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Notre Dame alumni make it big in Hollywood

Molly Griffin | Friday, October 29, 2004

The film “The Grudge” will be screened Nov. 11 on the Notre Dame campus at 7 and 10 p.m. at the Browning Cinema in the Center for Performing Arts. Notre Dame alumni Steven Susco, the film’s screenwriter, and William Mapother, one of the film’s stars, will be present to participate in a question and answer session for students. Both men have come a long way in Hollywood since their days as Notre Dame students. William Mapother has become a successful actor in such films as “Mission Impossible II, and Steven Susco is an up-and-coming screenwriter, with “The Grudge” being his first major motion picture.

To start with a Notre Dame-oriented question, what dorms did you live in?Mapother: My freshman year I lived in Grace Hall, and my sophomore year through graduation I lived in Morrissey.Susco: I started out in Pangborn, and just after I had made all of my friends and settled down, they announced that they were changing it to a women’s dorm. All of my friend’s moved to Cavanaugh, but I missed the cut and had to live in St. Ed’s. They then announced that Cavanaugh was becoming a women’s dorm, and we were about to move to Flanner when they announced that it was going to become an office building. After that, I took the hint and moved off campus. How did each of you become involved with “The Grudge?”Susco: I met up with some producers in 2002, Roy Lee and Doug Davison. They had had these tapes that they showed me that they loved. These were the original tapes of “The Grudge” movies. I loved them, I had ideas and I was attached as the writer/director in 2002. There was concern because I had directed only shorts, not features, and this became a major hurdle. The producers ultimately decided to keep the original director [Takashi Shimizu].Mapother: [Executive director] Sam Raimi said that he wanted to have Shimizu to direct in order to retain the flavor of the original. He didn’t want to Americanize it too much.Susco: Basically, over the course of the first year, Shimizu made the first feature version. Sam Raimi saw it, and said “I want to do this with same director.” I negotiated staying on as writer, and that’s where I came into the project. It was a long process but worth it. Mapother: I met with Sam and his partner [producer] Rob Tapert for another project that was in development. About two months later I got call asking me if I would be interested in “The Grudge.” They had enjoyed the meeting and my work, and they thought I would be a good fit for role of Matthew. Sam wanted me, but Sony said “hang on, make sure he can do it.” So I read, and I got the part.Susco: William was one of first people I heard of getting cast. I was a huge, huge fan. One of my favorite movies was “In the Bedroom,” so when I heard that, I knew the film was becoming very legitimate. The original idea had been to do the film in Tokyo for 3 or 4 million with up-and-coming actors. William and I met the day he arrived. Sarah [Michelle Gellar] and Jason [Behr] and KaDee Strickland and myself all went out with him, and the two of us ended up talking for hours. Mapother: Not only that, but after we hung out in Tokyo and we were back in the States, I said come over, and he came and watched the Oscars with his fiancée. Sony had a few online journalists come over too, and I forwarded the article to my sisters, both of whom had gone to Notre Dame, and one said, “Is that the Steven Susco who went to Notre Dame?” We spent time in Tokyo and in the U.S. together, and didn’t know that we both went to ND. The Notre dame connection is almost incidental, but it’s thereSusco: When you go to Notre Dame, it’s usually one of the first things you talk about. It’s astounding that we never talked about it.

For Steven, what challenges did you face writing the script, which was based on a Japanese film, “Ju-On: The Grudge”? How did you make the work your own?Susco: The biggest challenge was really wanting to do it well when the decision was made to do it in Japan with Shimizu. There was a lot of internal pressure to do it justice; I imagined myself being in his shoes doing the original and having to work with another writer and having someone remake the material and try to add in new things. It was hard feeling like I was doing the right thing. It was pressure that, at the end of the day, was rather unjustified. Shimizu is a very good collaborator. He has a very specific vision of what he wanted, but he was still open to a lot of outside ideas. The language differential was very difficult, particularly communicating ideas without offending anyone. It was really challenging, but everyone was really out to make same kind of movie, so that made things that were difficult go smoothly.

