INTERVIEW: BRINGING GODZILLA DOWN TO SIZE- PART 2
Director Norman England Talks About the New Japanese FX Documentary
Author: John “Dutch” DeSentis
Special Thanks to Keith Aiken and Ed Godziszewski
Last month, Classic Media released the documentary BRINGING GODZILLA DOWN TO SIZE: The Art of Japanese Special Effects as part of their RODAN and WAR OF THE GARGANTUAS Toho Master Collection DVD set. Part two of SciFi Japan’s conversations with the brains behind the new film brings us to director Norman England.
Fans will undoubtedly know Norman’s name as he has over a decade of Godzilla and Japanese cinema journalism under his belt for publications such as Fangoria, Hobby Japan, Japanzine, Starlog, Flix, Japanese Giants, and The Japan Times. He has also played bit parts in the J-horror film STACY (2001), Masaaki Tezuka’s GODZILLA: TOKYO SOS (2003), the WWII sci-fi tale LORELEI: THE WITCH OF THE PACIFIC OCEAN (2005), the hit DEATH NOTE (2006), and the TV series ULTRASEVEN X (2007).
He has visited over 35 film sets in Japan, including THE GRUDGE, GAMERA 3, and the entire Godzilla Millennium series (with an extended stay for GMK). Norman has been on-set with legendary NIGHT OF THE LIVING DEAD director George Romero and become well acquainted with some of Japan’s most successful filmmakers: a partial list includes Shusuke Kaneko (GMK, DEATH NOTE), Hideo Nakata (RING), Kiyoshi Kurosawa (KAIRO, CURE), Takashi Miike (AUDITION, THE GREAT YOKAI WAR, SUKIYAKI WESTERN DJANGO), Takashi Yamazaki (RETURNER, ALWAYS- SUNSET ON THIRD STREET), Takashi Shimizu (the JU-ON/THE GRUDGE series), Shinji Higuchi (GAMERA 3, SINKING OF JAPAN), Tomoo Haraguchi (the recent Gamera films, SAKUYA), Norio Tsuruta (RING 0: BIRTHDAY, MASTERS OF HORROR: DREAM CRUISE), and Masayuki Ochiai (PARASITE EVE, SHUTTER). “I didn’t study filmmaking at school, although I made a ton of Super-8 films as a boy,” Norman said. “Rather, I feel I learned it by being on the sets of directors, watching how they work, and asking questions.”
In 2006, Norman wrote and directed his first feature (in Japanese), THE iDol, a science fiction comedy in which he got to flex some socially satirical muscle towards the Japanese collecting culture while infusing it with genre elements that fans enjoy. The movie has received excellent reviews and has played in film festivals including Montreal’s Fant-Asia and Japan’s Yubari Fantastic Film Festival. He directed BRINGING GODZILLA DOWN TO SIZE in 2007, and is currently working on a short film as well the script for an upcoming project.
Q: You have been doing quite a bit of directing lately. Did you ever think you’d be doing documentary style work much less one about Godzilla?
NORMAN ENGLAND: Although I enjoy watching documentaries, I was never interested in making one. When Ed Godziszewski and Steve Ryfle, the film’s writers and producers, approached me I was a bit hesitant since I’m strictly interested in narrative. I was also not convinced that another documentary on Godzilla was needed. But they told me their angle, which was to focus on the unsung heroes who created the miniature worlds surrounding the giant monsters.
The more I thought about it, the more I could see that this was a neglected story in need of telling. We had a couple of brainstorming sessions, met with Mr. Inoue, the assistant art director of the original Godzilla, and a few other people who would eventually appear in the film, and when I saw what we had I was pleased enough to take on the project.
Another reason, too, for doing the film was because Ed and Steve were involved. I’ve known both for years and know that their love, passion and knowledge of this genre are second to none. I felt that they were on to something cool but I was worried about their ability to pull it off. Doing commentaries like what they had done for Classic Media beforehand is one thing, but making a standalone film is different. I signed up partly to make sure that their vision would make it to the screen at a level equal to their knowledge and passion of the subject matter.
