We catch up with Rupert Sanders, Scarlett Johansson, Michael Pitt and the visionary special effects team about the making of the future world thriller
The quest to produce Ghost In The Shell as a live-action film franchise, initiated by Steven Spielberg and producer Avi Arad in 2008, was an arduous one, fraught with compounding pressures and challenges. That the film landed in the hands of the technically proficient Rupert Sanders proved ultimately fortuitous for a few reasons. Hyper aware of the challenges of adapting a story with such a devoted fanbase, Sanders took painstaking efforts not only to live up to the expectations set by the source material, but to exceed them and add new dimensionality both literally and figuratively.
Working with rising cinematographer Jess Hall, veteran production designer Jan Roelfs (Gattaca), and special effects maestro, five-time Oscar-winner Richard Taylor of WETA Workshop, Sanders composed a gritty, tactile world of real-life sets and digital animation elements that amount to a lush and immersive cinematic landscape of future world treachery. In casting an internationally diverse cast of actors most known for television series, art films, and other genres, Sanders was able to craft his own kaleidoscopic vision for a world that is at once technologically saturated and yet incredibly colourful and real. Here, Sanders, Taylor, conceptual art director Ben Hawker, and the principle cast discuss how they brought the seminal manga series to life.
RUPERT SANDERS: DIRECTOR
The themes of the film are increasingly relevant the more we come to rely on technology. Did that fuel your interest in telling this story?
Rupert Sanders: I saw the anime when I was at art college, and then came to the manga through the anime. But it really blew my mind. It was quite a unique piece of cinema. I think Shirow is the Nostradamus of technology. He was predicting the internet, interconnected networks of data, long before it was realised. I think some of those themes and ideas have become more relevant, and we rely so much on our phones and that was an interesting thing for me to understand. To think that so much of our lives, we give to that small, rectangular, glassy, seductive-looking black slab. It knows so much about you. Who else knows that much about you? Once you put all of that inside a cerebral implant, it’s not only knowing where you are, what you buy, where you go, who you do what with when you do it, but also it’s able to read people’s thoughts, dreams, ideas, and all of those things that really are us. And then, if that is able to be hacked, that’s a frightening concept.
The look of the film is so specific and unique. It’s not the sort of cliche that you get with a lot of dystopian films that take place in the future. What inspired the look of the movie?
Rupert Sanders: I think just that, really. I didn’t want to be dystopic. I wanted something that was colourful and real. We built a lot of the world for real. We built miniatures of the buildings. We did all of the solid holograms that inhabit the city as real photographic elements. We built hundreds of sets. We worked on the streets of Hong Kong to get the texture and patina. We built clockwork geisha heads, we built Major’s skeleton in 400 unique 3D-printed pieces. I wanted to touch the world, and to be immersed in a world that I could feel and touch. I feel the performances feel more real, the action feels more real, and it’s more dramatic if you believe that you’re there.
Was there ever a point when you felt like something you were attempting was too ambitious to work? If so, how did you move past it?
Rupert Sanders: I was terrified going in. You do all this prep, and you kind of map out the first couple of weeks of production — and then we had this wall with layers of storyboard and concept and everything — up to, like, week four, and then it just bottomed out because it’s so labour-intensive. The opening hotel sequence, we shot early. But there are so many layers of that, these concepts and ideas. Everyone has some kind of augmentation, some kind of strange makeup or some kind of crazy wardrobe, in an environment live-firing, it was a lot to do. I was scared that we were going into the unknown, but I guess that just kind of keeps you on your toes and keeps the imagination going. We had quite a restrictive budget. It’s a big film to bring in on the kind of budget we had, so we were making decisions that were very financial and that also pushes the imagination. You can’t just do anything you want wherever you want. You have to re-use a set, turn it upside-down, re-use a prop, put it on the other side. There was a lot of imagination and creative passion that went into the film.
SCARLETT JOHANSSON: MAJOR
Did you always envision yourself as this huge action star?
Scarlett Johnasson: Um, no! I certainly did not. If I think of myself a decade ago, I never would have imagined that I would be playing so many limitless characters. But in a way, the fact that the characters that I’ve played have no boundaries, has really allowed me to have a lot of expansion, to really explore all these emotional possibilities. It’s been an interesting journey.
The Major is not the first character you’ve done that plays with unconventional mind states, as we’ve seen in Under the Skin and Lucy. What were some of the specific challenges you encountered with the Major?
