Rob Marshall Directs Best-Selling 'Memoirs' (12/05)

Prior to turning Arthur Golden's 1997 international best-seller into Sony's spectacular Christmas bauble, the closest that director Rob Marshall ever came to the Memoirs of a Geisha was as the director-choreographer of a Broadway revival of Little Me, a musical centered on Belle Poitrine, a girl from the wrong side of the tracks who rises to the right side of the footlights, one man at a time (each played by a manic, Tony-winning Martin Short), all the while nursing a hole in her heart for just one guy.

So it is with Sayuri, who is sold as a child of nine to an okiya, or geisha household, in Kyoto of 1929, adjusts with some difficulty to the rules of the house, and ascends-again one man at a time-to the level of a legendary geisha back in the days when they enjoyed movie-star/supermodel status, remaining faithful in her fashion to a solitary true love (a kind, high-placed gentleman known as The Chairman, who once treated her to a sweet).

Essentially, Sally Bowles was scaling similar heights in Berlin of 1929 in Cabaret (which Marshall choreographed on Broadway before Little Me), and so was celebrity murderess Roxie Hart around the same time in Chicago (which marked Marshall's feature film debut in the best possible way, with an Academy Award for Best Picture of 2002)-although it has to be said that neither of those dames was all that driven by love for one man.

Auteurists, being myopic and pure, probably won't pick up on the invisible wiring that links Marshall's work and thus go nuts over the way his young screen career is careering. But there's a method to his madness, and Kyoto's not far removed from the Windy City.

Facing the prospect of what is commonly called in critical circles his "disappointing second film," Marshall paused long and hard-because, after the phenomenal acclaim for Chicago, he could. "I wanted to just sort of think," he recalls, "to stop for a moment and think what would be next, which is exactly what I did. I didn't jump right into something. I found myself in this position where I did have some choice, as opposed to something that's chosen for me. What a wonderful thing! And that's one of the reasons I chose Geisha, because I knew this was something that doesn't come along very often, so you take advantage of it when you have it. I knew that this kind of thing in careers just doesn't last forever."

The chance to direct the Columbia/DreamWorks/Spyglass project came Marshall's way while Chicago was harvesting awards. Steven Spielberg decided that his schedule was too full to direct Memoirs of a Geisha and he would farm it out. When the previous year's Golden Boy (Being John Malkovich's Spike Jonze) didn't sign on, he instructed his co-producers, Lucy Fisher and Douglas Wick, to put in the call to the guy who loomed like this year's Golden Boy. In the last lap, Marshall lost his Oscar to the long shot in exile, Roman Polanski for The Piano, but the Chicago six gave him a accumulative Oscar afterglow, and the producers continued to pursue him, plying him with bottles of sake, antique prints and books on geisha, until he finally said yes.

Truthfully, it was the challenge that got him-that, and the fact that most people would not expect him to follow Chicago with Geisha. "This kind of movie I know is not made: There are no quote-unquote bankable stars in the movie. It's an all-Asian cast. It's an expensive period movie. I thought, 'I don't have to do the commercial film. If it's commercial, great!' What I liked was that I could just tell a story. Chicago presented this wonderful opportunity in my life. I could maybe take a chance, open up, try something different with that success. Mostly, what happens in your life is you're perceived as one thing and that's what you do and that's it. For me, telling a story is telling a story. Telling it through dancing or singing-it's the same thing as telling it through a dramatic piece because it's a story."

Geisha, in the literal and Eastern sense of the word, means "artist." To be geisha is to be judged "a moving work of art"-a far more honorable profession than most Westerners perceive. "It's very hard for us to correlate what that means, because there is no such thing in Western culture," allows Marshall. "There's a wonderful line at the end of the movie: 'We don't become geisha to pursue our own destiny. We become geisha because we have no choice.' That's very moving, because most of these women were sold into geisha houses-into slavery-as children. That's where they began their training. They emerge great dancers and singers and conversationalists-that's what they're trained to do.

"This is a story of four different geisha and how they deal with the restriction of being a geisha. They surrender into this life where they don't have the choice of love, where in fact they're forbidden to love. Sayuri survives because she doesn't resist that and moves forward until she ultimately finds love, even though it's a different kind of love. Mameha, the teacher, is the perfect geisha, and the only way she can do that is put her heart on ice and remove herself. Hatsumomo, sort of the tragic villain of our piece, can't deal with the restrictions and self-destructs. And Pumpkin is a failed geisha who becomes a prostitute."

