Interview: Joshua Jackson on “Shutter”

Joshua Jackson as the photogrrapher who captures an image of a ghost (JU-ON: THE GRUDGE's Megumi Okina)

SHUTTER, the new film starring Joshua Jackson (DAWSON’S CREEK) and Rachael Taylor (TRANSFORMERS) is based on an Asian horror film, as is all too often the case these days. However, there is a difference from the usual remake: the new version is an American-Japanese co-production, based not on a Japanese film but on an excellent effort from Thailand. The screenwriter is American; the director is Japanese, and so is producer Taka Ichise, who gave us the original Japanese versions of RING and JU-ON, as well as their American remakes THE RING and THE GRUDGE. Like THE GRUDGE, the new version of SHUTTER places American characters in Tokyo, where they encounter a Japanese ghost girl who will not go quietly into the afterlife.

The premise this time is that the ghost manifests herself in on film, which wrecks havock on the livelihood of Ben (Jackson), a professional photographer. The ”Spirit Photography” is borrowed from the original film, but much of the plot has been refashioned to help acclimate audiences to the concept, which is more taken for granted in Thai culture.

Jackson explains, “When they sent out the script, they sent the original, with the instructions to watch the original, digest, forget, and then read the script. It’s similar enough that the structure is there and the thrust of the spirit photography is taken across, and we borrowed some of their better sequences. But because you’re introducing Westerners to Japanese-Asian culture, the first act and a half are radically different, because you need to introduce Westerners to the idea, even, of spirit photography.”

The Thai version of SHUTTER presents its Spirit Photography in a matter of fact way, although not necessarily as something universally believed. Perhaps the best comparison in American culture would be with UFOs – everyone has heard of them, whether or not we all believe they contain little green men from Mars. The remake had to take a different approach.

“When you have people in Thailand, they have the same basic cultural assumptions as the rest of the characters., so when supernatural stuff starts kicking off, whether they believe or don’t believe, they have a cultural understanding of it,” explains Jackson. ”Ours is the exact reverse of that, because we’re Westerners in Japan, Tokyo. When the supernatural starts happening, it is on their terms, and we need to be brought into their mythology. Because they’re Shinto – not Christian, Jewish or Muslim – it is a totally different underpinning for the Japanese than it is for Westerners.

“In Western culture,” Jackson continues, ”there’s a corollary to the Greek and Roman attachment to the dead with modern Japanese Shinto attachment to the dead. In the Judeo-Christian-Islamo (why do they always leave the Islamic off the end?) tradition, our attachment to the dead is very specific and Biblically based, whereas theirs is much more about honor and an almost karmic idea of the things you do in life being carried forward, and if you haven’t settled your accounts, then you can’t (in Greek terms) cross the River Styx. But for the Japanese, your energy, your soul or whatever it is, gets caught, and your family needs to cleanse your honor. In some way you need to be reconciled with death before you can transit over to the other side. So that was the major difference [between the two films]: the characters are learning the mythology of the place.”

If he sounds well-versed in the cultural differences between Asia and America, Jackson credits it to his work on SHUTTER, which turned out to be something of a crash course.

“This is all new information to me, and frankly I’m probably getting 90% of it wrong – but I sound good saying it,” he jokes. “Because Shintoism is completely outside my experience, it was great to have somebody from there to explain how Shintoism affects the daily life of people. It’s a state religion, so everybody shares the same religion. But because it’s a state religion, it’s sort of in the background. It’s not like being in the States, where the Born-Agains are really rabid, passionate Christians. It’s just in the background of everyone’s life, and everybody has a basic belief that there are spirits and guardians and taboo things in the present time that aren’t mythological anecdotes.”

Watching the original film was a double-edged sword for the actor: on the one hand, it convinced him that certain unusual scenes could be effective; on the other, the memory of what had worked so well the first time came back to haunt him “frequently.” He points to the “flash-pop scare” sequence as one example of the former, a sequence wherein the lights go out in Ben’s studio, and the action is illuminated only by intermittent flashes from his camera equipment, creating an unnerving, stroboscopic effect.

“[With] things like that, it is actually quite helpful…it gives you an understanding of what it is going to look like, because it’s quite a technical sequence,” says the actor. “Generally, I would say, if you’re remaking something, it’s probably best not to have the original in your head, because you’re always judging yourself – unless it’s really bad; then you feel good about yourself! Because ours hangs a very different story on the same bones, you weren’t competing with the original. It is so different. By having people who are culturally acclimated to the idea of spirit photography, their story starts in a very different place than by having people who have to be educated about the very idea of spirit photography.”

Making SHUTTER sounds as if it had the potential to be quite a schizophrenic experience, working from an English-language screenplay by an American writer, shot in Tokyo by a Japanese director. According to Jackson, the unusual circumstances were more help than hindrance..

“It wasn’t schizophrenic,” he says. “The cultural dissimilarity was helpful frankly, in the beginning, because – more Rachel’s character, but both of our characters are going through that culture shock in the beginning. That was [really] happening, so it was very easy to play those moments. Then to be honest, the language of film-making – even though the specific language changes – the sort of on-set give and take is the same everywhere. So once you learn the particularities of the place, the short hand of “master shot, two shot, close-up, walk here, walk there” – you don’t actually need to speak the same language for that stuff.”

