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Japan's Most Well-Known Director Wasn't Necessarily the Best

Film critic John Powers looks at the work of two master film directors from Japan: Akira Kurosawa, who died last weekend, and Shohei Imamura, whose film "The Eel" is now opening in the US.



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Other segments from the episode on September 11, 1998

Fresh Air with Terry Gross, September 11, 1998: Interview with Tracey Ullman; Interview with Tom Hanks and Andrew Chaikin; Commentary on Akira Kurosawa and Shohei Imamura.


Date: SEPTEMBER 11, 1998
Time: 12:00
Tran: 091101np.217
Head: Tracey Ullman
Sect: Entertainment
Time: 12:06

BARBARA BOGAVE, HOST: This is FRESH AIR. I'm Barbara Bogave in for Terry Gross.

The Emmy Awards airs this Sunday. It's the 50th anniversary of the broadcast. On today's FRESH AIR, we're featuring two guests who are nominated for Emmys in a number of categories. Later on in the hour, we'll hear an interview with Tom Hanks about his miniseries "From The Earth To The Moon."

First, Tracey Ullman. Her HBO comedy show "Tracey Takes On" is up for seven Emmys, including best lead actress in a variety or music program. In each episode of the show, Ullman tackles a different subject such as marriage, Hollywood, smoking and loss. Each program is a series of comic sketches and monologues, in which the characters she's created, with the help of guest stars, deal with the subject at hand.

Many of the shows are available on video from HBO. The fourth season of "Tracey Takes On" is now in production and will air early next year.

Terry spoke with Tracey Ullman this winter.

TERRY GROSS, HOST: Tracey Ullman, welcome back to FRESH AIR.


GROSS: I'd love for you to introduce us to some of the characters that you're doing now in your series and in your new book, both called "Tracey Takes On."

ULLMAN: Mm-hmm.

GROSS: Let's start maybe with Linda Granger, a kind of washed up actress and professional victim.

ULLMAN: Well, darling, I love Linda Granger. Linda loves being on National Public Radio. Linda's the kind of person that goes on public television fund drives. And she says things like: "You know, public television is a wonderful thing for all of us."

You know, and it's the type -- I-- don't you love those pledge drives when people like Linda Granger get to go on public television? And normally, she's doing complete dross infomercials, but then she gets to go and do a pledge drive.


I see Lindas around L.A. all the time, you know...

GROSS: Just describe her for us.

ULLMAN: ... pretending to be 39 and they're 55, and she's had a little collagen in her lips and "my cosmetic surgeon is an artist." And as long as they're doing infomercials or they're appearing on "Gay Talk" on public access with her solid homosexual fan base, she's in show business, Terry. She's an inspirational speaker. She's an author. She's had cancer. She's a cancer survivor.

And she's -- she has a daughter called "Marmalade" because that's what they served on the muffins when I signed the adoption papers.

And Linda's very glamorous. Her dream is to be in a Quentin Tarantino movie, though...


... even if they just used a picture, an old VIP picture of Linda that was in the background pinned up in a booth in a coffee shop, in a Quentin Tarantino movie, she'd consider that a major comeback.

GROSS: Does she seem like a cautionary tale to you of what an actress is capable of becoming if she's not careful?

ULLMAN: She's a certain type of actress. She's -- she would do theater. "Oh, theater is my first love, Terry."

GROSS: Right.

ULLMAN: And I'm -- she's always doing "Love Letters" with Hank Brinkley from the Channel Five News. You know, it's the "Love Letters" pairings, Terry, got really terrible...

GROSS: Oh, I know.

ULLMAN: ... they had to just put a stop to them.

GROSS: For our listeners who don't know "Love Letters," it's a two-person show that started off, you know, with I think Eli Wallach ...

ULLMAN: Oh, yeah.

GROSS: ... and his wife, and then as it got kind of -- went around the country, the stars got lesser -- less and less stellar.

ULLMAN: Yeah, with Joe Namath and Phyllis Diller in "Love Letters." I know, it just -- the combos got kind of -- but it was that sort of -- you didn't have to learn the lines. You could just sit and read it, you know. And I imagine Linda, you know, doing that show somewhere in the wilds with a pair of reading glasses from a pharmacy. You know, dinner theater.

GROSS: Another character you're doing now is Sidney Cross (ph), who is a lawyer. Describe what kind of lawyer she is.

ULLMAN: When I started doing this show three years ago, I wanted to play, like, an aggressive, ambitious career woman, and living in Los Angeles. And I thought, well, an agent was a little passe. And Sidney Cross -- at that time, it was the OJ Simpson trial and we had all these lawyers going on TV every night. And I thought: Ah, do a lawyer. And the physicalities of Leslie Abramson (ph) were fascinating to me. So physically, it's a little like Leslie Abramson.

I did my own sharky, gappy, baby teeth, which really gave me the character. And it's the voice of an agent of mine who was like crazed: "Hi Tracey, how ya doin'? You want to win an Oscar? We're gonna win an Oscar."

She used to call me up every day. I thought: Oh, this woman's going to drive me crazy. And she's a relentlessly charmless litigator, and relentlessly ambitious and charmless litigator -- that's how she's described. And -- but now, she's kind of become endearing to me, Terry. This is the funny things about my characters. They -- as gross as Sidney Cross is, I realize she's lonely. She can't get laid. You know, she's so ugly.

GROSS: Not even by your cabbie character.

ULLMAN: And she's so ambitious. No, exactly. Even Chick (ph) won't -- can't do it. And she's the sort of person that lives in a very sterile sort of apartment, with a -- some unassembled Nautilus equipment in the corner that never got -- you know, and pot noodles. And she's never home. And I just -- you know, now I feel sorry for her. And as soon as I feel sorry for them, I can work on them even more.


GROSS: Another character that you do is Trevor Ayless (ph), who is a gay airline -- what? -- not "steward." What's the word now?

