Shutter : Masayuki Ochiai Interview

Menacing and ghostly, SHUTTER is a clever and stylish psychological thriller that revolves around an attractive, young American couple starting out married life. They are traveling from New York to Tokyo, where Ben (Joshua Jackson), an up and coming photographer, has a prestigious fashion assignment. His wife, Jane goes along too. But the honeymoon she was anticipating never happens and the Japanese adventure is anything but romantic: the couple is involved in a car crash as soon as they arrive. It appears that they have killed a Japanese woman, but when they look for her, she has apparently vanished. The strange woman proceeds to haunt the couple appearing in all their photographs and it becomes clear that there is nothing random about the ghostly incidents that follow.

Masayuki Ochiai has directed a film that is compelling to watch. The story is strong and frightening, the characters are set firmly in reality and the paranormal core of the film is fascinating, examining the controversial phenomenon of spirit photography. Tension builds throughout the film, which unfolds, layer by layer, with unexpected and grimly chilling results. Ochiai uses color and light to great effect and by setting his story in Tokyo he exacerbates the unease and disorientation the leading characters feel, finding their way in a foreign city as frightening events take over their lives.

SHUTTER is based on the 2004 Thai film of the same name, which was directed by Banjong Pisanthanakun and Parkpoom Wongpoom.

Masayuki Ochiai previously directed INFECTION and HYPNOSIS. SHUTTER marks his directing debut on an American film.

The director sat down for the following interview in Los Angeles.

Q: What is this film about from your perspective?
“It is about the idea that if people do something wrong or bad, they cannot escape from their action or get away with it. It tells the story of Ben and Jane, a young newly married couple who are in Tokyo. Jane is young and pure and innocent with a lot of hope for the future. Ben, who is a very talented photographer, has an assignment in Tokyo so they view the trip as a kind of honeymoon. Jane expects Japan to be a romantic experience. It does not turn out that way though. It turns out to be a horror story. The story goes on from there.”

Q: You set the film in Japan rather than in America. What inspired that decision?
“We wanted Americans coming to Japan because that creates an element of mystery right from the start, as the country is strange to them. They are in a kind of ‘twilight zone’. The story is told through the eyes of Jane. Because they are foreigners, that adds to the tension and sense of isolation and gives the film another dimension. It is a deep, multi-layered horror story with many perplexing questions. The couple finds their photos have ghostly auras or images. But why are these images appearing? Who is haunting them and what does she want? It also worked having the film in Japan because in the Asian culture, people who are haunted have always done something bad or wrong. That is why they are followed by an evil spirit (and that is part of the story in this movie). But in America and the West, there is a different depiction of ghosts and spirits. “

Q: How much were you inspired by the original Thai film?
“The original Thai movie was really well made with a very interesting structure, I loved it. It is not just about ghosts. The story has a plot with great twists and suspense. And that is what attracted me to the film in the first place. The difference with this one is that the original was made for the Asian market. This version aims to appeal to the international market and I had to keep that in mind. It could not have just an Asian sensitivity but had to appeal to a broader audience. So there are some subtle differences.”

Q: Can you talk about spirit photography, the phenomenon at the center of this story?
“We see a lot of spirit photographs in Japan. They are everywhere. People are very interested in the subject. They learn about it as children and usually children are afraid of the spirits. By adulthood, people have often overcome that fear but are still fascinated and really believe that this is a genuine, inexplicable, supernatural phenomenon. Most people believe that we see the world as the brain processes it, that we see everything through images our eyes can actually see but that is very limited because we don’t know everything about the functions of the brain. In Asia, we are interested in what we cannot see with our eyes but could still exist, such as ghosts. In the film we use spirit photography so that the audience can ask, “is this just in Ben’s mind or is there really a ghost haunting him?”