For William, tell us about the character that you play in the film. What do you think that you bring to the role, and how did you prepare?Mapother: Matthew Williams, my character, has been hired by a Japanese corporation to do financial work. He moved mother and wife of three or so years – Clea [Duvall] and I had talked about it and come up with something – to Tokyo for work. When we meet him, he has only been there a few days. For my character, this is a thrilling opportunity, but at same time, he is concerned about mother’s health and wife’s ability and willingness to adapt to Japanese society.

How do you think going to Notre Dame prepared you for your career?Mapother: It really breaks down into two aspects. First: my major. We didn’t have the FTT major, but being an English major helped me in several ways. First, it taught me value of pursuing something that I love. I chose English because I loved it and having made that decision, it was easier to choose a career that I love. It also helped to develop critical thinking and gave me an awareness of the story-telling tradition, which allows me to read and break down scripts easier. Second: The environment. I made a lot of friends and like most felt a bit castigated, but within that safety I was able to explore who I was and what I wanted. Susco: I would give essentially the same summation: do what you love to do in terms of looking forward in life. Don’t look at the odds, and do what makes you happy. I had three different majors: philosophy, FTT and CAPP. Philosophy opens up limitless career choices, and as if that didn’t frighten my parents enough, I told them I was looking to pick up second FTT major. My parents met at IBM. I think that for me, film production and theatre were the things that helped me with writing. I learned about the filmmaking process, not just liking it, but the economics and the nature of collaboration, being able to make films, meeting with people like producers and learning that it is a truly collaborative medium. Theatre: I did a lot of acting, and what that helps me with now is writing characters and in directing, it helps me communicate and use the language of the theatre. I don’t subscribe to George Lucas’s, “Do it again and do it bigger” philosophy. I like to enable actors to do their work better and allow them to find their own things. Legendary film moments are often things that actors come up with on the fly. Philosophy was invaluable because it opened me up to different ways of thinking. Particularly in “The Grudge”, it helped me figure out what about the original film was especially resounding, what the filmmaker was trying to say. It basically enables me to figure out what the film means, to convey the story and the characters. They [philosophy and FTT] ended up meshing together really well.

What skills do you think have allowed you to succeed in such a difficult industry?Mapother: Persistence.Susco: Same thing I was going to say. Same page as always.Mapother: It really is perseverance. Also a sense of professionalism. There is cliché that town is small and it is. Reputation builds quickly.Susco: A quote I always think of says something to the effect of, “The person who succeeds is person who wakes up and says, ‘I’m going to give it another try.'” I’ve been writing since ’96 and I’ve been shot down so much. Your breakfast, lunch and dinner is rejection. Mapother: How do you want your rejection? Over easy? Raw?Susco: You don’t eat for the broccoli, you eat for the pie. That’s how I view it out here. As long as you understand that you’re going to be told “no” 100 times a day and you’re completely fine with that and you only care about the “yes” you might get, it’s worth a shot. Mapother: I give advice along the same lines. If there’s something else you want to do, you should do that. Persistence comes from having no exit strategy. It is perseverance, but it takes self-questioning out of the equation. Susco: For writing, and possibly the entire industry, you can’t come out to Hollywood because you love being a screenwriter but because you love trying to be a screenwriter. Mapother: As a trade-off, actors get rejected more often, but it can be harder for a writer. Actors invest a few days preparing for an audition, but a writer has a lot more at stake. Each hurts in its own way. It’s rejection in quality or quantity. Susco: This is something you’ll find in any profession – roadblocks. You’re going to have to prove yourself, and win people over. It sounds daunting and you need a thick skin, but it’s sort of like anything else. You’re not going to be happy if you don’t do what you love.Mapother: As an addendum to the advice I gave earlier, I usually say that to someone after they’ve come out and are having a crisis. First advice, come out and try, because you’ll regret it if you don’t. It’s when you’re not sure that you have to evaluate and determine if it’s worth it. Susco: It’s a brutal road.Mapother: There’s more underlying all of this “desperate love” of what we do. I don’t want to paint a portrait of suffering and self-sacrifice and nobility in pursuit of my craft, but it’s an acknowledgement that it’s a tough road.Susco: There’s no set course. If you want to be a doctor, it’s a hard road, but there is a set path. You graduate and take the MCATs and go to med school, and there’s a likelihood of employment. Same with law school. With anything in the entertainment industry, there’s no path. You can ask anyone and you’ll never get the same answer. I went to film school, and in terms of opening doors for me, it didn’t do much. Some people who didn’t go to film school are the most talented in the world. There’s no set path that will lead you to the goal, and there’s no sure formula that leads to success. Mapother: There’s also no promise for your next job. The career for writers and actors is one of uncertainty. You can’t let up. Ironically, I love the sense of fear that that instills. It keeps me motivated and working my hardest. In addition to the motivation of doing what I love, I can’t afford to do less than my best.Susco: It leads to creative evolution. You intuitively understand that you need to keep pushing, growing, and redefining. It’s that fear that you need to love. You need to be driven by that. It keeps everything churning. Turn it into a positive. As soon as that feeling that stops, I’ll find something else to do, but I don’t think that I will ever happen because writing, reading and movies are something that I’ve loved since I was a kid.

