“Silence” is the culmination of Martin Scorsese’s 28-year quest to bring Shusaku Endo’s book to the screen, but the struggles didn’t end once the film got the greenlight. The production was an endless series of challenges, says producer Emma Tillinger Koskoff. “I knew it was going to be difficult, but I didn’t realize how difficult. Every day I was faced with new problems to solve. I lost 25 pounds, and was brought to my knees every day. But the takeaway was that it was the most positive and rewarding film I have ever been a part of.”
The Paramount film shot in 73 days, all in Taiwan. “When you go into a new country and a new culture, your learning curve is very steep,” says Koskoff. There were five languages spoken on the set, with the team including Americans, Japanese, Taiwanese, Chinese, Italians, Australians, British and Irish, among others.
The script, by Scorsese and Jay Cocks, spans several years in the tale about 17th century missionaries in Japan, which required multiple locations, including some remote sites. They based at CMPC Studio in Taipei City, but the various locations included remote mountains and muddy lowlands, traveling on roads that were frequently unpaved.
The opening sequence featuring Liam Neeson was filmed in Gengzipin national park of sulphur hot springs, which was tricky and potentially dangerous. The scene required a team of 250 people transporting equipment in and out in four-wheelers and pickup trucks. “I have to salute the Australian grips and electric crew. They got us in and out of those locations. I don’t think there’s another team in the world who could have done what they did,” she says.
Another sequence shows three villagers who were crucified on the shore, so the crashing waves would slowly drown them. “When you see those guys on the crosses, that was real, that was not CGI. George Aguilar, our stunt coordinator, and all of our safety people made sure that our rigorous safety guidelines were intact, but it was insane.”
The weather was another factor. “On the day when Andrew [Garfield] is captured by the samurai, it was 90 degrees with not a cloud in the sky. The next day, it was 45 degrees, like a monsoon, and the rain was falling literally sideways.” Koskoff asked assistant director David Webb how to handle it and he replied simply “We’re shooting it.”
The complications are multiplied by what Koskoff describes as “a finite amount of money.” The studio says the budget was $46.5 million, with about half of that for below the line work — a low figure for such a complicated period piece — and the other half went to above the line, finance fees and so on.
Another headache was scheduling. Scorsese likes to shoot his films in chronological order as much as possible, feeling it helps the actors — lead Garfield in particular undergoes a lot of changes through the story — and the crew.
However, the weather and other forces sometimes dictated a shift in “Silence’s” already-complex scheduling. Adam Driver had to get back to HBO for “Girls” and Koskoff adds, “The Japanese cast are amazing, but they’re booked constantly, they’re working all the time. So it was difficult to move the schedule at certain points.”
Koskoff was on the ground full-time, from the beginning of prep to the end, but she is quick to point out it was a team effort. Aside from a.d. Webb, the group included cinematographer Rodrigo Prieto, designer Dante Ferretti and all the department heads.
“Silence” had some false starts over the years, After a series of postponements, Scorsese, Koskoff and producer Irwin Winkler finally met with success. With the release of Scorsese’s hugely popular and commercially successful “The Wolf of Wall Street,” three companies — Emmett Furla Films, Fabrica de Cine and SharpSword with assistance from IM Global — came on board with distributor Paramount.
Scorsese and a handful of people (including Koskoff, the online producer and production manager) began eight weeks of on-the-ground R&D in Taiwan starting in summer 2014. They began official pre-production mid-October 2014 and filmed for 15 weeks (Jan 31 to May 15, 2015).
“This was a massive effort,” she says. There was a crew of 750, plus technical advisors and consultants on everything from Japanese flora and fauna, to kimonos, and different types of samurai. “Marty is so exacting, and the attention to detail has to be spot on,” she says.
“There were a lot of moving parts. I think it was the most challenging film I’ll ever have the privilege of producing. Every day I’d wonder ‘How will we get through this?’ But we did. Everybody came together in a beautiful way.”
“Marty was a trouper. I’ve never seen him work so hard and it’s so important to him. The challenges on this movie were physical, emotional and spiritual for all involved. It offers people a chance to look inward at their own faith, whatever that faith it is. And as the world gets more secular and extremist, I think it’s relevant and important.
“It’s Marty baring his soul on the screen and I think it’s a seminal work.”