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Sarah Michelle GellarSarah Michelle Gellar & Jason Behr & Takashi Shimitzu - Scifi.com Interview
By Cindy White
Saturday 30 October 2004, by Webmaster
Sarah Michelle Gellar and Jason Behr translate Takashi Shimizu’s Asian horror in The Grudge
It seems that Hollywood has recently discovered what fans of Asian cinema have known for years: That original, high-concept stories and strong visual images translate into any language. The success of The Ring, an American remake of the Japanese horror film Ringu, has inspired producers to seek out new material from the East. The latest import, The Grudge, opened in theaters Oct. 22.
Starring Sarah Michelle Gellar (Buffy the Vampire Slayer) and Jason Behr (Roswell), The Grudge is the first Japanese film to be remade for American audiences by the original director. Like the original, Ju-on, the film is set in Tokyo, and it stars some of the original Japanese cast members. The story is based on the concept that when people die in the midst of a terrible rage, their spirits will linger on and destroy anyone they encounter. Gellar plays a social worker assigned to an elderly woman living in a cursed house. Behr plays her boyfriend, an architecture student studying in Japan.
Science Fiction Weekly recently spoke with Gellar, Behr and director Takashi Shimizu about the differences between American and Japanese cinema and how they handled the culture clash during filming.
Sarah, was there any reluctance to take on this role, knowing the cultural differences of the material?
Gellar: It was the main reason I took the project. The idea for me to, first of all, be able to spend three months in Japan, to be able to be part of the first film ever to be made with the original Japanese director, they were all of the reasons why I chose the project.
Had you seen the Japanese version, Ju-on?
Gellar: Yes, I had seen it. I have always been a fan of Asian cinema. I think that it’s really daring. I love the idea of nonlinear filmmaking. I love the idea that it’s not a beginning, middle and end, and it’s not a neat package. And I thought the shots were so interesting. I think that sometimes in American films we get bogged down by trying to make our days and huge crews. In Japan, we would have had triple the amount of crew members in America making this film. And I just loved the idea of being part of it.
After Buffy, was there any hesitation to do horror again?
Gellar: If it was horror, in my opinion, in the American sense, yes, there would have been. But I consider Japanese movies to be much more thriller-oriented. And, you know, people ask me that question a lot. I definitely did think about it beforehand, but women still have a long way to go in this industry in terms of roles where we can really sort of lead the film and drive it. And I was thinking, obviously, a lot about this, and you look at past Oscar winners. Right after Halle Berry won, she did Gothika. And Charlize Theron is doing Aeon Flux. And why is that? Because that is the big films where women can really drive them and be successful in them.
What challenges did you face working with Shimizu to develop your character?
Gellar: We spoke a lot beforehand about each character and why we were there and what our reaction was to being in Japan. The characters were important to Shimizu, and it was important to keep that. And it was the first time I had sort of really been in an experience like that, where it was important. But of course, the surroundings and situations make it that much easier to sort of create a character.
Did you have any Lost in Translation moments on the set?
Gellar: You know what? It’s interesting, you don’t realize how literal a language is until you’re in a place like that. ... But Japanese is a real literal language, and sometimes the conversations don’t make sense, like, you know, [something] someone says in Japanese when translated to English doesn’t sound right, it doesn’t make sense. And so you constantly have those experiences because of the language. And also, we say things very quickly. We abbreviate everything in English. So, literally, in the movie where you see that scene where the director is talking and talking and talking and she says, "Be happier." That would happen constantly. And it would take me a little while to understand. I kept thinking, "Is that really all he said? I know there’s something you’re not telling me, the part about where I sucked."
How lonely was it being in Japan for all those months?
Gellar: It’s very hard to be lonely in Japan. Clearly, you miss your family, your dog, your home, but Japanese people are incredibly welcoming. The best advice I got before I left was ... someone said the best thing you could do is just learn the basics of the language. And a lot of times when you go across, specifically sometimes to Europe, I’m so embarrassed because I feel like I bastardize the language and I feel like everyone’s laughing at me. But in Japan they’re so honored you’re taking the time to learn even the smallest bit of the language, that they open up their homes to you and they’re so gracious. They invite you to dinner, and on top of that I had this great cast that was so interested in everything Japanese and Japanese culture and Japanese society.
