Sony’s International Incident: Making Kim Jong-un’s Head Explode

Sony’s International Incident: Making Kim Jong-un’s Head Explode

By MARTIN FACKLER, BROOKS BARNES and DAVID E. SANGERDEC. 14, 2014

http://www.nytimes.com/2014/ 12/15/world/sonys- international-incident-making- kims-head-explode.html?emc= edit_th_20141215&nl= todaysheadlines&nlid=175827&_ r=0
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Security outside the theater before the premiere of “The Interview” in Los Angeles last week. CreditAgence France-Presse – Getty Images
TOKYO – When Sony Pictures began casting last year for a new comedy to be called “The Interview,” early scripts included the assassination of a fictionalized North Korean ruler. It was not until auditions began that actors learned that the movie would portray something much more brazen: the violent killing of the actual leader of North Korea, Kim Jong-un.

Sony’s executives now say they knew that basing a film on the assassination of a living national leader – even a ruthless dictator – had inherent risks. But the studio seems to have gotten much more than it bargained for by bankrolling what it hoped would be an edgy comedy.

The still very-much-alive Mr. Kim, the leader of an isolated and unpredictable nuclear-armed nation, appears not to have been amused when the premise of the comedy became clear. North Korea branded the $40 million film, to be released on Dec. 25, “an act of war” and vowed a “resolute and merciless response.”

Suspicion has fallen on Mr. Kim’s Bureau 121, an elite cyber unit, or patriotic hackers. But experts say pro-North Korea messages left behind could be a ruse to cover the hackers’ real tracks. Then, last month, hackers unleashed one of the most punishing cyber attacks on a major corporation in recent memory, pilfering private emails, detailed summaries of executive salaries, and even digital copies of several unreleased Sony films that they posted online. It remains a mystery who was responsible.

What is clear is that by deciding to go ahead with the film, Sony stumbled into a geopolitical mess complete with all the elements of a Hollywood thriller: international intrigue, once imperious, now humiliated, film executives, strong-willed leading men and highly sophisticated cyber attackers. The studio’s first miscalculation, film experts say, was in venturing beyond where big-budget moviemakers dared to go in the past.

“The gory killing of a sitting foreign leader is new territory for a big studio movie,” said Jeanine Basinger, a professor of film studies at Wesleyan University.

From early on, “The Interview” seemed to pit the sensibilities of filmmakers in the United States, where the portly North Korean leader with the cherubic looks has been a target of easy humor, against those of Sony executives in Japan, where he is reviled but taken deadly seriously.

While many Americans seem to see North Korea as too distant to keep them awake at night, many Japanese see it as a very visible threat. Until three decades ago, North Korean agents occasionally snatched people off beaches in neighboring Japan to serve as Japanese-language teachers, and long-range North Korean rockets on test runs still fly ominously over Japan’s main islands.

Disturbed by North Korean threats at a time when his company was already struggling, Sony’s Japanese chief executive, Kazuo Hirai, broke with what Sony executives say was a 25-year tradition. He intervened in the decision making of his company’s usually autonomous Hollywood studio, Sony Pictures Entertainment.

According to hacked emails published by other media and interviews with people briefed on the matter, he insisted over the summer that a scene in which Mr. Kim’s head explodes when hit by a tank shell be toned down to remove images of flaming hair and chunks of skull.

In the emails, he also asked that even the less bloody shot not be shown outside the United States. A final decision on how the assassination scene will be rendered in overseas release has not been made, a person briefed on the film’s international roll out said Sunday.

Hollywood films have mocked North Korea and its leaders before. In 2004, “Team America: World Police,” a feature film made with puppets, portrayed Kim Jong-il, the father of the current leader, as a lonely but sadistic despot who eventually turned into a cockroach.

But with “The Interview,” from the casting calls onward, Sony studio executives in the United States seemed aware that they were treading into a sensitive new area.

“In the original version of the script that I got, it wasn’t Kim Jong-un,” Randall Park, who was cast in the role, told bloggers invited to the Vancouver set last year. “But I was told right before my audition that it was going to be Kim Jong-un.”

Whether the switch reflected a possible alternate creative direction, or was the result of an effort to keep an incendiary element of the movie quiet, is unclear.