Scarlett Johansson: Well, there was a unique challenge in this film. Firstly, the original animation stands alone so beautifully and the character in that is introspective but also a little bit cold. Trying to find an angle into this character and humanise her in a way, while still being respectful to the fact that she is a human brain inside an entirely machinate body — that in itself was really challenging: trying to find the balance where you’re playing someone who is not able to express themselves with all of these idiosyncratic tendencies that make us human, but she has this deeply complex inner life going on. So that was very frustrating at times.
“Shooting the scenes with Kaori Momoi, who plays my mother in this film, was awesome. She was so soulful and just a beautiful actress” – Scarlett Johansson
Is there a scene in the movie that stands out to you as a favourite experience?
Scarlett Johnasson: A favourite experience! It was such a hard film to make. It was really, really, really difficult. But shooting the scenes with Kaori Momoi, who plays my mother in this film, was awesome. She was so soulful and just a beautiful actress. It reminded me of those actors from Japanese films, like (1953’s) Tokyo Story. Just these really deeply soulful performances. When she is in mourning she howls, she was just unbelievable. It was a breath of fresh air, especially because I spent so much time working by myself. It was so emotional and heartbreaking to be with her in those moments but you need that emotional depth in this explosive genre because it’s what compels the audience to go on the journey.
PILOU ASBÆK AND CHIN HAN: BATOU AND TOGUSA
What was it like when you found out you had been cast in the film?
Pilou Asbæk: I was personally super excited about it. I was aware of anime and I saw it for the first time when I was a teenager, in my late teens in the beginning of the millennium. I loved it. I wasn’t one of those hardcore fans. But I liked it! It was a cartoon but it took itself seriously and it had a strong female lead.
Chin Han: I was equally excited, because I’m a manga anime fan and have been since I was a teenager. Obviously that excitement soon gives way to terror because you realize it has such a huge fanbase who are so passionate about it and who have their own ideas about what it should be like, on top of the fact that we now have such a seminal piece of work like Shirow’s Ghost In The Shell to live up to. You want to respect that and you want to honour that, so you know, by the time I got to New Zealand, I just had to surrender to the process and Rupert and the producers all made it easy to do that.
Both of you play characters that humanize the film in different ways. How were you able to put your stamp on each of them in order to bring that humanity forward?
Pilou Asbæk: For me it was very important to honour Shirow and Oshii’s incredible work. So, I wanted to create a Batou who was honouring the visuals of Shirow’s manga but the heart and soul of Oshii’s anime. So it became those two — I was standing on the shoulders of them, though I also created my own Batou. It was very very important to me that he was as close to human as possible. He is enhanced, with the eyes and his arm, so I had a lot of discussions with the producers and Rupert Sanders about [the character of this] dog, because I felt that the dog was the key to the character.
Chin Han: How do you show a man who is analog person in a digital world? It’s actually in the character design. So that was very important. Even the mullet, which is something from the ‘80s that he wears, and the suits that he wears, and the skinny tie, and this amazing Casio digital calculator watch that we picked out for him to wear. All of those things were very important in terms of building the character.
“It was very important to honour Shirow and Oshii’s incredible work. So, I wanted to create a Batou who was honoring the visuals of Shirow’s manga but the heart and soul of Oshii’s anime” – Pilou Asbæk
JULIETTE BINOCHE: DR. OUELET
This is such a different type of film than we’re used to seeing you in. What attracted you to the part?
Juliette Binoche: The unknown. Going into a world I didn’t understand anything about before. The vocabulary I was not familiar with, and also it really helps when a director really wants you. Rupert Sanders, our director, was seeing me in it. I didn’t see myself in it. But after talking to him, I felt like, okay, I can try that, even though I don’t understand anything. And he worked on the part, he worked on the relationship with Major. Dr. Ouelet was a creation in this film because in the anime and comics he’s a man and not a woman. So making a more emotional character made it more interesting for me, of course. Playing a scientist with a sort of distance — it’s something you would expect, of course, with this character. But making it so that she’s involved emotionally, and at the end when she sacrifices herself, you have to believe it. Building out this possibility was very interesting and difficult in a way, because you have to play so many layers inside.
What was it like to step into this world that Rupert created?
Juliette Binoche: Well, we talked a lot about the role and the relationship. Talking is helping. I was like a child on the set, seeing all those technicians and trying to understand what they were going to do afterwards in post-production. I had to imagine it because I’m not a very...I don’t see lots of sci-fi in general in my life. So, I was discovering a world as I was making it.
