Balls to the Wall

With his latest film Prisoners of the Ghostland now in theaters and on VOD, one-of-a-kind filmmaker Sion Sono speaks with Mitchell Beaupre about working with Nicolas Cage, fusing Eastern and Western influences, and drawing from Japanese history for his madcap new creation.

There was a parity in this film when mashing up those East meets West elements. I wanted to take those unique areas and push them together into one box.” —⁠Sion Sono

Working as a filmmaker since the 1980s, Sion Sono has earned a reputation for being one of the most madcap inventors in the game. His highest-rated film on Letterboxd, 2008’s four-hour-long Love Exposure, currently sits in our Official Top 250 Narrative Feature Films, and is described by Ayush as “an ambitious, outrageously sprawling epic about love, lust, religion, cults, adolescent angst, identity, family, friendship, lies, boners, neglect, rebellion, trauma, and the art of up-skirt photography”.

This gives you an idea of what you may expect to see in a Sion Sono creation, although ultimately nothing can fully prepare you for the things which inhabit his mind. You simply have to see them for yourself.

After more than three decades of prolifically delivering his energetic oddities, occasionally even having multiple films released in the same year, 2021’s Prisoners of the Ghostland marks the first time the Japanese director has made a film in the English language. This isn’t for lack of trying. Sono-san was originally set to helm Lords of Chaos back in 2009 until that production eventually went in a different direction.

Ghostland came with its own complications, to put it mildly. First announced in December 2018, Nicolas Cage was set to star, with Sono-san intending to shoot the film in Mexico. In February 2019, shortly after Imogen Poots was cast alongside Cage, the director suffered a heart attack, requiring emergency surgery and putting pre-production on halt and the film in jeopardy. Thankfully, he recovered, but was no longer able to shoot outside of Japan, causing a further shift in plans.

In a way, shooting his first English-language project in Japan feels appropriate for the film, with its culture-clashing identity drawing influence from Spaghetti Westerns, samurai films, and so much more. Like the Ghostland depicted in the film, Prisoners of the Ghostland exists somewhere outside of time and location, creating a piece entirely of its own identity.

Premiering in January 2021 at the Sundance Film Festival, Prisoners of the Ghostland earned divisive reviews, not entirely unsurprising for a filmmaker as bold as Sono-san tends to be. While the story was found to be lacking for some, others described it as being “made from the combined love of different cultures, mythology and cinema, but maybe most importantly the love of art in sets, props and practical effects”.

Cage plays the film’s protagonist, appropriately named Hero, who is serving time in Samurai Town for a bank robbery gone wrong. Hero is released thanks to a nefarious villain known as The Governor (Bill Moseley), who hires him to find and rescue his missing granddaughter (Sofia Boutella, replacing Poots) in exchange for his freedom. The journey—Hero’s Journey, if you will—takes Cage into a post-apocalyptic wasteland that features one of the most elaborate sets of Sono’s career.

With producer Ko Mori translating, Sion Sono sat down with Mitchell Beaupre to discuss making his first English-language project, using the costumes and sets to bring vivid color to the film, and his favorite Nicolas Cage movie.

You had been wanting to make your English-language debut for a while now, originally having it set to be Lords of Chaos, over a decade ago. Was there something pulling you towards making a film in English?
Sion Sono: I feel that the American audience, and European audience, seem to like my films more than the Japanese audience. Thinking about this gave me the idea that maybe I should just go ahead and start shooting in English, so that the film is already for those audiences.

In Prisoners of the Ghostland you draw from an array of cinematic influences, from Spaghetti Westerns to samurai films to post-apocalyptic wastelands. Was it exciting to take these different areas and fuse them together into something totally unique?
There was a parity in this film when mashing up those East-meets-West elements. I wanted to take those unique areas and push them together into one box. The result was creating something in between those two worlds, and thus it became completely original, which was an idea I really liked to explore.

Bill Moseley (in white) as The Governor and Tak Sakaguchi (with sword) as Yasujiro.
Bill Moseley (in white) as The Governor and Tak Sakaguchi (with sword) as Yasujiro.

In terms of cinematic touchstones, one thing I found particularly interesting was the costuming choices. We see Nicolas Cage’s protagonist dressed in all-black leather, whereas Bill Moseley’s villain is wearing a nice, clean white suit with these striking red gloves. Was there an intentional subversiveness there?
That’s a great question. At the end of the day, the story of the film is quite simple. Because of that, I wanted to make a difference in terms of the details. Part of those details became using the costumes in a unique way. For instance, the film has samurai costumes, but also Western cowboy costumes. I had specific ideas for using bright, vivid colors so that it makes the film stand out visually. As you mentioned, that can be seen in The Governor and his clean white suit which really contrasts with the rest of the color palette in the film.

Another striking element of the film is the Ghostland itself, which is such a massive, complicated set. What was the process of putting that location together?
Along with wanting to use the costume design to make the film stand out when the story is rather simple, I was motivated to do the same thing with the production design. The Ghostland set took a tremendous amount of effort. I didn’t want to use any CGI for it. I would much rather make it all happen in a physical way. That became very difficult to figure out with all of the sets, including the Ghostland. I just wanted to make something super interesting.

Sofia Boutella as Bernice, Jai West as Jay and Nicolas Cage as Hero.
Sofia Boutella as Bernice, Jai West as Jay and Nicolas Cage as Hero.

You’ve mentioned how you incorporated Japanese history, such as the nuclear events in Fukushima and Hiroshima, into the fabric of the film and the construction of the Ghostland set. Could you tell me more about that?
There was a little bit of that element already in the original script. I was able to draw that out, to make it clearer and convey a larger idea regarding atomic energy. Since we were shooting in Japan, the idea of that became even more prevalent in my mind, when thinking about things like Hiroshima and Fukushima.

A great example of this is when you see the clocktower in the Ghostland, and the Ghostlanders are trying to keep the time, or the clock, from moving. They’re trying to hold onto time. The clock is set one minute before 8:15, which is the time that the atomic bomb was dropped on Hiroshima. In the Ghostland, the time is 8:14, and they are trying to stop it from moving because they think once it hits 8:15, then the explosion will happen.

I’d love to talk about Nicolas Cage for a bit. He’s an actor who at this point has an otherworldly, almost supernatural mythos to him. What was your experience like getting to know him, both as an actor, and as a human being?
When Nic Cage and I first met, he had already seen some of my films. Once he came on board the project, though, he went off and watched almost every single one of my films, to have a better understanding of me as a filmmaker. Before we shot the film, Nic went to Hiroshima in order to do some research for himself to try [to] understand the history of Japan. He did so much of his own research, including talking to many people to educate himself further on Japan, and on Japanese culture. That’s the kind of man Nic Cage is.

Sion Sono behind the scenes of Prisoners of the Ghostland.
Sion Sono behind the scenes of Prisoners of the Ghostland.

Did Nic mention if he has a favorite film of yours?
Yes, his favorite film of mine is called Antiporno.

I just saw that for the first time this year and it blew me away.
Thank you very much.

Do you have a favorite Nicolas Cage film?
There are so many that I like, or love, but I would probably say Leaving Las Vegas is the one that is my favorite.

To wrap up, I’d love to know what film was the one which first made you realize you wanted to become a filmmaker?
There were a lot growing up, but when I was young I saw Steven Spielberg’s Jaws, and that was the film which really made me think that maybe I should be a filmmaker.

Prisoners of the Ghostland’ is out now in US theaters, on demand and on digital.

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