PRISONERS OF THE GHOSTLAND Interview: Director Sion Sono Talks
In the days of classic Hollywood, directors worked like journeymen, often completing as many as two to three films a year.
These days, a successful filmmaker would be lucky to get one made every three years. Yet somehow, for the majority of his career, Japanese filmmaker Sion Sono has managed to produce films by the handful.
The number of quality films he put out in 2015 alone is simply shocking, while even in his more relaxed phases, he still tends to release at least two films per year. To look over his filmography at a glance, one couldn't be blamed for deducing a portrait of an artist racing some cosmic clock of doom.
And now 58 films into one wild ride of a cinematic legacy, we have Prisoners of the Ghostland, a film about a disgraced criminal on a mission to rescue a damsel in apocalyptic distress before a deadline that will blow his prisoner’s uniform into smithereens. Through this John Carpenter-esque story, penned by US screenwriters Aaron Hendry and Reza Sixo Safai, Sono found a vehicle with which to play with an American cinematic palette, flexing his love of Western cinema alongside his native Eastern lens. It’s a dazzling feat of style with a soulful underbelly.
The film’s hero, tasked with saving a village trapped in time, is himself a literal ticking time bomb, but who isn't? Life is short. There is much to be done and never enough time and Sono is, if nothing else, a man out to say what he has to say while he is around to say it. It’s particularly poignant that the film should see its festival premiere and release in the thick of an era when time stopped on a worldwide scale.
It was precisely at this moment in time that I was able to connect with Mr. Sono, first by phone concerning the Sundance premiere of Ghostland, and then again for a much longer Zoom conversation mainly about his other 2020 film, Red Post On Escher Street. While I published snippets of those conversations earlier this year, on the occasion of the theatrical and digital release of Prisoners of Ghostland on Friday September 17, please enjoy the remaining portion of our conversations.
More importantly, if you consider yourself an adventurous film viewer, do the right thing and check out this crazy ass movie on the biggest (safest) screen you can find.
Screen Anarchy: PRISONERS OF THE GHOSTLAND is one helluva vision. Can you talk about how this crazy project found its way into this world?
Sono Sion: For about 10 years I've been trying to make my English language film debut happen, because that’s always been a dream of mine. And my producer Kô Mori has been trying to do that too. Then about three years ago he brought the script to me and that was the start of the whole project.
When he received the script, it was much more of an action film, but at the same time, he also felt that there was a lot of space in the script where I could put my creative ideas into it and he thought that I could create something great out of this script.
In addition to getting to work with the man who played Sailor Ripley (as discussed), it's such a treat to see Bill Mosely in a Sion Sono film. Does that imply an appreciation on your part for Tobe Hooper or Rob Zombie or both perhaps?
Yes, to me, Bill is an absolute legend, so it was such an honor to work with him. I especially love him in the Rob Zombie movies. But despite his characters, he’s very gentle and kind and I just loved working with him. And sometimes we still text each other, so we remain great friends.
Since you’re such a driven creator, I can only imagine all of the projects you’ve been working on during this pandemic. How have you been keeping busy creatively?
I made a 30-minute short in the omnibus film, State of Emergency, which is on Amazon Prime. I mainly worked on screenplays last year.
When you wrote the science fiction script THE WHISPERING STAR in the 90s, you explored the human race as "a vanishing candle". Now we are living through what feels like a similarly surreal catastrophe. Besides your short film in STATE OF EMERGENCY, do you see yourself telling a story about the stranger-than-fiction world we’re living in now?
I’ve always tried to make movies that reflect the real world. And the same is true for the ones I am going to make from now on without ignoring the reality. So yes, I’ll continue to create films that reflect real global situations.
I think a major theme of this film is time. I think that’s something you care a lot about in telling this story. The centerpiece of the ghostland is an ominous clock tower that stopped ticking. (The Sundance cut of the film) featured the song "Time in a Bottle" and I think the lyrics in that song that really stick out as far as your career is concerned, in that there never seems to be enough time to do the things you want to do.
You're an artist who seems totally restless. And I know it’s not just about making as many films as you can, but rather valuing the moment. So my question is what does "Time in a Bottle" mean to you?
Great, great question. And yes, you’re absolutely right. Time is the theme for this film for me. Our hero has a limited time to get these things done. And there’s some hidden stuff behind the clock tower.
The time that it shows on the clock tower is 8:14 AM, which is one minute before the atomic bomb was dropped on Hiroshima. So all of the elements that you see are all about time. And that is coming from my background in poetry.
I was watching some of your early films recently and I was particularly struck by I AM KEIKO, which is a film that also heavily concerns itself with the nature of time. It's 30 years later and you’re still thinking about many of the same things. Now that you're about to turn sixty years old, I am wondering what you know now about time that you didn't 30 years ago.
Although so many years have passed since filming I am Keiko, there's nothing I know now more than 30 years ago. Everything is still a mystery to me. There’s no answer.
Thank you for your time.