Shell Dame: Rupert Sanders and Scarlett Johansson re-imagine a manga icon in 'Ghost in the Shell'

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Back in 2008, legendary filmmaker Steven Spielberg and DreamWorks acquired the live-action movie rights to the original Ghost in the Shell manga created by Masamune Shirow. The futuristic tale revolves around a cyborg pursuing cyber-criminals and hackers on behalf of a government-sanctioned special task force. Several years and screenwriters later, Rupert Sanders was brought onto the project following his feature film directorial debut, Snow White and the Huntsman (2012), The end result of his creative journey arrives in theatres from Paramount Pictures on March 31, 2017.

A few things happened that finally enabled Ghost in the Shell to get made. “The take I presented DreamWorks and Steven felt right to them and the property,” Sanders says. “Then getting Scarlett Johansson onboard really gelled the project together and suddenly we were alive.” Past experiences directing commercials, short films and Snow White and the Huntsman helped the native of Westminster, England, especially the latter when putting together the ambitious Hollywood production. “You learn about storytelling, camera movement, and where you fit into the business side of it. We were not only building a complex world but designing everything from the ground up. We were also trying to understand the technology, philosophy and metaphor of Ghost in the Shell. I had a great team of longtime and new collaborators who have worked incredibly hard for three years. They gave the film its depth and a sense of personal achievement. It feels crafted. Every scene takes place in a different environment and atmosphere. I hope that comes through in the finished film.”

The script was developed with screenshots taken from the original anime movie adaptation (just released in a Blu-ray limited edition), its sequel Ghost in the Shell: Innocence and the television series Stand Alone Complex. “I wrote a 100-page graphic novel that had the things I felt needed to be in there in order to be a Ghost in the Shell film,” explains Sanders. “The biggest thing for me was to honor and respect what had come before and to open it to a wider audience, but try to make an original film.”

The iconic moments evolved when being translated cinematically. “It’s like sculpture. You start with an idea and a chunk of stone. Gradually you hack into the stone, follow the seams, polish it, and get something that may not exactly be what you set out to achieve. It has become its own thing. I’m proud of the way the courtyard water fight came out. I didn’t want to do anything too much like The Matrix or crazy with the camera. I wanted to keep it quite classical.”

Three weeks of principal photography took place in the city situated on an island off the coast of China that used to be a British colony. “It was going back and honoring the anime, as the background drawings were built around Hong Kong,” Sanders notes. “The thing I like about Hong Kong is that it’s a cosmopolitan and multicultural city of an enlightened future.”

Ghost in the Shell travels a different path from the dystopian perspectives of Blade Runner, The Terminator and The Matrix. “A lot of science-fiction films depict an apocalyptic and terrifying future where machines rule humans, while our story is about hope for technology and humanity evolving together. Artificial intelligence is around the corner and we need to organize ourselves to be able to understand the implications and to parent it with legislation.”

Signature aspects of the world-building are establishing shots of the cityscape captured by a ghost-cam and holographic street-level advertisements coined “solograms.” “I visited Microsoft’s HoloLens department and was fascinated by augmented reality,” Sanders explains. “The solograms came out of those early sketches of the future, whereby with an augmented retina you’d be able to see 3D objects occupy space as if for real. I loved the idea of this world inhabited by figures, objects and typography that would be different for everyone who saw them. The ghost-cams were something that Guillaume Rocheron [the visual-effects supervisor] and I talked about early on with Jess Hall [the cinematographer]. They’re long, slow tracking shots moving through the landscape and solograms that let you explore the world in a ghost-like way.”

Wi-Fi does not exist in the cyberpunk setting of New Port City. “A lot of people were like, ‘Why are you doing that?’ But it wouldn’t be Ghost in the Shell without lots of cables. We’re not in a predicted future but a quasi 1980s and 1990s future with 1970s cars.” 

Lighting dictated the mood of scenes which was inspired by the source material. “Jess Hall studied the color palette of the anime to help us find the tone, and then the technology of LEDs and lighting has changed so much,” Sanders says. “He was able to walk around the set with an iPad and change the color palette of the lights. Jess built an LED color rainbow for Ghost in the Shell long before we started production.”

All of the visuals started from a practical base. “Jan Roelfs [production designer] built incredible sets across the board [in Wellington, New Zealand] and did a lot of exterior work in Hong Kong. We did a 360 [degree camera] rig that allowed us to capture characters for the solograms. We did a lot of practical costumes and augmented makeup. Ash Thorpe designed these beautiful buildings that we had built [as miniatures] and scanned. Weta Workshop constructed a complex animatronic body suit for The Major [Johansson]. We added in some communication interfaces that we call holospheres, which are walls of data. Guillaume Rocheron and MPC did an amazing job of rebuilding all of these ideas back into the world.”

Constructed out of spare parts is a cyber-terrorist who is a combination of digital enhancements and the live-action performance of Michael Pitt. “Kuze is part machine and part human,” notes Sanders. “He’s a real testament to how the whole process worked seamlessly. We wanted people to inhabit the world and feel like it existed. We’re not a massive-budget Hollywood movie. There was a lot of reusing props. Batou’s [Pilou Asbaek]’s repair chair and Kuze’s head piece were the same thing that Kuze hung The Major with in his lair. The guys covered in white power in his lair was a last-minute thing. We didn’t have enough money to build a big set, so we changed the lair into being this data host. We were able to get a hundred extras and built something in the middle. Another element was needed, so we covered them all in flour. Then the whole lair became about this factory event preparing these data hosts by covering them in a non-emitting powder, having their heads shaved and their neck ports drilled in. There was a lot of great filmmaking. We were in Wellington, and New Zealanders are like the British in their ability to adapt to what they have around them and what they can use. We gradually smudged it all together. Ghost in the Shell has a good craft-based artisan feel to it.”

“Usually, you have to fill a cast with actors who can headline chat shows, but Scarlett Johansson is so iconic that it allowed me the freedom to choose people I’ve admired in cinema for many years such as Juliette Binoche, Michael Pitt, Takeshi Kitano and Pilou Asbaek,” Sanders says. “It was a testament to the studio that they let me have Takeshi speak Japanese. Takeshi and Juliette were hard to get. Takeshi was so busy, but I kept pushing and we figured out a way to work around him. I’m so thankful that the scenes between him and Scarlett worked so well.”

Pitt saw Kuze as a broken robot. “Michael had a strong and exciting take on the character. He has a broken voice that still has a power and an essence to it. Michael nailed a mannerism for the voice that worked so well and is virtually unadulterated by the sound design.”

Sanders continues, “I wanted the sound design not to be just a functional element but dream-like. It’s a place where you can afford to explore stuff. The same with music. It’s a tough act to follow with Kenji Kawai’s score. We have gone in a different direction. There are a couple of little nods to Kenji in there, but overall the score is tailored to our film.”

Ghost in the Shell will be entering a new dimension. “The 3D experience is going to be amazing. The ghost-cams and flying up to find Major on the roof is quite a visual treat. The courtyard water fight looks phenomenal and the geisha walking down the hallway works well in 3D, because we shot the film with a Victorian theatre sense of depth, not thrashing the camera around like crazy. It’s quite restrained and anime-like.” Sanders adds, “Being a fan of Ghost in the Shell, I hope it resonates with other fans and is more than just a cinema experience. I want it to have an afterlife. It’s been a wonderful process and I’m happy to have been a part of it.”