Jasin Boland © 2016 Paramount Pictures. All rights Reserved.

We Talked to the 'Ghost in the Shell' Director About Weed, Whitewashing, and Cyberpunk

Rupert Sanders tells us about the journey he went on to make the live-action adaptation of the 1995 anime classic, and the controversy over casting Scarlett Johansson.

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Mar 31 2017, 2:34pm

Jasin Boland © 2016 Paramount Pictures. All rights Reserved.

The first thing you notice when you talk to Rupert Sanders is his voice. The director of Ghost in the Shell, the new live-action sci-fi action film based on the 1995 anime cyberpunk classic, has a methodical cadence. His tone rarely changes. You can hear when he gets frustrated—his speech speeds up and his timbre rises—but then the tone reappears just as quickly, as if nothing has happened.

The Ghost in the Shell anime and manga source material has had a major influence on science fiction and Hollywood over the last two decades (James Cameron and The Matrix creators The Wachowskis are reportedly devoted fans). Yet despite the seemingly obviously appeal, "it was a fight to get [ Ghost in the Shell] made," Sanders says, with a slight sigh. "It wasn't a walk in the park."

He isn't just talking about securing the necessary funding ($100-plus million) or finding the right cast. Allegations of whitewashing dogged the film from the start; some fans derided the casting of Scarlett Johansson, who plays 'The Major', a cyborg who leads a counter-cyber intelligence task force. But Sanders, who became a fan after first seeing Ghost in the Shell in college decades ago, believes his film reflects the global reach that any remake of such an iconic film like GITS hopes to achieve and, quite frankly, deserves.

He doesn't say the controversies were silly, but he does acknowledge, "I did three weeks of press in Paris, Korea, and Japan, there wasn't one question about this so-called controversy. The controversy only seems to be coming from America."

He continues, "We all are liberal minded people, but we didn't feel this was a controversy without people seeing the film and knowing the story. It was a moot point."

Motherboard spoke with Sanders to discuss the thought-process behind his decision to direct the remake, as well as the role that technology plays in this new Ghost in the Shell universe.

Scarlett Johansson (left) as Major and director Rupert Sanders.

Scarlett Johansson (left) as Major and director Rupert Sanders. Jasin Boland © 2016 Paramount Pictures. All rights Reserved.

When was your first encounter with Ghost in the Shell ?
I first saw it when I was at art college. I saw it on VHS a couple of years after it was released. And the world really blew my mind. I had never seen animation aimed at an adult audience. It was this beautiful futuristic world that I had never really seen anywhere: Crazy characters, sexualized, philosophized. It haunted me, and that was my initiation.

Were you a fan of anime at that time?
No, not really. I knew very little, and then I dug in deeper, and started watching other stuff. And the beauty of anime for the adult mind is the imagination of the anime creator is beyond limits. They aren't really restricted by what is achievable. If you can imagine it, you can draw it. Their work can be vast and yet kind of really abstract. You don't have to make it for a large audience. It is relatively less expensive to make something animated than it is to make it for real. So they can deal with subjects and philosophical fanatics that are a lot less geared to a mainstream audience.

Whereas what we do, if you can imagine it, it is still pretty hard to pull off for a price.

As you began to assemble the cast, were they also familiar with GITS ?
It varied. I worked with a lot of the concept artists, a lot of the people who helped me design and intellectualize the film were very familiar with the original, which is why they were all desperate to work on the project. Some of the cast knew it, others didn't, but they all had a similar feeling to when I first saw it. Their first response [was]: 'wow this is amazing', their second: 'how are we going to do this?'

That second question must have already been on your mind even before you signed on to direct.
Very much so. A lot of people who work around me told me not to do it: 'You're crazy.' I really felt once I started thinking, you get blinkered by your own imagination, and once I thought of the prospect of doing it, it was hard to let it go. It haunted me for the second time.

