Every generation has but a few filmmakers who change the very nature of the medium. People like Orson Wells, Robert Altman, and Francis Ford Coppola are far and few between. Today, I was lucky enough to meet not just one, but two filmmakers in this rarified field. After the jump is the complete transcript of my interview with John Lasseter and Hayao Miyazaki.
NOTE: The interviews took place in a crowded, noisy room. Since my microphone was turned towards the talent, I cannot make out the exact questions asked. So, I have chosen to summarize them. The answers are all taken as close to verbatim as I can manage.
Q: John, what is it like bringing foreign animated films to the US market?
Lasseter: “If you’ve seen ‘Spirited Away’, Spirited Away’ is set in a very, very Japanese sensibility. And so, to Japanese audiences when Sen would walk up, the main character, and look at this big building with a flag on it with Japanese writing on it, everyone in Japan would know what that is. No one in this country would know what that building is.
So these are the kind of things that we look at and go, in order to be on the same level of understanding, we have to, we have to add a line off stage where a character goes, ‘oh it’s a bathhouse!’ so, it’s small little things.
I absolutely don’t want to, I strive very hard not to change Miyazaki’s vision because his movies are, you know, so deep and so unique, and you know, sometimes some of the stuff we don’t quite understand, but that’s how he intended it. So I’m not gonna sit there and clarify and add story to his stuff. I’m gonna leave it to where he wants things explained or wants to leave things ambiguous. And you know, he’s that way, and then just get out of the way.
And, you know, just try to cast the actors and do the performances so it sounds natural for our ears, you know. Even though we don’t change the characters names, you know. I have a funny story; when we were doing ‘Spirited Away’ the, it’s a very clever thing. The name, if you know the story they go into this world, and, uh, the witch kind of changes peoples, takes peoples names. And the names she gives them are sort of the tasks they do at the bathhouse. And it’s very clever, right? And so, we’re sitting there going, ‘What do we do?” Do we change the name or keep the Japanese name and do something. So I sent a message over to Miyazaki-san, ‘What would you like us to do with this?’ And he says, “I think that for people to understand, the audiences to truly understand my movies is that they should all learn Japanese.’ And I go, ‘Miyazaki-san, that won’t do.’ And he said, ‘John I trust you so do what you want to do.’ So what we did is we kept the Japanese name, but as soon as you introduce a character, say, ‘Oh, the boiler man!’ or whatever like that. And we tried to achieve sort of the same thing, but keeping the name.
I like to keep his original name. Like, the boy in Ponyo’s name is Soskai, and it took me a long time to learn how to pronounce properly.
Q: Why hasn’t Miyazaki had a crossover hit here in the US? Is it perhaps because American fans are more interested in deconstructing their heroes versus heroes who tend to be more noble and try to overcome their flaws like many of Miyazaki’s heroes?
Lasseter: That’s a very good question. I haven’t ever really thought of it quite that way, though it’s an interesting observation. Frankly, it’s a simple fact too, also that the box office equals the number of theaters it was in. I mean, [Spirited Away] was in 100 theaters nationwide. So now we’re going to be in 800 theaters. It’s a nice medium sized release, so we’re excited about that.
I believe in this one thing. I’ve been a big advocate within the Disney company of trying to get Miyazaki’s films out there for the DVD releases as well as for the theatrical releases because I believe that once you see a Miyazaki film once, you get hooked. You keep thinking about it well after you’ve seen it and you want to see it again. My sons, I have five sons, and I came back in 1987 with his films on Japanese Laserdiscs and we would sit and watch them in Japanese! Like, ‘Totoro’ and all those films. And they just communicate. It’s unbelievable!
Chuck Jones always said with great animation you should be able to turn the sound off and still tell what’s going on. and by and large his films, you can watch and just sort of feel what’s going on. and, um, there’s some subtly and depth to the language, but one of the things you’ve tapped into with your question is the messages in all his films. He gets into pretty deep issues of the environment, of growing up, of, you know, of moving on, of all these things. And he handles it so beautifully. It’s almost like this thing you don’t quite realize that he’s getting to you in some ways.
And my sons just, it’s their favorite movies. They’re constantly taking the DVD’s over to friends houses to introduce them to ‘Princess Mononoke’ and ‘Totoro’ you know, ‘Spirited Away’ and ‘Howl’s Moving Castle’ and all of them. So they’re great.
Those films have been one of the things that have been tremendously influential to me as a filmmaker. And one of the things that Miyazaki has done that has been so inspirational is, actually Hollywood movies I think keep going the opposite direction. He celebrates the quiet moments of a film. if you watch his films, there is always a lull before the action that makes the action just that much more and if you watch ‘Up’ it’s really really influenced by that. And, I think it’s really, really great.
(MIYAZAKI SITS DOWN AT THE TABLE)
Q: John, can you talk about the state of animation as an art form.
Lasseter: I think we’re getting healthier without question because I think the animation world is in one of the best places it has ever been because look at all the studios that are making animated films right now. And they’re really quality filmmakers that are doing films at lots of different studios. The work that is being done at Blue Sky with Chris Wedge and his crew. I think Dreamworks is doing some, it’s getting better and better. I think that Fox and Sony are all producing some great movies. I think Miyazaki-san, you know, and in Japan.
You know, to me, I would much rather be part of a healthy industry than being the only player in a dead industry. There are so many great artists out there. And the goal is to make great movies, you know? So to be successful, quality is the best business plan as I always say. That’s why I’m a big support of the industry as a whole. And you want all of these great artists to stay in animation. You don’t want to lose them to other mediums, you know?
So I think actually we’re doing really well and I think really, 3D has been a real kick in the arm for computer animation because animation has really been able to grab hold of 3D before live action films, though we’re starting see some really great live action films on the horizon which I’m excited about.
Q: Miyazaki-san, do you create films with social commentary in mind or is it purely story?
Miyazaki: there are all kinds of values within the films but I don’t make message films.
Q: Where do you draw inspiration for your film?
Miyazaki: From my everyday life. I get inspiration from my everyday life.
Q (from Lasseter): With Ponyo, Did the little school next to your studio, did it inspire you at all?
Miyazaki: When I say I get inspiration from my real life, I think of my real life as extending about 300 meters radius around me. So what I see in that area is what inspires me. In terms of Ponyo, having gotten some inspiration from next door, there’s a pre-school that we made for the children of employees of Ghibli, that just opened up so it might be reflected in the next film I make. Inspiration from watching little children in the preschool next to my office.
Lasseter: the preschool is so cute. He showed it to me, and the little children are unbelievably cute. We were standing there and we just watched this little girl step right in it with one of her shoes and it was just how she dealt with this wet shoe, it was one of the funniest things you’ve ever seen.