Wednesday, March 19, 2014

Interview: Studio Ghibli's Geoffrey Wexler Talks About "The Wind Rises"

It is a rare chance indeed to be able to meet an executive from the Japanese animation film outfit, Studio Ghibli, founded by Hayao Miyazaki and Isao Takahata.

Through the years, the animated movies from Studio Ghibli, like "My Neighbour Totoro", "Princess Mononoke", "Grave of the Fireflies" and "Spirited Away", have touched the hearts of audiences all around the world, despite language and cultural differences.

Yesterday morning, in view of the local premiere of Oscar-nominated "The Wind Rises" on March 19, Red Dot Diva had the opportunity to interview Geoffrey Wexler - Chief of International Division from Studio Ghibli, and one of the Executive Producers of the English language version of "The Wind Rises".

"The Wind Rises" - purportedly Hayao Miyazaki's latest and last film - is a tale about the life of aeronautical engineer Jiro Horikoshi, and his legacy of a killing flying machine - the Mitsubishi A6M Zero fighter used during World War II. The long awaited English-dubbed version features well-known voice actors like Joseph Gordon-Levitt, Emily Blunt and Stanley Tucci.

Held in a cozy meeting room at the swanky Fullerton Hotel, a very warm and knowledgeable Geoffrey Wexler (or Jeff, for short) shared about "The Wind Rises" as well as his insights on Studio Ghibli and the animation industry.

Difference of animation - East vs West
When asked about how different animation is in Japan compared to the bigger studios like Pixar and Dreamworks in North America, Jeff said, "In Japan and in many countries, not so much in North America, animation is seen as a story-telling medium for many ages. My impression of the difference with North America is that animation is still aimed at families and children, and less seen by adults as a story-telling device. The Japanese animation scene really reflects imagery, pictures and story-telling from a long time ago. One of our founders Takahata is an expert on pictures and story-telling that are on long scrolls. Generally, there isn't a reaction that anime is for kids. Anime is a way of telling a story."

Before Red Dot Diva asked her question, Jeff noticed the geeky Studio Ghibli characters t-shirt that she as wearing and remarked, "Nice shirt, by the way Cool!" *diva blush*

Tailoring to international audiences
Having recovered from Jeff's compliment, Red Dot Diva then asked how much of the original "The Wind Rises" was tweaked to suit international audiences. Jeff smiled and said, "As far as I know, there is no consideration made for international audiences, which makes my job easier... and harder, in some ways. The founders of the studio started their own company because they wanted to make their own kind of films. I don't seem to get the sense that the directors are sitting around thinking "'what kind of films would the Japanese like?', but more so in the light of 'what kind of films would they like to present to a Japanese audience?'.

The appeal of the films outside of Japan is because they still have integrity too, for non-Japanese audiences. When the films are complete, my team for the English-dubbed version, which consists of producers, scriptwriters, translators, subtitlers and talent, stay very true to the original story. 

We aim to keep the integrity to the original story, and to  present to audiences, the director's movie. Where things are not clear in the story as Western audiences would expect, then they won't be as clear. And this has created an interesting tug-of-war with our partners and their overseas scriptwriters and subtitlists, because they want to polish things up and are understandably thinking of their respective markets. But we really want to protect our films the directors made, including the parts that might not be aimed for the international audiences. Still, I think the audiences are more sophisticated than we give them credit for."

Choice of the right voice actors
So how does Studio Ghibli choose the right voice actors to portray the movie's characters? "We do try to look for actors whose ages are near to the ages of the characters, but it doesn't always need to be so," Jeff said. "We listen to the actors' voices and hear if they have a feel for the characters.... it is very much an emotional and subjective analysis. I personally, look for actors with voices that are not immediately recognizable. I found out that if you know the actor just by the voice, then you are thinking I'm listening to so and so, and not enjoying the movie anymore. We also look for a voice that brings comfort, because a lot of Western audiences may not be familiar with our work. And a little familiarity would help bring to the audiences more trust in trying out the movie and watching it till the end."

The controversy of World War II setting in "The Wind Rises"
With regards about the trust in the story, Red Dot Diva was curious as to how much controversy the World War II setting of "The Wind Rises" has been raised when different audiences of different ages and experiences viewed the film. Jeff had this to say:

"The show has been very well-received in many markets, including Korea, Taiwan and Hong Kong. The film also did very well in France and in North America, having been nominated for this year's Oscars for Best Animation film. Interestingly, there was more discussion about the subject matter before the film opened, when people haven't even seen it.

