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The Runaway Train: Behind the Scenes of Making the Movie

The following is an excerpt of the book All the Emperor’s Men: Kurosawa’s Pearl Harbor by Hiroshi Tasogawa, as posted on Please visit their website to read this entire excerpt. The book takes you behind the scenes of the filming of Tora! Tora! Tora!, a film about the attack on Pearl Harbor. Director Akira Kurosawa was hired to do the Japanese scenes, but he was expelled from the production. This book remembers his vision. Today is Pearl Harbor Remembrance Day in the U.S. This excerpt deals with the filming of the movie The Runaway Train, before Kurosawa started working on Tora! Tora! Tora!

Culture Shock

A reporter at the New York press conference called to announce production of The Runaway Train asked: “Are you worried about language differences being a problem in the creation of a movie in America?” Kurosawa answered: “With a single conductor’s baton, Karajan enables the people of the world to understand his music and with a single brush, Picasso can communicate his image to the people of the world. I am confident that if you give me a camera and film, I can create a movie that will be understood by the peoples of the world.” In later years, he added: “Movies communicate to the heart at a level that transcends language.”

Kurosawa undoubtedly believed what he said but he was most likely thinking about the communication that occurs between the finished movie and its audience. The language issues that arose in the course of producing the movie could not be so easily glossed over.

An orchestra conductor has the musical score to serve as the common language for himself and the orchestra. A painter can face the canvas alone with only a brush in hand. Film, however, is an art form requiring people in a group that includes both cast and staff pulling in the same direction. To manage the production of a movie while reconciling differences of opinion and correcting misconceptions, a high level of verbal communication is indispensable. Even with skilled interpreters, communicating the will of the director is not easy.

Furthermore, Kurosawa relentlessly polished the script while the filming was underway and tended to be more ruthless than other direc¬tors in coaching actors on the delivery of their lines. If he trusted the discretion of the actors or entrusted the coaching to an assistant who was a native English-speaker, it would be one thing. But that was unlikely. So it was not really clear how Kurosawa intended to instruct the American actors about their English lines or how he intended to judge the success of the resulting performances. Particularly serious, Kurosawa was not aware of the pitfalls inherent in a process in which his Japanese screenplay had not been merely translated word for word but rather rewritten in a framework of the American English language in a Hollywood screenplay. Having earned a reputation as a skilled screenwriter early in his career, Kurosawa was fully aware of the importance of the screenplay. “If the screenplay is excellent, even a third-rate director can make a decent movie, but if the screenplay is no good, the situation is hopeless even for a first-rate director,” he once said. Kurosawa was woefully unaware, however, of the accommodations demanded by Hollywood as standard operating procedure with respect to screenplays in English.

The ways of Japanese movie production known to Kurosawa are centered on the director. In the Japanese movie world, a director comes to be recognized as a “master,” with more and more people likely to see it as natural that he be permitted to be dictatorial. In the case of Kurosawa, movie production was director-centered as he brought each project to completion by writing the screenplay—and doing the directing, shooting, and editing.

In contrast, in America the principle is that movie making is not director-centered but rather producer-centered. In many cases, it would not be far off the mark to consider the director to be a foreman who does not appear on the scene until after the preliminary arrangements have been made. From an American perspective, a Japanese movie screenplay, particularly one by Kurosawa, is inherently different from that in Hollywood. Taking Kurosawa as an extreme case, so long as he had a clear picture in mind, he would write the screenplay concisely. Even if no one else understood, he had no problem using keywords to suggest the image he desired.

In the screenplay for Kurosawa’s first movie, Sanshiro Sugata is a scene described only as: “Quiet afternoon in the temple district.” The No Regrets for Our Youth screenplay has a scene that says only: “Vivid young leaves.” When read in Japanese, such notes might leave the reader with a vague sense of knowing the feeling Kurosawa was looking for. But a non-Japanese had no way to come up with a reliable image of the picture Kurosawa had in his head. Intimately connected to an aesthetic sensibility, these Japanese expressions are almost impossible to translate accurately into a foreign language. By nature, such scenes have no place in a Hollywood screenplay. But Kurosawa had no doubts about the propriety of instructions like “the black runaway moving along through the white snowfield at a high clip.” He already had a fully developed image of the scene in his head.

This would be a problem for the American staff. It was unclear whether this was to be a live-action shot or a special effects shot. And if live action, was it to be shot from a helicopter? Was it to be shot with a telephoto lens? Was it to be shot looking at the snowfield from inside the cab of the first locomotive? Was it to be shot with a camera fixed to the side of the locomotive? Only Kurosawa knew for sure. If the American staff were to receive such a screenplay, they would have had no idea of how to prepare. It would be different from the screenplay that the producer, cinematographer, art director, and other staff in America would expect to receive as a matter of course.

From this perspective, Carroll went beyond the call of duty. Was this scene on location or in the studio? Was it morning, mid-day, evening, or late at night? How were the people to be positioned with respect to each other? What is the camera angle and what is in the frame? If Kurosawa would not decide such things, there could be no English screenplay. So Carroll repeated these questions endlessly.

In some cases, answers were immediately forthcoming but in other cases answers were like: “I have not yet thought about it at that level since we don’t yet know what the situation is going to be at the site.” Pushed for a reply, Kurosawa would manage to come up with a response that sometimes even he was not satisfied with.
Faced with Carroll’s comment that, from an American’s viewpoint, a line of translated Japanese dialogue did not make sense, Kurosawa had to change it. Changing one line, however, can affect what comes immediately before or after it. In some cases, the entire script was affected.

Carroll’s three-week stay in Japan was over all too soon. He returned to America but the rewrite continued for another two weeks and the final version of the screenplay, approved by Levine, was sent back to Japan. Kurosawa, however, was not happy with that version, which had been translated back into Japanese. It was quite different from what Kurosawa had intended. Finding fault in one place after another, he sent requests for revisions to America. “Making new revisions and returning to previous versions, it seemed like we were just doing the same thing over and over,” Kurosawa said.

This was Kurosawa’s first encounter with culture shock. He faced a continuous series of provocative situations that made him worry that his fundamental method of movie making was falling to pieces. As getting a final version of the screenplay took more time than expected and the date to start filming approached relentlessly, Kurosawa began to doubt even his initial scenario. So he wanted to make more revisions.

With one thing left undone and another thing still unfinished, everything seemed to Kurosawa to be in a desperate and distressing rush. Moreover, Kurosawa became exhausted both physically and mentally.

Keep reading this excerpt on Creative Cow

When 20th Century Fox planned its blockbuster portrayal of Japan’s attack on Pearl Harbor, it looked to Akira Kurosawa – a man whose mastery of the cinema led to his nickname “the Emperor” – to direct the Japanese sequences. Yet a matter of three weeks after he began shooting the film in December 1968, Kurosawa was summarily dismissed and expelled from the studio. The tabloids trumpeted scandal: Kurosawa had himself gone mad; his associates had betrayed him; Hollywood was engaged in a conspiracy. Now, for the first time, the truth behind the downfall and humiliation of one of cinema’s greatest perfectionists is revealed in All the Emperor’s Men. Journalist Hiroshi Tasogawa probes the most sensitive questions about Kurosawa’s thwarted ambition and the demons that drove him. His is a tale of a great clash of personalities, of differences in the ways of making movies, and ultimately of a clash between Japanese and American cultures.