What is the most exciting project that you’ve worked on?Mapother: For me, it’s always the most recent project, if it’s not the one I’m working on. That’s because I feel as if I’m ever-growing and learning about myself. The most recent is where I have set the bar the higher, and that’s the most exciting part of it. For me right now, it would be “The Grudge.” It gave me first scene with a woman where I wasn’t raping or killing her. I’ve been in Swordfish, Mission Impossible II, and serials on TV (Law & Order, CSI, etc). I was excited about playing someone unequivocally loving with other characters. For me in my career, that was a big challenge because I have an intensity, I’ve been told, and I wanted to work on channeling it on that end versus where I have channeled it in the past. Susco: I think it’s interesting because when I met William, I was walking through this breeze way and I saw him and recognized him from “In the Bedroom.” He turned around with the biggest smile on his face. Every time you see him, he is always playing the bad guy. It was a pleasure to write a character much closer to who he is in real life. I agree with William. You at least strive to have whatever your most recent project was be your favorite. “The Grudge” is the first project that I’ve had come to fruition. I was extremely lucky because they kept me involved in the entire process. I felt like I was creatively part of the family. I learned a great deal about being so intimately involved in so many different aspects of the project. It was really a big step forward for me and it was a creative evolution. I wanted to work with them again. I’m already potentially involved with a number of projects relating to the movie.

Tell me about working on the film.Mapother: First, I’d like to say how much fun I had making this movie. Like all, it starts with the script. Keeping the essence of the story and adapting it for an American cast going to Japan is a very difficult task. I have to say he [Steven Susco] did a fantastic job with story and characters. There are so many moments that brought characters to life. He kept the non-linear structure but made it clearer but without violating Shimizu’s original structure or vision. As an actor, the script is all you have, and I was excited. Susco: That’s great to hear. Mapother: He [Susco] was more than willing to talk about the move and was receptive to new thoughts, which isn’t common. That spirit of collaboration is rare. Susco: Is it really that unusual?Mapother: I would say it’s not that common. New writers are usually more protective of their work. Openness allows actors to be better. I need someone to acknowledge my thoughts, and I need to bounce ideas off of someone.Susco: I had been working on the film for two years when I met William. I went from being director to writer to maybe not being involved at all. When I went to Japan for the first time, it was thrilling. We shot the movie in the same house where they shot “The Seventh Samari.” The night that it really clicked, it really exploded for me, was when I went to dinner and talked about his character. That was what I missed. I had collaborated, and had spent so much time talking about making creative decisions based on business things, and just talking about William’s character was great. The whole thing was a lot of fun, but it was truly that moment that I realized that it was going to be exciting.