The character of Dr. Ouelet is at once a sympathetic character but she’s also complicit. What was it like to inhabit that tension?
Juliette Binoche: Well I think to start with, she’s quite dark. You think, how can she be related to this authority of the military and using science of the soul to fight terror? I think their behaviour is very much like a terrorist. This military world is actually THE terror! When you function with trust it gives a space. But when you actually manifest with force and destruction, then it creates even more terror. So I think she was quite dark, but the story moves along, and she discovers that Major is becoming even more of her ghost. She needs truth, needs to know about her origin, needs freedom, and needs consciousness. Then my character becomes more conscious of who Major is and that’s why at the end, she’s able to sacrifice herself, to give this ghost its right room, its right place.
MICHAEL PITT: KUZE
Were you a fan of the original books?
Michael Pitt: Yes. I don’t want to say I was a proper nerd, because there are people who are much bigger fans than I was, but I was turned onto it when I was a teenager by some real fans of Ghost In The Shell. Throughout the years I noticed that it would come up. It was a very underground thing in the United States, and I saw the influence that it had on, very often, young art students, who were really into Ghost In The Shell because of the anime. But also, people, biologists and scientists were into Ghost In The Shell because of, in my opinion, how scientifically advanced it was for its time.
Kuze sort of represents the dark heart of the movie. How did you psychologically design the character when you were going into it?
Michael Pitt: It was a really difficult character to work on. It was a great exercise as an actor. I remember while I was working on it, I was like, this is why you’ve seen all of these great Shakespearean actors work on these sci-fi movies, because actually, in fact, it’s really difficult. There’s no handbook. You really have to create a character from the ground up. With Kuze, I quickly realized that he embodied multiple characters in Ghost In The Shell. One of the things I immediately went to research was evolution, where we were in technology, along with some, I guess you would call it Asian philosophies. Because Ghost In The Shell is essentially soul in body. Soul in the vessel, basically.
Like a lot of villains he’s a bit misunderstood. He starts out as this malevolent presence and he slowly reveals himself. What draws you to dark characters like Kuze?
Michael Pitt: Initially what drew me to dark characters was that I was young. I think my first professional job was at 19. So the only characters that were really challenging were darker characters. Everything else was too much like teen idol shit. It was less that I was attracted to dark characters and more that I wasn’t attracted to that. You know what I mean?
RICHARD TAYLOR AND BEN HAWKER OF WETA WORKSHOP: CREATIVE SUPERVISOR AND CONCEPTUAL ART DIRECTOR
How did Ghost In The Shell come to you as a project?
Richard Taylor: This one was, significantly, a major film for us. We probably engaged with the project 4 and a half years ago. Today we will quite often do work on spec and send it out into the world, hoping that we might connect with a project and it was the same with this one. We heard that Steven Spielberg had the possibility of Ghost In The Shell so we sent out a bunch of artwork. We didn’t hear anything for a couple of years. And then we were in early development with Rupert working on another project of his, and we were up in L.A. on a particular trip and he suggested that we pop over and visit Steven’s place and while we were there, we got to meet Ari Arad. He told us he was going to be producing Ghost In The Shell, which was...fantastic! In the workshop we’ve got people who are as fanatical about this film, this piece of intellectual property, as some of our staff are about things like Lord of the Rings, so this is a very special opportunity. Tammy, my wife, and I have been running our company for 27 years now. We’re an unusual company in that we look after a broad array of different disciplines. We do design, armour, weapons, creatures, miniatures, prosthetics, props, costumes and vehicles. It was a great opportunity to bring many of those skills to a project such as this for Rupert and his producing team.
What went into the decisions to create practical effects versus digital effects?
Richard Taylor: It’s an unusual thing in today’s film climate we’re in, for a director to turn up and say I want to try to do as much practical as we can before we rely on digital work. Obviously, that’s a personal choice of Rupert’s, who’s come from a practical filmmaking background. But, there is an argument that the very metaphor of this world, what does it mean to be human? Are you still human if your body is being replaced but your mind, the soul, and the ghost and the conscience of the creature, if everything was to be produced digitally so the actors are filming only on green screen, opposite only tennis balls on sticks. I think Rupert knew from the outset that, how could an actress such as Scarlett Johansson hope to evoke those metaphors and create a film, with the subtle depth of this movie should she not be acting against real characters in a real world environment? How could she speak to the fact that she is this fragile young girl in a woman’s body trying to find her existence in the world if she’s acting in a completely artificial environment? So by creating this visceral, gritty, and textural world that the actors stepped into, I think that the quality of these rich subtle messages within the movie was made all the more plausible because of it.