How do you perceive the differences between Japanese and American horror films?
Gellar: I think Japanese films leave a lot more to the imagination. It’s a lot more about setting it up and letting you take it to that place where it makes it scariest for you. It’s not gory, it’s not bloody, and I think because of it, it’s much more chilling.
I heard that you taught the director some English on the set.
Gellar: You know, here was a big mistake I learned early on. You always have fun teaching people, you know, bad things to say, like, you know, "I hate her," or "I hate him" or "Suck less" or any of those things, and I remember it was really funny to all of us. We thought it was the funniest thing in the world. Jason would come in and he would be all "I hate him," until the first reporter came out to interview us, and it was CNN, and we did this interview, and Shimizu was like, "Ah, Sarah Michelle. I hate her. Difficult. Crazy. Jason. Nuts." And he said all of the things we had taught him, and oh, my God, that’s one of those things where your heart stops, because while it might be very funny to us, it might not necessarily, again, translate in this kind of sense that that was a joke. So, yes, I did teach him a fair amount of those things.
Did you commit any cultural faux pas on the set?
Gellar: Oh, I mean, constantly. But I commit faux pas in America, I mean, that’s nothing new for me. You know, things like taking off your shoes every time. Sometimes you just forget. It is very difficult to remember. I didn’t forget going to people’s houses, but you forget. It’s a set. It’s not a house, but you still have to take your shoes off before you go in every time, and that was hard for me in the beginning, until I realized how much fun it was to steal everyone’s shoes.
Japanese sets are obviously run very differently. What kind of concessions did they make knowing you were American actors?
Gellar: Well, the first one is, Japanese actors come when they start filming at the beginning of the day, no matter if their scene is the last of the day, yet you try to get an American actor to do that one. Especially American actors wanted to do sightseeing in Japan. So that was the first concession that was made, was that your call time reflected what scenes you were in. In America, we slate, we clap the board, and then "action" is their cue. In Japan, the cue is actually the slate. But to an American actor, that is the most jarring sound. I’d be like [frozen] and they were all waiting. I’m like, "What’s everyone waiting for?" So we taught Shimizu how to say "action" and "cut," and so they worked off "action" and "cut." I think there was a fair amount of concessions for American actors. There has to be.
Jason, how did you get involved in this?
Behr: I read the script in December of last year and thought it was just one of the most unique horror-genre thriller-type movies. It’s hard to say, it’s like a generalized horror, because the Japanese horror, I think, is very different than American horror. It was just a very well-written script, and the characters were interesting. I liked the idea of it being nonlinear, because it sort of kept people on their toes of trying to follow the story, and trying to connect the dots and put the puzzle together, and the house being the central piece. But still, even given that, you’re told you’re going to go off to Japan to make a movie with the Japanese director of this movie. I wanted to see it, so they sent me a copy, and I watched it in my living room with all my friends and some family members, and they were scared s—tless. And I thought, well, that’s a good sign.
Was it a very visual script?
Behr: Very visual script. We went through it piece by piece with Shimizu when I first met him with his interpreter, I think he’s on his fourth now. But, yeah, we went through the script piece by piece, and he said this is where you are going to be, this is what we’re going to do, and sort of explained more of the direction of the script.
Some of what happens to your character in the film is off-screen.
Behr: Yeah. I mean, I think that’s part of the Japanese way, is that a lot of the stuff that’s happening happens sort of out of sight. It’s inferred. It’s not really shown all the time. If you watch the first Ju-on, you don’t see a lot of the scary stuff, it’s just sort of like a sound, an idea.
That sound the ghosts make is very important.
Behr: I have a feeling we’ll hear that a lot when this movie comes out. That’s just my guess.
The sound was made by the director himself, wasn’t it?
Behr: Shimizu would do that all the f—king time. I mean, you’d be sitting there and you’d be talking to somebody else and he’s sneak up behind you and he’d be like [makes sound]. He’s a rascal, that guy, he likes to do that.
Sarah said you guys taught him some English phrases and customs.
Behr: A few things. I brought him to Krispy Kreme doughnuts. Did he tell you that? I was talking to him about those things in Japan. I’m like, "You’ve got to come out to the States and I’ll get you a doughnut. I’ll get you a real doughnut." And we were doing some looping, and for lunch instead of going out to eat to one of those other traditional salad and sandwich places, we had doughnuts for lunch. He loved them.
