In his second directorial outing, Rob Marshall, known for 2002’s Oscar-winning musical Chicago, takes Arthur Golden’s popular 1997 novel Memoirs of a Geisha and brings it to life in an Asian-Western visual extravaganza. The tale of a Japanese geisha during the 1930s and ’40s was filmed almost entirely in California, where production designer John Myhre and his team recreated a complex Japanese period hanamachi, or geisha district, on an immense horse ranch in Ventura County, an hour north of Los Angeles.With much of his key crew from Chicago in tow, Marshall set about creating an impression of the geisha life in the style of an old Hollywood epic, replete with a certain amount of poetic license but a lot of heart. He tells Below the Line of his vision and ultimate realization of the tale.Below the Line: What was it that appealed to you about the story?Rob Marshall: The appeal of the novel was twofold. One was the fact that it is such a visual piece. It explores such a hidden and alluring sensual and exotic world. It’s such an amazing subculture and just the canvas of that alone and the palette of that world was intriguing. In addition, I found the story line very moving; this young girl who’s taken from her family and sold into a geisha house as a slave and taken from love, ultimately is returned to love. It’s especially extraordinary because she is in a profession where you don’t have the freedom to choose love. It was romantic and beautiful and powerful and emotional.BTL: Did you know much about Japanese culture before you embarked on the film? Marshall: A couple of my shows I’d done on Broadway had played in Japan, but I didn’t know very much. I knew I’d be spending two years on this project, so I rolled up my sleeves. I took some of my crew to Japan, including [cinematographer] Dion Beebe [ASC], [costume designer] Colleen Atwood and [production designer] John Myhre on a cultural trip to immerse ourselves in this world. We were entertained by a geisha in a Kyoto teahouse. We saw a young maiko (apprentice geisha) get made up from top to bottom. We visited shrines and temples and teahouses and gardens. We walked the streets at night, and we’d see geishas disappear down the wet streets with red lanterns. We understood why geishas were called butterflies of the night. It was an incredible trip. I thought that everyone should be on the same page. I like to involve everyone in everything.BTL: How did you go about picking your crew? A lot of your department heads, such as Dion Beebe, Colleen Atwood and John Myhre, you had worked with before on Chicago.Marshall: I had such a great experience on Chicago with these wonderful designers that it was clear to me that I would go to them first to see if they were available. I was so happy that I could bring them on board again. It’s nice to be able to develop relationships, and you develop shorthand. I knew that having that safety net of these great artists that I love, and hopefully will continue to work with for the rest of my career, would be a great way to work. In addition to the team, a few other new people came on board, such as my editor Pietro Scalia, a true master; and John Williams came on board to score the movie.BTL: It’s not every day a second-time director gets John Williams to do the score.Marshall: He asked to do this movie. I was bowled over. I think the reason it attracted him was it’s not like any other movie. There’s rarely a period movie made about Japan that’s done by Westerners with an all-Asian cast. The great thing about John Williams is he works like he’s a novice. He doesn’t play the legend. He does the work as hard as everybody does. He made sure I felt free to say anything I wanted to say, and he was incredibly collaborative. Music is a big part to my life, coming from musical theater, and he was very open to my involvement. To me that is a true sign of a great artist.BTL: What were you and your cinematographer Dion Beebe going for in terms of look?Marshall: We wanted to create a world that felt forbidden and mysterious. So a lot of the time we shot through materials, to created a sense of mystery and give a sense that we were looking into a hidden world. We shot through fabric, bamboo and screens. We talked a lot about layering. That was a metaphor for a lot of the design team. The kimono has so many layers, and the actual world has many layers.BTL: You had to take radical measures to adjust the light when you were shooting, to make it seem more like Kyoto. Can you describe that process?Marshall: We couldn’t find an area in Japan that resembled the ’20s, ’30s and ’40s, and so it became apparent we’d have to shoot here. But I was thrilled to be shooting in California because to me the craftsmanship here really is of the highest quality. And I knew that was