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Memoirs of a Geisha - Rob Marshall interview

Memoirs of a Geisha

Interview by Rob Carnevale

Q. Did you feel a huge weight of expectation tackling a book like this as your second feature?
A: It was daunting. Scary. But what makes it easier was that I had brilliant actors and that made it much more exciting to work on. It’s funny, I was immediately drawn to this because it is so visual. I was looking for something, after Chicago, that was very different. Someone said to me recently: “Yes, but you still did a movie about rival women in show-business.”
That’s true; I don’t know what’s wrong with me! But the truth is, it was the differences that excited me because the canvas is so rich, so beautiful and so fascinating. It’s still compelling – I’ve spent two years on this project and it still fascinates me.
It’s really a hidden culture. It’s something people know very little about and that’s the point. I think that’s why Arthur Golden’s book was so embraced. People wanted to learn what that’s all about. The first line of our movie is, “A story like mine should never be told,” and that’s really the truth. So it’s immediately seductive.

Q. Were there any negative reactions to the idea of Chinese women playing Geisha?
A. I have a very simple philosophy about casting; you cast the best person for the role. That’s it. That’s all it is. When I cast Queen Latifah, for instance, in Chicago, everyone said to me, “Well, you know, it’s 1920’s Chicago, there’d be no such thing as an African-American matron in a jail,” but to me she was right. As a director the hope that you have is that an actor claims their role. Every actor on this movie that I met and worked with claimed their role – there were no question marks at all.
It was interesting, it’s a tradition in filmmaking; having an Egyptian-born Omar Sharif playing a Russian in Doctor Zhivago or an America-born Renee Zelwegger playing Bridget Jones or Nicole Kidman and Jude Law playing Americans in Cold Mountain. To me it’s all about their acting. The demands for these roles were extraordinary – every one of them. I couldn’t have cast this movie twice. These are the best actors in the world for these roles period.

Q. The culture of a Geisha is quite foreign to a western audience. Do you think it might make it a hard-sell?
A. It’s very hard to equate what a Geisha is to a western audience; nothing exists that’s the same. Somebody said to me recently: “Is it a trophy wife?” They’re artists and the word Geisha means artist. It’s very different now to how it was then. Girls were sold into a Geisha house as slaves, they didn’t have that choice. Now it’s very different; at age sixteen they make the choice if they want to study the traditional arts and become a Geisha.
It’s like saying: “I want to go to a school to learn ballet.” Or: “I want to become a model.” Also, they marry. The Geisha that I met in Kyoto would say: “I’m going to do this for a couple more years and then I’m going to marry my boyfriend and here’s my CD.” They’d then hand me their 8×10’s. They’re performers, that’s what they are. But it’s very different, it’s their life. Michelle’s character really exemplifies that; she has to lock her heart away and learn to live with that. She lives like the perfect Geisha.
Ziyi’s character really resists that idea. The one thing I’d say when you really think about it; in the 20s and 30s, and even today, it’s a women-run business. It’s quite empowering, I think, for back then. They make enormous amounts of money.
When I was in Kyoto we were entertained by the Ichiriki Tea House which is the oldest and most famous tea house in Japan; very expensive. They’ll have ten tea-houses that they’ll visit a night. I think we had about seven Geisha and they were performing for us. Everything is a performance; pouring Sake to how they walk, how they enter. A Maiko actually made her debut the night of our visit and she actually spilled Sake over the table. It meant nothing to me, I didn’t care if she spilt Sake, but to them it’s every bit of it. When they were done I asked how much that cost and it was thousands of dollars that they earned that night for two hours. It’s an amazing culture in that way. They’re really quite strong as business-women and they still are.

Q. How did you come to cast Suzuka Ohgo as the young Sayuri?
A: She was the last part cast in the movie and we had very little time to find her. We knew they whole movie hinged on her because if you don’t care about Sayuri from the beginning when Ziyi takes over the role it would have been an uphill battle for her.
They share something, her and Ziyi, which is an incredible love for life. There’s this spirit that’s hard to explain. It’s very important for Sayuri because it’s what guides her through her life. That beautiful water in her eyes is what keeps her moving forward against all obstacles. They shared that. I know she watched Ziyi a lot and was very impressed with her.
I think because she was in a room with so many adults I’ve never seen that kind of professionalism and dedication. I’d say thinks like, “Today you’re going to have water thrown on you and you’re going to be whipped and you’re going to do a scene where your parents die,” and she’d say, “OK.” Because that’s all she could say in English!
But she and Ziyi are fearless. They have that as a bond and I think it’s very special. It was because of Ken saying that he’d worked with her that we found her. It was such a key element to the movie.