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Uniformity, so to speak

A multicultural cast needs a universal language, and so does its audience. For every 'Memoirs of a Geisha' actor, that meant starting fresh.

November 27, 2005|John Horn | Times Staff Writer

THE story unfolds in Kyoto. The movie was shot in Southern California. Its stars hail from Japan, China, Vietnam, Malaysia and the United States. And five lead actors had never before made a film in English.

If ever a movie needed a common language, it was "Memoirs of a Geisha," opening Dec. 9. Yet the challenges of verbal communication weren't limited to "Geisha's" physical production. The movie's makers also had to pick a distinct dialect in which the movie would be performed, lest it resemble a U.N. cocktail party. They ultimately settled on a lightly Japanese-accented English, a choice that proved difficult for several Asian actors to pull off and required some high-tech editing tricks to polish.

"Nothing compares to this," says Jessica Drake, the film's supervising dialect coach. Drake should know. She taught Russell Crowe how to shake his Aussie accent for "L.A. Confidential" and Tom Hanks how to pick up an Alabama drawl for "Forrest Gump." "This was the hardest thing I ever worked on," Drake says of "Geisha."

From the start of adapting Arthur Golden's bestselling novel about a legendary geisha in early 20th century Japan, screenwriter Robin Swicord and director Rob Marshall elected to follow Golden's lead and tell the story almost entirely in English.

American moviegoers aren't terribly keen on subtitles, but in truth that wasn't the sole reason Marshall ("Chicago") filmed only the opening segment with Japanese dialogue. Had the actors performed the entire movie in the language, the director says, "I never would have known what they were saying."

Marshall, who knows but a handful of Japanese phrases, then faced the coupled obstacles of not only teaching his pan-Asian cast to speak and understand English but also training them in the same patois, so that they all sounded as if they were in the same movie.

Marshall asked his lead performers to audition in English, a condition that nearly cost one of the film's stars a job. In an early meeting, veteran Japanese actor Koji Yakusho toiled reading the prominent role of Nobu in English, with Marshall eventually pulling him aside to tell him his diction wasn't good enough.

Yakusho asked for a second chance and came back after two weeks of studying English. He got the part.

Then the real work began for the five lead actors who had never acted in English-speaking parts. "Our table read, which normally would last a couple of hours, lasted weeks," Marshall says.

The actors spent six weeks perfecting their English, and it was a constant test. In addition to Drake, the movie employed another dialect coach, a dialogue coach (who would run lines with actors) and two translators.

Ziyi Zhang, the Chinese actress who stars in the film as geisha Sayuri Nitta, says the script was peppered with words that proved nearly insurmountable. "The word 'world' for me is really hard," the actress says in what is now competent and clear English. "One hundred times later, I was able to say it."

The next step involved accents, which were critical to master.

Past pronouncements

IT was relatively easy to avoid the cliched disasters of Japanese American speech similar to Mickey Rooney's tactless performance as Mr. Yunioshi in 1961's "Breakfast at Tiffany's." More difficult was steering clear of the minor missteps that also would invite critical curses: Consider the thrashing Kevin Costner received for his vaguely English accent in "Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves," the hits Brad Pitt took for his stab at an Irish brogue in "The Devil's Own," or the multo brutto notices Nicolas Cage collected for "Captain Corelli's Mandolin."

"Geisha's" actors of Chinese and Japanese descents labored to pronounce contractions, which were eventually eliminated by Marshall and uncredited screenwriter Doug Wright because they were difficult to speak and felt modern and informal. Drake marked up her script too, eliminating lines she knew would be beyond reach, including the comment "He is a prickly fellow." Says Drake: "We cut that out before we even got there."

Marshall and Drake settled on what stage actors would recognize as standard American English, a pattern of enunciation favored by the late speech teacher Edith Skinner. The dialect resonates as vaguely British and of a different period because it softens some hard vowels; rather than say "ask," as many would sharply pronounce it, the word comes out as "aaahsk."

Before they could learn a new accent, though, many cast members first had to lose an old one. "Geisha's" native Chinese speakers (who include Zhang and Gong Li as the story's villain, Hatsumomo) would bring one set of enunciations to English words, while native Japanese speakers (Yakusho, Kaori Momoi as the landlady O-kami and Suzuka Ohgo as young Sayuri) would bring another.

As Zhang describes it, a Chinese speaker would tend to pronounce a phrase such as "rock and roll" as "wok and woll," while a Japanese speaker might sound more like "lock and loll."

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