Interview: Paul Schrader on "Mishima: A Life in Four Chapters"

By Peter Sobczynski
Posted 07/05/08 13:24:58

The acclaimed filmmaker talks about his controversial 1985 film on the life and work of acclaimed Japanese author Yukio Mishima, which is being re-released this week in a special edition DVD from the Criterion Collection.

Throughout his long and distinguished career, filmmaker Paul Schrader has made a name for himself by presenting viewers with dark and discomfiting stories populated with complex and morally ambiguous characters--as a screenwriter, he wrote the immortal “Taxi Driver” as well as adaptations of “Raging Bull,” “The Mosquito Coast,” “The Last Temptation of Christ” and “Bringing Out the Dead” and as a director, he has given us such films as “Hardcore,” “American Gigolo,” “The Comfort of Strangers,” “Affliction” and “Dominion: Prequel to The Exorcist.” (Even his sole attempt at making a glossily impersonal B movie, his sexy and gory 1982 revamp of the Val Lewton classic “Cat People,” became something much more dark, strange and personal in his hands.) Therefore, it makes perfect sense that he would have undertaken such a seemingly strange enterprise as “Mishima: A Life in Four Chapters,” his extraordinary not-quite-a-biopic that examined the life and art (not that there was much difference between the two) of controversial Japanese author Yukio Mishima by showing us black-and-white depictions of his childhood, visually flamboyant representations of key scenes from three of his best-known works (“Temple of the Golden Pavilion,” “Kyoko’s House” and “Runaway Horses”) and a cinema-verite look at the last day of his life, November 25, 1970, in which the hardcore nationalist, aided by four members of the private army that he formed in order to pledge fealty to the emperor, invaded a military base, held the general in charge hostage, addressed the troops regarding their lack of devotion and then committed a public ritual suicide by disemboweling himself while an aide beheaded him. Although the notion of such a film might seem daft from a commercial perspective (and it was pretty much a non-starter at the box-office during its brief release in 1985), those who did get a chance to see it came away stunned at Schrader’s distinct and highly stylized look at the man and his work, not to mention dazzled by the contributions from cinematographer John Bailey, production designer Eiko Ishioka and composer Philip Glass.

Previously released on DVD by Warner Home Video a few years ago, “Mishima” is now receiving a second life through a new edition from the prestigious Criterion Collection that includes a newly remastered transfer of the film and a hefty collection of special features, including a commentary from Schrader, interviews with key production personnel, a documentary on Mishima and an archival interview with Mishima himself discussing the art of writing. Recently, I got on the phone with Schrader for a wide-ranging discussion in which he talked about “Mishima” and its turbulent production history as well as his career as a filmmaker and his thoughts on the future of the medium as a whole.

At this point, I would like to extend my thanks to Roger Ebert, who, despite clearly having more important things to do, helped put me in contact with Schrader in order to make this interview possible.

When did you first become interested in the idea of dealing with Yukio Mishima’s life, work and death as the subject for a film?

My brother was living in Japan, so I had heard about the case when it happened because we had talked about it. It had always stuck me as a quintessentially cinematic life and few writers have cinematic lives. I had been toying around with doing another film about suicidal glory like “Taxi Driver” and I had written a script about Hank Williams that didn’t get made. It occurred to me that if I wanted to do a film on that pathology from the other end of the bookshelf, this was the place to go--go to the East and to a man who was successful, intellectual, acclaimed and self-aware and yet under the same pathology of the glory of death.

What was the particular entry point for you--his life, his work or were the two so intertwined that there was no real separation between them?

His extraordinary contribution was that he was one of the first writers who became aware that in the new media world, life is another facet of one’s work. He not only became aware of this, he took it to the logical extreme beyond which it cannot be further defined.

One of the most fascinating things about “Mishima” is the way that the biographical and literary elements are so completely and seamlessly interspersed together into a whole. Can you talk about how the idea for this particular screenplay structure came about?

For the most part, writers live inside their heads and you really have to get into their work in order to really understand them. I decided that we would have to see his fantasy life through the books. He had a series of progressions in his thinking and it was really kind of simple. I just made a cross-hatch by isolating four stages of his life and cross-hatched it with excerpts from three novels with the fourth stage being the mixture of the action and the theater.

What were the criteria for selecting the three Mishima works that you chose to illustrate in the film?

You wanted one that represented aestheticism, you wanted one that represented sexual decadence and a third that represented a kind of military action. “Runaway Horses” and “Golden Pavilions” were obvious choices and the obvious choice for the sexual decadence would have been “Forbidden Colors,” his only overtly homosexual novel. The widow, who was kind of a professional widow and did not want the homosexual element to be dealt with, said that was the one novel that I could not have. There was a novel called “Kyoko’s House,” which had never been translated into English and had a character who was an actor whose drama had some of the same policies as “Forbidden Colors.” I had “Kyoko’s House” translated and I was able to get what I was looking for in “Forbidden Colors” through that story.

