Japan Cuts 2012 Interview: Filmmaking Without Borders -- A Discussion with LEONIE Director Hisako Matsui

Ben Umstead, East Coast Editor
Hisako Matsui (Yukie and Oriume) brought her latest film Leonie to Japan Cuts last Friday for its U.S. premiere. Leonie is a biopic on Leonie Gimour (Emily Mortimer) an American journalist who falls in love with Japanese poet Yone Noguchi, and gives birth to their son, Isamu Noguchi, who grows up to become the world famous architect and sculptor. Our correspondent The Lady Miz Diva sat down with Matsui to discuss the long journey of bringing Leonie's life to the big screen. This interview is being crossed-published at Diva's website The Diva Review.


The Lady Miz Diva:  How do you feel to be screening your film before the New York Japan Cuts audience?
 
Hisako Matsui:  For Isamu and Leonie, this is sort of their hometown, so to screen this film here has been my long-held dream.  To have that granted feels like 'at long last!'
 
LMD:  What inspired you to make "Leonie"?
 
HM:  The reason why I started to work on this film is because I read The Life of Isamu Noguchi: Journey Without Borders by the non-fiction Japanese writer, Masayo Duus.  Everybody knows about the life of Isamu Noguchi, but not Leonie, nobody knows.  So I thought I must let everybody know about her life.  I felt a sense of mission.
 
LMD:  What was it that made you focus on Noguchi's mother as opposed to the artist himself?
 
HM:  I am a female director and I'm also a mother, so I've always been interested in filming how females live and that's what I wanted to depict consistently as a female director.  So what drew me to Leonie was her strength and I was very encouraged by her strength, as well.
 
LMD:  Did you have access to the Noguchi estate or help with research beyond the Masayo Duus biography?
 
HM:  I actually approached the Isamu Noguchi Foundation the first time when I started on the research for this film and I kept on approaching them for six years.  It took me six years until I could begin shooting and I've been declined {by the Foundation} all throughout.
 
LMD:  Having worked for several years to bring "Leonie" to the screen, what made it such a labour of love for you?
 
HM:  First of all, I had a belief that if depicted Leonie as a female figure, I could cross international boundaries and encourage all women of all nationalities.  My second belief as a Japanese director, I wanted to show and present all the beautiful seasonal cultures of Japan.  That was very important to me
 
LMD:  What was it about Emily Mortimer that made you think she was the perfect Leonie?
 
HM:  I've always loved her performances.  Also, the fact that she's British; it's an island country like Japan, so there's a connection there, as well.  She really loved the script; that was very important to me and she showed a great respect towards the script and showed a lot of trust in me as a director.  It was a great relationship.
 
LMD:  What was it like to take on such an ambitious production like "Leonie" with its international cast and crew?
 
HM:  What was important to me was the American scenes, even if they were taking place a hundred years ago, it was true to life for an American audience.  It's the same thing for Japanese audiences; that when they view the scenes that take place a hundred years ago in Japan, it really looked like Japan then.  So, between the cinematographer and myself, I made sure the American scenes were shot with an American crew and the Japanese scenes were shot with a Japanese crew.  All in all, we worked with four-hundred and seventy crew members.  It's as if I shot two films.  As a Japanese female director, my age, as well as the fact that I'm a female is a great handicap when I'm shooting in Japan versus when I'm shooting in the States: The fact that I'm female, or my age, or my past experiences and so forth are never a handicap, it's really all about the script.  Everybody who worked for me was gathered there because they loved the script, so in that sense, it was it was a lot easier for me working in the States.
 
LMD:  Your cast is from England, the US and Japan.  Was there any difference in the way you directed the actors from different nations?
 
HM:  Not at all, because just as Isamu Noguchi's art is available and seen throughout the world, I had to act that way as well, and not be self-conscious of the international borders, and I'm naturally not very self-conscious about that.
 
LMD:  The cinematography is beautiful.  Would you talk about collaborating with the acclaimed cinematographer, Tetsuo Nagata ("La Vie en Rose", "Micmacs")?
 
HM:  When I was in the fundraising process for the film and I knew that I still did not have enough funds for it, I went to see La Vie en Rose and I was so struck by the beauty of the cinematography and I knew I had to find someone of this capacity in the States.  But when I saw the end credits, I was so startled to find that he {Nagata} was Japanese.  So, immediately I ran home and researched his home page and his contact information and approached him via letters and calls, and that's how I got him to work for me.
The music composer, Jan Kaczmarek, worked on Finding Neverland.  When I went to LA, I went to an agency for film composers; they gave me a sample of ten composer's sample CDs and I didn't look at their names, but I listened to them all and immediately I knew there was nobody else but him I wanted to work with.  So the agent asked me my budget and timeframe and they were quite startled because there was no way an Academy Award-winning composer would work with such a meagre budget, but then I took to writing again and I approached him that way.
When the film premiered in Japan, it was a director's cut, so it was two hours and twelve minutes; but for the version they're showing in the States, I had to cut thirty minutes of the film.  So, with that time, Jan's music did not actually fit the film, so I had to approach him and ask him to compose again.  So he actually composed twice for me.  When I asked him, "Why would you do this for me?"  He said, "Well, Hisako, you're my friend," and I would've not had that experience in Japan.  I am such a lucky person.
 
LMD:  Viewers who watch "Leonie" might be tempted to judge her as a victim or a gullible woman who should've known better, especially considering her education.  The other side of that is the idea that she was a feminist.  What would you say to either of those viewpoints?
 
HM:  I think for females, it is so easy to victimise your life; to play the victim in our lives.  What's interesting about Leonie is that whenever she has negative or sad experiences, she has the ability to switch that into the positive.  I think when the film started, feminism for Leonie started out intellectually; something she understood in her mind, but as she went through all these hardships and became a mother, she increased her capacity to channel that experience into a positive.  She really reveled in her ability to choose her own life, to make her own decisions.  I believe this really gave her the capacity to surpass the ideological idea of feminism.  It's so much more than that.
 
LMD:  This story is surprisingly timeless.  So many women today are single parents trying to get through life the best way they can as Leonie was.  Was that part of the appeal of making the film?
 
HM:  Whenever I make a film, I always think that even if I die, I want the film to go on.  So, in that sense, it really needs to surpass international boundaries as well as time, and I really want to the film to be understood for a long time.  That's my philosophy of filmmaking.
 
LMD:  What would you like audiences to take away from "Leonie"?
 
HM:  It's completely free.  Whatever they want to take away.  But my only hope is that especially for women, it acts as a mirror that reflects their lives.
 
~ The Lady Miz Diva
July 27th, 2012
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