SARAH MICHELLE GELLAR Courtesy of Sony Pictures
October 9, 2004
"When someone dies in the grip of a powerful rage, a curse is born." So goes the story of The Grudge, an American adaptation of the Japanese horror film Ju-On: The Grudge. In the English version, Sarah Michelle Gellar stars as a nurse who unwittingly enters a house infested with such a curse, only to become the victim of a supernatural force that never forgives, and never forgets...
In this interview, Sarah talks about her experience of making this movie. The Grudge was shot on location in Japan and directed by Takashi Shimizu, with Sam Raimi serving as executive producer.
MEDIA: What scares you in real life?
SARAH: Long lines for restrooms, that scares me. Very crowded airport lines scare me. Those are the big ones. Those are the two biggies. [laughs]
Have you seen the original Japanese version of The Grudge?
I have. I just thought it was so chilling. I just hadn't seen something that stayed with me for so long afterwards. I made the mistake of seeing it at night by myself, which was mistake number one. [laughs] And I just couldn't get it out of my head. And it's not that often a movie stays with you that long. A lot of times, you go to a movie and it was great, it was scary, it was funny, it was whatever, and then your day continues. But this was the first time in a while that I could not stop thinking about a film.
Is there a character in the original who is just like your character in the American version?
There is a nurse. I'm sort of a combination of a bunch of characters. Clearly, there is no American blonde girl in the original. [laughs] But it was really important to everybody that we honored the original. This is not an Americanized remake of a Japanese film, this is a Japanese film made in English. And I think that was the really important distinction for everybody involved, from Sam down to all the actors.
Do you believe in ghosts?
Well, I believe in the idea of experiences, and one of the things I loved was the Japanese belief--which is almost a religious belief to them--that when someone dies with so much emotion, so much pain and anger and frustration, it then envelopes a place. And not just the people that it involved, but everybody that comes in contact with them. I know I myself have walked in somewhere and you have a vibe of something that happened. Even if you're just going to someone's house and they just had an argument. Those emotions are more powerful than just what we know. And I do believe that you can feel those. I don't know if I necessarily believe there's a girl in a white dress floating around! [laughs] But I've been to hotels with legendary stories, and you feel it. There is something, and I do believe that emotions can transcend from life to death.
Would you ever buy a house in which some great tragedy has occurred?
You know, the truth is, in California, those houses go so quickly. It's so weird! I actually have a girlfriend who owns a house that there was a murder in. That's not for me, there's no way! But like, the only house that didn't sell quickly was Nicole Brown Simpson's. But usually that's the prime real estate. It's the strangest (and oddly sick) thing I've ever seen.
What was the atmosphere like in that house where The Grudge was filmed?
What was interesting is everyone assumes that it's a house. It's a set! They built the house on the set. Literally, that was the piece of real estate they bought and they built that house from start to finish. It was two floors, everything worked. Scariest part about that house though? That huge house? [deadpan] One bathroom! I'm like, "That's scary! That actually scares me!" [laughs] But it was beautiful. I just think it's interesting because I don't think people realize that that was a house built from start to finish on that soundstage.
What was it like working with a director who speaks a different language than you do?
It's so difficult to actually explain, but it was such an education for me in communication. And you wind up making these really deep friendships because you don't have small talk. It's not chatter. It's so intense, and you get to know someone. And one of the things I've been finding about Shimizu is he's so unbelievably intuitive. He has this really sort of deep understanding of me that I don't even know if I realized he did until this weekend. And I don't know where that comes from. But he is such a smart individual. This man directed an entire film in a language he has no comprehension of. Or, he didn't at the time, I mean.
Do you think it was necessary to shoot this movie on location in Japan?
I love Japan. To capture the essence of this movie, it had to be done in Japan, and had to be done with a Japanese crew. Lost in Translation is an amazing movie that really captures what it's like to be an American in Japan, but it definitely feels like an American film.
Do you prefer shooting overseas?
I don't necessarily pick a project based on where I get to film. On the other hand, runaway production is a huge problem in America. Now, in a situation like this, I believe this movie couldn't have been filmed anywhere else. But I do have a problem with the fact that we are struggling in Hollywood in terms of...we have some of the best crew members in the world that can't make their insurance and are not making their deductibles. And they're losing their homes because, to save a cost here and there, people are filming elsewhere. I'll tell you, you pay the price in other ways. But I do love to travel, so if a movie legitimately shoots somewhere else, I have no problem with it.
