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Sarah Michelle GellarSarah Michelle Gellar - ’The Grudge’ Movie - Horror.com Interview
By Staci Layne Wilson
Tuesday 12 October 2004, by Webmaster
In the ghostly horror film set for a late October 2004 release, Sarah Michelle Gellar (of “Buffy the Vampire Slayer” fame) plays Karen, an exchange student studying social work in Japan who agrees to cover for a nurse who didn’t show up for work (KaDee Strickland). When she enters the assigned home, Karen discovers an elderly woman who is lost in a catatonic state while the rest of the house appears deserted and disheveled. As she is tending to the stricken old lady, Karen hears ominous scratching sounds from upstairs. When she investigates, she is faced with a supernatural horror more frightening than she could ever imagine.
One of the things that makes The Grudge unique is that it is a remake of popular Japanese film, called Ju-On: The Grudge, and is directed by Takashi Shimizu, the same writer/director of the original.
Sarah talked to Horror.com about acting in another horror film and what it was like to work in Asia for the first time, with a director who did not speak very much English.
What do you think since you’ve shot the movie and actually had a chance to see the original Ju-On?
It was really important, to all of us there — specifically I think Jason [Behr, so-star], myself and Shimizu — to preserve the spirit of the original. I got to take one person with me to see this very, very, very rough screening. When I say rough, some it was actually storyboards. I’m talking very rough. And my friend was so genuinely freaking freaked out, she said to me afterwards, "You know what that was like? I feel like I just saw a Japanese film and I didn’t need the subtitles. I understood." To me, that was the biggest compliment anybody could bring. The whole reason for doing this was to be part of something different. This is the first time a Japanese film has been remade for an American audiences, using the original Japanese director. There is an honor and a pride that comes with that, and a pressure. So I truly think we achieved that — yes, there are going to be some things that are a little more American just because it is made for American and European audiences. But the spirit and the heart and the soul, I think is truly Japanese.
What are the challenges of working with a director that doesn’t speak much, if any, English?
It’s very difficult to make a lunch order. [laughs] It’s not as challenging as you would think it would be. I don’t know you guys but we’re having a conversation and hopefully communicating fairly well, and you’d think it would be difficult when you don’t have the words to rely on but you wind up connecting on this different level. You look so intently. You know, sometimes you have a tendency when you’re talking to drift, but you have to go like this [stares] because you really need to get the essence of what someone is saying. You look for body language, or lilts in voices, and because of that it’s kind of like a deeper connection.
Raja Gosnell, who directed both Scooby movies, used to have this joke with me that my humor was so sort of sardonic that he never knew if I was kidding or serious. And sometimes I wouldn’t tell him just to see if he would figure it out. And in like 2 weeks, Shimizu, I would say something totally deadpan and he’d start laughing. Not necessarily knowing what I said, but understanding that it was my way of making a joke. So it wasn’t as complicated.
I think what was more complicated than necessarily the English language vs. Japanese language, was the cultural differences. Americans are very gregarious. You know, we touch people when we’re talking, even if we don’t know them. We speak much more intimately, and you know, the Japanese don’t do that. I remember in the beginning it was constantly a struggle because Shimizu would want to know what Karen and Doug (Jason and my couple) would always talk closer together and touch more than the married couple. We tried to explain to him, "That’s like America!" He didn’t understand that and we’d have to constantly explain that you know, "This is the American way." It was sort of like meeting halfway. So I think that was probably your bigger barrier, but not really a problem.
What’s a typical jokester thing that you would do to somebody?
I’m from New York, I make kind of somewhat maybe lewd, at times — maybe some would say dirty — jokes. But in jest.
I understand you had to do some reshoots, after the pricipal photography wrapped?
It wasn’t really reshoots, it was more added scenes to something that was... it was adding sort of a new element to it. It was kind of an actor’s dream. It was one of those things, as actors you’re always sort of, "Why am I here? What’s my back story?" And you know, no one cares about that. That’s an actor’s question. It’s like the old joke, "What’s my motivation?" kind of thing, but what they actually did was give us a more intensive back story, which I think always makes you root for people more. We also got to show a little more of Tokyo, which was great, except for the fact that when we shot the film it was winter. Have you been to Tokyo in the summer?
Yes, I have.
Yeah. So let’s say about a minimum 101 degrees everyday and about 100% humidity... in winter clothing. Although it was great to show more of the city, it didn’t feel very good to show more of the city.
After all the hell you’ve been through on Buffy, were you like [to this director] "Give me more. Give me more"?
It was different. It was very strenuous [but] in a different way. I kept thinking, "Oh, it’s going to be a breeze, I’m going to walk through it." But this end-sequence is so complicated and incredibly physical in a way that I wasn’t used to, without giving away too much. It’s also difficult — and I know this is going to sound lame, but — it was difficult to sometimes not look like Buffy. I had this running scene and they kept making me do it over and over and over again, and I kept thinking I was messing up. But it was because I was running with my hands up in the professional position and like this [mimics tight-fisted running, elbows in]. And they kept saying, "Flap your arms more!" They were getting me really tired, hoping that as each take went on... and it took me awhile to catch on to what they were doing. In some instances like that, it was actually harder [than Buffy].
