EXCLUSIVE INTERVIEW: Director Peter Webber Discusses His WWII Drama EMPEROR Starring Matthew Fox & Tommy Lee Jones
A gripping tale of love and honor forged between fierce enemies of war, EMPEROR unfolds the story, inspired by true events, of the bold and secret moves that won the peace in the shadows of postwar Japan.
Matthew Fox (WORLD WAR Z, ALEX CROSS) joins with Academy Award® winner Tommy Lee Jones (LINCOLN, THE FUGITIVE), newcomer Eriko Hatsune and award-winning Japanese star Toshiyuki Nishida to bring to life the American occupation of Japan in the perilous and unpredictable days just after Emperor Hirohito's World War II surrender. As General Douglas MacArthur (Jones) suddenly finds himself the de facto ruler of a foreign nation, he assigns an expert in Japanese culture – and psychological warfare – General Bonner Fellers (Fox), to covertly investigate the looming question hanging over the country: should the Japanese Emperor, worshiped by his people but accused of war crimes, be punished or saved? Caught between the high-wire political intrigue of his urgent mission and his own impassioned search for the mysterious school teacher (Hatsune) who first drew him to Japan, Fellers can be certain only that the tricky subterfuge about to play out will forever change the history of two nations and his heart.
The story of EMPEROR is based on the resonant, real events of 1945, when General MacArthur took control of a shell-shocked Japan on behalf of the U.S and Bonner Fellers worked covertly to investigate the Emperor's fate while the future of the nation hung in the balance. Entwined with an against-the-odds romance, the story traverses the conflicting loyalties between heart and homeland, between revenge and justice, as the world rebuilds from the ruins of war.
Emperor is director Peter Webber's return to the historical drama genre, which he showed his penchant for with his feature film debut The Girl With The Pearl Earring starring Scarlett Johansson and Colin Firth. Webber took a few moments to talk with us about the film, which is now playing in select theaters nationwide:
What was the most difficult part about recreating the WWII environment on a smaller scale budget than most period films have to work with?
"Well, you have a certain amount of money and you have a certain amount of resources, and you have to figure out how to spread them around. You never have enough money [laughs]. The trickiest thing I think we had to do was to recreate the very wide screen landscapes of a very destroyed Tokyo. We approached that a couple of different ways: they burned down meat packing plants, these big physical ruins that we used at the center of all of it and then we went off to another place which was sort of a big building site that had been a warehouse, they built the warehouse down and there’s a big pile of rubble there. So what we decided to do was take the rubble and spread it around and begin to make it look like a bombed out city."
Matthew Fox hasn’t been given any roles with as much depth and gravitas as his part in this film, what convinced you that he could do the role justice?
"I was looking for a certain type. The film is very deliberately made in a classic way. I had a choice... I could have made it all fashionable, [but] it just didn't seem to me that the material suited that. I wanted to make something that was in the vein of the third man. I really love those films from the 30s and 40s and I was looking to make something like that. I was basically looking for Gary Cooper. We were looking around but there’s not that many actors who have that kind of certain manly vigor and a restraint as well. Men were a bit more buttoned down in that era. I thought Matthew had that. I knew of some of his work, and obviously I knew Lost, and [he has] that certain All-American, strong jawed masculinity that I was looking for. We were discussing at some point some Australian actors but I just didn’t want someone to fake being American. I Think Matthew did a fantastic job."
What was it like filming in New Zealand, did you get to see much of the islands?
"We spent most of our time on the north island in Auckland and Wellington, because we were working out of Peter Jackson’s place. It’s absolutely beautiful. There are times when I’d be walking down the hallway and I’d hear various Hobbit noises [laughs]. I’ve visited the set as well, which is very cool."
General MacArthur is such a controversial figure in American history, what did Tommy Lee Jones bring to the table that made him the best choice to portray his spirit?
"He has this combination, I think of vigorous testosterone fueled masculinity aka balls accompanied with fierce intelligence that I think that's hard to find. You can find intelligent actors and you can find ballsy actors but those two qualities together are quite rare. Obviously we needed an actor of a certain age with a certain with a certain finesse, and to me he really he sums up those qualities. He doesn’t look particularly like MacArthur but that's what acting is about.
"Another great thing for us, which isn’t why I chose him but he’s a household name in Japan. His picture is on the side of every single coffee vending machine in Japan and there are many, many of those because he the face of a very important coffee brand over there. You should look up videos of Japanese commercials with Tommy Lee Jones, he’s this alien that comes from outer space to drink Japanese coffee [NOTE: Video embedded to the right]."
What are you working on next?
"Well listen, I’m just in talks at the moment. I’m quite obsessed with classic films. The things that really excite me are movies from days gone by. So someone had come to me just a couple of weeks ago with a script which is a spaghetti western, which is actually going to be shooting in Italy this summer and it has really captured my attention. I’m not committed to it but I’m seriously thinking about it. It has a lot less talking and a lot more action. Emperor is a talking movie and I would like to get a change of pace."
EMPEROR is directed by Peter Webber (GIRL WITH A PEARL EARRING), from a screenplay by David Klass (DESPERATE MEASURES, KISS THE GIRLS) and Vera Blasi (WOMAN ON TOP, TORTILLA SOUP). Presented by Lionsgate and Roadside Attractions, EMPEROR opens in theaters March 8, 2013