The screenwriters discuss the nuances of the Japanese language and working with Hayao Miyazaki.
Recently we took part in a teleconference with Cindy Davis Hewitt and Donald H. Hewitt in promotion of Buena Vista Home Entertainment's and Studio Ghibli's upcoming three DVD release on March 7th, of Howl's Moving Castle, My Neighbor Totoro and Whisper of the Heart. Cindy and Donald, whose main experience is in writing live action screenplays, have the interesting job of translating these films from Japanese into English. Considering that they have translated many films from the acclaimed Hayao Miyazaki (who many consider to be a "Japanese Walt Disney"), this makes their work all the more impressive.
On the eve of the Academy Awards in which Howl's Moving Castle (also directed by Miyazaki) is competing against Tim Burton's Corpse Bride and Wallace & Gromit in the Curse of the Were-Rabbit for Best Animated Feature, the Hewitt's discussed screenwriting, translating Japanese films for an American audience and what they think their chances are of taking home the gold statue on Oscar Night.
Could you tell us a little bit about what you do? How long you've been doing it? Do you work only for Japanese animation?
Cindy Davis Hewitt: We don't work exclusively on animation we mostly do live action stuff. We ended up doing a lot of stuff for Miyazaki and Studio Ghibli Films. We had a couple of scripts that were in a contest that people from Pixar had read, and that's how John Lasseter got to know us and we did some work with John on an animated idea. Then he chose us to do Spirited Away, and since then we've done eight Studio Ghibli films.
We don't know Japanese, we had never actually seen a Miyazaki film before, so it was all new to us. We had never done anything like this before, so we had to really figure out how to take a film that's got Japanese dialogue and all of the lip movements already solidified, and figure out how to make an English sentence that fits in the character's mouths.
When you wrote your original script was it animation or live action?
Cindy Davis Hewitt: It was live action but it was about a toy that came to life and ran for President. So it had a character that started off kind of like a G.I. Joe doll, and then turned into a human being. So it seemed a little bit like animation but everything else was live action. We'd never written anything animated.
Donald H. Hewitt: It had a kid protagonist that was very similar to Chihiro in Spirited Away. The family was
very modern and very much like the family in Spirited Away, and that was probably the reason John chose us for that project. Once we kind of established ourselves and we knew what we were doing, they felt really comfortable hiring us for the next project.
With Howl's Moving Castle did you work with the novel? Or, did you just go off of the script?
Donald H. Hewitt: We watched the film first, because we always want that to be our major point of reference. Then I read the novel and Cindy didn't, so if there was questions about the movie that we didn't understand we would discuss them, and more often than not it turned out it wasn't something in the book it was something Miyazaki had gone off and invented. In the end we just relied on the film as our reference.
Cindy Davis Hewitt: The novel in the end really didn't help illuminate much of anything for us, because Miyazaki had made a lot of changes on his own.
How long did it take you to write the screenplay?
Cindy Davis Hewitt: Three weeks, maybe?
Donald H. Hewitt: About three weeks and then there's always the process of going over notes. We turn in a draft to Studio Ghibli, they'll give us notes. On this one, Steve Alfred from Studio Ghibli came here and we sat in a room for three days and went over the film line by line. We watched the video, paused it and then discussed the line; in Japanese and what we had written. It was a very, very thorough process.
Cindy Davis Hewitt: We usually start off by trying to make a lot of the storylines clearer. It seems like in Japan they're much more open to things being a little more ambiguous. So, we'll do a lot in the beginning to try and clarify the storylines and then see if we can get away with it, but they kind of reign us in. They'll be like, "Keep it as close to the original as possible."
That's where a lot of our discussions came up whether something was a cultural difference or not. Like in Howl's Moving Castle there's a lot of subtlety in the romance between various characters. When we first watched the film we didn't realize almost every woman in the movie is in love with Howl, including the older people. Like the old ladies are in love with him... we didn't pick up on it at all, because it's just the way that characters speak in Japan, they'll have subtleties to their dialogue that there's no way we'd pick up on it in America. So we had to do a lot of things to underscore the romances. We decided that was a cultural difference.
Do you think that's because US children "are trained to be more spoon-fed?"
Cindy Davis Hewitt: It seems like it. I also think that people are so enamored with Miyazaki that they assume that what he's done is smart, and that if they don't get it than they just have to see it again and look it into. Whereas we're not that familiar with him so people are more quick to dismiss it.
Donald H. Hewitt: Yeah, it's like, "Oh, that doesn't make sense!" Well, maybe if you watched it again it would but people aren't quite prepared to do that.
Did you get a chance to work with the voice talent?
Cindy Davis Hewitt: Yeah, we're there everyday. We're there to change the lines in case... the way that we start off is that we'll watch the movie and we'll count how many times the character's mouth opens and shuts. And so we'll say, "Okay we have twelve syllables to fill for this sentence." Like Billy Crystal would speak twice as fast as the character, and Jean Simmons would speak about half as fast, so we'd have to take out words for Jean and add words for Billy. We were always there just to change the line on the spot.
When you would have those cultural discussions who would ultimately win out?
Cindy Davis Hewitt: Studio Ghibli was always the final say. If we felt really strongly about it we'd go back and back and back, and say, "We really believe this is a big deal." One of the things we lobbied for really hard was, when we first watched the movie there was a point where the Scarecrow turns into a Prince at the very end, and there was no setup for that at all. So when Americans saw the film they kind of laughed at that moment, because it seemed like such a non sequitur. So we lobbied really hard to setup that the Prince was the whole reason why the war was started. The Prince had been missing and so when the Scarecrow turned into the Prince at the end, it had been set up.
Donald H. Hewitt: We wanted to establish that the war had something to do with him. So when he says at the end, "I'll stop the war," then you're like, "Oh, okay it makes sense." So we had three places we tried to put some dialogue in about that, about the war starting.
Stay tuned for the second part of our interview with Cindy Davis Hewitt and Donald H. Hewitt from Studio Ghibli to be posted shortly!
Howl's Moving Castle will be available on DVD March 7th, 2006 through Buena Vista Home Entertainment.
Dont't forget to also check out: Howl's Moving Castle