ULLMAN: Uh, yeah he's a steward. You don't have to say "hostess" -- you can say "hostess" for woman.

GROSS: Flight attendant. Flight...

ULLMAN: (Unintelligible)

GROSS: Flight attendant is the word.

ULLMAN: I think he's still called the steward at British Airways -- you know, that wear those hats that say "To Fly, To Serve." They still wear those at British Airways.

This is based on a very nice, now retired, British Airways steward. And I've -- 'cause I've logged lots of transatlantic flights every year going back and forth to my home in London and in Los Angeles, I used to see this guy. And very professional, kind, smart, mid-40s man who was, you know, like:

"Very, very -- yes, can I get you a cocktail? A hot towel? Now, I'll show you what the entree will be" -- to all the passengers, you know. Then when he'd see me back in the galley, it would get like:

"Ooh, God, you know, ooh, I've had such trouble with that bitch in 3B."


And he would be able to be who he is, you know, and he was gay and he was like -- you know, telling me about his fella. And lovely man. And when I'm on airplanes actually, I'm very frightened of flying -- I sort of imagine Trevor or try to be Trevor, then I don't get so scared. I remember being on the flight, actually, when he -- his last flight on the Concorde. And he asked me if I wanted -- he was told he could take the jump seat in the cockpit and land -- in the Concorde cockpit.

And he was so sweet to me. He said: "I'd like you to have that on. I'd like you to be the one." I said: "No, all these years -- you've got to do it." "No, no, it would give me great pleasure." I said: "No, no, no." So he did land, in the cockpit of the Concorde. Very nice man.

GROSS: Another character that you do is Chick the cabbie.

ULLMAN: Right.

GROSS: And I'm wondering how often you actually have taken cabs in New York.

ULLMAN: Oh, well -- a lot.

GROSS: Yeah.

ULLMAN: And was always bumping into people like Chick, who seem to have just no sense of humor. And if you say: "Where are you from?" You know, trying to -- "What are you? Secret police?" You know, one of those guys, they're immediately uptight and no humor and very aggressive -- driving aggressively and -- "Hey, come on, what's the matter with you? C'mon (unintelligible)."

And it would just -- it would always go -- I remember I was in a cab one day with some guy like this, and he's going: "The man, this morning I get my cab from him, and he called me up, he start shooting -- I'm goin' to kill him. Tonight, I go -- I blow his brains out." I was like: "Ohhh -- wonder if I could go to my appointment or just call the police?" You know, so aggressive and driving so aggressively.

I always say to these guys: "Can you slow down?" You know, "got two children. I don't want to die." And the smell of English Leather aftershave that wafts through the vents of the cab.

GROSS: What happens when they find out you're in show business?

ULLMAN: "You know, I got the movie. You know, I had that" -- they always say this (unintelligible). "You know Martin Scorsese? When he was using my cab, I said to him why don't you do a movie about Vegas and the gambling and he makes "Casino." What do I get from it, eh? Eh?"

It's always like it was their idea. "And I had Andrew Lloyd Webber in the cab, and I said -- Phantom of the Opera -- maybe you should do? What is it -- what does he give to Chick, eh?"

Those guys -- it was always their idea.

BOGAVE: Tracey Ullman speaking with Terry Gross.

Her HBO comedy series "Tracey Takes On" is nominated for seven Emmys.

This is FRESH AIR.

If you're just joining us, we're featuring an interview Terry recorded with Tracey Ullman in January. The occasion was the publication of her new book "Tracey Takes On" based on her HBO comedy show.

GROSS: I'm wonder if you ever get any flak for, you know, when you do somebody who is of a different ethnic group than you are? I have been told by several satirists that it's a very difficult time to do satire because everybody is so kind of defensive about -- about somebody representing or stereotyping their ethnic group or...

ULLMAN: Yes, political correctness is just so -- it's just inhibiting and it's just strangling this country. You know, I mean if you do it with the right energy and spirit, we are different. Some people do talk like this. Some people do wear clothes like this. Some people do eat foods like this.

I mean, you know, you have to be -- I know, you have to be so cautious and I don't -- I'm not a racist. I'm not doing caricatures. I'm just impersonating people I see. And I do research my characters very thoroughly. And I know that I got a bit of flak initially for the Asian character that I do -- indeterminate Asian. There you go. See, you don't see where she's from either -- Mrs. Nonanine (ph).

GROSS: She's the owner of a donut shop.

ULLMAN: Yeah, "she sell them -- I sell donut. And" -- I've seen this -- I know this woman. I get donuts when we're doing our writers meetings. And I just -- I think it's difficult -- shocking for the Asians 'cause they don't have a lot of representation in the comedy world, on television. And -- but we -- so there was a bit of an outcry about that. And HBO defended me and said: "Look, she does it in the right spirit. It's with the right energy. And she has the right to do it."

And then I began to get letters from teenage Asian kids, and they'd say: "This is great, and you're like my grandma." And you know, "we don't have anyone on TV that actually is Asian. At least we've got you."


And we just -- now she's a very -- you know, because my criteria for doing a character, Terry, is: Do they exist?

GROSS: Mm-hmm.

ULLMAN: Do people talk like this? Do they look like this? And you know, I can impersonate them. I want to.

GROSS: Did you ever run into this kind of criticism in England?

ULLMAN: No, no. I have a new character in the show, the black lady, and that's great fun. And it was about time I did a black character. It was just difficult to do the makeup. You know, it's always -- it's time-consuming and -- but that went out in my first show, and I've got a lot of response ...

GROSS: This is the character who works at the airport?

ULLMAN: ... people thinking it's great fun. Yeah, Shenisha (ph).

GROSS: Yeah, she works at the airport at the -- not the X-ray...

ULLMAN: That's right.

GROSS: ... what do you call it? With the security thing.

