[EDITORS NOTE: indieWIRE is publishing two interviews daily with Sundance ’07 competition filmmakers through the end of the festival later this month. Directors with films screening in the four competition section were given the opportunity to participate in an email interview, and each was sent the same set of questions.]
Bill Guttentag and Dan Sturman directed “Nanking,” a documentary which illustrates the events that occurred at the “Rape of Nanking,” a tragic historical event that is sadly fading into oblivion. The film attempts to go beyond simply “reciting statistics,” according to the Sundance Film Festival, by interlacing “chilling archival footage, testimony, and interviews with both survivors and perpetrators.” The film “exposes the all-too-familiar horrors of war but also affirms the extraordinary impact that individuals can make. This is a gripping and soul-searching chronicle of a calamity and a tribute to the people who tried to make it better.” “Nanking” is screening in Sundance’s Documentary Competition category. Bill Guttentag and Dan Sturman also produced the award-winning short documentary “Twin Towers.”
Please introduce yourself…
Bill Guttentag: Born in Brooklyn, grew up in Philadelphia, live in the San Francisco Bay Area. Also teach a course on the film and television industry at the Graduate School of Business at Stanford University.
Dan Sturman: I’m 39, I was born and grew up in Cleveland, Ohio, and I live in Los Angeles.
What were the circumstances that led you to become a filmmaker?
DS: I took a college class from documentary filmmaker Robb Moss, a truly great and inspiring teacher.
How did you learn about filmmaking?
BG: Attended AFI.
DS: A couple of college classes, reading “The Filmmaker’s Handbook” by Pincus & Ascher, and an ongoing process of hands-on experience.
How did you finance your film?
The film “Nanking” film was funded by our producer, Ted Leonsis.
Please tell us about your film, and how the initial idea come about.
DS: The film is the story of what happened during the infamous rape of Nanking in 1937 as told through the eyes of Chinese survivors, Japanese soldiers, and a group of very courageous Westerners who stayed behind and formed a safety zone which sheltered thousands of Chinese civilians. The idea for the film came from producer Ted Leonsis who read about what happened in Nanking and was moved to make a movie about it.
Please elaborate on your approach to making “Nanking,” as well as your overall goals for the project.
BG: When I first began to explore the possibility of making a film on the Rape of Nanking, I learned that it was referred to as the “Forgotten Holocaust”. I felt that the words “holocaust” and “forgotten” should never be in the same sentence – and my hope is in the future they will not be. Most of the victims of Nanking are long dead, as is a small group of Western and Chinese heroes who at great risk to their own lives saved hundreds of thousands from rape and murder. My hope is the victims of Nanking will be remembered, and the Chinese, European, and Americans who did so much good in the worst of times will always be remembered for extraordinary heroism.
DS: We wanted to avoid making a typical historical doc – the kind that features talking head academics and long moves across still photographs. Instead, we wanted our audience to have a visceral feeling for the drama and emotion of the story we were telling. Since none of our main characters were alive to be interviewed, we crafted a stage reading from the words they left behind in diaries, letters, etc. We then assembled a first-rate cast of actors and filmed them together on a soundstage. These performances – which form the narrative spine of the film – truly brought our main characters to life. In an effort to make our film visually dynamic, we also conducted an exhaustive search in six different countries for every scrap of archival footage we could possibly find, and we ended up unearthing some hidden gems. Among these, we found a fascinating propaganda film shot by the Japanese in 1937 purporting to show the benevolence of their occupation. We also located 40 minutes of 16mm footage secretly shot by one of the Westerners inside Nanking and then smuggled out of China – the material is incredibly raw and powerful.
How did the financing and casting of your film come together?
DS: The film was funded by our producer, Ted Leonsis, as a labor of love. We had two dynamite casting directors, Mary Vernieu and Venus Kanani, working together with CAA.
What were some of the biggest challenges you faced in either developing the project or making the movie?
DS: This film was much more difficult to make than we had initially anticipated … where to begin? Working in Japanese and Mandarin was tough. Even tougher was working with elderly Japanese and Mandarin speakers who speak in an antiquated, often unintelligible, regional dialect. Then, of course, there is the politically sensitive nature of our subject matter – the Chinese and Japanese still don’t agree on what happened in Nanking nearly 70 years ago, and the dispute continues to sour relations between the two countries. To this day, many Japanese believe that stories of atrocities in Nanking are exaggerations and lies. Some of the people we hired in Japan actually quit the project, citing pressure from family members who disapproved of the subject matter.
What do you hope to get out of the festival, what are your own goals for the experience?
DS: We were at Sundance in 2003 for “Twin Towers,” and our screenings were packed with engaged and enthusiastic audiences – an incredibly inspiring experience, and we’re hoping for more of the same this time around. I’m also hoping to see a number of films – the documentary lineup looks amazing.
What is your definition of “independent film”?
DS: A film that appeals to your intellect and your heart.
What is your top ten list for 2006?
BG: Best films I have seen this year – “Volver,” “Babel,” “The Queen,” “Quinceanera,” “Borat,” “Little Miss Sunshine.”
DS: I’ve got two little kids, so I’m embarrassed to say I don’t get out much – I probably haven’t seen ten films all year. But, “Borat” is definitely at the top of my very short list.
What are one or two of your New Years resolutions?
DS: See more movies.
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