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Wednesday, April 14, 2004

Shooting at the top


Another reason to love Sofia Coppola: She had the good sense (and stubbornness) to refuse to do any more interviews while in Japan. Judging by her news-conference comments, she is better at making her films than talking about them -- no crime, that -- so it was a smart move to delegate the explaining part to her producer, Ross Katz.

News photo
Producer Ross Katz

While many producers are little more than the people opening their wallets, Katz is a hands-on type who was deeply involved in the day-to-day process of making the film. After starting as a grip on "Reservoir Dogs," and working his way up the food chain with Good Machine in New York (the people who've done all Ang Lee's films, among others), Katz still seems a bit shell-shocked at finding himself at the helm of a surprise Oscar-winner.

Katz spoke with The Japan Times at -- where else? -- the Park Hyatt.

How hard was it to land Bill Murray?

It was impossible! He doesn't participate in Hollywood. When I'd call his agent, his agent would say, "Hey, Ross -- have you heard from Bill?" And I was hoping he could help me! Bill is a very private guy; he often disappears for months at a time. Sofia stalked him for eight months. She sent him letters, photo books, left voice-mail messages -- she was so persistent. The great thing about Bill is he doesn't discriminate. It doesn't matter if you're made 50 films and are huge, or it's your first film -- he's equally elusive. But he finally read the script and loved it. But what you discover, when you finally find him, is that when he comes to work, he's so on it. He's all about the work. He just wants an artistic endeavor he can throw himself into.

What were some of the challenges you faced in shooting in Tokyo?

Tokyo is, without question, one of the hardest places to shoot. In other cities, whether it's New York or L.A. or London or Paris, there's a film commission which works with the mayor's office to say, "Oh, it's a good thing for the city to have a film shooting." It brings business, good for tourism, supports the arts. So the mayor's office will issue you permits and parking passes, send people to close streets and all that. It just doesn't happen here.

We were lucky because the very first company to commit to "Lost in Translation" was Tohoku-Shinsha. They were the first ones on board, putting up money and helping us to make the movie. They loved "Virgin Suicides," loved Sofia -- it wasn't based much on the fact we were shooting in Japan. But they offered us guidance and insight that was incredible. They'd let us know, uh-oh, you're gonna have trouble with the subway, with the Shibuya Scramble, with the Park Hyatt. The Park Hyatt was the hardest location I've ever shot in in my life -- forget about the streets of Tokyo!

I can imagine why . . .

Well, it's a magnificent hotel, and anytime a film crew goes anywhere, they tend to wreck things. Because you're in a hurry, you're tired, you know.

How about outside the hotel?

There was this persistent energy about filming here with Bill Murray, with our Japanese crew -- about 90 percent of our crew was local. It kept the momentum going, it made us want to explore, to get the camera out there and see the city. Sofia loves Tokyo; she's been coming here for nine years. She wanted to capture the beauty and the complexity of the city through the eyes of a foreigner. . . . I mean, as much as any one movie can.

Given all that, weren't you rather surprised when these reviews started appearing saying the film's treatment of Japan was racist?

I mean, I had a business meeting this morning. There were three people from the company who came to greet me at the elevator, walk me to the car, deliver me to the meeting, wait outside and take me back! [Laughs.] That sort of thing is reflected in the film, and it is accurate. But you have to keep this criticism in perspective: This was the best-reviewed film of last year, nominated for a Best Picture Oscar, nominated for eight BAFTAs in Britain, a front-page review in the New York Times. The critics fueled the movie in the U.S. It's made over $90 million, which is not to say it's about the money, but that represents people, the world over, going to see this film.

But didn't it piss you off?

Well, it's highly irritating. People are entitled to their view, but to me, this is such a sincere and loving movie that that reaction bothers me. Because I know where the heart of the movie is: It's about observation, about being lost, about landing in a place that's foreign to you and finding things both funny and alienating . . . and that's not specific to Japan.

I haven't heard this complaint from any Japanese friends or people I know. It seems to be only Western reporters who have spent time in Japan or live in Japan and take some weird kind of ownership over it, like "Hey, this is my turf! I understand Japan and you don't, because I've lived here for 15 years" . . . or whatever.

Yeah. They call this phenomena "gaijin solipsism."

[Laughs.] It's funny, we literally didn't see any reports on this issue until the runup to the Golden Globe awards and the Academy Award nominations.

Black ops. So, how did you shoot the Shibuya Scramble?

We bought a few coffees and went up to the second floor of Starbucks.



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