Part of the promotional push for SHUTTER has been to present spirit photography as a real phenomenon. (The press junket included an offer of interviews with scientific “experts” in the field.) The film itself even has James Kyson Lee (HEROES) walk on for a one-scene cameo in which he delivers a history of spirit photography, explaining that the phenomenon has existed since the birth of photography during the Victorian Era. This lends an aura of credibility, unless you have seen some of those photographs.*

Jackson prefers to remain agnostic on the subject, describing himself as a ”skeptic,” adding, ”I’m just as distrustful of absolute belief as I am of absolute disbelief. So I’m a skeptic, with the caveat that I think it’s completely within the realm of possibility. The way my brain works, things that are outside the realm of normal – the average, everyday experience – I tend to think that they are internal rather than external. So either your mind is playing tricks on you, or you’re perceiving things differently. But that’s just my personal belief – the way I absorb information. I could just as easily see why someone would say, ‘I haven’t changed; the world has. So something is not right here.’”

At least since THE EXORCIST in 1973, it has become a tradition to tell tale tales of unexplained phenomena on the set of supernatural-themed movies, but Jackson dismisses the subject.

“There were no paranormal events,” he says. “The stranger part of it was not that there would be events taking place. It’s tough for a Westerner… For us it’s a grand concept, sort of an outrageous concept – spirits showing up and being able to manifest themselves – but that’s not the case there. The things that we were doing did not seem outside the realm of possibility there. While the specific instances of ghosts manifesting are not part of the religion, the idea of active an active participatory relationship with the dead is not flakey or new agey at all. There, it’s part of the culture.”

Jackson believes that SHUTTER’s approach pays off with some genuine scares: “The high-water mark for me in a horror film that I’ve been in, is when I can perform it and still have a couple moments that I find particularly disturbing. Particularly the flash-scare I thought was excellent. It reached that a couple of times. But the experience of watching a movie that I’m in is never a pleasant one. I see the missed moments; it what it’s not, rather than what it is.”

Since DAWSON’S CREEK, Jackson has been amassing an impressive body of genre credits: MAGIC IN THE WATER, THE NEW OUTER LIMTIES episode “Music of the Spheres”, SCREAM 2, APT PUPIL, URBAN LEGEND, and CURSED. Is he eager for something new, or is he happy to stick with cinefantastique?

“Well, I’m not in a place in my career where I can make choices like, “In four films I want to be doing X.” There are genres that I have revisited, so over the course, now, of my thirty films, you can put them together and say, ‘These are the types of movies he likes,’ because I’ve continually gone back unconsciously to the same types of stories. I enjoy fantasy-type-stuff, because as an actor it’s fun every once in a while to play a character where anything is possible. It’s mostly been in the horror genre. I also particularly enjoy the small, human-interaction stories. I think I’ve got all the teen angst out of my system that I needed to. And I also am a fairly politically aware person, so I am also drawn to those types of stories as well.”

As for the current popularity of horror films that sees Hollywood churning out both ghost stories like SHUTTER and torture porn flicks like the SAW franchise, Jackson sees this as a reflection of current cultural concerns.

“Well, Godzilla came out of the ‘We just got bombed twice and now there’s a legitimate fear of nuclear holocaust,’ so it takes some sort of cultural zeitgeist to create – the genre remains the same – but whatever the thrust of the genre is at that time. So I don’t think it’s too far of a stretch to say America has a deep fear of things Unseen and Other. Maybe that’s why ghost stories are resurging right now. On the flip side, it’s funny – there are two parallel tracks happening right now. The horror genre, for whatever reason, is always a really good bellwether of where a society is. There is the ghost story side. People are feeling nebulously creeped out by the world – that’s the ghost story side. But then there’s also the hacker-slasher side. People are fearing real visceral, entrenched violence around every corner. It’s interesting to see those two parallel tracks happening in the horror world.”


Ben (Joshua Jackson) does not appreciate his wife (Rachael Taylor)'s attempt to solve the mystery that haunts them.

Throughout SHUTTER, Ben’s wife is eager to solve the mystery of the ghost that is haunting them, but Ben seems curiously reluctant to get involved. Does he have some reason to fear the revelation of the truth? Asked what he thinks the audience verdict will be for his character, and whether it might be different in Japan or America, Jackson laughs and says:

“I think he plays pretty poorly everywhere. I don’t know enough about Japanese gender politics, but I’m pretty sure what the reaction will be over here.”

*NOTE: Back in 2006, I attended Immaterial World, an exhibition of Victorian ghost photography, and the images are not likely to convince modern viewers. You can see an example in my review of the exhibition here.


About the Author

Steve Biodrowski

Cinefantastique's Los Angeles Correspondent from 1987 to 1993 and West Coast Editor from 1993 to 1999. Currently the webmaster of Cinefantastique Online, I also run a website called Hollywood Gothique that covers Halloween Horror and Sci-Fi Cinema Events in the Los Angeles area.

3 Responses to “ Interview: Joshua Jackson on “Shutter” ”

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  2. [...] and $31.0-million, respectively. Hoping to reverse this trend is SHUTTER, starring Joshua Jackson (DAWSON’S CREEK) and Rachael Taylor (TRANSFORMERS), which is based on the excellent 2004 Thai [...]

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