Director Peter Webber is a man of variety having directed horror in Hannibal Rising, a romantic drama in The Girl With The Pearl Earring, numerous TV movies, and now a historical drama in his upcoming film Emperor. Teaming up with the likes of Tommy Lee Jones and Matthew Fox, I enjoyed how Webber was able to balance history and romance in a historical timeframe forgotten to cinema because there were no flashy battles or epic action pieces (which you can read in my review).
I recently had the opportunity to talk to Peter about his upcoming film Emperor, specifically about working with such a legendary presence as Tommy Lee Jones and the challenges of balancing Hollywood romantics with historical data, but we also explore his want to return to horror and what genre he’ll land in with his next film.
Check it out below.
We Got This Covered: You have a bit of an eclectic feature background. Was a historical drama something you’ve always wanted to do?
Peter Webber: If the moment in history grabs you, I think you go for it. There’s a great joy in doing historical films in which you get to create this world that has completely disappeared and you get to control every little detail of it.
I also love this period of time as well. I think it’s fascinating with everything in it from the typewriters to the telephones, to the costumes, it’s a great pleasure being able to put all these things together, and then within the frame be able to create this world which has disappeared many years ago.
We Got This Covered: Did you think the “reconstruction” story of Emperor was something important to produce cinematically in a time where most war-time films are about giant battles and constant action?
Peter Webber: Yeah, I did! What we see normally are war films. Frankly, people are interested in the conflict, and the conflict is very dramatic. Now this film is maybe a little bit more cerebral, and certainly more talky than your average war film, but I think the challenges of peace are probably just as difficult, if not more difficult than the challenges of fighting.
Fighting is relatively a straight-forward thing. You hit one guy, the other guy hits you back, but it’s how you make up afterwards that is tricky. To me it seems to have a lot of historical relevance. We’ve been through this period where we’ve seen this number of wars, which both the States and the UK as a partner have been fighting, and there’s been regime change, and there’s been some resistance and rebellion and the rest of it. I really felt once I began to understand this period of history there were some lessons that could be learned frankly.
The Americans were very measured in their response once they moved into Japan, in terms of taking the long view and looking at the way society could be rebuilt, and I think they made some careful and clever decision that had big benefits. Japan has been a peaceful country ever since, a democracy that went on to become an incredible powerhouse economically. I think history shows that decisions were tricky to make at the time because the public and political opinion was in favor of punishing the Emperor, but MacArthur had fought against that and really made the right decision in the long run.
We Got This Covered: In terms of the historical data which is so important for a film like Emperor, how much research does it take to make sure every little detail is correctly incorporated?
Peter Webber: I think this happens on two levels. It happens in terms of the script, the research the writers have to do in understanding the facts as they were and trying to connect those facts into a story, because a string of facts is not the same as a story. The other thing is what we do when we pull together the different departments whether it’s a cameraman, production design, costume, and look at all of the details, and I mean every little thing. The cup they drink out of, the pen they might be holding. We have to try and make sure that is a self-sufficient and believable world, so yes it’s a tremendous amount of research. Research that’s immensely aided by the Internet I have to say, because I remember a time before the Internet when you used to have to go to the library and pull books out. Now, you sort of still have to do that, but there’s an awful lot of stuff that’s there at the flick of a keyboard.
We Got This Covered: When you’re looking at the story of Emperor, you see very much a balance between historical drama and the relationship between General Fellers (Matthew Fox) and Aya (Eriko Hatsune). Was it hard striking a balance between the two?
Peter Webber: The relationship between Fellers and Aya, although it’s based on fact because Fellers did have an encounter with a Japanese woman when he was younger, that part strayed away from historical accuracy. That subplot is there really to illuminate the political thriller, the larger story, and also to help us understand how it was that Fellers came to have his understanding of Japanese culture, and how that understand of Japanese culture came to influence his investigation and decision making, so you have to do what you can to humanize and personalize this arc.
We also had to turn this information into a movie, it’s not a documentary. It’s a movie and storytelling in movies has certain demands.
We Got This Covered: So getting to the iconic centerpiece of Emperor, which is undoubtedly Tommy Lee Jones’ performance as General Douglas MacArthur, how easy of a decision was it to cast such a legend in the role. Was this an idea on your part, or did Tommy come to you?
Peter Webber: No, he didn’t come to us, Tommy Lee Jones doesn’t go to anyone, unless he’s writing and directing his own films, then I guess he does [laughs]. Tommy is an icon who sits there on a mountain top and waits there to be called into action. We sent him the script, and you don’t need to be a Nobel Prize winning genius to read the part in the script and think “Oh my God, this is Tommy Lee Jones!” He has this combination, well, he’s got balls basically, and a very vigorous kind of masculinity about him and he has these iconic chiseled features like he could be carved into the side of Mount Rushmore or something. On top of that, he has a keen intelligence, he went to Harvard and was roommates with Al Gore as it happened, and in terms of this characteristic it just cannot be faked on-screen. You can fake all kinds of things, but you cannot fake intelligence.
So that combination of smarts and balls instantly recommended him to the role, and then it took a while to land him. We sent him the script, he was very intrigued, I had a number of very long conversations with him, conversations that ended up with us tweaking the role a bit, but the interesting thing about working with Tommy is unlike some actors he doesn’t ask for changes to script or tweaks to his character from a position of ego or trying to make himself look good or cool, but he’s only really interested in creating the most interesting and believable character. He’s very accomplished. Apart from his immense experiences as an actor, he’s a very accomplished writer and director himself, so it was actually a pleasure to collaborate with him on this and get his point of view. One thing you often realize as a director is an actor sees the world of the script from their own point of view, a worm’s eye point of view so to speak, and you can learn an awful lot from listening to actors because they think through that part and what the character is feeling in every moment, so that can be a very useful collaboration.
