Bernard Rose is a filmmaker and screenwriter. In his early 20’s he directed music videos such as UB40’s ‘Red Red Wine’ and Frankie Goes to Hollywood’s ‘Relax’. Since his first feature film Paperhouse he’s established himself as part of a tradition of singular, eclectic British directors operating mainly outside the commercial mainstream such as Ken Russell, Peter Greenaway, Michael Winterbottom, and Peter Strickland. His films include Immortal Beloved, Mr. Nice, and several adaptations of stories by Leo Tolstoy such as Ivansxtc and The Kreutzer Sonata. He’s perhaps best known for the cult 90s horror classic Candyman. Ahead of its home release, we spoke to him about his latest film, the Japanese drama Samurai Marathon, the enduring themes of Candyman, and changes in the film industry.
A samurai movie in the grand tradition of Kurosawa, Samurai Marathon opens at a seminal moment in Japanese history. ‘In the mid-1850s, after 250 years of seclusion Americans landed in Tokyo Harbour,’ Rose explains. ‘Commodore Perry, with three American warships landed in Tokyo. Prior to that, anyone who landed in mainland Japan would be crucified, and no one was allowed to leave either. They were all prisoners on the island under the Shogunate. They didn’t want the Jesuits – the Portuguese and the Spanish – spreading Catholicism as they had in Korea and various other places.’ The end was nigh for the insularity of the Edo Period, as the Shogun signed a treaty with the US, although this didn’t sit well with traditionalists, and sets the curious events of the film in motion, events made all the more strange for being based on fact. ‘In the town where the film is set, in Annake, the Lord realises that his samurai have sat around for the last 150 years, writing poetry and going to the tea house, not doing very much and getting a bit unfit. He sends them up the hill on a training mission, on a marathon. Up the mountain to a shrine and back again; to get them fit again and prepare them for battle. Essentially the Shogun heard about this, thinks It’s an act of rebellion and sends a force against them.’
For Rose, the race serves as a microcosm of Edo society as the various characters are coming to terms with the world around them changing forever. ‘I liked the idea of showing a broad swathe of the different classes in Edo Period Japan; the different strata of society and how they would all function and interact, yet they all have this unifying thing of the race.’ As he has done throughout his career he adapted and expanded on existing sources to achieve his ensemble. ‘The bones of the story existed both as a novel and as a screenplay [by Hiroshi Saito] before I got involved. I would say probably 50% of the story belongs to Saito, such as the stuff with the old man and the young boy [odd-couple competitors whose inclusion is a source of poignancy and comedy throughout]. A lot of those things were very much his. The stuff that I added in was all the stuff with the princess [Yuki, who dresses as a boy in order to compete] and that whole relationship with her and Sukimura and Jinnai [secret ninja covertly operating for the Shogun] and all that. That was stuff that I added because I thought it was more interesting to emphasise that side of the story.’
Even though Rose can speak Japanese well enough, he stayed true to the film’s period setting, and it was important to him that Samurai Marathon was above all a Japanese film that happened to have a Western director. ‘[The film is] in Edo Period Japanese. It’s somewhat different in the same way as the relation Shakespearean English has to English. The use of language and vocabulary is very different. I had writers for whom it wasn’t a basic translation, but who rewrote it as the translations from English to Japanese just don’t really work because the languages don’t operate in the same way… I was going in and doing things within a Japanese context rather than them adapting to a Western concept of Japan, so I think the film is less touristic than other films made in Japan. Essentially, I was fitting into their land rather than the other way round.’
This approach seems to have paid off as the film has been well received in Japan. ‘Certainly, there was a good deal of suspicion about a gaijin [foreigner] making a Jidaigeki [period drama, usually set in the Edo period], you know?’ says Rose. ‘On the other hand, it’s no different than Ang Lee making the Jane Austen film he made [Sense and Sensibility]. I thought Ang Lee brought something different to that that was somewhat indefinable. It’s very interesting to go somewhere else and work where you’re not imposing and going, “Here are all the clichés about Japan!” [If you do that] it does really tend to irritate Japanese people as you can imagine, but I had a lot of people who would police the hell out of that. I was the only non-Japanese person on the picture really, apart from [composer] Philip Glass.’
Another film which saw Rose filming in an environment completely different from his own was Candyman, in which the murdered son of a former slave (and iconic, honey-voiced Tony Todd) returns to ensure his status as a modern folk legend, shot on location in the dilapidated Calibri-Green neighbourhood in Chicago. Here too, respect for the area was important. Says Rose, ‘When I went to Chicago to go on location, I didn’t want to go there and go, “Here’s all the clichés, I want to describe you in my limited worldview. We’re going to enact them, and where reality differs from them, we’re just going to ignore that and change it.” A lot of people do operate like that. But if you do operate like that what you end up with is something that’s inauthentic and probably pisses off the people it’s about. So I think it’s just a question of going there and listening to what is going on in people’s lives, and what they really think. When they tell you something’s wrong, listen to them. It always shocks me that people don’t.’ That authenticity; of the inequality suffered by black communities and the attendant poverty ensures the film remains relevant nearly thirty years on.
