Director Of The Ghostland: A Conversation With Visionary Filmmaker Sion Sono
The trailer for his latest film, PRISONERS OF THE GHOSTLAND, doesn’t use the tag of “A Sion Sono Film” or even a simple “directed by” note to introduce the acclaimed filmmaker to American audiences. It instead goes for the attention-grabbing phrase “[from] the warped mind of Sion Sono.” Marketing and cheeky hyperbole aside, no one working in film today has as unique of a voice as the fifty-nine-year-old Japanese auteur.
First drawing attention on the international scene with 2001’s SUICIDE CLUB which was released just as “J-Horror” was exploding in popularity worldwide, the bleak and wildly gory film was widely praised for its transgressive approach. That transgressive quality was a harbinger of what Sono would bring to everything he has done in its wake. His films actively work to defy classification- the heartwarming rumination on affection and religion (that also happens to feature Kung Fu perverts, cult abductions, and is a whopping four hours long) LOVE EXPOSURE, the frantic documentary meets action/comedy WHY DON’T YOU PLAY IN HELL?, the meditative black and white sci-fi tale THE WHISPERING STAR, his live-action adaptation of the popular manga (as hip hop musical) TOKYO TRIBE, the brutal but darkly humorous “based on true events” COLD FISH, or his fantastical “Christmas meets Kaiju” children’s film LOVE AND PEACE. Those are just a (very) brief listing of some of Sono’s films but his intent is clear: whatever he does in his prolific career, it won’t be exactly what the audience expects it to be.
This idea is carried through to his American debut as well. PRISONERS OF THE GHOSTLAND, which features Nicolas Cage (LEAVING LAS VEGAS) as a nameless antihero in a post-apocalyptic landscape who has been tasked with finding and rescuing the missing daughter, Sofia Boutella (KINGSMAN: THE SECRET SERVICE), of a local warlord, Bill Moseley (THE DEVIL’S REJECTS). That description feels like a standard action movie setup but all of the details make the experience much stranger than it seems at a glance. Black leather suits covered in bombs, cowboys intermingled with samurai, radioactive ghouls, neon EDM-loving scavengers, and cultists who sing musical numbers all await any viewer willing to take a chance on what Cage himself has called “the wildest movie [he’s] ever made.”
I had the honor recently of being able to have a one-on-one conversation with Sion Sono as part of the promotion for PRISONERS OF THE GHOSTLAND. We talked about his influences, the effect his work as a painter has on his films, his friendship with Nicolas Cage, and a lot more!
***Please note: This interview was conducted with the aid of an interpreter. Some editing was done to the transcript to allow the intent of Sion Sono’s statements to come through more clearly.
Your films blend so many different elements and evoke a wide range of emotional responses. How do you approach that desired result creatively?
To use PRISONERS OF THE GHOSTLAND as an example, what I was trying to do is to have extreme ends of both cultures, “Americana” on one side and Japan and the East on the other side to try to create something all mashed up together. It’s like an experiment for me. I did not quite know what’s going to happen afterwards. But I wanted to pull that idea off, pull off all those ideas of a mashup between extreme “western/East.”
You once stated years ago that you didn’t have any desire to make films that were popular in your home country of Japan. As you have gained more success and worldwide acclaim, do you still have that rebellious feeling from when you were younger?
I grew up watching a lot of American and European movies. So, whenever I made movies in the past, I never really tried to make it for Japan or for the Japanese audience at all. I always wanted to make “American-style” or the movies that I was influenced by. I still feel that way if that makes sense.
Your films have such a strong visual style. I know that you’re a painter. How do you go about finding the look for your films? How does your art help with that on a project like PRISONERS OF THE GHOSTLAND, for example?
I did all the storyboards [on it], myself. I sketched out all of the visuals. Those sketches actually became the production design, the costumes, and actual art pieces in the film. All of that came from my paintings and art.
What were your main influences for the look of the film?
I can’t really think of anything. What I was trying to do this time was create something people had never seen. Maybe, I subconsciously thought about all those American movies I watched when I was young. Even then, I still wanted to make something on top of that. Something that people have never seen.
[Pauses]…. I don’t know, maybe John Carpenter’s ESCAPE FROM NEW YORK? I can say, and I told Nic [Cage] about this too, but the film director nowadays that I respect the most is Paul Verhoeven.
Love Verhoeven, he is a wonderful director.
Yeah, yeah. Yes.
On that same topic, I have read that years ago when you were a film student studying abroad in America- you didn’t go to class much but instead chose to stay home and watch “B-movies.” What were some of the lessons you learned from those films?
It’s true. I lived in San Francisco then, and I had made a great friend in this guy who owned a video store. There were so many, not even B-movies, but Z-movies! Z-movies that didn’t even make any sense. I watched all those movies, things with like a half fishman versus a stewardess… or cheerleaders versus zombies and stuff like that. Those movies, as bad as they were, somehow made me super excited and happy. I still get so excited about those movies. Now, I feel like that’s where a lot of my creative energy is coming from.
If you could pair someone else’s film that you enjoy with “Prisoners of the Ghostland” for a double feature, what would you choose?
[Long pause] Babe.
Tremendous choice. Thoughts on working again with actor/stuntman Tak Sakaguchi?
I have worked with Tak Sakaguchi a lot over the past decade. I really trust his work and the vibes we have between each other. So, when we decided to shoot the film in Japan and make a “samurai action” type film, I knew then that Sakaguchi would be the action director. I also wanted Tak to be in it as an actor as well. I wanted to make the introduction of Tak Sakaguchi to the world and international audiences, especially in the States. Tak is such a great action star and I wanted the world to take notice of him.
And, of course, I have to ask for your thoughts on working with Nicolas Cage.
Before I met with him, I had this image of Nicolas Cage as a big Hollywood star, right? But when I met him in person, Nic was very humble. Very Smart and gentle. Very calm. He said he watched a lot of my movies and loved them. So, I of course immediately thought he was great and wanted to work with him. When we talked about the script for “Prisoners of the Ghostland”, I told him I was thinking a lot about spaghetti westerns and the imagery of Sergio Leone. Nic told me that when he read the script the lead character, “Hero”, reminded him of Charles Bronson’s character, “Harmonica”, from “Once Upon a Time in the West.” So, we understood each other and got along very well immediately.
As we wrap up, what do you hope your legacy will be as a filmmaker?
I love the films and directors of the Hollywood “Golden Age.” They shot a lot of films in a short amount of time. They made a lot of films, right? I like that idea and I think my style is rather that way than something like one film every five years. Because sometimes those filmmakers in the past, they made a lot of films without a big, strong, strong vision to start with. But somehow, out of those movies that they shot, some of them became super classic Hollywood movies. So, I just want to keep making a lot of movies as often as I can rather than to try and focus on one film every five or ten years.
So “quantity over quality.”
[Laughs] Yeah. I think that’s right.
RLJE Films will release PRISONERS OF THE GHOSTLAND on September 17, 2021 in theaters and on VOD and Digital.
Currently residing in Nashville, TN, he also co-hosts the film podcast "Video Culture" (available on all podcast platforms). He can be reached at "WheelsCritic@gmail.com" and on Twitter: @WheelsCritic
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