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INT: Director Ed Zwick

12.01.2003

For fans (like me) of historical epics, it’s been three long, painful years since GLADIATOR won best picture – three years of having to sit through offerings ranging in quality from the merely disappointing (THE PATRIOT) to the truly excruciating (PEARL HARBOR). This Oscar season, however, is giving history buffs a reason to take a break from their Civil War reenactment clubs and head back to the cineplex, as two historical epics, MASTER AND COMMANDER and THE LAST SAMURAI, are emerging as viable Best Picture contenders.

THE LAST SAMURAI is a rousing, violent tale of honor and bravery – sort of a Japanese BRAVEHEART. Kinda hard to believe it’s made by Ed Zwick, the guy responsible for the sappy, yuppies-in-crisis TV series “thirtysomething” and the sappy, teenagers-in-crisis TV series “My So-Called Life.” To be fair, he also directed 1989’s GLORY, which, after you get over the sight of Ferris Bueller sporting a 19th-century goatee, is immensely entertaining.

I got a chance to chat with the cerebral, engaging Zwick to find out more about his experience crafting this film...

ED ZWICK

Your television work is so intimate, and yet your film work is so vast. Why is that?

I would say – not to be too glib – that I am interested in what is epic about the personal and what is personal in the epic. I think I am as interested in the intimate stories here as I am in the notion that, in anyone’s life, there are circumstances that are worthy of great concern and drama. I think in an epic circumstance there are the people – history is peopled by warm-blooded characters. The idea is that the history becomes an edifice on which the stories take place. In historic fiction, you hope that the personal stakes can possibly rival the historical or political stakes.

Television is lapidary. Television is wrought. It’s all about the word and the nuanced behavior and observed behavior. This film – I think if one were to look at the final screenplay and reduce that which is just told in images – I’m sure the dialogue is 50 pages, and a third of that is in Japanese. It’s an opportunity to do what film has always done, which is tell stories in images and to juxtapose the strong image against strong image that creates this other thing. You can’t do that on television. You’re shooting in eight days. You’re doing sixty pages in eight days. The whole form is utterly different. As an artist, I am interested in both of those forms. I was trained at the repertory theatre, and I would have to do Sam Shepard one night and then Shakespeare the next. I guess I am promiscuous.

Can you tell us about how you found Ken Watanabe? How did he become involved in the project?

Well, I think he towers over the movie. It’s an extraordinary performance. I went to Japan many times and looked at so many Japanese films and I had not found a character who could be Katsumoto. Without him, I knew that I did not have a moral center to the movie. I was in despair, truth be known. And then Ken walked in the room. I was supposed to catch a plane, and Yoko Narahashi – she runs a theatre in Tokyo and she was helping me cast. She also works at Strasberg so she has some great bilingual and bicultural understanding. And Ken walked in the room, and after three minutes I knew that it was him.

It was not just his power, but it was the quality of humor, this deep spirituality, this emotional availability, and the fact that he was somehow both ancient and completely contemporary. I can’t describe it any better than that. But also, you’ll be surprised that he’s this delightful, antic, sweet and funny guy. To me, I think what Ken and Hiro do in this movie – it reminded me of something that happened when I made GLORY, where I was presuming to talk about the experience of slaves to African Americans and how dare I, and hey they responded to it with good humor and generosity of spirit.

And they understood – and I knew immediately – that they were in a kind of rapture. They heard music that I could only dream of, and they were signifying something. They knew that this would tell a story to a culture that didn’t know it. And I think Ken and Hiro both knew that the world had in fact not seen many stories from Japan in the last 20 years and that they were going to be representing. So I think they were in some kind of grace.

Were there ever any communication problems?

No. First of all, they’re brilliant guys. They both worked very hard on their English, but there is really only one language among artists. That is the truth.

The character of Katsumoto (played by Watanabe) is based on an actual historical figure.

