Memoirs of a Geisha, shot by Dion Beebe, ASC, ACS, unfurls the lavish saga of a celebrated Japanese seductress.

As soon as Arthur Golden’s Memoirs of a Geisha hit bookstores in 1997, the fictional memoir of a geisha in 1930s Kyoto became a surprise sensation. Eight years later, Memoirs of a Geisha is making its motion-picture debut. The core creative team reunites collaborators from the movie Chicago: director Rob Marshall; director of photography Dion Beebe, ASC, ACS; production designer John Myhre, and costume designer Colleen Atwood.

Beebe earned Oscar and BAFTA nominations for Chicago (see AC Feb. ’02), then went on to receive a BAFTA award and an ASC nomination for his work with co-cinematographer Paul Cameron on Collateral (AC Aug. ’04). His credits also include In the Cut (AC Nov. ’03), Praise and What I Have Written.

For many readers, Memoirs of a Geisha’s appeal lay in its vivid portrayal of geisha life. Neither wife nor prostitute, geisha in pre-war Japan were highly trained entertainers prized for their skills in dance, music and conversation. They acted as social lubricant for businessmen who entertained clients at teahouses. More successful ones also had a special patron, a financial provider who was a long-term lover.

Memoirs of a Geisha couples this backdrop with a Cinderella-like plot. Recounting her life story is Chiyo (Suzuka Ohgo), who is born in a poor fishing village. When her mother dies, the girl and her sister are sold, with Chiyo sent to the Kyoto district of Gion to work in a geisha house. She starts as a maid and is terrorized by Hatsumomo (Gong Li), a vicious geisha protective of her turf. One day Chiyo breaks into tears while on an errand, and a polished gentleman known as the Chairman (Ken Watanabe) stops to offer words of comfort. Struck by Chiyo’s unusual blue eyes, he gives her money for an ice cone. The girl is smitten. Instead of buying a cone, she runs to the temple to make a wish: to become a geisha worthy of a man like the Chairman. The story then follows Chiyo’s struggle for success, as she finally becomes the most prized geisha in Kyoto under a new name, Sayuri (Ziyi Zhang). War breaks out, then ends, and so does the golden age of geisha. But the story continues through these waning years, until Sayuri is finally united with the love of her life.

In tackling the film adaptation, Marshall and his collaborators wrestled with several challenges: How do you re-create the epic breadth of this world? How do you reconstruct the entertainment district of Kyoto, now a shadow of its former self? And how do you render the flat light of Kyoto on a sunny backlot in California?

The first step was a trip to Japan. “We just walked through the world, in a way,” says Beebe. “We were in Gion and the teahouse that Arthur Golden writes about. We were served by geisha. We went to the geisha school, watched Kabuki theater, and walked through Kyoto’s temples and shrines.” It was clear Gion wouldn’t work as a practical location because it is now filled with power lines and modern façades, but Beebe took countless photographs of Kyoto’s temple grounds, its special light and its famous hills. “For me, it was a great reference to soak up the atmosphere,” he says.

Upon their return, all departments assembled their research in one room and “started to piece together a world that doesn’t entirely exist anymore,” says Beebe. The cinematographer then began running tests, working with Panavision anamorphic lenses and cameras. He and his colleagues looked at kimono fabrics in the golden light that would dominate the film. They tested white geisha makeup. (“It’s not very flattering,” Beebe notes of the thick, caked base. “We adapted it so we could shoot close and not be afraid.”) He and Myhre also took considerable pains with Japan’s sliding paper screens, sojii. “In every period Japanese film,” Beebe explains, “they tend to look pretty bad, mostly because it’s white paper and is often backlit or frontlit. It always feels like the brightest thing in the room.” This conflicted with the goal he and Marshall had in mind: to create a dark, veiled world that would gradually be revealed. “The metaphor was a peeling away of layers, and [the white sojii] was going to work against us every time. Some of the first tests we did were to see how to create a dark, textured sojii.” Myhre collected dozens of paper samples of varying thicknesses, textures and dye techniques, finally winnowing them down to a selection of paper and fabrics that worked.

Another critical piece in the planning was Myhre’s 1⁄4" scale model of the geisha district. The set, complete with period façades, cobblestone streets and a snaking river, would be built on a sprawling horse ranch in Ventura, California, where the surrounding mountains would stand in for Kyoto’s peaks. Additional exteriors were filmed in Japan and Northern California. The interiors were mostly constructed onstage at Sony Pictures’ Culver City lot.

By dropping a lipstick camera into the model, Beebe and Marshall could not only plot several major crane shots, but also could “anticipate that fact that at some point we’d run out of places to shoot,” says the cinematographer. “We had a couple of key journeys through this town; one is when Chiyo arrives in a rickshaw and is taken through the streets, and another is when she runs away.” Using the model, “we figured out how to block streets, change surfaces of passageways, and change façades so we could really expand this set. It was a great device. It gave us the chance to make alterations prior to John starting construction.”

It also helped address the issue of Kyoto’s northern light. “When I first walked in, everyone was looking at the model,” recalls key grip Scott Robinson. “They turned to me and said, ‘How do we make this look like winter?’ I said, ‘I think you have to silk the set.’ Well, it turned out the scale was more than 2.5 acres. So unbeknownst to me and Don Reynolds, my rigging key grip, we started designing the largest freestanding structure that’s ever been put over a set.”

The canopy was enormous, with 3 miles of silent grid cloth comprising a series of overlapping, retractable panels. This silk was suspended from two freestanding trusses that were designed with the help of Michael Krevitt at ShowRig and surveyors and structural engineers. “Mike and his team ended up developing a specialized truss to handle the load of the stress,” says Robinson. Each structure was 50' high x 260' long, and they stood 300' apart. Because the clay soil wasn’t solid enough to anchor the weight, the canopy was tied by 4 miles of Kevlar ropes to septic tanks filled with 1 million gallons of water. “We bought out a cesspool factory,” Robinson says with a laugh. “That’s the only thing we could come up with.”

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© 2006 American Cinematographer.