By Junsui Films | August 2012
The acclaimed Japanese Production Designer talks exclusively to Junsui Films about fulfilling his dream of working with Zhang Yimou, his experiences on Kill Bill: Vol.1 with Quentin Tarantino, and tells us all about the challenges of building the world of his latest film, THE FLOWERS OF WAR…
Junsui Films: How did you come to be involved in The Flowers of War?
Yohei Taneda: Needless to say, as someone who’s been making films in Asia, I’d long hoped to work with Zhang Yimou someday. When Bill Kong — one of the producers of the film — invited me to the project, my dream finally came true.
JF. The film focuses on the Nanjing Massacre and makes the bold, somewhat controversial decision to cast a Westerner as the protagonist, what were your initial thoughts of the script and ultimately what was it that attracted you to the project?
The script portrayed the tragedies and ravages of war through the eyes of a young girl. At the same time, deep inside the cathedral, fantastical events begin to unfurl between the Westerner posing as a priest, the courtesans from Nanjing (then the capital of China), and the young girls. When I first read the script, I pictured this cathedral looming over the burnt and destroyed city like a fantastical space. Ultimately, it was this contrast that drew me most.
JF: The events in Nanjing have been widely documented in both film and literature, as a Production Designer how crucial was it to remain faithful to such a significant historical event whilst infusing it with your own unique cinematic interpretation?
Everything outside the cathedral — namely the bombed out city of Nanjing — I looked to re-create as faithfully as possible based on archival materials, but the cathedral itself I intended to create as a space of fantasy.
JF: Many of the locations featured in the film are owned by the Chinese government; how did this affect your choice of locations when scouting, and did it have any impact on your initial design process during pre-production?
Every scene in the film was actually shot on sets. What they gave me was a barren piece of land on the backlot of a studio in the outskirts of Nanjing. My job began with the task of developing this land so that we could build a city upon it. By the time we finally built the city, completed the cathedral, and began filming, it was winter, roughly a year after we first saw this land overrun by grass and trees.
The interiors of the cathedral were built in sound stages inside the same studio. In other words, I was spared the trouble of scouting locations, but had the pressure of designing and creating everything that needed to be filmed.
JF: Tell us a little bit about your creative relationship with [director] Yimou Zhang, starting from how you’s approached the task of building the world of The Flowers of War.
From the time when I first submitted a concept design for the world of the film, Zhang gave me full trust in designing the city and the cathedral. This trust helped me a great deal as I proceeded with my work. As said, the production design for this project entailed designing and building sets for every space that would be filmed, which subjected me to an incredible amount of pressure.
But on the last day of filming, when Yimou praised me by saying, “Look, there used to be nothing here. You created all of this,” it struck me that this art department — comprised of both Chinese and Japanese artists — had succeeded in building this amazing world, and I was tremendously moved to have been given such an enriching experience.
JF: What are some of the core creative challenges when working on a period film?
What’s true of all period films is that one must put much thought into the delineation, arrangement and balance between historical fact and the world of fantasy. With The Flowers of War, the cathedral was especially challenging. For one, there were very few archival materials on cathedrals in China during this period. Also, in order to enable the narrative, scenes and episodes in the script to work, I needed to get very creative with the actual structure of the cathedral.
JF: What are your thoughts on how the film has been received both in China and internationally?
When the film was released in China, I was in Beijing working on another project, so I actually had the opportunity to go to the theatre a few times and to watch the film with the Chinese audience. Regardless of age or gender, they appeared to be fully engaged with the characters as they cried and cried. There were some that saw the film twice, even three times.
In the West, I imagine the film will be seen through completely different eyes. And in my country, Japan, the film will likely never be released due to the subject matter. That said, I sincerely hope that The Flowers of War will be remembered decades later by audiences around the world as another superb work by Zhang Yimou.
JF: You’re also renowned for your production design work on Quentin Tarantino’s Kill Bill: Vol.1 – what were your experiences working with Quentin?
When I first met with Quentin, we discussed creating Japan in Beijing, and in fact ended up building sets for most of the Japan scenes in a studio in Beijing. I think he and I managed to create a unique, fictional world specific to the film, unburdened by realism. It was my first time working on an American film, and ended up serving as a foundation for my continued work in China as well.
JF: What are some of the pros and cons of working with a multinational and multilingual crew and cast?
Despite sharing the universal language of cinema, it’s a challenge to organise a group of people with different languages and cultural backgrounds, not to mention earning the trust of the director, DP and producer. It certainly takes more time than when I work on Japanese productions at home, and it really is rather exhausting.
On the other hand, the positive side is that when working with people of different nationalities and languages, things don’t quite proceed exactly as planned. There’s a chemical reaction that takes place in each and every process, giving birth to an interesting flavour on screen. Sometimes you can end up with a scale that wasn’t planned for.
JF: Do you harbour any ambitions to work overseas on more Hollywood productions?
In terms of filmmaking style, I have a penchant for transcending borders. There’s no single country, nationality or genre that I prefer to stick to. I’ve worked not only on Hollywood productions but also with directors from China, Hong Kong and Taiwan in their respective countries, and I hope to continue doing so.
I’ve also worked in my home country of Japan as well as with art departments in Italy, and I hope to continue doing so, too. If needed, I’ll travel anywhere for any project — provided I find the work interesting — to serve as production designer.
JF: Throughout your career is there any particular production that you’d consider a personal favourite?
I’m particularly proud of the production design work that I delivered on The Flowers of War and the Taiwanese film Warriors of the Rainbow (Seediq Bale). I’m also happy that the world of Kill Bill: Vol. 1 continues to be remembered by many people around the world. Among the Japanese films, the work I did in The Magic Hour, in which we built an entire city inside a sound stage, feels particularly special.
JF: And finally, how has it been working alongside Keanu Reeves on his eagerly anticipated directional debut Man of Tai Chi?
I’m very happy to have served as the production designer for Keanu Reeves’ directorial debut. He has a superb sense of space and design. He understood my intentions instantly and was very receptive to my ideas. Since this was a Hollywood genre picture — an action movie — filmed in Beijing and Hong Kong, my experience working on Kill Bill and The Flowers of War proved very valuable. Like Quentin, Keanu has a great deal of respect for Asian films and for the people of Asian cinema. As a Japanese production designer, I hope that I’ve succeeded in adding a certain feel to the film that is neither American nor Chinese, and that the film will be enjoyed by many and all.
The Flowers of War is out now.