In the near future, Major (Scarlett Johansson) is the first of her kind. A human saved from a terrible crash, who is cyber-enhanced to be a perfect soldier devoted to stopping the world’s most dangerous criminals. When terrorism reaches a new level that includes the ability to hack into people’s minds to control them, Major is uniquely qualified to stop it. As she prepares to face a new enemy, Major discovers that she has been lied to: her life was not saved, it was stolen. She will stop at nothing to recover her past, find out who did this to her, and stop them before they do it to others.
The Koalition had an opportunity to speak with the cast and crew from the sci-fi drama, Ghost in the Shell.
Director, Rupert Sanders is proud to be part of the continuing Ghost in the Shell legacy. “We all felt it was important for us to become part of that culture,” he says. “We had someone from Japan with us he whole time we were shooting the film. We wanted to be part of this line of storytellers, and we wanted them to be part of our project.”
A key element of Sanders’ vision for the film was creating a multicultural, multi-ethnic future world. The ensemble features actors from countries from around the globe, including Japan, New Zealand, Australia, France, England, the United States, Canada, Zimbabwe, Denmark, Singapore, Poland, Turkey, Fiji, China, Romania and Belgium.
Leading this diverse cast international cast is Scarlett Johansson. Johansson brings the central character an inner life that Sanders felt was largely absent in her animated incarnation. “In the anime, the Major is quite distant and that’s beguiling and mysterious,” he says.
“But with this film, we need to understand what she’s going through. Our story brings the audience into what is happening with her internally and allows the character to grow. Scarlett brought a childlike quality to the character, which is important because this is a Pinocchio story in a way,” the director continues. “Scarlett is very clever at allowing us little moments where we’re able to get into the character, then she pushes us away again. To me, Scarlett is the cyberpunk queen.”
Producer Ari Arad notes that of all the film’s characters, Major is the one whose life has been transformed the most by technology. “She revels in being the most extraordinary person in the world, but at the same time, you get a real sense of the weight that she carries. Scarlett perfectly capture’s Major’s emotion, humor and intensity.”
Fighting cyber-terrorism unexpectedly puts Major on a path to self-discovery, says Johansson. “Rupert and I talked a lot about her quest for self-identity and the need to know the truth about where she came from. The character comes to believe that she has both a life she’s been given, and a life that she chooses. That’s the real reason I wanted to do this film. Finding one’s true identity, the feeling of isolation that is part of the human experience, as well as the connection that we all share – these are always relevant themes.”
The actress was also drawn to the extraordinary visuals Sanders developed for the film. “That’s what clinched the deal for me,” says Johansson. “What he has created is not just an homage for the fans. There’s a new feeling to this film. It’s not the pristine future that we sometimes imagine. Humanity has engulfed itself, like a snake eating its tail. Cities are built upon cities, people made out of other people and computers.”
Producer Michael Costigan says that Johansson was the only actress he ever envisioned in the role. “This character has to have humanity and yet also this otherness to her,” says the producer. “She has to both connect with the audience and keep them at a distance. We could not think of anyone other than Scarlett who could do that. We really campaigned to get her into the film.”
Mamoru Oshii, who directed the Ghost in the Shell anime, praises the actress for her ability to portray a character whose mind and body are not in synch. “Major has a fierce, combative side, but she is also plagued by insecurity. She’s not entirely human, but not a robot either. Scarlett can say so much with her eyes. She is close to my original vision for the character. This role was for her, and nobody else could have played it.”
Danish actor Pilou Asbæk was cast as Batou, Major’s second-in-command. The filmmakers have seen his work in the Danish films A Hijacking and A War. “We knew Pilou’s European films, but his performance has been a revelation,” says Costigan. “Discovering qualities in an actor that you haven’t seen before is one of the things that makes movie making exciting.”
Asbæk’s imposing physically is perfect for the tough-as-nails soldier, according to Sanders. “When I first sat down with Pilou, I knew he was Batou,” the director says. “He’s got this great gruff sense of humor and is perfectly bear-like, but with a sensitivity that I really felt Batou needed. Like other members of Section 9, Batou is cyber-enhanced, but not to the same degrees as Major. She became a cyborg instantly, while Batou is gradually losing bits of his humanity. Every time he gets another injury, something else is replaced.”
Batou generally prefers to let his fists do the talking, according to Asbæk, “He’s a close-combat expert, a killer, but in my humble opinion, he is also the heart and soul of Ghost in the Shell,” says the actor. “He eats pizza, drinks beer and loves dogs. These are the things that I personally relate to and hope the audience will as well. Basically, he’s a simple guy: trustworthy, warm and sweet.”
