Director Takashi Shimizu is a man with a mission. Or at least that's the impression you might get if you've been following his career as the helmsman for The Grudge, a horror series that has gone from being a Japanese cult sensation to a bonafide box office blockbuster in America.
While visiting the Tokyo set of The Grudge 2, we had a chance to talk with the director, accompanied and translated by Chiho Asada, who also acts as Shimizu's intermediary with the English-speaking actors while working on the set. "Lost in Translation" indeed.
CS: So you're making a sequel to a remake of a movie that you already made a sequel to. Are you going to do something completely different or try to keep parts of the original sequel? Takashi Shimizu: "The Grudge" was a complete remake of "Ju-On", meaning the storyline was very similar, basically the same, but "Grudge 2" is actually different from "Ju-On 2." I don't think I would have accepted this job, if it was going to be the same storyline. Since it is a different story, my motivation was a lot higher, and I actually enjoyed doing this.
CS: Do you think that you'll cater this more towards American audiences, since you're making it more for them than the Japanese audience who didn't like the remake as much? Shimizu: "The Grudge," the remake was done in just two years from the original, so I don't think there was enough time for [Japanese] people to want to see the remake again. Also, it was exactly the same storyline from the original. If we do the promotion right for "The Grudge 2," meaning it's going to be a completely different story from "Ju-On 2," I think that's going to attract an audience in Japan.
CS: Since American sequels tend to be bigger with more monsters and gore, how are you going to make this a fulfilling experience for the audience? Shimizu: I was really never into any of those "gores," because I really like to watch it, but at the same time, if it's a "gore", I think it can be done by any director or any actors, and it can be done exactly the same. For "The Grudge 2," I was going for this mystery that was never there in "Grudge 1," and I think that's going to fulfill the audience. One mystery is a secret about Kayako's childhood life, so that's part of the big mystery, and the other part of the mystery is this Grudge will never stop, and it's going to spread this time. How is it going to get spread? That's another mystery. And one more thing, the third, the other mystery is what has happened to Karen, who was the main lead actress in "Grudge 1." So that's another mystery you will find out. That something about Kayako's childhood secret is actually something I came up with when I was writing "Ju-On," the original, but I ended up not using it for the ending of "Ju-On," because I just didn't know if that would be accepted in Japan. Since this is for worldwide and Americans, I thought that maybe this idea of Kayako's childhood secret can be accepted, so in that sense, that's something I'm doing special for the worldwide [audience].
CS: Do you find it difficult to bring freshness to a film franchise that you've already done six times before? Shimizu: Yes, it's very difficult to keep it fresh. Since I've been doing this so many times, I feel like I'm just repeating things over and over. There isn't really much to do there, meaning they're so limited and those scary depictions are always similar now. It's just really hard coming up with new ideas, and if I don't find it fresh, audiences aren't going to find it fresh either, so it is difficult.
CS: How do you overcome that and come up with new ideas? Shimizu: Well, there isn't really any method to come up with ideas. I spent all this time coming up with ideas, but time is really nothing and it doesn't really help me. Sometimes, I just come up with one when I'm walking. It just comes to me all of a sudden. I also listened to those scary stories that happened to my friends or people I know. I haven't seen a ghost, but all these scary, mystery things that happened to me, maybe I can get ideas from that experience. To be honest, I've done six of them, and most of those ideas are coming from my everyday life. Maybe I can tweak a little bit of something from everyday life, I can bring this into something interesting, and I keep thinking, "What about this? Maybe I can use this for something else." That's how I come up with the ideas. It's not just scary things. Because the script came in so late for this shoot, that delayed everything; the staff/crew here have a lot of difficult time because the script came in so late.
CS: What did you learn while making the first American movie that you're applying to this sequel? Shimizu: Yeah, very small things but a lot of different things, especially between the actors and I. I think I'm more careful with them, because last time, I just didn't know anything about this American actor's system [SAG]. The only system I knew was this Japanese system, and since I know what the American system is like now, I know how to make it work with them.
