Love, War and Neo-Noir
With a story traversing political suspense, the quest for lost love and the murky days just after the end of World War II in Japan, the filmmakers knew they would need a director for EMPEROR who could evoke both its intricate themes and its rarely seen period. They chose Peter Webber, the British director who turned GIRL WITH A PEARL EARRING into a hypnotic cinematic painting.
"We loved his passion," says Gary Foster. "We met with a number of directors and there were different points of view on making the film more of a love story or more of a political thriller, but Peter found a way to integrate both. He was able to bring in both the muscular feel of a thriller and the lyrical romanticism of a relationship that might have changed history."
The screenplay had entranced Webber. "I'm sent a lot of scripts but I'm interested in very, very few of them," he admits. "When this landed on my doorstep, I instantly felt 'I'd really like to make this film.' It was real page-turner. I knew a bit about MacArthur and the occupation. I'd read about post-war Japan and the dismantling of their empire. But here was a dark little corner of history that had previously been un-illuminated and I thought it would be exciting to shine a light into it."
He continues: "But this story isn't only about past history. I think it has something quite contemporary and relevant to say about the differences between revenge and justice."
Indeed all the moral shadows and tricky romance in the story put Webber in mind of classic film noirs, in which the gritty mood of mystery reflects both what the characters are going through and the dramatic uncertainty of the world at large. "There was something in the script that reminded me of THE THIRD MAN," notes Webber, referring to the Carol Reed classic of love and deception set in post-war Vienna. "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."
Once he took on the production, Webber immersed himself in research, delving into history books and every different kind of visual reference he could find from the period, scouring rare archival footage as well as making several personal journeys to Japan. Since the story is fictionalized, he had some visual freedom, but authenticity in the period details remained vital. He was committed to honoring the complexity of the Japanese culture that Aya reveals to Fellers with such resonant results.
"I've tried to avoid easy cultural cliches in the film such as delicate, oriental flowers and the like," says Webber. "Prior to 1945, Japan was actually a quite modern, already slightly westernized country. But there was still a clash of cultures with the Americans. Because the film is seen through the eyes of Bonner Fellers, it's really about a man trying to penetrate an imperial culture that seems at first impenetrable."
While historical consultants, including war historian and military archivist Pedro Loureiro, helped to keep the film true to the overall sweep of events, Webber says he was most interested in being true to the spirit of the characters. "Although we wanted to get all the broader details correct, we were focused on creating an intelligent entertainment," he explains.
A believer in the adage that "you're only as good as your collaborators," Webber began that process with casting, looking for actors who could cut to the core of the characters' strong, colliding personalities rather than their photographic appearances.
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