So, are you more of a victim in this movie?
Definitely more the victim.
Screaming a lot?
No. And you know, and that’s what was really cool. One of the reasons that I signed on is because I wouldn’t sort of categorize it as your typical horror film. American horror films, we do automatically think of large-breasted girls running in the woods in the wrong direction, think of me, and I Know What You Did Last Summer. It’s a perfect example. But Japanese films in that genre are based in such reality. They’re more psychologically scary to me, and so because of that you base things so differently. Shimizu is so against your basic... not ploys, but sort of the basic things, your basic scare tactics. And so it isn’t so much screaming as being frozen in absolute fear and not being able to find your voice. It made it that much more interesting, because I think the easy thing is, "Oh, my god, something scary!" and scream. I think it was harder to able to think about what actually would happen if you saw a dead woman coming at you.
What did you think?
I thought, "Damn, that girl is flexible!" But that a whole other conversation, entirely. [laughs]
The actress from the original movie plays the villain...
A couple of the same actors. The child, and the husband.
...Is it the same exact makeup that’s already been seen, and the...
No. I mean, everything is going to be heightened a little bit. Even just in general, because we used different lenses and different film stock for very technical reasons. And also, just as a change for people who have already seen it. It will be interesting. It [the original] didn’t open very wide [here in the U.S.], I take it? It will be interesting to see, once this opens, if then they re-open it or if they do a big DVD release. I think it there will be an interest. I just think that you have to whet people’s appetites solely with stuff like that. I’ve always been a fan of that cinema, and it took... it was my husband that really got me involved in it... it took awhile. It’s hard to watch things with subtitles. You don’t always know where to look, and if you’re missing stuff, and so I think it’s unfortunate that it’s coming out before because I feel like, after this more people will see it. That’s what I think.
I noticed they’ve carried over some of the freakier scenes from the original to the remake, like the shower scene.
What was your favorite scene in the original?
The shower scene. Although I’ll tell you, doing it, I was petrified. And we actually did... that’s one scene we did actually reshoot. We reshot it to make it a little scarier. Again, because in American films you can push a scene like that a little bit further. Although I kept asking them to put Toshio [Yuya Ozeki] in the tub and no one thought that was a good idea. I also said, "Don’t you think you should see little Toshio in his underwear, looking up while Karen’s in the shower?" And nobody went for it.
What is that kid really like? I mean, he’s so scary in the Japanese version of the movie.
I won’t ruin for you. He’s been doing these movies since he was a little kid, like 5, and I’m not sure if he still wants to be making these films. He didn’t speak any English. I think it was harder for him than the adults, because he’s still learning how to communicate. One thing I thought was interesting, obviously because we’re working under our union the hours are very, very strict in Japan. I think actually what I’m going to do when I’m done and take my next vacation, is I’m going to go over and start unions in Japan. I’m going to unionize Japan. Because the way they work those crews is so criminal. There’s no overtime, so they can just keep going. Very different. The work ethic is incredible though; we could learn a lot from that work ethic. In America it’s like, "OK, time for a break!" They work so hard.
Well, that’s the old story I heard about the Jackie Chan films. That, like, Jackie Chan will just keep going and when crew members drop he just replaces them. I don’t know if that’s true but after having worked in Japan I believe it might be true.
Did you see Lost in Translation?
In that scene where the director is trying to direct Bill Murray, is that what your experience was like?
Lost in translation is a very literal thing and I don’t think I ever understood until... You guys have probably heard me say this before, some of you... You don’t realize that in English, we say like 4 words, we practically grunt and you’re like, "Oh, OK." And in Japanese it’s a longer explanation and all that and so literally, Shimizu will go on forever and then the translator says, "Be cuter."
Isn’t true that you started picking up Japanese and when they realized that you could understand what they were saying...
They stopped talking around me, real quick. Actually, it was really funny. In the beginning they would say things and I could pick up, like, there was this one very infamous day which hopefully will make the DVD, because I did videotape the whole thing, where we couldn’t find Shimizu. And I shot a video called Where in the World is Shimizu-san? And I would go up to everyone, and when I finally got to the producers they were freaking out, because I wasn’t supposed to know that they couldn’t find the director. Now first of all, OK, it was kind of obvious. We were all standing around twiddling our thumbs I mean, you know, I’m blonde but that blonde. But I understood that they really didn’t know where he was and that nobody could find him. So after that day, they started to move farther away so I couldn’t eavesdrop and hear, like, what time we were going to wrap or what time they were thinking of breaking for lunch — those things, mainly, you never want actors to know. And the trip when we went back, they were still doing it. And I was so jet-lagged, that I barely understood English when I got out there. I’m like, "You guys, you don’t have to be secretive. I don’t know my own name right now." Last time I had, like, 2 weeks to get acclimated. This time, we didn’t even have a day.
