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Interview: Rob Marshall for "Memoirs of a Geisha"

By Paul Fischer Monday November 21st 2005 10:36PM
Rob Marshall for "Memoirs of a Geisha"

Following his critically acclaimed film directorial debut on Chicago, audiences and critics were very interested to see what he would come up with next, the result being the lavishly screen adaptation of the best selling novel, Memoirs of a Geisha. Initially renowned as a brilliant choreographer for stage, screen and television, Rob Marshall made the rare transition to film director with his 2002 big-screen adaptation of the 1972 John Kander and Fred Ebb stage musical "Chicago," which became a smashing critical and commercial phenomenon and secured his place among Hollywood's A-list helmers.

Marshall first began making home movies as a youth with his sisters, including a parody of "The Brady Bunch" well before it was en vogue, but dance proved to be his true calling, beginning as a performer and eventually rising to become a dance captain, a choreographer and ultimately a director after he graduated from Carnegie-Mellon University, appearing in shows such as "Cats" and "Zorba." His first choreographic effort on Broadway had him providing additional choreography for "The Kiss of the Spider Woman" (1993)--with music and lyrics by Kander & Ebb and book by Terrence Mann-- working with legendary director Hal Prince, choreographer Vincent Patterson and star Chita Rivera. Prince subsequently tapped Marshall to lay down the dance moves for a revival of "Company" (1995), which closed after 60 performances, and production of "The Petrified Prince" at the Public Theater.

Marshall's next big moment came when he choreographed the Tony-award-winning Broadway production of "She Loves Me" (1993), which earned him an Olivier nomination when the show ran in London; and he won major acclaim for his choreography of the 1994 Broadway revival of "Damn Yankees" starring Victor Garber and Bebe Neuwirth, as well the show's subsequent national tour with Jerry Lewis and the London production, which resulted in a second Olivier nomination. Marshall's dance touch also graced the smash 1996 revival of "A Funny Thing Happened On the Way to the Forum" starring Nathan Lane and, later, Whoopi Goldberg; the 1995 stage production of Blake Edwards' "Victor/Victoria" starring Julie Andrews; and an off-Broadway revival of Steven Sondheim's "Roundabout."

Marshall's string of successes on stage attracted the attention of Hollywood, and he was soon tapped to choreograph the dance sequences in lavish musical television productions such as the CBS telepic "Mrs. Santa Claus" (1996) starring Angela Lansbury; ABC's successful all-star TV version of "Rogers & Hammerstein's Cinderella" (1997) starring Brandy Norwood, Whitney Houston, Whoopi Goldberg and Jason Alexander, for which he also did the musical staging; and the Tim Robbins-directed "The Cradle Will Rock" (1998), which told the true story of the government injunction against Marc Blitzstein's 1937 musical of the same name. Back on Broadway in 1998, Marshall made his directorial debut by co-directing (with Sam Mendes) and choreographing the wildly popular revival of Kander and Ebbs' sensation "Cabaret" starring Alan Cumming as the Master of Ceremonies and Natasha Richardson as Sally Bowles. That show won just about every award imaginable, including the Tony, the Drama Desk Award and the Outer-Critics Circle Award. That same year he also helmed the Tony-winning Broadway run of Neil Simon's "Little Me" starring Faith Prince and Martin Short, and "Promises, Promises" for the City Center Encores! Series.

Marshall made a major splash on the small screen with Disney and ABC's ratings-grabbing television adaptation of "Annie" (1999) with Kathy Bates, Victor Garber, Alan Cumming and Kristin Chenoweth, which marked Marshall's first professional foray behind the camera as a director and became the most-viewed TV movie of that year. The Peabody-award winning broadcast also resulted in Marshall winning his own Emmys for best directing and best choreography, and a Director's Guild of America Award nomination. Hollywood strongly beckoned and, after replacing the original director on the Broadway musical "Suessical" (which he did uncredited, working with the show's choreographer, his sister and former assistant Kathleen) in 2000, he began meeting with movie studio executives looking for his first feature film project. A meeting at Miramax--studio head Harvey Weinstein's children obsessively watched and re-watched "Annie"--in which he was supposed to discuss directing a big-screen version of "Rent" instead found the director pitching a long-dreamed-of ambition, putting "Chicago" on film.

