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Robin Swicord

Memoirs of a Geisha

DISTRIB/RELEASE DATE: Sony, Dec. 9 (limited); Dec. 16 (wide)

CATEGORY: adapted, from the novel by Arthur Golden

STORYLINE: A little girl, Chiyo (later renamed Sayuri and played by Ziyi Zhang) is sold into servitude in Kyoto. At 9, she falls in love with a kind and powerful man, known as the Chairman. She aspires to become a geisha, to place herself in the Chairman’s world, but finds herself pitted against a famous and ruthless geisha, Hatsumomo (Gong Li). Only her friendship with another powerful geisha, Mameha (Michelle Yeoh), allows her success, which is brief. With World War II, the story takes a marked turn that sets up a reunion between Sayuri and the Chairman (Ken Watanabe).

ABOUT THE SCRIPT: Swicord uses the memoir form to her advantage by having Sayuri narrate parts of the screenplay, a conceit that makes the film more personal and helps clarify some of the complex tale’s baroque turns. Long anticipated as a Steven Spielberg pic, the movie ultimately was produced by Doug Wick and Lucy Fisher and helmed by Rob Marshall. “I hadn’t read the book in about four or five years,” recalls Swicord, “so when Doug and Lucy called me to meet Rob in December 2003, I just went in and had a really pleasant meeting. I read the book over the winter break and lost myself in this other world. I made some notes and emailed them to Rob. He later said that I claimed the movie with that; my thoughts had coincided with his. About six weeks later, we went to Japan, having given the studio an outline. That was in March of 2004. In 8½ months, we went from a blank page to a fully ready project. So it was all hands on deck.”

BIGGEST CHALLENGE: “I had to absorb not just Japanese culture, but also geisha culture. Just as an actor comes to a role, I had to become a different person, someone not American. I went to Kyoto, and I understood more from being there than from all the books I’d read. I came to understand that there’s enormous freedom inside the careful stricture of form, which made me appreciate the freedom behind a geisha’s mask.”

BREAKTHROUGH IDEA: “I was raised in the South, and I came to see Arthur Golden’s 400-page book as an antebellum novel. In the South, it was slavery; here, it was the absolute subjugation of women. A war changed everything in both cases, and yet people still held on to their best, most essential selves. So I think finding that shape, that ‘Gone With the Wind’ mythic level, was a great starting place.”

FAVORITE SCENE: “I like the scene in which Sayuri goes to the baron’s estate, her first chance to be alone with the Chairman. It’s also the scene in which her vulnerability is brought home, because the baron undresses her and she fears being raped. But more importantly, it reminds Sayuri that she really is still property.”

CHOICE LINES: On first meeting Sayuri, Hatsumomo says, “So this is the new arrival — a pity she still stinks of fish.” There’s also the film’s final line, which Swicord transposed from earlier in Golden’s novel. Sayuri, speaking of her relationship to the Chairman, says, “Every step I have taken since that day on the bridge has been to bring me closer to you.”

WRITER’S BIO: Swicord wrote the screenplays to “Little Women” (1994), “Matilda” (1996) and “Practical Magic” (1998). Among her upcoming projects are “The Rivals,” about the relationship between legendary stage divas Sarah Bernhardt and Eleonora Duse, and “The Jane Prize,” concerning a family of Jane Austen scholars.

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