Four years ago, the movie "Shutter" scared the wits out of Thai audiences and became a runaway box office success. Now the ghost story with a twist has been remade in very United Nations fashion, shot in Tokyo by a Japanese director working with Canadian, Australian, American and Korean actors.
The language barrier posed a few problems from the get-go for the international crew -- director Masayuki Ochiai doesn't speak English. There were also the challenges of altering cultural elements of the story for a Western audience and shooting on location in crowded Tokyo. The cast also faced very real and often daunting adjustments in adapting to a foreign culture and customs during the three-and-a-half month shoot in spring 2007.
"Shutter" follows a couple who flee a hit-and-run accident and are then haunted by the victim, who shows up in their developed photos and is revealed to have a past connection to the young man. Joshua Jackson ("Dawson's Creek"), a native of Vancouver, British Columbia, plays photographer Ben, who's newly married to Jane (Australian Rachael Taylor of "Transformers"). The couple travel to Japan when he's hired to shoot a fashion layout there.
The remake is told from the female protagonist's point of view instead of the male's and relocated from New York City to Tokyo to heighten Jane's sense of unfamiliarity and isolation. The film delves into the world of spirit photography, a familiar phenomenon in Asia that also has believers in America. HowStuffWorks tracked down an expert in the field to help explain how it works, and his insights -- in addition to interviews with the lead actors and producer Taka Ichise --will give you a better understanding of the film.
"There are quite a few depictions in the original Thai film that have been influenced by the style of Japanese horror films," says producer Taka Ichise. "One of my biggest concerns was if we tried to remake the film by following the original faithfully, it would basically turn out to be a parody of Japanese horror films." Ichise tapped screenwriter Luke Dawson to pen the new version of "Shutter," but one particular plot point gave him concern.
"The ghost in 'Shutter' [had to] have its own will," he says. "I am confident that we were able to depict the ghost as being scary, even though it had its own sense of will. The grand sense of the story is the same as the original, but we tried to be creative and make the characters more empathetic."
"It's about death and revenge and secrets and betrayal and all those really potent human dramas," says lead actress Rachael Taylor, a big fan of the original movie. "It was one of the main reasons I wanted to make this movie. Our version is more of a reinterpretation than a remake. We shift the perspective from the male to the female. She's a very active and strong female character trying to figure out and interpret these supernatural events that are happening to her."
It was important to Taylor to establish the relationship between Jane and Ben at the outset "to make sure that there was a really tangible chemistry and that we looked like a young newlywed couple in love -- if we didn't have that, no one would really buy the degradation of the relationship. They're in this idyllic, blissfully married state at the beginning of the movie and then it all goes awry."
For lead actor Joshua Jackson, the main change in the new "Shutter" is cultural. "The original was a Thai movie with Thai actors," he says. "They already had a cultural reference point when the spirit photography came into it. By introducing Westerners, you have to bring the characters into that mythology."
"What I like about this film is we don't ask the audience to be on board with the realm of the supernatural straight away," Taylor says. "We ask them to discover it with us."
How Spirit Photography Works
Spirit photography, in which ghostly figures appear in photographic images, dates back to the 1860s, when William H. Mumler produced and marketed pictures like the famous one of presidential widow Mary Todd Lincoln and a supposedly spectral image of her deceased husband. Photographs by Mumler and others were displayed in 2005 in an exhibition at New York's Metropolitan Museum of Art, which director Ochiai visited for inspiration.
In spirit photography, the ghostly image hovers behind the subject -- ethereal but distinct. How does it get there?
"A camera can pick up something that doesn't necessarily belong there and that can't be seen with the naked eye," says Dale D. Kaczmarek, author of "A Field Guide to Spirit Photography" and the "Windy City Ghosts" series. Kaczmarek is a lecturer and expert in the field who's been analyzing photographs for evidence of supernatural phenomena for the better part of 25 years.
Any type of camera -- including digital and video -- can capture spirit images, which might or might not look human. According to Kaczmarek, the spirit might manifest as "a streak of light, a strange light or fog." Authentic spirit photographs, he says, "don't fall into the category of easily explained."
Kaczmarek receives several photo submissions a day on his Web site, ghostresearch.org, and says he can find a natural explanation for 70 to 80 percent of them: bad film, double exposure, dust, reflections, glare, flash, fog, smoke or a person's breath. He makes his diagnosis using information about the camera, film, weather and other circumstances.
And what of intentional hoaxes? "Doctoring is very easy these days with Photoshop and computerized images," Kaczmarek says. He says he's received only around a dozen such images, though. "There are telltale signs: If the person [in the photo] is not centered, it's usually an indication that they're going to try to insert something."
