About the Production | Historical Background & Timeline | Safety Zone Committee Members
ABOUT THE PRODUCTION
NANKING’s genesis occurred in February of 2005 when Ted Leonsis, Vice-Chairman of AOL, was traveling in the Caribbean and chanced upon author Iris Chang’s obituary. Chang, famous for her award-winning historical book, The Rape of Nanking, had tragically committed suicide at the age of 36. After reading the article, Leonsis tossed the folded newspaper into a wastebasket, but the paper didn’t settle to the bottom. Instead, it perched at the edge of the basket, and the photo of the 34-year-old Asian American author seemed to watch him every time he passed through the room. Packing to leave, he saw the photo one more time. He picked up the newspaper and stuffed it in his briefcase.
Once home, he read Chang’s book along with other works about the invasion of Nanking, including the diaries of John Rabe. Leonsis was shocked that he knew nothing about an event that had been such a terrible injustice and he felt that telling its story would have real meaning for today’s world. Not only was what happened in Nanking a reminder of the terrible toll that civilians pay during wartime, but he was also moved by the courage of the handful of Westerners who stayed behind in Nanking at the beginning of World War II to create a Safety Zone, protecting over two hundred thousand Chinese from rampaging Japanese troops. Their story shows that the actions of ordinary individuals in extraordinary circumstances can make a difference. Leonsis had long thought about moving into producing, and he felt that NANKING was the right film to begin his journey.
After a five-month search, Leonsis hired the Academy-Award-winning writer/director team of Bill Guttentag and Dan Sturman to helm his project. Previously the two collaborated on “Twin Towers,” which won the Oscar for Best Documentary Short. Like Leonsis, Guttentag was drawn to the story, especially since it is not common knowledge in the West. To do justice to the story, Guttentag and Sturman were determined to give the audience the emotional experience of being in Nanking in the months leading up to the Japanese conquest and during the occupation of the city. Because many who lived through the invasion – as witnesses, victims, and perpetrators – wrote about their experiences in passionate and vivid detail, Guttentag and Sturman chose to bring these individuals back to life via a filmed staged reading of their letters, diaries, and other first hand accounts.
Guttentag and Sturman began intense research to find the materials that would bring the story of Nanking to life on screen. Sturman and the production team assembled thousands of pages of letters, journals and diaries over the next three months by culling original sources and archives in the United States, Europe and Asia. In China, Guttentag and Producer Michael Jacobs met historians, documentarians, and scholars who advised them where to look for the best photographs and footage in China and across the world. Leonsis will donate the documents, footage, DVDs and books compiled for the research of the film to Georgetown University.
Another essential stage of pre-production was finding Chinese survivors to take part in the film. In December 2005, Co-Producer Violet Du Feng traveled to Nanking, now called Nanjing, to meet with over thirty survivors, spending the month building trust with her subjects. When Leonsis, Guttentag and Sturman, and the rest of the production team arrived in China, they spent three weeks interviewing twenty-two survivors in the cities of Nanking, Souzhou and Shanghai. Director of Photography Buddy Squires shot nearly 80 hours of interview footage in addition to images of Nanking’s ancient battlements and temples.
Most of the interviews with Chinese survivors were held in a 99-room palace in Nanjing. The survivors told harrowing tales of their experiences. The two simultaneous translators were often heard sobbing during the sessions, but they never missed a word.
Shooting in Japan was more difficult, because the subject of Nanking is so controversial there. Some of the crew were hesitant to work on the film; three associate producers even quit the production before the shoot began because of negative reactions from their friends and colleagues. It was also challenging to find former Japanese soldiers willing to talk about their experiences in Nanking. The Japanese soldiers who participated in the film were found through members of the Japanese peace movement.
Upon returning from Asia, the Nanking production team began the final piece of the filming – the staged reading with actors. Filming took place in Los Angeles over a two-day period in August 2006. Every word of dialogue in the reading was written by those who lived through Nanking, with the exception of the Stage Manager, who reads from contemporary newsreels and newspaper reports. Several relatives of the Westerners attended the staged reading, including Dr. Bob Wilson’s daughter. Chris Magee, grandson of the Reverend John Magee, was a camera operator during the shoot. His being a cinematographer is fitting: his grandfather, John Magee, was an avid amateur photographer who secretly documented the atrocities in Nanking with his 16 mm camera. The images Magee captured are some of the most chilling in the film. George Fitch, another Safety Zone committee member featured in Nanking, smuggled Magee’s film negatives out of the occupied city in the lining of his coat. These images bear searing witness to the terror of the occupation.
The staged reading and interviews with Chinese survivors and Japanese soldiers combine to tell an almost day-to-day account of the horrifying events that took place in Nanking from the fall of 1937 to the winter of 1938. But NANKING is more than a story of man’s inhumanity to man. It is also a story of a handful of people who feel it is a moral obligation to stand up to evil – a gripping account of light in the darkest of times.