‘Sophie and the Rising Sun’ examines prejudice and love
January 19, 2016
Director, producer and screenwriter Maggie Greenwald was introduced to Augusta Trobaugh’s novel "Sophie and the Rising Sun" nine years ago by producer Nancy Dickenson
The romance, which takes place just before the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor, follows Sophie, a single woman who is a crabber in a small Southern town, and Grover Ohta, a Japanese-American man who finds himself stranded, unable to head home to California.
The book explores prejudice, misinformation and love.
"As soon as I read it, it seemed like a book that somehow had every other character that have been in my other movies all gathered in this little southern town," Greenwald said during a telephone interview from New York.
The reason why Greenwald made "Sophie and the Rising Sun," a feature film based on the book, which is part of this year’s Sundance Film Festival premieres, is because of the impact it had on Dickenson.
"She saw a similar thing happening to Arab-Americans in the early 2000s, after 9/11 that happened to Japanese Americans in 1941," Greenwald said.
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But that didn’t prepare Greenwald for the political climate that has swept the country today.
"It’s terrifying to see how much this film has become relevant now than it was when we started working on it nine years ago," she said. "There was even one politician in the south who suggested we set up internment camps, which was rather incredible."
When making the film, Greenwald adhered to the skeleton of Trobaugh’s basic story, but did have to make some calculated changes.
"The book is very literary and is more like a beautiful watercolor or sketch," Greenwald said. "So, in developing the screenplay over the years, I felt each of the characters needed more background and three-dimensionality to bring them to life and give dramatic motivation of where they are in their lives."
Although Greenwald knew much of the situation regarding the internment of 120,000 Japanese Americans during World War II, she learned a lot more during her research.
"I didn’t know about the exclusion acts and that at a certain point Japanese weren’t allowed in the United States," she said. "I also learned about the fruit and vegetable industry and that all the farms in the northwest were owned by Japanese Americans and the horrible reality that they lost everything when they were rounded up and put into these camps."
That gave the film some background, but the filmmaker also needed the audience to understand why the characters respond the way they do when Ohta, who is so different from everyone else, arrives in their midst.
"In the book, there really isn’t much about Mr. Ohta," she said. "He needed some fleshing out to not just be an exotic flower, but a human being in this particular time in history."
That also came into play when casting the role, which eventually went to Takashi Yamaguchi, a Japanese-born actor.
"The process of finding Tako was very interesting and casting a Japanese actor, rather than a Japanese-American actor, was a difficult choice for us," Greenwald said. "We started with auditioning Asian-American actors, and then we all agreed that we were committed to actually casting a Japanese-American or Japanese actor."
The problem with the Japanese-American actors was that they were all so American, Greenwald said with a laugh.
"They had this American swagger and confidence," she said. "Also, in my own research, Ohta isn’t supposed to be a young man. In the book, they are past their prime and this is like their last chance for love. So, I felt at that time, given his age, he would have likely grown up in a more enclosed farming community like other immigrants. So, it was more important for him to be more Japanese than American."
Casting Julianne Nicholson as Sophie was a similar process.
"Julianne has what I always find as a magical quality of not only being an incredible actress, but also being plain, but very beautiful at the same time," Greenwald said. "It’s not a conventional beauty and you can’t take your eyes off of her. But it seems so easy for her to be someone from that town, who didn’t fit in, as well as someone who has the physicality to be capable of being a crabber on her own. I love that naturalness. It’s just organic to her."
Sundance Film Festival will present "Sophie and the Rising Sun" at the MARC, 1200 Little Kate Rd., on Friday, Jan. 22, at 11:15 a.m. Additional screenings will be held at the Rose Wagner Performing Arts Center in Salt Lake City on Friday, Jan. 22, at 6:15 p.m. and 9:30 p.m., the Yarrow Hotel, 1800 Park Ave., on Saturday, Jan. 23, at 3 p.m., Peery’s Egyptian Theatre in Ogden on Friday, Jan. 29, at 9:30 p.m., the Library Center Theatre, 1255 Park Ave., on Saturday, Jan. 30, at 5:45 p.m. and at the Tower Theatre in Salt Lake City on Sunday, Jan. 31, at 3 p.m. For more information, visit http://www.sundance.org.