Q: Can you talk about the stars, Rachael Taylor and Joshua Jackson?
“Both stars were perfectly cast in the their roles. Rachael’s pureness and freshness was perfect for Jane, who starts out with an innocence, which works well in this world, which deals with the paranormal. Rachael was very naturalistic and her characterization was wonderful. During the course of the film, her character grows up and learns a lot. Joshua was great too. He has a lot of depth, which he used to portray this man who has a deep secret, actually layers and layers of secrets. Joshua was very skilled at starting out the film one way and then revealing more and more about his dark side – who he really is. The characters are newly married and even when things start to go very wrong, they try to keep the air of romance. They try to be positive and both actors conveyed that effectively. One of the important things that I wanted them both to do was to keep a positive thread throughout the film, even though dark things are happening that are very frightening, we did not want to make it too negative.”

Q: How challenging was it communicating with the actors when you do not speak English and they can’t speak Japanese?
“ Before I started shooting, I was having nightmares and was in a ‘twilight zone’ myself worrying about working with English-speaking actors and dealing with English dialogue. (he laughs) But once we started shooting, the communication was actually good between us and we had a very capable interpreter. To be honest, there were many times when I suddenly realized I was making a movie in English and I would think to myself: ‘Oh God, what am I doing here?’ But we found a way to connect with each other. Also, I did speak a little English, I actually had an English teacher while I was shooting the film and I am continuing to learn the language. I am very excited and inspired about working in different environments, not just American movies but other non-Japanese films.”

Q: What is the fascination for you with horror and this type of psychological thriller? Do you want to do different kinds of films?
“I love horror films and there is a big demand for this genre I think because people are so stressed in their normal lives and they can relieve this stress with another form of stress by watching these films. (he laughs) It is the same idea as going on a rollercoaster ride. So I will keep on doing these movies but I would like to do other films too. I have directed dramas for Japanese TV. And I would like to romantic comedies sometime.”

Q: Why do we like to be scared out of our wits, other than as a way of dealing with stress?
“I think humans do gravitate towards fear, particularly other peoples’ fear. They don’t want bad things to happen to them. I read an interesting book recently, explaining how a monkey stood on two feet for a long time (that is not usual for monkeys) but this monkey was watching a weak animal being attacked and the monkey was so riveted that it stayed upright to watch the drama. So I think the same applies to humans. We just find that kind of thing strangely fascinating. In horror films, you watch terrible things escalating as the story progresses and you find that audiences want more and more because it is not happening to them. If you think about it, people do not want to fight in wars or survive earthquakes but they want to know what the experience would feel like. They want to imagine it and they get all that from movies. It is human nature.”

Q: Why are horror films so popular in Japan?
“In Japan, people believe that everything, even a tiny little bug has a spirit or a soul. We tell children: ‘if you do something horrible to a dog, that dog will come back to haunt you.’ It is a kind of discipline. So the idea of spirits is used to raise children. Ghosts and spirits are embedded in Japanese culture.”

Q: Why are you and other Japanese directors so good at doing horror films and this kind of thriller?
“Well interestingly, it is ironic that I have been most influenced by a film that is not Asian. It was THE EXORCIST. I loved that film. I don’t think Asian directors are necessarily better at making these films at all but the way they see ghosts and spirits is just different from Western perceptions. American ghosts wreak havoc and destruction. They might destroy houses – but Asian ghosts are very quiet. Just by their very presence, just by being there, Japanese ghosts are scary. They often don’t have legs, they are floating in the air and people find them frightening. Perhaps that sensitivity is appealing to audiences who are used to the traditional Western ghosts who cause chaos.”

Q: Can you say anything about your style of directing?
“Beauty, the distinctly visual aspect of the film, is very important for me. When I started directing films more than ten years ago, there were not many Japanese directors paying the kind of attention that I like towards fine visual details such as using elements as color. Color is extremely important to me, natural color and lighting. In one of my films, INFECTION, set in a hospital, everyone was wearing white coats so I used grayish white, yellowish white and bluish white. These were subtle differences and variations on the pure white. I think those things have a huge impact on the atmosphere and quality of a film. I am very detail minded.”

Q: What are your beliefs in terms of the supernatural?
“I am in between, I want to believe in ghosts. Ghosts might be just in our mind but could be real. I definitely want to become a ghost after I die!”