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Emperor - Peter Webber interview


Interview by Rob Carnevale

BRITISH director Peter Webber talks about some of the challenges of bringing World War II drama Emperor to the big screen and working with Tommy Lee Jones and Matthew Fox.

He also discusses recent changes to the film industry, his passion for Japan and Japanese cinema and how he went about researching the project and attempting to honour both sides of the story (American and Japanese).

Q. There’s been a bit of a gap in the timeline of making films for you. So, what appealed to you about Emperor?
Peter Webber: I’d been reading a book by Eric Hobsbawm, the historian who died last year, that contained a really interesting chapter where he talked about how he really wished, in terms of there being a more productive and more intelligent group of politicians who had they been given history lessons so they understood the peace settlements at the end of the First World War and the Second World War, he felt that that lack of historical knowledge had really led to some awful decisions in Iraq and Afghanistan. So, that intrigued me. Around the time I was reading that, this script came in and it seemed to me to be dealing with exactly that. It seemed to tell the story about this period of time and a story that’s not that well known. So, I think that period cinema, if it works well, should have a message for a contemporary audience. And I thought this was something that was worth thinking about, where maybe American foreign policy was a bit smarter than it has been in recent years. The other thing is that I love this period of history. I’m deeply fascinated by Japan. And I realised that this offered me not only the opportunity to construct the desolated wasteland of Tokyo in the mid-‘40s but also to work with a bunch of Japanese actors. So, it was something intellectual, something professional, a range of different things. But at the end of the day the story just grabbed me.

Q. But you also have to balance the factual history with entertainment, so how do you tread that line?
Peter Webber: That’s a very abstract question. Obviously, what we did here, there was the main plot, which was to do with the emperor himself, and then there was the romantic sub-plot, so it was trying to find the balance between that, although the romantic sub-plot is actually inspired by true life events because Bonner Fellers did have a rather fulsome relationship with a Japanese woman, which was captured in letters from the period. But at the end of the day, as with any filmmaker, you have the words on the page and you just try to make something that you feel will be as interesting as possible.

Q. Did you find the sensitivities around this subject were still raw? And did you have to adopt any sensitivity yourself as a Brit telling a Japanese and American story?
Peter Webber: I think it probably helped being a Brit because rather than being an American or a Japanese person you could… although the Brits were allied with the Americans, it put me outside that kind of national framework. The sensitivities are still really strong. As you know, the emperor regularly visits a war shrine in Japan, which pisses off the Koreans. It was very interesting when we were in Cannes doing pre-sales for this film, the Koreans came in and said that no one in Korea was going to like this film. Actually, that’s not true because someone has bought it.

But for us, maybe, in this part of the world all of that has been put to bed, whereas there it’s still very much a live issue and I know that the Japanese producers were really concerned to keep the filming that we did around the Imperial Palace a secret because they were afraid that the right wing might come with their megaphones and try and break us up. So, we had security and stuff there. It’s still definitely a hot topic. When we drove past the shrine that the emperor visits they have these vans… there’s still this strong presence within Japanese society. But if you look at the history, the decisions made then by MacArthur and his team have stood us all in good stead because we’ve had a long period of peace and economic prosperity.

Q. There’s a line from Fellers about never knowing what happened in a thousand years concerning the emperor’s thinking and involvement. So, how much of your film is conjecture?
Peter Webber: Well, part of the reason that this film was made in the first place was that Yoko Narahashi, one of the Japanese producers, her grandfather is actually one of the characters in this film: Sekiya. He’s the guy who is interviewed in The Golden Palace interior. It was through reading her grandfather’s journal that she came across some details that hadn’t been previously published about this meeting between MacArthur and the Japanese emperor. So, some more things have come to light and a lot of that stuff is based on historical fact. But equally, having done a fair amount of reading into the history, there are some people who feel that the whole thing was a conspiracy and was deliberately arranged by the Americans, and that they never had any intention of trying the emperor. There are other people who feel that a proper investigation was done. So, I don’t think we’ll ever really get to the truth of that and, as storytellers, we have to take a point of view and the film is the result of that point of view.


