"Memoirs of a Geisha"

Interviews from "Memoirs of a Geisha" filming set

with Michelle Yeoh, Rob Marshall, and Zhang Ziyi

by Akiko Tetsuta

These exclusive interviews were provided by Akiko Tetsuta, a Japanese journalist who visited the Sony Studio filming set with a group of Japanese reporters on December 6, 2004. They stayed on the set from 10:00AM to the evening and were permitted to witness filming. The interviews with Michelle Yeoh and Rob Marshall were conducted entirely in English. The one with Zhang Ziyi was done through a Chinese-English interpreter.

1. Michelle Yeoh Interview
(published February 9, 2005)

DOWNLOAD AUDIO CLIPS (selected parts only):
   Clip 1: about director Marshall.  Realmedia (143K)  MP3 (260K)   [0:33]
   Clip 2: about the "Memoirs of a Geisha" book.  Realmedia (116K)  MP3 (224K)   [0:28]


(greetings to each other in Mandarin, Cantonese and English...)
Q: I saw you already a long time ago with "Supercop".
Michelle: In Tokyo?
Q: In here! (Note: Akiko attended a group interview of Michelle in L.A. when "Supercop" was released in the U.S. in 1996. Some photos can be seen in Gallery -> Special Event Photos)
Michelle: Oh God, that's a long time ago!
Q: A long time ago (laughs) ... (starts questions) So, how was working with Rob Marshall?
Michelle: Beautiful to work with. Because he's so passionate, he's got such vision about what he's doing, and I think its very important you trust your director that he understands what each character is playing. Because, you know as an actor sometimes you get lost in your own role and you can't see everything else. But he keeps us all together. And it's a beautiful cast, and all of us get along so well. You know, with Ken and Koji and Kaori. So it's a very good atmosphere. He's a good leader.
Q: Have you read the book?
Michelle: Oh yes! I read it when it first came out. I loved the book. I've always enjoyed reading books about Japan because I've always admired the culture. Because everything is so meticulous, everything has meaning, everything is beautifully done. So when that (the book) came out, it gave us sort of an insight into a world we're very curious about but just have no idea. And it was so well written, so beautifully written. Yes, I read it a long time ago.
Q: So is there a character you wanted to play?
Michelle: I wanted to play Sayuri, of course! (laughter) Of course. If they'd made it a long time ago, maybe I would have stood a chance, but -
Q: Twelve years ago it would be okay... (Michelle cracked up)
Michelle: So, Mameha was one that appealed to me when I first met up with Rob and we were talking about the script and the different characters. He said to me, that you know you could play either Mameha or Hatsumomo, but I found -
Q: You went to the nicer one.
Michelle: Yeah.
Q: You chose, or?
Michelle: I chose with him. I think he chose at the end of the day because he is the one who can see and place the different girls in the different roles. I mean, it's really important that he recognizes from each actor what he can draw out from them because a lot of this helps you get so wrapped up into thinking what you know is best for a certain thing and you need a good director that will bring out different parts of you, and that's what he did. And I found with Mameha that she's very contained. She's always in control. So whenever everything is going crazy around her and all the characters can be fighting or whatever it is, she's always very still. I sometimes find it is more difficult to - I guess you know I've done all the action movies. When you look at me when I talk I'm always... big actions. And to create a character that is a little opposite of me is good.
Q: How was working with Zhang Ziyi and Gong Li?
Michelle: Fantastic!
Q: Really?
Michelle: I mean - you know who Zhang Ziyi is because we worked together in Crouching Tiger. So we already have a certain rapport. With this role it is perfect because I've always been big sister and she's the little sister. Now it is just taking it a step forward. And Gong Li, this is the first time, but... the first day, after we met and we saw each other a couple of times, we were like friends.
Q: Oh!
Michelle: Yeah.
Q: Do you hang out?
Michelle: Oh, yeah, we hang out together. We were always dancing in each other's trailer...
Q: Really!?
Michelle: Yeah! We'd put on some Salsa music...
A Woman: Lady, I'm sorry, but we have to take Michelle away.
Michelle and Akiko: Okay.
Michelle: Nice talking to you - we'll talk again!
(lots of goodbyes and good lucks)