How good is your Japanese?
Behr: My Japanese is so-so. I can order a sake-drinks-I can order food and get around town pretty good. I can say hello and goodbye, and the proper things that you should be able to say. But I can’t hold an intelligent conversation. I couldn’t tell you what I think about Japanese politics. I can say, "It’s a nice day," and this and that, but that’s about it. So it’s very limited, and probably really f—king bad, like to a Japanese person I’m probably really bad.
How lonely did you get there?
Behr: The thing about Japan that was interesting is that-and the beauty of it is that-there are 30 million people there. If you want to walk around and be alone, then you can. And if you want to turn a corner and get involved with people and interact with people and go someplace where there’s a lot of interaction, you can. It is what you make of it. Lost in Translation, I think, was a different animal. I understand the themes of searching for yourself and feeling alone in this massive city, but it doesn’t have to be that way.
Shimizu-san, did you see Lost in Translation, and did the scenes where the Japanese director is talking to the American actor match your experience?
Shimizu: I saw it during the shooting, and Sarah got the DVD to watch it, so I was very conscious about the film and very conscious about Sarah understanding what I was actually saying. ... If I hear English, I can kind of understand the nuance of it. But Sarah doesn’t understand any Japanese, so she probably doesn’t get the feeling, even. But she was very smart and was able to sense everything, so there wasn’t a problem.
Was it easier working with some of the same actors that appeared in the original Ju-on?
Shimizu: I wouldn’t say it was easy. Like, the security guard, if you remember, he was in the original, too. In the original, he is surrounded by other Japanese people. But in The Grudge, he had a scene with KaDee Strickland, who is American. So they had this Japanese-English thing going on, so it was different for the security guard, ’cause she’s American. So he had to learn some English, and she had to learn some Japanese. That kind of different thing happening, so I wouldn’t say it was easy.
It must be strange filming basically the same movie again one year later.
Shimizu: Very strange. I actually wanted to change as much as I can and bring in something new as much as I can, because when I first got this movie to remake, I said no, because why do I want to do this again, the same thing? But when [producer Sam Raimi] asked me to do this, he said, "Bring in the different ghosts tastes to America," and that was such an honor to be asked. And of course, I am a fan of Sam, and that’s just a great honor to do what he asked for, and that’s why I decided to go with it.
Was there anything you weren’t happy with the first time around that you were anxious to redo?
Shimizu: Of course, there are things I’m more satisfied [with] in the remake of The Grudge. But I actually found out that when we were doing the original, there were things we couldn’t do because of the low budget, and there was no time. But there are still things we can’t do with the money and the time. It was kind of hard for me to find that out, but still, this remake of The Grudge is definitely on a higher level of completion.
I heard that you shot more than one ending?
Shimizu: There was no argument about the endings, but, you know, there were some issues. But also, when I was watching those American DVDs in Japan, sometimes those DVDs have different endings, right? And I was not really going for that idea, because as a samurai spirit, why don’t you decide on one ending? Right? I always wanted to go with one idea and be with it. But the experience in America productions, now I understand, it’s more difficult to make films within a production, and I understand why there are sometimes a few endings and choices that we have to make within ourselves. So it was kind of nice to experience American production in that way.
How do you think Japanese horror is different from American horror?
Shimizu: In America, if there is a ghost in a film, they usually attack you, and that’s how people get scared. In Japan, if the ghost appears, if it’s just there, we get scared just because it’s there, and maybe not because it will do something to me or it can take my life away. It’s just the existence of the ghost that scares us, and it probably has something to do with religion and this ghost just being there. Spiritually, or whatever, it’s a curse. It’s just the existence that scares me, they don’t need to attack us. So that’s probably the biggest difference.
What compromises did you make in remaking the film for American audiences?
Shimizu: Mood and tone. It’s just something that’s inside of me. It’s just something I believe in. It’s very hard to express, but at the same time, it’s definitely influenced by the films and things that I’ve read in the past. So I thought it was kind of similar among everyone. And when it comes to performance, I didn’t want to force any of the actors to do whatever I wanted. But at the same time, there is a definite timing and tone and mode that I carry within myself, and sometimes the actors thought it’s too long to hold that moment, but I just wanted them to trust me for that.