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— by Ryan J. Downey

TOKYO — Spending three months in Japan has made Sarah Michelle Gellar feel a lot of respect for a certain Oscar-winning filmmaker.

"Sofia Coppola is an absolute genius. After being here, you really understand what she was saying with that film, and anyone who's been here for even a short amount of time can attest to that," Gellar said, taking a break between takes on the set of "The Grudge."

And when Gellar talks about getting "Lost in Translation" herself, she means it. She was told that "The Grudge" would be directed by the man responsible for the original Japanese version of the film. What she didn't find out until her arrival in Tokyo is that Takashi Shimizu doesn't speak English.

 Photos: "The Grudge"

"I thought it was weird that he didn't want to meet with me [beforehand]," she said, laughing. "I kept saying, 'Can't we talk on the phone?' And of course, in my paranoid actor mind, I kept thinking I was getting fired. When I got here I realized that his English is about on par with my Japanese. So that was a little bit of a shock."

A translator gives the American actors their instructions while Japanese crew members — many of whom are veterans of other genre flicks filmed on the island nation — work busily around them. "The director will come to you and start speaking very fluent, fast Japanese, but the translator will just say to you, like, 'faster,' " said Jason Behr ("Roswell"), who stars opposite Gellar. "And you're like, 'Uh, are you sure that's all he said?' It's straight out of 'Lost in Translation.' "

In the wake of the success of "The Ring," there are several Americanized versions of Japanese flicks in the works (see "Remakes Of Asian Horror Films Look To Scare Up Big Bucks"). But when Sam Raimi — the fanboy filmmaker behind "Spider-Man" and the "Evil Dead" series — acquired the rights to "The Grudge," he was adamant about staying as true to the original as possible.

Enlisting Shimizu — who first conceived "Ju-On" (as the flick is known in Japan) as a student film and has carried it through many incarnations — was a big part of that. "At first I almost refused to do it because I couldn't understand why I would want to do it over again. But I think that I can use this [opportunity] to bring a very different style of horror to American audiences," Shimizu offered via translator.

"People in America might compare my movie to 'The Ring' because they don't have anything else to compare it with," he continued. "And it is similar, in that Japanese ghost culture is much different than in America. But I expose the ghosts more often and more dynamically. In 'The Ring' the ghosts were shown in an elegant way. I'm just exposing as many as I can, which is actually a lot more similar to the American style."

 Photos: On the Set

A self-professed fan of the "inventive" shots and "the point of view of the stories" of Asian cinema, Gellar was more than up for the challenges of making "The Grudge." And as shooting progressed, she became increasingly drawn to her character, a student who comes to take care of a house that curses everyone who comes in contact with it.

"In American [horror] filmmaking, you know, the girl goes into the forest — 'Don't go in there!' — and she's gonna yell, get slashed and possibly show her breasts," complained Gellar, whose character did more or less exactly that in "I Know What You Did Last Summer." "This is much more on a mythological level. It's much more beautiful."

"I asked Shimizu why he wrote the film and he said it's actually about the oppression of women," she added. "When for so many years women have been put down they have all of this rage. And it's about how all of that builds up and can be passed from person to person."

Behr came onboard for many of the same reasons. And having a friend to take in Sumo wrestling with him helped, too. "I've known Sarah for about 10 years, so it was a really great opportunity to be out in Japan with a buddy," said the Minnesota-born actor, who appeared as a wannabe vampire on an early episode of "Buffy the Vampire Slayer."

They both own akitas and are fascinated by the stories surrounding the Japanese dogs. Jason's gone samurai-sword shopping and Gellar has roamed the streets with her own camera, loving the fact that the Japanese aren't too familiar with her. "Even while on vacation in Bali I had a cab driver call me 'Buffy.' To be able to come here and have the same experience as everyone else is amazing," she said.

And they've both committed a few faux pas. Gellar often forgets to wear socks with her Ugg boots and, in a country that expects you to take off your shoes just about everywhere, that can be embarrassing.

 MTV News: Movie House Short

And on the set the language barrier isn't the only problem. It's not appropriate to leave food lying around, as Gellar often did on "Buffy" with her bananas and Balance bars. Directors don't yell "Action!" after the click of a slate. And they are inclined to move on after fewer takes.

"In Japan, if I'm satisfied with one take and the actor is satisfied, we are just going to do it once," Shimizu said. Over the course of production he became accustomed to the American actors (and producers) asking for more takes, which, he admitted with a grin, "is a lot of trouble to deal with."

Gellar and Behr's TV backgrounds — Gellar started out on soap operas — helped them feel somewhat prepared for the fast-paced shooting style, and ultimately, with "Roswell" and "Buffy" off the airwaves, they were both more than happy for the chance to reinvent their work habits.

"I had a really amazing experience for eight years of my life, and that's a very, very long time," Gellar said of the show that brought her stardom. "And I would never try to duplicate ['Buffy']. It would be impossible. The reasons why I left were personal and so that I could do things that were a little bit different.

"And in terms of new experiences on a personal level, I can't imagine anything more different after eight years of the same thing and the same crew and being familiar and comfortable," she concluded, "than coming to Japan where the director and I don't even speak the same language."

"The Grudge," which also stars Kadee Strickland ("The Stepford Wives") and Sam Raimi's cameo-grabbing brother, Ted, wrapped production earlier this year. It's expected in theaters in the fall, while Shimizu's 2003 version of "Ju-On: The Grudge" is getting a limited release in the States next month.




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