2. Rob Marshall Interview
(published February 16, 2005)

(talking about complicated camera movement)
Rob Marshall: It's all about that world, and it's sort of a hidden, exotic world. I think that the fluidity is important, you know...sort of getting a sense of it all as a dance. You know, dance is so important to the geisha. It's like THE art - obviously, they learn many other arts: calligraphy, the art of the tea service, as you know - you know all these things I'm telling you! (laughs) - and dance and conversation and all of that, but dance is the highest art. So I feel like there's a fluidity to it and you know I like movies with a fluidity to them in the sense you don't get uh -- you have a sense of through lines, so that's why there'll be shots that have that kind of lengthy choreography to them. But let me take you to our hallway, which looks like it goes on forever if you turn around. I think there's another room there. I'll show you where the first shot took place...
Rob Marshall: This fantastic dance that John (DeLuca) choreographed - he did Chicago - and so beautiful dance, and in the middle of the dance, Hatsumomo - Gong Li...and Yuki Kudoh enter and disrupt it. And then there's like a little -
Q: Fight.
Rob Marshall: Yeah, but you know - under their breath. I mean, geisha fighting, not fighting fighting.
Q: You come from a dance background, but how much did you know about Japanese dance?
Rob Marshall: I had so much to learn.
Q: So you like Japanese dance?
Rob Marshall: I love it. It's beautiful. I love the simplicity and the subtlety of it. I went to see Tomasaboru-san (lots of 'ooooooh's) when I was in Kyoto and he is a master of course. Just watching his concentration and...for me, I appreciate it so much because people think big big big dancing is the hardest thing - no, I think the hardest dancing is the subtle, very simple moves with the tilt of the head right and the foot and all that. And he completely transforms into a woman. I love Kabuki, and that was really inspiring to see. That and the spring dance, we've sort of combined them a little and pulled a little bit from Kabuki. The world of Japanese dance is so amazingly beautiful. What's fun for me, and one of the reasons I wanted to do this, is I wanted to learn about another culture, another world, a hidden world, the geisha world. You don't talk about it, so for us to find out about it makes it so intriguing. So that's been really fun for me. And I wanted something very different than Chicago for me in terms of the world, but I wanted something just as rich and just as exciting and just as glamorous and dramatic. Because that was a musical, it was lighter in tone and even though it was a dark tone in some ways, this is a more dramatic tone and a real, full epic story. This little girl taken from a fishing village to become the greatest geisha and then lose it again when the war comes. It's this long journey for her. And I have two beautiful actresses. Have you met Suzuka? Little Suzuka who is playing Chiyo?
Rob Marshall: Of course, the biggest challenge for me on this, more than anything, is the language. Because I'm dealing with Chinese interpreters and Japanese interpreters in the same scene. But what I'm most proud of is the international Asian cast we've assembled and that we got to celebrate the Asian actors of the world and bring those actors who've never been in English language films - like Ziyi's never been in one, Gong Li has never been in one. Obviously Koji's never been...so it is exciting for the American and worldwide audiences to see them speaking English and seeing them in this.
Q: Was casting Sayuri very difficult for you?
Rob Marshall: Very.
Q: How did you do it?
Rob Marshall: I started in Japan, Tokyo. I have two wonderful casting directors - Francine Maisler and Yoko who is a Japanese casting director, and we looked at...you know, I'm very thorough. I saw all the greatest actors in Japan of this age because they have to play ages 15 to 35, 40, so I was looking for so many things that needed to be...be beautiful, they needed to be a dancer, a great actor, have some mystery about them. She needed to be physical because of the fighting and so forth and so on. It was like, there were so many criteria for this role, and I looked everywhere. I looked in Japan, looked in America...and (eventually) we found Ziyi, who - you know, it's interesting. It is very few times that a real movie star is born and she carries the screen. You just saw in that moment just her face... there's a weight to a great actor on screen and she has that. So, in addition to all those things I just mentioned, you need to carry a whole film from top to bottom. So that was the choice. Of course, for me, coming from nontraditional casting as I have - when, for instance, I cast Queen Latifah for Chicago as the matron because she was the best for the role. That's always been my criteria - who is best for the role, whatever their nationality. So that's why I think what I've done is cast the best person for the role with the world as my choice, as opposed to just Japan as my choice. For instance, Michelle Yeoh is Malaysian, and Gong Li is Chinese, and Yuki Kudoh is Japanese, and Koji is Japanese, Ken is Japanese, Suzuka is Japanese, Ziyi is Chinese. It's like this wonderful combination of people. So I'm very proud of the pan-Asian cast. That's exciting for me. Cary Tagawa who is playing the Baron is from Hawaii - he's Japanese but he's from Hawaii...
Q: How was the transition? This one was supposed to be Steven Spielberg as director. Then when you took it, how did it change?
Rob Marshall: Well, Steven's been our producer, which has been great. So he's sort of been overseeing the production for us. I started from scratch. I started with a new writer because I like to develop things from the ground up. So what I inherited was the project, but then everything else I started from the beginning again. But Steven's been wonderful. We started with new designers - I brought my entire design team from Chicago, so I have Dion Bebe as the cinematographer, Colleen Atwood as the costume designer, John Myhre is the production designer, so I have my same team with me. But Steven has been incredible because he's helped me, supported me, given me guidance, his thoughts about the piece, his thoughts about the script...but we started all over again.
Q: From the production design, I can see you have tried to be very authentic as possible, but at the same time this is your interpretation of the geisha world, right?
Rob Marshall: Yes, very much so. It's very similar with what I did in Chicago, sort of my interpretation of the world of Chicago in the 20s. This is my impression of Japan in the 20s, the 30s and the 40s because it's seen through a child's eyes and then one woman's eyes, so you have license there. I wanted also to make sure it was clear that at this time, the geisha were the fashion icons of Japan. Now, they sort of protect that by being sort of the museum pieces, holding the tradition of the geisha. At this time, it was like the height - there were so many geisha, it was like being a movie star. Now it's smaller, of course, and it's wonderful - people go and it's a fun, wonderful novelty and they still work hard. It's almost like when being a Southern Belle was huge or something like that. It very much reminds me of Gone with the Wind in that way. That's the time when it was the height of that world. Then there was the war, things changed, and prostitutes would be confused with geisha and American soldiers would say, "I have a geisha girl as my girlfriend" or something like that and sort of lost the artistry. So I really want to make sure that the artistry of that time and the amount of work it took - I really wanted to honor the geisha but also glamorize them in some ways to make it this incredible thing to be and the hard work to get there as well. It's amazing - the beatings you go through...I mean, you'll see Chiyo, our little actress, go through and it's amazing.