Q: How did this whole thing happen on your end? What steps did you take to get all the staff and actors together for interviews?
NE: After Classic Media gave the film the OK to proceed, I began to put the production together in Japan. This wasn’t much trouble as I’ve been here more than ten years and know a lot of filmmakers. Some of the people on the staff were people I worked with on my first film, THE iDol, such as cameraman Hiroo Takaoka. He’s a fantastic cinematographer with a terrific sense of composition. The production also benefited from our production manager Joko Mizukami. Not only is she a professional filmmaker in her own right, she is extremely proficient in English. She also doubled as our on-set interviewer.
Deciding on which guests to include in the film was tough. We started off with a long list of names. But it was too many. We had to whittle it down as I was aiming for a running time of around 70 minutes. Sure, we could have interviewed a bunch of people and given them each a 1/2 minute of screen time, but to spend a 1/2 day interviewing someone and then editing them down to nothing would have been disrespectful to the guest not to mention an incredible load of work on our side. Plus we didn’t want to overwhelm viewers with a passing interest in the genre by showing an endless parade of faces. One of the points of the film is to educate the uneducated, not sing to the choir. So, we had to look hard and long at our list and see who was the best voice for what we were looking to express in the film. All things considered I think we make very good choices.
As for our guests, they came through contacts between Ed, Steve, Brad Warner and I. Brad was instrumental in getting Akira Tsuburaya into the film as well as permission for us to shoot at Tsuburaya Studios. With the exception of Akira Takarada and Yoshio Tsuchiya, I knew everyone appearing in the film.
Q: How did your experience as a journalist on Godzilla movie sets prepare you for this project?
NE: I remember the first time I went to the Godzilla set. It was like walking onto a factory floor. It was overwhelming. It was so noisy with so many people, so many work stations, and so much equipment. I could only stand there with my mouth hanging open in awe. That was back in 1999. Since that day I’ve spent more time on the Godzilla set than I care to admit. Through hard, on-set time I came to know first hand how Godzilla films are made and how the various crews interact. I learned to speak their language. Not Japanese, which I already spoke, but the language of film Japanese style.
When it came time to shoot BRINGING GODZILLA DOWN TO SIZE this experience turned out to be indispensable. Almost all the people appearing in the film knew my background and many knew me from the sets themselves. They knew that when they spoke they were speaking to someone who understood their struggles first hand. Sure, I could have been an outsider with an appreciation for their work and still made the film, buttering them up with words such as, “Wow! I love your work!” But the kind of comments you get from people when you have them in that frame of mind is different from when you have a real point of connection.
Let me put it this way, say you’re making a film about cars and you go to a car factory. You meet the floor manager and say, “I love cars! I’ve been driving in them since the day I was born.” It would be a very different reaction if you were to say, “I’ve been working on a motor assembly line for the past ten years.” They would feel that they were talking to someone who understood their position and could fathom what they had to say. So, in this way, my years of set reporting and hanging out on sets were a benefit to the film.
Q: Was it difficult to deal with Toho?
NE: Dealing with any studio is difficult. But it’s something that can’t be avoided. Whether it’s selling life insurance or films, offices are in business to make money. They have their rules and you have to respect them. Honestly, you don’t have a choice. If you demand things, you’re going to find yourself out on the street. So, you find a way to work with them in order to meet your own goals. In a few instances I had to let go of things I wanted, but in others Toho came through.
Q: About how long did you and the crew work on this project? What were some of the high points and low points during your shoot?
NE: The shoot itself was pretty short. It was a week total. We were able to do this through intense planning. But that’s normal. The key to successful filmmaking is in the planning. Again, our production manager Joko was really on the ball. She made my job so much easier.