ULLMAN: 'Cause every time I go through those things, they -- the woman always say to me, she look at me -- they look at me, they go: "Y'all on TV?"

There's always that moment, they look at me: "She's on TV." And I just thought -- I love those -- the airports. It's totally run by these incredible black women with fabulous hairstyles. And they have a moment of supreme power when you go through that security check.

"I've stopped that Steven Spielberg. I say: Hey, you stand still. You want get on that plane? You want to get on that plane? This plane could blow up. I'm security. Everybody, they don't have time for security."

You know, and they just get mad 'cause "you don't want to stop. You want me to search your bag? Put y'all keys in a bowl and walk fru' again."


And Adele Givens (ph) came and joined me as Helura (ph). And Adele Givens is a brilliant comedienne. I'd seen a lot of her on "Def Comedy Jam" on HBO. And she was so great with me. I mean, that's what really helped me to do that character 'cause she was totally relaxed about me, even when I began to melt under the lights. You know, and suddenly this white woman starts appearing, you know, with my makeup melted off.

And she gave me this brilliant crash course in African-American.

GROSS: What kind of tips did she give you?

ULLMAN: And corrected me -- just stuff, and was giving me line readings during the day, and -- I love stuff when she gets all excited: "It's on! It's on!" When I say I'm getting this book deal -- "It's on. It's go, girl."

And we had a wonderful time. And it was tough. You know, I go out there. I'm covered in black makeup. I've got these bull-body (ph) padding on -- all sorts of things; a wig. And there's -- I'm standing there amongst, you know, 10 black people. I'm thinking: "What am I going to do here? I'm going to join in." And so, I started shaking my booty.

And I had a great time. And they -- they -- you know, they accepted me, and I just do it. And I love it. I get into these fevered sort of state where I don't know who I am anymore. And that's heaven to me.

GROSS: Well, do you ever really not know who you are anymore? I mean, I see all your characters and they're all so convincing. And I think: "Gee, do you go through an identity crisis? Do you look in the mirror and think: I could be anybody, depending on what accent I put on or what -- how I do my hair.

I mean, you could -- you could pass for anybody.

ULLMAN: It's weird. I -- I guess I -- if I was a Buddhist, which is the religion I'm most interested in -- is -- I suppose I'm reincarnated many, many times. And I have been all these people. That might be an explanation for it. The Buddhists seem to know exactly why I'm like this.

GROSS: Let me stop you because I don't think that's true, because Fern Rosenthal didn't live centuries ago.


ULLMAN: I know, she's such -- she is so -- "I did, Terry, but I couldn't get my hair done. There was no good dye. There was this awful inky stuff they'd put on it down by the river there. It was henna. Ugh, it was awful. Thank God for L'Oreal."

Yeah, I know. She's so -- "and acrylic -- we couldn't get the acrylic nails. We did it with porcelain, hundreds of years ago, Terry. It was awful. It would break. It would shatter."

GROSS: She's one of my favorite characters of yours. She's the housewife from Long Island.

ULLMAN: Close -- Are you a Jew? Terry, are you Jewish?

GROSS: I think I'm good for the Jews.

ULLMAN: Are you a Jew?


I'm asking you a question, darling. Are you a Jew?

GROSS: Yeah, Fern, yeah.

ULLMAN: You're a Jew. You have any family like Fern?

GROSS: Not exactly, but I've had neighbors ...

ULLMAN: C'mon...

GROSS: ... no.

ULLMAN: "I've had neighbors." Jews never admit there's someone like Fern in their family. You go to Florida, Terry? You have any family in Florida?

GROSS: I have family in Florida, yes. I know many "Ferns" in Florida.

ULLMAN: Where Terry? Tell me? Talk to me. You like to go to the theater in Florida? You like to go to the big theaters?


GROSS: It's all dinner theater.


ULLMAN: I know, like, they go down there to die and they make them go to the theater. All these poor old Jews in Florida -- it's so sad. And they're dragging them around to see "Dreamgirls" and stuff, you know.

"Ugh, he wants to see as show with a lot of schwartzes (ph)"

And they try -- it's like, let him die. Don't make him go to the theater.

GROSS: Is there anyone who's the ...

ULLMAN: It's terrible.

GROSS: Did you meet -- ever meet anyone who's the equivalent of Fern Rosenthal in Florida? I mean in ...

ULLMAN: Pfew -- what a -- just it's all right stating the obvious...

GROSS: I mean in England.

ULLMAN: Oh, no, no -- it was really hard.


And I'd be talking to them and say: "oooh, oooh" Another one's died. They're going past the corner "oooh, oooh." It's all you hear down there.

GROSS: I meant to say in England.

ULLMAN: In England, there's a -- it's the Jews -- live in Gulder's Green (ph) and Dulles Hill (ph). And I'm thinking of Americanizing them, but they're very "oh darling, listen. They're very Jewish -- that -- this Jew -- it's the same thing."

They've got -- but it's American Jews -- English Jews, they got off the boat too early. They missed out. When my friend Gail Parent (ph) meets English Jews -- "oh, you got off the boat too early."


GROSS: Are there a lot of types you've been exposed to in America that you didn't have in England?

ULLMAN: New York Jews, seriously, to me are incredibly funny. I love them. And they're just -- they love the "Fern" character and they're very accepting of me and -- I mean, you know, I feel like I'm an honorary Jew.

Yeah -- no -- there's -- I always see equivalents in England. I mean, there's fabulous people to impersonate in England. You know, my class system is rich. And I -- "of course, you know that I do HRH -- the royal character that I do. One feels that one is terribly inclined to have a webpage nowadays."

I love that the Queen is actually on the Web now.

GROSS: Oh is she? I didn't know that.