Continue reading on the next page…Next
We Got This Covered: So you just mentioned Tommy and yourself made some tweaks to the script, and one line I absolutely love is when Tommy mentions showing some “good old-fashioned American Swagger.” Was that originally in the script, or was that one of the lines tweaked between Tommy and yourself?
Peter Webber: That wasn’t tweaked, that was there, but I’ll tell you the line he added – a line, one line that he added. At the very end there is an insult, and he didn’t like the insult that was in there – I can’t remember what it was originally. He came to me on the morning of the shoot with something like thirty different American insults written down, which was great because he didn’t just come with one line, but he came with all these options. The one I liked the best, which I never heard beforehand, was telling someone to go “piss up a rope,” so that was great. He’s not someone who just comes to you with problems though as you can see, he comes to you with solutions, and you can’t ask for more from your actors. As a director, often actors will kind of go “Oh my character wouldn’t do this, my character wouldn’t do that,” but to have someone who comes along and says “I don’t think this is good enough, I think we can do better,” that’s fantastic. That’s what you want, you want a collaboration where everyone’s pulling together and going in the same direction.
We Got This Covered: Talking about how Tommy embodies General MacArthur, when you look at the picture that’s snapped when he meets Emperor Hirohito (Takatarô Kataoka), and to marvel at how closely it mirrors the actual picture, how rewarding is that as a director to know you re-created a piece of history?
Peter Webber: Well that is fantastic, and it’s all the different departments coming together. It’s the costume, set design, acting, but it’s a great feeling when you finally do it. It can be nerve-racking before that, when you’re working on something that is based on such a well-known photograph, but it was a good moment.
We Got This Covered: Do you find anything more rewarding when creating a historical drama as opposed to just straight fiction?
Peter Webber: Not necessarily. Different films have different rewards basically. It’s a fantastic privilege to do this for a living frankly. I was a film nut for a long time, and I worked as an editor, so it was far from certain I’d ever get to the point where I could direct movies with major movie stars. I don’t think it really matters, there’s a continuum there. You find pleasure in different parts of the process, you get to pick and choose, and every film has something different to offer you. You find something in the material you’re interested in, and you work towards the formal considerations of the medium to try and address those. I sound so pompous, “formal considerations of the medium.” You basically figure out a way to tell the story using the tools you have, that’s what I’m trying to say. For me, it doesn’t matter if it’s a contemporary piece, a historical piece, you find you burrow into it, and different ones have different pleasures.
We Got This Covered: Did you feel any pressure making a film mostly based on historical data?
Peter Webber: If you care, you feel pressure with every film. I’m sure that even directors of the dumbest action movies feel pressure. Everyone wants to make a great movie, I don’t know anyone who goes off and says “Well I’m just going to go make a shitty movie.” It takes as much effort to make a bad movie as it does to make a good movie [laughs], and what is a good movie? I’ve made films that were badly reviewed in the past, then you speak to people and find they have an audience, so it’s very much in the eye of the beholder.
We Got This Covered: So what’s next on your plate after you’ve finished promoting Emperor?
Peter Webber: I’ve done my long talky historical film with Emperor, so I’m actually in talks to do a kind of vicious, nasty, action-filled spaghetti-western with very little dialogue at the moment, so I’ll know in the next week or two whether that’s coming up. If it is, it’s actually to be shot where they did a lot of the original spaghetti-westerns in Italy itself.
I’m an enormous fan of film history, I love re-creating film genres from the past basically which I did with Emperor which is kind of like a film noir, so I’m very into doing something like that and worrying about how people hold guns other than how they approach history. I think that would be a nice change.
We Got This Covered: [Laughing] That sounds a hell of a lot easier, doesn’t it?
Peter Webber: [Laughing] I don’t know if it does, I actually think it might be a little bit harder in some ways, trying to come up with a fresh take, but there you go, different challenges, that’s the important thing.
We Got This Covered: Well you’ve also done a Hannibal film in the past, is there anything you’d want to return to horror for?
Peter Webber: Yeah, I think so. Hannibal Rising was one of those things where when it came out, it was really, really, savagely attacked by the press. I can only remember one good review out of San Francisco in fact. I’m on Twitter a lot though, and I’ve discovered a whole community out there of people, especially teenage Goth girls, who absolutely love that film! Now they love it because they’ve probably never seen Silence of the Lambs, and they come to it without expectations. They come to it thinking “Oh there’s this film with this cool kid in it,” and they really warm to it. It’s not something people my age love that much, but for me that’s a wonderful thing to see, that a film can find it’s audience like that, and I’d happily go back to that genre, yes.
We Got This Covered: So just as a question, what would be the perfect film to give to those Goth girls?
Peter Webber: Ohhhh, my gosh. Listen, I’m going to have to get back to you because rather than give you my idea, I’m going to write a treatment and try and sell it I think [Laughs]. I don’t want to give my ideas away for free!
Thanks so much to Peter Webber for taking the time to talk with us. Be sure to catch Emperor, which was limitedly released on March 8th, 2013!Previous