Nanking Producer Ted Leonsis


What do you do when you’re one of the pioneers of the internet, you’ve been a Vice Chairman at America Online and own two Washington, D.C. sports teams? You produce a movie, of course!

While many wealthy media moguls have been able to break into Hollywood by going the producer route, Ted Leonsis decided to take a different approach by finding a story from history of which few Americans are aware, the horrifying story of the Japanese invasion of the Chinese capitol city of Nanking in 1937, which led to the murder and rape of hundreds of thousands of people. That death count might have been greater if not for the generosity and selflessness of a group of Westerners who chose to remain behind and protect hundreds of thousands of poor people in an established Safe Zone.

The resulting documentary Nanking, written and directed by Academy Award-winning documentary filmmakers Bill Guttentag and Dan Sturman (Twin Towers), is not an easy film to watch, due to the personal stories told by the emotional survivors of the tragedy. Rather than merely being another talking heads doc filled with interviews, footage and photos, they’ve taken a different approach by hiring a group of actors including Woody Harrelson, Mariel Hemingway, Stephen Dorff and Jürgen Prochnow to read the letters and journal entries of the Westerners who helped protect the poor people of Nanking during the most trying event in their history.

Mr. Leonsis took some time from his busy schedule to talk to about the film, which on many levels is one of the strongest documentaries of the year, and one that is impossible to ignore considering the worsening situation in Iraq. I saw the movie before Sundance and again a few weeks ago, and it’s an amazingly powerful film.
Ted Leonsis: Thank you so much.

CS: It made me feel kind of stupid because I felt like…
Leonsis: You didn’t know anything about that time in history, right?

CS: Well, obviously we hear about the Holocaust and everything that happened in Europe and in Japan, but I’m not sure if any Americans really know how badly China was hit by the Japanese during the war. We didn’t have any soldiers there for one thing.
Leonsis: That was exactly why the diaries and journal letters home became so important that someone was documenting, who stayed behind. It was very important. We never would have known what was happening without these people smuggling out letters and notes.

CS: How did you first hear about what happened there?
Leonsis: I was on vacation and I read an obituary on author Iris Chang, who had written the book “The Rape of Nanking” and there was just something very haunting in this picture of her. When I came home, I did a Google search, and I ended up buying the book, and within the book, there were some pages about an international committee who had created a safe zone to save all of these people. It was a time in history called the “Forgotten Holocaust” and here are Westerners that teamed with their friends in China to find a way to save so many people. I just felt that story needed to be told.

CS: What kind of timeframe was that when you first read the book?
Leonsis: I read the obituary in December of 2004, and started researching on my own during 2005, and then hired the directors towards the end of 2005. We made the movie and got it into Sundance in October of 2006, now the film’s finally going into the marketplace.

CS: You hadn’t made any films before this, and this must have been a huge undertaking, finding footage, finding the people who were there…
Leonsis: Yes, this was a fairly serious endeavor. At our peak, we had about 45 people on payroll, we had literally over 30 people all over the world doing research, and we shot it in China, in Japan, we got footage from Italy. We scoured the Library of Congress and the National Archives, and the big breakthrough came when we were able to find all these letters and diaries and journal entries, and being able to recruit actors to inhabit these parts. We can’t say enough praise and thanks to Woody Harrelson and Jürgen Prochnow and Stephen Dorff and Mariel Hemingway, who really bring those people to life in a very unique way that made this picture a film that consumers will want to go see, because it doesn’t come off as just a boring, black and white dark documentary.

CS: How did it come about to have these actors reading the letters and taking on these personalities from history? I thought it was impressive the way it was staged almost like a play.
Leonsis: Yes, necessity is the better part of valor and we realized we could find and go to China and interview real people who were eyewitnesses to what happened, and we could go to Japan and find some soldiers who would talk to us as well, but there was no moving pictures with voice from the Westerners. Because the people today who were the survivors were ten years old when Nanking happened, but these people were so articulate and because the telephones were cut and there was no way to communicate, they were very meticulous with writing down what they saw. There was one person, Minnie Vautrin, who wrote over 1,100 letters, sometimes three or four letters a day, because you’re kinda locked in your house, they’re bombing around you, and the bombing stops, you go outside, you run back in, you write down what you saw. Mariel Hemingway, we were able to write a part for her where she just was able to inhabit the persona of Minnie Vautrin reading her letters.