Marshall had earlier directed a well-received Los Angeles production of the musical starring Bebe Neuwirth in 1992 which had earned him a Dramalogue Award. Though there had been several failed efforts to bring the project to the screen since the 1980s involving a revolving door full of talents ranging from Bob Fosse, Larry Gelbart, Nicholas Hytner, Goldie Hawn, Madonna and a pre-"Moulin Rouge" Nicole Kidman, Marshall believed he had the concept that would allow contemporary filmgoers to embrace the inherent unreality of the movie musical: he would keep the music sequences theatrical and showy by making them imaginary figments unfolding in the head of the delusional lead character, Roxie Hart. Miramax agreed and greenlit the film, even before the surprise success of director Baz Luhrmann's "Moulin Rouge" (2001), and Marshall set to work crafting a script with writer-director Bill Condon that veered between fantasy and reality.

Marshall also cannily cast major stars who were proven box office draws-Renee Zellweger, Catherine Zeta-Jones and Richard Gere-but were not known for their musical talents; nevertheless, they had the chops to pull off the demanding numbers. He also populated the supporting roles with highly unconventional choices, including Queen Latifah, John C. Reilly, Taye Diggs and Lucy Liu, which amped up the curiosity factor. But no gimmicks could beat Marshall's remarkably assured direction and whip-smart style, made all the more impressive by the director's grueling three-month, seven-day-a-week schedule. The result was a revelation: a potent, energetic, engaging and highly original film that captured the electricity of Broadway-style dance without sacrificing a theatrical sensibility for cinematic realism. Miramax's risky gamble and Marshall's back-breaking efforts proved fruitful when the film was released in 2002 to gushing critical accolades and strong box office receipts, a ride which resulted in several major awards nominations for Marshall, including an Academy Award nomination, a Directors Guild of America nod and a Golden Globe nomination.

Set in 1929, Memoirs of a Geisha tells of an impoverished nine-year-old sold to a geisha house in Kyoto's Gion district and subjected to cruel treatment from the owners and the head geisha Hatsumomo. Her stunning beauty attracts the vindictive jealousy of Hatsumomo, until she is rescued by and taken under the wing of Hatsumomo's bitter rival, Mameha. Under Mameha's mentorship, she becomes the geisha named Sayuri, trained in all the artistic and social skills a geisha must master in order to survive in her society. As a renowned geisha she enters a society of wealth, privilege, and political intrigue. As World War II looms Japan and the geisha's world are forever changed by the onslaught of history. Garth Franklin spoke to Marshall in New York.

Question: Did you realize what you had done to yourself?

Marshall: You know, it was exciting in a funny way it's scary. It was obviously scary. There I was working with an international group of actors, five of who are making their English language debut. It was an amazing experience. I found that something exists between director and actor sometimes that surpasses or transcends language. Sitting and working with them, I'm very lucky that we had the six weeks of rehearsal that we had because it was during that time that we sort of worked out how this would play. I would be speaking English and it would be translated into Japanese and Chinese in front of me. Many times the actors couldn't speak to each other except in the scene in English. It was extraordinary. But we had the luxury of that rehearsal, and so by the time we got to shooting I felt it was - oddly enough -- very natural. I felt we had found our way, and these are the greatest actors really in the world. I have Koji Yakusho, the Al Pacino of Japan, Gong Li, the Meryl Streep of China. I have these great actors and I felt like I was in very safe hands with them.

Question: But after "Chicago", did you feel that pressure or were you just really wanting to bide your time to figure out what would be the best film to see?

Marshall: That's such a good question because after Chicago I wanted to just sort of think, stop for a moment and think what was next, which is exactly what I did. I didn't jump right into something. I felt like what a great opportunity to be in a position where you can make a choice as opposed to something that's chosen for you, and so I chose Geisha because I wanted to challenge myself. I wanted to try something very different. I wanted to challenge myself. I wanted to try something that would scare me but that would hopefully be rewarding ultimately at the end of it all, and this came my way. It's funny how it came - I got the call from Lucy Fisher, Doug Wick and Steven Spielberg, our producers, while I was sort of in the throes of the awards season of Chicago, which was such a surprise to me; I wasn't prepared for that at all. And they were asking me, 'Would you take a look at this" And I didn't really want to look at anything then because I couldn't focus, but they kept sending me bottles of sake and antique print of Geisha and beautiful books, and it was really hard to turn away from it because I thought, 'Wow, this is it, isn't it? This is fantastic.' So it was a combination for me of the world of Geisha and also the story. The central story was very moving to me, about the child who is sold into slavery and must surrender to a life that's very difficult and with a great struggle involved and learns to ultimately find love in a world where love is forbidden to her.

