Josh Hartnett on the Samurai Western Mash-Up Bunraku and Life Outside of Hollywood
It's no coincidence that Josh Hartnett has been off the grid, so to speak, in the years following his most recent string of mainstream turns (The Black Dahlia, Resurrecting the Champ, 30 Days of Night); after spending a decade in Hollywood, the 33-year-old tells Movieline, other interests and challenges called. "I've been trying out a lot of different things," Hartnett explained during a chat about his latest art film endeavor, Guy Moshe's hyper-stylized Bunraku. "I started this business so young, I kind of grew up in it... I'm just living a rather unique life, I think, and I enjoy it."
Hartnett yearned for edgier fare, and Bunraku certainly fits the bill. Named for an obscure form of Japanese theater traditionally performed by shadowy black-clad puppet masters, Bunraku unapologetically mashes genres through and through, from its tale of two drifters bent on shared revenge (Hartnett's stoic cowboy and Japanese rock star Gackt as his samurai counterpart) to the visual flair of the world of Bunraku -- part paper sculpture, part CG fantasy-Western, part Jerome Robbins musical. Ron Perlman's contemplative warlord plays foil to both Hartnett and Gackt, while Woody Harrelson, Demi Moore, Kevin McKidd, and Shun Sugata fill out the cast of colorful figures on the periphery.
Movieline spoke with the actor about the uncompromising vision of Bunraku, its long journey to theaters, and how his focus in his career and in life has evolved over the years.
Bunraku is a pretty daring exercise in itself; how was the concept of it, with its theatricality and its genre-bending and visual style, initially pitched to you?
Well, Guy [Moshe] came to me in New York and sat down with me before I even read the script to explain the visuals and explain what the fight sequences were going to entail, and it was clear to me that he had a real vision for the project and that he wasn't going to compromise on it. He had turned down a studio who wanted to make a different version of this film that was a little less stagey, and he just couldn't see it that way. He wanted to do it this way. And I respected that. I just ultimately put my faith in the fact that he was going to do something unique. I get sick of seeing the same few types of movies come out all the time, I really like to be involved with filmmakers who are trying to pull off something unique, something new. And guy definitely went for that in this case. I think he pulled it off.
As a performer, you put in your time with this project and filmed this three years ago. You mentioned respecting Guy's vision and unwillingness to compromise, but how do you then feel about the trade-off of the film then taking a bit longer to make its way to audiences?
Well, that is the trade-off. If you're only in the business to be seen in whatever's coming out, you don't really care about, I guess, the director's unique vision, then you can do those kinds of movies all the time and you'll be seen in exactly the time that the studios set out and allot for that release. A film like this takes a lot of, you know, inter-machinations for it to see release. He's overcome a lot in the course of making this film and I'm proud that is actually is coming out. It's been a struggle for him. And you know, I don't really take that into consideration when I read something or when I meet someone. I would love for people to see it and love it, but more it's about making something interesting and new and eventually people will see it and love it.
When I first read about the project I was instantly intrigued by the title, because Japanese bunraku puppet theater is so rarely performed stateside. People here probably don't have much of a concept of what it is. How do you think the inspiration pulled from traditional bunraku theater has been translated into the film?
For me, my take on that is that Guy wanted the audience to be aware that it wasn't taking place in a world that exists physically for us. What bunraku puppetry is, is puppets on a stage with the puppet operator dressed in black, performing these melodramas and these parables and comedies. It's so far outside of the realm of reality that you know right off the bat that you're safe. You don't have to worry about whether or not it could be a possibility. You can turn off that mechanism in that part of your brain, it's not going to happen. You just kind of sit back and watch the story for what it is, it clarifies the story a bit. And that's what I think he's doing here. He's not pretending this is reality, he's letting you see behind the curtain, for lack of a better metaphor. I think it also has the archetypes that we're familiar with and it borrows a lot from different film genres that we have come to know and understand, so there are certain elements that you can really wrap your mind around.
Speaking of those archetypes, you and Gackt play characters representative of this lone gunslinger kind of character that's come up not only in Western mythology but in samurai lore, which makes it interesting to see where those two cultures meet within this storytelling sphere. How would you describe your character and what motivates him in particular?
He was left on his own at a very young age; he loses his father, loses his mother, and doesn't know much about either of them. We created a backstory for him -- he's raised by traveling gypsy circus folk, and when he finds out at a certain age what happened to his biological father, to his parents, he sets out on a course of revenge. I find that the guy was written purposefully opaque and I enjoy that. There's nothing, you don't get any backstory on him, and it's more fun to kind of watch his reaction to this world and how he pummels his way through it. You don't know anything about him. You know more about Yoshi, obviously, but my character is allowed to be a little more fluid and a little more goofy, if you don't know anything about him. I got to play with it, because he didn't really have any weaknesses in the original script. I got to figure out what could work. I made him afraid of heights, somebody who doesn't like to reveal anything, and lives purposefully covered up, down to the gloves. We did a lot of work on the costume. He's constantly pushing outward; he doesn't want anybody close to him. For me it's a lot of fun to just start from scratch with a character. There aren't many cues into who he is, so let's just make something up that's more creative.
You've said that at a certain point in your career you decided you wanted to go a more artistic route in your film choices, and I'm curious as to how, in the last few years, those choices have evolved in comparison to where you began in film. Did those choices refocus you in terms of your approach to your career?
I'd always wanted to do films that were a bit more on the edge... with a couple of glaring exceptions. I read a lot of material but I also have been writing a lot of different shorts and things like that, little things here and there, and producing -- I started a production company -- and I also do a lot of things that aren't involved in this business. So I just feel very lucky to be able to be a part of unique pieces of film that I think have legs and that I think people will respond to. And I don't know, I guess my primary focus in life has shifted a bit. But in film it's always been the same. I'm just trying to make something that I'm going to be interested in seeing, something that's new. I don't want to cheat the audience. I want them to think a little bit. You know, I like challenging films, so I guess that's reflected in what I choose to work on.
What would you say is the new focus of your life right now?
[Laughs] Well, that's the part I don't have to do interviews about! No, I've been trying out a lot of different things. I started this business so young, I kind of grew up in it, ever since I was 18. I don't know. I'm just living a rather unique life, I think, and I enjoy it. I have a lot of friends who aren't in this industry and I live in New York. I'm more just involved in the arts and music than with film people, so my life is kind of structured in that way as opposed to people who are out in Hollywood taking meetings every day. I don't know -- it's just a different approach, I guess.
Bunraku is available now on VOD and hits select theaters on September 30.