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Peter Webber, Emperor

Webber talks to Screen about his new historical drama which premieres in Toronto on Friday.

As with his first feature, Girl with a Pearl Earring, Peter Webber travels back in time to use history as inspiration in his new drama Emperor, which focuses on the days following Japan’s surrender to the Allied Forces and the debate around Emperor Hirohito’s trial as a war criminal. Tommy Lee Jones stars as General Douglas MacArthur, while Matthew Fox plays his protégé, who must head the investigation while struggling with the memories of his past love affair with a Japanese woman. The film premieres in Toronto on Friday.

What drew you to this particular subject?

I’ve always been interested in Japan and Japanese culture, and WWII is a particular interest of mine, as well. But most importantly, Ithink, it is a very timely subject matter. We live in an age where we have seen American power affecting great change. We’ve seen the difficulties of that – it’s easy to win a war, very difficult to win a peace. I thought that this is a little-known story from a time that’s pretty forgotten for us now that has lessons for us today.

How did the shoot go?

Like any shoot, there’s never enough time and never enough money – that’s the universal rule of filmmaking. It was fantastic to work a legend like Tommy Lee Jones and Matthew Fox was a delight to work with. But most of all for me, actually, was to do with this cast of Japanese actors, who were super well known in Japan, not at all well known outside of Japan. It was agreat privilege to work with people who come from quite different traditions, including kabuki theatre. It was a fascinating to have this cross-cultural collaboration.

I imagine it must have been difficult to tell an American story in a Japanese context.

It’s very much a fish-out-of-water story. In a sense, you can channel that difficulty. The story really is about Matthew, who plays General Fellers, having to leave the safety and security of the world that he knows – the American military – and head out to deal with a set of rather tricky Japanese individuals to try to solve the conundrum. It’s so much about trying to penetrate the veils of mystery of another culture. It’s about confusion, misunderstandings. So in a way, your journey as a filmmaker is mirroring the journey of the main character.

What’s next for you?

I’ve been trying to get a film about a young pickpocket in Colombia off the ground. And then with my producing hat on, I’m producing the first picture of a young Qatari filmmaker. They’re both contemporary – I think it’s about time.  

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