You've said that you didn't want to do a shot-for-shot remake, so was that a freeing decision in terms of how you wanted to put your own mark on this universe?
Yeah, I think I wasn't so worried about the directorial freedom. Ultimately I could have just used the title, but that wasn't why I signed on. I wanted to be part of the legacy of Ghost in the Shell. Why make a Ghost in the Shell movie if it is not Ghost in the Shell? That was my pitch to Steven Spielberg [who had acquired the rights to a live-action adaptation]. If I wanted to make something that was closer in spirit to the anime, and there were things as a fan of the original that I felt had to be in there, that I really needed to cinematize and to translate much closer to the original. The water fight, exploding geisha heads, Major on the tank, Major jumping off the roof. 

Those things are iconic, and if they weren't in there, people would be upset, myself included. We are in this Ghost in the Shell world. Everything is cables. And early on, people were like, 'Why are there cables in everything?' Well, it is Ghost in the Shell, and if there were no cables, it wouldn't be Ghost in the Shell, so I am going to defer to the style of Ghost in the Shell and put cables in everything.

"People weren't jumping up and down desperate to make Ghost in the Shell. It's kind of a bleak title."

I had interviewed Finn Jones, who discussed taking on projects like Iron Fist and Game of Thrones with such a die-hard fan base, and how he enjoyed that challenge. Same for you?
I think that was a consideration. Ultimately, though, I felt it was better that a fan made it. You can't make anything artistic if you are terrified of the response. You have to take that leap, and I guess you have to work in isolation.

[GITS] was a hard project to pull off. People weren't jumping up and down desperate to make Ghost in the Shell. It's kind of a bleak title. You watch the anime as a commercial venture, that's a hard thing to say 'I get it. We're going to make it.' It was a fight to get it made. It wasn't a walk in the park. As a fan of the material, all I'd be able to do was channel the spirit of Ghost in the Shell and the essence of that property, but I knew that I was going to have to make changes to the story and the plot. The original is led by philosophy and thematic introspection, and the plot is kind of at the bottom, and I knew I had to invert that. It is a very complicated world, and I needed to lure people in with a plot that had familiarity, and then you can start to play with those themes of dualism and reflection of technology and all of those things that are Ghost in the Shell. But you can't lead with that, or no one will come to the cinema.

[Mamoru] Oshii [director of the original anime film] was great early on. He said just be liberated, and don't just make something because you feel you have to stay exactly in our world. Be inspired by it, and make your own version. That was very encouraging.

All films of this scale are hard to get made because it is a huge investment. You put the production fee, and then the marketing fee, and it's a big investment. I think my passion for the project is what kept is alive. There were a few times when it could have died. And then getting Scarlett was very key to getting this film made. Without her, we wouldn't have made this film.

Was it more interesting to conceptualize and direct this film because some of the technologies first envisioned in the original Ghost world have come closer to reality?
What is crazy about [Masamune] Shirow's work [who created the original manga comic] is that he was talking about interconnected computers, and the vast and infinite network when universities in America hadn't even said hello to each other. It was a time when he was predicting things that were not actually there yet. Some of those ideas were so abstract, and now, we are all within an infinite network. It becomes more relative.

Since this tech isn't so far-fetched, did that alter how you tweaked Ghost in the Shell to discuss issues that are current to our climate?
Well, I think Ghost shows technology is omnipresent. What interests me is the sovereignty of data and the trust we put in our data storage. We put so much trust in our iPhone. Someone who controls my iPhone knows everything about me. Where I take my Uber, what I buy, where I shop, where I sleep, who I talk to or text. That's frightening as it is, but then put that as a cerebral implant, and have your memories, your dreams, your fears accessible, it becomes more heightened, and that was one of the things that really interested me as far as that technology, as far as that predictive technology goes.