So relevant in fact that a belated sequel is being released this year. Produced by modern horror maestro Jordan Peele (Get Out, Us) it returns to the area, now gentrified after the demolition of the projects, Candyman’s stamping ground. Rose isn’t involved but given Peele’s success with the theme of race in the US, he sees it as a good fit. ‘It’s really good to get his perspective on it in those terms [continuing the racial themes of the original]. Because in a sense, whatever I did or didn’t do back in 1992, it was still tourism in once sense. But then I think it’s a bit about that, because Virginia Madsen’s character is a bit of a tourist, and she suffers for it. She thinks of herself as a kind of white saviour, but it comes and bites her in the arse.’
As in his latest film, Rose sees part of Candyman‘s enduring appeal as being down to its vivid characterisation, which he fleshed out from Clive Barker‘s original source short story, ‘The Forbidden’. The strength of the writing and its empathy for the characters sets it above the vast majority of its contemporaries. Says Rose, ‘I think if you don’t care about people, and the film doesn’t have humour and a kind of humanity in it it’s very, very hard to watch. It just becomes looking at how well the mechanics are played out and that’s not very interesting. All the great horror films are character studies really, first and foremost. Halloween had got amazing characters in it. People ask why Halloween is greater than all the slashers that came after it: none of which took the time to go into the back story.’
When asked about how the process of making films has changed between the making of Candyman and Samurai Marathon, he enthuses about the staying power of cinema in general, which if anything, is in resurgence. ‘The thing that I feel is counter-intuitive about the modern movie industry which almost nobody talks about, is that the miracle is that it’s still so central to the culture – and not in a kind of protected, museum kind of way. It’s still a very vibrant and important business. When you think about all the entertainment choices that are out there now for people, and they get more and more and more every year, and film remains a basic unit of currency that has endured and endured! I think that’s fantastic but it’s also unusual… I remember in the 80s when I was working in the British film industry – when I was making Paperhouse – you could go into Pinewood Studios and they would let you in for free just because it was so sad to them that there was nothing going on. Now, you can’t go near the place unless you bring them a big box of gold! So, things definitely have changed, certainly in the UK, since then.’
Rose also enthuses about the specific longevity of the cinema-going experience, enduring through the decades despite alleged death knells such as TV and, recently, the growing prevalence of streaming services. ”The communal experience is such a unique thing, and it’s great that people still want to do it. To some extent, it surprises me because it could so easily have gone the other way. Some exhibition. It could have ended up like opera; heavily subsidised and only for the cognoscenti, and it’s not that.’
Given the continued rude health of the medium, are there any filmmakers that he particularly admires? After citing the new Quentin Tarantino‘s Once Upon A Time… In Hollywood and Bong Joon-ho‘s Parasite as recent favourites, Rose again broadens the scope of the question to make a wider point about not just making a film under current industry conditions but finding an audience. ‘There are all those [films] that are more obscure. I think it’s just a really fertile time for filmmaking. The problem as always is, if you have something small and interesting, how do you capture attention? Because it does seem to be that people are focused either on awards season film contenders, or on huge releases, and if your film isn’t one of those it’s very difficult to get attention to it at all. There are also a lot more films than there used to be. I think it’s difficult to get noticed I suppose. Some films get noticed and some films are ignored at the time and then become loved, and some are loved at the time and then ignored. None of it is predictable. The other thing that always strikes me that people forget about movies is how young they are. Because sound film after all only dates from 1927, so we’re only in the 93rd year of sound films. That’s crazy! Everything’s that going on now and we do in the future will be regarded as early cinema. It’s bound to be the case. Alright, the silent period goes back to 1895, but really silent films are a different object.’
Asked if there was one film that he could point to as being his legacy, Rose still considers his career as ver much still in progress. ‘Oh god! The one I’m going to make next [laughs]! I hope I’ve got a few more in me. I think of all the films I’ve made, the one that I like most that’s most obscure, but doesn’t deserve to be, is a little film that I made called Boxing Day with Danny Huston and Matthew Jacobs which is an adaptation of ‘Master and Man‘ by Tolstoy and it’s about these two guys in a car trying to buy up repossessed houses in Colorado, and getting stuck in the snow. It’s a really good little film.’
Samurai Marathon is released on Digital HD from Mon 20 Jan 2020.