Rupert Sanders interview: adapting Ghost In The Shell

From his film’s Tokyo launch event, director Rupert Sanders talks about the process of adapting a live-action Ghost In The Shell...

Adapting a property as respected and acclaimed as Ghost In The Shell must be something of a double-edged sword. On one hand, you have all the startling imagery and rich ideas of the original cyberpunk manga and anime to fall back on; but then again, whatever you create is going to be compared closely to the original.

For director Rupert Sanders, the recent Ghost In The Shell Tokyo fan event was a chance to make the case for his live-action adaptation, to prove that he’s not attempting, to use his own words, “making a shitty Hollywood version of it.” Whatever you might think about the controversial casting of Scarlett Johansson as the lead character Major Kusanagi (now billed simply as the Major), Sanders has an evident affection for the property he’s adapting. We’ll have to wait until next year to see exactly how his more action-filled, PG-13 take on a Japanese sci-fi classic turns out, but until then, here’s what Sanders had to say about the process of making Ghost In The Shell…

What’s the certificate you’re aiming for? I was assuming it would be 12A, but from what we’ve seen so far, it looks a bit more violent than I was expecting.

Yeah. To be honest, we’ve been trying to push the boundaries of what’s acceptable as much as possible. We haven’t actually got a rating yet, so that might be all you see of some of those scenes. But the beauty is, androids bleed white, so you can get away with quite a lot. But it’s a violent movie, and we wanted to keep the sexuality and the provocative nature of the original.

Ad – content continues below

Was 12A your initial thought?

No. I was heading for a hard R. I don’t know the American equivalent; it’s kind of a PG-13, so it’s like, the next one up. I suppose the English version will be a 15 because we’re a bit more prudish.

Did you do any double shots, like Ridley when he was doing Prometheus? Did you do an R-rated shot and a PG-13 shot at the same time?

We didn’t, we didn’t have time. We had a crazy schedule. It was a very hard film to make – it wasn’t an easy ride at all. I think we had enough complications without having to double everything. Some of our squib hits and stuff, we did some practical and others we left for visual effects, so that you can add more should you need to. 

There’s a lot of really recognisable set-pieces from the footage we’ve seen so far, but you don’t seem to be doing a straight remake of the first anime. So how did land on the story?

Ad – content continues below

When Steven Spielberg approached me and said, ‘Would you be interested in Ghost In The Shell,’ and I was obviously, ‘Yes’…

I kind of made a graphic novel. I shot stills of the original anime, I shot stills from Innocence and I shot stills from Stand Alone Complex, and I made a graphic novel, and I kind of wrote a story that went beside the images. I then took that back to Steven and said, ‘This is how I feel the film should be’, because originally, the version I wanted to do was borrowing from the first, but… I think it’s a hard story to tell cinematically. There’s so much philosophical introspection that it’s not an easy multiplex filler.

Our film, hopefully, will have that, but it’s not the A story. Scarlett and I were very categorical that we wanted to do something different. We wanted to exist beyond the Marvel universe, beyond the DC universe. We wanted to be the rogue, I guess. I think we’ve succeeded in that; it’s a really emotional and hopefully thought-provoking film, but it also delivers what you want to see in a film for that kind of audience. You want to see a big, action packed film, but at the same time, as you’re moving along, you’re into the action because you care about the action because you care about what they’re going through.

How do you’ll think you’ll market this film to people who don’t necessarily know what Ghost In The Shell is? A lot of people here, including me, love it already.

That’s a good question. I think Scarlett’s a big part of that marketability, and I think, hopefully, the images, what got a lot of us into Ghost In The Shell early on, saw in that film was the visual palette. I think if you cut a trailer based on Ghost In The Shell now, people would lean into it and be intrigued. There’s a beautiful symmetry between Blade Runner and Ghost In The Shell and The Matrix. I think people will feel there’s a kind of familiarity to it, and also I hope there’s something dazzling and original about it as well, that it touches on those things, but it moves the ball forward.

With marketing, we’ve used some of those key scenes that I hope we can say, “We’re not taking this beloved, cherished property and stamping all over it. We’re not steamrolling anything that was great about it.” That was the biggest challenge: people were thinking, “Oh shit, you’re going to make a really shitty Hollywood version of it.” That was never our intention, and I hope that’s what people respect about it. That they’ll go, “It’s more than we thought it was going to be.” I think there’s something there that a lot of people will get something out of. 

Ad – content continues below

You talk about not making a shit Hollywood version; there have been some shit Hollywood adaptations of anime and manga. What did you look at in terms of things to avoid?

I didn’t really. As a filmmaker, I was so excited about it that I just dug in; I buried myself in. I’ve been on Ghost In The Shell for three years now, literally 24-7. I love the old girl, but I’m happy to have a little break from her. She’s quite a task mistress.

What state was it in when you got to it? Because it had been in development for a while.

Yeah, I think it had strayed more from the original foundation of the material, and that’s what I wanted to bring back. Steven had done a great draft, and it was kind of a big, explosive movie. To me, I wanted to touch the ground of the original series – that was my conduit. I wanted to channel that through.

What do you think the prospects are going to be like in the Chinese market?

Ad – content continues below

Umm, we didn’t set out to make a Chinese successful movie. The Chinese are big fans of anime and manga. I hope they’ll see the universal story that everyone will see, that they’ll Germany, they’ll see in Norway, they’ll see in Russia. It’s a universal story, and visually very original, and I think people like to be immersed in a cinematic experience, as Scarlett was saying earlier. Cinema’s really surviving now on having to be a spectacle. We’ve watched so much stuff at home, and TV’s gotten amazingly good that cinema’s losing its drama. For us, it was, how do you bring the drama back into these bigger films and create a full package that people have to go to the cinema to see. 

