Amidst buzzing preparation for Emperor's release in Japan, jet lagged director Peter webber finds time to speak with me about his latest movie, the hollywood game, Tommy Lee Jones, technology's transformational impact over the film industry and how the iPhone was his friend on set.
He is probably best known for his multi award winning debut feature Girl with a Pearl Earring (Scarlet Johansson, Colin Firth) but Webber is a fearlessly versatile director responsible for some impressively varied documentaries and TV work.
I start by asking Peter what attracts him to a new project.
'There is not a single thing that attracts me to a project' Webber eloquently explains, 'the location of both filming and where the film is set is important to me and not just because I love to travel... a project can easily take a year of your life so the place has to be right. Emperor, shot almost entirely in New Zealand also appealed to Peter's 'love for Japan and history... it was an interesting and very important moment in history and I was intrigued by the visual challenges such as constructing a ruined 1945 Tokyo.'
Starring Tommy Lee Jones and Matthew Fox, Emperor takes us back to 'an interesting period in history, just after Emperor Hirohito's surrender and a post world war two Tokyo in ruins'.
Jones as General Douglas MacArthur, assigns an expert in Japanese culture, General Bonner Fellers, played by Fox, to help investigate the Emperor's role in the war and the burning question of the Japanese ruler's fate; should he be punished for war crimes or saved? a decision that will forever impact the history of Japan and the relationship between the two nations.
Emperor is your fourth feature film, what is your view of Hollywood now? Does Altman's The Player rings true at all?
The Player is more of a documentary, based on the truth. The industry has become a lot fiercer and tougher over the past few years. It seems to be more commercial in the sense that executives are scared for their jobs and not willing to take risks, going for what sells... a romantic comedy or a super hero adventure.
Commerciality is a major force and it is often the films you end up not making that are the most interesting ones, if that makes sense..
Casting popular Tommy lee jones in the role of General Douglas MacArthur must help sell a movie.
Tommy Lee is a great actor but it is hard to predict what will click for audiences, the industry is changing all the time, it is becoming even more competitive, Hollywood has become ruled by fear, a place where decisions are made by what people are frightened about. It is harder to get people to the cinema these days anyway, with high quality TVs and all that technology enables so much of this fear is understandable.
The impact of technology is incredible not just on viewers but filmmakers too, do you think this might lead to a more solitary filming process? especially when it comes to documentaries?
A technology can be both positive and negative. When I started making movies the 'entry price' was high and kept would be filmmakers out. It was just too expensive for an individual film maker.
Now the tools are accessible to everyone but with so many making movies, the question is how do you get your thing noticed when everybody is making films? Technology is democratizing the process but not everybody is a good director and filmmaker, you still need to have an idea, a good story, a good eye.
It is not always about budget, sometimes you give someone the best resources and the come up with disappointing results, while there are times where with a very small budget a person makes great film.
Speaking of technology, have you used Macs for Emperor?
It was edited on macs and the iPhone was my friend on the set. I used iPod and iPad while scenes were being set up and also tweeted from the set.
Emperor is said to have a very distinctive look, using color grading to portray different periods and moods.
DP Stuart Dryburgh and I were looking for film noir looks, strong blacks.
Shadows are important... we have a man looking at a shadowy part in history and trying to 'illuminate' it. It was bleached out in parts to give it a newsreel feel but when it went into romance we opted for a warmer palate.
Spielberg often speaks of timeless directors and films he goes back to again and again for inspiration, François Truffaut, Disney classics and The Road Runner come to mind. Scorsese finds endless beauty in early Russian cinema as well as Elia Kazan's work, what are your timeless classics?
\Every filmmaker will have such gems, films they are excited about... I think it would vary depending on the project I am working on. For emperor for example, I looked at Kurosawa and film noir, while for Hannibal Rising I looked at Come and See.
I heard Spielberg say in a recent interview that big budget films are becoming almost harder to make.
He speaks of young filmmakers with edgy ideas having to deal with the idea that 'Hollywood is too scared to make movies that may not rake in the cash...' He speaks of 'barely getting Lincoln into theaters'
Wow, if Spielberg, one of the biggest grossing filmmakers of all times says that, I think it speaks volumes.
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