Should our dreams, our fears, our anxieties be accessible to the government? Or government agencies? These are frightening dilemmas, and a lot of the dilemmas in this film that we face are about technology. That whole Stuxnet documentary [Zero Days] was terrifying, the idea of a wanton virus that can be just let out to destroy certain systems is terrifying. The protection of our data is terrifying. We are already developing codes and systems for AI that are dealing with life and death situations. I was talking to someone about self-driving cars, and how software is being written that if a car with one driver is on an unavoidable head on collision with five passengers, the car with only one driver will sacrifice its driver to save five others. There is something also about age—a younger driver will be spared over an older driver. I'm sure things will start to bleed in, who has the most expensive car, who is of a greater value to society. These are the things that AI will be deciding in the split second before two cars prang [hit] each other on the 405 freeway. We are not making a film just about technology, but these are themes that Ghost in the Shell opens up in a world. More of these concepts can be discussed.

Did making this film, then, improve or dampen your view of technology?
Humans have to create machines that far more intelligent than them with human characteristics so that we won't get too frightened. Her did a great job of exploding our perception of what robots are capable of, and I love the idea of technology and AI systems being powerful and omnipresent enough to decide our fate, and whether they need us. If we are slowly destroying the branch of the earth that we are sitting on is quite a truthful prospect, and maybe they should get rid of us. If we are undermining the infrastructure they are relying on at such a rate as we are, then maybe they've got a point.

When the trailers and clips of the film first began to drop, did you hope people would also begin to view the film's casting on its merits?
No, not really. I think the controversy to me is…look, I obviously have put a lot of thought into this. I don't think there is any smokescreen that because you cast Scarlett Johansson in a role in a Japanese anime that is now not a Japanese anime but is an international film. I think Oshii said it best—she is a cyborg shell and she has no race, and he said Scarlett is the best person in the world to play Major. That was reassuring. She is not playing a Japanese person, she is playing a machine in a shell created by an American multinational corporation, in this case.

It also seems like Scarlett has taken on more sci-fi projects than any other actor working these days.
She embodies this world. She is so physical, and she has this indie spirit. There aren't many actresses who have the CV to play that complex a character. The world cast Scarlett really. That's who people want to see in this kind of film.

You mentioned the film might have died at several points. Would this whitewashing controversy have contributed to that?
No. People weren't calling up [Martin] Scorsese when he was making The Departed and said 'Why aren't you using Asian actors?' He took an Asian film, and made an American and international film out of it. We have an incredibly diverse cast. We have cast members from Syria, from Zimbabwe, from Fuji, Australia, Denmark, from England, from America.

I think when people see the film, it is ultimately an international and global film starring a global lead. You need Scarlett Johansson if you are opening a film in Russia as well as in Tokyo.

Do you see the world of Ghost in the Shell as our future?
It's more a parallel universe. It's a timeless world. But the technologies are there to illustrate some of the themes about the world, rather than say to everyone, 'This is what the world will be in 50 years.' That is not what our film is about. Our film is an abstract version of a future in which humanity is all but consumed by technology.

We didn't want to make a world that was that realistic, and in a way, science fiction takes you to worlds you don't really want to know where you are. That's the beauty of sci-fi. From afar, you can magnify some of those more human stories.

Where does the film then fall on the spectrum of utopia and dystopia?
For me, there is a real color and beauty to the world. It's not a dystopian wasteland. It's a functional, colorful bright kind of future that is kind of thrilling. Some of the film does take place in the dark abandoned corners of the city that are unnecessary nowadays, the industrial part of the city where industry has ceased, but it is certainly more colorful and brighter than most sci-fi films.

As a fan of the original Ghost in the Shell , did you expect to ever remake it?
[Laughing] No. I was smoking way too much weed and raving too much to even want to know if I had a job at the end of it. I was just absorbing art and culture that you turn into a career ultimately. Too many people don't live enough to have experiences to draw from. I didn't start making films until I was 27—I had a good 10 years of indulgence and absorption of art and culture and the world and that's what I try to put into my work.

Watch Motherboard's new documentary A Smarter Gun.