ULLMAN: Oh, she -- the royal -- what did I say in my book about the Queen? I must read what I said about it. Well, no, it's not "the Queen," by the way. "HRH" is a conglomeration of: It's the Queen's voice, I suppose, and it's Princess Margaret's lifestyle and the Duchess of Kent's hats and Princess Anne's teeth. Age 57, she has two birthdays: the day she was born and her official birthday, a day that allows her subjects to rejoice.

She has been very active recently in raising funds for a new royal yacht -- something she believes is awfully important to the man in the street, even though he'll never be allowed to set foot in it.

"Please send much-needed contributions to any one of the 14 royal houses, or contact www.hrh.commoners."


So, the book is full of little bits like that, and information on the Queen, HRH.

GROSS: And my guest is Tracey Ullman. Her new book is called "Tracey Takes On" and it's a companion to her HBO series, "Tracey Takes On."

And this season she is taking on, let's see, music and politics and religion, I think?

ULLMAN: Religion ...

GROSS: Smoking.

ULLMAN: Marriage -- smoking, that's a good show. That's nice.

GROSS: Do you smoke?

ULLMAN: I used to.

GROSS: Did you give it up?

ULLMAN: I used to. But that was a -- yeah, yeah, yeah. If I live 'til 80, I'll start again 'cause I still miss it.

GROSS: Do you still have dreams about smoking?

ULLMAN: Yeah. It was so much fun.


GROSS: What happens in your smoking dreams?

ULLMAN: Oh, I'm just at a party in the '70s again, and -- I just -- it's funny. I'll have a great meal. I'll have a cup of coffee. And I think: oh, I'm missing something. I'm missing -- you know, I've given up for 15 years. But what was a good show, actually -- that -- that was a really good subject. For all the characters, that was terrific -- smoking.

I've got a nice character that -- 'cause I think taking on National Public Radio or taking on public television or something might be funny. 'cause my character, Birdie Godflynn (ph) -- she's age 42, devout Christian, married to Bob, a tobacco industry executive. They live on Van Quell (ph) Drive, within a graceful, gated, guarded community, with their seven home-schooled children. And I think she just hates public radio. She says: "I think it's the tool of the devil. I really do, Miss Gross."


She's a lovely -- she's a -- she's -- actually, she's my most beautiful character. She's got flipped up hair and the white teeth and the blue eyes.

GROSS: I think she's always wearing red and white.

ULLMAN: That's right -- ain't that great?

GROSS: Now is it harder for you to spend time just observing people now? Now that you're well-known?

ULLMAN: No, no. I mean, you don't need to literally be looking at them on the street. I -- I get -- I love documentaries, especially the ones made at HBO by a brilliant lady -- Sheila Nevin (ph) commissions these great documentaries on HBO. I watch those. And I listen to NPR a lot. You have so much -- many interviews from all 'round the country; all your stations. I listen to accents.

It's -- and it is difficult if I say to somebody: "Oh, I really want to do your voice. Can you make a tape for me?" And they go: "Oh, you want to sound like me?" And then they become different, and so I don't do that directly. If I want to impersonate somebody from somewhere, I just do it anonymously and call somebody that works -- a library in that town or something.

BOGAVE: Tracey Ullman spoke with Terry in January. Her HBO series "Tracey Takes On" is nominated for seven Emmy Awards. You can see Tracey Ullman on the season premier of Fox's "Ally McBeal" this Monday. Ullman plays Ally's therapist.

I'm Barbara Bogave and this is FRESH AIR.

This is a rush transcript. This copy may not
be in its final form and may be updated.


Dateline: Barbara Bogave
Guest: Tracey Ullman
High: Comedienne and actress Tracey Ullman. Her HBO series "Tracey Takes On" has been nominated for seven Emmys. Each week on her show, she features a gallery of characters talking about a topic, such as families, sex, money and crime. She also has a companion book "Tracey Takes On," and there's an HBO home video release of her previous show. Ullman is a native of England. She got her start in the U.S. with "The Tracey Ullman Show," and has since won several Emmys and Cableace awards. She's also appeared in the films "Ready to Wear," "Bullets Over Broadway," and "Plenty."
Spec: Tracey Ullman; HBO; Entertainment; Television and Radio
Please note, this is not the final feed of record
Copy: Content and programming copyright 1998 WHYY, Inc. All rights reserved. Transcribed by FDCH, Inc. under license from WHYY, Inc. Formatting copyright 1998 FDCH, Inc. All rights reserved. No quotes from the materials contained herein may be used in any media without attribution to WHYY, Inc. This transcript may not be reproduced in whole or in part without prior written permission.
End-Story: Tracey Ullman

Date: SEPTEMBER 11, 1998
Time: 12:00
Tran: 091102NP.217
Head: "From Earth to the Moon"
Sect: News; Domestic
Time: 12:36

BARBARA BOGAVE: This is FRESH AIR. I'm Barbara Bogave in for Terry Gross.

Tom Hanks' 12-part HBO mini-series about the Apollo space program, "From the Earth to the Moon," leads the Emmy pack with 17 nominations. Hanks is up for best directing for a mini-series or movie. He was also the executive producer of the series.

It begins with President Kennedy's 1961 challenge to send a man to the moon, and ends in 1972 with the last moon walk. Hanks directed one episode and wrote the final one, but he doesn't appear as an actor.

Terry spoke with him in April.

GROSS: Tom Hanks, you directed the first episode, which is about the very beginning of the space program ...


GROSS: ... John Kennedy's challenge to have a man on the moon by the end of the '60s. And that episode ends with the Gemini 8 mission that had to abort. Why did you decide to direct that particular episode?

HANKS: Well, I knew that it was going to be problematic and that we were going to have to bust a bunch of rules as far as being a "pilot" episode for what a series is. There were -- there was an ocean of faces that we had to establish, and yet not linger on very long in order to get everybody (unintelligible). And there was a huge volume of information that we just needed to lay down.