Ben Hawker: Especially when the property is about living inside a digital universe. You’re living inside a construct that is a network, which is mentioned many times. And Rupert understood, I think from the beginning, that obviously visual effects can date pretty significantly, especially digital special effects. Confines of modern filmmaking, you have to do that stuff, just so you will have your film done in time and ready for the cinema. But he wanted to make sure that he could make something as faithful to the original property, by Masamune Shirow, that was going to make the fans happy, and to get a whole lot of new fans. And to do that he had to think, how am I going to make this graphic, iconic, and not date? And he attempted as best he could to attempt practical effects whenever possible. Real vehicles when possible. Real people whenever possible. Prosthetic makeup when you could. When you look at films from the ‘80s, there are a lot of practical effects because they didn’t have anything else, but they don’t tend to date. He mentioned Kubrick’s 2001, the way those films are constructed, their lighting palettes, all those things remain constant. That’s the reason it’s referenced today.
Richard Taylor: One of the things he wanted was not a design team, but people who would intelligently riff with him on how to create this world. All films that come from a source material are going to bring along a core group of fans, but you could argue that there would be almost no other property on the planet that would bring along a more fervent group of fans than Ghost In The Shell. Therefore, this is a fan movie. This is real, niche, hard sci-fi. This is not a director pandering to a global audience. For instance, when you watch the film you’ll see that there are no cell phones in this world. There’s no 2017 sci-fi thinking. The constructs in a movie such as Guardians of the Galaxy or Star Trek, the cities are of chrome and glass, which is the utopian vision that we would all have in 2017 of our future. But of course, this is far from utopian. This is brutalist architecture, post-Japanese second World War construct. In that world, we needed to find the language of Ghost In The Shell. It had to come from Shirow’s vision from the 1980s otherwise we would have significantly undermined the core fan vernacular of this movie.
“This is far from utopian. This is brutalist architecture, post-Japanese second World War construct. In that world, we needed to find the language of Ghost In The Shell. It had to come from Shirow’s vision from the 1980s” – Richard Taylor
What were some of the biggest endeavours it took to create the world of Ghost In The Shell?
Ben Hawker: You see this through all stages of the production, from the core concept design to the costumes that you see. Our friends Kurt and Bart, who are the costume designers of the film, brought, you’ll see, big shoulder pads, the brightly colored costumes, all the neon lights you’ll see on wet streets, it’s a distinctly Asian film. We turned Wellington into Hong Kong and we can’t quite believe it. A lot of the films that New Zealand is renowned for making rely on the scenery and the grass, countryside, and Hobbit holes. And for us to make a hard sci-fi movie in a small coastal city, a capital city as though it may be, it’s not high rise and it’s not densely populated, I think the production did an amazing job.
How do you feel the film reflects the reality of the world we’re going to be inhabiting in the future?
Richard Taylor: When [the original series] came out it had a significant impact, but of course it was still speaking of an unlikely future. In 2017 where our lives are entirely ubiquitous with our cell phones, we’re connected into the grid, we’re wirelessly harnessed to this tech world. So the statements made, or these philosophies, the conjecture of these philosophies of 30 years ago have really come home to roost. This story actually has very significant parables to the world we live in. We were having the conversation about the fact that our children are being born into a very different world than the luxurious existence that most of our generation has had. Whatever your upbringing, we’ve lived through the apex of humanity in the last 20,000 years. And if you have the optimism that that world will continue, then yes, I believe very strongly that a lot of what is postulated in this film is part of our very near future. It has to be because we’re already almost there. A.I. is almost upon us. The ability to daisy-chain the intelligence of the human race is almost upon us. And the moment of singularity is going to have a significant shift in the way that we interface as humans.
Ben Hawker: Rupert’s closing line of the film is that technology is nothing without humanity and we seem to have forgotten the humanity.
Richard Taylor: We have to cling onto the fact that at the core of us as a group is a population of extraordinary thinkers and doers. We’re raising our children in a cold, hard interface. I call it the vanilla-flavoured IKEA future. It’s not where we want to be. We don’t want our children interfacing with the world through hard sheets of glass. It would be nice to think we have the optimism of keeping the soul in it all. I think this will go on to be a very powerful movie for people. It could actually be a social war cry.