3. Zhang Ziyi Interview
(published March 11, 2005)

This interview with Zhang Ziyi was done with the aid of her Chinese-English interpreter. The questions from reporters were in English. A few times Zhang Ziyi used English for some simple answers. The majority of the time, she was speaking Mandarin Chinese. After discussing this with Akiko, who was one of the interviewers, I decided to translate Ziyi's answers myself instead of using interpreter's translation, since the interpreter sometimes added her own explanations into the conversation.

Q: Interesting comparing to "House of Flying Daggers"... So how is it going? You're wearing the kimono...
Zhang Ziyi: (in English) It's different! (the rest is in Chinese unless specified) In fact I feel that our costume, wardrobe and makeup are very helpful for us. They provide such an environment that we can look for the right feeling. I feel (the character) has gotten more and more under my skin. Because if you portray such a character you need to truly understand it.
Q: When did you read the book? Were you aware of the book?
Zhang Ziyi: (in English) Three years ago...uhm, in Chinese.
Q: What did you think of the story?
Zhang Ziyi: (back to Chinese) I feel it is a very rich story.
Q: Do you feel the Chinese culture and Japanese culture are similar or completely different?
Zhang Ziyi: I feel there are a lot of similarities. I'm very interested in the Japanese culture. Becuase of shooting Suzuki's movie (Note: director Seijun Suzuki's "Operetta Tanuki Goten"), I spent three months in Japan. I saw that Japan has kept the traditional culture. You can still see many people dressed in kimono walking on the Tokyo streets. At the same time you can also see very western, very modern aspects. It's a combination of the times from very traditional to very modern.
Q: What kind of research did you do for this role?
Zhang Ziyi: I feel every figure has their own character. They are people. I don't feel the characters we portray represent a culture. I feel I'm portraying a person, her story. Only this story happens to be about this woman who has this special background.
Q: How is it working with Rob Marshall?
Zhang Ziyi: I feel it has been a very good experience. I feel the director - he's very intelligent, and he's very meticulous about all the details. He also has great control over the performances and he has very clear ideas as to what he wants.
Q: Do you have any particular director or actor that you want to work with?
Zhang Ziyi: Many. There are many excellent actors in Hollywood. My favorite is Al Pacino.
Q: And how is it working with the Japanese actors in this film?
Zhang Ziyi: Very happy. With them together you can learn a lot. Because they are so natural in terms of the walking and the different aspects (of Japanese culture). They don't have to think about it. It's in their blood. Many times they have helped us. For example, like Ken (Watanabe) often says: oh it's better if you put your hands here, or, it's better if you walk like this. And Yuki (Kudoh) has been very helpful as well.
Q: So you've been working all the time, its been so busy. Do you have any breaks?
Rob Marshall: (who's just passing by) She has no breaks. I make sure of that... (laughters all around) Doesn't she look gorgeous? (Questioners: Yes.)
Zhang Ziyi: (answer the question in English) Maybe after this movie.
Q: Where do you want to go? Or do you just want to lie down on a beach or something?
Zhang Ziyi: (in English) I really want to go to... (with the help of the interpreter)... London.
Q: Why? Do you want to shop or...
Zhang Ziyi: (in English) I've never been there, so I really want to go to take a look.
Q:You have a dance scene in the film. How's that?
Zhang Ziyi: It's quite difficult. Because I had to wear shoes like this high (Note: Pokkuri, the name of this type of shoe in Japan, are about 6 to 8 inches high). I remember on the day of the shoot Steven Spielberg came (to the set). He came to me, and he said - he praised me, and then he said: "I have this question - how do you get down from those shoes?" (Note: at one point Ziyi has to dance out of the pokkuri). That dance scene for me is like a scene within a scene. At that moment Sayuri is portraying a character. So she looked like she has gone a little crazy.
Q: This character in the beginning of the movie is a teenager - well, actually, she's a kid - and then later on after the war she's gotten older. Is it difficult to play? And also, like she is in a very different situation...
Zhang Ziyi: I'm very grateful the director was able to find (an actress for) my younger years. Suzuka is really very lovely, and very smart too. I feel she portrayed Sayuri's younger years - I haven't seen (the finished cut), but I feel after watching a few scenes she shot, I'm really glad. (The portraying of) my younger years is excellent. The rest of the task is left for me and I am doing the best I can. I feel I can't say how well I complete the task before seeing the movie myself. But I believe everyone has been - (switch to English) do(ing) their best.


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