A recent poll conducted by CNN revealed that one third of the people believed in ghosts, and that many of those claim they've seen one. At the same time, interest in spirit photography - events in which images of the dead are caught on film - has never been higher.
The phenomenon as old as photography itself, dating back to the 1860s. Spirit photography has been riddled with controversy and fraud, yet many believe it to be one of the few methods of capturing ghostly phenomenon that approaches scientific methodology. Magazines devoted to spirit photography proliferate throughout Asia, and new internet sites devoted to the subject spring up every day. New York's Metropolitan Museum of Art recently hosted an exhibit devoted to spirit photography, called 'The Perfect Medium: Photography and the Occult,"
The intriguing and foreboding subject is a key element of the psychological thriller SHUTTER, from the executive producers of 'The Grudge' and 'The Ring'.
SHUTTER is based on the 2004 Thai film of the same name, which became the highest grossing film in Thailand.
The horror-thriller was directed by Banjong Pisanthanakun and Parkpoom Wongpoom.
Its story is simplicity itself: a girl suddenly appears, gets hit by a car and disappears, only to return to haunt the perpetrators. But with its many twists and shocks, the film subverted audience expectations, revealing itself to be much more than a simple ghost story.
The film's enormous success in Thailand did not translate overseas, because some of its references had meaning only in the context of Thai culture and perceptions. Looking to make the story more accessible to American and Japanese audiences, esteemed producer Taka Ichise, along with Vertigo Entertainment's Sonny Mallhi, Roy Lee and Doug Davison, and New Regency Productions' Sanford Panitch and Alexandra Sundell, conceived a new version of SHUTTER.
Their SHUTTER, while always respecting the original work, would be reimagined with an American starring cast and a Japanese director. And it would be filmed entirely in Japan.
Regency's Sundell and Vertigo's Mallhi and Lee (whose credits include "The Departed" and "The Ring") worked closely with screenwriter Luke Dawson on the screenplay for the new SHUTTER. Dawson's as-yet unproduced adaptation of the famed Japanese manga "Lone Wolf and Cub," had impressed Regency; he also had a professional relationship with noted filmmaker Darren Aronofsky, who had directed Regency's "The Fountain."
Dawson was eager to dive into the phenomenon of spirit photography, which has long had a huge following in Asia, and was making significant inroads in U.S. culture. To aid in his research, Dawson and some of the other filmmakers visited the MET's "The Perfect Medium: Photography and the Occult" exhibit.
Additionally, Dawson replaced the film's original setting, New York City, with Tokyo. (The film is bookended with sequences set in Brooklyn.) "An important part of the story is Jane's feeling out of place in her new surroundings," says Dawson, "so it made sense to set the film outside the U.S. Tokyo is the perfect setting for this story, in which Jane feels like she's surrounded by chaos, and is unable to fully comprehend the situation into which she's been thrown. American audiences don't see a lot of the inner workings of Tokyo, so we had a lot of fun capturing how the city would seem strange to an outsider."
As work continued on the script, producer Taka Ichise, whose numerous genre credits include "The Grudge" and "The Grudge 2," approached Japanese filmmaker Masayuki Ochiai ("Infection") to direct SHUTTER. Ichise explains: "On the surface, the Thai version of 'Shutter' doesn't really tie in with Japan or its culture because it was made in Thailand, by Thais, for the Thai people. Yet after re-watching it, I came to realize how certain elements, such as its depiction of the ghost and of spirit photography, were similar to Japanese horror. It was then I chose Ochiai to direct because I knew he could find ways to make a very good film for both American and Japanese audiences."
Like Dawson, Ochiai was intrigued by spirit photography and eager to boost its burgeoning presence in the West. "Japanese audiences are very familiar with it," he explains. "Everyone in Japan at one point or another has had a sleepless night after being exposed to spirit photography.
"Spirit photography is so popular in Japan because ghosts mean more to the Japanese people than to Americans," he continues. "In Japan, ghosts don't have to do anything to be scary. In American ghost stories, they have to wreak all kinds of havoc [to make an impact]."
While Ochiai won't admit to any recent ghostly encounters, he says he faced some "reel"-life terrors when prepping the movie - namely, a principal cast whose native tongue he didn't speak. "I had nightmares about the difficulties that would come with working with actors whose language I don't know," says Ochiai. "But my fears went away at our first rehearsal, when I realized we had a wonderful interpreter, and that everyone was moving toward the same goal. It was so seamless that I always felt like I was talking directly with the actors."
Joshua Jackson also has high praise for the interpreter, Chiho Asada. "Chiho was a miracle because she was able to take our slightly flighty actor talk and translate it into director talk," he says with a laugh.
Jackson, best known to audiences for his role in the long-running series "Dawson's Creek" and who was recently named the lead in Fox's high-profile sci-fi series, "Fringe," produced by J.J. Abrams, joined the starring cast as Ben. Rachael Taylor, who had just completed a key role in "Transformers," would play Jane. They were joined by David Denman ("The Office," "Saint of Circumstances") as Bruno, the agency head who's brought his friend Ben over to Japan for the photo shoot, John Hensley, who stars in the series "Nip/Tuck" and the provocative indie film "Teeth," as Adam, a lascivious manager of models, and James Kyson Lee ("Heroes") as Ritsuo, the editor-in-chief of a spirit magazine publication.
