Ben Sachs: Did you feel pressured for your film to preserve Murakami’s style?
Tran Anh Hung: That was the main problem for me, of course. Because adapting a book means, somehow, capturing the feeling that you had when you read it. It’s quite different from writing an original screenplay: you’ve already felt everything [before you start writing], all the emotions, and you have to find a way to give them back to the audience. It’s a mix of your own sensibility with what you know was important in the book...
What was really difficult for me was creating this feeling of intimacy that I felt from Norwegian Wood. It was something quite subtle, and I had to find cinematic ways of representing it.
BS: Such as?
TAH: You know at the end of the movie, when you have that lovemaking scene between Watanabe and Reiko? It’s quite disturbing, because just before that scene, we have a scene of mourning by the sea, which follows the death of Naoko [their mutual friend]. So, we have death, then mourning, and then we have this lovemaking scene. And then, in the next scene, [Watanabe] calls [his college girlfriend] Midori and says “I love you” to her...
After Naoko’s death, Watanabe felt guilty about the fact that he couldn’t save her. And when Reiko [who’s first leaving a mental institution after seven years] asks him to make love to her, it’s a way for him to save someone else. He saves Reiko by giving her back her sexuality, so she can start a new life. And he feels his guilt lighten. He can make up with life... but it’s quite difficult to give the audience that feeling, that he’s somehow returned to life.
There’s another scene in the movie where you see Watanabe standing in a tree and Naoko’s standing next to the tree, and then you see Reiko sitting near a stream. Now, this scene has nothing to do with the narration, it has nothing to do with the storytelling. But I felt this scene let people understand what happened [between the three of them], it gave you the feeling that they had made up with life. And this is something you can experience in movies and not in literature. It’s something that belongs only to this art, but it was difficult for me to find, in order to give the right feeling of the situation.
BS: Was it that feeling that drew you to Norwegian Wood, as opposed to one of Murakami’s other novels?
TAH: No, there were a lot of things! I was drawn to the idea of first love as something dangerous. After [Watanabe’s] first [sexual experience] with Naoko, the next day she disappears. So, Watanabe feels something really strange—he can’t understand what happened to him or what happened to her. That’s the beginning of a dangerous journey with Naoko, and it’s something that’s quite fascinating for me. That’s the reason I wanted to adapt the book.
BS: Can you describe what it was like to work with Jonny Greenwood, who composed the film’s score?
TAH: It was quite simple, because we talked a lot [before we started] about the way I like to use music in movies. I told him that I like music to appear when the emotions are already there—so that it confirms the emotions and makes them stronger, or more lyrical somehow. This meant for him that the music would come at the end of the scene. I told him that I also like to use the same piece of music in different scenes, so that it creates a feeling that grows over the course of a movie.
He started by playing me some samples he’d written—like, five or ten seconds long—so I could choose what kind of textures I liked for the movie. When he sent the finished music over to me, I tried to forget everything that I’d told him before and just tried to play with the different pieces of music in relation to the images. I still had the possibility to ask Jonny to change the mixes a little bit, like if I thought the violins were maybe too strong here or something like that.
BS: Has Murakami seen the film?
TAH: Yes, of course! And not only once! I showed him a [rough] cut that I liked, because I wanted to have his opinion [while I was editing]. So he gave me some ideas, which helped me to make it better. Later on, he saw a longer version and a shorter version, and he liked both of them. I think he preferred the longer version.
BS: As the original author, he probably wanted to keep as many of his ideas in the finished product, no?
TAH: Yes. But he enjoyed it in the end. His wife also—because they are always together, you know. They really liked the movie. And they told me—[sheepish] Well, it’s hard for me to tell you all of their compliments... [laughs]
BS: It’s good to know that they enjoyed it.
TAH: It was important for me that they did, because it was important for me that he recognized his work in the movie. It’s like drawing a portrait of someone: It must look like that person.