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Arthur Golden Didn't Set Out to Write a Book About Geishas

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Novelist Arthur Golden never thought that his international bestseller "Memoirs of a Geisha" would be made into a movie.

Even after producers Douglas Wick and Lucy Fisher bought the movie rights, he didn't think it would be made into a movie.

"Hollywood buys a lot of stuff, but they don't make everything they buy," the author said. "Besides, this would be a long shot anyway. It would be a movie with an exotic subject and an all-Asian cast. Who knows if anyone in Hollywood would want to make this kind of a movie?"

Then Steven Spielberg expressed an interest in directing the film, and everything changed.

"That was the first time that I imagined it might actually be made into a movie," Golden said. "That also was the first time I started to get excited about the possibility of it being made into a movie.

"My wife and I went to see Saving Private Ryan,' and when it saidDirected by Steven Spielberg,' I got a little chill down my spine. I turned to my wife and said: "Wouldn't it be amazing if one day we saw the words `Memoirs of a Geisha' directed by Steven Spielberg?"

Well, "Memoirs of a Geisha" is opening in theaters, and it does not say: "Directed by Steven Spielberg." Instead, it says: "Directed by Rob Marshall," and that seems to be just fine with everyone involved.

Wick, the Oscar-winning producer of "Gladiator" who optioned "Memoirs of a Geisha" upon its publication in 1997, said Spielberg dropped out shortly after his initial interest because he didn't feel he was the right director for this film. However, he remained on the project as a producer.

The story is a fictionalized account of a young girl in pre-World War II Japan who is sold by her peasant family to work as a servant in a geisha house. Eventually, the young girl becomes an apprentice and learns the trade, transforming into a beautiful geisha.

Geishas (it's pronounced gay-sha) are not prostitutes, but rather are trained dancers, singers and musicians who are skilled in the art of conversation. They entertain wealthy businessmen at social functions but are not sexual escorts.

Once Spielberg dropped out of the running, Wick said he and his producing partner (Lucy Fisher is also his wife) began an exhaustive search for a new director.

"Many directors were interested, but we were aware of how difficult this was going to be," Wick explained. "We needed a director who was capable of creating a whole new world. We needed a director who was a storyteller and understood the Dickens aspect of the story.

"It would be easy to make a less-good version of this book, but there was a great version to be made in the right hands."

Then the producers saw an early cut of Marshall's movie musical "Chicago," which went on to win six Oscars, including Best Picture.

"We knew immediately that Rob Marshall was our guy. He dealt with the rivalry between two women, he create a new world in period Chicago, he had an eye for the visual and he had a background as a dancer and a choreographer so he would understand the discipline of the geishas. He was the perfect director for this job."

But Marshall wouldn't even return their calls.

So, the producers decided on a different strategy. They started bombarding the director with gifts. "We sent him every Japanese-themed gift we could think of," Wick said with a laugh, "from sake and books on geishas to Japanese prints. But I think what won him over was the Barbie doll dressed in a kimono."

Marshall isn't saying if the Barbie doll sealed the deal, but he agreed in 2003 to direct the $80 million film.

Casting became a thorny issue when Ziyi Zhang, the Chinese star of "Hero" and "House of Flying Daggers," was picked to portray Sayuri, the lead character. Japanese actor Ken Watanabe was cast as her love interest, but some of the film's other important characters are played by Chinese actresses, including Michelle Yeoh.

There have been no threats of demonstrations or boycotts of the movie from Asian-American media watchdog groups, but those involved with the film said they are aware that it strikes a nerve with some people.

"We are very mindful of the cultural sensitivities," Wick said, "but in the end we made a creative choice. Ziyi was the best actor for the part, period. And she is beguiling in this role. She has both an Audrey Hepburn innocence and a sophisticated beauty. I can't imagine any other actress in this role.

"And I should add that Ziyi is a huge star in Japan. She is well-known from her cosmetics ad work, and she has played Japanese women in films before without complaints."

Zhang said she never hesitated when she was offered the role. "I am a professional actress, and that is what I do. I learn about a character, and then I play that character."

The actress said she didn't know anything about geishas before taking on the role, and learning about them became the second most difficult task in preparing for the role.

"The most difficult was learning English," she said. "When I heard that the entire movie would be in English, I worried that I wouldn't be able to do it. Now that it's over, I am very proud of what I was able to do. I also am very proud of the movie. I saw it last week in Los Angeles for the first time and I cried."

Golden said he was unfamiliar with the world of geishas before he began preparing to write his book, which sold 4 million copies in English before being translated into 32 different languages, and remained on the New York Times bestseller list for two years.

"I didn't know anything about geishas when I lived in Japan in 1981 after school (he holds a degree in art history, specializing in Japanese art, from Harvard, a masters degree in Japanese history from Columbia and another masters degree in English from Boston University).

"It wasn't until I got back to the States and started thinking about writing a book. I remembered a guy I had met whose father was a businessman and whose mother was a geisha. Then I read Liza Dalby's book ("Geisha," based on her experiences as the only American to be accepted as a geisha). That's when I decided to write a book about geishas.

"I imagine that a lot of people assume that I was fascinated with geishas my whole life, and then decided to write a book about them. But it is the opposite case. I decided to write a book, and then learned everything I would need to write a book."

Golden conducted extensive research on the subject, but credits one particular geisha in Kyoto (her name is Mineko) for giving him a behind-the-scenes look at this world.

"I didn't speak much with Liza because she has been besieged over the years by people wanting to tap her knowledge to write books and make movies. But Mineko was very helpful in teaching me about how the geishas get their hair done, how they put on their makeup, what time they go to bed, what they eat for dinner and what men expect them to talk about. It was these details that help so much in writing the book."

Once Marshall signed on as director, Golden said he pretty much slipped into the background, although the director sent him the screenplay and solicited comments.

"That was very nice of him," the author said. "He didn't have to do that. Contractually, they are allowed to ignore me. When you're writing a novel, you have control of everything, but you give up control when it is made into a movie. I had to leave it in their hands and watch from a distance.

"Rob did say that he wanted to make a movie that I loved, and that did make me feel better."

Golden said he didn't see the finished film until three weeks ago in New York City.

"I was very impressed with the movie," he said, "but I have to admit that the experience was a little surreal. It was almost like it was happening to someone else. I had to remind myself that I dreamed this whole thing up. These were my characters and now they're being played by actors on the screen. It's almost as if they've taken on a life of their own.

"But that's the way it's been since I wrote the book."



Danna - a man who financially backs the geisha's expenses

Hanamachi - a geisha district

Maiko - Kyoto term for apprentice geisha

Obi - decorative sash tied around a kimono

Okasan - head of geisha household (addressed as "mother")

Okiya - geisha household

O-nesan - older geisha sister

Shamisen - stringed instrument used by geishas


(c) 2005, The Orange County Register (Santa Ana, Calif.). Distributed by Knight Ridder/Tribune News Service.

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