Matthew Fox on filming Emperor in Japan
World War II drama Emperor is currently doing the cinemas rounds across the world. We caught up with actor Matthew Fox (Lost, World War Z) to talk about filming in Japan, working with British director Peter Webber and what is next for the star.
Emperor follows General Fellers (Fox) at the end of World War II when the Japanese surrender, and is based on real life events and characters. Fellers’ superior, General Douglas MacArthur (Tommy Lee Jones), tasks him with the politically laden decision to either hang Emperor Hirohito as a war criminal or let him reign to continue the peace and ensure a stable Japan. Feller’s decision, however, is influenced by his quest to find Aya (Eriko Hatsune), an exchange student he met years earlier in the US and fell in love with.
Emperor didn’t just film in Japan, a beautiful backdrop by default, but on nothing less than sacred grounds as well. “We were the first film crew that was ever allowed to shoot on the imperial grounds,” says a jet-lagged Fox who we meet in a hotel in central London.
“When we were done filming in New Zealand, we went to Japan and we didn’t just shoot in front of the imperial palace, but on the imperial grounds. I mean when you go visit the imperial palace they won’t allow you to take photos on those grounds normally, it is incredibly sacred.”
Fox confesses he didn’t know anything about the real-life Bonner Fellers before taking on the task of playing the general and explains he approached the role first with caution but later with more creativity.
“This is the second time that I’ve played a real character. When I was making the film We Are Marshall I played a guy by the name Red Dawson, who’s still alive. So I felt an enormous obligation to him. This film was a little different for me because no-one really knows Bonner Fellers, especially not here in the West.
“When I first read the script I thought he was a fictional character used as a tool to move the script forward. Obviously very quickly I found out that he was actually a real guy. He was essentially a spy.
“As an actor you have to ask yourself am I going to go down this road of researching a guy, and find all this stuff about him that I might incorporate in my performance that is going to mean nothing to anyone, or am I going to stay focussed on having a blank slate and just tell the story the best way that I can, serving the story in the best way that I can – and that is what I did.”
But even though Fox opted to only loosely base his role on the actual persona, he still had to ensure that his performance fitted in that historical period. He explains how credit for this mostly goes to the design team on set.
“We had the best in every category, I mean, the woman doing the wardrobe [Ngila Dickson] was an Oscar-winner. The production designer [Grant Major] was an Oscar winner. These people were making sure everything looked, felt and had an atmosphere, all historically correct to the tee. I just knew I was going to be wearing the right clothes and everything would be spot on. For me it was really just trying to capture what that man would be like in 1945. So that was the challenge.”
The film was directed by British director Peter Webber (Girl with a Pearl Earring), known for his dreamlike style. How did Fox experience this collaboration?
“Working with Peter was really unique. And I don’t know if it was because Peter really campaigned for it, or if it was the nature of the financing of the film, but we got an opportunity to spend to two weeks in New Zealand for pre-production which is very rare in the movie business these days.”
Fox explains how he and Webber used to talk through the script together and make notes on some of the scenes they were about to work on. These notes would then be handed to the writer who was there in New Zealand and be incorporated in the script a day and a half later. “I think it really helped us focus the script,” explains Fox, “we felt like we owned it, it was ours a bit more.”
Shooting of Emperor wrapped 18 months ago and since then Fox has been taking it easy. He’s been in a couple of big TV shows (such as the HBO hit series Lost) and considering we are seeing so many high quality television programmes being made, we wonder if he would ever return to the small screen would the right part come along?
“I totally agree with you, I think the best storytelling is happening in TV right now. The new cable model of 10, or 13 episode series and Netflix, they really work. This is a great thing for storytelling. But for me, what’s perfect about the way that I’m working right now is the flexibility you have in between doing films, I just spend 18 months doing nothing, just being at home with my wife and children, and I wouldn’t be able to do this had I been doing something like Lost right now.”
Could the right role tempt you back though? If there was a really meaty role that grabbed you?
“Yeah it’s possible,” laughs Fox, “but I’m still hopeful that I’m going to find those roles in the two hour format. I will look for smaller, sort of independently financed films, where I’m really excited by the directors vision and get to do something I haven’t done before.”