Three of these four Japanese are actually Chinese-Ziyi Zhang (Sayuri) and Michelle Yeoh (Mameha), both of Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, and Gong Li (Hatsumomo), of Farewell, My Concubine and Raise the Red Lantern-and that fact drew Marshall some critical brickbats, which he handily deflects. "When I cast Queen Latifah in Chicago, everyone said, 'Oh, there'd never have been a matron in a jail in Chicago in the '20s who was African-American,'" he recalls. "I said, 'Well, she's Sophie Tucker to me. I don't think like that.'

"I have a philosophy about casting, and it's very simple: The best person for the role gets the role. That's really how I see it. The demands for Sayuri were huge. I had to find a great star who could carry a film. She had to be a great actor, a beauty, a great dancer, speak English and age from 15 to 35-a huge bill to fill. My wish always, whenever I'm casting, is that when I meet or audition actors, they claim the role. Like, there's no question. You feel it. You want them to come in and make you feel 'This is mine,' and that's what happened with 'Zee.' Someone like her comes along once in a generation.

"She was Sayuri the same way Ken Wantanabe was The Chairman. I met him the day after his movie, The Last Samurai, premiered in New York. I thought he'd be a samurai, but he was a gentle, lovely man with a great humor and kindness. I thought, 'That's The Chairman. He'll be able to play something he's never played before but something that is, ironically, closer to who he really is.' That's the director's hope: that they claim the role."

Going with his gut reaction, Marshall assembled a varied Pan-Asian cast of Japanese, Chinese and Malaysian actors. "It was exciting but, obviously, pretty scary," he concedes. "I was working with an international group of actors, five of whom are making their English-language debuts. Sitting and working with them, I found that something exists between director and actor sometimes that surpasses or transcends language. I'm very lucky that we had six weeks of rehearsal because, during that time, we worked out how this would play. I mean, I would be speaking English, and it would be translated into Japanese and Chinese in front of me. Many times the actors couldn't speak to each other-except in the scene, in English-but we had the luxury of that rehearsal, so by the time we got to shooting, I felt it was-oddly enough-very natural. We'd found our way."

As a director, Marshall is a great believer in-well, marshaling his immediate resources. "Collaboration is what I'm comfortable with, coming from the theatre," he says. "When I work on film, I love hearing everybody's thoughts. I don't think I'm the smartest one in the room. I think there are many smart people in the room who will have great ideas, and I like to hear what they are. I don't want to be this dictator pretending that I know it all."

One of the best ideas he subsequently implemented came during pre-production, over lunch at the Sony commissary in Culver City, from John Williams. The composer, who has amassed five Oscars and 38 nominations, told Marshall point blank: "I've never asked to do a film, but I'm going to ask to do Memoirs of a Geisha." Yes, he got what he wanted: The soundtrack is saturated with Williams' lush exotica. "One day," Marshall says, "John said to me, 'Gee, I was thinking maybe of getting Yo-Yo Ma to do the cello solos and Itzhak Perlman to do the violin solos. What do you think of that?' I could not believe he was actually saying those names, that's what I thought of that! The beautiful thing to remember when you're watching the movie is that the cello represents Sayuri, so Yo-Yo Ma is playing Sayuri's Theme, and the violin represents The Chairman, so Itzhak Perlman is basically playing The Chairman's Theme. Their recording sessions were like sitting in the front row at Carnegie Hall. John was anxious-as we all were-to stretch and try something completely different. This was a challenge for all of us. Every single one of us was reaching past what we normally know and do-but, of course, that was the thrill."

Before he signed up a screenwriter (Robin Swicord, who scripted the last Little Women), Marshall huddled with the original source. "I sat with Arthur a lot, talking about his journey. He said he wrote the novel three times-twice in the third person, then in the first person. Instead of 'she did this' and 'she did that,' it was 'I did this' and 'I did that'-that's when it came to life for him. He helped me find my way into this world."

But there was one moment during the filming when Marshall wondered if he had ever left home-or, at least, Chicago. "I was in Japan, in the basement of a geisha theatre, and they were showing me how a lift worked. And, of course, I immediately flashed on Catherine Zeta-Jones coming out of the floor and how we'd done that. Suddenly, the thought crossed my mind that, although I'd traveled halfway across the world to do something completely different, I was still doing a movie about rival women in show business."