Q. Can you talk about the casting of Tommy Lee Jones and Matthew Fox? And was their participation key to getting financing?
Peter Webber: Well, no doubt, financiers these days… when you get to make a movie, it used to be that you had a lot more leeway with who you could choose. Nowadays, the lists that the sales companies produce are getting shorter and shorter and shorter. They have this system, which I think is bullshit but it’s the way the movie industry runs, where they plug a name in and what they do is look at all the previous grosses, stick them into a magic machine, press a button and say: “If you cast Harrison Ford, the film will make this amount of money!” Now, we all know that’s rubbish because partly it’s down to what you guys write in reviews, and partly it’s down to word of mouth with the audience, but there’s a very strict and frankly painful system to have to work to. With this, I was lucky enough… because Tommy is such a big draw and because he is very famous in Japan, because all our financing came out of Japan. Tommy is the face of a very big brand of coffee over there. His face is on the side of every single coffee vending machine in Japan – and there’s a lot.

So, he’s really very well known over there and that gave the financiers some comfort. And it freed me up to do the kind of casting that I wanted to. I was looking for a certain kind of Gary Cooper-like, square jawed, masculine, old fashioned American presence. And I just thought that Matthew fitted that. And I was pleased to see that, even though we’ve had a fair share of bad reviews, we got a great review from Ebert and a great review from Rex Reed – and Rex Reed picked up on that Gary Cooper-like quality. So, for at least one venerable, esteemed American film reviewer it worked. I like his performance very much.

Q. What was your approach to MacArthur and how did you work with Tommy Lee Jones on delivering that?
Peter Webber: Heroes with feet of clay – that’s what I think at the end of the day. There’s no way that you can do research into MacArthur that he was vain, glorious, egotistical but also that he was charismatic and very, very smart. And if you look at the later history, he got himself into a lot of trouble and was fired from his post around the time of the Korean War. But I worked very closely with Tommy. He wanted to give the character some depth and he didn’t want to play just a straight-forward historical character – it wasn’t the way we were approaching it in the script. So, we looked very much once Tommy was on board and we tailored the role to him, to get some depth in there, and I think that it’s perfectly possible… I mean, if you look at myself, some days I hope I’m quite smart and some days I’m an idiot; some days I do things that are very wise decisions and others you make stupid mistakes; some days you are a wonderful, noble person and other days you’re a greedy little idiot. So, I think historical characters can be like that as well and it makes them feel more real. There’s no doubt that MacArthur was aiming to stand for election. If you have a look Eisenhower won. He was a general in the war and he won the nomination. So, MacArthur might have done. But if you look at the many photos of him, from the very early days he was managing his media representation. So, I feel that we captured the spirit of the man.


Q. How do we know so much about the Nuremberg war trials and yet know so little about this chapter of post-World War II history? Also, what old footage did you look at?
Peter Webber: In terms of archive and the rest of it, one of the great joys of working on a film like this is that you’ve got these teams of people you can ask to dig up all Japanese archive from 1944 to 1947, so I was serviced with acres and acres of not only newsroom footage but stills from the period, some stills that aren’t in the public domain. And we followed that very, very closely. So, if nothing else, from a production point of view it is an achievement. Why do we in Britain know less about what happened in Japan? I think partly it’s because the British consciousness is focused primarily on the European theatre and our fight against the Nazis. There are stories but I think the Japanese theatre means far more to the Americans in some ways. The Brits didn’t really… in terms of the occupation, it was an American occupation. There were a few Brits, Australians and New Zealanders. I think the place in our national consciousness is just very different and I think part of that has to do with the fact that we had a dismal defeat in Singapore that was the beginning of the end of the unravelling of the British Empire. If you dig into that, you can begin to understand why it is that the British like to draw a discreet veil over that. So, I think there’s not as much focus on Japan because of that.

