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?|
|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.|
|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?|
|Then you used the bleach bypass developing process, which has been used in movies like "Seven" for darkness and "Three Kings" for light.|
|Let's talk casting. Ethan Hawke?|
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?|
|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.|
|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?|
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.
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