Yes - on Saigo Takamori, a real character who had in fact helped reinstall the young Meiji emperor and then rebelled against him. (He is) in fact, a wonderful, legendary hero in Japan. Tom’s character – as we begin to read more and more journals of men who had been in the Civil War and the Indian wars, we realized there was a whole universe of men who’s souls had been shattered, who’s lives had been utterly destroyed by what they had to do. The idea (is) that that person might encounter another circumstance in which he was tested, in which he was even given the possibility of some redemption that came internally in his life. It asks the question that is asked in any revolution: what is gained and what is lost?

(Katsumoto is) a man confronting the notion of authenticity, of being committed to his life, of actually listening to what is internal and true and being willing to follow it even in the face of some inevitability that is pushing against him. That is true of what happens to the whole Samurai culture. That is true of what happened to Japan.

The advent of the railroad plays a prominent role in the film.

The railroad was described as “the snake through the plains.” It brought progress with the technological revolution, but along with that came the depredation that happened to the native peoples. It was important to me to say that America had its Civil War. Japan had its civil wars. But both cultures in fact have significant similarities and a commonality that we don’t often give credit to. And I wanted to make that point, that there are winners and there are losers in history, in every culture. In this moment in Japan, this is when the Mitsubishi Corporation, the Mitsui Corporation began. This is when the corporate culture in Japan took root. You’ve got the Samurai class, which was replaced by the creation of the corporate mentality. That’s where it began.

Do you think most Americans are curious about Japan and its culture?

I’m not sure. I think most Americans probably believe that our relationship with Japan began in 1941. In fact, obviously, it began in 1854 when Commodore Perry sailed into Yokohama harbor and threatened to burn it down unless they would open up to trade with us. You know, the imperial impulse was first ours, historically.

Can you describe the process of working with Tom Cruise?

Samurai culture, unlike the sort of false Arthurian legend – because it’s not entirely clear there was a round table and the centuries are all wrong and it was sort of a romantic ideal – the Samurai culture did exist - for hundreds of years. And the notion of people trying to create some sort of a moral code, the idea that there existed certain behaviors that could be celebrated and that could be operative in a life, I think he very much has devoted himself to try to live a very principled life. And I think he related to that.

He also approaches his work with this astonishing, laser-like discipline. And that’s another part that is very much in Samurai culture. I think his performance in this movie is in fact informed by the training that he did. Think about it: I started working with him a year ago January. That’s two years. He could have made five movies and whatever amount of money he wanted to. Instead he chose to devote himself to this. And he wanted to be at a certain level. He refused to do it unless he could be at a certain level. So he was willing to sacrifice what that took to be at that level. Sacrifice is another quality that is in (Samurai) culture.

How long did Tom train for this?

January, 2002, was the first time Tom held a wooden Katana in his hand. He had to build his forearms to twice their size to swing those. To carry the armor, he bulked up – put on fifteen pounds. When I first started working with Tom, he could no fit in the Kitami position. He was stiffed and buffed-up. He had to study Pilates and become supple in order to do that. And he had to do this movie, to work every day and not get hurt or hurt anybody else.

How do you think the Asian community, both here and abroad, is going to feel about the film?

I can tell you in great detail, because I’ve had the pleasure of showing the movie – we were in New York a few days ago, where we showed it to Ambassador Ando, who is the ambassador to the United States. He loved it so much that he offered a reception at the Embassy. I showed it to the Asian Studies departments at Harvard and Columbia and Yale. And then we went to Japan – last night we had our first press screening in Japan – and the response has been overwhelming, with the same kind of generosity and spirit that I had seen already with the cast.

And not only the cast, but the historians that I worked with, the Japanese screenwriter named Yoko Tatiami, who helped me with the Japanese dialogue, with prop guys who had worked with Kurosawa, with the costumers. I mean, people gave of themselves because they believed our intentions to be uncynical. They believed us to be doing our homework. It’s very humbling to go into a culture that is as refined and complex as Japanese culture is. I can safely that, having now devoted four years of my life to it, would that I had another 40 I might actually have something resembling authority on it. I think I was humbled by that, as I knew anybody would be.

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Source: JoBlo.com

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