Interview: Peter Webber (2013) Emperor

Director Peter Webber on the set of 'Emperor'.(Courtesy of Kristy Griffin)
Director Peter Webber on the set of ‘Emperor’.
(Courtesy of Kristy Griffin)

Chances are you’re not that familiar with Peter Webber. In fact, unless you consider yourself a real cinephile or Hollywood insider, you probably can’t name a movie he’s directed. However, with the release of his new film Emperor, he’s bound to be getting some high praise and much deserved press.  Working Author recently got the chance to sit down with the very honest and open director, and found out just what he’s been up to since his last movie, and what went into putting Emperor together.

Emperor is a Historic tale with a lot at stake, including what could have resulted in the revolt or destruction of the entire nation of Japan. When asked what drew him to the script Webber responds, “I’ve always been obsessed with Japan as a country and a culture. After reading the script I felt it had some important lessons for us to consider even in today’s world. Looking at the way General MacArthur and Fellers dealt with the situation, and the way they handled the investigation at the time was brilliant. It’s definitely a story I wanted the chance to tell.”

The film has an international cast which includes Tommy Lee Jones, Matthew Fox, and well established Japanese actor Toshiyuki Nishida. While discussing the filming schedule and different locations, Webber recalls that for the most part things ran smoothly. “Every production has its ups and downs, but for the most part I really can’t complain. I credit a lot of that to the amazing cast and crew. I believe we were fortunate in that most everybody left their ego at home and came to work. Once an actor knows how their character fits into the story, it makes my job a lot easier. What’s interesting about the majority of the Japanese actors we worked with was their attention to detail and discipline. During filming I even found out that one of my Japanese general’s had been a Kabuki actor, which meant sometimes he played a female lead in full makeup and costume. You really have to respect a man who can pull that off.”

While watching Emperor you can’t help but notice how beautifully it was photographed and how much production design went into the film. To help him tell this story, Webber had a top-notch team around him including designer Grant Major, who won an Oscar for his work on The Lord of The Rings: The Two Towers. “Grant is great at taking ideas and making them flesh. We were able to find an area where there was a burned down meat packing plant that we ended up using for a majority of the post bombing rubble shots. I also remember looking through a lot of Japanese photography from the 1940’s, the landscape of Tokyo had been demolished, and very few building were left standing. In some ways it was sort of awe inspiring and powerful. From that, we were able to take away a surprising range of palettes and colors that we pulled from to suit our needs. In some ways it reminded of the 1949 film The Third Man, very noir with black and white and grey shadows.”

As our interview winds down, we come to the question of the importance of history versus storytelling. Webber pauses for a brief moment before answering.

“When making a movie you have to turn history into visual details. I believe we tried to stay as close to the historical details as possible. The research and production teams were able to bring actual journals and private writings of both soldiers and civilians, and those were very helpful in giving the story some rich details. Adding the love interest for General Feller’s character really helped to ease the tension of the film, and it gave Bonner Fellers (Matthew Fox) a well developed character. I think the changes made helped to give us a more in-depth story. There are some nips and tucks here and there, but overall we tried to keep the faith as much as possible.”

Emperor starring Tommy Lee Jones and Matthew Fox is now playing in theaters nationwide.