Prisoners of the Ghostland Director Sion Sono Talks His Apocalyptic Western and Karaoke With Nicolas Cage

Filmmaker Sion Sono has pushed the limits of what can be accomplished in genre films for decades, earning him not only a passionate following, but also leaving a mark on the memories of anyone who has seen one of his films. Even those who might not love all of his narratives surely remember them for quite some time, as the ambition of these narratives are only matched by his filmmaking sensibilities. Sono continues this trend with his latest film, Prisoners of the Ghostland, which marks his English-language debut. Prisoners of the Ghostland lands in theaters and on VOD, Digital HD, and DVD releasing September 17th.

Prisoners of the Ghostland is set in the treacherous frontier city of Samurai Town where a ruthless bank robber (Nicolas Cage) is sprung from jail by wealthy warlord The Governor (Bill Moseley), whose adopted granddaughter Bernice (Sofia Boutella) has gone missing. The Governor offers the prisoner his freedom in exchange for retrieving the runaway. Strapped into a leather suit that will self-destruct within three days, the bandit sets off on a journey to find the young woman -- and his own path to redemption. caught up with Sono to talk enlisting Cage into the cast, overcoming language barriers, and films from his career he'd like to revisit. Sono's responses come by way of translator and producer Ko Mori.

(Photo: RLJE Films) All of Sion's films are very unique and very ambitious, they're very unexpected. As a filmmaker, what inspires Sion to tell these very unique, very ambitious types of stories? 

Ko Mori: In general, he loves to give surprises. He loves to, not trick people, but he loves to give the surprise to the people where they would never expect things coming from him. That's in general, and then when it comes to Prisoners of the Ghostland, it's the same thing. Since this was his first English-language film, and let's say this was his first "Hollywood" movie, he didn't want to make something that people would expect. Like, "Oh, this is Hollywood." He wanted to go the opposite way to where, again, "Well, I've never seen this before" feeling that he wanted to give to people.

Was this movie always developed as being an English-language film? What were the biggest challenges and biggest opportunities when it came to making a film in a different language?

This film, to explain what happened in the past with the original script, we were supposed to be shooting in Mexico as more of a Spaghetti-Western style. And then he had a heart attack, so Nick (Cage) literally says, "Hey, let's do this in Japan." So then we all agreed that we're going to shoot this in Japan. Sion did the script rewrite and then decided to make a film that has Nick Cage, but a samurai film. "Since it should already have that over-the-top feel, let's just make an extreme film here," that was the motivation.

In terms of the language, English as well as Japanese all blended in here, for him. Prisoners of the Ghostland is like a parallel world where old samurai people and old geisha people are there but, somehow, there's the contemporary stuff in there, too. So it's a parallel world. 

When it comes to the challenges, shooting in Japan with Nick Cage is already a huge challenge there, but he wanted to make something extreme. Organically, everything he did was a challenge and the bonus he might've gotten is that, since this is his English-language debut, let's say "Hollywood" debut, that, from now on, he wants to make a lot more English-language films. He believes that this film is going to lead him to the next step, so that's probably the biggest bonus that he's gotten from this film.

How did Nicolas Cage come on board the project and what was it like working with him?

Me, as a producer, I came up to Sion and asked, "How about Nick Cage?" Then he came on board pretty quickly. So Sion didn't know what happened, but he was already there. When Sion and Nick met up for the first time in Tokyo before the shoot, Nick told Sion that he loves Sion's work and films, everything, and that there was a certain respect between the filmmakers. He realized that Nick really liked Sion's past films and then that's the way he decided to come on board, he assumed. He never expected that a great actor such as Nicolas Cage would come on board for his first English-language film, so he's super happy with that.

When they worked together, they basically talked about the project and the hero character. But, besides all that, what they did together was get drunk and then went for karaoke, singing some The Doors songs, and drank some.

Are there any films from Sion's career that he would like to see get revived as an English-language project?

Why Don't You Play in Hell?, he got some offers from Hollywood in the past that somebody wanted to remake it, but then he said no to those offers because if that would ever happen, then he would be directing it, not anybody else. So that's why he said no. That film can be definitely great in English as well.


Prisoners of the Ghostland hits theaters, On Demand, and Digital HD on September 17th.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity. You can contact Patrick Cavanaugh directly on Twitter.