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HICKS, SCOTT : Snow Falling on Cedars

There was a safe way of telling this story and there was a risky way; "I opted for the latter," director Scott Hicks tells ANDREW L. URBAN.

Q: What is to you, if there is such a thing, the best part of your film, Snow Falling on Cedars?

A: I think the richness of the visual texture of the movie is so endlessly satisfying. I've viewed it, as one does, hundreds of times, and when after hearing some negative feeling about it, you look at it with trepidation, thinking, oooh, what did I do? And when I see it again, I go, 'what're they talking about!? I love this movie!' [laughs] It's the marriage of design, cinematography, location….all those ingredients which are the end result of so many choices that you're presented with when you're directing a film.

Q: And was it all pre-visualised?
A: Well, the template for me was always the book and all the visual detail in it. But of course you can't put it all into a screenplay, so, as you know, the screenplay is the bare bones of action and dialogue and precious little description. That was contained in the 'handbook' - which was the book. I'd actually have lots of photocopied bits peppered through my script of Guterson's descriptions, of 'dank, dripping environment…grey leaden skies…golden sunlight spilling onto a carpet' and all that sort of thing. The effort and challenge was to try and put those ingredients in front of the camera.

Q: And that was achieved through a team of people you chose yourself?
A: Yes, and in a way that whole process I liken to casting. You choose people you can work with; you're looking for elements of communication, a shared sense of humour, those sorts of things. I knew that all the people we were meeting were of a very high calibre…and it was funny because one or two people I found a little odd. And I'd remark on it afterwards to Kathy Kennedy [one of the producers] and she said, "Scott, they're terrified meeting you"….. And I'm amazed…What? What are you talking about? And she'd say it's the reputation of Shine and all the rest of it - these people just really want to work with you. I hadn't thought about things that way; I felt privileged to be accessing them, so it was quite a revelation.

Q: Let's talk about one key person in particular - I know they're all important - but Bob Richardson, the cinematographer - he shot JFK as he likes to put it - but what is it about his work that made him right for you for this film?
A: Well he had this extraordinary canon of work behind him; the entire ouvre of Oliver Stone, and latterly he'd decided to work with other directors, like Martin Scorsese, Barry Levinson and others. Each time with this extraordinarily spectacular but very individual result so there was nothing generic about the way his films look. Of course there is the amalgam of the director and cinematographer, but it wasn't like he just had a bag of tricks that he pulls out time and again - and that really appealed to me. And then meeting him - there was a kind of magic which happens with some human beings, when there are people you just know you're going to get on with. And there are people that you know you won't. And with Bob I had no doubt, and I think the feeling was mutual.

Q: You said earlier that there had been the occasional negative response to the film; has there been anything negative that caused you concern?
A: Look, as a filmmaker you're nothing if not obsessive so you tend to obsess, particularly when people haven't 'got it', you know…and you wish they had. But the film is the film and it has to do its own talking. No, it's been so outweighed by the positive, and the often very powerful positive responses. The film obviously has a deep impact on those who 'get it'. And for those that don't, there's nothing that's going to turn them onto it. And I put that down to a kind of polarisation that can come out of taking risks with an idea - or the presentation of a story. There was safe way to do this film and there was a way that felt more … that could somehow plumb more fully some of themes of the novel and the story - that idea of memory in particular. And I opted for the latter; as I had everybody's backing to do this, so I thought, be bold. Let's actually progress in filmmaking, let me take another step. There were things I was playing with in Shine which have been pushed another degree, in terms of cutting and so on. The overlapping of storylines, if you like…

Q: I felt the film plays like a novel reads: I mean that it was able to approximate the complexity of the reading experience in some respects. You said before you were trying to plumb the complexities of the book - to what extent do you think the film exports the book, and were there things in the book you couldn't get into the film?
A: Yeah, there were, and in fact things we had actually shot which had to go, because the film was groaning a little under its own weight and needed to be streamlined. The biggest sacrifice in that respect is Kazuo's backstory and Kazuo's relationship with his father. Because the legacy of one's father is somehow sewn into this piece…big regret to lose those great scenes, Samurai swords being buried in the dead of night by a father who's handing the mantle to his son as a man in his own right, just saying, 'Live for honour…' it's wonderful stuff.

Q: Well, I'm sure it'll be on the DVD…[laughs]
A: That's exactly right! It is! [laughs] And of course there are many other choices you have to make to cleave your way through the jungle of the novel, as it were. Ron Bass had done all the early work, carving out the shape and thrust of the movie. But to answer your question, I think the best way . . .this is terribly self serving, but what the hell! David Guterson's reaction to the film has been so powerfully positive, which I take as an enormous compliment, because he's a very meticulous man. Novelists are traditionally not always happy with what is done with their 'babies' and with David I was particularly nervous. But his response has been just overwhelmingly positive. In Toronto it was the fourth time he saw it and he leaned over to me and whispered, 'This film just gets better…'

Q: Could you briefly run through your main cast and give us a few words on why they are there and what they gave you.
A: Ethan Hawke: Ethan made a big play to get this part and that really impressed me. He really wants to do it, I really want someone who does that. More than that, in the afternoon we spent together - at his instigation - he thoroughly impressed me as an actor of serious intent. He was devoid of that Hollywood vanity; it was all about the work, the process and the relationship with the director.

Max von Sydow: a dream come true, literally. One of the people who initiated me into cinema as a teenager. You couldn't imagine better casting of the role of elderly Scandinavian lawyer, meticulously prepared, flawless in his conception and delivery of his character and immensely respectful of the director. A delight to work with.

