Hideo Nakata interview: on directing Chatroom, the Internet, and making films in the UK

We caught up with legendary Japanese director Hideo Nakata to talk about his recent film, Chatroom, and the filmmaking process…

Thanks to the international success of the 1998 horror, Ring, and its numerous sequels and remakes, Hideo Nakata has emerged as one of the most famous Japanese directors currently working.

While Nakata’s name will forever be connected to the startling imagery of Ring, his atmospheric ghost story, Dark Water, was subtly disturbing, and 2000’s Chaos was an efficiently effective thriller.

For his latest film, Chatroom, a drama thriller set in the virtual world of virtual chat rooms, Nakata relocated to the UK. Shortly after the film arrived in the UK on DVD, we managed to get an interview with the director, to talk about making films abroad, making movies, and the darker side of the Internet…

What made you choose to make Chatroom? Was there a specific aspect of the script that struck you as being well suited to your style of filmmaking? And given that Chatroom was based on a stage play, was it difficult to come up with ways of making the film more cinematic?

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When I first read Enda’s script, I found it very intriguing, as I thought the theme of Enda’s play echoed with what was going on universally in online world. Enda and I talked with the producers about the real cases, such as Akihabara’s massacre, which was conducted by just a lonely boy who was screaming in mobile Internet chatrooms in vain, so he rented a truck and hit and stabbed many people to death. I thought this reality and Chatroom had strong connection.

I have to say it was not an easy adaptation, as I heard Enda’s play was very simple and stoic in terms of set decoration and actors’ action were very static. There were just five chairs and five people chatting each other without looking at each other against the hollow (black?) background. A stage play can be as abstract as this, so I imagined our chatroom in the film should be very saturated in color, because the five teenagers will be amazed and entertained online, whereas their reality scenes should look very gloomy to reflect their frustration and anger to the society and their families.

Luckily, I could work with excellent DOP, Benoit Delhomme and production designer, Jon Henson. They both understood instantly my thoughts how to visualize Internet world. I think we could successfully create a unique online world and Benoit and I emphasized the differences in color between online and reality at digital intermedia sessions on post production.  

Did you get to see a performance of the original stage play? What changes were made when adapting the Chatroom play for the big screen?

No, I did not have a chance to see the original play. The biggest change I asked to Enda is the third act or climax, where the two boys meet for the first time in reality, and the earlier draft (I believe the original play as well) ended very light heartedly and humorously. I thought we would need the chilling ending for our film.

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I quoted Hitchcock’s Strangers On A Train as the two boys can describes as “Strangers on the Web”. 

Having become so well known for supernatural horror movies, were you looking for a project that is more grounded in real-life events?

Yes, I was. When I was staying in LA and trying to find my first American film project, I always said that I would not make a horror film there, as I did not repeat myself anymore, but when I was about to give up to find good project and go home, I was offered to direct The Ring Two.

It is quite ironic, isn’t it?

What was the casting process like for Chatroom? Was it difficult to find the right actors for the roles?

We went through so many audition and reading sessions. The casting director, Nina Gold, and I thought it might be an interesting idea to try to get complete amateurs from school, but it did not go well. And in the process of casting I was very much impressed with the fact that so many good young UK actors are there.

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When I was in LA, I was also amazed how many talented and named actors would come and read for small character’s role. I had prejudice that actors who work only in UK films and TV could be a bit inferior to those in LA. I was completely wrong.

The ones who appear in Chatroom have a long career since child actors. And they would freely work from feature film, TV drama, to stage play. And many of these five actors really wanted to be in the film. Some of them turned down the big Hollywood film offer for Chatroom.

Did you consider setting the film in Japan, as opposed to the UK?

No, I did not. Although the situation or the relationships in the story may happen in present Japan, Enda’s description on British class society and every little detail in each scene are very specific to Britain.

Do you feel it’s important to avoid being typecast as a director, to be known purely as a maker of genre movies?

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Yes, I do. But at the same time, I do appreciate the fact this genre of horror made me establish myself as a filmmaker and keep on going.

So, I have a mixed feeling to my reality.

How did making Chatroom in the UK compare with your experiences in Hollywood and The Ring Two?

During the script development and the production on the sets and location in London, I quite enjoyed every day. It was hectic, but I was given the creative control as a filmmaker, Whereas the post production process was more difficult, as I had to listen to so many people’s opinions and absorbed it.

It is inevitable process, as film making is a miniature sized capitalism. Money and money people talk.

Some people tend to think they can be more creative than the director they hire.

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Intriguingly enough, in Hollywood, the shooting days were so painful, as I was given newly written pages of the script every day and producers lectured me how to shoot a scene. I was about to say that I have to leave the film as I began to lose my patience. But because I argued back strongly, the producers and the studio began respecting me as a filmmaker, so the post production went smoothly. We both were the united front to polish the film in order to appeal to the audience. 

Chatroom arrived in cinemas around the same time as other Internet-themed films such as Catfish and The Social Network. Do you think the Internet is good or bad for filmmaking?

I cannot say it is good or bad. Yes, it can easily become vicious killing machine, some people commit crimes there and hide away and others try escape from their depressing reality and find some hope in online world in vain. The dark and negative emotions could end up with the chain reaction of committing suicide, like what happened in a Welsh town, or a guy showed his own suicide with his webcam on, live, and 1,500 people were watching it.

It sounds just sick, but it is our reality and we cannot live without Internet technology at all.

Film industry cannot produce films without advanced computer technology and Internet. Just imagine how many CGI artists are linked by Internet just to create a one second shot.

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Do you have any plans to direct more movies in the US? Does your approach to filmmaking change depending on which country you’re shooting in?

If I like the idea and the script, I am willing to make films in any countries.

Shooting styles are a bit different between Japan and the western countries. Japanese directors are given the creative control how to shoot a scene, and traditionally we would edit on camera, meaning we can cut a scene into many shots on the set and shoot bits and pieces. Whereas in western film, directors are obliged to shoot out a scene from different angles and numerous sizes.

I felt like I was making a industrial product in stead of film, a form of art in the US.  

Do you have any intention of returning to the Ring series? Many of your films have been remade in the US, one of which you directed yourself.

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Well, no. There are already six Ringu or The Ring films, including the Korean [versions]. We should not imitate ourselves and make our audience feel bored.

Would you ever consider taking a Hollywood movie and remaking it for a Japanese audience?

There was a project offered to me. It was a classic Hollywood suspense thriller, and the question was whether it could be well adapted into Japanese lifestyle and culture. The producer tried to achieve it, but he gave up.

I have to say it is very difficult to adapt American story into Japanese, both creatively and financially.  

What are you working on next?

Well, that is a secret.

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Hideo Nakata, thank you very much.