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Neil Gaiman

Minnie Driver

All in the Translation:
An Interview with Neil Gaiman and Minnie Driver

November 24, 1999
by Dan Lybarger
Originally appeared in the November 24-December 2, 1999 issue of Pitch Weekly. ........................................................................................................

Princess Mononoke (or Mononoke Hime) was an enormous hit in Japan. The 1997 cartoon from “Japan’s Walt Disney” writer-director Hayao Miyazaki earned $149 million. This is a considerable achievement considering the sluggish Japanese economy. It was the country’s highest-grossing film of all time until James Cameron’s Titanic came along.

Despite its domestic popularity, making the film accessible and commercially viable for American audiences is a challenge. The movie, an ecological fable about a 14th-century warrior who tries to escape a curse, is loaded with references that mean little to audiences unaccustomed to Japanese mythology or history.

Neil GaimanTo bridge the cultural gap, British-born author Neil Gaiman has penned an English audio track. He’s written Smoke and Mirrors, a collection of short stories and poems, the novels Neverwhere and Stardust and the children’s story The Day I Swapped My Dad for Two Goldfish. He is probably best known for penning the Sandman graphic novels, which gained praise from people as diverse as Norman Mailer and musician Tori Amos.

Despite his eclectic talent, Gaiman confesses some trepidation about the task of translation during a recent roundtable interview in Los Angeles. Handpicked by Miramax co-chair Harvey Weinstein and director Quentin Tarantino, Gaiman recalls, “My first experience with Mononoke was sitting in an empty screening room in L.A. watching a subtitled version. I’d never seen anything like it. I think it’s amazing, and I don’t know if I can do it justice. Putting it bluntly, if I fuck it up, I’ll fuck it up with respect and love. I would rather it were me fucking it up with respect and love than somebody who was doing it as a job.

“It’s a weird kind of juggling act,” Gaiman says. “I wanted you to forget you were watching a dub. On the one hand, you want to be as perfectly true as you can to the original film. On the other hand, you need to give Western audiences information that the Japanese audiences did not need. Having come up with a line that would do that, you then are limited by the times that the cartoon character’s mouth opens and closes. I wound up treasuring any moments people talked with their backs to you or occasionally when people didn’t say anything but had their backs to you in the original so I could slide a line in there.”

Gaiman paraphrased a literal translation, which he says can be a tricky process. He explains, “If you translate what’s said, you (sometimes) don’t wind up communicating what’s said. An example is Jigo’s (the corrupt monk voiced by Billy Bob Thornton) first line. He says, ‘Is this soup or donkey piss?’ In Japanese, he literally says, ‘This soup tastes like water.’ If I translated it like that, you would not know he’s being rude, offensive and insulting. I asked Steve Alpert from Studio Ghibli (Miyazaki’s company), ‘How insulting is this on a scale of one to 10?’ He said, ‘That’s about a 10. Japanese doesn’t get much more insulting than that.’”

Lady EboshiThe cast assembled to recite Gaiman’s dialogue is distinguished, including Claire Danes and The X-Files star Gillian Anderson. One of the larger roles, the humane but destructive Lady Eboshi, is played by English actress Minnie Driver. Driver received an Academy Award nomination for her work in Good Will Hunting. She’s also no stranger to cartoons. This year she played Jane in Tarzan and impersonated Brooke Shields in South Park: Bigger, Longer & Uncut.

In the earlier animated movies, Driver recorded her performance before the animation was drawn. However, Princess Mononoke required her to match the pace of a finished film. She says, “It’s just different. It’s almost like you’re sitting at home watching the cartoon, but you’re doing the voices. It’s like being in it. When (I was) doing Tarzan, it was incredibly vital. I had to keep coming up with ideas. It was wonderful, but the writing was fairly generic, so I was improvising a lot. In this, it has been so worked out, flap-for-flap of the mouth, what you say. It’s a very disciplined medium, doing the voice.”

The 28-year-old Driver has demonstrated a remarkable versatility with accents. She was convincing as a Russian saloon singer in Goldeneye and as an American in Big Night, Sleepers, Hard Rain and Grosse Pointe Blank. “I’ve played classy birds since I got here, but in England I played a lot of regional (roles). I was always playing Irish girls (in Circle of Friends) or Scottish girls or girls from the West Country. In fact, Good Will Hunting was only the second time in my career that I’ve used my (own) voice,” she recalls.

For Princess Mononoke, Driver speaks in her native dialect. She says, “They wanted to utilize a certain power. I’m not saying an American accent can’t be powerful. There’s something slightly ‘other’ about Lady Eboshi, fairly austere. The British can sound incredibly removed, austere and cold. It was good to be able to use that.”

Despite her vocal track record, Driver admits, “I spent most of my childhood being told to shut up. I never thought, ‘Wow! I’ve got a great voice. I’m going to have a big career!’ I get other people to do my answering machine message.”

Part of the reason seasoned actors like Driver were chosen for Princess Mononoke is the sophistication of the material. “What makes it an adult film is the fact that you don’t have a clear-cut good and bad side,” Gaiman says. “Motives are difficult to discern. It’s a complex film. There is a lot of subtext and a lot of stuff going on under the surface.” For example, Lady Eboshi has no qualms about potentially ruining the balance of nature. At the same time, she gives hope and opportunity to outcasts like prostitutes and lepers by recruiting them to work in her village.

Driver says, “She’s not an environmentalist, but she is a humanitarian. Flawed characters are always more interesting than the aesthetically perfect ones. That’s what makes it interesting as an actor. Vocally, how do you bring that to life?”

While Princess Mononoke has received a major push, Gaiman wonders if American audiences are ready for an adult cartoon. “This is something that has been a frustration for me for 12 years, working initially in comics and still loving to do stuff with illustrations. It has always fascinated me that words are fine and pictures are safe, but the moment you add words and pictures together, you are suddenly assumed to be doing something aimed at children or sub-literates,” he says.

While the fate of Princess Mononoke is uncertain with the U.S. box office, Gaiman recalls the one person who matters most gave it his blessing. “I only got to meet (Miyazaki) after it was all over,” he says. “He gave me a hug and told me how pleased he was he hadn’t listened to the people who told him to insist it was released in subtitled version.” 


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