Category:interviews

November 21, 2003

Factchecking Sofia Coppola

Francis Coppola and Akira Kurosawa on the set of Kagemusha, still from a Suntory whiskey ad in the WNET/NHK/BBC

While I was being protective of her, Sofia was opening up to me, revealing that her inspiration for the Suntory whiskey commercials in Lost in Translation was a photo of her father Francis and the emperor of Japanese cinema, Akira Kurosawa, who made Suntory commercials for years.

I reviewed a whole raft of these commercials, which are hidden on a Kurosawa documentary DVD. Coppola's nowhere near them, I concluded. I made it sound like I watched the entire doc, not just the easter egg commercials. Weeelllll, I only got around to watching the actual show a couple of days ago. Turns out a huge chunk of the doc's vintage AK footage comes, uncredited, from the ads, which is odd (frankly, the whole director-free NHK doc style feels like production lifestyle fantasy of a middle-aged civil servant/executive producer, i.e., Suntory's target demographic. But I digress.) All of a sudden, there's Francis Ford Coppola milling around the set of Kagemusha. I went back and updated the original entry with screengrabs and backstory.

I apologize for questioning Sofia's story and hope this won't upset the deep bond that developed in the 30 minutes we shared several months ago.

Akira Kurosawa in a Suntory Reserve whiskey commercial, circa late 1970's

Nothing wrong with bigname film folks making commercials. Errol Morris (whose The Fog of War I just saw and will write about soon) directed the Apple Switch ads. Swedish master Ingmar Bergman made some cake by selling cakes of soap. Hell, Spike Lee's got a whole agency, SpikeDDB, to sell out through. And as Sofia Coppola's Lost in Translation shows, Japanese commercials are a great way for stars to pay their jumbo mortgages.

Coppola mentioned she got the idea for Bill Murray's character from a photo of her father and Akira Kurosawa on the set of a Suntory whiskey commercial. I tracked them down and watched them; here's my brief review.

Nine of the commercials for Suntory Reserve can be seen on Kurosawa, a generally excellent, if conventional, documentary DVD on his career [original PBS site]. (They're kind of hidden, but dvdeastereggs.com has the path.)

First, it's worth noting: Kurosawa doesn't direct, he both directs and stars in the ads, like fellow whiskey shill Sean Connery. Decked out like the Asian neighbor at an Ice Storm key party, the sunglassed Kurosawa alternately wanders, broods, or holds court from a wingback chair with a gang of white men. Every piece of typically intense classical music you can think of plays over the largely dialogue-free spots.

There's a whole batch of them shot in Russia: on the bank of the ice-choked Neva River in Leningrad; an escalator in the Moscow subway; a whiskey klatsch in some guy's dacha. These commercials have a caught-on-the-fly feeling, as if Kurosawa just let a 16mm film crew tag along with him for a couple of days, but wouldn't actually do anything, except drain a lowball now and then. They're little whiskey documentaries, tracking the bottle into its natural habitat.

A couple of others, shot in Japan, are more staged, and cast Suntory as the muse and great lubricant of directorial creativity. Kurosawa shuffles contemplates some papers, or looks out over the sea, envisioning. In the phoniest spot, a narrator reads inanely inspirational copy while Kurosawa sits "on the set" of Kagemusha. He pretends to give direction to a flock of samurai extras, who cluster around him like a JV football squad in a lockerroom pep talk. My favorite, though, is the most pared down: a single tight shot of the director contemplating his glass. It's also the only one I could get a screen capture of, which works out, too.

The DVD has no information about the ads (I figure they're hidden because someone, somewhere, wisely figured "filmography/interviews/awards/liquor ads" would look funny on DVD menu.), and no one but Sofia connects Coppola pËre to them in any way. But there are still clues, at least to the ads' dates. Kurosawa made Dersu Uzala in Russia in 1973-4, which was followed in 1980 by Kagemusha. [His masterpiece, Ran, came later, in 1985. ]

The decade before Dersu Uzala was rough for Kurosawa, who got fed up with studio pressure to keep cranking out samurai flicks after the 1965 Akahige (Red Beard). His production company was involved in making Tora! Tora! Tora!, but pulled out after complications. And Kurosawa attempted suicide in 1971. But then Dersu Uzala won the Academy Award for best foreign film. Still, with a film every five years or so, Coppola's suggestion that the director needed money sounds plausible. The campaign spans at least six years and two productions. While in the ads, Kurosawa--who was nicknamed Ten-no (The Emperor) because of his demeanor on the set--seems like he can't be bothered, it's possible these commercials helped keep Kurosawa afloat until he could get to Ran--and a whole subsequent body of work. I'll drink to that.