Question: Wasn't there a moment there where you were thinking about directing "Rent"?

Marshall: That was before Chicago. When I went to meet with Miramax about a musical, they had brought me in to talk about Rent. And I said, 'Before we begin this conversation about "Rent" can I tell you what I would do with "Chicago?"' And that turned into a meeting that lasted hours and then I went to Harvey's office and explained how I saw Chicago and that turned into a development deal and into a movie.

Question: Although they are very, very different, both Chicago and Geisha involved rivalries between strong women. Is that a theme you find that you find particularly intriguing or appealing and is it something that we like continue to see as a vocal point in your work?

Marshall: It's interesting you say that because I remember I was in Japan and we were in a Kaburenjo, which is the name of their theater, the Geisha theater, and I was in the basement and they were showing me how a lift worked. And, of course, I remember immediately Catherine Zeta Jones coming out of the floor and how we've done that, and I thought, 'I've traveled halfway across the world to do something completely different and it just dawned on me that I'm doing a movie about rival women in show business again.' But it was obviously in a very different way. That was really sort of a coincidence, although I have to say that something about the fact that Geisha are artists first. The word Geisha means artist and the fact that dance is the highest art that they perform. It's something that I connect to. And the discipline involved, I get. So there is a connection that honestly I didn't really quite make immediately. To me was a totally different palette, which it was, of course, and is. The thing that I look for when I'm looking for what's next and so forth is great story lines. I love working with actresses; I really do. There's something about it that I have a real connection with. It could easily be that I'll find myself doing it again, but hopefully there will be a little variety as well, thank you.

Question: Do you see Geisha as a form of slavery?

Marshall: I found it a very interesting profession. To me it's a combination of beauty and cruelty. It really was both, and that's what I think makes it so fascinating. They really are moving works of art. They have to train unbelievably hard, and they work incredible hours. When I was in Kyoto, even today, there are so few left and it's a very different kind of profession, obviously. You're not sold into it. You make a choice to do it as a teenager in high school would choose to go to the School of American Ballet or something like that or become a model. It's that kind of thing now. But then children were sold into these Geisha houses as maids and as slaves, but there was a reward for that ultimately at the end of it if they were able to maintain the work and the house and the training and so forth, and they would become Geisha. But to me the movie is about how you deal with this very difficult profession. (There are, in the story) four different Geisha, ultimately. One, Sayuri, survives. Like the water in her eye, she keeps moving forward and ultimately finds love. But Hatsumomo, sort of the tragic villain of our piece, obviously self-destructs, can't deal with the restrictions of being a Geisha. Mameha, the teacher, is a Geisha who is the perfect Geisha and the only way she can do that is really put her heart on ice and remove herself from that. And she has that wonderful line where she says, 'A Geisha has no choice. We don't become Geisha to pursue our own destinies. We become Geisha because we have no choice.' And then Pumpkin, the fourth Geisha, is a failed Geisha and becomes a prostitute. So that's what's to me the movie is about, exploring that.

Question: How can the modern women relate to this?

Marshall: I think it's fascinating. First of all, you have to remember something: this is a women-run business, even in the 20's and 30's, when this movie takes place. It's extraordinary when you think about. The teahouses are owned by women, and these Okiyas are run by women. All that money was exchanged from women. So there's a sense this is a female business. I think it's fascinating to explore, for instance, Sayuri, whose spirit didn't accept that. To me, she has a modern sensibility in that time; somebody who went against the culture and didn't accept that she could not dream or that she could not love.

Question: Is this why the book and hopefully the movie resonates?

