Long before "Shine" turned director Scott Hicks into an Academy Award nominee and an icon of the 1996 independent film invasion, he had a burning desire to make a movie from Dave Guterson's modern Lit class favorite, "Snow Falling On Cedars." He first read the novel while preparing a documentary for the Discovery Channel, and was completely captivated by the details of its multiple narrative that follows a doomed love story, a courtroom drama and the painful remembrance of the mistreatment of Japanese Americans during World War II. But he figured he'd never get a chance to direct it.
"Then as soon as 'Shine' sort of erupted, as it were, everyone wanted to know what I wanted to do next," the director said on a recent visit to San Francisco. "About two weeks after the Oscars, Ron Bass' screenplay arrived."
And the rest, as they say, is history. Hicks -- a tall, lean, kindly-looking Australian with long, thin, salt-and-pepper hair tucked behind his ears and a pair of dancing eye brows -- worked with Bass on a few more drafts, pairing down the 500-page book to a manageable feature length, and, surprisingly, eliminating sizable sections of the movie's dialogue and a running voice-over, which "anchored it too much in one point of view."
Hicks employs the movie's stretches of silence extremely well in weaving several memories around the framework of the trial, in which a decorated war hero of Japanese descent is railroaded on a murder charge. "Cedars" stars Ethan Hawke as a reticent newspaperman and veteran who covers the trial and pursues the truth on his own while becoming awash in memories of his forbidden first love -- with a Japanese girl who is now the defendant's wife.
The picture's lack of loquaciousness was the jumping-off point for our Q&A.
|Q: You used the silence well. It comes almost as a jolt to hear Kazuo's (the defendant) American accent when he first speaks.|
A: Good. You should form an impression of the silent, Japanese -- I don't know, Samurai, you know -- sitting there in a suit. And when he opens his mouth, he's all-American. That's the point. He was one of the community, and this was the most emphatic way to bring that to the attention.
|Was it a struggle to portray all that emotion and intensity without dialogue?|
Sometimes things play better without dialogue. There's a much more powerful language in looks and glances and body language and attitude. I think it can be far more expressive and far more cinematic, you know? To me the power of the image is every bit as important as the dialogue, and often more so.
|Well, the visuals are incredible. That opening shot on the Sound in the fog gives you such a sense of place (coastal Washington state) -- and time even -- even though you cannot tell at first what you're looking at.|
What I wanted that scene to be was in a way emblematic of the whole film, which is, nothing is quite what it first appears to be. You don't know what it is you're seeing at first, but you come closer and closer and literally shed light on it. It's a blur in the fog, then oh, that's a mast, oh, there's his face! The whole movie I wanted to be such a mystery, and gradually it all -- hopefully -- coalesces, comes together and falls into focus.
|Speaking of focus, which leads me to cinematography, you used a very narrow color palate -- black, brown, green, red. That's about it. The effect is beautiful and moody, but how did you decide to do this?|
It was dictated by my reading of the book and the landscape I began to become familiar with (while location scouting). The cedar forest, the sea, and the rocks there. The story is very damp and dank and overcast. The weather is such a character and a snow storm makes everything monochromatic. When I first started talking with Bob Richardson, the cinematographer, we'd go though all these stills together -- mostly black and white stills -- just trying to find a common language, you know? And I remember saying to him, "I wish we could shoot this in black and white." And he said, "Well, we can."
|Then you used the bleach bypass developing process, which has been used in movies like "Seven" for darkness and "Three Kings" for light.|
(Bleach bypass) seems to narrow the spectrum. You get these dense, rich blacks and silvery whites, and everything in between is has this muted feel about it, which I just love.
|Let's talk casting. Ethan Hawke?|
Casting for me is a huge part of the job. It's a really fundamental thing. I love putting that together, really people-ing the movie. Ethan was really hungry for this role. He made a big play for it. There were some young actors who seemed to be interesting that I wanted to meet and talk to, and maybe even have the read. (But) you get these answers back from their agents like, "Is this an offer?" And I would say, "Well, no. I want to meet them." "Oh, well, they don't do a meeting without an offer!"
Then Ethan -- who half his life he's been in the movies, he's a movie star -- he came out as an actor of serious intent, who really was dedicated to the idea of playing this part, and I thought, that's what I need. I don't need this vanity thing. He was willing to give himself over to the process of making this film.
|Youki Kudoh was an interesting choice for the girl. She's a big pop star in Japan, but how did you know she could act?|
The Japanese-Americans were difficult to find. Youki comes from Tokyo, and she had been in a little movie ("Heaven's Burning") shot in Adelaide, in south Australia where I live, and my wife Carrie reminded me about her. She has this amazing access to her emotions and a delicacy which was powerful, too.
|And you cast playwright Sam Shepard for the flashbacks, to play Ethan's father and the principled founder of the newspaper on the island where the film takes place.|
Sam Shepard was kind of a dream. When I read the script, his image was in my mind. I thought, we need someone like Sam Shepard. We needed someone who speaks with integrity, someone who carries a certain dignity and trust. So I said to the casting director, "We need someone like Sam Shepard." And he said, "Well, what about Sam Shepard?" So I offered it to him and he said yes!
|There's many universal themes in this story, but it's such a quintessentially American movie. Did you have any difficulty approaching that aspect, being from Australia?|
Oh, yes. As an outsider, I was hyper-conscious of how easy it would be to make a cultural blunder. So I had a really top designer, Jeannine Oppewall ("L.A. Confidential"
), who is absolutely wonderful. She is meticulous in her research, and I said to her, "Part of your job is to educate me about American things -- American architecture, American cultural nuance." She wouldn't let me make a mistake.
Then I had people hunt out hundreds of photographs from the time, most particularly the evacuation events (the internment of Japanese citizens during the war), not just to see what the hats looked like and everything, but to get the feeling in those photographs, the emotion of it. Then trying to think, how am I going to catch what I see in these pictures? I carried those around in my script to remind me. It was important to create something an audience could sort of bear witness to and feel that they'd experienced.