goes sideways, she enlists the help of Lolo, her childhood best friend, Kat, a college friend, and Deadeye, Lolo's eccentric cousin to salvage the deal and see her connect to her roots.

But nothing is what it seams and their trip soon becomes a journey of bonding, friendship, belonging and wild debauchery that reveals the universal truth of what it means to know and love who you are.

And yet, you'll be surprised to learn that the cast didn't go to Asia. In fact, production designer Michael Norman Wong and cinematographer Paul Yee built and shot Seoul, South Korea and Beijing right in Vancouver. Each city has great specificity of place thanks to Wong's design, and provides a seamless backdrop for Audrey and her friends to explore through Yee's lens. 

We spoke with Wong and Yee about the challenges in undertaking such a build, and how his own growing up experienced influenced how he designed Joy Ride

Joy Ride

You had to create both Seoul and Beijing in Vancouver, what was the most challenging aspect of that? 

Michael Wong: “All hands on deck” was the key to success. There is very little architecturally in Vancouver that resembles what currently exists in China. Their buildings there are much greater in size and more futuristic. Along with the modern architecture, the traditional buildings and villages are non-existent here.
Our collective approach was to find small, contained pockets in Vancouver that would give us a partial starting point for various sets.

For the exterior Nai Nai’s courtyard set, we found an enclosed back alley that reminded me of the area in Hong Kong where I grew up. Our Construction and Set Dec team transformed this location by cladding the walls with grey brick (common throughout China), adding tiled rooftops, a large Chinese Pine tree, livestock, clothes lines of colourful garments...
For Nai Nai’s interior, we were fortunate that one of the surrounding spaces was vacant. This allowed us to build an interior that connected directly to the courtyard. The deteriorating walls and haphazard wiring of the space was an unexpected bonus. The inspiration for Nai Nai’s interior was based closely on my family home in Yuen Long, Hong Kong. We installed a kitchen, living room, a terrazzo floor, and a light-well into the space.

Paul Yee: To me, the most challenging part of Joy Ride was how much coverage was required. 

Joy Ride

Were there any particular elements of Canada's landscape that helped or hindered the process?

MW: Nearby Langley played as rural China. As the natural landscape is clearly not as dramatic as that of Asia, we kept to generic areas and embellished with elements such as overloaded motor vehicles, a sampan style boat, livestock… keeping the focus on the actor action played heavily on this location’s success.

How do you create specificity for each city when you don't have the actual city's architecture and design to use on set?
MW: I made a conscious effort to limit the amount of cliche Asian elements such as red lanterns and dragons, [but] it is not totally avoidable as those items exist and are readily found throughout China.  My goal was to introduce more subtle visuals such as colourful, heavily patterned table clothes, linen, potted plants, drying vegetables, framed photos of large families, hot water thermos, street food stalls, magazine stands, screened walls and windows, chickens running freely…
Korea is equally challenging for the similar reasons. To make this to work visually, we reduced the original idea of a large street/intersection in Seoul to the more manageable Café Street. We found an area in Gastown that we dressed with countless signs, a giant Iggy Bear Mascot, and a Paper store statue. High-density with lots of colour, animation, and whimsy was the aim. Busy, busy, busy!

Joy Ride

One of the other prominent Korean sets in Joy Ride was Dae and Min Park’s home. Here is where “All hands on deck” clearly came into play. This location was found by one of our producers, Dan Clarke, on Google Earth! The interior and exterior were both perfect. All that was needed was a redress of the furniture and the installation of an Asian room dividing screen.

PY: It was very important for us that the movie felt authentic. Michael Norman Wong really did a fabulous job building sets and dressing locations 360 degrees so that we could film in every direction without tipping our hand that we were in Canada. 

How closely did you work with each other to create a cohesive aesthetic and narrative? 
MW: With colour, texture, and understanding of Asian culture playing such an important role in creating the spirit for Joy Ride. Our Costume Designer, Beverley Huynh, and I were in constant communication. It was a great collaboration, as we shared a similar work ethic and enthusiasm for the show.

My favourite part of the film to design was undoubtedly Nai Nai’s home. Every colour, texture, set piece was gleaned from my personal experience of growing up in China. The Bullet train set was fun to design and build as well.

Joy Ride

PY: When Adele [Lim, director] and I discussed the music video, it was really important for her to establish that it was ‘sort of taking place in Deadeye’s head.’ We figured the easiest way to make that transition would be with a camera move that crash zooms into their eye and then does a hard cut into the music video aesthetic- higher contrast, deeper saturation, narrow shutter angle, and bright light sources in the frame. 

What do you hope audiences take away from your work on Joy Ride and the film itself?
MW: My design process throughout the show was based very much on a guttural “this feels right”, my hope is that this feeling translates to the audience.

PY:  There was a version of [a moving scene] in the pitch deck that brought me to tears, and then we actually filmed another version of the video during our test shoot that also brought me to tears. So from the very beginning, we’d known that one aspect of this scene was incredibly moving and powerful.

And as we started to film and work it was always sort of a lingering question for me if we could earn build toward this really touching moment in a super raunchy comedy. Ultimately, I think it worked out incredibly well; and that’s really testament to Adele and Ashley keeping Audrey’s journey at the centre.

Joy Ride is out in UK cinemas on August 4

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