In show business parlance, it's called "shoe leather" or "pipe" -- you have to like essentially set the stage for what it our real story. There's not a single Apollo launch in the first episode. It's all one Mercury mission and four Gemini missions that are by and large forgotten.

And I felt as though that with as long -- a script that constantly stayed in flux right up until we were -- actually until just last December where we shot some extra scenes for it in order to flesh it out -- I knew that there was going to be this odd and undefined sort of logic that would have to be established by this first episode. And I honestly didn't know what it was. I couldn't give that over to a screenwriter or a director and say: "Listen, I know what this thing is -- but go off and shoot it. We'll make sense of it later on."

I am a member of the DGA so I could say: Well, you know what? I'm going to volunteer for what is not the -- it's kind of grunt work here, but I'll do some heavy lifting here and hopefully at the end of it, we'll have -- honestly, it's not even overture. It's more like a prelude to the rest of the series, trusting that no one really would be able to figure that out except me and a few other trusted advisers on the show.

GROSS: Now if I'm not mistaken, one of the things that you have in that first episode is the first walk in space.

HANKS: Yes, yes. Ed White's walk in space.

GROSS: So, how did you stage that?

HANKS: Well ...

GROSS: This is a scene where the -- you know, an astronaut's in space attached by like an umbilical cord to the spacecraft.

HANKS: Yes. There were five things that needed to be proven before anybody could go to the moon. And one of them was that it was going to be possible for a human being to get outside of a spacecraft in the vacuum of outer space; that a suit could be developed and that he would be able to live and breathe and survive however long it took, because obviously you can't walk on the moon without getting outside of a spacecraft.

So this was something that had never been done before, except by Alexei Leonov (ph) a few months prior to Ed White. And this was always one of the big things about the first episode. We were going to make -- we were going to show this in such a way, to an audience, by the way, that has become, you know, honestly -- they've seen this 100 million times in any number of science fiction films or television series.' That is, if we're going to try to bring it back in a oddly operatic, poetic, balletic sort of fashion so they'd understand it.

Well now wait, that's a cool thing to understand -- the idea of opening a hatch as you're flying fives miles a second, you know, 200 miles above the planet Earth, and then getting out and drifting around on a gold umbilical cord, would probably be a very beautiful thing.

As it turns out, it was very uncomfortable. It was very physically demanding of Ed White. It was not an easy thing to do. But you know what? We just sat down and said: OK, how are we going to do this? And we stuck some -- we have a very -- it's a sequence that has almost every one of the current modes of special effects photography in it.

We do -- do models. There is some computer-generated animation. There is a stuntman that's hanging from a tether. There is a stuntman standing on the floor as the camera does some interesting things.

And we just -- we just sort of like figured it out -- a way to get from that hatch opening up to the final moments when he gets back inside.

GROSS: You know, it's funny. I think our ideas of space have been formed at least as much by movies like "2001" and TV series like "Star Trek" as by the actual flights. And Tom Hanks, I read that you saw "2001" 22 times in a theater?

HANKS: Well, it's now up -- it's now over 30.

GROSS: It's up.

HANKS: It's over 30 now. As a matter of fact...

GROSS: This was long before you started making space movies.

HANKS: ... I've seen it projected -- that's the big deal. I have it on laser disc and I've watched sequences of it, but yeah I've seen it projected -- as a matter of fact, it was just re-released about two years ago and it played in the Cinerama dome here in Los Angeles and I was one of about 42 people at 2:00 in the afternoon sitting in and watching again.

And lo and behold, I see something new every time I see the film. So ...

GROSS: What did you see in it initially that got you back 22 times before you started seeing ...

HANKS: Oh, I can tell you quite -- I can tell you quite easily. It was the two sequences of the -- of the flight of the Pan Am space shuttle to the Blue Danube; and then the flight of the Aries One-B Mooncraft (ph), also to the Blue Danube that is carrying Dr. Heywood Floyd to the moon.

The thing you have to remember -- what I consider about "2001" is that this was not a fantastic, impossible future that we were seeing, rendered by Stanley Kubrick. This was literally what was going to happen. All of the -- all of the spacecraft, all of the procedures that we saw these characters doing -- riding around in -- upside down in a circular space station, strapped down in a space shuttle -- this was -- this was the physical reality of the direction that the hardware was going.

We weren't seeing like rocket ships that were shaped like, you know, discs. We weren't seeing "Lost in Space" with the "Space Family Robinson." We were seeing where the next generation of the Apollo spacecraft and the shuttle was.

So this -- we were literally having a window into the future of what it was going to be like within our lifetimes or (unintelligible). I'm going to be 44 in the year 2000, and that means by that time, we'll be able to watch that space station go over our house, you know. And it's going to look just like that, because that's what it's based on in physics.

And I -- this is -- this is the reason that I went back again and again and again and again, because I was seeing -- I was -- in real life, I was looking at the first draft of "2001: A Space Odyssey" in the form of Apollos 8 and Apollo 11 and Apollo 12. And this was just going to be a few years in the future.

BOGAVE: Tom Hanks, from an interview Terry recorded this spring. His HBO mini-series about the Apollo space program is nominated for 17 Emmys.

More after a break.

This is FRESH AIR.


We're featuring an interview Terry recorded in April with Tom Hanks. He's the executive producer of the Emmy-nominated series "From the Earth to the Moon."

Terry also spoke with him about his acting career, including films "Forrest Gump" and "Apollo 13."

GROSS: What did you learn from Apollo 13 about how to and how not to shoot space scenes?

HANKS: Well actually, inside the command and lunar modules, it's really not that difficult because honestly, we were on teeter-totters or just standing on apple boxes and you can tilt the camera to make it look anything -- you know, you can do a lot inside these very controlled atmospheres.