It’s hard to say what the high points were because everyday was special. We were all over Tokyo from morning to night and just having a blast. It was fun going to the Toho offices to shoot Shogo Tomiyama because I know many of the staff there and they had no idea that I was making films. It was also fun when we were shooting Ryuji Honda and Akira Tsuburaya at work together. The two of them look so much like their famous dads that it was as if we had slipped back in time. That was an impromptu scene and those are the kind of things that add magic to films.
The low points? Seeing it all come to an end!
Q: You secured the services of Kow Otani to write some cool original music. Was that his idea? Was that planned upon early in the process?
NE: I’ve known Kow since 2001 when I moved to Tokyo to be a part of the GMK production. Ironically, I moved here and soon bumped into him one Sunday morning at my local Starbucks. It turned out he lives in my neighborhood. Since then we’ve became friends. We hang out together, go drinking together and I go to his shows, which are always great. Professionally, I first worked with Kow on my film THE iDol and we found that we mesh well together. So, as soon as this job came up I approached him. He was thrilled to do it. It really worked out well for the film too. I mean, I think it’s kind of cool getting a man who’s written music for Godzilla to do music for your Godzilla documentary.
He scored the film surprisingly fast, recording it at home and letting one of his assistants mix it. I gave him a lot of freedom since he’s got a tremendous amount of experience writing for film. But I did make one request, and that was to have a few tracks that capture the feeling of original Godzilla composer Akira Ifukube. Those tracks turned out to be the most wonderful as they are the perfect balance between the two composers, Ifukube and Otani, who I think are the tops in the giant monster sound track genre.
On a side note, about 6 months after we’d finished the film I was having dinner with Kow and director Shusuke Kaneko. Kow said to Kaneko, “If anyone but Norman had asked me to write in the style of Ifukube I would have refused.” I was flattered.
Q: You are the only director who has ever filmed all three of the most prominent Godzilla suit actors in one movie. What was that experience like and how did you direct their “Godzilla walk” demo scenes?
NE: Because the production was tight we did the shooting of the section relating to suit making in one day. Everyone met at Shinichi Wakasa’s Monster’s Inc workshop. I thought this would be best as Shinichi is friends with the Godzilla actors and that it would create a relaxed atmosphere for them. Wakasa also had all these cool prop heads of Godzilla and we used them to build a nice set around each actor. That was really fun and the actors liked it too.
After the interviews I took them outside to shoot them strutting up to Monsters Inc for their section’s opening. The weather was a nice and there was a spark in the air. I set them down the street under a picturesque row of trees and shot them with a long lens that gave a nice shallow depth of field, which I felt would emphasize the bond they share as Godzilla actors. I was really happy on playback because it came out just as I’d hoped. When the Godzilla guys saw this they got really happy. So, combined with the successful interview sessions and this scene I’d pretty much earned their trust. Standing around outdoors I started to talk about the time I wore the GMK Godzilla suit and how tough it was to articulate my movements. I pulled my legs apart to show what an awkward position you had to be in just to stand upright. That was it. After seeing me do this they WANTED to demonstrate their acting style. So, while none of this was scripted, it was what I’d secretly hoped to shoot. I didn’t even tell Ed or Steve as I wasn’t sure I could pull it off.
When we were shooting this everyone on the set was thrilled. Wakasa kept laughing with that famous bellow of his. In fact, Yuji Nishimura, the owner of figure company M-1, came down with his wife Michi from his home hours out from Tokyo just to watch the shooting. After we were done he sat shaking his head in disbelief and said, “That was the most amazing thing I’ve ever seen!”
Q: How did it come about to film the cloud tank demo and how did you approach directing it? Was it intimidating to direct someone like Inoue, with all his years of experience at Eiji Tsuburaya’s side?
NE: In a situation like this you can’t come to it thinking that you are now in Tsuburaya’s shoes. That’s impossible and if you think that way you’ll only fail. I have to be myself 100% with my own vision of how things should go. If I maintain a sense of self then people such as Inoue will respect me and my vision. Above all else, film staffers want originality from a director.