Q. Where does your fascination with Japan come from? Have you ever lived there?
Peter Webber: I’ve never lived there. It started really when I started getting interested in movies as a teenager. I used to go to The Electric Cinema in Portobello Road because I lived down the road in Hammersmith and that was a repertory cinema rather than the posh cinema it is now. I used to bunk off school on a Wednesday afternoon when I was supposed to be playing rugby – because I was frail and hated the big boys chasing after me – and so found it much more interesting to go and sit in the stalls of the Electric. They had a great programming there – you could see French New Wave and German Expressionist and Japanese films. And that’s when I fell in love with [Yasujiro] Ozu and [Akira] Kurosawa and then started reading some Japanese literature and, from there, became interested in Manga and Japanese culture generally and then that led to me visiting Japan a few times. So, it was a generalised fascination. I’ve never lived there, so it was great to be able to work on this film because I got to stay there for large portions of time.

Q. Did Tommy Lee Jones involvement cause any problems for his Japanese sponsorship deals? And did you get to observe his celebrity in Japan at first hand?
Peter Webber: He never came with us to Japan. What I would say is that he feels a strong connection to the country, he’s been going there regularly to do these advertising campaigns for at least a decade if not longer now, when he goes over there he goes on fishing trips and does this and that, but more importantly, he’s a smart guy. He went to Havard where he was roommates with Al Gore. And he was very, very particular about the way that we were representing the Japanese and that we weren’t going to be simple minded and jingoistic and us and them about it – we would try and be more complex. And that was just in the same way that he wanted to make sure that he was playing a character that had some depth and wasn’t just a cardboard cut-out general.


Q. A post-script at the end of the film says Fellers was demoted by Eisenhower. Why?
Peter Webber: Well, it’s slightly more complicated than it seems. During the Second World War, if you were a colonel, because war was happening and soldiers were getting killed, and they needed many more people out in the field, you would have accelerated promotion. But it was a temporary promotion for war-time. So, him being demoted was the easiest way of putting it in a caption because the fuller explanation was slightly more tricky and we couldn’t have that many words. But what it meant was that some people who had had a particularly good war, if you like, were allowed to keep their promotion, and some people were just allowed to bounce back to where they were beforehand. But what this hides is the fact that… it wasn’t like it was a great disgrace that he was busted back down. But, like I said beforehand, he was firmly in MacArthur’s camp, it was up to Eisenhower to approve or disapprove, and Eisenhower and MacArthur had a very tricky relationship. He was MacArthur’s guy, so… he left the Army very shortly afterwards.

Q. Is it harder for a young actor nowadays to get established given what you previously said about casting lists?
Peter Webber: The thing is, we all know that the movie business is really changing. I mean, you just have to look at the way that the music industry has changed because of the impact of the Internet. And if you look at the way that the publishing industry has changed, and the film business is changing. There are less DVD sales, many more points of access, etc. So, I think we’re changing from one old system to a new system. There are many less studio films than there used to be. The studio business model is about making these enormous tent-pole movies, $250 million movies – sometimes they work, sometimes they don’t as in the case of The Lone Ranger. So, I think we are moving into a new world, everyone’s a bit nervous, people don’t quite realise or don’t quite understand where we’re going to arrive at. It means that, yes, it’s more difficult, I think, because people are nervous about the funding to take an unknown actor and put them in the lead role – although I’m not really sure how much that would have happened beforehand. Equally, there are so many different outlets, so if they can be in a short film on video that does really well and goes viral then they rise to fame that way. So, I don’t know if it’s more or less difficult; I just think it’s different and it’s not quite settled down and people in the business are just a little bit uncertain because there used to be a way things were done and it’s changing.

Read our review

Emperor is released in UK cinemas on Friday, October 4, 2013