CS: Where did you find these letters? Were they actually published somewhere?
Leonsis: Through the research, we would find a letter, and then we’d call the family and the family said, “Well, thank you. We would like her story to be told.” Minnie Vautrin took her own life, a year to the day after she left Nanking. Even though she saved thousands and thousands of young women, she just felt that she didn’t do enough. That was so compelling to me about the story. Here you are—put yourself in these character’s places—you’re halfway around the world, there’s an invading army coming to conquer and take over your city. Your government, the U.S. government, sends planes and trains and boats to get you out, and you decide to stay behind to end up protecting the poorest of poor Chinese. Anyone who had any means got out of the city except the poorest of poor, so it just struck me, “What would I have done in that same situation?” Would I have had the moral fortitude and courage to stay behind and do what they did?” They were unarmed against an invading army and they couldn’t even speak their language. It really is a dramatic and uplifting story that shows that individuals can stand up, be counted and do great work.

CS: Why do you think it’s taken so long for this story to come out? We’re talking almost 70 years here since the events shown in the movie, and though we’ve had Chinese communities in our country for many years, it’s surprising that this has been such an unknown story.
Leonsis: Well, I think there’s a lot of complex reasons. One is that China fell behind a red curtain, and it was Communist China, not a lot of information was getting out. Two, China was confronting that time in its history. Three, Japan denies or minimizes what actually happened, and so it probably needed a third party, a Westerner like our team, to go and make this movie. I’m really pleased to say that under this concept of “filmanthropy”, where you shine a light on a tough subject and you activate debate and conversation around it, that we certainly have done that with “Nanking.” There are now seven movies in production to be made about this time in history, so we’ve certainly started the conversation.

CS: I have a Japanese journalist friend who thought the film was very one-sided and biased.
Leonsis: I actually like that, because there are hundreds and hundreds of great films that have been made around the Holocaust, and there’s no definitive work about the Holocaust. This is one view of what happened in Nanking, China. There’s going to be seven movies. I’m sure there’ll be lots of different optical scans of what happened, and that’s so much the better for history for consumers, for Chinese, for Japanese. We just happened to start it and be first in the market. Now we made a very high-quality film, so we’ve set a bar. We did meticulous research. We had Academy-award-winning directors making the film, the film won Best Edited Documentary at Sundance. Yesterday, it was named one of the five best documentaries of the year by the National Board of Review, so I want to hold people to a high standard. If you’re going to talk about this terrible time, you gotta put in your effort. This isn’t blogging where you just have opinions. Go out, do the research, do the creative, make a high quality film and have consumers go see it.

CS: What about the people who tell their stories in the film? You have Chinese survivors who were very young and have horrifying stories of what they’d been through, and then you also have the Japanese soldiers. Can you talk about how you found these people and getting them to open up and talk about what happened?
Leonsis: It was very easy to find the survivors in China. There’s a Nanking Memorial Museum, and they were able to give us their names and we tracked them down all over the country. Japan was a different story. One, the soldiers were older, they were in their 80s and 90s. Most of them have died off. In fact, several of them in our film have died since they were put on camera. Not a lot of them want to deal with that time in their life, because many atrocities were committed. It’s chilling to watch soldiers talk very matter-of-fact about how they went in and raped 12-year-old girls, or they participated in the mowing down with rifles and bayonets of 20,000 soldiers at a time. I know that during one of the interviews, one of our people asked one of the soldiers if there was anything in hindsight that he regretted, and he said, “Well, we were given canteens of water and it was hotter than I expected and I drank all of my water, and I was very thirsty, so in hindsight, I wish I hadn’t drank all of my water so early in the campaign.” The camera just rolls when people are talking like that and you just have to wonder what are we learning from history?

CS: Obviously it was a long time ago, but none of the soldiers seemed remorseful or haunted by what happened.
Leonsis: You know, I prefer to let the camera do the work there. We struggled to find people who showed remorse. That’s the truth. They were given every opportunity to, in fact we were hoping for some of that to come through, but the camera just rolls while people talk, and it is what it is.

