By ROCCO T. THOMPSON
From iconoclastic Japanese filmmaker, author, and poet, Sion Sono comes PRISONERS OF THE GHOSTLAND an east-meets-west genre hybrid in which a mysterious prisoner, known only as Hero (Nicolas Cage) is offered freedom by the “Governor” of the frontier city of Samurai Town (Bill Moseley) in exchange for finding his runaway daughter, Bernice (Sofia Boutella). Outfitted in a high-tech suit that will self-destruct in a matter of days (or blow off his more precious bits if he gets fresh with Bernice), Hero sets off into the titular wasteland to find the young woman and clear his name.
Having premiered at Sundance this past January, PRISONERS OF THE GHOSTLAND is finally receiving a wide release in theaters and on VOD this month. With the aid of a translator, we sat down with the director ahead of the world premiere to discuss the film, how Cage became got involved with the project, and what it was like working in English for the first time.
How did you first encounter this script, and what drew you to adapt it for the screen?
It was brought by [my] producer, Ko Mori, and when I first read the original script, I felt that it was wild, but rather like an action film, more like a classic type of action film. At the same time, I felt that I could put a lot of different elements and creativity into this. And for me, as a poet, I felt that I [would] enjoy creating this entire new world.
Did you make any alterations to make it better fit your style?
Yes, but let me tell you a little bit of the history of how we ended up shooting in Japan. First, we were considering shooting this film in Mexico as more like a Spaghetti Western-style film. However, I had a heart attack during pre-production, and Nic Cage himself suggested, “Why don’t we shoot in Japan?” [since] I wasn’t quite able to [travel]. Shooting in Japan gave me a lot of different creative ideas [to add] into this Spaghetti Western [vision]; it became East meets West. Something completely new, that you haven’t seen [in] film. So, now I appreciate my heart attack. I say, “Thank you, heart attack!”
In the original script, you see that there is a character [named] Yasujiro [played by Tak Sakaguchi]. The Yasujiro character wasn’t as big [and] one of the key things we did was to make [him] bigger. [He] has become such an important role in the story, that he becomes the [antagonist] to Hero, but the Governor [also], in a fashion which you might see in some classic chambara [or samurai] movies. Yasujiro brought different vibes to the film.
Was it challenging working primarily in English for the first time?
It was actually not at all [challenging], because I grew up watching all the Hollywood movies. All the movies that I watched in the past when I was a kid were Hollywood movies. So, surprisingly, it was quite smooth for me.
Something that’s super impressive about the movie is the number of actors on screen and how large the sets are. Would you say this is the biggest film you’ve ever worked on?
Actually, because I’ve been doing a lot of indie films, I somehow know how to pull off a bigger digital image than the actual budget would [allow]. For example, the [actual] Ghostland and the Clock Tower. We wanted to give this spectacle and big-scale feeling that you see, and we wanted to pull off as practical as possible without relying on effects. Also, character-wise, we wanted to have many characters because, sometimes [in] low-budget film, you [don’t] really see a lot of characters. To make a long story short, what we tried to create was this kind of bigger-scale feel and that’s something that we wanted [the] audience to feel.
Was Nicolas Cage your first choice for the role of Hero?
First of all, I really, really appreciate Nic Cage. [The idea that] Nic Cage would come aboard for my [first] English language indie film, I never thought that would happen. When I met Cage for the first time, he told me that he is a big fan of my movies. And the way he communicated with me was very frank – like, as a friend – and also very straightforward, comfortable. The communication between director and actor became really, really comfortable. Without that sort of communication and the way Nic communicated with me, this film wouldn’t have been the same. So, it’s really an honor to work with Cage and I really, really appreciate him.
The film is big and feels like it’s made to be seen and enjoyed with a loud, rowdy audience. Is having it premiere in the US during the height of COVID-19 a bit disheartening?
Yes. There was a plan at Sundance that there would be an in-person screening, of course, at the early stage and we really wanted to see that happen. However, because of COVID, it didn’t happen the way I wanted. I would like to see it shown on a big screen for the audience to watch, [and] I still hope that it will happen. It’s not quite happening yet.
Final question – what is the main theme or message of PRISONERS OF THE GHOSTLAND?
The theme for this film is time. You can find [many] elements of time in the film if you look for it. Such as that Hero’s been always under the pressure of the minutes in time. Or the Clock Tower, they’re trying to keep the time from moving, which is totally another element. As well as the Governor, he’s saying things like, “Tick-tock, tick-tock,” stuff like that. So, that’s the theme that I wanted to express in this film.
PRISONERS OF THE GHOSTLAND will be released September 17th, 2021 in theaters and on VOD and Digital from RLJE Films.