Youki Kudoh; she vibrates with emotion, it's palpable when you're in her presence. When I saw her I thought if I can just capture that fluttering intensity she has, where the emotion is real…it's so real, in a way it has everything and nothing to do with acting.

Rick Yune: what obsessed me was, what was that face we were going to see coming out of the fog at the beginning of the film. It had to speak volumes. A lot of young Asian American actors I looked at had a blandness and faces that didn't speak of anything of mythic stature. Rick has this astonishing ability to project unbowed pride, which I felt the character had to have. Let's face it, he sits in a courtroom for a month next to one of the best actors in the world, without words, so he had to have something…

Then, golly, where do we go - Sam Shepherd: living legend! [laughs] The first thing I said to the casting director was 'what we need is somebody like Sam Shepherd' and he said, well why don't we ask Sam Shepherd [laughs] I'd sort of forgotten, I was in that league [laughs]. Well d'you think he'd do it? I asked. Well, we'll offer it to him and see. Than bang! Done. In a week. He read the script and said yes, and this is a man who's very selective. I see him as the Jimmy Stewart of our time; his persona speaks of integrity, of decency. And then that tremendous layer of American character actrs whom you can never name and who always deliver….many with New York theatre backgrounds. All finely tuned actors. . . when I saw them at auditions my only fear was 'is that it?' But they got better! They were so inventive!

Q: What is to you, if there is such a thing, the best part of your film, Snow Falling on Cedars?
A: I think the richness of the visual texture of the movie is so endlessly satisfying. I've viewed it, as one does, hundreds of times, and when after hearing some negative feeling about it, you look at it with trepidation, thinking, oooh, what did I do? And when I see it again, I go, 'what're they talking about!? I love this movie!' [laughs] It's the marriage of design, cinematography, location….all those ingredients which are the end result of so many choices that you're presented with when you're directing a film.

Q: Well, looking at your feature film credits, they represent huge jumps in substance and size and scope and theme and budget…all three features you've made are wildly different. What do you see as your next step, where are you going now?
A: Oooh…um [laughs] you never really know in one sense. I mean each stage for me has been an enormous learning process and I firmly believe that you keep applying yourself to what you do and the chances are, if you have a sliver of ability, you're going to get better. So now, this leap I've taken has been an enormous experience, learning how to maintain control over a gigantic studio production. Any film has a life of its own and if you're not careful you end up just strapped to the front of the locomotive - but you want to be driving it. The next film most likely will be one of two or three American films, which all have scripts that are well advanced. Maybe the next challenge is working with a colossal movie star and still trying to be true to my lights as a filmmaker.

Q: Are you looking for a particular genre?
A: They seem to self select; the material that interests me tends to have a certain brooding, obsessive nature to it [laughs]. For example, The Secret History (novel based), is set up at Warner Bros and that I've been developing even before Snow Falling on Cedars, and now they're very excited about this draft I've written and they're talking about cast and so on. And there is Enduring Love, which Sony has, which I've been developing with writer Jeremy Brock (Her Majesty Mrs Brown) - a story of obsessive love and a study in paranoia . . .

Q: Now, a more contentious issue; a lot of the Australian industry is feeling vulnerable and is feeling endangered by the Hollywood machine, In that context Australians feel the loss of filmmakers, such as yourself, to American filmmaking. How do you see it?
A: In a way it's always been a problem, and maybe it's reached more critical proportions at the moment, because American studios are using Australia as an offshore production base. There are obvious benefits and obvious detriments to the industry. But even 20 odd years ago, when I worked on films with Peter Weir and Bruce Beresford and watched them go off. . . From my own perspective: well, for 10 years between Sebastian and The Sparrow and Shine, I earned my living out of America because I was making documentaries for the Discovery Channel and I was quite proud of the fact that I was earning a living from a private corpration that was the end user of product that was very successful for them and I wasn't just feeding off the necessary Government support that we have here, and leaving room for someone else.

Q: You were exporting your talents….?
A: Exactly, and in a way that's what I've continued to do by maintaining my base here but working offshore. It's exactly that, an export industry. By bringing elements of the film back here, I believe it adds to the store of knowledge and expertise . . . but also want to come back eventually and make films here, too, once I can locate the right material.

Q: What is it in the filmmaking process that gives you the greatest satisfaction?
A: Shooting has always been terribly important; I've always regarded it as playtime - that sounds flippant, but of course there's a seriousness about what you're doing with this money gusher rocketing away and you're hyper conscious of that. It always seemed to me that so many other parts of filmmaking are agonising that you better bloody well enjoy it when you're on the floor with the people that you've got together, otherwise what is the point?

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SYNOPSIS:
In the aftermath of Pearl Harbour, American Japanese were pilloried as aliens with the same ferocity as if they were fighting the war. Even after the war. In this social context of the early 50s, the murder trial of a young Japanese fisherman Miyamoto (Rick Yune), in the isolated, bleak northern region of Puget Sound, on the (fictional) island of San Piedro, where snow and fog and the bleak grey of winter are frequent visitors, becomes a window to the larger issues of prejudice. Reporting the trial is Ishmael Chambers (Ethan Hawke), son of the late newspaper editor of the island, Arthur (Sam Shepard), whose sense of justice was never buried beneath the snow of xenophobia. But Ishmael carries a torch for Hatsue (Youki Kudoh), wife of the accused - and his secret childhood girlfriend, who chose to marry a Japanese boy instead. When Ishmael uncovers material evidence that could help Miyamoto, he is torn and confused about what to do.

(Screenplay by Ron Bass, Scott Hicks; based on the book by David Guterson.)

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