It is an easy topic to create controversy out of, but people who have watched the film, don't walk out of the theatres talking about that aspect of the film. They talk about the passion about creating something beautiful and about the love story. But there is no denying that the closer you are about the events of the war, you are going to view it differently. And if you want to have an agenda, you will use anything you can to put it forward.

Miyazaki-san made an interesting comment to a Korean journalist about the war planes in the movie. He said, 'What about telling them to go see the movie for themselves?' It is really about watching the film and experiencing it for yourself. It seems that people who have seen the film would have experienced the stir of passion and the many different ideas and concepts presented within the movie, that the controversy does not become the over-arching thought too long after its viewing."

Any special featurettes in "The Wind Rises" DVD/ Blu-Ray?
Jeff said there are currently many featurettes available for these releases, and one of the journalists mentioned if there was going to be a biopic of Miyazaki-san.

Jeff revealed, "We are still looking at different options. There was a Japanese documentary film made last year called 'The Kingdom of Dreams and Madness', which was filmed during the time "The Wind Rises" was developed. And this documentary talks about the history of the studio and the founders, their relationships to each other, and also revolves around the development of "The Wind Rises". Whether this will be included in "The Wind Rises" package, we are still looking at it and seeing what we should be doing with the documentary."

Upcoming Studio Ghibli projects
"Right now, 'The Tale of Princess Kaguya' by Takahata-san, which is based on a Japanese folk tale, 'The Tale of the Bamboo-Cutter' is in Japanese cinemas now. And we are looking to release that outside Japan in the months ahead. I'm working on the English dub for that, and our international partners are working on the local dubs," Jeff said. "Our next movie is 'When Marnie Was There', and is directed by Hiromasa Yonebayashi. It is scheduled to open in Japan in the summer."

Lessons learned from working in Studio Ghibli
Red Dot Diva wondered if there were interesting key personal lessons Jeff has learned during his time working with Studio Ghibli.

"Keep your mind open and don't settle in patterns," Jeff said. "We might see something and think that is what it is. The creative geniuses I work with, see more and see possibilities. Not being restricted to experiences result in some of these wonderful images and ideas. Like the Catbus in 'My Neighbour Totoro'. And also, constantly re-opening your mind and revisiting what you might miss out observing. It's very empowering and very positive.

The other demanding quality is that 'paying attention to details is worth it'. In animation, details count, for example the way a pen falls and the direction that it rolls, are small but important details. You might not notice these small details at first, but if they weren't there, you might not experience the same reality in the scene."

Favourite Studio Ghibli movie
When Red Dot Diva asked him which Studio Ghibli movie is his favourite, Jeff exclaimed and laughed, "Oh no! You can't ask me that!" His eyes lit up as he continued, "As I mentioned, we are converting our movies to digital prints now, and as I'm watching the prints - and this may sound like a made-up answer but it's *absolutely* true - my favourite one is the one I just saw. 

I did not watch some of these films in the cinemas, so while watching the DVDs, blu-rays and recently, the digital prints... they are just so *beautiful* and I'm discovering things all the time. The other day, I noticed there was a barber shop in the bathhouse in 'Spirited Away', and I wondered to myself if there was a beauty parlour in there? And sure enough, there was a beauty parlour! Each Ghibli movie is so different, and each one has its own special elements to it."  

And as if to remind us what a wondrous and moving masterpiece "The Wind Rises" is, a gorgeous clay statuette of Nahoko from the movie had been placed prominently on the meeting table. According to a representative Encore Films, the limited edition not-for-sale figurine will be given to a contest winner.

Look at the details!
Don't miss the chance of paying tribute to Hayao Miyazaki-san (this is said to be his swan song after all), by watching "The Wind Rises" at the local cinemas. The movie opens on March 20th at GV, Cathay and Filmgarde theatres islandwide.


Sigh while watching the beautiful "The Wind Rises" trailer:


Red Dot Diva thanks Yiwen of Encore Films for the media invite and thanks to Geoffrey Wexler for a lovely and insightful interview session!

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