Kaczmarek bases his expertise on physical evidence and on-location investigations. He works with a videographer, a technical operator (who mans a Tri-Field meter, or electromagnetic field detector) and occasionally a psychic. The EMF device picks up deviations in the electromagnetic field. "The needle will spike to indicate there's a change in the electromagnetic field, indicating the presence of a ghost," Kaczmarek explains.
Kaczmarek also lectures about spirit photography and leads workshops on how to capture spectral images on film. To start, he suggests exploring reportedly haunted locations. Bringing along a psychic, or a pet, may help. "Dogs and cats will alert you to the fact that they feel uncomfortable in a certain location," he says.
While he has not seen "Shutter," Kaczmarek gives thumbs up to portrayals of ghostly phenomena in films like "The Others," "Ghost," "The Sixth Sense," "White Noise," and even the comic "Ghostbusters." "['Ghostbusters'] showed the high-tech equipment, and that ghosts have a humorous side," says Kazmarek, whose Web site plays the movie's theme song. "They're not always there to frighten."
Filming "Shutter" the movie in Japan
Joshua Jackson and Rachael Taylor joined cast members John Hensley ("Nip/Tuck"), David Denman ("The Office") and Korean-born James Kyson Lee ("Heroes") in Tokyo for what would be a working and living experience completely different from any they'd had before.
"I've shot in a lot of foreign countries and it always presents little challenges, but I've never been in a culture that's so foreign to my own," Jackson says. "The culture is so fundamentally different. Just the basic level of human interaction is based upon different ideals and ideas."
That was complicated by the fact that the foreigners had to communicate with director Ochiai via an interpreter, Chiho Asada. Fortunately, says Jackson, "she was a phenomenal translator. She had lived in the States and not only could translate the words but the context."
Jackson also had to learn several passages in Japanese (Ben is supposed to be fluent, having lived there in the past). "They cut out a lot of the Japanese that I speak in the American version," he says. "There's much more of it in the Japanese version of the movie."
For Taylor, who welcomed the challenge of using an American accent in "Shutter," it was also challenging to work with someone who doesn't speak English. "That dilutes the relationship you have with a director," she says. "But at the same time it was fascinating to me the way I could communicate with him in ways that were nonverbal. We really had an understanding by the end of the movie."
Taylor found Tokyo's architecture, fashion and art inspiring, but she did experience some of the same difficulties as Jane did. "It was a very isolating experience for a Westerner," she says, noting that she felt invisible, "like I wasn't there. But it worked for the movie because that's kind of the character's journey as well."
Shooting "Shutter" on Location in Tokyo
Shooting in Tokyo had its pluses and minuses, according to producer Taka Ichise. "The shooting costs in Tokyo are relatively inexpensive," he says. "Since there is no union in the Japanese film industry, there are no rules and regulations for working hours for the cast and crew. And the crew members are all hard workers and have much passion." There were logistical issues, though. There aren't many soundstages in the area, and movie productions aren't allowed to block the streets, which made it difficult to set up the cast's trailers.
The production found a home at the Toho Company studios, where "Godzilla," "Mothra" and many of Akira Kurosawa's films were shot. Other locations included an abandoned hospital and empty old houses that provided suitably unsettling environments. "We were shooting in one apartment," remembers Rachael Taylor," and [Ochiai] wouldn't turn the lights on between takes. It was scary in there, really dark, and everyone was bumping into each other. He's great with building tension -- he understands what creepy is."
Another key location was Mount Fuji, site of the pivotal car accident at the beginning of the film. The sequence was shot at 3 a.m. on a cold night, and the weather -- fog on the first day and snow on the second -- didn't exactly cooperate. The snowfall was a first for Taylor, who notes that the white stuff wasn't in the script. "But it really came down, so we had to use it, and I'm so glad," she says. "It was effective. So thank you, Mother Nature."
A few sequences required the actors to work with ghost stand-ins that would be replaced by computer images in postproduction. 'It's kind of fun, like being 6 years old and playing make-believe -- you just have to use your imagination and go with it," says Taylor.
But on the whole, the use of CGI was relatively small. "I believe there were 90 [effects] shots," says Ichise. "Most of them were used to enhance depictions of the ghosts, to add a sense of terror to the shots in the film."
While the horror aspect is a major part of "Shutter," Taylor stresses that it wouldn't work without a good story. "Even though there's the supernatural element to it, the rest of the drama is human drama," she says, "[It's a] relationship drama that asks the question 'How well do you really know this person?'"
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More Great Links
- Taka Ichise responded to e-mailed interview questions Feb. 28, 2008
- Dale D. Kaczmarek interviewed March 5, 2008
- Rachael Taylor and Joshua Jackson interviewed March 7, 2008