[Related: David at GreenCine just posted some Kurosawa links and info, including screenings at BAMcinematek.]

[Update: I just watched the actual NHK/BBC/WNET documentary on Kurosawa, and I was missing half the fun and most of the point. Not only does it mention Kurosawa directing and starring in the commercials in order to make money in the lengthening interval between films, it liberally uses clips from the commercials themselves throughout the film.

Francis Coppola and Akira Kurosawa on the set of Kagemusha, still from a Suntory whiskey ad in the WNET/NHK/BBC

Francis Coppola and Akira Kurosawa on the set of Kagemusha, still from a Suntory whiskey ad in the WNET/NHK/BBC

As for Francis Coppola, well, there he is. He appears in silent color footage that's almost certainly from the Suntory ads (it matches a couple of others in look and location) on the set of Kagemusha, which, it turns out, he and George Lucas helped raise the money for. In 1980, their stars were rising and they felt a debt to Kurosawa (Lucas cited his work as an inspiration for Star Wars [Don't try to pin the sequels on him, though, George. - ed.]). Sofia's more right than wrong, it turns out. Good stuff.]

Dune Magazine, #19, with Sofia on the cover, image:wehaveaproblem.comLast Sunday, on the occasion of the impending release of her new film, Lost in Translation, I joined a couple of journalists in a group interview with Sofia Coppola. The interview took place in New York City at the end of her press junket. I found the suites capacious, the sofas commodious, the sandwiches copious. "Big Brother" was hanging around, but he rebuked us; Roman stayed mostly near the buffet.

Not being a reporter, I failed to get the names of my interviewing colleagues. So rather than use their uncredited questions and responses, I've replaced one with Lynn Hirschberg and another with Official Questioner, and spliced in relevant replies from the NYT Mag and official movie website, respectively. In Hirschberg's case, no questions were available, so I made that sh$* up interpolated them myself.

The third interviewer, a slightly kooky, festival-hardened critic-without-portfolio, was too good to leave out. I have renamed her Barbara Walters. Her questions are left intact, cuz you just can't make that sh*% up.

Greg.org: What IS good this year?
Official Questioner:: It's just a bad summer. I mean, even Spy Kids 3 is going to clear $100 million in two weeks.
Barbara Walters: Spike Lee has a movie out?

Awkward silence descends. Sofia enters and joins our table. Cue greetings. We all feel protective of her immediately, just like Wes Anderson predicted.

Read my Sofia interview here

On MovieCityNews: Leonard Klady shares some insights and some great war stories about interviewing directors and actors, a useful (and timely) resource as I prepare for some upcoming junkets. [thanks, GreenCine, and for the mention, too.]

Related posts: post-game post on Bingham Ray interviewing Alexander Payne at MoMA; Lily Tomlin and Will Ferrell-as-James Lipton interviewing David O. Russell at MoMA the year before (apparently involved some kind of pipe)

Fogh and Guldbrandsen, image: drsales.dkHearing a story on the wide-ranging political turmoil which followed The Road to Europe, a documentary on the Danish prime minister, Anders Fogh Rasmussen, I wanted to know more; but the reports I found still left me unsatisfied.

Deutsche-Welle, The Economist, even NPR's On the Media, referred to the documentary as "reality TV," a term which belittles both the film's message and impact and which ignores the history and context of "fly-on-the-wall" filmmaking.

To get the still-untold story of how The Road to Europe was made, I contacted the film's 32-year old director, Christoffer Guldbrandsen, at DK, the Danish public broadcaster. Here are my questions and his responses:

G: How did you develop the idea for The Road to Europe, and what challenges did you face in gaining permission and access from prime minister Rasmussen?