What was it like being thrust into the culture of Japan?
I, at 26 years old, picked up and moved to a country where, by standing on a street, I clearly didn't belong. I did not speak the language. Everything was different. Everything was new. And I had to figure that all out on my own. And that's a big accomplishment. And I had never really even traveled by myself in that sense. You know, you do a big movie like Scooby, and there's nineteen people coming from home with you! Everyone's like "Aw, free room and board! Let's go! Australia? Great!"
Did you feel a little lost?
I think that I myself wasn't as overwhelmed as my character was. I loved it. I had the subway system down in about two days! [laughs] But you understand what it's like. I think it was like my second day, I went on a walk, and I got very, very lost. And Japan doesn't work on a grid system like America does. We have streets and there's apartment numbers and house numbers, and Japan doesn't work like that. So you can't even pull out a map and try to figure it out. And I was so determined not to call anyone, and my cell phone was in my pocket, and I refused. "I'm going to find my way home, I'm going to find my way home!" And two hours later, I realized I had been on my block the whole time, and I was completely walking in circles, like above!
What were some of the fun, recreational things you did in Japan?
Everything. Everything. I wanted to soak up and educate myself about that culture as best I could. I went to Sumo wrestling, and I went to Kyoto, and I saw Mt. Fuji and Hakone. Anything that had to do with Japanese culture and society, I tried to partake a little bit of.
Did you learn any Japanese?
I did. "Sukoshi." Little bit! I mean you have to. It's submersion, it's like anything. I understand now why they have submersion programs, because the only way to really learn another language is just to be there.
Did you bring back any special souvenirs?
We did, we got to bring a samurai sword back, which was a pretty complicated process because it's illegal to take them out of the country. I had to go to the ministry, and I had to prove that it was a piece of art and I wasn't going to use it as a weapon. It was a very difficult process that I never thought I would actually finish. And you know what the best part was? In the end, when they finally delivered it to my house, it was FedEx! Could you imagine if this FedEx guy knew what was actually in his box? I kept joking, I had these visions of me going to the airport: "Sarah Michelle Gellar arrested at Tokyo Narita Airport for trying to get on airplane with six-foot samurai sword."
You finished a successful seven-season run on Buffy the Vampire Slayer in 2003. How did you come to pick The Grudge as a follow-up project?
I finished my obligations to the show. I finished my obligations to the Scooby franchise. Then I said, "Okay, now it's my time." And because I have had success, I had the luxury to be able to wait until something called to me. And it was hard because I am a worker and I'm used to it. And in the beginning, I was, "I don't like this." And then I thought, "I don't want to work just to work. I want to work because I legitimately love something." When this project came around, I was so determined. I so badly wanted to be a part of it on so many levels. And then the experience was so rewarding and so amazing.
So having a certain passion for the films you pick is important to you?
Yeah, I wanted to pick them because I loved them. And of course, this movie now has set the bar so ridiculously high--boy, it's going to be really hard to top this one! But it was important to me. The last time I had this feeling about any project where I so desperately wanted to be a part of it was Cruel Intentions. And up until this film, Cruel Intentions was my most rewarding film experience on every level. I loved the script. I worked with some of the finest actors that, to this day, are still considered some of the finest actors. There's a reason for that. And I learned my lesson, which is I have to wait for that. And when I read this script and heard about Sam Raimi and shooting in Japan, I got that feeling again. And so I will wait until I get that again before I make my other decisions.
Do you miss doing Buffy?
You know, I miss the character. I miss my family, I miss the crew members. But I do not miss the hours! Oh my God, I so don't miss the hours! I remember right before I started this film, I got a phone call from one of the producers saying to me, "Now Sarah, this isn't going to be what you're used to. You know, we're going to be working six to eight weeks. These are going to be long days." I'm like, "I come from television, are you kidding me?!" I think the earliest call I ever had on this film was 6:00 a.m. I'm like, "That's like nighttime to me!"
Having played such a physical and stylized role on Buffy, was it a challenge to assume such a different role in The Grudge?
Absolutely. I mean, that's what I was looking for--to play someone that was different. On the other hand, it wasn't challenging in the fact that I didn't injure myself once! I didn't break anything, I didn't need to go to the hospital...
Was that sort of stuff common on Buffy?
Oh God, always. Always. I joked, I was like a ballplayer. I was always working on some injury, re-injuring something. Always. Broken this, cracked this, torn this. It's part of the job.