CS: So you didn’t actually ask questions and interview the subjects? It was more like just letting them tell their stories on camera? I notice that a lot of the interviews had to be chopped-up and I assume that’s just because there were a lot of emotions and crying involved.
Leonsis: Yes, the Chinese, it was quite a difficult experience for the people on camera and frankly, the people behind the camera. There’s this one gentleman whose mother was killed, baby brothes were killed, loses all his brothers, and he on this one day was really in the moment, and as he was bringing it up, the simultaneous translators were all weeping and we were crying. It was a very poignant moment.

CS: This must have been a very hard movie to make, not just due to all the footage and letters you had to find, but watching this movie is very difficult, and I can’t imagine having to be there watching it over and over in the editing, so how did Dan and Bill manage that?
Leonsis: Well, I actually spent about 200 hours in the editing rooms with them, they were there for a thousand hours, and you know what? You have to go outside, because there was just so much bloodshed, just so much inhumanity man-on-man, and you’d have to go outside and get some fresh air and clear your head. You’d watch it and then you’d hear some politician who had nothing to do with it, being a denier, when you’d just come of an editing room where they’re showing a survivor talking about her slain family, and there’s actual archival footage that a priest went and shot of it. And of the six-year-old girl who’s been bayoneted to death after she was raped. You can’t deny this. You have to acknowledge it and we have to learn from that history.

CS: I’d assume it would be impossible to get desensitized to it even after watching it so many times, but there is a really strange attitude about “all’s far in war” where people justify this because of the conditions. It happened in Vietnam, it’s happening in Iraq.
Leonsis: I think at it’s heart, this is one of the most articulate anti-war films of the year. It might not deal directly with Iraq or Iran, but it is an anti-war film, and it shows that nothing good happens to an innocent people when an invading army attacks and occupies a foreign land.

CS: You must have seen parallels with Iraq while you were making this. For me, it was much clearer the second time, only because there’ve been a lot of Iraq War movies this year. Were you trying to be vague with those comparisons?
Leonsis: You have to go where the information takes you, and there are a lot of parallels to our current history. I also thought it was ironic that because of our present-day history, Americans are not liked around the world. Here was a time when these Americans and Westerners were looked at and called gods and goddesses in China.

CS: You’re a very powerful man down in Washington, so have you had a chance to show the movie to the Pentagon or any of the military just for educational purposes?
Leonsis: That will be starting now. It will be seen at the National Archives, and hopefully, they’ll get to show it at the White House and the Chinese Embassy, so that whole campaign will soon start because the film goes into theatres on Wednesday.

CS: What are your feelings about your film being in the Oscar race? Obviously, this wasn’t a movie made for awards—which sadly isn’t always the case with some documentaries—but what are your feelings about taking on Michael Moore and his movie, which is far lighter and more humorous?
Leonsis: Well, you know, I’m an outsider. I’m not in this to win awards. I’m in this for a lot of people to see the film and know that this was an important subject, and that the film made the Academy shortlist is a tribute to the importance of the subject matter, and that the National Board of Review liked it, not only for its subject but for its filmmaking was important as well. To me, it’s all about paying tribute to the survivors and the families of the fallen people in Nanking and to Iris Chang, and really a way to try to teach people that one, there should never be a “Forgotten Holocaust,” two, that individuals can stand and rise up and do unbelievable things and save people’s lives and that three, war is bad.

CS: You mentioned these other movies in production and there’s a dramatic film based on Iris Chang’s book in the works. Are you involved with that and are you worried they might use your documentary as a Cliff Notes when making their movie?
Leonsis: Yeah, that’s fine. Part of activating the debate that there’s now so many movies coming out, that’s only good news for us.

CS: And for the people who were affected by this tragedy, of course. Do you have the film bug now and do you have any ideas what you might be producing next?
Leonsis: I’ve already made a second film, and it was just accepted into Sundance. It’s called “Kicking It” and it’s another Filmanthropy project. It’s about homelessness and about soccer and about how a ball can change your life.

Nanking opens in New York on Wednesday, December 12 with plans to expand to other cities over the next few months.