A Sony spokesman declined to comment. But some in the film industry said the film’s co-directors, Evan Goldberg and the actor Seth Rogen, were trying to push creative boundaries, and that Sony allowed them to do so in part to keep them from going to a rival studio.

“That was always the whole point,” said one agent familiar with “The Interview” from its earliest stages, speaking on the condition of anonymity to preserve ties to Sony. “Buried inside that comedy is a really sharp geopolitical satire.”

In the movie, two American journalists are recruited by the C.I.A. to kill the North Korean leader.

Experts on North Korean society said that it would not be much of a surprise if the country was behind the hacking, which it appeared to delight in even as it denied involvement.

“In Korean culture, there is a real need to protect your leader’s dignity,” said Toshimitsu Shigemura, an expert on North Korea at Waseda University in Tokyo who believes that North Korea probably had at least an indirect hand in Sony’s hacking woes. “The North Korean leader’s subordinates were probably desperate to make some sort of gesture, in order to both prove their loyalty and to save their own skins.”

(Mr. Kim, after all, had his own uncle executed in a struggle for power and is reported to maintain an extensive network of brutal gulags for those who displease him.)

The hacked emails that have been published paint a picture of a corporation torn between trying to be respectful of artistic license, while also trying to prevent the film from being too inflammatory.

After pressure from Mr. Hirai, the emails show, Amy Pascal, co-chairwoman of Sony Pictures, repeatedly pressed Mr. Rogen to soften “The Interview’s” climactic assassination scene.

“You have to appreciate the fact that we haven’t just dictated to you what it had to be,” Ms. Pascal wrote in September to Mr. Rogen. “Given that I have never gotten one note on anything from our parent company in the entire 25 years that I have worked for them.”

According to the emails and a person briefed on the matter, Mr. Hirai inserted himself into the film’s editing after North Korean officials, apparently having seen promotional materials last summer, called the film “an act of war.” In one email, Mr. Hirai approves a newly altered assassination shot that had “no face melting, less fire in the hair, fewer embers on the face and the head explosion has been considerably obscured by the fire.”

At one point in the tug of war over the script, Mr. Rogen weighed in with an angry email to Ms. Pascal. “This is now a story of Americans changing their movie to make North Koreans happy,” he wrote. “That is a very damning story.”

Other published emails and interviews show Michael Lynton, chief executive of Sony Pictures, stepping in to distance “The Interview” from its Japanese owner after North Korea’s initial blowback last June. In particular, Mr. Lynton pushed staff members to remove the word “Sony” from promotional materials, including billboards and trailers, and from the end credit crawl.

Sony also decided not to release the R-rated film in Asia, but executives at the studio said the decision had been made largely because crudely irreverent humor does not translate easily, particularly in the more culturally conservative societies in the region. Still, the studio was aware that the raw geopolitical content would make booking the film even more difficult, according to Sony executives interviewed in recent days who spoke on the condition of anonymity because of the nature of the discussion.

Some analysts speculated that Sony might have been pressured to tone down the film by the Japanese government, which is in delicate negotiations with the North to discover the fate of more than a dozen Japanese abducted by North Korean agents in the 1970s and 1980s. However, many say the Sony chief executive intervened because he was alarmed by the very public – and possibly private – threats being hurled by the Kim regime.

“Such threats against a specific company by a sovereign state were so shocking and unusual that it is natural for the top to want to get involved,” said Tomoichiro Kubota, an analyst at Matsui Securities in Tokyo who specializes in Sony.

In the end, the Sony edits might not have had the desired effect. Although they did not specifically mention “The Interview,” the hackers demand that Sony not release what they call “the movie of terrorism.”

Martin Fackler reported from Tokyo, Brooks Barnes from Los Angeles, and David E. Sanger from Washington. Reporting was contributed by Makiko Inoue and Hisako Ueno from Tokyo; Su-Hyun Lee and Choe Sang-Hun from Seoul, South Korea; Edward Wong from Beijing; and Michael Cieply from Los Angeles.

A version of this article appears in print on December 15, 2014, on page A1 of the New York edition with the headline: Sony’s International Incident: Making Kim’s Head Explode. Order Reprints| Today’s Paper|Subscribe

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