Hey, screenwriters and filmmakers, here’s a challenge for you. Make a movie about WWII, but with no battles. Make it a mystery, but assume the audience knows how it turns out. Make it a love story, but tell it completely in flashbacks. Make it a film about soldiers, but no gutsy infantryman in trenches, just generals in big headquarters. Make it a detective story, but no shooting, the detective never beats anybody up, and all he has to do is hand in a typed report. Oh, and don’t be boring.
Sound difficult? Amazingly, in the new film Emperor, director by Peter Webber (Girl With A Pearl Earring), and screenwriters David Klass (Kiss The Girls) and Vera Blasi (Woman On Top) do more than make this potential sleeper not boring, they make it an engrossing story. This is done by focusing on the internal conflicts of the man assigned to come up with a decision which could affect the fate of a nation and the lives of hundreds of thousands.
That man, General Bonner Fellers, played by Matthew Fox, is given a mission by General Douglas MacArthur, played by Tommy Lee Jones, to covertly investigate the looming question hanging over America and Japan: should the Japanese Emperor, worshiped by his people but accused of war crimes, be punished or saved? Fellers, an expert in Japanese culture and psychological warfare, negotiates the high-wire political intrigue of his urgent mission; in-fighting on the general staff; and also has to deal with his personal search for the mysterious school teacher, played by newcomer Eriko Hatsune, who first drew him to Japan.
Fellers has to work covertly to investigate the Emperor’s fate while the future of the nation hangs 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 recovers from years of war.
In production notes provided by distributor Roadside Attractions, Director Peter Weber and screenwriter Vera Blasi explained their approach to the story.
Webber says that when he read the script, he felt that the story was not only about past history, but had something quite contemporary and relevant to say about the differences between revenge and justice. The moral shadows and tricky romance in the story put Webber in mind of classic film noir. “There was something in the script that reminded me of The Third Man,” Webber states. “This is more of a political thriller, but I really wanted to make a kind of neo-noir out of it in the detail and the atmosphere. To me it’s at once a political thriller, a love story and a dark film noir.”
The vision for the film was further refined by Blasi. Known for her passionate love of history and finesse with psychologically rich characters, she found the heart of the story. “To me it’s about how justice and truth are juxtaposed with political expedience and what will be the greater good for the world,” she explains. “I just find that fascinating and it continues to be very important in our world.”
Having worked for generals myself, I think Jones’ portrayal of MacArthur strikes just the right tone. There are very few laughs in this movie and Jones gets them when his MacArthur lambasts politicians. Like soldiers everywhere, MacArthur had to deal with the hard edge of reality, while politicians in Washington are more concerned about the soft world of image. But like most generals, he edges toward politics, and Jones and director Webber handle this well.
Mathew Fox portrays Fellers as caught between forces beyond his control. His personal conflicts and frustration, with his assignment and his search for his missing Japanese girlfriend, provide insights, on an understandable human level, into the larger disconnects between American and Japanese society.
Part of what makes this movie work is the result of the behind-the-scenes team. This includes Oscar nominated director of photography Stuart Dryburgh (Texas Killing Fields, The Piano) and Academy Award winning production designer Grant Major (King Kong, The Lord Of The Rings trilogy).
I have never written about Production Design before. A production designer, or PD, is the person responsible for the overall look of a film. Production designers have one of the key creative roles, working directly with the director and producer. They must select the settings and style to visually tell the story. Generally, when a production designer does their job, you don’t notice, because the film just “looks right” and nothing seems anachronistic or out-of-place.
The production design in Emperor is exceptional because of how closely the look is integrated with the story. I mentioned that the central theme of the film is the preparation of a report. Since the story takes place in 1945, the report is prepared on a typewriter. From the beginning, main titles and all other titles appear as if typed on a typewriter. There is even a shot taken from beneath the keyboard looking upward as Fellers is typing.
Additionally, the investigation by Fellers into the Emperor’s guilt or innocence involves tracking a large number of Japanese officials and soldiers. The American soldiers thumbtack photos of suspects on a bulletin board to track the status of the investigation. The photos become a part of the storytelling, by appearing and disappearing at key moments. In the epilogue to the film, the photos continue to be used, this time though they are of the actual people whose story has just been told. These visual clues help provide unity and continuity to a complex story.
Emperor is rated PG-13 and opens March 8.