That attitude brings an unexpected lightness to an otherwise serious action role. You expect Asbæk to be a pure tough guy, but he plays Batou with a twinkle in his cybernetic eye. Batou is one of the few people with whom Major can let down her guard. “Scarlett and Pilou are so great together on screen,” says Sanders. “Their partnership is very beautiful relationship, almost the classic unrequited love. He understands her, because he’s been through a lot of pain himself. She is a cyborg, so they can’t have a physical relationship, but he is her protector. Any love story is left unspoken, as it is in the manga.”
Johansson agrees that Major’s relationship with Batou is special. When she is with him, it’s the most human she feels,” says the actress. “She doesn’t trust many people. With Batou, she can share some quiet moments. He reminds her of the life that could be and that she perhaps once had.”
Early in the film, Major is assigned to find and terminate Kuze, the mastermind behind a bold attack on a high-ranking Hanka Corporation executive. A brilliant hacker out for revenge against the people he believes have wronged him, Kuze is willing to sacrifice anyone who gets in his way. Played by Michael Carmen Pitt, Kuze oozes menace and rage, but also vulnerability.
“Michael Carmen Pitt is a true artist,” says Sanders. “I’ve known him for many years as a friend. He’s very independent minded and exists solely in that artists world.”
Pitt says he appreciated the ambitious nature of the project and the enduring relevance of the source material. “The manga has been extremely influential in Hollywood movies, graphic art, tattooing and industrial music,” says Pitt. “I saw the first animated film on VHS when I was maybe 14 or 15 years old. I had never seen anything like it. While I was preparing, I re-watched the original film and was really surprised by how current it still is. The world is complicated, scary extremely exciting and full of evil and full of good – like the world we live in.”
Kuze is a composite character drawn from several elements of the Ghost in the Shell universe that served as a jumping off point for an intriguing, challenging antagonist for Major. “Is he truly a villain?” asks Pitt. “I don’t know. That’s one of the unique and interesting things about the script. I worked a lot on how he would speak and made some rules for myself about the way he could move. I wrote pages and pages and pages of backstory. He is a strange character that I just didn’t know any other way to do it.”
Pitt arrived on set fully immersed in the physicality and violence of the character, according to Sanders. “By the time he started filming, he’d been eating raw food for months. He was doing boxing and Pilates every day. Not only was he whippet thin and ripped, he had developed a very in-depth character. He built himself a little house in a shipping container on the back lot, where he had a punching bag and an ashtray. He filled notebooks with painting after painting after painting about Kuze. It’s a master class watching him.”
Audiences may be startled by Pitt’s transformation, warns Silver. “Michael brings a phenomenal depth to Kuze. You’re not quite sure what he is. He alters the pitch of his voice, his eyes, his hair – everything about him is a on the edge.”
Pitt’s hope for the film is that it will be an entertaining and exciting movie that also touches the audience. “It has the potential to move people because it’s about someone who figuring out who she is, what it means to be human, and then ultimately deciding to fight for that humanity.”
Joining Johansson and Asbæk is an ensemble of five actors who fill out the unruly bunch of skilled operatives known as Section 9. The equivalent of an elite SEAL team that deals in urban cyber terror, they have been chosen for their unique skill set and specific enhancements. “We put together a phenomenal group to play this rough-and-tumble, ragtag team,” says producer Jeffery Silver. “They bring incredible energy. They’re internationally based and very exciting to watch in action.”
Singapore native Chin Han portrays former cop, Togusa. “I loved the manga as a child,” says Chin Han. “Togusa was my favorite character. He is the only member of the team that has no cyber-enhancements, so he’s suspicious of technology and always carries a very distinctive Mateba revolver. He also relies on old-school techniques for investigation.”
Togusa and Batou play with classic good cop-bad cop dynamics as they rely on each other frequently to solve crimes. “Pilou has bought a great sense of humor and it was really fun shooting with him, not to mention the fact that he has mad pizza-eating skills,” says Chin Han.
Sanders was receptive to the actor’s input in terms of developing a look that would define the character. “We built the character to Togusa from the ground up, piece-by-piece,” says Chin Han. “His hairstyle went through a few different incarnations from neo-romanticism to the mullet. We made specific choices about how he was dressed that reflect his old-school way of thinking. He wears an old Casio watch with a calculator on it.”
Clearly it takes a lot to find the right cast for a project this massive. As proven in the movie, they got the best of all worlds. To hear more from our roundtable interview with Pilou Asbæk and Chin Han, listen to the audio clips below and make sure to check out our review of Ghost in the Shell.