One of the things that is so intriguing about “Mishima” is the way in which you handle his politics and his sexuality. Regarding the former, you handle the material with an almost theatrical approach--as he goes through his moves, it almost feels as though he is consciously playing the part of a militarist more than anything else.

He once joked to somebody that he ended up on the right because the left was full in that period. You can’t really see the politics without seeing the theater

As for the sexuality, you present it in a very understated manner--it hasn’t been whitewashed by any means but it isn’t as overt as it might have been in the hands of another filmmaker.

My deal with the widow was that I was not allowed to put anything in the movie that I could not prove. I had one short little gay bar scene but I had that person, the one who took the boy in that scene. I interviewed and audiotaped him and so I was able to prove that that happened, The rest of the homosexual stuff, I just couldn’t get my hands on.

From a visual standpoint, “Mishima” is, with the possible exception of “Cat People,” the most deliberately stylized film in your entire filmography. However, the other films that you have directed that have deal with real-life subject have had their stylized elements as well, such as the first hour or so of “Patty Hearst” or certain scenes in “Auto Focus.” I even understand that the screenplay that you wrote for an unproduced biopic on the life of George Gershwin also followed this approach. Why is it that you prefer to approach real-life subjects using this form of storytelling?

The material tells you where to go. For example, with “Affliction,” I had originally thought that it would be much more stylized. Then I was in rehearsals with Nick Nolte and I realized that Nolte was so on-key and in the zone that I told the cinematographer that the most interesting thing that we could do for the movie was to shoot Nick’s face. We just backed off on a lot of the visual gymnastics that we had in mind and took on another style. Whereas with something like “Mishima,” you have not only a flamboyant subject but you also have something that is so hidden--a kind of functioning schizophrenic man who lived a highly compartmentalized life--that you have to kind of do that dance.

The contributions from Eiko Ishioka, who served double duty as the film’s production designer and costume designer, are especially impressive--even more so when you consider that this was the first film that she ever worked on. How did you come across the idea of bringing her in as one of your key collaborators on the film?

Eiko was a top graphic designer and she had actually done a very nice poster for “Apocalypse Now” and that is how she sort of caught the attention of Coppola and [Zoetrope Films producer] Tom Luddy. I met with her in Tokyo and I knew that we had to step outside the norms of production design thinking in order to create this theatrical world.

Even with the participation of George Lucas and Francis Ford Coppola as co-producers, how difficult was it for you to get the financing for a project as seemingly uncommercial as “Mishima”?

That is a long story and I will try to give you the short version. I moved to Japan and we had a Japanese producer who was able to raise half of the budget through his own money and from Fuji Television and Toho-Towa. Francis was producing but he couldn’t get anybody to help us out from the U.S. side, so we went to George. George had kind of a rocky relationship with Warner Brothers but he said that he would be willing to take this on. He went to Warners and at the end of that conversation, Terry Semel, who was the head of Warners, said to George, “If we do this, will we be doing you a favor?” George said yes and so they agreed to match our Japanese money. It was done to ingratiate Warner Brothers to George, basically. They never had a great deal of interest in promoting the film--their obligation was fulfilled when they put up half the money and that is why there was never really a big promotion for the film.

Then, of course, the Japanese financiers tried to pull out at the last minute because of pressure from the widow. There was another drama involving that and the end result was that they gave us the money but claimed that they didn’t. To this day, they claim that they did not finance the film. By that time, I became increasingly aware that the film would never been shown in Japan (and it never has) and that for the rest of the world, it would just be another foreign-language film. In many ways, I was out there directing a film that was financed by no one that was going to be seen by no one.

Because of the opposition from Mishima’s widow, did you face any difficulties once the actual filming began?

For the first couple of weeks, there were some threats--the producer moved his family out of Japan and I began directing with a knife-proof vest on. After a while, the producer told me that I didn’t really have to worry because as a gaijin--a foreigner--it wasn’t really my fault, it was his fault. I think that after a week or two, it became clear to those opposing us that it would be foolish to try to stop the production when all they had to do was stop the release and so that is how it went.

How did the notion of releasing a DVD of the film through Criterion come about? After all, “Mishima” did receive a reasonably impressive release from Warner Home Video a few years ago and they have generally frowned on licensing their properties out to third-party companies in the past.

In the original contract for the film, the rights reverted back to Tom Luddy and George Lucas after 25 years. Then Warners, who had shown no interest in the film in the past, suddenly got interested, but it was too late and Zoetrope sold it to Criterion. On the Criterion version, there is no Warner Brothers logo--only the Zoetrope logo.

Having re-experienced the film in putting the DVD together and from attending its recent screening at Ebertfest, how do you think that the film holds up after all this time. While watching it again, it seemed to me to be more of a timeless work that has held up surprisingly well over the years.