The real -- the real mold that we broke on "Apollo 13," I think, was truly trusting the audience to understand what we're talking about. There is a philosophy that says look, the audience doesn't know what -- anything about orbital mechanics, so we can't hang any dialogue talking about orbital mechanics. Yes we can, because it's going to be like, you know, they see a movie in French and it's subtitled. After a while, they forget that they're reading the subtitles and they're just hearing the French, but they're understanding it.

You know, the idea of "OK, rocket ship go, retro rockets fire" -- you know, we had a lot of, you know, OK, we got the IDC lines; we're going to have, you know, we had the whole lessons about what gimble lock is. The audience didn't need to understand gimble lock. They just had to know that gimble lock was a bad thing.

And we were able to communicate that after a number of forays into the transcripts.

GROSS: What impact did it have on you to play Jim Lovell in "Apollo 13"? And did you get to meet him and find out what impact it had on him for you to have told his story?

HANKS: Well you know, it was actually -- I was very afraid of my countenance being used in order to be -- portraying an astronaut because I was -- oddly enough, I had swallowed the myth hook, line and sinker of you know, these -- you know, the iron-jawed, steely eyed, you know, throttle-jockey aspect that has really been spoon-fed to us as though we get our sense of history from Wheaties boxes.

And by meeting Jim and realizing that on first glance, you would assume that Jim is a successful dentist or a well-read insurance agent. He's not a tall man. You know, he's not a muscular man. He's not a scary man. He's not an intimidating man. He is just this really great guy who you find out has made 100 night landings on an aircraft carrier in the Sea of Japan. And oh -- by -- also by the way, was one of the first three men to leave the Earth's gravitational pull, orbit the moon, and come back. And was also the commander of Apollo 13.

To realize that these guys who are -- were literally interplanetary explorers, or the closest thing we had to interplanetary explorers, are not all that different from you or I; that indeed, somebody who has my countenance and my outlook and the same attitude when he gets out of bed could indeed be someone who leaves the planet Earth.

That was something of a -- an eye-opening catharsis for me, and made me feel -- made me feel as though, you know what? -- I'm the perfect guy to play Jim Lovell. At first, I thought I was as far removed, but after meeting him and getting to know him and hanging around him I realized that if you're going to cast somebody to play Jim Lovell, you better come and get me.

GROSS: You directed the first episode in this new "From the Earth to the Moon" series. What's the best direction you've ever had in a movie that you weren't directing, but you were acting in?

HANKS: Oh, "do it different." That was it. It was literally: " just do that different." You get to the point where you're an actor and you think that what your job is to sit at home the night before and say: "OK, here's how I'm gonna do this. Here's how I'm going to say this line. And when this moment comes, I'm gonna turn. I'm gonna give this look. And with that look, it's going to communicate everything that I want communicated in the scene. And that's what I'm gonna do."

And you think that that's what your job is. Well you know, your job is to get there and tell the truth, according to the dictates of the scene. Spencer Tracy said this. He said: "The actor's job is to hit the marks and tell the truth."

You have to be in the reality of that very specific moment, and there are times -- I mean, this was very early. You know what? I'll tell you. It was in a TV movie I did called "Rona Jaffe's Mazes and Monsters" and the director said to me: "You know, that was great. That was fine. That was OK. Do it different."

And I felt: "Do it different? My God, man. I've done all this preparation for this. This is -- this is what -- this -- you don't understand. I'm an artist." And -- but in a moment, a light went off in my head -- a great illumination I might add -- that said: "Oh I see what he's saying. I see what he's saying."

GROSS: And what was he saying? Yeah, go ahead.

HANKS: He's saying that was fake ...

GROSS: Right.

HANKS: ... and that was baloney and that's what you want us to believe is going on. But you know what? We can see that you've just made these arbitrary choices in order to make it seem as though you're undergoing something, and the fact is I'm not believing it. So, please do something different.

And that is -- that demands a lot of things. That demands a certain fluidity and a certain -- as well as a trusting of the text itself as opposed to your sole interpretation of what that text is.

GROSS: So, when you as a director have to tell an actor to do it different, is that -- are those the words that you'd use? Or is there a nice or not-nice way of putting that?


HANKS: There's other ways of doing it. Hopefully, you've had enough communication with your actors prior to that, so you sort of speak the same language. And I must say, you know, I'm perfectly willing to take that kind of blatant direction from guys, but it's -- there's ways of doing it. See, you can -- 'cause you can come and say "you know what this" -- Nora Ephron does this a lot. I'm making a movie with her right now. Nora always comes up and ...

GROSS: And she wrote "Sleepless in Seattle."

HANKS: She wrote "Sleepless in Seattle" and directed it. And she says: "You know what this moment is? This is the moment where you know that you're doing the right thing, but in fact you're not doing the right thing."


And you -- you say -- well, there's an infinite possibilities of what she means there, and I think I do understand what she means. And so you end up going off down this road. And that is essentially a very cool way and very polite way of saying "do something different."

Because how knows -- when they put this movie together six months from now, that one thing that you are providing and recreating over and over again may not be the thing that's going to make the scene. So you have to trust the fact that there is a -- there is a degree of serendipity that goes into your performance on any given day that can make or break that scene, and therefore the whole enterprise.

GROSS: You wrote, directed, and co-starred in the film "That Thing You Do" a couple of years ago, which was set in the same era as your space series. It was set in 1964.

HANKS: Those go-go '60s.


GROSS: About a small-town rock band that becomes a one-hit wonder. And I guess -- I'm wondering if those two themes are connected in your mind? You know, this one-hit wonder rock band of the '60s and the moon flights.

HANKS: Well, I have to tell you that I'm 41 years old and like -- I have that -- I have a degree of the disease that everybody else my age has.

GROSS: That my era was the most important era?

HANKS: Well, you know what? Yes, exactly right. The people who are 10 years older than us think differently and the people who are 10 years younger than us think differently as well. I must say, I look back on those -- and actually -- what? -- we were just talking about when I was nine years old.