How did you make the decision to have Scarlett speak in English, and then other members speak in Japanese?

Only Takeshi [Kitano, who plays Aramaki] speaks Japanese, and that was something I felt very strongly about, which is that when he speaks in real time, [the Major] listens in real time and vice-versa. It just seemed like it was right. There was something that I liked about the fact that we can’t understand the conversation, but they understood so much together. It’s actually in Jim Jarmusch’s Ghost Dog, there’s a great scene where Forest Whitaker has a relationship with a Senegalese ice-cream salesman and neither of them speak the same language. We don’t even get the subtitles, but they’re just really into each other. It was a beautiful thing to watch.

Was Masamune Shirow involved in the movie?

No. He drew the manga and then obviously [Mamoru] Oshii did the anime, and we’re just another chapter in what he created. Oshii and Kenji Kamiyama and Kenji Kawai came out to visit us in Hong Kong. It was great to show them the artwork. Oshii’s been a great advocate in what we’re doing. He was very excited because he got involved and saw what we were doing. That was great for me to see him and hang out with him on set with Scarlett and Tricky from Massive Attack in the pouring rain in a monastery in Hong Kong. It was an amusing evening.

Ad – content continues below

Have you had to update the source material much because some of it’s 20 years old now, but it’s still remarkably prescient.

Yeah, like I said, we didn’t just remake the original. We took the themes and ideas that to me and Scarlett defined the character and defined what we felt would make the best version of the film. That became what it is. There are themes about technology, obviously, but I think those concepts haven’t really changed since 2001 [A Space Odyssey], since the bone became the space ship. We still have the same questions and quandaries. Where do we fit in with technology, and will technology need us? 

[Inaudible question about aritificial intelligence]

How terribly wrong I was! I think there was a lot of arguments – Stephen Hawking said that AI is the greatest and final achievement in humanity. To me, if we parent technology, and we have to be needed to be technology. If technology’s looking around at humans and going, “Why do I need humans? All they do is go around destroying everything. I don’t need them because I need to operate.” They’re just going to make us extinct. So I think humanity and the spirituality, the essence of who we are has to be channelled through technology. I think that’s the beauty of Ghost In The Shell: it’s the soul and the machine, and them having this beautiful co-dependency on each other, being together.

Are you watching Westworld, and were you worried about the risk of having too many similarities between the looks of the two works?

Ad – content continues below

No… Jona and Lisa [Jonathan Nolan and Lisa Joy, series creators] have done an amazing job on Westworld. It’s a really great show. In a way, to me, it brings both of our projects into the zeitgeist. We live next door to each other, which is quite bizarre, so we’d be going, “What are you up to?” “Oh you know, a bit of this…” “How’s your cyborgs looking?” [Laughs] I think it’s great, actually, with TV and cinema, we’ve got the opportunity to do something cinematically that touches on themes that are also in Westworld. So I feel we’re all talking about the same thing through different prisms.

Can you talk a little bit about the antagonist? He feels a little bit like the Puppet Master, but then Kuze [a character from Stand Alone Complex] is involved. How are those two coming to the story?

Well, we amalgamated a few facets of some of the different antagonists through the series. Kuze’s kind of a bit of a few things. He’s not like specifically from Stand Alone Complex, and he’s not specifically from the Puppet Master. But he has elements of both within him. I think Michael Pitt did this incredible job of finding… it’s a big challenge when you’re playing a villain in a big movie.  You see it with the Joker – you’ve got to be at the top o your game. Michael came really hard at it; I’ve never seen anybody as immersed in a role before. He actually lived in a box car on the edge of the set so he could do his punchbag and smoke simultaneously and do all these drawings of things that Kuze was going through. He was writing manifestos and he decorated it… an incredible actor, a marvel to watch.

So am I right in thinking you’ve melded Kuzei and the Puppet Master together?

There’s a few shades of a lot of them in there. He’s quite non-specific, and then Michael added his own dimension to it. It’s a beautifully violent and yet tragic character. 

Ad – content continues below

What do you think manga and anime have given American cinema?

I think there’s a beautiful symbiotic nature of all cinema. You look at Ghost In The Shell, you can see traces of Blade Runner in it. You look at Blade Runner, you can see traces of Kurosawa in it. We’re all kind of cross-pollinating, and that’s the beauty of international cinema. To me, that’s the beauty of Ghost In The Shell: you’ve got, hopefully, a very global view of the world that people can take something more than just, “Wow, that was a great action movie.” We’ve invested a lot in there. There’s a lot to see; it’s a dense film. I see a lot of it and it passes by me, but we worked very hard on so much of the detailing from the ground up. Every scene takes place somewhere different, and every scene has its own strangeness to it. I’m really nervously excited about how people will respond to it.

Who will make the soundtrack?

Good question! His name is Clint Mansell.

Will you also use the soundtrack from the trailer [Enjoy The Silence by Depeche Mode]?

I don’t know. I don’t know. We definitely a bit of… I love that kind of music, and there’ll definitely be synths in the soundtrack.

Ad – content continues below

We’ve seen the original theme this evening, so that’s clearly in there. Is it?

I have to leave something or you won’t turn up to see it! Look, if only you knew how far away we are from completing the film. All these things are literally nail-biting finishes – there’s so much that has to align towards the end. It’s such an exciting and creatively exhausting process. There will be some silences; there might not be Depeche Mode, but there will be synths! [Laughs]

Who’s Tricky playing?

He’s playing a kind of spiritual guide. He’s a legend. I’m having to dub him. He was great Tricky, a wonderful man.

Rupert Sanders, thank you very much.

Ghost In The Shell is out in UK cinemas on the 31st March 2017.

Ad – content continues below