I think it holds up quite well. We did quite a bit of work on it--John Bailey and I worked a week redoing the D.I. and balancing the color. We did great work to the soundtrack. We added a short little scene that I had cut out featuring Chishu Ryu, the Ozu actor, that I always regretted cutting out--we found the original negative and I put that back in. I did some sky replacement at the end of “Runaway Horses” because I wasn’t really happy with the shots at the end. We were able to go back and replace the natural sky with an artificial sky. Then we went back to the original digital on Philip Glass’ soundtrack and so the sound is much better on the Criterion version. We also put Ken Ogata’s narration in, so now it finally has Japanese narration.

Another one of your films, “The Walker,” has also just hit DVD as well. Many have commented that the plot of the film, in which a professional male escort (Woody Harrelson) finds himself accused of murder, bears a striking similarity to “American Gigolo” and, to a lesser extent, “Light Sleeper.”

The original notion came from wondering what would have happened to a character like the guy in “American Gigolo” at mid-life. I thought that his skills would be social instead of sexual and that he would be out of the closet. In the broad view, that sounded like an interesting character and so I began thinking about it a little more and decided to put him in Washington D.C., one of the two cities in the U.S. where sexual hypocrisy is still mandated--I didn’t want to do a film in Salt Lake City.

In the last few months, you have also launched the website, compiling information about the films that you have written and/or directed and, more importantly, housing virtually all of the reviews and articles that you wrote in your early days as a film critic.

I wrote quite a few articles very early on for publications that were not archived. Actually, Roger had talked to me about putting out a book but I didn’t think the articles were good enough to be in a book. Then it hit me that a website would be the best way to make sure that these articles would still exist without giving them the seeming importance of a free-standing book.

When you look back on these reviews and articles, do you still recognize the person who wrote them all those years ago?

I try not to look back. In some ways, it is a no-win situation. If you look back and it isn’t very good, you think “Fuck--I didn’t have any talent then and I don’t have any talent now!” but if they are pretty good, you think “God, I was talented then--whatever happened to my talent?” Either way, you come out kind of discouraged.

In recent months, there has been all sorts of talk about how film criticism has become a dying art, especially now that many newspapers seem to be getting rid of their critics altogether in order to save a few bucks by picking up something on the wire. Having been a film critic yourself and as a filmmaker whose work has, often as not, depended on strong reviews to attract audiences, what are your thoughts on the state of film criticism today?

There are still a lot of good writers out there but there are fewer and fewer places for them to be read. Of course, the blogosphere is so large and relatively indiscriminate that it is kind of unmanageable. There is still good writing, no doubt about it, just like there are still good movies. You are right on the cusp of a discussion of a much bigger issue that I am not going to get into, which is basically the death of the motion picture as we know it. I think that we are in the last days of movies, which were a 20th-century art form, and that they are starting to become something else and I don’t know what they are going to become yet/

Is this one of the things that helped to inspire that massive article about the need for a formalized film canon that you wrote for “Film Comment” in 2006.

Actually, I discussed this in the beginning of that article but my thoughts have been moving on. In that article, I say that I at least will be able to finish my career making theatrical films, but I no longer believe that. I think things are changing so fast that I won’t be able to finish and I am already beginning to explore different ways to make movies.

Although you have been working steadily as a director for 30 years now, you have occasionally gone back to work on screenplays for other filmmakers--you adapted “The Last Temptation of Christ” and “Bringing Out the Dead” for Scorsese and also worked on the screenplays for films like “The Mosquito Coast” and “City Hall.” Having established yourself as a filmmaker in your own right, how has it been for you to occasionally revert back to working simply as a screenwriter?

I’m happy to do it. It isn’t so easy to get those jobs because directors like to beat up on writers and it is hard to beat up on a writer who has directed 17 films.

You have already completed your next film, “Adam Resurrected,” and from the descriptions that I have seen on-line, it seems that the plot, involving an ex-circus performer in an asylum for survivors of the Holocaust, touches on some of the issue of war-related guilt that you dealt with in a more fantastical vein in “Dominion.”

Not really. This is a really great Israeli novel and it is much more about living. . .there is a little bit of it in “Dominion” but “Adam Resurrected” is the real thing.

Are you working on anything else right now?

No. I just finished “Adam Resurrected” and I have been happily unemployed for about a month now and exploring some things. I think that maybe it is time to write and maybe I will write this year.

Many of your films have been made available on DVD, but there are still some titles such as “Light of Day” and “Patty Hearst” and “Rolling Thunder, “ which you wrote, that have yet to make an appearance. Do you have any information on when those titles might eventually surface?

“Touch” just came out a month or so ago. “Patty Hearst,” you can get in Europe. I just don’t know. The director is usually the last person to find out.

My final question is one that is admittedly more on the frivolous side. As we are talking, the summer movie season is beginning to gather steam and I was wondering if there were any of the big upcoming releases that you had any particular interest in seeing.

No. I’ve been out of the loop. I have basically been out of the country for almost 2 ½ years and I am quite uninformed about what is going on this summer.

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