what we needed. We soon realized the light in Southern California doesn’t look anything like the light in Japan, [where] there’s something very mystical about it. On top of that, we were doing all four seasons. So we had the idea to silk in the whole town with a gigantic silk tent. It gave Dion the chance to control the different types of light. It was certainly unique, but it was expensive and it was something we had to fight for.BTL: Your location manager Mike Fantasia recently picked up a California On Location (COLA) award for his work on the film.Marshall: Mike Fantasia is the greatest location manager you’ll ever find. He worked tirelessly to get what we needed. He would stop at nothing. He’s such a brilliant negotiator, and he’s also very elegant in the way he does it. He’s an artist. He’s very careful to make sure that we leave a site as beautiful as it was, like we were never there. That’s very important, otherwise it’s ruined for the people who need it next. He knows that respect is everything.BTL: Tell us about the work of your production designer John Myhre, and his team’s contribution.Marshall: It was enormous. Imagine you’re in charge of building an entire town, a river and teahouses. It’s in the tradition of Old Hollywood, building an entire place like that. Our line producer Patti Whitcher was at the helm of making all that work. I passed a lot of that work and the supervising of that work to her. The craftsmen were incredible, and proud of the work that they had done.BTL: Did you have difficulty sourcing props and set decoration in the US? Or did you mostly go to Japan to find things?Marshall: There was a great shop in LA called McMullen’s Japanese Antiques, run by John McMullen, which was a huge source for John Mhyre. He had incredible stuff, from stone lanterns to doors, to lighting fixtures and more. But the majority came from Japan. Our prop master and set decorator did lots of shopping in Japan. The aim was to create it so it seemed real.BTL: The work of your costume designer Colleen Atwood is stunning. What were some of her challenges?Marshall: She’s a true artist. She had a wardrobe department in a space that was bigger than a football field. In addition to using antique and museum-quality kimonos, she also built kimonos. She had to bring on highly trained artists to do this kind of work. There were thousands of kimonos in this movie, both prewar and postwar, the ’20s to the ’40s. I walked into her workshop and it felt like a Hollywood epic from another era. We all pinched ourselves every day.BTL: What was your philosophy regarding hair and makeup?Marshall: Our hair designer Lyn Quiyou is an amazing department head. She had done Richard Gere’s hair on Chicago. She has a brilliant eye. She did an enormous amount of research. We decided not to do an exact replication, but to do an artistic impression of that world; to see it through a child’s eyes. We felt that would bring a fantasy element of the movie. After all, it was a fable and I wanted to stress that. And Noriko Watanabe, who di
d our makeup, tried the traditional look but she knew it was unforgiving on film, so we had to create our own geisha look and make it both authentic and flattering for film. What we wanted was to glamorize the look.BTL: This was the first time you’d worked with editor Pietro Scalia. How was that?Marshall: Pietro is a master editor. He was an incredible collaborator for me. He is brilliant with music as well, which is so great for me when we’re editing. He has a very poetic sense of flow: moving in and out of a scene so it’s seamless. I felt like I had such camaraderie with him. He is an artist himself; he paints and he has an amazing eye. He was excited to do this movie because he’d done so many strong masculine movies, and he was glad of the opportunity to do something lyrical.BTL: To what extent did you use visual effects to enhance or tweak the look?Marshall: The main challenge was we were shooting in Northern California, Southern California and Japan, and it had to look like we were in the same place. [Visual effects supervisor] Robert Stomberg followed us around in Japan, taking pictures so he had good reference material. Overall, you couldn’t tell where the visual effects were, and that’s the genius of it. I think that’s difficult, to try to fold visual effects into a movie so that you don’t see it at all. But believe me it’s there. It helped us extend our hanamachi [the geisha district], and it helped us travel and have some bigger shots. We found a beautiful bridge in Japan, but everything around it was way too modern. We used the bridge itself, and everything else surrounding it is created in the computer. I didn’t know that visual effects could be done so artfully until I met Robert.
Written by Sam Molineaux