So where was Shimizu?
You’ve got to wait for the DVD!
Was there any special physical or mental preparation for your role?
I researched my character very thoroughly. You know, I’m Method. [laughs] You know, I wish I had a better answer for that. Like, I trained with someone for 5 months and... um, the funny thing about it was you didn’t really need it because... I had two weeks before we started and being an American abroad in a place where you don’t speak the language and you know, you research real fast. There’s a scene where my character’s on a subway trying to figure it out and that was my life for the first weeks. Getting on, looking at those maps, trying to figure it out. So I guess in that sense, yes, I did research. But if I didn’t research I would not have left my apartment for the first few weeks. It was I like to call forced research.
Did Sam Raimi [one of the producers] ever make it on to the set?
No, he was so busy with this very small movie about a guy in a suit. I heard they might have a little booth here. With a little tie like him, like Sam. But he’s taking a real active hand in the editing. He was really the real reason we got to go back and he was the one that helped fight for it. And I tell you this honestly, when I saw the movie — and I am my worst critic in the world — I thought it was a really cool movie. I would have been happy if it had come out the way it was, yes. But I would have said, "Wow, it would have been great if..." you know, this or that. But I really was genuinely [pleased]. And I don’t say that a lot. Genuinely happy and getting to do these added scenes is really icing. It was really, you know, cherry. I really just said "it was cherry" didn’t I? I’ve been in San Diego too long. Surfin’ too long! [laughs] Unfortunately, I don’t think any of the added stuff will be shown today in the clips at the panel. You’ll have to wait.
What was the original shooting schedule?
About 2 weeks.
It was fast, very fast. It was really funny. Nathan Gahana at Senator International sat me down before they offered me the role and he said to me, "I need to talk to you." It was 9 in the morning, he woke me up. Which is weird, because I am usually up by 8. But anyway. And uh, he said, "If you’re going to do this, it’s going to be really hard. It’s not going to be what you’re used to. It’s going to be a really tight schedule and very a short schedule..." And I’m like, "I came from a television show, like, this is a breeze!" And honestly, it was. We worked 6-days weeks but the hours were even shorter than what I was used to.
Shimizu is in L.A. now. Are you planning to reverse roles, in a way, in helping him with the cultural differences?
He is so American. Literally, after being here for a month, he’s in his Hawaiian shirt and his clogs. I don’t think he’s having a problem. I asked him what he did, and he’s all "Universal Studios!" He’s doing just fine.
Do you find the popularity of Buffy has gotten greater since it came out on DVD?
The honest answer is, I don’t know. I think the first 4 years of that show was such a cocoon for me; everything was new. I was 18 years old. I worked nonstop. I didn’t know how to say no or take a break or anything. I would go to work at 6 a.m. Monday morning and wouldn’t wrap until 6 a.m. Saturday morning, and go back at 6 a.m. on Monday. I was in such a tunnel that literally I remember saying to someone, "I hope people actually watch the show", not even realizing how popular it was. And now that I actually have a life and I actually see the outside and I have days off, now I’m more aware of how many people watch it and how widespread it was. So the answer to me is yes, but I don’t know. I would imagine it has to do with the DVDs and that its reach is so much farther in places where maybe they don’t get satellite.
I’ve talked to people who never saw before it was released on DVD, and they’re like, "My god, I’m such a fan of the show now."
Then God bless DVD.
Having done so much genre — I know that you’re now doing a non-genre film — will there be any trepidation jumping back into genre?
People ask me about that all the time. I’ve thought a lot about it and it has to do with where the roles for women are. Women have come a long way in this business. And we still have a long way to go. In television, women can really run anything. It can be a comedy, it can be a drama, it can be genre, it can be anything. But in films, women are still getting to the top. I think the one thing about these kinds of films is where you really find the most interesting characters for women. And so I won’t have trepidation as long as there are roles like these. This is the first, of all the things I’d been reading when I got done from Scooby, this was the first one where the woman was not just a heroine but she really had an active role to do and she was an interesting person. And it was also the first time I played the victim. It’s very hard to play the female victim and the lead. This is the one milieu, whether it’s thriller, suspense, horror, anything... where women really get to sink their teeth into stuff. Being on Buffy all those years kind of spoiled me. I think about it all the time when I read scripts. Like, "It would be great to work with all these actors, but..." I don’t know how good I’d be a being the girlfriend or being the wife. I think I’d see myself on set, like, looking at a tick or something.
Is there a superhero you might like to play?
[Superhero sing-song] Sarah Michelle! Honestly, I don’t know. I’d have to think about that. Maybe an original one, one you haven’t seen before.