CS: Do you find that there were any difficulties or limitations about having a PG-13 rating, something you didn't have to deal with while making the original movies? Shimizu: The rating issue is always difficult, because it's never the same. The response they give me is always different, and every time, it is different. The last time I was doing this, I wasn't that conscious about it, but since I've done it once, I'm more conscious about it this time. Every time we have blood or something, I always consult with the producer, so we know what we're going for, and sometimes, we shoot different versions with less blood, or we even do it without the blood at all. That's how I've been doing it. It is actually very… stressful process, because sometimes in the script, it says "splash of blood" or "groteseque" but that's not what I'm really going for, but if it's in the script, I kind of have to go for it. Sometimes, I talk to the producers and they have some different opinions from mine, and there is this conflict, and also, it is a big contradiction, I think, because what it says in the script and what we're doing is very different.
CS: Why do you prefer doing the effects practically, rather than using computer graphics? Shimizu: It's not that I dislike those CGI FX, but if it's a horror film, as soon as they figure out that it's a CGI, it's not going to be scary any more. When we see those things with CGI and it's like fancy and big, it's interesting, but at the same time, as soon as they find out that it can be real, not CGI, the level of scare comes down to half. That's just not something I like as a style. If people are not going to be scared of those CGI and if we can maintain the level of the scare I want to go for, I'd rather just do it practically. One of the most important things that I'm going for in "The Grudge" is that all these scares can happen in everyday life. Anybody can experience any of these things, because they'll be very familiar to the characters' life or characters, whatever they're doing. As soon as they see all these CGI things, they think, "Oh, that can't be real", they're just going to lose that scare because that can't happen to them anymore. If it's a movie like "Lord of the Rings" or something, it's all fantasy and people really go for that, so we don't have to worry about that kind of stuff, but what I'm doing is very much of this everyday life where anything can happen to anybody type of thing.
CS: What is scarier for you, a ghostly presence or a ghost actually attacking you? Shimizu: The presence of the ghost. Those direct-attacking type of ghosts are really not matching to the Japanese ghost, culture wise. If they're attacking you directly, they're like the living dead or zombie type, it's more towards the monster, and if they're attacking you, that means we can actually touch them. If you can touch them, why don't you just run away from them? If they're not attacking, if it's just the presence. It's more about this Grudge. The presence is there because what they left behind when they're living is there. I think that's more scary, 'cause we can't touch them, we can't run away from them, because it's a presence. To be honest, we can't just have a presence. We have to have it attacking, so in that sense, "Grudge" is the fine combination of American "attacking-type" of ghost, and Japanese "presence-type" of ghost.
CS: Can you talk about the state of horror in Japan right now, because a lot of the directors, such as yourself, are making movies in Hollywood? Are there any new young horror directors worth looking out for? Shimizu: There are young new directors who are doing horror movies, because horror movies are easy to make in a way, because it can be low budget and they sell really well. But I have to be honest about those young directors, because I don't think there's anybody standing out that great yet. There isn't anybody who is that unique or that different, who's got that tone or taste of the horror that I think is that amazing yet. All I see lately is just very similar types of horror, over and over. There are always relatively the same, and sometimes, it's clearly somebody's just been asked to copy other people's work. I just don't want this horror boom to be ending 'cause that's how I'm seeing it right now.
CS: Are there any other Japanese horror directors that you like or respect? Shimizu: Well, those names that I'm going to mention, I just want to be careful, because sometimes, those directors don't want to be called as horror directors, but still… Yoshi Kurosawa, Norio Tsuruta, Hideo Nakata are the directors, and writer-wise, [I like] Hiroshi Takahashi and Kazuya Konaka.
CS: Are there any American horror movies you like? Shimizu: When I watch American horror films, what I'm going for is something we can't find in Japan, meaning we can't find things like "Ring" series or "Grudge" series in America, they don't have that kind of taste. Rather than that, I would go for something fancy or just something bigger, like when I watch American horror films like "Bride of Chucky" or "Freddy vs. Jason." I love those two. The director of those movies, Ronnie Yu, I really like his taste, because it's almost funny that I can laugh. Recently, all these horror movies they're using those old horror heroes, they're starting to go for something funny, and I really like that movement. I actually couldn't watch any horror movies when I was little, and finally, I was able to see them when I was in junior high, and around that time, those Freddy type and Jason type [movies] were there. Since that was the first type of horror films that I got into, I really still enjoy them.