Rachael Taylor's Jane is a kind of surrogate for the audience, for it is through Jane's eyes that they will experience many of the film's chilling moments. Taylor notes that Jane's journey through an unfamiliar and ultimately terrifying landscape also mirrored the actress's experiences in Tokyo shooting the movie. "I'm a country girl, so Tokyo was a complete other world for me," says Taylor, who hails from a small town in Tasmania. "Tokyo has a very different kind of frenetic pace that you find in the U.S. - or anywhere -even in New York City.
"I had some serious 'Lost in Translation' moments while filming SHUTTER," Taylor continues. "I think it's similar to what Jane goes through in the film. She's very much out of her depth and desperately trying to cope with a culture she's unfamiliar with." Looking for an even stronger connection with her character, Taylor reinforced her own sense of isolation and disorientation by making sure not to assimilate into the Tokyo lifestyle.
Jane's new husband Ben is far more comfortable with his surroundings, having lived in Japan for several years, prior to meeting to Jane. "Ben is supposed to be comfortable enough in this world, that he's able to navigate it with a fair amount of ease," says Jackson. "Jane is the stranger in a strange land who doesn't know how to find her place."
Both Jackson and Taylor got a quick and intense immersion in the world of spirit photography. "That phenomenon was one of the major ideas that [director Masayuki] Ochiai really wanted to convey," says Jackson. "It's such an important concept in Japanese culture, and it's accepted and well-known everywhere there. We [in the U.S.] think of ghosts as floating, ephemeral spirits. But in Japan, ghosts are taken much more seriously, and they take on a more physical presence."
Taylor says she is a spirit photography skeptic but became more open to the idea during production. "I am a believer in the existence of certain energies. And I like what SHUTTER has to say about energy or emotion being able to make itself heard. That makes sense to me - if something is really strong, it will find a way to materialize or send a message."
But it was more than the idea of spirits caught on film that drew the actors to the project. "I really appreciated the evolving dynamic between this young couple," says Jackson. "The relationship seemed real and livable; then, of course, they're thrown into a terrifying scenario." During production, Jackson and Taylor had significant input into delineating their characters, a fact much appreciated by their director. "Joshua and Rachael had a lot of great ideas and came up with some wonderful unscripted moments," says Ochiai. "For example, they devised this kind of secret physical contact between the two characters, little things that two newlyweds would share. They're not 'big' actions, but are very important to the characters."
The two actors came to admire Ochiai's skill in building on the screenplay's scares and thrills. "Ochiai has this ability to set a mood and create tension throughout the story," says Jackson. "As actors, we worked with him to create the scary moments - and have the audience join us for the ride." Adds Taylor: "Ochiai has a really good eye for what's authentically scary - and that translates to all audiences."
The sets and surroundings added interesting touches to the filmmaking, sometimes in unexpected ways. "There was some construction going on outside the stages," recalls Taylor of one memorable incident. "We noticed that whenever a crane would move, some eerie music from 'The Omen' would play. That's gotta mean something!"
Some traditional Japanese on-set customs also made an impact on the American cast members. David Denman recalls that "when Ochiai called, 'Action,' every member of the crew dropped to the ground, hoping to stay out of our eye line. It's a very generous gesture, but I never really got used to it. I'm used to having a big crew standing around looking at me!"
Some interiors were filmed at the famed studios of the Toho Company Ltd., home to many of the films of Akira Kurosawa - and to "Godzilla" and "Mothra." When the studio opened its doors in 1932, its floors were made of dirt, and each Toho-based production would begin with a ritual where a priest or monk would pour water on the floor to ward off spirits. The stages have long since been renovated, but the ritual continues to be performed. "It was really lovely to witness these little blessings for SHUTTER," says Taylor.
After principal photography wrapped in Tokyo, post-production work commenced in Los Angeles. Editors Michael N. Knue, A.C.E and Tim Alverson worked closely with Ochiai and producer Taka Ichise to create a final cut that maximized the tension and scares. "We spent a lot of time on getting the pacing right," says Knue, a veteran of numerous genre films, including Hideo Nakata's "The Ring 2," produced by Ichise. "SHUTTER moves along at a terrific clip without turning into a conventionally-paced action film. We keep the pacing fast enough so that when it does slow down, you really feel that something is going to happen."
Knue credits sound designer Chuck Michael with helping to solve an editorial challenge involving a key sequence in which a principal character is tormented by a ghost; the character is shrouded in darkness, illuminated only by sudden and explosive camera flashes. First, Knue studied the comparable sequence in the original Thai film. "I realized that the scene was scary [in the Thai 'Shutter'] not because of what you see, but because of what you hear," Knue explains. "I decided that our scene was too quiet, and Chuck came in and designed the sound in such a way that it starts off with a shock, then dips a little, then becomes like an aggressive monster coming after [the character]."
These kind of visceral and psychological shocks are the film's hallmarks. But Ochiai insists that SHUTTER also conveys important Eastern-based ideas about the impossibility of redemption and the nature of evil. "I'm reminded of an old saying from China, which says 'Heaven's net is very rough, but it still catches evil.'"
Put another way: "The law or social system might forgive, but there are entities out there that will not."
MASAYUKI OCHIAI previously helmed the noted genre films "Infection" and "Hypnosis." SHUTTER marks his helming debut on an American production with an English-speaking cast.
LUKE DAWSON wrote an as-yet-unproduced adaptation of the popular Japanese manga "Lone Wolf and Cub." SHUTTER is his first produced screenplay.
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