The cloud demo was another case where I was insistent on having visually stimulating things to offset the film’s talking heads. Of course I had no idea what Mr. Inoue and his staff could provide, but when he offered to do a water tank demo I was over it like a bear over honey. I mean, who would have thought that the guy has a water tank in his workshop? How cool is that?
We spent two days at Mr. Inoue’s place. The first day was shooting the interviews; the next was shooting the water tank. For the water tank day I set my crew up in a side room and limited access to the water tank floor as much as possible. I didn’t want my guys getting in their way or getting caught on film. Most of the time I had to stay hidden behind my cameraman’s back.
As for directing it, I just wanted Mr. Inoue and his staff to feel like they were doing a scene for an actual movie. As I’ve been on sets like this, mostly with Toshio Miike, the current art director on Godzilla and who is also in our documentary, I was familiar with water tank scenes and know what a pain they can be. So, knowing the steps it takes I didn’t have to bug them with clueless, ‘what-are-you-doing-now?’ questions. It worked out because I think that by allowing the filmmakers to fall into their work without making my staff’s presence felt they we were able to get close to the actual feeling on the set when there are no strangers or outsiders around.
Q: During interviews, were any of the answers scripted? Were there certain things you wanted to address that was made clear to some of the actors and staff or were the answers straight from them?
NE: Of course questions were decided upon before hand, and our guests were briefed on them prior to shooting so they’d be prepared with their answers. Here was a spot where Ed and Steve’s knowledge of Godzilla history paid off. They are familiar with nearly every story revolving around Godzilla and knew before hand the kind of stories that would be available to us. In this way we had a good idea of the things we would be getting. Not the words, but the stories. In some cases we’d just ask them to tell us a story we knew from past interviews, and in other cases from times when they had told us stories when hanging out at some previous point unconnected to the film.
Q: What do you hope fans will take away from watching this documentary? Is there any kind of a message you would like to give to those who will no doubt enjoy this film?
NE: Mostly, I just want people to enjoy the time they spend watching the film. Japanese FX movies are entertainment and the documentary is a film attempting to shed light on an aspect behind the creative process employed to make these films entertaining. So, logically, the documentary should be entertaining as well.
Beyond that, via the water tank scene, I hoped to recreate the feeling of being on a Japanese FX set when it’s a scene made exclusively by the art directors.
Being there when the Toho staff is shooting is an experience that’s hard to describe because so much is happening at once. It’s like a highly emotional whirlwind that has an inexplicable order to it. Recent Toho Godzilla DVDs have extra features that were shot on the FX set. They are without narration and are for all intents and purposes raw footage of FX scenes as they were being shot. I can’t begin to tell you how much I disagree with this kind of presentation. I was on the set when those were shot and can tell you that it hardly mimics the feeling. It’s like watching a friend’s video of a trip to the Grand Canyon. It only produces a fly on the wall reaction in the viewer, not the feeling that you are there. Plus, it’s presented in a way that only the most hardcore fan can enjoy.
Being on a Japanese FX set is something I’ve always wanted to express and this film is my first attempt at doing so. I’m not sure if I’ll have the chance again, but if I do I promise to take it even further.
For more information on BRINGING GODZILLA DOWN TO SIZE and Classic Media’s RODAN/WAR OF THE GARGANTUAS DVD set please see the earlier coverage here on SciFi Japan:
- New Godzilla Documentary, MOTHRA, and WAR OF THE GARGANTUAS Theatrical Screening!
- BRINGING GODZILLA DOWN TO SIZE: The Art of Japanese Special Effects Part 1: SYNOPSIS
- BRINGING GODZILLA DOWN TO SIZE: The Art of Japanese Special Effects Part 2: PRODUCTION NOTES and PERSONNEL FILE
- RODAN and WAR OF THE GARGANTUAS Cover Art and DVD News
- Sneak Peek: Classic Media’s RODAN and WAR OF THE GARGANTUAS DVD Set
- INTERVIEW: BRINGING GODZILLA DOWN TO SIZE- PART 1 (Writer/Producers Steve Ryfle and Ed Godziszewski)