Marshall: I think it has resonated in terms of the book, for sure. It's a hidden culture. It's a hidden subculture inside Japan. That's what makes it so alluring. For me, even spending two years on it, I'm still fascinated by it because there is no Western equivalent to it. Somebody said to me the other day, 'Is a Geisha a trophy wife?' And I said, 'No, that's not what they are.' People try to equate what they are and that's not what they are. They're artists first and then, of course, there's a danna involved, a patron involved eventually, and in the time of our story a Geisha sold herself, sold her virginity. But it's a peak into a different world, to a different culture, and one of the things I loved about movies growing up for me is being transported to a different world, transported to a different time and place and exploring what that's about and understanding where it came from.

Question: Can you talk about the casting and why go with Chinese actresses and not Japanese?

Marshall: I have a very simple philosophy when it comes to casting and it really is casting the best person for the role. We had casting directors all over the world and the hope as a director is that when someone walks in, an actor walks in that you work with, claims the role and says, 'This is mine.' Sayuri, for instance, was such a demanding role because not only did she have to be a great actor that could carry a film, but she also had to speak English. She also had to be a brilliant dancer because we had to learn how to become a Geisha in literally six weeks; that's all we had, and she had to do that incredible dance. And it takes a lifetime to become a Geisha. The subtleties are extraordinary. So we had to approximate the idea what that would be. And so a dancer was very key to me. She had to age from 15 to 35, and she had to have that great spirit. For me an actor like Z (Ziyi Zhang), for instance, comes along once in a generation. She's 26 years old and she is extraordinary. She's really extraordinary on every level and there was no question. She was Sayuri, the way Ken Watanabe was the Chairman. I met him the day after the premiere of 'The Last Samurai' in New York. I walked in and I thought he'd be a Samurai, the Samurai, and I walked in and here's this gentle, lovely man with a great humor, great kindness and I thought, 'That's the Chairman.' So it was, 'How wonderful he'll be able to play something he's never played before, ironically, which was something closer to himself.' So that's the hope of the director: they claim the roles. And my job is to choose the best actor for every role, to bring that character to life.

Question: What about the other two actresses - Michelle Yeah and Gong Li?

Marshall: Michelle Yeoh is Malaysian and she is a dancer as well. I knew that once again with Mameha, who is the tutor, had to be able to teach and become the perfect Geisha. The other thing that Michelle has in spades for me is the incredible elegance, incredible warmth and great wisdom, everything Mameha had needed. So she claimed that role and said, 'This is mine' more than anybody else in the world. I would say Gong Li is probably one of the greatest actors in the world. It's pretty much that simple. The beauty is extraordinary, and I knew with Hatsumomo that it was the hardest role in the movie because it could easily become a one-dimensional character, bitch, who plays evil for evil's sake. And with Gong Li I have a three-dimensional actor. And she helped me enormously, by the way, as we worked on this character to find the reason for why she is the way she is, to make her full-blooded. And for me it was an honor to work with this great actor.

Question: The poster emphasizes the blue eyes and they don't look that blue on screen. Westerners have an idea of the mysterious East. Is this a way to welcome Westerns into the world?

Marshall: No, this is Arthur Golden's story. That's what we're doing the film version of. Arthur Golden's story is about a girl who stood out from others because she had these remarkable gray-blue eyes and -

Question: Is it possible for a Japanese to have blue eyes?

Marshall: Yeah, sure. You have to remember this is a fable, I'll remind everybody of that, and a fiction. And in addition to that, (with) our story we even stepped further away from Kyoto. Our story takes place in the fictional town of Miako. I wanted to do that because I wanted to really know that this is a story, a lovely fable, an emotional fable.

Question: Why start with the characters speaking Japanese and then segue into English?

Marshall: The reason is because I wanted to enter into this world in somewhat sort of an authentic way, like we're appearing into a world. One of the things we did throughout the movie was shoot the movie through materials, through bamboo, through silks, things like that, to give a sense that we're appearing into a unique world, a hidden world. I wanted to start the movie in Japanese so you'd have a sense of disorientation and feel that you're in a place that's foreign and odd to you. And then once the voiceover begins you understand that it's being narrated and being told as a memoir. As soon as the English voice takes over then the rest of the movie is translated to us in English.

Question: This is a fable, not related to the real world now in which you really do have women sold into slavery. But do you think there's a resonance?