I can probably remember moments when I was nine years old better than I can remember moments from when I was 39 years old, because they were so indelible. And all I can remember is the Beatles were so cool, and there was nothing more magical than the Ed Sullivan Show when the Beatles were going to be on it.

And I remember distinctly walking across that playground in Mrs. Castle's class to sit in the auditorium to watch a Gemini capsule sit on top of an Atlas booster and go nowhere for hours on end. And it was -- these were -- these -- I'm not a great filmmaker. I'm not a great storyteller. I'm some guy who works in the movies.

But you know what? When it comes down to the stuff that I really do have a passion for and I think I can recreate on paper, it always -- it's going to come out of my own experience somehow, especially right now. And these things -- these things that are so powerful for me are truly -- I can tell you -- the three big -- the big three from my life are the Beatles, and it is the Apollo space program, and it is Vietnam.

I still ponder all three of those things over and over again. I read them ...

GROSS: Well, OK.

HANKS: ... I read them as hobbies.

GROSS: It's interesting that you mention Vietnam because I think for a lot of people during the Vietnam War, the space program had a sense almost of irrelevance or of misplaced values, you know. We're fighting this war; we're killing people in another country; there's poverty in our own neighborhoods. And yet, we're sending men to the moon.

I mean, some people were really quite outraged about that. How did you reconcile that?

HANKS: Well, we just -- we just pay homage to the fact that they were going on hand-in-hand.

GROSS: Right.

HANKS: We -- our -- our fourth episode, which is entitled "1968," which is about our -- the Apollo 8 mission, really chronicles month by month everything that went on in that year, starting in January and ending in December.

The -- the -- almost -- the cruel twist of fate in regards to the Apollo moon program is that it did happen as a bookend to Vietnam -- in tandem. And here was this thing that was siphoning off so much of our attention and so much of our grief and so much of our money, to a tragic and -- What's the other? What's the word? -- oppressive end, really. I mean, there was no escaping Vietnam at the time.

And on the other side of it, here was this altruistic thing that was expanding the horizons of humankind that was also costing an awful lot of money.

GROSS: Where did you find the right body language and voice for "Forrest Gump?" Where did you look in yourself for that?

HANKS: Well, it -- the first thing that I understood about Forrest when it began was that he couldn't operate faster than his own common sense. That's the one thing that I got from reading it. That's the one thing I presented to Bob Zemeckis (ph) and Eric Roth (ph) who wrote it. I said: Look, I don't know anything about this guy except he can't operate faster than his own common sense."

So that automatically made him "slow" or hesitant, and not very -- not very verbal. Everything else, I must say, came through this long period of -- of bad experimentation on my part of trying to find this guy. And it didn't honestly click in until the young actor who played the young Forrest and I met.

And we did some camera tests -- screen tests -- here in Los Angeles about maybe -- maybe a month or two months prior to beginning of shooting. I just said: "Lord, this kid is perfect." And we -- I had a brief conversation with him. I said: "Look, don't have this kid change anything. Don't make him do anything that I have ideas. That's going to be virtually impossible. Let me -- let me just take him."

He was a fascinating kid. He was a good kid and he had this distinctive way of talking that I was following him around with a tape recorder, and then sat down with the dialogue coach, a woman by the name of Jessica Drake, and I said: "OK, how do we make this an organic -- an organic thing that comes out of my mouth?"

And what we did in the two weeks prior to beginning the shooting was we slowly read the entire screenplay out loud. I read it to her -- every page number, every exterior -- Forrest Gump's house; "it is a sunny day on the river; and Forrest is mowing the lawn."

You know, and -- and I said everybody's -- I said everybody's dialogue; I said every fade in; I said every fade out; I said every "cut" too. And it took a real long time. But by the time we were done, it was -- it was locked in my head enough so that I could put on the clothes and go out and be Forrest.

GROSS: Right. I'm curious about the ideas that you rejected ...


... for the role.

HANKS: Oh, they were pretty bad. You know, it's like bad Southern accents and this is -- I must say that this is a really -- you talk about how you -- how you prepare to do this, and you have to fail horribly before you can figure any of this stuff out.

You really have to be bad. And you have to trust that that badness is like being on a river and you're floating downstream even though you don't realize it, and you're going to get there, but you have to go up these tributaries that are really quite ugly and terrible and embarrassing.

And you could probably -- I could probably play you some audio tapes of early passes we made at the voiceover of Forrest Gump. And it's just God-awful. But we knew it was God-awful when we were doing it. I experienced it in some ways as well when I was doing a movie called "Punchline" and I had to get up and do standup comedy in clubs and I had no act.

But it's a terrible feeling to get up on stage and bomb, but I knew that I had to get up on stage and bomb before I could get up on stage and be any good. And that was the only way of getting into the -- getting the research done and getting material for the character.

And so you sort of have to like put all of your self-consciousness aside and say: "I'm really going to be terrible" -- for about six weeks. And hopefully at the end of six weeks, we'll actually be on the right track.

BOGAVE: Tom Hanks from an interview recorded last April. His HBO mini-series "From the Earth to the Moon" has earned 17 Emmy nominations.

HBO plans to rebroadcast the series on its Signature channel in October, and the series will be available on digital video disc in November.

Tom Hanks is starring in the new Nora Ephron film "You've Got Mail." It's slated to open at the end of the year.

This is FRESH AIR.

This is a rush transcript. This copy may not
be in its final form and may be updated.