CS: Why weren't you able to watch horror movies? Was that your choice or your parents? Shimizu: I always liked reading scary books and hearing or listening to the stories. I always liked to imagine how scary it could be, but I just never wanted to see them directly. At that time, when I was little, I couldn't really believe all these people who were going to see horror films to see something really gory, but now I'm used to it, and I can enjoy it.
CS: In America, the horror trend has been going more towards torture films like "Devil's Rejects", "Saw", "Hostel"… is that something you'd ever think about making? Shimizu: That's not [something] I'm going for, because I don't like to do anything painful. I like things scary, but nothing to do with pain. Of course, the story itself is interesting, and if that is standing out, rather than the torture part, I would do it, but I just don't like the pain.
CS: Are you getting tired of the "Grudge/Ju-On" series, and if so, what do you want to do next? Shimizu: I do really like making horror movies because it's interesting, because you have all these tricks to play on, it's very much fun, but I do want to go for something different, maybe I can do different types of horror, including all these suspense or thriller type things, but the film that I really want to shoot now is a comedy where this leading actress is dealing with this contradiction in between what it says in the script and what we're doing on the set.
CS: How do you feel about "The Grudge" being spoofed in the upcoming "Scary Movie 4"? Shimizu: It really makes me happy because in "Scary Movie 4," they're doing a spoof of "War of the Worlds" and "King Kong," and these are the movies with big budget, big movies. Next to that, there's "Grudge," and I just feel like I'm getting such recognition, those movies, and in my mind, horror and comedy are very close, so in that sense, I would love to make movies like the "Scary Movies" in the future. The year before last, I did this TV series of something very similar to a "Scary Movie" type of thing. It's a comedy version of a horror film, and that was on the air really late at night, so it wasn't that big, but I did something like that and I enjoyed it. That's something I'd really like to do. I don't think it's going to get big promotion, but I think [that TV show] will be released in America soon. These are the ideas that I got when I was shooting "Grudge" and "Ju-On." "If I do this, or if I do it in this way, it can be funny" so I used all those ideas for this TV series. For "Grudge 2," it's all about scares--I have to think about how to scare people--but I think scaring people and entertaining people, I mean making them laugh, is so close that I think it's always back-to-back, so when I'm thinking about this (horror), I can always come up with this (humor).
CS: Is "The Grudge" going to be a trilogy and was that always the idea, to do it as a trilogy? Shimizu: That's what I hear. The producers and the production company are saying it's a trilogy, but if "The Grudge 2" is not going to be a major hit, no one's going to want to do "Grudge 3." They just want to say that it's a trilogy and that's fine, but who knows? I would love for that to happen, but if it's a third one, people are going to expect more, right? It needs to be better and bigger and just everything more, so in that sense, I don't know if I'm ready to do that, but I haven't really thought about it.
CS: Would you consider just being involved with a third movie as a writer or producer, rather than directing it? Shimizu: If there is a director I can count on. The thing is that "The Grudge" has a very special storyline and this very unique world atmosphere to it, so if there's any director who can create that, that I can count on, maybe I would take a part of whatever to cooperate. I would give them some ideas. As long as they can maintain the world that I created for "The Grudge," but if this person or director is going to take it into a completely [different] direction than I'm not going to take any part of it.
CS: Having spent so much time developing this curse and its history, have you thought about any way that the curse can be ended? Shimizu: In the script meeting, I do talk about that idea with writers and producers, but every time we try to stop the curse, our ideas just don't go anywhere good, and we just can't come up with anything interesting to stop the curse, so if that's the case, I would rather just go for something that could never be stopped. But who knows, maybe something can be stopped in "Grudge 3"?
The Grudge 2 is scheduled to open on Friday, October 13. Check back soon for an interview with actress Amber Tamblyn.