C: I wanted to make a portrait of Rasmussen and the anatomy of decision making in the EU at a historic moment in time. To make a political documentary that also worked as a well told story. The idea had simmered in me for years, but [had] never been possible to realize until last year, when Denmark held the [EU] presidency.

The process of gaining permission and access to Rasmussen consisted of four meetings with his head of communications and an e-mail correspondance. We discussed in detail what kind of access I would need to make the film. The prime minister had the following conditions: he wanted to see the final film before is was aired. If there was material that, according to Danish law, threatened the "national security" he could ask to have it cut. Furthermore, civil servants [who] wished not to be in the film should be respected.

I was concerned that the issue of "national security" could be used as a loophole for the prime minister to have controversial material removed. We discussed it in detail, and his office made it clear that the spirit of the deal was to interpret "national security" in a very narrow way and not abuse the clause.

G: How did you shoot it? What was your crew and equipment? What restrictions or limitations did you have on equipment and access?

C: I shot it myself on a Sony PD-150, with a Sennheiser [416] camera mic. I used a monopod to increase stability.[that's him in the pic. -greg.] There where no restrictions on the equipment. I chose the compact set-up because I wanted to be as discreet as possible. Another problem was that Rasmussen did not want to carry a microport [ie., a wireless mic]. This meant that I had to be close to him all the time to pick up the sound and always point the camera/mic at whoever was speaking. This, of course, limited my freedom to shoot.

In terms of restrictions: there were a lot of people trying to stop me from working, ranging from bodyguards to various secretaries -- I worked in all fifteen EU countries, and not everybody welcomed my presence. However, the staff of Rasmussen quickly got used to me and began to help me out in difficult situations. The rule was that I could film Rasmussen all the time, but that he could, as an execption, ask me to leave.

G: When did you start to identify the key elements of the program? Did they reveal themselves as you were shooting, or in the editing process? Did this influence how/what you shot?

I made a series of interviews before I began shooting. I tried to analyse the process, to see were the challenges were for Rasmussen. I looked at who his allies and enemies would be and tried to locate the conflicts. I don't think it influenced the shooting too much, but it gave me something to steer by when I got lost. A lot of the key elements only surfaced in the editing room, but I always like to have a script when I start out, because I find that it gives me focus.

For me the script mostly works as a starting point. I had decided to let the camera roll virtually all the time, and then pick up on what I could. In my opinion, the best political documentaries are those that capture the human relations in the story. In my experience, politicians try to control the situation when the camera is rolling, but when they interact with other people, this control erodes. And sometimes, if I'm patient, I can get a glimpse of who they are.

4. What are the influences or models you used for the program? In the English-language press, the phrase "reality TV" is used frequently, but descriptions of the program make me think of The War Room, D.A. Pennebaker and Chris Hegedus' documentary about Bill Clinton's first campaign for US president. Are you familiar with this film, or other works by Pennebaker or Albert and David Maysles, who also became very well known for "fly-on-the-wall" documentaries, beginning in the 1960's?

The War Room has definitely inspired me. It's a brilliant film that uses human relations to tell a fantastic story. I draw heavily from the tradition of the American Direct Cinema filmmakers. Not directly, but I have their work in the back of my mind. Pennebaker is, in my opinion, outstanding. Another source of inspiration is the Dogme movement -- mostly in terms of aesthetics, particularly the camerawork of Anthony Dod Mantle ( The Celebration, etc).

G: In the US, George Bush's team is becoming known for its elaborate preparations or productions of imagery, especially for TV. What does your experience show about politicians' attempts to take advantage of film/entertainment techniques?

C: That it can backfire badly. I think it is almost immpossible to control a filmmaker if he takes his job seriously. I always search for the honesty of the moment. And even the most staged and controlled situations can contain this honesty - if you deal with them in a right way.

For news, stories and links, check the earlier post.

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Since 2001 here at greg.org, I've been blogging about the creative process—my own and those of people who interest me. That mostly involves filmmaking, art, writing, research, and the making thereof.

Many thanks to the Creative Capital | Warhol Foundation Arts Writers Program for supporting greg.org that time.

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