Marshall: I think, obviously, there is a truth to this movie in terms of when it took place. Our movie opens in 1929 and children were sold into Geisha houses. They left their parents and they had a new mother, and that's how it worked. Now, of course, it's completely different. That would never happen. Now, you choose to become a Geisha as a high school student like I said before, and at age 16. In fact they don't start teaching Geisha until they are 16 now. So it's a very different thing. But then that is how it worked. It's funny, I found Arthur's story to be very much like a Dickensian novel in a way, I felt, very much like David Copperfield or Oliver Twist. It had that kind of thing, in addition to (resembling) Pygmalion or Cinderella; it has that kind of rags to riches feel. But the Dickensian part of it grabs a lot of people when they read the novel and hopefully when they see the movie because you care about this child, what's going to happen to her, someone who's been taken from love, taken from family.

Question: How do you feel about reinventing the movie musicals?

Marshall: I'm happy. I'm so happy (if that's true) because I made it so clear when I was promoting Chicago (that he wished it would result in more musicals being made). That's what I grew up watching and loving, movie musicals. They've inspired me throughout my life and so I'm so thrilled that Rent's opening, Producers is opening this season. Dreamgirls, Hairspray is on the way. And if we played a small part in that I'm thrilled.

Question: What are some of your favorite musicals?

Marshall: The musicals that I loved growing up: many, many. Singing in the Rain, of course, is a classic, I love Meet Me in St. Louis. I love Funny Face, Stanley Donen's beautiful movie. It's really countless for me. Cabaret. What do I love about Singing in the Rain? It's the perfectly constructed musical and it was created specifically for film, which is fantastic. And it's about the film business. Perfect performances. There's not a misstep in the whole movie.

Question: Can you talk about the transition from musicals to something dramatic?

Marshall: Sure. That was really a wonderful opportunity for me. "Chicago" presents this wonderful thing in your life that you can maybe take a chance or open up or try something different with the success. It's this lovely thing that happens, and it happens rarely in life. Mostly what happens in your life is you're perceived as one thing and that's what you do and that's it. For me, to me, telling a story is telling a story, telling it through dance, telling it through singing is the same thing as telling it through a dramatic piece -- because it's a story. The characters, you have to bring to life. You have to make it feel connected to your emotions in some way; whether it's funny, whether it's sad, whether it's beautiful, whether it's cruel. And I was moved by this and excited to do it, and there's a little dance in it. So there's a little connection to the world for me. I did shoot in a theater and did have a little bit of a safety net there for myself. But I was excited to try something else.

Question: But following that up, you have a knack for doing projects based on existing material. Assuming this is a success and you get that next opportunity, how eager would you be to something original as opposed to a remake or something based on a book, where there are expectations that come with that.

Marshall: Yeah. That would be fantastic. I'm not a writer, although as a filmmaker you are an author in a certain way. I worked on this movie, for instance, and I started from scratch. I started from the book and I hired Robin (Swicord). Robin and I started working on structuring the piece and pulling directly from the book. Original material is trickier when you're not a writer. When I read and look for things, it's not so much 'Is it from a source? Is it not from a source?' It's 'What is original? What's moving? What's different?' I think that movies sometimes suffer from the cookie cutter syndrome. I've seen the same thing over and over and over again, and one of the things that exited me about this is I haven't seen this movie before, so I thought, 'Well, let's do something new.'

Question: You have both in Chicago and Geisha you have established yourself as the - an author. All of the actors that we've spoken with today have acknowledged that this is Rob Marshall's vision. So as a film director who is acknowledged to be an auteur, who is working with material that is not original, how responsible do you feel to that original material?

Marshall: Thank you very much. I feel a great deal (of responsibility). Specifically with Memoirs of a Geisha, it was such a beloved book. I felt a great deal of responsibility to bring it to life in a way that would honor the book and honor this great novel. I sat with Arthur Golden for quite a long time talking to him about the novel and how he got there and everything about it, about the characters. And he was part of the process for me, which it was important to me. He dreamed this up and I wanted to make sure his dream -- although in a different form, of course, it has to become something else; it's a two-hour and 17-minute movie, not a 400-page novel -- but I wanted it to have the same feel, the same beauty that he captured and that captured the hearts of his readers. So he was involved quite a bit.

Question: What's next?

Marshall: It's funny. I'm so bad at developing something while I'm working on something. I'm terrible at it. I didn't do it in Chicago, either. I'll probably stop now, breathe for a little bit and start reading, and something will happen, I hope.

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