Dateline: Barbara Bogave
Guest: Tom Hanks, Andrew Chaikin
High: Actor, director and producer Tom Hanks and writer Andrew Chaikin collaborated on the HBO mini-series "From Earth to the Moon" which ran in April and has been nominated for seventeen Emmys. Hanks was the executive producer for he project. Chaikin, a consultant on the series, wrote the book "A Man on the Moon" which the program is largely based on. Hanks also starred in the film "Apollo 13." He received Academy Awards for his roles in "Forrest Gump" and "Philadelphia."
Spec: Tom Hanks; HBO; Television and Radio; Astronautics and Space
Please note, this is not the final feed of record
Copy: Content and programming copyright 1998 WHYY, Inc. All rights reserved. Transcribed by FDCH, Inc. under license from WHYY, Inc. Formatting copyright 1998 FDCH, Inc. All rights reserved. No quotes from the materials contained herein may be used in any media without attribution to WHYY, Inc. This transcript may not be reproduced in whole or in part without prior written permission.
End-Story: "From Earth to the Moon"

Date: SEPTEMBER 11, 1998
Time: 12:00
Tran: 091103NP.217
Head: Master Filmmakers of Japan
Sect: Entertainment
Time: 12:50

BARBARA BOGAVE, HOST: When people think about Japanese filmmaking, the first name that usually comes to mind is Akira Kurosawa, who died in Tokyo last week.

Critic John Powers discusses Kurosawa's legacy, and a new film by a Japanese director who John thinks is every bit Kurosawa's equal.

JOHN POWER, FILM CRITIC: When I first heard of the death of Akira Kurosawa last weekend, I instantly thought about the time I interviewed him. It was one of the most intimidating experiences of my life.

People always called him "sensai," or "master." And he more than lived up to the title. Kurosawa didn't suffer fools gladly, and he clearly thought the world had been stocked with more than its fair share of fools.

I remember starting with the question about the meaning of his most recent film, "Ran." He winced politely and gave a brief, neutral reply.

I asked a similar question about an earlier film, and he did the same. I kept trying and trying, and he sat there like an emperor, obviously bored with this young critic and his fatuous pseudo-intellectual questions.

In desperation, I asked how technology had changed filmmaking. And suddenly his eyes lit up.

"Ah," he said, "lenses." And he launched into enthusiastic monologue.

You see, I had finally asked a practical question.

Kurosawa's reputation was itself connected to the practicalities of the film business. His work opened up the West to Japanese film, and made his name synonymous with Japanese cinema. And all this happened just as he was in the middle of his greatest period, when he made no regrets for "Our Youth," "The Seventh Samurai," "Throne of Blood" and "Akiru;" which contains one of the century's unforgettable images, a dying old bureaucrat sitting on a swing in the snow.

Kurosawa's always Hollywood's favorite Japanese director, largely because he spoke the same cinematic language. "The Seventh Samurai" was remade as "The Magnificent Seven;" while "The Hidden Fortress" was the model for "Star Wars." It's one measure of Kurosawa's stature that "Star Wars" is the great achievement of George Lucas' life, while "The Hidden Fortress" is one of the sensai's minor pictures.

Yet for all his greatness, there is almost something slightly oppressive about Kurosawa's fame. Because he helped to open up American audiences to foreign films, he became one of those names like Bergman, Fellini and Truffaut, whose been used to thump every foreign filmmaker who's come along since.

Yet the irony is that for the last 35 years, Kurosawa wasn't even Japan's best or most important director. That distinction belongs to Shohei Imamura, who made as many great movies as Kurosawa, but whose work is to Japanese for Western audiences. As it happens, a wonderful Imamura movie is now coming out in the states. It's called "The Eel," and it shared top prize at Cannes last year, the second time Imamura has won that festival. The first was with "The Ballad of Narayama."

Like most of Imamura's work, the movie defies easy description. It starts of as a thriller, turns into what looks like a tale of redemption, and winds up as a wise, old, almost Shakespearean vision of the human comedy. The star is Kodi Yokusho (ph), who is the melancholy businessman in "Shall We Dance." Here he plays Tukuro, a man who murders his wife when he catches her in bed with another man.

In jail, he shares his soul with an eel, who becomes his best friend and confidante. When Tukuro is released, he and the eel open a barber shop in a small town, where he meets a suicidal woman who looks exactly like his dead wife. And from there, the story gets wilder and wilder, with Tukuro's barber shop becoming an odd-ball microcosm of contemporary Japan, with its priests and gangsters and money-mad citizens.

"The Eel" is far from Imamura's greatest film, but its undeniably the work of a major artist. No other movie this year is nearly so playful and daring in its mixture of tones: from bouts of eroticism and harrowing murder, to slapstick brawls and tender moments of luminous beauty.

Back when he started, Imamura was considered a young Turk, while Kurosawa was the established master, with a growing taste for grandiosity. Now, Imamura is finally and indisputably Japan's leading sensai. And I can't decide what's more remarkable, that he's still making good movies in his 70s, or that his movies have the panache you'd expect from a brilliant young man.

BOGAVE: John Powers is film critic for "Vogue."

This is a rush transcript. This copy may not
be in its final form and may be updated.


Dateline: Barbara Bogave
Guest: John Powers
High: Film critic John Powers looks at the work of two master film directors from Japan: Akira Kurowsawa, who died last weekend; and Shohei Imamura, whose film "The Eel" is now opening in the U.S.
Spec: Movie Industry; Entertainment; Death; Akira Kurosawa; Shohei Imamura

Please note, this is not the final feed of record
Copy: Content and programming copyright 1998 WHYY, Inc. All rights reserved. Transcribed by FDCH, Inc. under license from WHYY, Inc. Formatting copyright 1998 FDCH, Inc. All rights reserved. No quotes from the materials contained herein may be used in any media without attribution to WHYY, Inc. This transcript may not be reproduced in whole or in part without prior written permission.
End-Story: Master Filmmakers of Japan
Transcripts are created on a rush deadline, and accuracy and availability may vary. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Please be aware that the authoritative record of Fresh Air interviews and reviews are the audio recordings of each segment.

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