Nanking, a documentary about the 1937 invasion of the then-capital of China by the Japanese army, competed at the 2007 Sundance Film Festival in the documentary competition. Nanking producer Ted Leonsis sat down with Cinematical at Sundance to talk about the film (full disclosure: Leonsis is an executive with AOL, Cinematical's parent company).
Cinematical: The first question I have is about how you came to be involved with this film – it's my understanding that your involvement in this film was much more personal than a producer's role often is.
Ted Leonsis: I was on vacation with my family and went to a bookstore and everything was in French. And the owner had 45 days of the NYT and so I bought them all and read them all. And one of the things in there was an obituary that said, noted author Iris Chang had committed suicide, and as I read it I saw that she was married with two children; I'm married with two children, and I so I was drawn by that. And then I later threw the newspapers in the garbage and that obituary landed on top and as I was going in and out I kept seeing it. As we left I ran back in and grabbed it and stuck it in my briefcase. Then when I got home I did some research on her in Amazon, and bought all her books and was drawn to the story about Nanking.
More after the jump ...
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Cinematical: And then you decided you wanted to make a film?
TL: It was summer, and I hired my 16-year-old son as an intern, and I sent him to Washington DC to do research at the Library of Congress. He was actually too young to get in there -- they weren't going to let him in -- so he called me to bring him home, and I said, no, figure it out. And then he waited until that lady who said he couldn't get in left. Then a Chinese man came up to run the desk, and my son told him what he was trying to do, so that man let him in and said "I'm going to help you."
Certainly all these things that have happened like this around the film – I was telling Iris Chang's mother there is something about destiny and the making of this film. So I went to CAA and hired them and told them I needed some help making this film. So they said, let's introduce you to Bill and I met him. Bill didn't know anything about it, so I gave him the books to read and the film footage to look at, and then it was 13 months from the time he signed on. We went to Japan, we went to China, we did all this research. And we came together with about 40 people. I sent it to Sundance on a Wednesday, and the following Tuesday Geoff Gilmore called me and said, "Who are you? We just saw the film, holy mackerel, you're in!"
Cinematical: That must have felt great.
TL: It did, only now do I realize how special that was, to get a call like that from Geoff Gilmore, and how blessed we were to have that happen.
Cinematical: At what point did Dan Sturman, the co-director, get involved with the film?
TL: Dan is kind of Bill's producing partner, and the crew was working very closely together. Bill then got funded on a project he had been pitching and he had to step aside for about a 90 day period while he shot his film called Live, and Dan did such a great job that, frankly, we thought it was the right thing to do, to give him a shot to have "director" as his title. He did really, really great work. I was in the editing bay with these guys for about 2,000 hours, and there was a lot to do.
Cinematical: How did you make the decision to add the scripted part as opposed to just using the footage with voice-over narration?
TL: We were able to find the Japanese soldiers and the survivors. Minnie Vautrin left over 1,000 letters. And they were so beautiful, so articulate, and it just was flat when you just had a narration. And so we cast a couple actresses – one canceled, I won't tell you who – and then Mariel Hemingway came into the part of Minnie and was just phenomenal.
Cinematical: Why do you think it's important to tell the story of the rape of Nanking?
TL: It's really a story about how nothing good happens to civilians and regular people when there is an attack by a foreign people during an occupation. And the ferocity of what happened there – there are many in Japan who deny it, it's not even taught in their schools, in their textbooks. But what really drew me was these stories of these acts of kindness. I don't want to get on my soapbox but as a country we haven't been on the right side of an issue around war for a while now. And here in this film, you have people see the US flag and respect it, you see foreigners referring to Americans as divine -- they're gentle, they're kind. And that their story hadn't been told, I felt sad about. And that Minnie Vautrin committed suicide – she came home to a ticker tape parade and then she committed suicide, because even though she had saved fourteen, fifteen-thousand young girls, there there thousands raped that she couldn't save. So I really mean doing that gut-check – I'm married with two kids. If I'm somewhere on business and an attack breaks out, and AOL sends a jet to get me out, do I say, "No, that's okay, I'll stay behind?."
Cinematical: What do you think you'd say in that situation?
TL: Well, I'm gonna find out, because the movie – you should go to my blog and read some of the comments. There's a big picture of me in a Japanese paper with some unkind words. And a Japanese producer and director, they're making a movie to rebuff this film, which they're saying, it never happened. So I'm sure there will be some unpleasant moments.
Cinematical: Have you had any negative personal interactions around this film?
TL: The other day we had just finished screening the film, and we're outside and this lady's hugging me, and this guy comes over, says he's a journalist, sticks his camera in my face and says, "You are nothing more than a tool of the Commumist propaganda machine."
Cinematical: Did you say anything back?
TL: I didn't know what to say, really. Go make your own movie, that's what the art is about, that you have that opportunity and that we can create that side-by-side. The best thing that can happen out of all this that there's a lot of attention to brought to Nanking. Once it's out, it gives permission for other people to talk about it. That was kind of one of the deliverables on this film, is that people would be talking about it. China came out and said, they're angry that Japan did this, and they're supposed to meet in April, and this is the first thing they're talking about.
Cinematical: So maybe you'll end up actually affecting political change with this film.
TL: I do think documentaries are something that – you put something on a big 40-foot-screen, and activate that discussion. And we want to make a portal so that you can come in and find it all, the footage that we couldn't fit in the film.
Cinematical: Are you willing to talk about the issue around the screenwriting credit for the film?
TL: It is a little issue. We made a holocaust movie. I hired Bill and Dan and they did a treatment, and they had brought someone (Elizabeth Bentley) on. They're writers, but there's not really writing, it's a documentary. The original plan was that it would be Bill, Dan, and Lizzie. And at some point, Lizzie believed that it should be by Lizzie, with Bill and Dan. She wanted that separate credit, and there was a lot of emotion back-and-forth.
And in the deal that we had talked about, we decided, let's bring it to the WGA and that credit that you saw was what the WGA ruled, and it shouldn't have even been an issue. But she talked to a blogger. But what you see is what the WGA said it should be. And I'm hoping that now it's put to rest and that she can be a part of this great piece of work. To be honest, you see the film and what a labor of love it was, and for the festival to start with some of those questions to us was heartbreaking – how could we could we focused on an ampersand as an issue when we're talking about the death, rape, and destruction of hundreds of thousands of people?